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There was a homeless man I used to pass many fall Sundays in downtown St. Louis as I made my way to Rams home football games.
This particular homeless man was hard to ignore because he had no arms or legs but was, rather, simply a torso in a rusting wheelchair. Make that a drunk torso in a rusting wheelchair.
The man was always drunk -- very drunk -- making every word he uttered sound exactly the same:
It was a disturbing sound or word -- I could never really discern the difference -- made doubly so by the linguistic dilemma of whether he was asking a question or making a statement.
I must admit that my grammatical compass was off- kilter those Sundays as well, because I was usually drunk-- very drunk-- considering I had been tailgating since early in the morning.
My favorite phrase, usually screamed in a thunderous roar, was "GOOOOORRRAMMMMSSSSHHHH!"
On our way to and from the game, one of my best friends would always toss a couple of dollars into the homeless man's cup as we passed.
He did it against my protests.
"He's just going to use it to drink," I would say.
"No shit!" my friend would reply. "Can you blame him? And you know he needs the cash. I mean, he's not faking it. Just look at him."
But I never did.
For some reason I couldn't.
Perhaps it was because, as I used to joke with my friend, the only things that seemed to separate me from the torso those drunken Sundays were a bar of Ivory, some two-hundred-dollar football tickets, and a pair of legs.
My joke wasn't as funny as much as it was sad, I knew, but I felt perhaps that something deeper was affecting me.
Perhaps, I thought, I was prejudiced.
Maybe that's why the image of this homeless torso stayed with me throughout autumn in the city. Despite the beauty of the trees exploding in color, of the appearance of Halloween decor, I often pictured the face of this homeless man on the jack-o'-lantern adorning our front porch, or his torso as the tippy scarecrow in our front yard.
Somehow I mustered the courage to share my story with Gary, a miracle of sorts, considering I prefer to hide unsettling things and let them build into life-scarring neuroses.
He looked at me and I could tell the wheels in his head were spinning, preventing him from saying what he really thought. Instead he just smiled, and said, "Thanks for telling me."
And then late one fall afternoon, as Gary and I were leaving the mall after shopping for Thanksgiving table runners and any leaf-bedecked tchotchke that could be tossed onto a buffet, Gary accidentally smacked a bum in the head with a Williams-Sonoma bag containing a ten-pound turkey platter he had just purchased.
This homeless man, begging for leftovers while seated over a grate outside California Pizza Kitchen, yelped when Gary strode out the mall doors and struck him, and then quite literally fell forward.
"Sir! My God, are you all right?" Gary yelled, stroking the man's face. "Wade, what should we do? Wade? Wade?"
By now I was standing some twenty feet off, having tiptoed away like Scooby-Doo used to do. I was not only embarrassed by the spectacle but also nauseous because the man smelled like piss, BO, vomit, and Boone's Farm.
"Get over here and help me!" Gary yelled. "Now!"
"Not my fault," I said. "And I haven't had a hep-B shot."
The man began to come to, slowly, moaning loudly.
Suddenly I grabbed the Williams-Sonoma bag out of Gary's hands, yanked him to his feet, and dragged him into the parking lot.
"What are you doing? We can't just leave him!"
"He's fine!" I yelled. "And he was drunk and lying over a grate before you whacked him with a turkey platter. Believe me, he's got bigger problems than a headache."
"My God, you're a monster!" Gary said.
I looked at him. He was staring at me, his mouth open. He finally said out loud what he'd been holding inside, finally uttered the words even I was too frightened to formulate in my own mind.
I got in the car and gripped the wheel.
Then Gary slammed his door and I was entombed in silence.
Gary, in fact, did not speak to me for what seemed like an eternity, and when I would catch him looking at me, it was if he had finally come to realize that the love of his life was actually a vampire, a werewolf, or Mussolini.
I really could not have blamed him if he had wanted to leave me: How I had responded -- or, rather, not responded -- was cold, inhumane, heartless.
But hadn't we, I tried to reason with myself, already done our good deeds? I mean, we recycled, we were cordial to Republicans, we donated to the Humane Society.
Still, Gary's cone of silence forced me to think about my actions, or, should I say, inaction: Perhaps I responded the way I did simply because I grew up in rural America. I was not used to seeing homeless people.
Perhaps I felt that nothing I did -- or anyone did -- would truly ever make a difference in their lives; perhaps it was already too late.
Perhaps my nonresponse was the only way I could trudge through the inhumanity of life, shutting off my emotions like a bathroom faucet.
Or perhaps I truly felt the homeless deserved their fate.
Yes, perhaps, just perhaps, I was a monster.
Wade Rouse is the critically acclaimed author of the memoirs America's Boy, Confessions of a Prep School Mommy Handler, and At Least in the City Someone Would Hear Me Scream and editor of the humorous dog anthology I'm Not the Biggest Bitch in This Relationship! He is a humor columnist for Metrosource magazine, a contributor to The Customer Is Always Wrong: The Retail Chronicles, and his essays have been published in numerous national magazines and collections, including Forbes.com and Chicago Public Radio. Rouse lives outside the resort town of Saugatuck, Michigan, where--in between blizzards and beach weather--he writes and battles for bed space with his partner, Gary, and their mutts, Marge and Mabel.