As I unlocked my bike I heard a middle-aged woman walking by address him. "Smile! It ain't that bad. Cheer up! Smile!" Gee, I thought, telling a stranger to smile is just as fucking obnoxious and patronizing when it's a woman saying it to a man as when it's a man saying it to a woman.
"I'm sleeping in a car," I heard him say. (Oh, he sounded young.)
"I've slept in a car!" she said. "I've had seven heart attacks, two strokes, and I got a hole in my back! You got it better than me!" She walked away, continuing to talk as she went. "You got it way better than me!"
As I coiled up my cable and stowed my U-lock I glanced at him out of the corner of my eye. He looked even more down than he had before. Another guy who looked to be a year or two older, who'd been at the pay phone nearby, sat down next to him and they both sat there staring at the sidewalk.
Yeah, no, I thought, and grabbed all the small bills in my wallet. "Hey," I said as I walked over to them. They looked up at me, the younger guy's expression very guarded. "You know, I think the whole making-misery-competitive thing is bullshit," and jerked my thumb in the direction the other woman had gone. "Would a couple of bucks help?"
The muscles around his eyes softened suddenly as he looked at me. "Yeah, it would."
I handed him the bills. "Take care."
As I mounted my bike and got ready to roll, they both raised their hands in a wave and called to me, "Thank you! Bless you!"
"Good luck!" I said, and headed off.
My mother was a very wise woman.* One of the things she used to say was, "I don't do comparative misery. I'll do you the courtesy of assuming your misery was as bad as you could stand if you'll do the same for me."
By the time I got home I was wishing I'd given them the $20 I'd gotten back from swiping my debit card to pay for the groceries.
* I was once talking with a friend about the various recreational chemicals we'd seen people partaking in out at Burning Man. (Actually, we were talking about the aftermath and ways in which said recreational chemicals could go wrong for people — we were both Black Rock Rangers.) "I don't remember who told me this," he said, "but stick to the vegetable drugs. If it comes in a powder or has to be referred to by its initials, you probably shouldn't mess with it."
"I told you that!" I said. "That's one of the things on my mother's list of The Best Advice In The Universe!"
I should really write down what I remember of TBAITU. "Stick to the vegetable drugs" was only one of them. And Rule Number One definitely saved me some heartache when I remembered to follow it.