Writers will often tell you that details are a subtle but vital way to sustain reader interest. The trouble is, you need to know which details are meaningful and which are boring. The precise color of Merlot in the summer sun, for example, is probably boring, but a comparison between storm clouds and the froth on boiling beans probably isn’t. The other thing with details is that you need to keep track of them, ensure sure they make sense together. I was reminded of this recently by an elderly homeless man. To picture this elderly homeless man, you could envision any manner of hunched over, wizened Vietnam vet. The important detail, though, is to combine the rambling, excessive thoroughness of an old man with all the bullshit of a used car salesman.
I met this particular bum in the Castro District. The weather was nice and my gentleman friend and I decided eating nachos and drinking beer in a local park was God’s plan for us. I suppose I should stop right now to make it clear this isn’t a tale of Dude, I wanted to go eat nachos and this poor person was all dirty and poor and stuff. I’m willing to admit that homeless people are inherently kind of a bummer, but womp, womp, womp is not the sum of this essay’s total. The old man began his story by explaining that he hated doing this, but that he needed some help. I immediately sensed I was going to hate it too, but I left it at, “Oh?”
The old man continued, saying that he and his wife had lived in Harrisonberg, Virginia for thirty-six years and recently decided to move to Mountain View, California. Mountain View, if you’re unaware, is in Silicon Valley and home to a variety of tech businesses, including Google. The old man said that because of his stroke a few years back, he was unable to lift anything heavy.
He paused and looked at us. Did the old man want us to help him move furniture? I hoped not. I hate moving furniture, even for people I like. As I started to think of an excuse, he continued on, telling me how his daughter and son-in-law offered to help them move because they also lived in California. The old man said things went fine and that he decided to thank his daughter and son-in-law by taking everyone to visit San Francisco for the weekend. Do you want to know what time their train left? It left at 5:16 a.m. Are you wondering why they left so early? It was because the 6:00 train was full. 6:00 is when rush hour starts and it’s hard to get to San Francisco during rush hour. I stood there, pondering what he wanted, assuming it was money, but wondering when this meandering, paragraph-less mess would finally become a question.
Am I boring you yet? Do you want to know what happened when the old man, his wife, daughter, and son-in-law arrived? According to the old man, ten teenagers with knives surrounded them and took everything. To make matters worse, it took the police two hours to arrive. The old man said it was because of budget cuts
“And what do you know, the police told us we were the fifteenth victims of those same people. Those teenagers.”
“Sh-t,” my gentleman friend said.
A (very) long story short, the police could not help them and no one could wire the man money because he had no ID, nor could any charities help him since charities, the man claimed, require an ID.
“Where is your wife? And your daughter and son-in-law?” we asked. The man mumbled something about them “staying behind.” I considered asking him where “behind” was, but I didn’t care. The whole thing was too much. Ten teenagers awake at 5 a.m.? Charities telling you to take a hike because you had no ID? The other people in the story conveniently somewhere else? His details added up to a straw house, the logic of which was meant to box us inside, forcing us to believe this unfortunate series of events left him with no options save us.
The man attempted to continue his story (God knows what else there was to say), but we’d had enough of his meticulous, excessive oration. We made up a vague lie about needing to meet someone and left him. We felt bad, but when it came down to it, we wanted to go to the park and have fun. The old man was eating up our time and our beers were getting warm.
What’s the punchline of all this though? The punchline is that all the the worthless good we do — listening to an old man tell his story because we think it’s kinder than interrupting to let him know we have no intention of helping, sharing the Kony video so everyone can reflect on all that’s wrong with the world while seeing what so-and-so made for dinner — all these things are precisely, exactly worthless. I’ve come to the realization that we are a generation satisfied by simply thinking about something, particularly tragedy, and thoughtlessly plundering through life under the auspice that regularly experiencing sympathy and empathy is synonymous with having principles. I’d imagine the old man thought the longer we listened, the more invested we would be in the end result. He was wrong, not because his story was a pile of sh-t, but because we are a generation of feet-dragging, emotionally reassuring motherf-ckers, We fail to understand the bottom line is what matters, that at the end of the day that old man will feel the same as us: annoyed he wasted so much time for nothing.