Police officers are observers by nature. It drives friends and family nuts sometimes, but what do you do? We’re trained to hunt, made worse by the fact that we don’t even know what we’re hunting half the time. So we watch, constantly taking in samples of our environment, running it through the “DonuTron 1000” that is our brain (yes, I just made that up), processing it for anything out of the ordinary, and spitting it back out.
Do you ever get a kick out of overhearing a random conversation from the table behind you at a restaurant? Same thing, but going 24/7 in our heads, even while walking down a sidewalk, as I was tonight.
“…Actually, I just bummed this from someone inside,” the man was explaining.
“Well, how about a dollar then?” my future client was asking. “That way I can go buy some.” The other man sighed.
I stopped and joined the conversation. “I’m sorry, do you know each other?”
“Yeah, we’re friends!” Scrappy volunteered (before the other man could interject).
I raised my eyebrow and feigned surprise. “Small world! I’m friends with Dusty also!” And it was true. Dusty was a fireman, but to his credit he was much less pervy than the rest. And that’s saying a lot.
It was that time of year again, prime time for vagrants. Temperatures dropped to a point that it was no longer practical to sleep on an open rooftop or on the courthouse lawn, the latter being more difficult than ever since the “Occupy” nuts had taken their space.
The temperatures meant they had to use the shelter (of which there was really only one in town), but it was also the holiday shopping season and guilty-feeling people were everywhere with crisp ten and 20 dollar bills, just waiting to be harassed at the next sidewalk or mall entrance. Awareness of this cash and that there were people eager to spend it makes them aggressive, and competition for space in the shelter (and now the courthouse lawn) made them pushy.
Even rail riders (a different sub-set of bums) who were normally invisible by choice were out in force. In the last few days, I’d observed a few with the audacity to approach an elderly woman on a walker at her car on the front row of a hardware store, trunk open and gifts barely placed inside, about as vulnerable as she could be. They stood to either side of her, hands out and stepping closer. She was scared, and I was off duty, which turned out to be a bad combination for them. I reassured her with a smile, walked between her and them and eventually began flogging them like a rooster. (I know. Sounds weird to me, too—but it works.)
Dusty smiled gratefully and walked away, leaving me with my bum. In truth? I couldn’t stand this guy. We’d had this talk before but he was too drunk to remember. He went by “Scrappy” and loved living on the street. No medical issues, decent IQ at one point, he just hated work and liked being “free”. And unfortunately, his idea of “freedom” was to ask each and every human being he saw for money and cigarettes and feign delusions about Archangels to solidify his weirdness to seal the deal. In short, he was what insensitive people like me called a “bum” because that’s what “bums” do.
Some need mental help; most, in fact. Others, the minority, just had life pulled out from under their feet. But the ones that do it by choice? Not “vagrants”. Not “habitation challenged”. Just “bums”. Stupid people feel good about encouraging this lifestyle by handing them cash (or a smoke) and they can tuck their guilt away into a drawer again—but only if the subject walked away and stopped being there. If they stayed, the stupid people would then have to deal with them, and that wasn’t part of the $5 plan. And this guy? He was as persistent as Chinese water torture, and my last polite warning had been discarded like the others before it. Time to change it up.
“I’ve asked it nicely and I’ve asked it firmly, Scrappy. So now I’m beginning to think you just don’t care. About me. About the system.” I broke a major rule and reached around him with my left arm and grabbed his shoulder, pulling him uncomfortably close to my non-gun side and forcing him to walk down the sidewalk with me.
“We’re all just hanging by a thread here, my good man. Two thousand years of civilization, just hanging by a thread. It’s true. And you know how that works?” I looked towards him now. “Because of people like me, Scrappy. People like me maintaining a system of rules in order to live in a civilized society,” I explained as we walked, looking off to the stars wistfully. “We’re barely keeping it together as a society, and you’re straining that thread.” I pulled him yet closer.
“You like roosters?” I asked.
When Chattanooga Police Officer Alexander D. Teach is not patrolling our fair city on the heels of the criminal element, he is an occasional student, carpenter, boating enthusiast, and spends his spare time volunteering for the Boehm Birth Defects Center. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/alex.teach.