Thin blue line

I’ve lived in small cities long enough not to be much bothered by strangers who ask me for money. It’s always money, too. Ultimately. Some do it better than others, smoother or more aggressive, but my perimeter feels secure and the money stays in my pocket.

“Excuse me, sir, could you …?” I raise my hand and bow my head as if to say, “Please stop.” I keep moving.

A few days ago, a man started talking to me as we approached each other on the sidewalk. Army surplus jacket, baggy pants, ratty hair, wobbly on his feet. “I need some help,” he was saying. My head went down, my hand went up.

But he was raised by someone, wasn’t he? A mother, if not a father? He probably had a first date, a first job. He had friends. People who loved him, or at least who liked him, who’d set a place at the table for him and call around to find out where he was if he ran late.

Whoever they were, those people who cared about him, they were too slow or too lacking in resources of their own to break his fall.

And now he’s gone from them. Barring the highly unlikely, he’s gone.


Wikipedia defines “thin blue line” as the barrier between anarchy and civilized society. Specifically, the police. There are variations: a thin red line for firefighters, a thin white line for EMTs, etc.

I propose one for families.

I propose that the barrier between each of us and oblivion isn’t our money or our accomplishments or even ourselves, but the people who’ll catch us if we tumble.

Who let go of that man last? Was it me? Was I part of his support system? Do we have any say in such matters or does the “brother’s keeper” directive override considerations of convenience and hygiene?