Thursday, January 27, 2011

The outside

I’m pretty sure if I stay inside much longer I’ll start to resemble Gollum from The Lord of the Rings, only I won’t have an evil ring to make me feel sexy. If I had a ring that could render me invisible, I’m absolutely certain I wouldn’t remain indoors. I’d prowl the globe with god-like amorality and really, people, am I the only asshole who’d turn directly to the Dark Side?* Shhhh, you don’t have to answer. I’d start out small, of course, with only a handful of vault robberies, but eventually I’d end up in Vatican City to see what the pope does in his spare time. The pope and George Bush, Sr. Those are two people I would intensely watch for secrets and easy blackmail material for obtaining secrets. I wonder if invisibility has an effect on amateur photography. Is exposure even an issue in this digital age? Anyway, the flash probably wouldn't work.

On second thought, maybe not the pope. Benedict is kind of wraith-looking and I don’t want to risk the unnerving feeling that he might actually be able to see me . . . or the Precious. HISSSSS! Maybe not Bush, Sr. either. With my luck, he and the ring would be using me to get to each other and then Jeb would take the White House. I guess I’ll just stick to looking into famous people’s windows/accompanying them to their primary physicians’ office. I don’t know where I was going with this. Oh, yeah. Outside. I haven’t been there in a while.

*Wow. I’ve referenced The Lord of the Rings AND Star Wars in this post. Sigh. I’m ashamed.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Briefly, a thought

I soaked my shoes today in the Pacific. Didn’t mean to. My pants as well. There I was standing at the water’s edge watching the surf when it enveloped my feet and splashed up my jeans. I chalk it up to genius preoccupation, or early onset crazy. Time will tell. Anyone watching must have been surprised by my jolted reaction, though. “Wasn’t he looking right at the water? Get the kids. We’re moving down the beach.” I believe Sally Field did something comparable in Sybil, but I wasn’t missing any time so I think we can safely rule out any kind of dissociative disorder. That can only mean genius. Didn’t Einstein forget to wear pants to a dinner party once? Same thing. And on what was I so keenly focused that the ocean could rush upon and remind me of my place? Well that’s the wonderful thing about thoughts, isn’t it? They belong to no one but the thinker.

I. will. not. tell.

You will, however, be happy to know that I rode the bus back home with barrel-chested dignity despite my squelching steps and water sagging jeans.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

San Francisco Homeless: Danny L.

I walked up to Danny L. as he hunched over a newspaper dispenser reading the day’s headlines outside of Safeway. He wore a dirty red and white winter cap on his head that held a crinkled elfish shape and reminded me of Santa Claus. The rest of him was equally disheveled and grimy and he squeezed a filthy pillow and comforter tightly against his body. The nerve of asking a homeless person a list of questions I had conceived from a comfortable chair, behind a warm cup of coffee, was something that had been plaguing me for many nights but the idea, once it burrowed into my head, was a constant thorn. It still is. I want to know about that man sleeping on the sidewalk under a pile of blankets. I want to know about that woman with knotted hair and craze in her eyes. My self-righteous intentions were to shine a spotlight on some aspect of vagrancy and passively manipulate you all into feeling guilty for not even acknowledging the presence of extended hands. Ironically, my first attempt has fallen flat on its face, for I am so . . . dejected by our conversation that some defense mechanism in my mind is forcing Danny to the margins of thought where he’s not standing before me, shaking my hand; he’s far, far away. Perhaps I can’t even see him. Perhaps he’s even happy. I don’t even feel like thinking about it. I know that’s a cop out, but you all can bite me. At least I acknowledged another human being today.

Take Two:

Danny L. (that’s all the name he wanted to give) is 53 and has been homeless for three months. So he says. He wouldn’t let me take a picture of him but trust me when I say that he looked a little more homeless than just three months. I knew lies were going to be a problem in this endeavor, but something I had not considered were the reasons for deception: pride, embarrassment, shame. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe he just didn’t trust me. And really, why should he? Throughout our entire conversation, his eyes shifted with uncertainty to the notepad in which I was scribbling. The man was visibly ashamed of himself for being in need and I am entirely haunted by that.

I could go into the reasons why he was chronically homeless; he alluded to them if not specifically saying “this, this, and this dragged me to the streets,” but that wouldn’t be fair to Danny because it would satisfy the curiosity for a lot of people and make his homelessness falsely understandable. Any answer to that question shouldn’t make another human being’s destitution acceptable. Why should an individual’s actions be solely to blame when that person is only operating within the boundaries of his institution? Our institution. Is it not our moral duty to help someone up when he’s fallen in a society that we have indifferently allowed to be constructed around him? If not our moral duty then what about our sense of decency? And if not decency then what about our rules of faith? Isn’t there a clause in a holy book or scroll or whatever that demands attention to the less fortunate? How about this one:

“Then the King will say to those on the right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’ Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison, and visit you?’ And the King will tell them, ‘I assure you, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’” (Matthew 25:34-40).
Take Three:

Imagine life without all your securities and ask yourself what your plan would be to get out of homelessness. Could you sleep restfully when you’ve been continuously robbed in the night? Where would you drink water? In which part of a large city block would you feel most comfortable defecating? These are the most basic of human needs to which I’d wager not a single person reading this ever gives any serious thought.

To my knowledge, Danny’s not a menace to society. He’s not a rapist or a murderer. He didn’t even strike me as someone who would steal (something you can bet your ass I’d be aggressively doing if I were starving). He’s just a dirty homeless guy that nobody looks at, except when he’s having a thoughtful conversation with someone who’s lucky enough to still be able to wash his clothes with soap. A lot of passersby craned their heads as they scurried into Safeway. I found that to be insulting.

Hmmm, this post isn’t what I wanted it to be. I don’t really know what I was expecting. I’m surprised by my reaction. And that’s what this is, I guess: reflexive. I’ll do better next time, but for now, I’ll surrender to reflection. I have no call to action other than this: Being homeless is miserable. Fucking miserable, and in Danny’s own resigned words, “It’s never ending.” So the next time you’re irritated by someone’s begging for sustenance, try wondering about their humanity. When was the last time life became too overwhelming and they cried into their hands? That bothers me. I hadn't thought of it before.
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