I hadn't seen Sam for four years, and he looked a little worse than he did back then. We'd met in one of those 12-step support groups when I was struggling to overcome one of my past personal demons, one that also had Sam in a headlock. I wouldn't say we were close, but we'd talked a lot and had that mutual sarcastic respect that the Irish everywhere seem to have for each other.
It was one of those recent unseasonably warm and sunny days and I was downtown, heading to the bus stop at Sixth and Vine when I spotted him leaning up against the big Arby's window. He hadn't seen me yet, so I dodged down the steps and went into the restaurant -- not because I was suddenly hungry but because I just didn't want to talk to Sam.
I've been free from the clutches of that old addiction for about six years now but I'd hear about Sam once in a while, seemingly stuck in that cruel revolving door of going back out into the arms of our shared demon, getting cut down and coming back drained only to leave again in a few months or even weeks. I'd made that cold journey myself a few times, so I knew how it felt and what he went through, how hard it can sometimes be to just hold on, stay in one place and away from that other.
But I also knew that every time I went back out, each time I let those wicked arms wrap themselves around me while they stabbed me in the back that it was an action that I took, a choice that I made.
It was also my choice to try and avoid Sam, one that ultimately didn't work. Those windows allow one to see the whole spread of the restaurant's interior, and Sam spotted me just standing there, silently chewing over my next move. A smile of recognition spread across his face and he gave me some animated waves, urging me back outside. The cruel symmetry of that phrase strikes me only now but all I could think of at the time was how much I despise missing a bus and the near interminable wait for the next one. Sometimes the unavoidable is simply and only that -- unavoidable.
"Hey, man! How you doin'?" Sam greeted me as I returned to the corner.
But all I gave back to him was a quick nod of my head and one of those non-committal, monosyllabic grunts that guys on the street make to each other. I arched my neck to look past him down Vine, as if to say that catching the bus was a more pressing issue than talking with him.
"So, where you stayin' now?" he asked, making the basic small talk that people do when they haven't seen each other for awhile.
"Uh, Clifton," I stammered, though I live in Northside.
I turned to peer east up Sixth, to see if a #17 or 18 bus was coming. I could just as easily jump onto one of those and still get to where I was going. I had two destinations now, and away from Sam had just become the main one.
Why was I doing this? Did I think I was somehow better than him now? I take no joy in admitting this, but to be honest, yes, yes I did.
Now this is exactly the sort of thing that goes against my stubborn idealism about what the world should really be like and any possible role I can play in realizing even a glimmer of those ideals. The realities of the world rarely conform to them but I still feel that, as an individual, I should at least try to see all persons as equals in the larger schemes of the universe, recently reminded as I was of our relative size in that realm; that it's always better to give someone the benefit of the doubt than to take it away from them; of the echo in my memory of that other King's summoning of an antidote to the often violent antagonisms of the modern world in his plea of "Can't we all just get along?"; and that, even if I can't change the whole world, I can change the world around me.
But none of these alleged ideals rose inside me as I tried to force a bus into being with the sheer force of my will power, the fire of my frustration in not wanting to talk with a person I would have greeted gladly once upon a time. And why couldn't he just get that?
"Yeah, I was okay for a couple of years but . . ."
Sam went on and trailed off, as if confessing the latest crimes he'd committed on himself would somehow absolve him. Even though I've entered that sort of plea in the past myself, I still shrugged it off with another "mmm-hmm." I kept looking up and down Vine and Sixth, any direction but his; and after a few seconds he got the message. Sam slowly turned and walked away, back to lean on the wall of windows.
Words along the lines of asking to be left alone -- that one doesn't wish to talk with another -- are a harsh utterance no matter the circumstances, but to someone who hadn't actually done anything to me? A person who's like me in a lot of ways who simply hasn't walked the same path I have, perhaps just hasn't yet found it inside himself to do what I did? And "yet" is so much the operative word in that last sentence, perhaps one that should be considered for any person in any situation. Ideally, that is. But "yet" and "should" and "ideally" weren't any of the concepts I considered as a #78 bus finally pulled up and Sam and I both got on, still not together.
I didn't find any sort of satisfaction in Sam's ongoing struggle, just the tired recognition of a show I'd seen too many times to bother watching again. It wasn't personal; it's just that I had left that desperate mindset behind me a long time ago, along with all the bullshit that comes with it and the people who still try to play it like it's only a twisted little game of some kind. Believe me, it's twisted but it's not little.
Part of what I know now is something that's easy to forget -- there are always different ways of looking at the same person and, viewed from another perspective, it's entirely possible to see someone and their situation shaded in different colors than I'd thought at first glance. Because I've looked at that day on the corner again, from a different angle, and I realize what a cold person I'd been on that hot afternoon, to someone who is just as much a person as I am, one who deserved to be treated with at least the veneer of civility.
But the deepest gash in all my psychosurgery about this is that, as sorry as I am, Sam, I can't say I wouldn't do it again.