Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Buying Furniture off the Homeless there I am, sitting in my buddy's car, parked in the alley behind my building. I have my pipe in my pocket and a nicely oddened mind, which is being entertained by his interminable struggles to secure something like decent customer service from the head offices of Fido (a tale fraught with many troubles, for which we have arrived at the tentative title of "Bitten by Fido;" but it's not a tale I intend to tell tonight). I imagine that in a normal state of mind I would be more impatient to get on with my evening, since I have to hear him explain his situation several times over, as the stalwart phone people (who can do nothing themselves but talk) find new and creative ways to refuse to let him speak to their supervisors (who could actually resolve the situation). Stoned, this steadfast resistance on the part of the phone reps, and my friend's dogged insistence on negotiating the obstacles they place in his way, begin to form into somewhat of an epic narrative, with dramatic tension provided by the various unresolved questions that arise as I listen, like whether my buddy will lose his cool, flip out, and start screaming; if the phone people will actually ever just hang up on him if he continues to press his point; if they will, if he remains determined and civil, ever provide him with anything like satisfaction; and if so, how much work exactly it will take on his part. It's fascinating to see a wealthy corporation protect itself so adamantly from dealing with the customers it allegedly is serving. I sit and listen for half an hour or more before my mind starts to wander.

Looking out the windshield, I notice a homeless guy dragging some furniture down the alley. He's got a 8"X4" sheet of some sort of wood and a large-backed chair with ripped grey upholstery that he's juggling, shifting about, dragging, picking up, dropping. Clearly he's just dragged these from a dumpster. I gather these guys prefer to be called "binners," that "dumpster diver" is politically incorrect (perhaps because it suggests jollity and sport, rather than a grim struggle for survival; "binner" has more dignity, I guess). My first thought is that the guy is having a bitch of a time, and I observe his efforts rather neutrally, as one might watch an ant dragging a dead beetle along the sidewalk, feeling, if anything, only an idle admiration for its gumption, when I realize that I've been intending to buy another chair for my apartment for quite some time, in case guests come over. This chair looks potentially comfortable enough for someone to sit and watch a film in, say, while being slim and small enough to fit in my bachelor pad; plus I imagine I can get a fairly good deal on it. My final thought is the first and only marginally altruistic one that flashes through my mind, offered as justification for spending money: I'll be sparing said binner from his labours, doing him a good turn. We're just behind my building, after all; it's easier for me to carry it to my place than for him to carry it to... wherever exactly he's carrying it. His doorway, his stash, his niche in another alley.

I get out of the car. He has just lost control of the sheet and the chair and half-toppled over with them, cursing. He is covered in grime, appears to be in his early 40's, and has dark facial hair and a wiry build. His first glance at me conveys suspicion and fear.

"Hey, buddy, are you planning on selling that thing?" I say, indicating the chair, and his face immediately flushes with relief.

"You bet!"

"How much do you want for it?"

"Anything you want to give me!"

Well, he's clearly not much of a capitalist, but I figure a shop might offer him five bucks for it. I offer him seven, and he takes it, grinning. He explains that the plywood is for a buddy who is building something, and lets me know -- nice guy! -- that there's an easy chair down the alley, too, in case I want it. I consider it. Somehow, the idea of liberating furniture from the garbage myself seems less legitimate, more of an indignity, than buying it off a binner; by his claiming it and dragging it down the alley, by the sweat of his labour, he has transformed it from garbage to commodity, whereas for me to take a chair from the garbage myself... it would remain garbage.

I briefly meditate on this as he drags his plywood out of the way of an oncoming car. As we prepare to part, he presents me with a blackened fist, raised in some sort of apparent handshakelike gesture of completion. I don't know what to do with it, though. Do I punch it, knuckles to knuckles? I look at my own hand in obvious confusion and then briefly place my open hand over his fist.

Sensing my confusion, he explains, "I do it like this because you don't know where my hand has been."

This strikes me for a moment, and then I shoulder the chair and begin to haul it towards the back door of my building.

"It cuts off your circulation," he calls. "Be careful." He continues on his way with the sheet of wood.

"It's okay, I live right here," I say. I feel a bit guilty about that, afterwards -- like maybe he might feel a flicker of resentment at being reminded that of the two of us, I'll be sleeping indoors tonight. But probably he was just happy to have gotten rid of the chair and made a bit of cash...

When I get back downstairs, chair safely in my apartment (where I pause to take another hit off my pipe) my friend is still on the phone with Fido. I meditate on all these hierarchies we're implicated in, hierarchies of wealth, of power. How we tend to concentrate so much more on the shit that flows down on us from above, the injustices and inequities that we are the victims of, rather than the shit that flows out from behind us, and the effect it has on those even lower in the chain, spattered with it, rummaging through the stuff we throw away.

It's not a bad chair, anyhow. Wonder how the rest of his night went...

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