Until four years ago I had spent my entire life living in Podunkville, PA, surrounded by massive farms, meth labs, Confederate flags and dead deer suspended from porches by their ankles.
One day, I moved to Boston, and immediately fell into the trappings of a transplanted hick. I walked instead of taking the subway, I would stare up at tall buildings, and I would throw money at any bum who asked for it.
It took me a month to stop giving dollars to every down-and-out meth scab-picking bum I saw on the sidewalk. There was certainly poverty in Podunkville PA, yessir, but it just wasn’t of the homeless variety. It was of the trailer trash variety. Maybe you were married to your cousin; maybe your most prized possession was the shotgun with which you killed dinner every night; maybe you couldn’t walk around in bare feet inside your house for fear of being stuck with a used needle, but at least you had a goddamn roof over your head.
The homeless guys in Boston were new. They were many. They had their own newspaper. They were driven to street by drink, drugs, disease, bad luck, whatever. I was fascinated by them. I knew that the barrier between my life and their life was and still is one of those Japanese paper walls. Anytime I could crash through it and become the man standing in Coolidge Corner yammering “spare change cuppacoffee spare change cuppacoffee.”
Even after I wised up a bit and stopped giving them all my tip money, I would do things like go downtown at night, get good and wasted, and then find a bum to talk to. It always went like this:
Bum: Hey man, spare me a lil cash?
Me: I ain’t giving you money. You hungry?
Bum: Hell yeah.
Me: How bout some Wendy’s?
Bum: Let’s go!
Then we sat and ate cheeseburgers and sucked shakes and he told me about how this homeless shit is just temporary, man, why, he had a job lined up just last week but the goddamn police took him in for some bullshit the morning he was supposed to start. He’s out on the street because his pig-ass wife took everything he was worth. Drugs? Hell no, man, never touch the stuff. Nothing serious anyway. One day I’ll, pay you back man, I’ll buy you Wendy’s when you down and out.
So it went. It was an occasional thing for me. I did it no more than five or six times during my two years in Boston. I just liked to hang out and eat fast food with homeless dudes.
Fast forward to yesterday; I’m in Seoul, in the foreigner district of Itaewon. It’s the early evening; I’ve lost my debit card and I don’t have any more than 70 cents in my pocket. An Asian woman runs me down and asks me if I’m French, then if I can write in English. She has a big backpack and a bulky square thing, like a picture frame, wrapped in a garbage bag. She says she’s Malaysian and she’s lost her passport. She has to write to the American embassy to get a new passport.
“Why are you writing to the American embassy if you’re Malaysian?”
“Because American embassy is bizizzlzreoaesrwaereaer.”
Oh, that clears it right up. She says she couldn’t write English and asks me to come help her write a letter in the ATM lobby of a closed bank. I follow her to the bank; we sit on a bench. I sit far from her. Every time she inches closer to me, I inch away. She doesn’t smell. Her skin is clean; her fingernails are immaculately shaped. She is clearly batshit insane. I’m nervous as hell. There is a stream of people coming and going to use the ATM’s, for which I am grateful. I don’t trust her at all; me, who used to get smashed and hang with meth heads and bums in the McDonald’s of Boston, was freaked the hell out by this woman.
She pulls out a notebook and flips through it. Inside are about ten letters, all written by different people. She has me read a couple out loud to her. They’re all about how she’s lost her passport, needs a new one, needs a break, wants to escape from Korea, yadda yadda yadda.
She hands me a pen and starts dictating a new letter to me. This one is about how she has three children by three different men, all of whom raped her, waited for the child to be born, and then stole the child away from her. She promised God that she would never have sex again, because she believes that it’s her fault that the children were brought into this miserable world with no mother. She has no money, no home, and lives in a nearby church. All of her high school friends, with whom she is still in contact, tell her that she’s stupid for getting raped without taking birth control pills first.
I write the letter for her. She keeps looking over the writing and correcting a few words here and there. She can obviously read and write English just fine. I wondered who she really was and where she came from. Was she the lovechild of the American ambassador and a Malaysian hooker? Was she herself a prostitute, mind gutted with syphilis, surviving on strangers and the kindness of delusions? Was she one of Korea’s many mail-order brides, used, abused and abandoned by lonely middle-aged men? Was she a wealthy politician who got hold of the wrong crack and was playing at being a homeless woman? Damned if I know.
I haven’t seen her since and if I did I would probably start hopping off in the other direction.
After I finish, I tell her that I gotta go. I’m getting really antsy and nervous. I start edging towards the door. She edges towards me. Wait, wait, she begs. Help me, help me. Help you with what? She never once asked me for money. Just give me advice, just give me advice, what do I do? I have no idea, lady, this shit is well beyond my scope of experience. The people using the ATMs are staring at us real hard now.
I asked for her name. “I’m Janice,” she said. “My father’s name is Christopher.”
Nice to meet you. Time to go. Byebye.
I beat it on out the door. I look back in time to see the despair and disappointment on her face. I feel sorry for her, but what can I do? She’s nuts and I don’t know anything about having my rapebaby stolen or getting a new Malaysian passport.
What’s the difference between this woman and those bums in Boston? I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I was in a foreign country. Maybe it’s because she was in a foreign country, and I have absorbed the Korean’s kneejerk distrust of foreigners. Maybe I couldn’t identify with her. Maybe I’m secretly a woman-hating misogynist. Maybe my days of being compassionate to strangers are over. Who the hell knows. If I ever go back to Boston I’ll check and see.
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