Every day I take the same path to my office. I walk up the escalator to get above the ground at Farragut West; then veer slightly right for just a moment before turning up 18th Street. Along the road, a thousand straight times, I pass the same three homeless people, all anchored to the same spots, like tenants refusing eviction.
The first man is always on my right. He wears faded jeans and has thin white hair that was clearly once blond. There is something wrong with his left eye. Either it’s missing, or the muscles around it are too damaged to function, but I’ve never seen it. And I never slow down enough to get a good look, nor do I have the decency to ask. Some people do. Some stop and make conversation with him.
The second person is an Asian man, exactly a block up, always standing against the wall of an elevated sidewalk between K and L Streets. On his body are tattered approximations of clothes. A ratty black coat above a greyish sweatshirt, the color hard to discern over the filth. Under those two outer layers is a turquoise turtleneck. The clothes never change. He doesn’t add layers when the chill of winter comes and he certainly doesn’t shed them in our hot, humid summer. He never makes any sense. He jumps and spins and flails, all while making incoherent grunts and shouts. When you give him money, he acknowledges it, but whatever comes out is indecipherable, mangled by his thick accent and an incomplete comprehension of the language.
The last is a ripped black man in a tank top and trench coat, a pink bandana always tied over his head. His home is the corner of 18th and M Street. He punches the air aggressively, standing with his shoulders aimed forward, seeming ready to strike anyone that comes too close. This is accompanied by his staccato chatter, punctuated bursts of unhinged thought. Nonsensical, yet fierce. But I’ve never seen him approach anyone, threaten a single person.
The three hold their concrete plots all day. I walk into a building, heated in the winter, cooled in the summer, and do things that are of value to society. Supposedly. Then I leave, walking the same route in reverse. Passing the black guy, the Asian man, then the white one with the bad eye before getting on the Metro and heading to my house where I walk my dog and do something with my night.
. . .
About two weeks ago, I landed a job that was solely the result of hard work.
I’ve been blogging at this site for over two years and started with so many grandiose ambitions. It was May of 2011, and within three months I’d be written up by The Washington Post. Within six I’d quit my job, having secured a book deal. It was not like that. You should have seen my numbers in the early going: Ten, Four, Five, Six. People. That was how many would visit my site a day.
Before I reviewed my traffic each week, I would remind myself that it didn’t matter, then still have to fight the ensuing ennui that stems from disappointment. Sometimes it did seem stupid. Saying no to wings with friends, hockey games with my dad or dinners with my sisters, all in the name of consistently producing.
But I’d reached a point at 27 where I was tired of giving up. This was the fourth blog I started. The others all petered out after a month. If you count high school, I was already on my fifth career change. So while I did have high expectations—why wouldn’t I?—I also promised myself that even if no one else gave a shit about it, I would. Because I was tired of not giving a shit.
. . .
Which lately, I have been. Sitting at a desk from 9:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Turning around the work at a pace that pleased me. Showing no initiative. Being hungover a lot. All the while, I told myself my lack of passion was okay because I was pursuing what I wanted on my own time, although not sincerely believing that.
The other day, after I landed this job, someone who’d only met me after I started my blog said this was the first time she’d seen me happy. I thought I’d been okay all along, but she was right. Because I did put a weight on myself immediately when I started. This had to amount to something. And once I did that, it was like beginning the process at the bottom of a well I built myself. Surrounded by walls I placed, designing one path out, one which required a monumental leap.
The whole time refusing to even acknowledge that I was climbing the painful, incrementally small steps of a ladder along the wall. Steps spaced so close together it never feels like progress.
Don’t ever fall for that illusion like I did. Don’t ever let yourself believe that when you are trying, it doesn’t matter.
. . .
I always felt guilty when I passed by the three homeless men, especially on days I took my job for granted. Or days when I hated what I did. What would they think if I explained to them that I was upset because I had to use Excel in the afternoon?
But both my parents were literary fiends and they put books in my hand as soon as I was born. That was the only equation I’ve ever been a part of. I’ve always felt compelled to create. I love it. It’s also the most maddening field. Doing what I love brings me more frustration, disappointment and sadness than I’ve ever had in my life.
But it’s what I want to do. And because I did, I’m about to go work the first job I’ve ever been excited for. In the field I’m supposed to be in, 30 years into my life.
Once I leave town, I’ll never see those three homeless men again.
I know nothing except that I don’t care much about them. If I did I would have done something. Given more money. Stopped and had conversations. Instead I was satisfied with what I contributed. The occasional coins, the occasional dollar.
They stood there and so often watched me stream by. Watched me world ignore them. Often watch the world ignore them. Which is what the world does. It’s designed not care about you.
Which is why you need to.