Driving in the South of Market district this morning, I stopped at a traffic signal. I'd just been to the supermarket and then to a coffee bar and was on my way to a freeway onramp to come to work. I noticed a pedestrian in the crosswalk. He was a young man, no more than 25, and a little overweight. He had a shambling gait and was making weird motions, digging the knuckles of one hand into his cheek and jaw as if tightening invisible bolts; with each second that I watched him, as he slowly made his way across wide Bryant Street, I was more convinced that he was mentally ill. He wore a light jacket, not enough for the cold morning. But what struck me most was that, with the temperature about 42 F., he was barefoot.
One sees mentally ill people on the streets of every American city. The only thing that distinguished this guy was his youth and appearance. He wasn't dirty or unshaven; except for his shoelessness, he might have taken off that morning from whatever home or facility he lived in, a place where his clothes were washed and he was well fed. But his gait and general behavior revealed his illness.
I felt compassion, and thought of actually stopping and giving him my shoes and socks. I have hiking boots in my car which I could have put on, and a spare pair of socks at work. But I did nothing.
"What is hell?" asked Dostoyevsky in The Brothers Karamozov. "I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love."