I WAS ON THE MAX today and a woman staggered up and asked if she could use my phone. She was grimy, she looked like she had a drug problem, and I didn't want her filth—tangible or emotional—all over my phone. I told her no, a blunt aggressive no. I told her the kind of no that says, "Not now, or ever, and tell the rest of your fucking street urchin ilk to stop bothering us decent people."
This, or some version of this, happens to everyone if they live in Portland long enough. The gray faces of people living on the streets—old women and wet dogs and amputees and impossibly young Vietnam vets and the heart-wrenchingly young Afghanistan vets and the heroin junkies and the scumbags, street kids, shifty-eyed bottle collectors, gaunt dying-but-somehow-tan screaming-at-nothing-with-a-crooked-jaw paranoid schizophrenics start to blend together into an indistinguishable blur of sympathy-exhausting humanity. I don't care if you read Mother Jones in a reclaimed bathtub full of almond milk, they will turn you, momentarily, into a Libertarian. Maybe if you didn't spend all of your money and potential on drugs you could afford your own phone. No, you can't fucking use my phone.
About three minutes later I got a phone call telling me my aunt had died. She was a kind and giving woman, and not in that worn-down platitude sort of way that seems to echo around the walls of funeral parlors full of people who did not know the deceased all that well. She was a real-deal sweetheart. She was also a drug addict. A severe sort of addict who tried and failed repeatedly to break the hazy shackles of opiate addiction. Her death wasn't a shock, but it wasn't an inevitability either. She'd been an addict my entire life, and the fact that she'd made it this far on that shit made me think, somewhere in my mind, that she'd just keep living forever. She didn't. She was the second member of my family to fall victim to this manufactured euphoria.
She was a beautiful person with a heart that cared more about you than it did about her. I wish I was more sad than I am, but I'm not, because I never let myself get close to her. As my heart hardened, it didn't have room for someone who was so hell-bent on self-ruination. Some part of me wouldn't open up to her, insisting that she was weak and that she fucked up. That could have been her on that train, asking me for my phone.
There are no absolute truths when it comes to these people living on the streets. Some of them are victims of terrible circumstance, some of them inflicted their own wounds—but even if that's the case, it's no excuse to behave without empathy. I was dealt a reminder of that today. I can't fathom descending into the kind of drug use that took a member of my family last night, but I also can't conceive of the kind of pain that would drive a person to that end. I am endlessly grateful for that. I will try to be actively grateful. I wish I would have let that woman on the MAX use my phone, and I wish I would have gotten to know my aunt better.