Sunday, September 18, 2005

Encounters With The Homeless

Like many of you, from time to time I find myself walking through the city, from a large metropolis like New York to smaller ones like New Haven or Hartford. Spending time in most any city eventually leads me to see many people less fortunate than myself. Oftentimes, I am approached and asked to help them by giving spare change, etc. I know, I know, this is hardly a unique experience.

Why, though, does this make me so uncomfortable? Is it guilt? Maybe. Fear? Possibly….It truly sucks that people are in these situations, and many of us or one or two paychecks away from being thrown into a similar situation. I am by no means rich, but I’m comfortable I suppose. I find myself trying to avoid the encounters altogether, which in turn makes me feel more guilty. I feel fortunate that I have what I do, and that it turn leads to guilt that the person in front of you who has his or her entire wardrobe on his back, and all worldy possessions in a shopping cart. Jeez, am I freakin’ nuts or what?

Worse, part of me feels doubtful that some of these panhandlers are really being honest about their situation. Horrible, I know, but I’m just being honest. I only say this since I’ve found literal examples of this up close. Once a relatively healthy looking young man approached me while I was waiting for a bus. His clothes were clean, and in good shape, so “homeless” was the last thing I thought of as he began to speak. Then he proceeds to tell me, “Excuse me, sir, but the homeless shelter won’t let me in tonight until I give them $5.” Huh? Since when do shelters have a cover charge? Was there a band that night? I immediately activated my brain macro – I think it uses Shift-Ctrl-F8 – which is coded to say “I’m sorry, but I don’t have any change.” This was actually true, but the brain macro kicked in automatically anyway. I have never heard of a shelter asking for donations form those who would be actually using it, so I didn’t feel too guilty here. Honestly, if you’re going to panhandle, go for it, but at least don’t insult the intelligence of the potential donor (panhandlee?) with such a ridiculous cover story! The fact that there are scammers out there just compounds the issue in my mind. Will I be forced to ask for homeless credentials before I fork over some change?

People like the guy mentioned above poison it for the people who really are in need. Still the question rattles around in my head, why do I purposely work to avoid encounters with these people? It sucks that I do that! I wonder if fear plays a factor (oh man, I apologize if that reminds you of that stupid TV show). After all, it is generally accepted that a large number of homeless could be mentally ill. While this alone is a travesty in the richest country on Earth, it remains a fact. What if one of them gets violent, and smacks me in the head? Don’t laugh, I have actually seen panhandlers verbally dress down people who gave them money for not giving them enough! Which guilt trips them into giving more. “Here, take this $20 and don’t hurt me!” Unbelievable. So it’s not too much of a stretch to assume someone might take it to the next level. In this case I think of folks who are veterans, who probably have some hand-to-hand combat training…….and dammit if my mind isn’t running to some far away places now. The overwhelming majority, however, are very thankful, and express gratitude. So, my Avoid-At-All-Costs strategy protects me here against the occasional bad reaction, but is mostly based on things that could happen, but likely won’t.

My wife, who is 1000% more charitable than I, took it to another level recently when she signed up to provide bag lunches for the local shelter. She went and bought all of the food, and put together the most incredible bag lunches I’ve ever seen. I mean, I put all 15 of them into a laundry basket and practically needed a hand truck to get them into my car. These things were loaded. All she asked of me was that I do the legwork and deliver them. Easy enough. I drove to the shelter, and had to be buzzed in. As I brought in the basket, I was greeted warmly by the volunteers, and was directed to the large refrigerator. Several of the people who would be spending the evening there were gathered at the table, having dinner, and all were extremely grateful. This is where I felt like I was taking way too much credit, since all I did was deliver. That would be like falling all over the guy at the 7-11 when he sells you a winning lottery ticket – he was just the delivery mechanism, and had very little to do with you winning. Still, while there I felt uneasy, partially for being there to take credit for my wife’s good deed. Sort of like guilt-by-association, but in a good way. For reasons I still can’t figure, I really couldn’t wait to get out of there.

Writing about this topic provides a bit of a catharsis, and some self awareness. I think I am an optimist at heart, and feel like things such as homelessness just can’t happen to me. This isn’t based on any reality, just a self harbored delusion. I tend to try to avoid conflict wherever possible, and I think avoiding these situations is just another way of denying that the problem exists. Man, is that pathetic. I have absolutely no problem donating things anonymously, such as clothes, money or toys, and I’m a sucker for any televised plea for assistance. One night I found myself sucked in to a 30 minute commercial for a children’s cancer center, and within 20 minutes I had us locked into a monthly donation, which we are still paying out. (I defy anyone with a pulse to watch what I saw and not take action). I guess removing the actual victim from the equation somehow makes it easier. As I said, pathetic.

I’m curious, what do all of you do when confronted with the ugly realities of the real world, such as homelessness? I wonder if there are others who feel as I do, or if I am simply an idiot!

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Civility, R.I.P.

Not to pose a ridiculously open ended question, but, what is wrong with some people these days? It has been remarked upon by people much more eloquent than I about the decrease of civility in everyday life. I could list, literally, thousands of examples of how civility has seemingly disappeared from day to day life, but let me single out two personal instances in particular. One occurred yesterday, while on the road. Indulge me for a moment, if you would.

Since gas prices are at the highest they've ever been (still over three bucks here, obviously your mileage may vary), it only stands to reason that sensible folks would decide to change some long standing habits regarding its use. For example, by using mass transit, telecommuting, car pooling, etc. I decided to make a concerted effort to drive a bit slower, around 60 - 65 MPH, and try not to exceed it. Has it worked? Probably a little, but at least I feel like I'm doing something.

The funny thing to note is that when driving the speed limit, everyone, with the exception of perhaps some old people, will pass you. (I could only imagine what would happen if the speed limits were actually enforced - the state would make boatloads of cash). Most pass with little or no fanfare, but I always wonder what the big rush is, especially when going to work.

Anyway, yesterday, I'm humming along at 62, in the center lane, when I see an eighteen wheeler two cars back. The car that was between us eventually moved aside and got off, and the truck quickly moved up on my back bumper. At this point I'm expecting him to flash his brights at me, which is the universal symbol for "I'm an arrogant a-hole, get out of my way". He didn't, which I chose to interpret as a sign that he was okay with the pace, or maybe he was aware of some state troopers on the horizon. (Do truckers still do that stuff like in the "Convoy" days, like warn other trucks when "smokey" is around? Remenber "Convoy", and when CB radios were all the rage? "Hey, I'm talking to a REAL TRUCKER!" Ah, the 70's: when entertainment was so much simpler. Think variety shows.) After a few miles, the truck decided to move to the right lane, which had been available to it for at least two miles. Okay, if he passes me, no big deal.

So what does he do? Well, he gets up to the right side of my car, and is matching my speed, and by this point I'm not really paying him alot of attention. Then, "BURT", a short, loud burst of his horn, which scared the hell out of me. I look over and see, as he begins to pull away, a meaty arm, flipping me off, from his driver side window as he pulls away and moves ahead of me. I am ashamed to admit how I reacted: with a stream of profanities, heard only by me, mostly involving how his excessive girth, which I determined by seeing his sausage like fingers, would signal an any-day-now coronary. My point is this: if he was so intent that I was ruining his day, why not just pass me, or at the very least, flip the lights? I find the light flashing to be incredibly obnoxious and annoying, but it usually does get the desired result. I continued home, pissed.

The other story I use to illustrate the death of civility occurred a few years ago. My family and I were taking part in a charity walk, along one of those linear trails that have sprang up in my area over the past few years. Normally these trails are used by people running, rollerblading, cycling, walking, etc. On the day of the walk, a Sunday morning, when approximately a thousand people are going to be walking on the trail, some very slowly, others pulling wagons and pushing strollers, using this trail to get in your morning run might not be the best idea, don't ya think?

Well, you can probably guess where this is going. I had my family, walking with two other familes, as far to the right side of the trail as I could get them, with me on the outside. I had a backpack on, loaded with stuff. As I was turning to my right, I heard a voice shout "On your left!", and as I turned I felt a "BAM" on the backpack. I was barely knocked around, but as I turned to my left I noticed a female rollerbalder going ass over teakettle and slamming into the ground. Fortunately, she hit the ground off the side of the trail and landed (mostly) on the dirt/grass area, and mostly missed the pavement. I quickly moved to help her up, and was genuinely concerned that she might be hurt. That is, until I heard the first thing out of her mouth: "You f_cking people! Always in the WAY!" Needless to say she refused my extended hand to help her get back on her feet. What really shocked not only me, but my wife, was my reaction. I smiled, waved as she sped away angrily, and said "Have a nice day!" I honestly don't know what prevented me from unloading a verbal tapestry of profanity on her; must've been the chartiable mood I was in!

Honestly, what the hell was her problem? She chose the absolute worst possible time to use the trail, and had she waited about 90 minutes the damn thing would have been cleared out. Then, after her recklessness results in her taking a fall, she blames me?

I think both examples point to a larger societal trend - that MY needs supercede anything else. I need to get here, and you're in my way, this you must move! I think this happened gradually, with the 70's being dubbed "The Me Decade", then the "Greed Is Good" self-indulgent 80's taking society down the path of "It's all about me, dammit". The only examples which run opposite, unfortunately, is when there is a catastrophe of some type, from 9/11 to the tsunami and most recently, Hurricane Katrina, which shows the generosity and compassion of most people. I guess it's easy to throw five bucks in a jar toward relief, which makes us all feel like we're doing something, then we can go back to our self-indulgent lives. I honestly hope that Sausage Fingered Trucker and Crazy Ass Rollerblader each made some donations, and felt a little better about themselves for a short while, Then they went back to cursing all who cross their paths.