I walk into a CVS pharmacy in my neighborhood to buy a birthday card and the first thing that happens is the beeper goes off. At the same time, a female robo-voice says, with eerie pleasantness, “You have activated the store security system. Please return to the cashier . . .”
Even though no one pays attention to the piercing beep that lasts for several seconds — the lone cashier looks up without curiosity — I’m instantly enveloped in existential dread, which I do my best to ignore as I pursue my objective in the gleaming, cavernous store. But I can’t stop the angry voice inside my head from pushing back at the dread, explaining over and over to the robo-female voice the many levels of illogic in her comment, and from there, railing at the proliferating danger of brainless certainty in our world.
This certainty doesn’t know when to stop, I explain to no one at all. It’s at the core of our war on terror, with the explanatory politics surrounding it as unresponsive to counterargument as my robo-female accuser. In the name of objectivity, we pursue inhumanity, I continue; I finally pick out a birthday card for my daughter.
“Just as craving crystallizes into anguish, so does understanding flower into letting go.” — Stephen Batchelor, Buddhism Without Beliefs
When I pay for it, I tell the cashier the beeper’s going to go off when I exit the store and she says, “Yeah, I know,” and that’s that.
I guess I take my world far too seriously. I’m supposed to know by now that beepers beep and lights flicker and pointless or malfunctioning technology contributes inanely to the daily journey through life, same as discarded candy wrappers, fast-food litter, plastic grocery bags. There’s no meaning here. You just walk around it. I’m not very good at doing so is all, and as I age I find myself getting worse at it.
Same day. Suddenly it’s 10 p.m. How did it get so late? I don’t remember. But it’s a gorgeous night. Mid-70s, a mild breeze, sweet beyond belief. I live in Chicago. On summer nights like this, I walk to the lake — out to the end of the pier. In the distance, the lights of downtown jut into the dark water. Everywhere else is lake and sky, black, impenetrable. I listen to the deep, slow-lapping stillness.
Slowly, I fumble in prayer. Oh Lord . . . I want this to be a large prayer but it feels as small as my own anger, as small as the beeper I set off. Was it the car key in my pocket? Was it something I did in the past (and thought I got away with)? Oh Lord, forgive me.
I don’t get very far when I try to put words to such moments. Everything feels false and coerced. My loneliness is crystal clear. I call it the Big Empty. Awareness and acceptance will have to do as my prayer.
When the beauty and the solitude are as much as I can bear, I wander over to what I call the Barbara Tree, which I had planted by the Chicago Park District in memory of my wife, who died of cancer 11 years ago.
As I approach the tree, I notice a woman standing about 20 feet away, wearing a red sweatshirt and red sweatpants. She is bent over, untying a bedroll at her feet.
“Sir,” she says. My hand is on the bark of the tree. “Sir, can I talk to you?”
Ah, such a Chicago moment, this stranger’s penetration of my solitude, almost certainly to discuss some sort of need. I am agnostic on the matter of need, unable to adapt a pragmatic certainty that it represents the asker’s moral failing or laziness. Such certainty begins with the denial of eye contact, and I refuse to live in a world where eye contact with strangers is impossible, and where need — whether real and undeserved or imagined and fully deserved — is just more sidewalk litter.
“Sure,” I say.
She tells me that she needs a place to spend the night. She goes on to tell me that she works at a grocery store, sweeping and cleaning up. It’s too late to get into a shelter tonight, she says. And she doesn’t have enough cash for a room. She wants a corner somewhere, on the floor in the hallway, or whatever.
“I’d sleep here in the park, it’s nice enough, but police chase you out.”
“Can’t the police help you find something?” I ask.
“I don’t like the police,” she says.
I am at the edge of what is possible for me to do. Trust — the kind that would allow me to open my house to a stranger — comes with more prerequisites than this woman in red can possibly meet. I pull out my cell phone and ask a friend if she knows an all-purpose phone number for homeless assistance. She doesn’t, because there isn’t one.
So instead I give the woman the largest of the three bills in my wallet. She thanks me with what seems like a child’s gratitude. As I walk home, I wonder again about the nature of God and the world we live in. The breeze is sweet and caressing.
This column was originally published in July 2009.