How The Mad Man Shops

Lately I’m having a lot of thoughts about people who—by virtue of finding themselves homeless, mentally unstable, or dealing with addiction—live outside of mainstream culture—in our peripheral vision, you might say. Of course many people choose to structure their life around the edges of society, but I’m not thinking about them. It’s the people who have come to be there through the force of illness or poverty who have been on my mind.

I should clarify that the thoughts I’m having aren’t of the charitable, or hand-wringing sort typical of the dialogues that are often held around people who fall into this category.

I want to know about the boring stuff.

Because even when your life has been cut down by tragedy, and things are at their lowest ebb, chances are your days still have their share of the routine.

How does someone in this position experience the routine, though?

The other day I was sitting on the train when a man I’d wager to be mentally ill came and sat down across from me. He had several bags full of groceries and a nearly full cup of coffee, which he placed on the lid of the small bin attached below the window. I was unnerved initially by him, and then by this full cup of coffee sitting about 10 cm away from my leg as I waited for the train to start moving again. He made eye contact with me as he approached the seat and it seemed every time I looked in his direction (straight ahead, incidentally) his eyes flicked back to mine and held them with an intensity—with a sort of grip–that alone might suggest that the man sitting across from me was in fact living in another reality entirely.

With great, laboured sighs and a touch of agitation he spent the first minute or two stretching his arms and finding some higher-up rail to latch onto, as though to definitively claim his territory on the train in defiance of it’s tight little spaces and meanly sealed doors.

The more I became aware of him, the more I wanted to get a look at what was inside his grocery bags. Normally, I’m not especially curious about such things, but I became more and more intrigued by the question of what The Wild Man eats for dinner?

What kind of toilet paper does he use? Does he like juice? If so, does he drink it for health reasons, or for taste? How about beer? Would he buy frozen vegetables or fresh? If he buys frozen ones is that because those are what his mom bought? Or is it because he doesn’t really know how to prepare fresh vegetables? Maybe he just has a recipe that calls for frozen broccoli…..he could be quite a gourmand. It’s all possible; he is unknown to me.

After a few stops I became aware of the fact that, as he scanned lazily from one side to the other, he was muttering something to himself. I only wish that I spoke enough German to know what he was saying. I then began to wonder if he ever finds it strange that the people around him aren’t talking to themselves as well? Of course he may not be aware of that, or maybe he perceives his conversations with himself as being no different from another person’s conversation with someone else.

A day or so later, as I was leaving the train station, I received the attention of a group of Inebriated Unfortunates. Between the German and the effects of alcohol on a person’s ability to enunciate it was difficult to determine what, exactly they were saying to me, but it seemed to relate to the politics of my hemline. The following day as I approached the station, I kept an eye out for my style-followers so as to avoid walking too close by them. I then saw that they were sitting on a different curb than where they’d sat the day before.

There was quite a number of them—a dozen or so—which got me thinking: each day when they’re arriving at the train station to drink and sit and see their friends, who decides which curb they’ll sit on? Is it simply a matter of who shows up first? Is there an element of politics or taste around it? Like, ‘Ulrika always gets everyone to go sit on the curb that faces Max-Brauer Allee because she likes the sun exposure there, but Hans likes to set up on the low wall nearest the entrance because it’s nearer the kiosk with the cheapest beer.’ Why one curb one day and not the other? Why not always sit on the same curb? Is it variety or circumstance? What drives these little choices in an existence that seems barely to hang on?

If you spend the bulk of your day, everyday, sitting on a curb, you must develop some level of preference—some thoughts about the place. Even if you’re drunk the whole time; if you’re making it back there everyday—even if, ostensibly, it’s for the company—you must develop associations with that place and attendant preferences, and—I would think—behave in the natural human way of trying to assert your preferences over those of the people around you. Could it be that in a life so wretched as one directed by mental illness or substance abuse, a great dignity could lie in the assertion of self made in choosing a brand of milk?

I remember when I was growing up, there was a home in the neighborhood where a bunch of people with Down’s Syndrome lived with in-house ‘carers’. We used to see them walking along the sidewalk, each wearing the same jacket—my mom and I would get so pissed off. Sure, they couldn’t care sufficiently for themselves to live alone—but did their identities have to be so entirely sublimated into this Special Care Home? Did their care have to become so industrialized as to make them into standardized units? In spite of the fact that their quality of life must have been greatly improved by living in such a place, what kind of trade-off was being made by losing their agency in these, the smallest of concerns?

Is it better to be someone whose best chance at a quality of life requires him to sublimate his identity into the safety of a whole? Or better to have nowhere to go but anywhere you want?
……oh dear.

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