In advance: This is rambling, maybe incoherent, and incredibly self-absorbed. In a lot of ways I wrote this to work out some issues that were bugging me. I didn’t work them out, but this is what I wrote.

She was one of the prettiest homeless girls I had ever seen.

I
was in the Hollywood McDonald’s, just like an hour ago (and no, there
was no good reason to be there. I was about to hop a subway home to the
Valley and wanted to eat before I did. I had better options, and I
haven’t had McDonald’s in a while, nor craved it. But for some reason
those yellow arches just next to the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not museum,
just steps down from Sting’s star on the Walk of Fame, called out to me
tonight). The Hollywood McDonald’s is pretty shitty; I’ve been to other
gimmick location McDonald’s and found them nicer. The Wall Street
McDonald’s has (or had, at any rate. In this economy who knows…) a
doorman, an old fashioned paper stock ticker AND a guy playing piano.
The Hollywood McDonald’s feels like a remnant of the Hollywood I wish I
had been here to see, the rundown and shady Hollywood (well, more run
down and shady at any rate), the West Coast’s answer to Times Square
(the Times Square McDonald’s has a weird diorama of New York City on
the second floor. Check it out sometime). The only concession to
‘Hollywood’ is a series of large black and white photos of stars: Grace
Kelly near the bathroom, Sidney Poitier and Julia Roberts in the far
back right corner.

She was sitting under Poitier, or rather
sleeping. The security guard (this is one of those McDonald’s that has
24 hour security, not just some teenager playing manager) came over and
woke her up. ‘You can’t sleep here,’ he said.

‘I’m not sleeping,’ she lied through obvious eye boogers. ‘I’m waiting for somebody.’

‘You’re going to have to wait somewhere else.’

In
every single  big city in America this scene played out tonight. I’ve
seen it a hundred times; growing up in a big city means that you get
pretty familiar with the faces and scenarios of the lowest people
living there. The people who order a coffee because it’s the cheapest
thing on the menu and they need a place to sit for eight hours until
they have to find the next place to sit for eight hours. The people who
do what little washing they do in fast food restrooms, the kind of
restrooms where you need to ask for the key and it comes on a huge
piece of wood or something. The people who are nobody.

You get
familiar with them and you also ignore them. And more than ignore them
you kind of come to hate them. These people are disgusting. And I don’t
just mean that in the physical sense, but that’s certainly true as
well. These people – the people sleeping on major boulevards, the
people shitting on subway train floors (I have seen this happen more
than once in my life), the people nodding off at McDonald’s not because
they’re tired but because they just fired a load of smack into their
veins, these people are disgusting. They’re disgusting because of what
they represent. They’re disgusting because they’re the living face of
failure.



And failure’s the worst thing there is, at least in this society. This
town is a good example of just how that works: in Hollywood you can do
anything, say anything, hurt anyone, as long as you are successful.
There are the old stories of stars of the 40s getting into terrible
accidents and the studios covering it up. I can tell you that these
stories aren’t a thing of the past. That shit goes on today. For the
successful ones, anyway.



That’s a tangent. The point is that when you live in a big city your
whole life you get to know these faces, and you learn how to skip over
them as you commute to work or as you go to a nice place for dinner.
The other day I was on Vine Street and to my immediate left was a
homeless person sleeping in a doorway, and to my immediate right was a
stretch Hummer with a jacuzzi in the back. That’s some Paul
Haggis-level extremism there, but it’s real. And everybody walked past
both the homeless person and the Hummer without a second glance. You
get used to this stuff.



But every now and again you’ll find one that breaks through. I’ve had a
couple. There was a lady out on the street with kids. Another was an
old, battered man with his equally old, battered dog. When I was a kid
there was a homeless Vietnam vet near the Union Turnpike E train
station who would snap salutes at people who gave him money. Tonight it
was a girl with a really pretty face.



She had long black hair, and it looked pretty clean. But it was obvious
that she was not living in the best of circumstances. All she had was a
messenger bag, and she wore baggy sweatpants and a flannel shirt too
big for her. Her head floated out of it, and her face was heart shaped
and pretty, with big eyes from which she was still rubbing the sleep. I
was sitting a few tables down, reading the New Yorker and listening to
my iPod and eating a meal I really, really did not need to be eating,
and after the security guard walked away our eyes sort of met.



I guess that’s what made her come over to me. ‘Hey,’ she said. ‘Do you have a dollar?’



I’m not even sure why I’m writing this, but I guess it’s because of
this moment, this little moment of encounter. I’ve been asked for lots
of dollars in my time. Most of the time I’ll ignore the request, as
though I had been suddenly and momentarily struck deaf and blind. Other
times, when I’m in the mood, I’ll shrug and say, ‘Sorry, got nothing.’
A couple of times I’ve given money. I realize I’m sounding pretty
heartless here, and I guess that’s sort of why I’m writing this piece,
because I’m struggling with that heartlessness. I’ve done charity work
– I worked in the non-profit sector for ten years before joining CHUD
full time – but no matter how many food banks I’ve been a part of in
the past, no matter how much fundraising I’ve done before, the relevant
thing is that I usually, almost always say no.



This time I actually dug for the dollar. I didn’t have any money on me
– I almost never use cash any more – but I really looked. Disappointed,
the girl wandered back to her table. She didn’t ask anyone else in the
McDonald’s for money, and left as I left. I turned right on Hollywood
Boulevard, she turned left.



Why did I look for the money? It was because she was pretty. Even as I
did it, I knew why I was doing it, but there was even more weirdness
bubbling under the surface.



I mean, you treat pretty people differently than you treat ugly people.
Even ugly people do it; it’s a natural thing, and it’s the evolutionary
advantage of being good looking. There’s a part of my lizard brain that
automatically responds to all good looking people differently than
other people; sometimes I feel like I’m dealing with a higher being.
That could be simple self esteem, but in my line of work I have met
some of the most beautiful people in the world, and there’s just an
inexplicable magnetism about them.



But under that, beneath that, was something else. Something that has
haunted every single decision I have ever made in my life (and maybe
something I should have mentioned earlier in this piece. I’m sort of
interested in writing this as freeform as possible, not giving myself
lots of opportunities to puss out or hide behind snark, so I likely
won’t go back and edit the opening to include an intro to this concept.
Bad writing!): I see everything like it’s a movie.



This isn’t a psychopathic thing. I don’t believe I’m in a movie. As far
as I know I’m fully aware of reality and it’s pain and drudgery. But my
brain has been permanently altered; not by drugs, not by booze, but by
cumulative YEARS spent watching movies. Movies and their conventions
color almost all of my perceptions; I’m pretty sure that my personal
happiness has been thwarted on more than one occasion by ideas of love
formed by movies (and music. Also a dangerous influence).



So while my brain is processing the encounter with this girl in a real
world way (which includes a certain amount of hard edged big city
cynicism – is this the prelude to a theft, for instance?) there’s
another level that’s happening. All of a sudden this girl is Ally
Sheedy in Breakfast Club. All of a sudden – and literally in the space
of nanoseconds – I’ve constructed an entire back story for this girl,
one that begins with her being a small town high school prom queen with
a dark, abusive home life no one knows about and ends with her here,
not yet as fully debased as a girl this pretty can be in a town this
ugly, but right on the edge of it. She’s waiting for someone and he’s
going to put her in a Bang Bus movie or he’s going to pimp her out to
some Middle Eastern business men or he’s going to kill her just because
he can and nobody will care. All of these movies rush through my head.
And in some of them I’m the hero. I’m the guy who shows her the moment
of kindness that changes her life. I’m the guy who talks with her in a
way that nobody else will and there’s a bond that eventually turns into
something more meaningful (and don’t get me wrong here – I’m not
looking to pick up homeless girls at McDonald’s. My love life right now
is actually fairly complicated and stupid, and I think adding a
homeless girl into the mix would be even more romantically
self-destructive than I usually am). Maybe she’s Zooey Deschanel and it
isn’t that she’s homeless or in the early days of a serious drug
addiction but she got swindled and someone stole all of her clothes
when she was changing at the youth hostel.



Just in case the movies in my brain weren’t complete enough, George
Harrison’s Bangla Desh, the ex-Beatles’ pained cry to help those less
fortunate, was playing in my iPod ear buds. That might fly over the
heads of the general audience who isn’t familiar with his solo stuff,
but maybe a Sundance crowd would find the juxtaposition painfully
obvious.



The truth of her story will remain a mystery to me, and I’ll never be
in any of those movies. Maybe if I was a screenwriter I’d be sitting
here right now banging out one of those films, using the scene as a
meet cute or as the opening of a thriller (a spiritual sequel to
Schrader’s Hardcore, maybe). I think I’m glad I’m not a screenwriter,
because what’s bothering me right now, and what I wouldn’t want to bury
under the pages of a generic script, is the feeling that I failed this
person. Maybe for once my stupid movie-influenced instincts were right,
and I should have talked to her. Maybe I should have ignored my own
second guessing – you’re only being helpful because she’s pretty. If
she was scabby and gap toothed and filthy you’d ignore her – and told
her that while I didn’t have cash I’d be happy to get her a burger or a
coffee or something.



Every time one of these unfortunate people gets through to me I feel like this.
I feel the combined, cumulative weight of all the sleeping bodies I’ve
stepped over, all the people I’ve briskly ignored as I went about my
day. Today I spent 30 dollars on new headphones; some of those people
will be scrambling to get their hands on 30 dollars total this week.
You can’t feel every face every day, you can’t let all that suffering
into your life. Or at least you can’t do that and keep your life going;
you can’t do that and play video games or Twitter about exploitation
films or shell out money for art prints based on nerd obsessions. If you felt every face you’d spend all day doing everything you could to help these people.



Like I said, I did non-profit work for a decade; for a while I thought
I was helping people but over time the disillusionment became too
strong. By the end of my non-profit run I was the writer/editor for a
major statewide group that was a large lobbying presence in the state
capitol, but for all of the work we did I realized most was bullshit
and compromised. The only time I had ever felt like anything I did was
making a difference was when I was a low paid field activist, working
in poor communities, starting community gardens and running afterschool
programs. Not lobbying to get those things happening, not mounting ten
thousand person protests to change policy. Being next to someone,
showing a little kindness and humanity to them. That was the only thing
that mattered.



And tonight I didn’t do it. And tonight I failed someone. And tonight I failed myself.

My cinema-altered brain doesn’t know what kind of movie to make that.