Essays

Invisible Man

{Portland, Oregon ~ 2004}


We choose a table in the sun this evening at Greek Cusina, my husband and I, and talk about old friends while we wait for our dolmathes to arrive. You drift toward us like coal smoke, charred and unruly, and begin pacing back and forth in front of the restaurant.

Step, step, step, step.

A car with a bad muffler goes by and sets off the alarm of a dark green Blazer parked just up the street. The Blazer toots, screams, ding-dings, honks, whistles and finally, thankfully, falls silent. My husband and I laugh that no one moved a fraction despite its noisy persistence. No one even seemed to notice. But everyone did.

Step, step, step, step.

Your hollow, tobacco-lined face twitches and shudders, animating some private inner dialog. I wonder when you last smiled into a face that smiled back. I watch, hoping you will meet my gaze and for an instant sacrifice one tiny glance of your soul in exchange for mine. But your stare is fixed on the window of the restaurant, keeping vigil with the pacing figure mirrored in the plate-glass. You never meet my eyes.

Step, step, BANG – your torn Nike comes down hard on the round metal grate – step, turn and back again.

That car alarm; so obvious, so desperate to mark its place, so futile in its insistence.  Everyone hears and no one looks up.  What it is like to be there and yet be unseen?  To scream and go unheard?  Like the Invisible Man lost in a school for the deaf.  Alarm again.

Step, step, BANG, step…

You pace all through dinner, just beyond the rope that divides the restaurant’s outdoor seating from the sidewalk like some international boundary.  A group of four at the next table (one bearded and round like a television chef) laughs uncomfortably and leaves a bit early. We stay, my husband and I, munching on pita and hummus, unwilling to give up our date.  I want to ask, “Have you eaten today?  Are you hungry?  Will you join us?”  But I am afraid. Beneath that beard and long gray coat, you don’t look much older than we are. You could be my brother.

Homelessness is an issue that I tend to deal with at arms length. Like many people, I donate clothes and money, and do the odd service project for our local shelter; for many years I even served Christmas breakfast downtown in Pioneer Square. But when it gets too close – when the problem ceases to be The Homeless and becomes my brother – I become uncomfortable and feel ill-equipped. Yet it is in this eye-to-eye that I find humanity; in this reflection of myself, I become duty-bound to act.

So I want you to know – I saw you.  Dark, grizzled beard, long gray coat… Brown Eyes…

Step step, BANG, step.

And no matter how hard you try, you will never be invisible again, because I saw you tonight – step, step, BANG, step – searching for reflection in front of a Greek restaurant.

{First publish in The Oregonian, Sunday, April 3, 2005}