Normally I don’t engage the crazy people in New York. You look in their eyes, and see that there’s nobody really there.
Today I was sitting in a Starbucks, at a table for four. When someone approached, I could see peripherally the gesture of “can I sit here,” and I started to take out my headphones to make my usual crack of , “Do you have candy?”
As I looked up though, I realized the man requesting a spot was a homeless man I’d seen in town before. A big man, with a full head of gray wavy hair.
“What?” I could see him struggling with my question.
“I was just kidding, you can sit down.” He looked relieved at not having to process my question, and sat down across from me. He slowly started unwrapping and eating a sandwich, and I went back to my work. Except I noticed his odor starting to drift over to me. I hoped he would finish his sandwich and leave.
But he didn’t. He carefully wrapped his trash, and put it inside a canvas sack he had next to him.
Then he started picking. At the scabs. On his hands.
It was really gross, but I tried to be compassionate. He was a homeless guy. He wanted to be in somewhere warm, and maybe he liked sitting by a pretty girl.
But he kept picking. and picking. And then he pulled out some lotion, and started applying it to his dry and scabbed hands and arms.
He was sitting right across from me. I couldn’t help but see everything. It was really making me feel sick. But what could I do? I sat there and contemplated my options. The easiest thing would have been to move. But there weren’t any other tables for me to move to, and besides, I really needed to finish what I was working on so I couldn’t find another coffee shop at that moment. I really wanted to say something. But what would I say? Beyond that, how would he react? Would he yell? Would he flail?
I kept thinking on one hand, “oh poor guy,” but a growing voice was saying, “he’s got to know that it’s gross, he’s probably used to people just retreating from him, what if you engaged him like a normal person and just told him how it was affecting you and asked him nicely to move?” You know, just like I would ask a smoker to put out a cigarette indoors if it bothered me (back when you could smoke indoors). But I still couldn’t say it!
But it had been 20 minutes of the picking I just couldn’t stand it anymore. Part of me wanted to just yell
DUDE THAT IS DISGUSTING STOP IT!!!!
but just then i noticed a table close by so I opted for
“Excuse me, I have to ask you a favor. Could you please move to that table? Your keep picking your scabs and it’s really making me feel sick.”
He stared me straight in the eyes for a moment.
He slowly got up from his chair, still staring at me. I carefully closed my computer and moved my coffee away from me. It was a weird moment. He kept glaring at me, and I didn’t know if he was going to throw a punch, or yell. But he just got up, picked up his things, and moved over to the next table like I asked.