By Cat Jones
I live in an old building along a thrumming urban street, and I see a lot from my stoop. But I didn’t see who kicked Ben the Dog. Instead, I got a call from my landlord. “You’re not back with that guy are you? Not the friendly, good looking one who’s been coming around, but that other one. That one who was hanging around here last summer with the… the ATTITUDE?” He wanted to know. Presumably, he meant my ex boyfriend, whom he does not like. (No one does, but that’s a different story.) I get a message like that, and I’m not sure what to do with it. Annoyance and fear both flashed through my mind. Annoyance that my landlord would be questioning me about men I date, fear that maybe he’d spotted my ex near the building again (and nobody wants that). So I call him back straight away. “Why are you asking me that?” I say, irked and a little too demanding. Well it turns out, he was just trying to figure out who on earth would have kicked Ben the Dog. It was someone who came out of my building. Tall, skinny, white guy, sense of entitlement. It didn’t make sense to my landlord that it would be anybody who actually lived here in the building. So he was grasping for an explanation and my skinny ex with a really bad disposition was apparently the first thing to pop to mind.
Skinny White Dude Kicks Ben the Dog
The contractors who maintain my building were here earlier in the evening. They were clearing out a lot of debris from the building, most of it left in an upstairs apartment by a vacating former neighbor. So they’d hauled out my neighbor’s old futon and a lot of garbage she’d left up there, and piled it on the curb to await the garbage truck that comes rumbling hungrily, noisily up Lark street on Thursday nights. While they were making trips in and out of the building, a man without a home came wandering up the street, saw the futon lying there on the sidewalk, and he was beguiled into lying down awhile on the soft, purple expanse. The workers found him there and elected to leave him alone while they quietly went on with their work.
However, when they were almost finished, “a skinny white dude”came walking out of my building, saw the man sleeping on the sidewalk, and got weirdly, inexplicably angry. He went over to the curb and kicked the man. He yelled at him, told him to “get lost” and commenced to berate him for being there at all… on a public sidewalk where this same skinny white dude would presumably NEVER have felt so entitled to walk up and assault some better-heeled person taking up just as much public space, say at a table at a sidewalk cafe, or a person working on their car along the curb.
One of the workers witnessed this in horror, and yelled at skinny white dude to knock it off. “You can’t do that,” he said, to his immense credit. “That’s assault!” Skinny white dude then reportedly told the worker, “I LIVE here and he DOESN’T and I don’t want his kind here.” The worker told skinny white dude that the homeless man had the landlord’s permission to be there (a safe guess on his part, since my landlord is a compassionate person, as his follow-up call regarding this matter demonstrated). “Well when I get back, he better be GONE” said skinny white dude menacingly, before he stomped away. The worker then called the landlord to report the incident, and thus the call to me, trying to figure out if the kicker was my ex.
“Whoa,” I said. “That totally doesn’t sound like The Loser. He mighta been a douche, but he wasn’t THAT douchey. He was mainly only abusive toward me, uppity women, people who talk to him while he’s playing a song, landlords, children, dogs, African American women at the bottle exchange, any boy who has ever spoken to me, and anyone who has ever tried to live with him. He’s not normally dickish to people just because they’re homeless. Dude woulda had to at least say something to him first.”
After a little thought, I added, “Plus I have a restraining order and everyone at Art Haus, and indeed everyone on the entire street, knows he’s not allowed here. He wouldn’t have been coming outta this building.” So no, it wasn’t my ex, and it certainly wasn’t the boy I’m seeing now, even if he, too, is a tall, white dude.
But then… who WAS it? (I thought I might have an idea, though I hoped not.) And a larger question to me, how is the guy who was kicked? Is he all right? I went over to my window and peered down to the shadowy sidewalk below. Sure enough, there was the futon right in the middle of a huge pile of detritus on the curb. And there was Ben the Dog. (I didn’t know his name yet, but there he was.)
Ben the Dog
He was curled up against the cold, with ratty gloves wound around his hands, coat collar pulled up around his head, face pressed against a fold in the futon. As I was looking down at him, he pulled himself up a little tighter, nuzzled his face a little closer into the mattress. Oh God, and that little gesture reminded me for all the world of my little pit bull, Romeo, who sleeps exactly like that. There was something so endearing about that little effort to keep warm… it connected him into the wiring of my heart via Romeo in the strange way that compassion can be ignited for a stranger if we can just see them as being of the same stuff as those whom we love.
I stood there looking out my window at this man, and I just wanted to cry. It was so freaking cold out there that night. And there he was, just wanting to get warm, wanting a soft place to sleep… and some awful person had gone up and kicked him just for being there. I couldn’t stand it. I feared for his safety and well -being, and I didn’t know how to help him. He was a lot bigger than I am, and frankly I’ve known people who got hurt trying to help people on the street by bringing them into their homes. So I didn’t feel like I could let him inside. What, then?
If I were still on the west coast, I would have known whom to call in such a situation. We had something called the Chiers Wagon where you could call and report someone passed out in the streets, and they would come and provide medical attention if needed and get them to a shelter. But I’m fairly new here, I’ve only been in New York for about a year and a half, and I didn’t know whom to call. I couldn’t just leave him like that, though.
I dragged some blankets down the stairs and out the door. I went over and asked him if he was all right. He was sound asleep and snoring, so I just put the blankets over him and went back upstairs. But then I kept worrying that he still wasn’t warm enough, that the person who kicked him would come back, that someone else might try to hurt him. So I sat in the window and tried to keep an eye on him while I did some work. A lot of people normally come through to scavenge the curb piles on recycle night, and people kept coming along poking at him. I kept having to call down to tell people that was a person under the blanket, please leave him alone. I couldn’t concentrate on my work, so after awhile I took some paper and tape and a marker, threw in some sock warmers, and went back down. I tried to explain what I was doing, but he was pretty much out cold and not interested in conversing.
I dragged a tarp over him (it was in the rubble pile next to him, and I thought it might help keep him warmer), and then I made a sign that said something like, “THIS IS A HUMAN BEING UNDER THIS BLANKET. PLEASE DO NOT BOTHER HIM. I’LL BE WATCHING FROM MY WINDOW SO DO NOT MESS WITH HIM.” I taped this to the tarp over him, I opened the sock warmers and tucked them under his jacket, making sure they were insulated by his shirt so they wouldn’t burn his skin, then I went back upstairs to work in my window some more. Now, the nexus between compassion and OCD can be pretty staggering, so I was completely unable to get much work done, and I was filled with angst about what was going to happen to this guy. I kept peeking out to make sure he was all right. I saw lots of people stopping to read the sign, and one guy took a picture of it. But then….
I looked out and saw him rolling off the curb and into the street. Yikes! His head and shoulders were all the way out in the dark street. A very busy street. I went running down the stairs, flew out the door, and started trying to haul him back up onto the sidewalk. He’s a big guy though, and it was no small task. He started coming-to while I was dragging him up out of harm’s way. “Hey there,” I said. “Um, you were rolling into the street.” “Oh,” he said, a little disoriented and a little embarrassed. “I’m Ben the Dog.”
“Nice to meet you, Ben. Let’s get you back up on the sidewalk.”
Ben was a little out of it still, though, and not much help in the task. “Hey you know what,” I say. “There’s a churchyard right across the street. And there’s a nice strip of grass over there behind that hedge that’s far enough from the street, and it’s hidden and sheltered a little from all the people going by. Do you want me to help you move this futon over to there so you can get some rest without being bothered?”
He considered the possibility, expressed that he might like that, but then was incapable of putting the plan into motion. He just couldn’t stand up right then. So instead, all I could manage was to get him back up onto the sidewalk, get him tucked back in, and I headed back up the stairs. A short time later, he was rolling into the street again and I was back out there trying to haul him up onto the curb again.
As I tugged and pulled at him, trying to get him back to safety, he blinked up at me and smiled a toothy smile. “Are you an angel?” He asked. “I don’t know,” I said. “It would be nice to find out that I am.” He grinned. “I probably drink too much,” he said. “Probably,” I said. “Do you think you can help me get you onto the sidewalk?”
As we struggled against the conglomerated elements of gravity and intoxication and cause-and-effect, a well-heeled elderly couple happened along. “Do you need some help?” The woman asked. “Yes,” I said. “I just need to get him up onto the sidewalk and out of the street. Unless you know of a better place he could go?” They looked at me dubiously. Yes, he was too large a load for two thin, elderly people to wrangle with much success. “Did somebody kick me?” Asked Ben the Dog. I was surprised he was aware of anything that had gone on around him. “Yes,” I said. The couple looked horrified. “Yeh,” I said. “Apparently some dude came out of the building there and kicked you.” “Why?” Asked Ben. “I don’t know,” I said.
“Do you need us to call someone to help?” The woman asked. “Yes,” I said. “Do you know whom to call? I’m kinda new here, I don’t know who you can call to help with something like this.” The woman had her phone out in her hand directly. “Well the police,” she said. “We’ll have to call the police.”
See, and this is where experiential worldview gets in between people. She looks to have been a comfortable, upper income, probably suburban white lady all her life. Nice clothes, mainstream values, dominant race, economically advantaged… The kind of person with no reason to have ever questioned the “Officer Friendly is Your Friend” fable that suburban white people teach their children. But Ben the Dog and me, well we’ve had different experiences in life.
“NO,” roared Ben in horror. “NO COPS!”
“They can get you to a shelter,” said the woman, who clearly wanted to be helpful.
“No cops,” he reiterated.
“I’m kinda with him,” I say to the woman. “Isn’t there anyone else we could call to help him?”
“Not here,” she says. “You have to call police here, and they’ll get him wherever he needs to be.”
See, and I’ve just seen and heard too many horror stories about police interacting with people they’re called upon to “help” in this way. Too many times where police were called to “help” suicidal people struggling with depression, where the police wound up shooting the depressed person to death. Times when police were called to “help” injured accident victims, where they wound up shooting the victim to death instead. Times when they were supposed to “help” homeless people or people with mental illness, and instead they killed them. Only last year, an innocent and unarmed Dontay Ivy was attacked and tasered to death by police right here in my city, not far from my home. So this is a real and serious concern, and cannot be dismissed lightly.
Even when they don’t wind up killing someone, the police have a lot of power to abuse people, and they often use it. We had no way of knowing whether Ben the Dog had any papers on him, but a lot of people who live on the margins find themselves on the fat end of the scope for whatever reason, and I didn’t want our desire to help this man to be turned into a catalyst to send him off to prison. I didn’t want to see him beaten or tasered or pepper sprayed. Ben the Dog is white, so he had that in his favor, given that police violence seems to disproportionately target black people. But there are other demographics who are also disproportionately targeted, and in those categories, he wasn’t doing so well. People with mental illness, for instance, are even more likely to be victimized by police violence than are people of color. By most counts, at least half of all people killed by police were struggling with psychiatric disabilities at the time of the killing. Economically disadvantaged and homeless people are also disproportionately dehumanized and victimized by police, as are people with addiction issues. So… there was a lot to be concerned about in this woman’s suggestion that we call police to… “help.”
I didn’t really have a better option, though, other than just leaving him to the elements and the predators, and the imminent reality of the street. And in a moment, the decision was taken out of my hands anyway. As Ben the Dog arranged himself into a sitting position on the curb, His Honor the Mayor dropped by. Mister Mayor lives close to the street as well, and is a friend of mine. He calls himself the Mayor of Lark Street and runs various business ventures along Lark, usually involving either selling things he picked up on recycle night, or washing windows, or telling good stories to tourists. He’s a comedian, a wise man, and a realist. He took in the situation in his sardonic way. “Ben the Dog,” he noted. “Yeh, he’s a regular.”
(The funny thing is, that brief interaction probably turned out to be a lot more helpful to the situation than I initially thought. But we’re getting ahead of the story. We’ll get back to that in a moment.)
While I was talking to The Mayor, the woman who wanted to help went over to the sidelines and called the cops. I turned around and saw her on the phone, and there was really nothing for me to do. “Um… Do you have any papers on you or anything?” I asked Ben the Dog. “Why?” He asked. “Well, um… well that lady is calling to see if we can get you some help, and, um… I think the police might show up…” I mumbled. “So um… well if you’ve got any warrants out for you or anything…” I began. “No cops!” Ben the Dog reminded us. “I don’t think we can avoid it,” I say, nodding toward the woman on the phone. “We need to get you somewhere safe and warm, and…” He looked stricken.
“We’re not wanting to get you in any trouble or anything,” I say. “It’s just, it’s really cold out here, and there are mean people, and, well, you keep rolling into the street.”
“Yeh. You rolled out there twice. I just can’t keep you up on the sidewalk. I think you need to get somewhere safer.”
“And someone kicked me,” he said.
“Yes,” I said. “So… do you have any reason, other than the obvious, why you maybe shouldn’t be here when the cops arrive?”
“No cops. Are you an angel?”
“Welp. I’ll see you,” says The Mayor, and he wisely melts away. Moments later a patrol car rolls up, and I’m immediately concerned. It’s a single patrolman, much smaller than Ben the Dog. His arrival puts Ben on the defense. “No cops!” Says Ben the Dog, and he hauls himself up to his full and formidable height. He’s scowling. He’s pretty impressive. I’m starkly, terrifyingly aware of the gun at Officer Friendly’s hip, and the psychological realities of fear-based aggression. Ben the Dog is scared of the cop, the cop is scared of Ben the Dog, and the cop has a weapon. I’m scared of the whole situation.
“I think he just wants to help you get to a shelter,” I say to Ben, hoping to calm him down. “Right?!” I say pointedly to the officer.
“No cops!” Insists Ben the Dog. And he goes careening out into the street. He nearly gets hit by a car right in front of us, then nearly gets hit by another one, but somehow he makes it relatively unscathed to the other side of the street. He turns once, like an old Sasquatch photo, to see whether he’s being followed. But no one is following. We’re all just standing there, frozen in space, mouths open, still digesting the nearness of catastrophe, the car that almost hit him. “I’m leaving!” Booms Ben the Dog from across the street. And off he goes, careening down the sidewalk. He turns again, again sees that he’s not being followed, and stops.
“I don’t know where he thinks he’s going,” says the cop. “I’m not here to arrest him. But I’m gonna be sitting right here…” He motions toward his patrol car.
The woman who called police shrugs, and she and the man walk away. The cop goes over and sits in his patrol car. I stand on the stoop and watch Ben the Dog teetering in a doorway across the street and down the block. This has the sense of not being over yet.
Ben’s Imaginary Friend
Moments later, sure enough. Comforted that no one followed him, Ben steps out of the doorway. He takes a few tentative steps to test the water, and then he’s back. Back in the street, dodging cars, back on the sidewalk, back in my doorway. “I need a cigarette,” he says. “Hmmm,” I say.
Ben sits back down on the futon. His legs dangle off the curb and into the street. “Let’s get you all the way on the sidewalk, can we?” I say. He pulls in his legs. The cop gets back out of his car, and right then, a second patrol car pulls up. The cop who gets out of this one is less friendly, and more of what I normally expect. He swaggers over and just the smell of his attitude sets Ben off again. “No cops!” Ben roars, and he’s upright again. Officer Less-Than Friendly starts getting a little menacing, Ben gets a little menacing back, and I get really nervous. The other cop is quiet, looking on. Around that time, a fellow artist from up the street, who has seen all the police lights, comes down to check on me. I’m fine, I say, it’s Ben the Dog I’m worried about.
“Do you know him?” I ask my friend. “The Mayor says he’s a regular. I’ve never seen him before, though.” “No,” says my friend. “I’ve never seen him before either.”
Just that little interaction, and I don’t even think about it in the moment. But I had said this in front of the cops, and their behavior changed markedly after that. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it’s possible that Mister Mayor’s involvement in this affair could explain the kid gloves with which Ben the Dog was treated by police from that moment onward. They definitely heard me say that, and looking back, I think they thought I meant the actual mayor of the city, Kathy Sheehan. I think they thought she knew this guy, and cared what happened to him. Oh, and what a wonderful thing it would be if our public officials really did give a shit about the “least” of us. Because like I said, Dontay Ivy was a sweet, innocent, harmless man with schizophrenia who was tasered to death by police for no reason at all, and oh couldn’t HE have used a mayor in his corner. But he had no mayor to speak for him, so he was inexplicably murdered on his way home from the corner market, for being a black man out after dark, and the cops who did it kept their stupid jobs.
But back to Ben the Dog, who has been given a public official as imaginary friend. He’s big, he’s upset, he’s intoxicated, and he’s lunging around unpredictably. To be perfectly honest, his behavior is making me nervous, though mainly only because I’m afraid the police are going to use it as “just cause,” as an excuse to harm him and then claim they “feared for their lives,” that magical loophole, the law enforcement “get out of jail free” card that has, for so long stood in the way of police accountability. …Good thing Ben is friends with The Mayor.
Officer Less-Than is really getting in Ben’s face, and he looks like he’s itching to get physical. But Officer Friendlier is doing a surprisingly good job of crisis management. “Look, were not putting hands on you,” he tells Ben, holding up his hands in front of his own chest, and the side message is to Officer Less-Than. We’re not putting hands on him. Ben looks baffled. “We just wanna get you somewhere safe and warm,” says Officer Friendlier. And I’m leaving out a lot here, because there was a lot of back and forth. For about 20 minutes, all of us worked to convince both Ben and Officer Less-Than to calm down. Officer Friendlier did a strangely good job at keeping his demeanor non-threatening and putting Ben the Dog at ease, while at the same time keeping his aggro colleague in check.
Ben Gets a Cigarette and some Juice
Ben finally sits back down on the futon. “I can rap,” he says to me, cops receding into the background of his awareness. “Yeh?” I say back. “Yeh,” says Ben, and then he breaks out into a long and amazingly well-rendered rap piece all about a guy who falls asleep on the sidewalk and wakes up to an angel and then the cops come and try to take him away. All of us listen. It was actually pretty impressive.
“So, where can we get you,” says officer Friendlier after the rap performance. “Do you want to go to the shelter?”
“Albany Med,” says Ben.
“You want to go to the hospital?” I say in surprise. I look at Officer Friendlier. “Do you?” He asks, taking his com into his hand. “Yeh,” says Ben. “I got diabetes. I don’t feel great.” “They’ll get you some food,” I say. “Yeh,” says Ben. “And juice.”
I look at Officer Friendlier, silently imploring him to get on with calling for an ambulance. Ben’s moods and fancies are a little mercurial right now, and it seems important that we get him loaded on his way to safety before he changes his mind. At Long last, Officer Friendlier makes the call, and now we just need to entertain Ben to keep him from changing his mind before the ambulance arrives.
Ben does another rap for us. This one is about running back and forth across a street at night with police in pursuit, almost getting hit by cars.
We wait. And we wait and we wait. Ben stands up and starts to walk away. “Where you going,” I ask. “Your chariot is gonna be here shortly.” “No cops,” says Ben, and he glares at Officer Less-Than on his way past. “Wait,” says Officer Friendlier. Ben keeps walking. Officer Less-Than takes this personally, and he whips around to grab hold of Ben, and Ben is clearly affronted. I get really scared, imagining it’s all gonna come apart right here in a hail of bullets and a news story blaming Ben. “We’re not arresting you or anything, you’re not in trouble,” Officer Friendlier says to Ben, also reminding Officer Less-Than. “They’re gonna give you dinner and a warm bed at Albany Med” I remind Ben, “And juice,” says Ben. “And juice,” I say. Ben comes back and sits down. We wait some more.
“Where’s that freaking ambulance?” I ask. Officer Friendlier says it’s coming. We wait some more. Ben begins rocking ominously.
Suddenly, sirens and flashing red lights pierce the night. Not just one ambulance, but a fire truck and a hook and ladder and an ambulance all come screeching up. “Whoa,” I say, looking at Ben. Ben is outraged by the ostentatiousness of this display. “What the Fuck!” he Booms. “I think that’s your chariot,” I say. “I am NOT going in that,” declares Ben the dog.
A lot of people get out of these vehicles, and after a round of introductions and explanations, they begin jovially trying to talk to Ben the Dog. It’s quickly ascertained that Ben is intoxicated. “And I have diabetes,” he says. “Will they give me food at Albany Med?” “Yes,” says a paramedic. “I don’t want to go,” says Ben. He underlines his seriousness about this by lunging again to his feet and lurching out into the street. A car barely misses him, mainly only because a paramedic has reached a muscular arm out and grabbed Ben by the shirt, hauling him ashore just in the nick of time. “I’m leaving,” says Ben. “No, you’re not,” says the paramedic. “No cops,” says Ben. He lunges around the knot of paramedics and again tries to walk away. “Nope,” says the paramedic, stepping into his path. Ben is surrounded again.
“We can’t let you go now,” says the paramedic with the arm. “We just watched you walk right in front of a car. You’re intoxicated…”
“Yes,” interjects Ben.
“Yes,” says the paramedic, “and we can’t let you go. You’re a threat to your own safety. We’re medically liable for you.” Officers Friendlier and Less-Than look at each other and start breaking blue, latex gloves out of their pockets, peeling them onto their hands.
“I’m leaving,” reiterates Ben. “No cops.” He steps to the left and tries to flank the knot of uniforms. “Nope,” says a paramedic. Everyone surrounds Ben. Ben starts to bellow.
“NO COPS! I’M NOT GOING. GET AWAY.”
“Hey Ben,” I say. “Whatcha gonna get for dinner up at Albany Med?”
“Juice,” says Ben. He grins.
“We’ll get you some juice,” says a paramedic. “Let’s get you in the ambulance.”
“NO!” Bellows Ben. “Can I get a cigarette?”
“I don’t smoke,” I say. He asks Officer Less-Than for a cigarette.
“Nope,” says officer Less-Than. “Get in the ambulance.”
“No cops!” Yells Ben.
“If I can get you a cigarette will you get in the ambulance?” I ask. He says he will.
I look at Officer Friendlier with raised brows. He shrugs. I rush into my building, hoping my downstairs neighbor, Frank, is home and has a cigarette. He is, and he does. He steps out with a cigarette, looks down the sidewalk at Ben in the cluster of cops and paramedics, and says, “I know that guy.” He tells me that Ben the Dog is a regular at AA. “I think he fell off the wagon,” I say. “He does that,” says Frank.
“Frankie boy!” beams Ben. Frank gives Ben a cigarette. “What happened there,” says Frank, indicating all the cops and vehicles and hullabaloo. “Ah, don’t judge me, man” growls Ben.
“Let’s get you into the ambulance,” says a paramedic.
But Ben isn’t going anywhere until he’s had his cigarette. “Gimme a light!” He Booms. Frank lights the cigarette. Ben smokes it, eyeing the paramedics. They eye him back. “Don’t you stand there and judge me,” Ben snarls at Frank. “I’m not judging you,” says Frank. Ben smokes in silence.
“Nope,” says the paramedic with the arm, as he reaches out and grabs Ben by the lapel.
“Nope,” says officer Less-Than, who grabs Ben by one arm with his blue, latexed fingers.
“No cops!” Shouts Ben.
“Nope,” says officer Friendlier, grabbing Ben by the other arm.
Ben struggles a little, and I’m worried for him again. “Hey Ben,” I say. “Remember when you promised to get into the ambulance if I got you a cigarette?”
“No cops,” says Ben.
“You promised,” I say. “I got you a cigarette, you smoked it, now you need to get in the ambulance. You promised.”
“Get in the ambulance,” says Frank soothingly.
“They have juice,” I add.
“Cmon, buddy,” says Officer Friendlier. “Time to get in the ambulance.”
Ben looks over at me. “Are you an angel?” He asks.
“Let’s get you some juice now,” says a paramedic, who has brought over a stretcher.
“I have to go on that?” Asks Ben.
“It’s how we do it,” says the paramedic.
“They’ll get you juice,” I say.
Ben looks dubious about it, but miraculously, he climbs meekly onto the proffered stretcher, and lets them strap him in. I was proud of him for that last part. I’d kinda expected him to kick up a fuss about that part. There was one more moment of upset when something happened in the ambulance causing everyone some consternation. I couldn’t see inside at that point, but I saw the ambulance rocking and one of the cops ran over and jumped inside and stayed there. He rode with Ben to the hospital and the other one followed in a squad car. Later, after Ben was safely deposited at Albany Med for some juice and a night’s sleep, the cops came back together to get the other patrol car.
But the story isn’t over yet. Two things happened after.
Post Script I
The first is that I asked Officer Friendlier if he had a card or anything. He did not. So I asked for his name because, well, let me be clear here. I have skipped over a lot of details, so it might not be apparent in the story so far, but Officer Friendlier really did go way above and beyond the usual call of duty during this incident. He exercised patience, a mindful attention to his own body language, and gentle crisis management skills that are rare among law enforcement officers. I have been a police accountability advocate, and have seen a lot of really shitty police behavior over the years, and have made it a point to get the names and badge numbers of abusive officers in order to report their behavior and seek accountability for it. I had never encountered an officer whose behavior toward a vulnerable, intoxicated homeless person was so respectful, so non-aggressive and non-reactive. It seemed only fair that I get his name for that, too, maybe get him some recognition for the job he’d just done.
But as I asked for his name, my eyes traveled, for the first time, to the name tag embroidered on his shirt, and at the exact same time that he said his name, my eyes were reading it on his shirt: Officer Kidman (all the names in this story are changed a little, but the details are all true.) He grinned at the stunned expression on my face. Apparently, he’d recognized me way before I recognized him. I’m not that great with faces I’ve only seen once or twice, and I’d only seen his once before. But I sure did remember his name. My eyes shot back up to his face to make sense of this. “No WAY,” I say to his spreading grin. “You were TERRIBLE last time we met.” And he was.
“Terrible,” I reiterate, shaking my head at the juxtaposition of that memory with this incident.
My last run-in with the rookie officer Kidman resulted in an unexpected windfall for me and a required training for every officer in the city. But first, before the windfall and the vindication, it had been really stressful and hurtful to me. Back in October, I’d gone into a local pub to meet some friends, and I got attacked by a bouncer there because he was a mesomorphic thug who did not understand the law regarding service dogs. He’d demanded “paperwork” on my dog and when I told him I was not required to have any paperwork, in fact there is no such thing as a service dog registry (contrary to persistent rumor), and that it was illegal for him to request such documents, he assaulted me. He twisted my arms and tore my clothes and tried to wrestle me out the door. Police responded, and astonishingly, they too were confoundingly ignorant of the law according to the Americans with Disabilities Act. Officer Kidman had come, along with another officer. The other officer had been far worse, but Officer Kidman had told me, on video, that the bouncer had had the right to demand paperwork on my dog and to deny us access, “because it’s a venue that does not normally allow pets.”
None of the officers took seriously the fact that the bouncer literally assaulted me. It was pretty traumatic for me, and the cops made it even worse with their ignorance. I’m Irish, though, and I don’t take such things lying down, so the encounter did eventually result in the firing of the bouncer, reprimands for the officers, a requirement that the entire police department be trained on service dog access laws and the Americans with Disabilities Act, a formal apology to me, and payment of damages to me. It was a nice windfall, even if a rotten way to have to earn it.
“Wow…” I say. “So, uh, you’ve had some training since then.”
He continues to grin, a genuine smile.
“Well you did a really good job tonight,” I say. “That was some impressive crisis management.”
“Thanks,” he says. “We’re not all bad, contrary to what …people think.”
“Yes,” I say. “I’m aware that there are a few good apples in the Orchard.”
“Just a few?” He asks.
“In my experience. That really was some good crisis management, though. Not usual.”
“Thanks,” he says.
“I’ll write to your supervisor,” I offer. “Let em know you’ve redeemed yourself.”
“I’d appreciate that,” he laughs. (And I actually did write to his supervisor the following day to commend his crisis intervention skills.)
So that was the first thing that happened after Ben the Dog got loaded into the ambulance. I found out that Officer Friendlier had once been Officer Not So Great, back before the reprimands and mandated training. He seems like a decent person after all.
Post Script II
The second thing wasn’t as funny. It concerns finding out who kicked Ben the Dog. And like I said, I’d had my suspicions about this, though I hoped that I was wrong. I wasn’t, though.
The description had sounded immediately like my upstairs neighbor, Jim. He’s the only tall, skinny white dude in my building. The other boys are regular sized, and half of us are women. I didn’t want to believe it could be him, because Jim has been really sweet to me. He’s a funny one. Nervous and jittery, sometimes irritable, Jim is on a very different arm of the political spectrum from me or anyone I’m usually friends with. In fact, we go out to clubs together a lot, and we’ve nearly come to blows before over political arguments after too many pints. But Jim surprised me by turning out to also be kind and compassionate and generous.
Last fall, I was going through some hard times. I’d just dumped a loser ex, the one alluded to above, who was still stalking around, threatening my well being. I was so stressed out by it all that I’d stopped eating for awhile and had thrown myself into painting. I wasn’t doing well for part of the winter.
One day Jim came down to my door with a plate of food. Vegetarian pasta, asparagus spears, a whole wheat roll, and a huge wheel of watermelon. “I was wondering if you were hungry,” he’d said, holding out the plate. In fact, I WAS hungry. Really hungry. I’d only sold one painting all month, so my cupboards were pretty bare, and the stress of September had left me not thinking to eat much. I’d gotten thinner and thinner. And suddenly, here was this mouth-watering plate of food. My eyes got wide.
“Thank you,” I said gratefully.
“I just wanted you to eat,” said Jim, “Cuz… you haven’t been eating.” And he indicated my emaciated form with a wave of his hand.
So Jim has been sweet and thoughtful to me. For months, every time he went to the store, he’d bring me an apple and an orange and a couple of bananas. Once, he came over to watch a movie and noticed that the socks I was wearing had holes in them. The next day, I found a bag full of new socks hanging from my doorknob, with a note from him on the bag telling me he noticed I needed socks and saw some at the store so he picked them up for me.
I got embarrassed by the largesse. I told him to spend his resources on himself. But he just wanted to make sure I wasn’t starving down here in holey socks. I gave him a painting of mine that he liked. Solidarity and mutual aid.
So I know this sweet side of Jim, and that’s why I didn’t want him to be the one who had kicked Ben the Dog. But I was afraid that he was, in fact, the perpetrator. Because I also know another side of Jim. I suspect that life hasn’t been great to him, and he has a defensive demeanor that seems rooted in a lot of fear. Afraid of other people, afraid of unfamiliarity, afraid of life, and I already mentioned the psychological reality of fear-based aggression… I’ve seen Jim get mean to people he doesn’t know. God I’d hoped this wasn’t him… but it was.
Jim came wandering up the street shortly after Ben the Dog was taken away. Frank and I were still out there on the stoop. “Hey you aren’t the person who kicked the dude who was sleeping on the futon out here by chance, were you?” I saw no point in beating around the bush.
Jim’s face darkened. “That guy? Aw, he better be gone,” he said, quickly scanning the pile of detritus along the curb.
“Dude,” I said, saddened. “You can’t just kick people. Why would you think that’s all right?”
“I didn’t kick anyone,” he said defensively. “I just nudged him with my foot to wake him up, to tell him to get on his way.” Jim underlined the action that he took by miming an undeniable kick which he nevertheless referred to as a nudge. “That’s a kick,” I said. “You kicked him. Not cool.”
Suddenly, everything is immediately uncomfortable. Jim feels put on the spot. I feel uncomfortable about calling him out, and disappointed in him as a person. These things would be so much easier if they could be just black and white. But they rarely are. Jim gets more defensive. He begins to stammer angrily about how “this is our home” and how “people like that” wreck the neighborhood and “don’t belong” here. And I’m torn. I can see him getting upset. He feels judged. I know him well enough to be able to feel the internal angst beneath the anger, the pain and fear of rejection that seem to be a defining feature of his character. This situation is confusing to him, and our judgment is hurting him. I’m torn because in a way I want to protect him from that pain in the same way that I’d wanted to protect Ben the Dog from the pain Jim had caused him. But a bigger part of me felt it was necessary and important that Jim recognize that what he had done was wrong. It was unjust. It was illegal. And it was immoral. I wanted him to see that. For the sake of Ben the Dog. For the sake of all people struggling with poverty. For the sake of humanity. For the sake of Jim’s soul. I really just wanted him to understand.
“Jim, you don’t own the sidewalk,” I say. “There are lots of things that go on out here that irritate me. Those dudes who go by in that pod of really loud motorcycles, for instance. Or the loud, drunken frat boys all having the same inane conversation that all drunken frat boys have been having since 2004. The God dude who calls women ‘Jezebels’ and told me I can’t be saved. Just a lotta people in the world we gotta make room for. We don’t just go around kicking people and telling them they can’t be here. Because this is, you know… it’s the world out here…. Why did you feel entitled to kick that guy, just because he was poor?”
“I didn’t kick him,” Insists Jim, who totally did kick him.
“You laid hands on him. Well a foot. You know you can’t just go up to people and do that. It’s assault. You know that when it comes to anyone else, right? Why did you think it was different for him?”
“I was just trying to wake him up. You can’t just sleep on the sidewalk,” says Jim angrily. “This is our home. I come out of my own building, and here’s this guy, thinking he can just sleep on the sidewalk.”
“Some people don’t have anywhere else to go,” I say. “It doesn’t make them less human.”
“Well he can’t sleep here. You can’t just let people do that. You start that, next thing there’s garbage out here, and crime, and all kinds of mess.”
“Assaulting someone, for instance, is a crime,” I say. “It’s hard to find a place to sleep when you’re homeless. It’s not cool to harass someone for that. Everyone has to sleep.” And then I tell him. I was homeless for awhile. It’s not easy. You’re not less human. And people shouldn’t get to feel entitled to push you around and assault you and tell you that you, unlike everyone else, don’t get to exist in public places.
“It’s true,” says Frank. “People without homes are still people.”
Jim sputters angrily,unable to comprehend why we don’t just see, he was merely trying to protect us all, and our property, from the scourge of crime and urban blight. I can see a wall going up between us. Jim has the world sorted into Friend and Foe, Us and Them, and the first category is much smaller and more fluid than the second. Suddenly he’s confused about where Frank and I belong. His face darkens again. He turns to go inside. “I didn’t kick him,” he mutters, and he disappears into the building.
Frank and I stand out on the stoop awhile, digesting the evening. I’m elated that Ben the Dog will have found safe haven and some juice by now up at Albany Med. But Jim is weighing heavily on my mind. Kicking a homeless person is such a dick move, and Jim’s salvation as a human being seems dependent upon getting him to realize that. But Jim’s world has already been whittled down so much, reduced to a very thin layer of people who haven’t hurt him in this life, surrounding his core and kept there to protect his fragile ego from all the people who have hurt him or probably will. And as much as I dislike the misguided sense of entitlement that led him to attack someone even more vulnerable than himself, I feel for Jim, too. Maybe I’m wrong about the thoughts I’ve put into his head, but I feel like I can look right in and see them there. And they look sad and hurt and rejected and alone. Sigh.
I go into our building and climb the three flights of stairs to Jim’s room. I knock on his door, and we talk. “I don’t hate you or anything,” I say to Jim, who looked like he thought I did at first. “It’s just, well it wasn’t a cool thing to do, and I couldn’t believe you were the one to do such a thing.”
“All I did was tell a vagrant he couldn’t just flop in front of my home,” Jim began.
“Yes. I know that’s how you see this,” I responded. “And what makes this so hard is that I see it differently. To me, that was a douchey thing to do, and I know you’re not that person. I know who you really are. You’re not the kind of classist bully who goes around kicking people when they’re down. You’re a decent, compassionate, caring person who brought me food all winter when I needed it.”
Jim looked a little taken aback. “Yeah,” he finally interjected. “See, I don’t just go around kicking homeless people.”
“Well, and see, the fact that you’re not the kind of person who would normally do something like that is what makes it so hard for me to accept that this was you, and that you can’t see what was wrong with it. I want you to take all that compassion you showed toward me, all the compassion and empathy that you have for people you know, and imagine showing that to the guy you didn’t know,” I say, grasping at straws. “He was cold and tired and intoxicated and just needed a place to lie down. He wasn’t trying to threaten your sense of the world. He just needed to lie down.”
“Well he shouldn’t have been doing it here,” said Jim stubbornly.
“Why not?” I ask. “Where should he be? He had to be somewhere, and this is where he was.”
Jim sighs. Finally, he says, “All I did was walk outta the building and ask a vagrant not to sleep in front of my house. Now everybody hates me.”
“Nobody hates you,” I say. “We don’t hate you. We want you to find your better angel. To be the person you are to us… to be that person to our neighbors out here on the street too.”
Jim is unwilling to acknowledge aloud that he kicked Ben the Dog, but we both know he did. I’m not gonna make him cry Uncle. He doesn’t have to admit this out loud, so long as he sees it inside, and, he does. “I used to be homeless for awhile,” I reiterate, knowing that he likes and respects me, and the way to connect a person’s empathy for strangers is to run it through the wiring we have for those we care about, in the same way that Ben the Dog’s Romeo-like nuzzling into the futon had opened my heart to him earlier. “It’s really hard to find a place to sleep when you’re homeless, ” I say. “People hassle you everywhere you go, tell you that you can’t sleep there no matter where you are. And it’s dangerous. They rob you, they …assault you….”
I can see Jim turning this over in his thoughts.
“You never know someone else’s story,” I say. “Everyone deserves some basic respect.” And I think Jim is working through this in his mind, too. He’s not going to say so right now. It’s too new, too fresh a hole in the wall between himself and the world, but I could see him pondering this, and I think Ben the Dog is making us all better people for having run into him that night. He does deserve some basic respect. And Jim deserves some basic respect, too – the right to start where he is, and the privacy and freedom to grow from there. So I remind Jim that we’re all friends, and climb down to my own room on the floor below, so that we can all consider the lessons of the night.
“Are you an angel?”
Maybe some day.