Copyright 2021, John Manimas
I have come to suspect that "I love you" means the same thing in terms of linguistics and neurology as "I'm hungry." These words mean "I need you." I need companionship. I need intimacy. I need release from the urges and tensions in my body, and from the loneliness in my heart. It's all okay. There is nothing hypocritical or dishonest about it. It is just that we have a psychological concern about subtle divisions of meaning. Love is deemed to be something more complex and more noble than hunger. We raise the meaning of "love" very high, sometimes even into the cloudy divine. Hunger is raw meat, a deep and selfish need that is required for physical survival. We may tell ourselves that we could live without love but not without food. But is that really true? I will ask my friend, or acquaintance, Byron.
Our distinction between the word "acquaintance" and the word "friend" is somewhat comparable to the difference between "love" and "hunger." Some would say the difference is major and obvious. Others might argue that the difference is subtle, and subjective, based on some cultural considerations and customs. Such as, has the "acquaintance" visited your home? Taken a meal with you? Anyway, I ask myself whether Byron is my friend or my acquaintance. I like him. I know something about him. I spend much more time with others, but I am not sure that I know more about others that I spend more time with. Byron is visible, transparent, genuine, open. I have a feeling that Byron has no secrets. Most people do.
Byron is a bum. He walks about day and night and collects used soda cans of aluminum and empty plastic bottles. He puts them in large plastic trash bags and wheels them around in his shopping cart or hanging over the side. His shopping cart is no longer really a shopping cart if we define it by function. According to function, Byron's cart is a mobile home and a pickup truck. One of the plastic trash bags does not carry used cans and bottles, but a cup, a toothbrush, underwear, three extra sneakers, a hunting knife and a couple of other eating utensils. And a bottle of water. An optional granola bar or box of cereal, and sometimes a small motel sample of toothpaste and or shampoo. Byron is not the cleanest guy on the street, but he has standards.
I do not know how old Byron is. He could be sixty or thirty-five and a hard life. He does raise some money from the cans and bottles, but he receives a benefit. Many people would just use the generic designation of "welfare" as a kind of epithet, but more thoughtful and educated people know his monthly benefit as "SSI." "SSI" means "Supplemental Security Income" and it is legally defined as a benefit you are eligible for if you are disabled but were not employed long enough (ten years) to be eligible for a social security disability benefit that you earned through payment of the FICA tax over the years. "FICA" means "Federal Insurance Contributions Act" which is part of the federal tax funds deducted from your paycheck. You are a member of the social security insurance group, required by law, legally known as the Old Age, Survivors and Disability Insurance Program (OASDI) to protect you from being a stupid ass who does not plan for the possibility of misfortune, or old age, in your future.
Byron gets the small monthly check that goes to people who are mildly mental or simply cannot function in our society where the rest of us are okay with the main guideline in the world of work being "kill or be killed." Or, if you work for a healthy human being, the main guideline is "do your job right and fast and I will like you, for now." I usually talk to Byron when I see him. This is the way and the only way I know Byron, and yet I often wonder if I am his friend. I think about it, what the word "friend" has come to mean. We exchange messages with "friends" who are only an image and a name on a screen, where both could be false. Byron is not false. Byron is true.
"Hey Byron, how ya doing today?"
"Can't complain. Some days peanuts; some days shells."
"I hear ya. You look good, healthy for a guy who works all the time."
Byron laughs, and says, "I eat right."
"I could have a bag of cans for you next week, leave it on the side porch."
"Great! You're my man, John. Keep me in pizza."
I say, "God helps those who help themselves." I like to let Byron know I respect him for his diligence under his difficult circumstances. He walks with a permanent limp, dragging his left foot. But I suspect his disability is more complicated.
"Depends on what you help yourself to."
"That's right," I respond, "I know. You're right."
Byron is not dumb. Sometimes he sounds wise to me, and I wonder how and why a person with wisdom looks like he just crawled out of a coal mine. But there are people like Byron, and I do not feel like I am doing him a favor by talking to him. I often feel that he is honoring me by talking to me, me with my extravagant and unearned comforts while he lives on the street and within unknown shelters. Which life requires greater skill and courage, his or mine?
That's the way it goes. About once a week we cross paths and we share a few words. Thoughts. One could say our relationship is entirely superficial, barely meets the definition of "aquaintance." I don't know his last name. Not sure he knows mine, but I would not be surprised if he does. I have not invited him into my home to share a meal, but I have thought about that. What would I do if he invited me to share a convenience store sandwich under an uprooted tree? I trust Byron, although I am not sure what his boundaries are on closeness or "friendship." He does appear to be a loner, which is very common for a person who is eligible for SSI. We sometimes consider "loner" to be admirable, as in an author or scientist or artist, and even a politician. If we got an emergency notice about an invasion or apocalyptic disaster, I would want to ask Byron what he suggests we do. I would offer him my home, but I would really want to know what plan he recommends if I needed to leave my home. I believe he knows about how to live in an emergency, because for him every day is an emergency. I feel ashamed to admit that I have neighbors whom I fear. I am not afraid of Byron. -end-
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