Cold snap

Last week the weather in Southern California was unusually cold. Temperatures plummeted into the 30s at night, even into the 20s in some places. It snowed in Malibu. West-coast Whatsiters woke in the morning to frost on our giant strawberries.

Southern Californians are notoriously soft when it comes to weather. We’re just not accustomed to any sort of inconvenience introduced by the elements. Those of you who live in places with real winter weather scoff, quite rightly, at our complaints.

I scoff, too, but complain all the same. I grew up in upstate New York, and have lived in Chicago and Minneapolis. I know real cold and know that an overnight low of 36 is not real cold. However, it’s very easy to become adapted to the warmth and sunshine of LA. I, too, have grown soft.

Also, houses here are not well-equipped for winter. Windows don’t close entirely, no building built before the 1990s is insulated, and most heating systems are very limited. The one, very inefficient gas heater in our 1920s apartment is in the living room, down a long hallway from the bedroom. Combine this with the gap between the bedroom window and sash through which one could easily slip the average issue of The New Yorker, and the nights last week were cold indeed.

On the coldest Saturday night, Jen and I decided to stay in. Not much could get us away from hearth and home on such an evening, and nothing interesting enough rose out of the pages of the LA Weekly to trouble us with making that decision. We settled in, put on some music, and made dinner.

At one point, while Jen was busy with something in the kitchen and I was in the living room mulling over a music selection, I heard a hacking cough very nearby. I glanced up to see the hunched back of someone sitting on the ledge of one of our windows. (We live on the first floor of our building and the outside of the tall windows of our living room are about three feet off the ground.) A homeless guy was sheltering in the alley and using our ledge as a resting spot.

Immediately I thought how awful it must be to be homeless on a night like this; my next thought was that I hoped this guy would leave. I didn’t want to feel guilty or be called upon to do anything for him. I just wanted him to go away so that I could enjoy a quiet evening at home. Thinking this made me feel bad, too. Here I was in a relatively privileged position, but I didn’t even want to deal with thinking about somebody else’s fairly serious problem. All the same, I wasn’t in the mood to be bothered. So I did what I could not to look out the window any more, for fear that he might catch my eye. A few minutes later, I noticed that he had left.

Momentarily troubled but now relieved, I returned to the kitchen and continued cooking our delicious and deliciously warm dinner. Thinking that I didn’t want to extend this brief interlude into a disconcerting conversation that might break the spell of a cozy evening, I said nothing to Jen. We finished our meal and lay about in the living room, reading, talking, and enjoying the company of the cat, who was sacked out directly in front of the toasty heater.

As I cleared the dishes and started to wash up, I heard something stirring just outside the back door. Now, the back of our building is not terribly secure. The gate that once protected the back stairs and tiny yard (more like a patch of extended alleyway) was gone long before I moved in. We’ve had some things disappear from back there and try not to leave anything too important lying around. With not enough room inside to accommodate it, my bike is locked to the staircase that leads to our upstairs neighbors’ back door, so I was concerned about it.

Knowing that the guy who had previously been leaning on our windowsill was probably back there, just trying to find somewhere out of the wind, but also wanting to reassure myself about my bike, I opened the door and stuck my head out. There he sat on the neighbors’ landing, half stretched out, hood up over his baseball cap, pants riding up his calves, bare legs and tube socks exposed. He turned very slowly and swung his face around to look at me.

Lithuanian-born French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas has posited that in our encounter with the face of the Other begins our sense of ethical responsiblity. I didn’t think of this at the time, but in that moment I instantly felt its force.

Looking into his face and knowing that he saw mine, I knew that I had to talk to him, to address him and express concern for his well-being.

I had no idea what to say. “Cold enough for you?” just didn’t seem appropriate.

In as neutral a tone as possible – neither wanting to invite him in nor to send him off – I asked, “What’s going on?”

Embarrassed, tired, worried, he replied, “I was just about to leave.”

“Do you have somewhere to go?” I continued, softening my attitude and keeping my voice down so as not to alarm Jen, who was still a couple rooms away.

Puzzlingly, he stuttered, “M-maybe.”

Trying my best to feel like that took care of everything, I proclaimed, “All right. Good luck to you. It’s damn cold. I hope you’re okay.”

I closed the door as he said, “Okay.”

He didn’t look like he was about to move on or really be okay, but I placated my growing sense of guilt with the thought that there was nothing I could do. I tried to let it pass and in that spirit still didn’t say anything to Jen, who was curled up on the couch reading the paper, blissfully unaware of our unfortunate visitor.

A couple hours passed and we decided it was time to go to bed and fire up some bad Saturday night television. When Jen was already in her jammies and under the covers, and I was about to perform my toilette, she asked me to get her some more wine. I took her glass into the kitchen and then was startled by a sharp rapping on the back door.

“Shit!” I said out loud, realizing that he’d not left and was now going to call upon me for real assistance.

Talking to him through the closed door I asked him what he wanted.

“Remember how you said I could stay inside if I didn’t find a place to go? Could I come in?”

I didn’t call his attention to the fact that I had not offered our apartment as a place to stay, but I opened the door anyway.

“Look,” I said, “I can’t let you stay here.” I didn’t enumerate the reasons for him, but still felt justified in not letting him in.

“It’s sooo cold.”

“I know, I know. I’m sorry, but I just can’t let you stay here.”

I looked at him, shivering in his thin jacket, no gloves, no proper winter clothes. I wavered, but found my resolve.

“I’ll get you some blankets, but I can’t let you in.”

I closed the door and locked it. (Thinking back, this was probably the unkindest gesture, locking the door. It let him know that I didn’t trust him. All the same I thought it was just common sense.)

I went to the hall closet and got out a couple blankets, thinking that Jen was going to notice any moment and ask what I was doing. I didn’t want to explain the whole thing now, not after I’d made this decision to help him only partially.

Jen is a much more generous and sensitive person than I am. Part of me felt that if I told her what was going on, she would consider letting him in. I’d have to justify out loud what I was doing. I didn’t want to hear myself be the bad guy. At the very least I knew that she would be very upset at the thought of someone suffering on our doorstep. I didn’t really think she would say we should let this guy sleep in our apartment, but I just felt like sparing her from feeling what I was feeling.

When I got back to the door, I opened it and handed him the blankets. I asked him to leave them on the doorstep in the morning and then looked him up and down. He was clearly a novice when it comes to sleeping outside; he didn’t have the weathered appearance of someone who is regularly exposed to the elements. He could just have been someone who had a stroke of bad luck . . . lost his keys or had a fight with a friend whose couch he was surfing. (Why this made me feel even worse for him I don’t know. Would it have been better if he were a real veteran of homelessness?)

Noticing his 3/4-length baggy trousers I said, “You don’t even have long pants on. I’ll get you some clothes.”

Back I went (again locking the door), into the bedroom closet (again not volunteering anything to Jen and again a little surprised that she didn’t ask me what I was doing), and got out an old thicker pair of pants that I wear about once a year, some long underwear, and heavy wool socks. On the way back to the door, I thought I’d tell him to take the clothes with him, but in the moment of handing them over it slipped my mind.

I closed the door as quickly as I could and went back to the bedroom, forgetting the wine I’d poured out in the kitchen.

The cat was settled in on Jen’s lap as she watched t.v. I stood there for a moment and thought about what I knew and why I didn’t want to talk about it.

“Who’s hosting?” I said, referring to Saturday Night Live on the box.

“Jake Gyllenhaal.”

“Musical guest?”

“The Shins.”


I got into bed. The cat twitched and got up. She looked with interest at the back windows, surely hearing our guest as he tried to get comfortable outside.

In the morning, he was gone by the time I looked out the back. One blanket was spread out about a yard from our windows, and the clothes and other blanket bunched up nearby. He had slept ten feet away from us in our warm bed, snuggling under two comforters and extra blankets, a hot meal and a few glasses of wine in our bellies. Outside, washed with the glow of the lights and the flicker of the t.v., it must have felt like ten miles.

14 responses to “Cold snap”

  1. Dave says:

    I loved this post and was very unsettled by it. It’s a constant question for me — when should I allow myself to be compassionate in responding to the homeless, people who clearly have it much worse than I do and need help?

  2. Stephanie Wells says:

    Really great post!! I especially love how you explore, so uncomfortably, the underbelly of your own response. The horrible guilt that piggybacks on our great fortune is something that plagues me very frequently. And I’m curious: Jen, did you just find out about the whole thing by reading it online today? And was he right about what your response would have been?

  3. ssw says:

    Tim, thanks for writing this post. It’s a conversation with so many different layers–thanks for introducing the topic. I just want to add for now, that I don’t think it’s wrong to have boundaries around your personal space and really, it’s a non-negotiable to protect your own safety first. Every change you may ever be in a position to make is built upon that first step of protection. (in my case, the lesson was hard-earned; we once had a homeless man stay in our apartment. he was a very nice guy, but the actual experience made me realize it wasn’t smart–i was only about 22 at that time).
    The familiar day-to-day engagement I have with homelessness here in NY is giving change or money when I have it to people who are asking me for it. It’s certainly not a long-term solution and there are better ways to help, I’m certain. But, I have a very hard time not giving if I’ve got it, and someone is asking me directly for help.

  4. J-Man says:

    Amazingly, I had no clue that any of this was going on until the next morning, when I went out the back door to take out the garbage and I saw our blankets piled on the stoop, at which point I called Tim at work and said, “aren’t those our blankets”? I was mostly alarmed at myself for not having noticed anything, other than the fact that Tim never ended up bringing me that glass of wine ( hmmm…. perhaps I should ease off the sauce).

    I think Tim did the right thing in giving him the blankets and clothes, and perhaps was even more correct in not telling me – in fact, I admire his strength in both decisions. What would I have done differently, had I known? I probably would have struggled much more with the dilemma of whether or not to let him inside. We have a foyer in the front, which is protected – from the outside world by a locking gate, and our inside world by our locking door. I might have suggested that he could sleep there, but our neighbors may have been upset to find a homeless person sleeping in the foyer. I most likely would have suggested that we give him something warm to eat, and maybe some hot tea. Tim remembered later that Schwartzenegger had ordered fire stations to allow homeless people to take shelter during these frigid nights, and had he thought of it, he would have suggested that our homeless friend try the one around the corner from us.

    Throughout the next day and days, I found myself wishing that we had a barn or shed that we couldn’ve offered him. I also half hoped that he would come back, so that we could get his story, find out where he stayed over the next few bitterly cold nights, and perhaps offer him some hot soup.

  5. MarleyFan says:

    Tim, what a great post…….again. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Lisa Tremain says:

    With L.A. being known for it’s impersonality, it’s funny how many of us regularly interact with the shabby, wandering men and women who sit on freeway offramps and other prominent corners. When I worked downtown, the most notorious place for L.A.’s homeless, I became friends with Ray, a heroin addict who nodded off outside of our building (where our charter school is on the fourth floor). I bought him coffee and breakfast fairly regularly, and most students were on “hi” and “bye” terms with him and other local characters who hung out on Hope and Wilshire. He told me about his daughter, a preschool teacher who lived on the Westside. He was always fairly clean and well groomed and occaisionally worked the street to secure himself a room and a shower. He was intelligent, easy to talk to. However, when Ray was in a major narcotic nod, his eyes rolling up in his head as he leaned against the newspaper vending machine, or when he was in the opposite of a nod, shaking, eyes imploring us for money to lead him to his next fix, my internal wall would rise up, working to protect both me and the kids at the school. That’s when I walked by, ignoring him completely.

    This was what I saw in your dilemma, Tim. You may have done different things to offer assistance if given the chance, but you did offer assistance– without compromising the safety of what you hold closest to you. Thanks for articulating the tension between “the other” and “the self” so well.

  7. Jeremy Zitter says:

    Tim, your dilemma here reminded me of controversial bioethicist Peter Singer’s “solution to world hunger,” since he takes Levinas’ conclusion a step further — arguing that our “ethical responsibility” begins not when we first encounter “the face of the Other,” but when we are first made aware of the Other’s plight, however distant and removed that plight might be. As many of you know, Singer is fond of uncomfortable analogies. Here he paraphrases a scenario proposed by philosopher Peter Unger:

    “Bob is close to retirement. He has invested most of his savings in a very rare and valuable old car, a Bugatti, which he has not been able to insure. The Bugatti is his pride and joy. In addition to the pleasure he gets from driving and caring for his car, Bob knows that its rising market value means that he will always be able to sell it and live comfortably after retirement. One day when Bob is out for a drive, he parks the Bugatti near the end of a railway siding and goes for a walk up the track. As he does so, he sees that a runaway train, with no one aboard, is running down the railway track. Looking farther down the track, he sees the small figure of a child very likely to be killed by the runaway train. He can’t stop the train and the child is too far away to warn of the danger, but he can throw a switch that will divert the train down the siding where his Bugatti is parked. Then nobody will be killed — but the train will destroy his Bugatti. Thinking of his joy in owning the car and the financial security it represents, Bob decides not to throw the switch. The child is killed. For many years to come, Bob enjoys owning his Bugatti and the financial security it represents.”

    Of course, the point Singer and Unger both make is that if we can — and choose not to — help someone in need (someone hungry, cold, whatever), then we are in some measure responsible for their hunger, pain, even death — even if we do not experience their troubles face to face, even if they are halfway across the world.

    (Personally, I don’t give enough. I don’t help enough. It’s easy to stay in denial, to pretend there’s not much I can do.)

    This is an incredibly thoughtful, introspective post, Tim. I’m really glad I got a chance to read this… and thanks for reminding us of something most of us (myself included) often choose to forget about or ignore…

  8. Tim Wager says:

    Hey all,

    Many thanks for the substantive comments here. Indeed, SSW, safety was my primary concern in not letting him in. I know there’s nothing wrong with that, but I still felt bad about it. I used to help people out with change a great deal more than I do now. Something about moving to SF in the early 90s got me out of the habit. If I’d given change to everyone who asked, I’d have been broke in a couple days. Every now and then I’ll give change, but it’s the exception these days.

    I find the Unger/Singer analogy interesting and compelling, if not entirely applicable to many situations. Here, Bob clearly sees the two possible outcomes of his actions. That kind of situation is rare indeed. Also, having the agent involved limited to one person exaggerates the power of the individual, compared to many of the social and global problems we face. We can do numerous things as individuals to help reduce global warming, for instance, but without the cooperation of multinational corporations and national governments, those actions won’t mean much at all.

    Okay, must to go, thanks again!

  9. autumn says:

    I am reminded of a quote by Mother Theresa, I changed just one word to more accurately match my own thoughts.

    People are often unreasonable and self-centered.
    – Forgive them anyway.
    If you are kind, people may accuse you of ulterior motives.
    – Be kind anyway.
    If you are honest, people may cheat you.
    – Be honest anyway.
    If you find happiness, people may be jealous.
    – Be happy anyway.
    The good you do today may be forgotten tomorrow.
    -Do good anyway.
    Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough.
    – Give your best anyway.
    For you see, in the end, it is between you and [YOU].
    – It was never between you and them anyway.

    It makes me think just how subjective it is…best and good enough. I think there is real beauty in your story, the journey from thought to action.

  10. Scott Godfrey says:

    Tim, I just got a chance to read this. I don’t know what to say other than this is one of the best things I’ve read in a long, long time.

  11. LBOasis says:

    Wonderful post. Truly examines a dilemma we all have come to face at times. It’s one thing to mull it over in our heads but very powerful to see it in print. Thanks for sharing.

  12. Scott says:

    LB, If you are who I think you are, I’m so stoked you finally commented. If not, I’m still glad even though I don’t know who the heck you are.

  13. LBOasis says:

    Yes, Scott it’s me. Thanks for the welcome and inviting me to such a wonderful community.

  14. Mary Gaughan says:

    Hey Tim,

    Based on the intro to your essay, I was going to scoff and make a comment about my recent visit to our home town in 3 feet of snow with subzero temperatures. But then I found that your trajectory was something quite different. Nicely done and nicely written. It’s such a thin line, a membrane really, between being inside or outside our middle class bubble. Best wishes. Mary