Yesterday afternoon I was riding a crowded bus, and some of “those people” were sitting a few rows behind me. They were two men of about 40, openly drinking cans of beer and talking so loudly that everyone on the bus could hear their conversation. When I got on they were sharing dirty jokes, but soon they started speculating in earnest about the nature of incest and who would be compelled to do such a thing. Then the discussion drifted into unhappy childhood memories: they were half-brothers, we all learned, who had been taken away from their mother by the state on grounds of negligence. They were raised with the help of social service agencies, on which they continued to rely when they ran out of money and food.
Everyone has encountered people like this, typically while taking public transportation. People who seem unable to distinguish between private and public space, who never mastered the most basic social skills, who chronically make strangers uncomfortable yet don’t understand why. You can tell that they’re not drug addicts or developmentally disabled. They belong to some category of mental illness that few people wish to deal with long enough to understand. Few people challenge our sympathies like this: clearly they’re victims of something, but the sheer unpleasantness of their company has a way of stymying the impulse to reach out to them. And so most people simply bide their presence, like a bad odor, for the short time they have to share a bus or supermarket checkout line, taking care not to make eye contact in the hopes they’ll disappear. Surely there’s some saint out there who protects them, we think.