“I have a theory that every time you make an important choice, the part of you left behind continues the other life you could have had.” Jeanette Winterson.
Early Sunday evening, I was driving home with a huge bag of produce in the passenger seat, abundance from the co-op I joined with my friend K. I was on that final access road by the freeway— where I live, all roads point toward home.
When I pulled up to the stoplight, I was singing loudly and terribly and eating an apple simultaneously (maybe not the best idea). I pressed my foot on the brake, nice and easy, leaned back, and that’s when I saw the man on the side of the freeway. There wasn’t anything enduring about this man’s appearance— he was bleached and leathered from the meanness of the Texas sun; he was short and lean and tilted inward with a crooked, perfect little soul; and he looked hungry. So hungry.
I started to roll down the window with my left hand and reach for that big bunch of bananas with my right. But the light changed, and I had to go. I was the first car; we were stacked ten deep. So, I went. I could have swung back around, but it would have taken me ten minutes just to get back to that light, and I was exhausted. In a split-nanosecond, I made the choice to drive on home, and I’ve been mulling it over ever since Sunday.
If you were to peer through a window into my thoughts, you’d see that I think a great deal about choice. Some choices are binary. (You can have this thing or that thing.) Some choices are expansive. (You can have this, and then you can have this, and then you can do this.) Some choices are reductive. (You may get this; you may get that— and lucky you, you may not get either one.) Some moments are truly without choice, but you feel as though you have options for choie (when you don’t.) Other moments feel barren of choice, but you have choices that you just aren’t seeing yet.
While I made the choice to drive home, and while I was relieved to have made that choice, there was a little bit of me I left behind on the side of the road observing that man, so hunched and miserable; sad and beaten. To think about that man was a choice I made, my friends— to think about that man, and about other men I’ve met so much like him, men whose dignity is so warped and splintered and out-of-true from life smacking on them so hard that you wonder if their sense of self could ever be persuaded back into into a proper, upright position.
Should you lean farther into that one thought of mine, you’ll hear the burbling of a braided underground river of thoughts echoing beneath that single thought’s surface: The look of surprise when you give someone who isn’t asking for help, the money or food or the kind word s/he really needs to have, or hear; the reductive nature of choice once you fall down the economic stairs (or when you never got that lift off of the stair-landing in the first place); a bouquet of quotes: “The gift blesses the giver.” (Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel); “It’s our choices, Harry, that show us what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, JK Rowling); “I still believe that the mildest and most obscure of Americans can be rescued from oblivion by good luck, sudden changes in fortune, sudden encounters with heroes. I believe it because I lived it.” (Theodore Sorenson); the sound of a clock ticking, so innocuous when blended with other noises, so ominous when one is afraid.
Let me be clear about the choices I made. Don’t think I berated myself for leaving: By law, I had to leave. The light turned green, and it was my responsibility to turn with the light. Don’t think I beat myself for not driving back around: The main reason I did not turn around is that I was so tired that I was concerned about the quality of my driving in the first place, and driving safely is at the top of my priority list in those sorts of circumstances. Also, do not assume that I thought someone else would help that man: I think one should never assume that someone else will pick up the mantel of kindness just because you wish it would be so. And another person may not agree with my choice of giving people food, or money, or a kind word— there’s a lot of fear in the world; some of it is certainly justified, and some of it is old history. For instance, Queen Elizabeth I criminalized poverty in the 1600s for what modern law calls “loitering,” aka “hanging out.”
But let me leave you with this thought: I want you to stop what you’re doing for a second and consider this man astride the concrete abutment on the side of the freeway. Is he a man, or an idea of a man? Let’s unpack this further— what do we know about this man, except the loaded words I’ve employed to tell a story that uses this man as an interesting bit of furniture? What are this man’s hopes? His fears? What is his name? What were his parents like? Does he know how to swim? Does he like dogs? What about cats?
Tell me: Is he a man, or an idea?
Can you approach him in your mind, can you smile, can you slip him a few dollars, shake his hand, wish him good luck?
Or does he remain crouched on that abutment, the sun at his back, his face turned inward to a dark display of thoughts, inscrutable to the brunette driver at the light, the woman staring intently, rudely at his face, clutching a bunch of bananas as the light turns green?