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NASA photo, from Skylab

Long after dark every worknight, I climb two flights of shabby stairs to fetch my car. In contrast to our gleaming offices, the garage is old and is maintained with an eye to keeping it from collapsing, not impressing visitors and staff. So the cream-colored walls are stained where indifferent mopping has sloshed dirt on them, the undersides of the stairs are rusty and the steel reinforcements bolted on to stave off catastrophe are painted only with red primer. The only decoration is a decades-old legal disclaimer whose white background paint has gone tan and blistered. The rogue apostrophe in "the company will take no control of your vehicle or it's contents" never fails to make me wince.

At the top of these stairs is an ill-fitting industrial door. On warm summer nights, someone props it open to relieve the smell of damp and dust from the old masonry inside. And so the stairwell becomes the parlor of the largest spider I have ever seen outside a zoo.

Its globular tan body must be the size of a quarter. On warm nights it builds a classic spiral web, efficiently braced, across the upper right corner of the doorway, where it can trap moths and other insectile tourists blundering unwarily toward the harsh light over the landing. By its size, it must feed lavishly.

I am always impressed when I mount the stairs and see the master in its workshop. With a sweep of my briefcase, I could spoil its night, or worse, but instead I duck underneath and continue on my way, daily reminding myself that I want to live and let live. Nevertheless, the spider and web make me uncomfortable. They're an apt metaphor for the city I live in and my relation to it.

The walk to my desk takes me along a sidewalk that is part of the blocks-long path between a downtown shelter and a meals site for the homeless. When I meet someone there, we eye each other warily, trying to seem not to notice at all. I am not much less shabby than they are, but cleaner, and obviously employed. Sometimes they ask for money. Sometimes, if I have change, I give it. Sometimes I'll nod, if I happen to catch someone's eye; sometimes I'll hear "what's happening!" as I pass.

Over the years, we have logged one robbery, some car break-ins, one dramatic arrest (fat cop nearly dies trying to outrun lady car thief in high heels); several auto accidents and one fistfight. Old-timers tell the hilarious story of how a stripper and a customer had a falling-out in our parking lot; the John tried to hit her with his car; she dragged him out and chased him into the ladies room of the bar across the street, loudly promising colorful mayhem until the police arrived to bust them both.

The crime rate is not high, really, but to a boy raised in the country, where you knew everyone and worried about dogs, not people, it's uncomfortable. Embracing diversity is harder than it looks.

Certainly there's race. You try to avoid the subject, but you can't deny a difference, even if your Mediterranean ancestors were nearly as brown as theirs. And some of the thin, tattered guys I pass look at me as if they're see Part Of The Problem in the pudgy white guy approaching. There's a bigger economic and emotional gulf -- for I'm going to a good job and a warm, cluttered home, and they're leaving a utilitarian free meal and headed for a Spartan place crowded with unpredictable strangers.

Some other differences in values must be driven by money. I hate asking for anything and I can't imagine asking for spare change. Some of these folks do it with aplomb -- seemingly unfazed, some with good (if dubious) stories. The best was one who spoke passionately to me for a minute about getting right with God and drew from me some hesitant agreement about Christian virtue, then concluded: "Give me a dollar." I gave him that, and welcome; I thought of it as admission. It can't be easy work. Another panhandler caught me in the parking lot and didn't want to take no for an answer. He followed me into the office door, where the guard stopped him. As I walked away, I looked back to see some office bigwigs -- and some of the top citizens of the city -- strolling in the door while the hapless guard was trying to throw the interloper out.

Many of the women I work with look for escorts to their cars. I leave later, but don't feel so vulnerable. It may be a matter of odds, but I have not been bothered, even late at night. But perhaps the security guards have learned my habits, for their van is always in the parking lot I cross when I walk out, and it always pulls away just after I pass. Maybe they know something I don't. They're not telling. I don't really want to ask.

I suppose that the fat, industrial-strength spider at the top of the stairs and I have something in common. It, too, has a fortunate place in the world. I doubt it's aware of that, though.

I'll leave it alone. But I'll step warily as I pass.

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