(Part Seven) The Choices We Make
When September 11 happened, I like the rest of the country became stunned and then angry. I remember staring at the tv screen, shaking my head, refusing to believe what was happening before my eyes and trying to forget the images. For awhile that was all anyone could talk about. It wasn’t too long before many people turned numb to the tragedy and went on with their lives until the only day it was remembered was on its anniversary.
Not for me.
I started pulling away from friends I had known my whole life. Eager to fit in, they molded themselves to fit into the various cliques at school – the jocks, the trend setters, the drama nerds, and the popular kids. I eventually began to grow tired of the frivolous chatter and found myself an outlier.
No one really wanted to discuss why it had happened. Mostly people would remark briefly on the event like a bad memory and then go about their affairs as if what had happened didn’t matter anymore. I wanted out. Something that day had struck a chord deep within me. It resonated every second of every hour of every day. I tried to move on like those around me. Tried to spend time with my family without feeling the overwhelming need to be vigilant of their safety. Tried to enjoy the warmth from the family room fireplace without thinking of those living in cold and fear. But I couldn’t.
When my nine-year old niece wanted to go into the woods for a walk I wanted to lash her to my side and never let her out of my sight. She would beg, plead with me, to play hide and seek. I hid my apprehension and worry from her as we walked deep into the wooded area around my house. Force myself to count to ten and try to drive away the fits of agony that shook me to my very core for each second that she was out of my sight.
It wasn’t until college that I really began to notice differences in the way I perceived the world. My anger and resentment began to grow, and little by little I pulled away from my family. Now I was without friends and family. Self-imposed isolation became my bed keep. Instead of coming home for the weekends I would make excuses to stay in the city. I had an exam I had to study for or a paper to write. There was a new exhibit at so and so museum I needed to go see for one of my classes. I needed a break and just wanted to stay in and rest and play video games. These were all acceptable excuses for my parents. They never questioned if they were real. I was a boy in college, so how could they not be.
One day I was trying to study for an upcoming History midterm at my favorite cafe in downtown Boston when a nearby group of college boys started laughing and pointing at an old man rifling through a trash can.
“Hey, loser! Looking for something?” shouted a large, heavy-set boy in a Celtics t-shirt. He picked up his half eaten sandwich and chucked it towards the homeless man. It bounced off the top of the trash can and fell to the ground.
“Go ahead. Pick it up. Probably the best meal you’ve had all week,” laughed another. A few other customers chuckled.
I was horrified. All this man wanted was something to eat! And here he was, surrounded by people in their nice clothes and full pockets, hungry and alone. His pain gave them enjoyment and it took all my self-restraint to not get up and beat the living shit out of all of them.
I tried to get back to my books and block out the noise. Out of the corner of my eye I saw an apple thrown towards the man’s direction. It was followed by more laughter. And despite the taunting and spectacle that the boys were making of him the homeless man stooped over and picked up the sandwich remnants and apple. On his out stretched arm I noticed a faded tattoo. It said USMC. The man was veteran. A homeless veteran.
That was the last straw. One of my books fell to the ground as I pushed back my chair, bracing myself against the table. Before the group even noticed me I was at their side. MY hand shot out and I slapped the heavy-set one on the back of his head, pushing the apple thrower to the ground.
“What is wrong with you!” I shouted. Shaking with rage I slapped him again. “All he wants is something to eat. He’s hungry. And you mock him?!”
They were stunned. Not one of them tried to hit me back. Obviously cowards, all of them.
The cafe was silent. All the customers avoided my stare. I hated them. I wanted to punch each and every one. Blood was pounding in my ears and my fists stayed clenched at my side.
A gentle hand on my arm startled me. I turned, ready for a fight but my hands fell limp at my side. It was the homeless man. His eyes were kind and his hands gentle but firm as he turned my body to face him.
“Thank you young man,” he said. I didn’t expect his voice to sound so confident and respectful.
“You’re welcome,” I responded. Pulling out my wallet I handed him the two twenty-dollar bills. “I wish it was more, but it’s all I have on me.”
He looked at the two bills. I noticed how quickly his eyes filled with tears before he wiped them away. “It’s more than enough.” Taking the two bills he stuffed them into his pocket before turning to go with the sandwich and apple still in his hand.
I watched him go. There was a small limp to his walk. My only guess was that it was from an old service injury. He passed a homeless girl, who couldn’t have been more than sixteen, sitting on the side of the street. He handed her one of the twenty-dollar bills I had given him. Her face said it all. Before I could start crying myself I scooped up my belongings and left.
That night I tossed and turned in my bed filled with anger. I blamed everyone for my anger. My teacher, my friends, my family, and strangers. Everyone but myself. I couldn’t reconcile my anger with my feelings of guilt, helplessness, and disappointment. Disappointment in myself for not doing more for that man and everyone else like him.
That morning I had made up my mind. My school administrator spent thirty minutes trying to talk me out of dropping out of school.
“You’re at the top of your class,” she argued. “Your future is bright here. You have so much to learn about the world. What are you going to do with your life without a college degree?”
I couldn’t conceal my smile as I signed the papers. “What am I going to do?” I quipped back. “I’m going to join the Army.”