Saturday, July 11, 2015

Always Look Up

I look out my second storey office window and observe the comings and goings of the people below. Most of them don’t notice me watching. If they do something they know they shouldn’t, such as light a cigarette while standing directly in front of a huge, impossible to miss “No Smoking” sign right as an emphysema patient attached to a canister of oxygen makes his way through the cloud of smoke, they will look to their left and their right, behind them and ahead, but they hardly ever look up.

You should always look up.

I never feel the need to report the people I watch, although I suppose if I witnessed someone physically assaulting a child I might be more inclined to intervene. 




For the most part, though, I’m interested not only in the unguarded behaviors of the people outside, but in the opinions and assumptions regarding those behaviors by us watching inside, usually me and one other person, sometimes two; occasionally if the “show” is particularly lively we’ll call over a third or fourth.

If you get too many watchers, however, you run the risk of someone getting self-righteous and wanting to do something to stop the more dismal of the behaviors we witness. This will not do if you’re interested in observing a person in his or her natural state in an effort to try and figure out why people do the things they do and perhaps glean some insight about yourself in the process.

You should therefore never interfere with the object of your interest or draw attention to yourself if you can help it because you don’t want the observer effect to kick in and change your subject’s normal course of action, possibly skewing your data and invalidating your findings.

On this day, I watch a woman I am familiar with named Florence, who, according to her, successfully completed a residential treatment program and has been clean and sober for the past 4 months. She is one of these tiny, loudmouthed people with pockmarked skin and a smoker’s voice that travels easily. I can hear snippets of her steady stream of bullshit. But she is a charming bullshitter and I don’t hold it against her. When you live in the trenches of society you have to find ways to survive, ways to feed the beast. The beast doesn’t care about your moral judgments.

She is talking with a group of people, including a twitchy guy I recognize as her no-good user boyfriend she claimed to have broken up with before she went into treatment, as well as a known “crack whore” who likes to jog around town in a bright orange bikini advertising her wares. If I wanted to encourage her, I'd suggest a webcam might not only be safer, but more lucrative. However, I do not want to encourage her and she has no idea who I am anyway so she'd probably just tell me to fuck off. The final member of the group is a notorious IV drug user and thief named Troy, who, before he entered into a methadone program, financed his addiction, his beast, with violence and petty crime.

He is an enormous man with the stature of a monster, a face tattoo and an intense Asperger’s stare that makes him appear more threatening than it turns out he actually is outside the rumor mill and its fantastical fabrications.

All four of them are drinking from Tim Horton’s coffee cups and smoking in defiance of the aforementioned no smoking sign. They are talking over each other, boisterous, erupting in laughter every few minutes with a healthy dose of expletives punctuating their speech. The noise rises up to our open window, which is what originally beckons me from my desk.

My unexpected movement piques my colleague Belinda's curiosity until she can’t stand it any longer and joins me at the window (even though earlier she vowed she would not allow me or my extracurricular interests distract her today). Regardless, she immediately understands what has drawn me there and with an excited "psst" calls in Megan, who happens to be walking by our door. Megan is one of the few we trust not to get overly riled up by the show and ruin our cover.

Everyone else around here gets pretty excited when they see any of the quartet in question, but especially Troy, and rush about screaming that there’s been a Troy sighting! A Troy sighting! Lock your doors and don’t walk to your car alone at night! Troy's near the building!

I pay no mind to the hysteria and walk to my car alone at night. It helps that I don’t believe the gossip that he’s as violent as they say, and besides, most of the time these  "sightings" turn out to be a false alarm. Also, methadone makes you lazy. I can't really see Troy heroically rolling himself off the couch like a dopey Dark Knight whose agility has been severely retarded from too much "orange juice", wipe the drool from his cheek, and blurry-eyed force himself to hike the miles of hill it would take to victimize me. I have nothing of value. It would not be worth all that exertion at all. I’m sure he knows this.

However, if you ask, with feigned indifference I will tell you I walk alone because I have a passive, albeit fleeting, wish to not exist. Bring on the drug-fueled psychos, I don’t care (which I won’t tell you is bravado and not authentic indifference because I am attracted to the idea of not caring. Eventually I’ll get there. Fake it until you make it. I’m not a liar, I’m merely delaying the truth).

My feeling is that the universe has had its paw on my tail since the start of this unpleasant journey called life and it makes no difference if I obediently sit still or flail about in a frantic effort to escape. None of it sets me free. Why then waste what little self-respect I do have on going after a dangling carrot that there's no chance I'll ever reach, or on unquestioning subservience to the status quo? 

Still, I don't like the idea of totally giving up either, so rather than allow complete dejection to set in as the world humiliates me into submission before devouring me altogether, I say fuck it. Whatever. Pass me the bottle. I'll just sit here and wait it out watching everyone else make fools of themselves, let them amuse me while I wait.

And this “whatever” attitude is what I feel when I witness Troy do exactly that: Pass the bottle. He quickly glances to his left and to his right, like they do, behind him and finally ahead, over the hedge and through into the lobby window to make sure no one can see what he's about to do. He doesn’t look up and not for the first time I wonder if this not looking up thing is related to a loss of faith after either a hard life in the trenches, or a pampered life in the gilded cage where mortals are made to feel like gods, thereby rendering true divinity wholly unnecessary. OR, more likely, there really are only a few genuine believers out there, i.e. believers who have faith as opposed to believers who were simply indoctrinated, desperate or heard something that appealed to their ego.

If there were as many believers who claim to be believers, you’d think more people would look up. You'd also think one of them would give poor Henrietta a ride to her church. To sit in a pew all pleased with yourself that you're a "good Christian" but not help one of your own congregation because she's a little off-color and lacks social status? This is why I have a problem with religion (even as I'm paradoxically interested in it). Hypocrites. I'm not impressed with sanctimonious bullshit or false sincerity, and I don't understand how ANYONE could be. 

Joel Osteen, for example? HOW do people fall for his style of cheap knockoff Christianity with its false promises of expensive trinkets and carnal delights? The universe isn't interested in your material comforts or how much your wife resembles a swimsuit model, don't be so duped. Also, people who smile as much as Joel Osteen should never be trusted. 

There is absolutely no good reason for any decent human being to be that happy when we live in such a wicked world. A content person is an uninformed one. Smiling even while you're talking or walking alone isn't welcoming, it's creepy. If you do this, there's something sinister lurking within you hoping to never be observed. You're the person I'm interested in watching while I'm waiting for the universe to release me. I don't like you, I'm just intrigued by your pathology. It's an important distinction.

However, this isn't a church full of creepy smiles and as for Henrietta, although I have a soft spot for people like her, she is not someone we normally invite to the window.  She's too "eccentric" for most people, but fascinates me with her penchant for conspiracy theories, the paranormal, religiosity and spontaneously reciting proverbs in the midst of a tangential, expletive-laden tirade about how prostitution is an honorable profession, or how she would be a vigilante assassin if only she could get her hands on a silencer and also the three trillion dollars a voice in her head told her to expect, but that was over 20 years ago. She's almost sixty and starting to get fed up with how long it's taking. But all that aside, it's not necessarily her "off-putting" personality that makes her unsuitable for the window. It's that she has no filter when she hears or sees something she thinks is offensive. She would definitely blow our "cover".

Troy, on the other hand, appears quite satisfied that his cover isn't blown and digs into his backpack. He pulls out a king can of beer, takes Florence’s cup, dumps out the contents and pours in the frothy liquid which spills over the sides, causing Florence to shriek with laughter. The other two eagerly hold out their cups for the same clandestine treatment. When Troy's done, he throws the empty cans (he manages to use 6) into the hedge and the four of them clink their Tim’s cups, pleased with themselves for getting away with their rebellious act against the social order.

From the window, the three of us silently watch this interaction until the four imbibers stub out their cigarette butts, toss them behind the hedge near the discarded beer cans, and disperse.

I'm left feeling mildly disappointed Florence can’t maintain sobriety or stay away from her twitchy user boyfriend in the same way I feel disappointed over the shitty ending of a movie I’ve invested nearly 2 hours of my time watching. I hold on, not because I was enjoying the movie, but because I was anticipating what I hoped would be a happy, redemptive ending, ultimately saving the film in its eleventh hour from making a permanent home on my hate list, and restoring my faith in all humanity. It's a ridiculously tall order for a bad movie, I realize.

It seems I’m running out of things to have faith in.

But sometimes hope prevails, and before we too can disperse back to our corporate enslavement, I notice Beggar Bob. He is a "prominent" homeless man around town whose real name no one knows, so we've taken to calling him Beggar Bob (which I've recently been informed is politically incorrect. It's insensitive, apparently, to call someone who begs a beggar. It would seem that modern society's answer to solving the problems of the world is to paste on a fake smile, recast the problem in a positive light and pretend harsh realities don't exist. Great plan). 

To tell you the truth, I think Bob would laugh at wording meant to be "sensitive" to his plight by those who in every other way dismiss him as unworthy of their respect, attention and coinage. 

For I was hungry and you gave Me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave Me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, I was naked and you did not clothe Me, I was sick and in prison and you did not visit Me. Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for Me. Matthew 43-45

Bob is the last person pretending to be something he's not. He's a survivor, tough as nails, believer in the doctrine of grace, and willing to face the judgment of man with a smirk and a shrug of his shoulders.

Thinking this makes me smile despite myself. It's weird, too, how Bob seems to appear out of thin air with a tattered garbage bag wherever someone has discarded something they decide is trash, but he recognizes as prophet profit.

As I watch Bob digging in the hedge, I notice him look to his left and to his right, behind him and ahead. And just as I think there’s no way he’ll look up, he does.

We lock eyes and acknowledge each other with a slight nod of the head before he redirects his focus back to his salvaging endeavor. The other two jump around screeching, “He can see us! He can see us!” 

I disagree and tell them I don’t think he can in fact see us. For some reason I decide to keep Bob's acknowledgement of us watching him to myself. I feel almost protective towards him. I don't know why, other than perhaps I've built him up into some sort of legend inside my head.

As for Megan and Belinda, they aren't plagued with fanciful musings in the same way I am and soon lose interest in Bob.  They return to what they were doing and I'm left standing alone at the window still watching my imaginary prophet. 

It has started to rain, and I can't help but notice that the wet sheen that's taken shape on top of his bald head kind of resembles, I'm sorry to say, a halo (next he'll sprout wings).  

But of course he doesn't sprout wings and instead looks up at me one last time. He’s retrieved the sixth can and lifts it up as if in a toast. I smile, once again despite myself, and give him two thumbs up.  It seems Bob has brought the trust out in me.

Faith restored.

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