James D. Watson
Hughesville, MD, USA
In 1989 I was white college graduate, 22 years old, living in a Thai and Vietnamese neighborhood in Long Beach, CA. One day an older man, dirty, drunk, and wheelchair-bound, wheeled into our local Laundromat. All the washers and dryers were in use; the room was full of Saturday morning people doing our Saturday morning things. We all hid behind our reading and folding while this man started raising Cain. His angry sputtering focused on a young Vietnamese girl, around twelve years old, and her younger brother. They were there alone doing the family washing. It seemed neither understood this man's language but they could not escape his blustery anger and gesturing, swearing, name-calling. It was brutal. He railed them about their countrymen and how they forced his current lot upon him. "Go home!" he screamed. "Why don't you go home?!"
None of us responded. The young girl continued to fold her clothing, clearly frightened. She tried to move, but the man followed her around the washing machines clustered in the middle of the room, swearing at her and her ethnicity. Her brother ran out of the Laundromat.
It was unbearable. I put down my book and went over to the man to distract him. He turned and focused on me, still screaming and swearing, but the girl was able to finish her work, collect her things, and leave the building.
I asked him what was his story, and he told me. Soon he was crying but, thankfully, quietly. His bitterness was poised to rise again, but he was no longer directly cursing the Vietnamese. His story - which he may have crafted on the spot, although I think he was a little too gone for that kind of creativity - was of a violent event during the Vietnam War, involving U.S. helicopters, tragically aimed firepower, dying friends, and personal agony. Though those events were obviously not the cause of his current leg casts and alcoholic blur, he blamed all his troubles on "those people" - the Vietnamese. Now, though, this man no longer resembled any kind of American soldier. It seemed he hadn't seen a razor, decent meal, or good bed for weeks. The socks covering the plaster casts on his legs and feet were yellow with old urine; he smelled like alcohol and his body's waste.
He said his casts had been on for so long he had painful sores … that he couldn't get a bed at the local veteran's hospital … that he couldn't even get a meal … because they thought he was drinking. I don't know if any of it was true. He was furious at the Vietnamese who could "come to this country and take our jobs and our houses while I'm left out on the street."
He went on for some minutes, maybe no more than fifteen. I listened. I suggested he give the hospital another shot - maybe they could help him get out of the casts, out of the wheelchair, and (I thought to myself) out of the alcohol. Finally he was calm and ready to leave. He said "God bless you" and I said the same. I think the biggest blessing he needed was hope.
He was slow. He could barely move the wheelchair. As a human being, his exit was hard to watch - there was no fire in him now. Lowered head, one sock - half off his foot - leaving a wet trail behind him.
By this time, my clothes were dry. I gathered them and headed out into the morning. The man was a few yards away on the sidewalk in front of another store. Apparently during our discussion someone had slipped out and called the police because there was a car with lights flashing parked nearby. Two policemen were close-in on the wheelchair, batons out, but not swinging. Up to this point, I was feeling a little good about myself - I'd tried to be helpful, the young girl got out scared but not harmed, this man left calmly and (I believe) with the tiniest piece of hope, but seeing the police towering over him, that feeling disappeared. I wanted to go tell them that "Hey, he's calmed down now. Yeah, he acted up inside, but look at him now. Can you get him to the hospital? Have them check out his injuries?" I didn't. I don't know why I didn't. Whenever I think about that morning I wish I had. There's no feeling good about doing nothing. The police were still over him as I drove out.