On Sunday afternoon, I saw something on my five-mile run that angered me enough to write here about it. I was two miles into my run on the Greenway, a near 100 mile, 8 foot wide trail built all through Northern Georgia in pieces over the last fifteen years. The trail is always populated by strollers, bikes, rollerbladers, runners, joggers, and walkers. I’ve never gone for a run and been alone. It’s got a great family vibe and you see people of all fitness levels and walks of life. The 2.5 mile section I run on traces through heavy woods right next to a stream and over and under some bridges. There’s nothing to not like about it. I even see rabbits crossing the trail sometimes.
I generally half-notice half-ignore others on the trail as I’m usually trying to improve on my time from my last run or I’m forcing myself to double back for a bit to add distance. And then again, after so many trees, it’s hard to not notice whom I pass. So this weekend, I saw the most unique person yet on the path. I passed an obviously mentally ill homeless man making his way down the path, preaching at a volume fit for a small audience. However, I found anything but off-putting or intimidating. He was just doing his thing. He was walking the other way with a pillow and a Target shopping back full of possessions stuffed under one arm. His wind pants were ripped open from the knees down, blowing in the breeze as he walked. This young black man was probably in his thirties with a recent shave, and looked pleasant enough, but very out of place on the path. No one I saw passing exchanged understanding looks or stares. We just all went about our business.
With not much more to think about on my run but this novel sighting, I wondered what it is that makes the mentally ill preach. I wonder if they have no one to question for their plight but God, and it sends them in an endless loop. I wondered if they always try to think themselves out of their condition as I had at one hard time in my life when I couldn’t get my head right. I got to the end of the trail and started to make my way back the other 2.5 miles, wondering what the moment would be like if I said hello when I passed him on my way back. Feet gently crushing the sand and occasional leaves beneath my soles, I also thought it strange for this man to be ambulating through a family path in suburbia. Shouldn’t he be down in the city?
And then my pleasant wondering was completely ruined by a paranoid bitch. I was running toward this woman at a 90 degree angle nearing the point where the path connects to itself again as it loops back. I had the chance to collect most of her conversation, and what I heard was this fat pony-tailed mother huffing behind her stroller and describing the homeless man in detail to the police. I was so disappointed. And somehow I wasn’t surprised.
I am not one hundred percent sure that man was harmless, but I can say that he was causing no trouble. I am very sure we pass criminals all the time in aisles in the store and stand behind them in lines and sit in front of them in traffic. Most of them probably look just like us.
This woman called the police because she felt tainted. Not threatened. We fear what we do not understand. And we protect and defend ourselves from the Other. Here I was curious how this man came to be walking the path on the same afternoon that we all had. I was curious how he felt when he preached… how it functioned for him. I was curious where he’d learned the biblical references I recognized. Perhaps I am the minority. The tenth thing on my mind was fear of the unknown. I had so much to wonder about first. Mental illness seems so misunderstood and so threatening to most. And it’s so obviously isolating to those that endure it… to the point that some live alone and under the sky.
I’m no hero. I didn’t stop anything from happening or step in to protect this man’s dignity or tell the paranoid woman how I felt, but I’m really put off. She didn’t need to call the cops. What a waste of their time. There was no crime to report. Someone brought everything he owned and a pillow to the Greenway and made his way from one end to other just like everyone else. That’s all. The most threatening thing on the trail on Sunday was this woman, no doubt about it.