I was inspired to write the following story after witnessing, on two separate occasions, people who were so desensitized that they were videotaping disasters on their phones for their mere enjoyment. Both incidents took place in San Francisco–the once center of the 1960’s peace and love movement. The first incident involved people videotaping the aftermath of a car accident and in the second event, people were taping a homeless man crying and screaming out of what I could only imagine was terrible pain and fear. Indeed, desensitization has led to more awful and dangerous things than videotaping tragedy for entertainment.

The square-shaped man stood reading a book over another man’s shoulder for only a few seconds before the sitting man turned to the standing man and said, “Get lost, you nut case!” 

“I’m just reading. I’m not hurting anybody! Maybe we should take it outside!” The square man spoke with his entire body and he looked like an orangutan, shaking his head and moving his thick arms in the air. The sitting man shook his head back and forth, stood, and walked away. Vince Greco, who sat at a neighboring table, was mesmerized by the exchange. After the sitting man walked away, the square man wobbled over to a nearby desk with urgency, clumps of gray hair flopping into his eyes. 

“I was trying to read a book over some guy’s shoulder and he said he wanted to take it outside!” he lied. “What should I do? Should I tell security?” 

“Yeah, you should go tell security,” the librarian said. She seemed more mechanical than human and sat expressionless, with half-closed eyes, as if she had heard this story or one like it before.  

At her advice, he ran toward the elevator. Vince wanted to follow him but he stopped himself. He hadn’t come to the city today to observe strange interactions and to follow crazy people around. He’d come to get a copy of a periodical article he couldn’t get at his own college library in Berkeley. But he’d already gotten the article and photocopied it and he had no more classes to attend today. Even more, he was worried for the man, who was apparently homeless and seemed to be in great danger by being. It would just be a matter of time before he read a book over the wrong guy’s shoulder. And it was unfair that this poor, mentally sick person had to live on the street. Vince couldn’t stop all the unfairness in the world but he could at least help this poor guy out. He could buy him a book or help him get a library card so he wouldn’t need to read over anyone’s shoulder ever again. 

This last thought got him out of his seat and speed walking toward the elevator. But the man was gone. He got the next elevator; the air inside the car was thick and smelled of garbage. The only other person in the elevator was a thin man, dressed in white and hunched over like a candy cane. When the doors opened, the automated voice said, “Fourth floor, please turn left,” and at this announcement, the thin man moved closer to Vince and said to him, “Do you think that voice is a homosexual?” He spoke in a low voice as if he didn’t want anyone else besides Vince to hear him, even though they were the only two in the car.

“Huh?” Vince said.

“That voice. That automated voice.” He pointed up to the ceiling and repeated his question: “Do you think that’s a homosexual?” His eyes glowed like they could see through walls.

“Oh, I’m not sure.” Vince felt somewhat creeped out by the guy, but mostly sorry for him. The man nodded and stared back at Vince, perhaps making a mental note of his answer. There were only five floors to get down to the first level but it felt like a hundred. The car stopped on every floor, and the automated voice, that may or may not be gay, continued to make its announcement about turning left, and the thin man with glowing eyes continued to appear as though he was still trying to figure out the sexual preference of the disembodied voice. Finally, it got to the first floor and Vince jumped out as if he had springs on the bottoms of his feet. 

In a few quick steps, he was in the center of an atrium and when he looked up, he saw a round skylight divided into sections shaped like pie slices. A giant pie made of sky. Upper levels circled around the atrium, leaving the center hollowed out and making Vince feel alone and cold. There were more than one set of steps going up to the next level. He couldn’t remember how he got into the place, and from where he stood, it didn’t seem like there was a way out. While stunning, the grandiose structure and cavernous space was more like a modern-styled coliseum than a library. 

A loud, shrill “Let me go!” came hollering from a handcuffed man being dragged across the floor by a couple of security guards. Vince felt bad for the handcuffed guy and wished there was some way he could help him. He knew he couldn’t help every sad sack who crossed his path, though he wished he could. Besides, this guy was probably well beyond help and he looked kind of scary, unlike the man who reads books over shoulders. Focus,he said to himself. He must find the security station where the square guy was headed. It wouldn’t be difficult to find; it was wherever the handcuffed guy was being dragged. He followed the screams and came to a small room outside of which a guard stood. 

“Have you seen a man . . .” Vince started to ask the guard but he paused due to a loss for words. He couldn’t ask the guard if he’d seen a man complaining of a man who’d threatened him because he was trying to read a book over the man’s shoulder. Or could he? It seemed like anything goes here and the security guard was waiting for him to finish his sentence. “. . . a man who claimed he was threatened by a guy for reading a book over his shoulder?” The guard tilted his head and looked at Vince as if he was trying to make sense of the question.

“What happened?” the guard said, scrunching up his face until it wrinkled like a giant raisin. Vince felt a sense of accomplishment for getting his attention in a place where bizarre happenings seemed to be a usual occurrence. 

“Someone, who was sitting at the table next to me, was reading a book and some other guy came behind him and started reading over his shoulder. So, the sitting guy told the standing guy to get lost, and the standing guy said ‘Let’s take it outside’ to the sitting man.”

“The guy reading over the shoulder picked the fight? I thought you said the other guy picked the fight.”

“The guy reading over the shoulder picked the fight but he told the librarian that the sitting guy did.” As he articulated the scenario, he heard the complete absurdity in it. The look of confusion on the guard’s face turned magically to one of amusement and through a smirk, he said, “You’re putting me on. Right?”

He could tell he was getting nowhere with the guard, so he thanked him for his time and walked away. As he walked away, he heard the guard say to someone, “Hey, you gotta hear this one.” Must be tough being a security guard in this place, Vince thought; it’s good he can laugh.

The failed interaction with the guard only heightened his determination to find the man so he could help him. He imagined the man running down to security to tell them about his experience and after being laughed at by one of the guards, he saw the man running outside. So he decided to leave the library to continue his search. As he looked around for an exit, a parade of people passed by him: a stout man dressed in trash-can clothes carrying a big overstuffed plastic bag; a tall, muscular bearded man wearing a tight black leather miniskirt and high-heeled pumps; a skinny, shaking woman with a pockmarked face; and an ordinary-looking young woman, who seemed out of place.   

He exited the library where the air screamed with sirens and car horns and smelled of piss and bleach. He got to a big street called Market Street and couldn’t decide whether to go left or right. One way was toward the downtown and the other way was away from it. The downtown seemed like the more likely direction for the man; there were lots of people downtown, which meant lots of potential opportunities to bother someone.

He passed by a fountain surrounded by stragglers and homeless; a fast-food place; an X-rated movie house; an adult bookstore; and a bunch of shops that looked like they might close down tomorrow. He passed an upscale eatery, where young, successful-looking people sat outside as if they were in Paris. They spoke so loudly that it was easy for Vince to catch fragments of their conversations: “I’ll do it from my desktop in five minutes” . . . “take that option off the table” . . . “still working on that app” . . . “third-party software.”  

He crossed Market Street to see a homeless man selling what were likely goods, which were displayed on the sidewalk on a dingy cloth. Beyond the homeless yard sale stood an Asian woman taking a selfie while wearing one of those white masks intended to keep germs away. He passed by more stragglers and every so often, a young businessperson raced by him.  

His hair flopped around his eyes. He couldn’t afford a haircut. He looked down at his worn jeans with a hole in one side. No money for new clothes. He looked messy and poor with a hole in his worn jeans and his long hair and he suspected that that was why the peddlers were leaving him alone. He heard others being solicited left and right. “Do you have any money for a sandwich?” “Can you spare some change?” “Do you have sixty-seven cents?” His bleeding heart that had already bled so much today now bled some more. He wished he had change to spare for all.

He felt as if he could keep walking all day, until his stomach started to growl. What could he find around here? He’d only seen fast-food places and the place where the young, successful loudmouths ate that looked way too expensive for him. He felt relieved when he spotted a taqueria. The place was small and dark and smelled of raw onions. The clientele looked seedy and there was not much of a barrier from the street. Vince imagined himself eating there and saw someone asking him for a bite of his food. With this image in mind, he said to the man at the counter: “One vegetarian burrito to go.” 

He paid for his lunch and unwrapped it as he walked out the door. The burrito was great, with just the right amount of salsa, and the cheese melted perfectly. A quaint, old trolley car made of deep brown wood and steel rode by him and as he looked up, he spotted a stately tan brick building. The top level was ornate, decorated with carved figures, and on the very top was a round structure that rose into the sky and reminded him of the top of a castle. As he gazed at the building, a chubby red-faced man asked him for a bite of his burrito.

He walked and looked and looked and walked until he reached the bay. He couldn’t have imagined the man walking along the water, so he decided to walk back and as he turned to repeat his steps from the opposite direction, a wave of discouragement swept over him. I’ll never find this guy, he thought.Why couldn’t he have been like one of those businesspeople eating their expensive lunches outside, wheeling and dealing in loud voices, talking about third-party software and taking things off the table, not caring so much about every poor, lost soul that walked the planet? He wouldn’t be able to help this man; he probably wouldn’t be able to help anyone. 

With each step, his discouragement increased until he was hopeless. As he stood alone on the side-walk he felt small, and in that second, he realized the bigness of what he was trying to do—not just by trying to find this man, but by trying to make things right, to help the helpless, to save the unsavable. He was continually climbing a mountain, the top of which he’d never reach. 

His feet ached and he wanted to sit down but there was no place to sit except the dirty sidewalk. His mom would never approve. He hadn’t seen her in over six months and he’d never missed anyone so much in his life. If she were here, she’d say something that would get him moving on. He remembered her words on the Thanksgiving of his twelfth year when he asked if he could work in a soup kitchen for the holiday. “Never change, Vince. You have what it takes to make the world a better place.”

A surge of energy traveled through him; he opened his eyes with a renewed sense of urgency and enthusiasm for finding the man and continued onward. He held his head high and looked around at his surroundings, which suddenly felt inviting instead of strange. He’d find the man soon. Maybe he’d take him back to the library to get a card or maybe they’d go for a cup of coffee and Vince could warn him against reading books over peoples’ shoulders. He knew he could help him in some way and that that way would become apparent once he’d found him. 

He hadn’t walked long when he came upon a group of people gathered together on the sidewalk. They were taking videos of something with their smart phones. When he looked in the direction of where their phones were pointed, he only saw the aftermath of a car accident with three cars piled up and an ambulance truck. Two men in yellow jumpsuits were strapping a man to a stretcher. 

“I caught the whole thing!” he heard someone shout. Vince turned to see a young man, with a baseball cap and a face like a sponge, smiling big and bright as he bragged to the crowd.

“You got the guy getting hit?!” someone from the crowd said.

“Yeah, I got the whole thing!” 

“What’d he look like? The guy who got hit?” came another voice.

“He looked like some crazy homeless guy,” the boy said. He held his phone in the air as if it were a priceless antique vase. Vince was too shocked to fully comprehend what was happening. He felt like he was in some weird science fiction movie where all the people make games out of killing others and watch people die for entertainment. Maybe reading over a stranger’s shoulder or thinking an automated voice has a sexual preference is peculiar but the form of insanity exhibited by the supposed sane ones frightened him. He had to get away from this celebration of tragedy and closer to the tragedy itself.

He got as close as he could get and heard one of the ambulance drivers say, “I think we lost him,” in a somber voice. Vince looked down to see the man in the stretcher and wondered if his eyes were playing tricks on him. It was the man from the library. He looked back at the crowd of gawkers, and back at the dead man, who was called crazy. He felt a strange sense of relief for the man who’d never again have to read over anyone’s shoulder; now his sympathy had shifted to the crowd of gawkers—the sane ones.