Walking Home from Nowhere


It was Super Bowl Sunday, and the game had ended. The roads were messy with post-game pandemonium; slipshod, stop-and-go traffic; drunken football junkies and gamblers, either pissed or thrilled about the outcome. Careless cars accelerated through yellow lights; stop signs were treated like suggestions. A tinted Hummer rumbled over the edge of the curb in front of us; sharp turn, no blinker. Middle finger.

I too had been ignoring signals and missing signs, for years, parading around in chic plans that impressed window-shoppers but afraid to wear the dreams that fit me. The choices I’d made in life had been all wrong. Years of social compliance had left me disoriented. Now I was off-track, like the drunk dickhead in the Hummer. I had no idea who I was, much less what the hell I was doing in Florida.

All night my friends and I had tried to reconnect. I guess thought we could revive our mystical frat-house bonds by meeting up in some random southern city, drinking cheap beer and watching a football game. But the chapter house was four years gone now, we hadn’t seen our alma mater for almost thirteen-hundred miles. The men sitting at barstools in Miami weren’t the boys who did keg stands in the Midwest—no matter how similar the Busch Light tasted.

As we stumbled back to the Metrorail, a young black guy approached us. He was a local hip-hop artist who called himself “J-City,” and he wanted to sell us his homemade CDs. In other words, he had no plans to rob us, which meant we could safely blow him off. My friends stopped acknowledging his presence once they realized that, and part of me wanted to do the same.

But I saw something in J-City’s eyes, a shine I wish I could find in my own. He knew the odds were against him—the market is thin for unsigned musicians who stand on street corners peddling shit they recorded in their basements. But he didn’t care, or didn’t seem to. It looked like he lived inside his heart, where the grassroots dream survived; where the underground mix-tape eventually finds the right ears and turns the homemade nobody into a household name. I got the impression he’d rather fail at Plan A, forever, than hunker down for Plan B, a surrendered 9-to-5 life.

How could I not support someone who had the nerve to do his own thing, rather than donate his productivity to the corporate mega-greed that consumes most of the rest of us? Ambition sells for so little these days; it’s rare to find someone whose dreams aren’t for sale. How could I not pull for J-City? It was inevitable. I stopped and gave him five dollars as the rest of my entourage shuffled on, shyly absent from the moment, unable to relate to someone whose future rested on the merits of his own creativity.

J-City wrote his cell phone # and email on the front of his CD, in Sharpie. I promised I’d call if I was ever back in Dade County and needed a rapper for a party; he assured me he could get me into any club in South Beach. Chances are I won’t take him up on his offers. But our encounter wasn’t so much about keeping promises as it was about two human beings from different worlds being willing to make a connection, to relate to each other. I wished him luck, and then jogged to catch my friends.

Up the block a few minutes later, a second black guy, less hopeful, sat on a different street corner. Before we even could see him, we heard him, singing, almost wailing, from a wheelchair. An empty coffee can doubled as his tip-jar and makeshift instrument. As we got closer and as he got louder I could feel the tension build among my friends, the air ripe for shitball comments.

Then: “I hope this guy’s not gonna try and snag our money.”

And: “Nah, dude, he’s just lookin’ for handouts, like the last cat.”

They glanced back at me, snickering, hoping for a reaction, since, after all, I was the sucker who had hooked up ‘the last cat.’

“Fuck that,” I said. “That fuckin’ bum needs to lose the wheelchair and get a real job.”

Judging from their nods and approving cackles, my friends didn’t quite catch my sarcasm. In their eyes I’d just made a totally valid point: people in wheelchairs are greedy and lazy and out to annoy us, to gyp us out of our hard-earned pennies and nickels. If they can’t walk, it’s because they aren’t trying hard enough to walk.

My comment probably would have stood as our collective, final assessment of this man and his mess. My friends could have passed him in judgment and felt no pity, if only he had been one of those “normal” disabled people, whose broken parts are on the inside. But seeing this man’s mangled legs, and two stubs where his feet should have been, deflated the bullshit “hard-work” theory, and thus took most of the fun out of blaming the victim.

Then we noticed his cardboard sign that read: “WAR VET… NO REGRETS.”

That was about all my friends could handle.

“Let’s cross,” one of them suggested.

I watched as they scooted between two parked cars, and perched, ready to dart between the moving ones. “You comin’ dude?” they called back.

I shook my head and pointed at the intersection, just ten feet away. “Nah, I’ll just cross at the light,” I told them, in a tone that tried to convey how dumb they would look, j-walking across honking traffic when the crosswalk was literally within pissing distance.

But the drunks swerving on the road were mainly white, and they wailed about simple shit ex-frat boys could relate to: sports victories and defeats, or arguments about which meathead had taken more tequila shots. Unlike homeless vets in wheelchairs who had been to war and knew only of real life.

Their commitment to avoiding this broken man spoke volumes about the company I kept. Black people received an unfair advantage, in their view. Even black homeless people in wheelchairs got a fair shake, and deserved to be laughed at. But apparently black homeless people in wheelchairs who also happened to be amputees made them feel uneasy and—especially if they’d lost their limbs in an American war. To avoid looking into such a person’s eyes, they would gladly take their chances with the drunken drivers.

I dropped some one-dollar bills and a handful of coins into the man’s tin can. The quarters clinked to the bottom, adding to the confusion in his wounded rhythm. I stood with him for minute, listening to his sad song, trying not to hear my own. Then I sensed that he was feeling self-conscious, or maybe I was. The light changed and I moved along.

This time I didn’t try to catch my friends, and they didn’t pretend to wait. Suddenly I wanted them vacant from my life, as they’d been from all the moments I wanted to share with people not like us.

I know they “will little note nor long remember” the sight of others helping strangers. They won’t follow mine or anyone else’s steps toward a better world; not unless they’re ready to make that march themselves. Until then, we are and shall stay fundamentally different. I’ll continue to seem distant at reunions, and one day they may stop inviting me. And gradually I’ll stop looking for clues about the person I used to be, call off the search for some memory I can still enjoy remembering. Maybe then we’ll finally agree on something again.

Life’s too short to stay in touch.

AFTERWORD:

I wrote the above in February, and then backed away from it to let it sit still for awhile. I needed some sort of resolution, a version of that night that would let me feel good and gracious and better than most other white people.

I hope I seemed sympathetic and open-minded in the story I decided to retell.

I hope readers interpreted these events exactly as I’ve chosen to remember them, without doubting my sincerity or my motives.

I hope no one feels compelled to ask the hard questions I’ve willfully avoided, such as: Did I see these strangers as real human beings with dreams? Did I care if their dreams came true? Or were J-City and the injured vet more like props to me, fulfilling my need to feel okay about myself for awhile?

It’s been three months, and I haven’t put J-City in my CD player yet.

The ex-soldier with the Folgers can is still utterly fucked—despite your prayers and your flag-waving and my $3.89 (or whatever amount fell out of my pockets). I left him as I found him, with no legs and no prospects, drumming on recyclables for pity and petty change.

Hopefully you’ll want to praise me, anyway, for I am the enlightened white person. Surely you appreciate this version of reality, where the world is a better place because a kind white man endures uncomfortable moments that people in a less just world might clumsily avoid. I threw my spare change at two black men whom it didn’t help. And then I got to walk away—back to my laptop and my hot girlfriend and my cozy university—to spread the word about how thoughtful and generous I am.

See? There’s no racism. Inequality is just a hoax, an overblown throwback from harsher times. And where glimpses of it do poke through, white messiahs will always exist to make sure good beats evil. Hopefully this version satisfies you, as it does me.

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~ by Matthew Frederick on April 25, 2008.

15 Responses to “Walking Home from Nowhere”

  1. In downtown Cleveland, especially towards Public Square, there are signs co-sponsored by the city and local homeless shelters chained to the lightposts encouraging the public to ‘not give where it can’t help.’ Some days I have, some days I haven’t, usually depends on whether I have any loose change which is not usually the case. Some of the homeless are white, most aren’t. And some more than likely are veterans. On the occasions when I have given, is that altruism or a subconscious directive to make myself feel better. Sometimes they might indeed buy some food, maybe they’ll get smokes, coffee or a beer. I’ll never know.

    In the long run, it doesn’t do shit, so the ‘best’ outcome of giving some dude a buck and a half in change is that it’ll sustain him – physically, emotionally, whatever – for an undetermined amount of time. Is that helping, or being a self-righteous white guy? Does the initial emotion of pity, always concealed, make up the difference?

  2. I never hand out money, cigarettes on the street. Our city is small and the panhandlers are well known to be out-and-out bums.

    I give to one charity. A local domestic abuse shelter. It was my favorite aunt’s favorite charity and where she did volunteer work. Every year, on the anniversery of her death, I walk a check there. I don’t mail it.

    But I think the essence of the post is not about who we give to or why….but about someone reaching into his pocket, not for spare change to give away, but to find a consciousness of compassion and understanding to share. thanks for sharing.

  3. Your old buddies would rather live in the Matrix and not see the reality. Who wouldn’t? Some people can look away while others can’t. Which is really easier?

  4. I’ve become pretty steely against people just asking for money. That’s what happens when you spend buckets of time in and out of subway stations and subway cars and you hear the same story from twelve different panhandlers over the span of a week. Or a day.

    HOWEVER, every once in awhile I will see a homeless, disabled, or drug-addled woman with her hand out and my own nightmare returns to me in living color: Anita as Baglady. I’m thinking, but not entirely sure, that a lot of single woman may have that fear.

    I’ve done some pretty crazy things when the voice whispers in my ear, “that could be you 10, 20, 30 years from now.”

    I remember once I was in Penn Station in NY back in the early-to-mid-’90s, when it was not the relatively shiny place with lots of security guards and police presence that it is today. There was a woman lying on one of the old wooden benches, clearly sick, or stoned, or something. She was an older woman (or at least that’s how should looked, for all I know she could have just been a 30-year-old junkie). Anyway, I had just gotten cash at the bank and the sight of her totally broke my heart and I slipped $100 in her hand and walked away. She probably dropped it or more likely somebody probably stole it from her. But it was that voice in my head … that, plus another voice … ‘do unto others …’

    I’m always torn. Which is why I think it was a good thing when the MTA put the signs in the subways exhorting people to “Give, but Don’t Give Here” and then providing a list of charities that provide direct aid to homeless people.

    It’s a tough one, I know. And I imagine that the homeless problem is going to get much worse very soon.

  5. It is seldom I read a blog piece that brings me to tears, but this one did. I always give. If I have nothing to give, I apologize. I look these people in the eyes and talk to them. We are human aren’t we? If I have nothing to give, I can at least give eye contact and voice to their humanity. There but for the grace of……… Soon it could be any of us. Not Them, Us. Thanks for this reminder that it matters. We are all connected. Go ahead fairlane, mock me.

  6. Here’s a very interesting story about a ‘professional’ panhandler in Salt Lake City:

    http://www.breitbart.tv/html/84523.html

  7. MFV that was good post. I just wrote an article aout a fledgling hip-hop group and their mix tapes- i’ll post it today.
    In Cali (Berkeley) there were tons of bums. We called them dirtheads street wizards or winos depending on their method of operation. Ironically there were more white bums than black. I guess the brothas were in jail or selling crack to the homeless people that flooded our streets. We lookad at thoise people with a mixture of pity and disdain. “I feel bad for you i want to help but could you step back my eyes are watering from your b.o.” that is some real shit.
    People choose to be who and what they are. They may not be aware of the possibility of a better or different situation. That is none of our faults. However, the nightmare of a shared reality full of despair has cause me to ‘help out’ wherever and whenever I can.
    Do unto others.
    That works for me.

  8. mfv — you really touched something in me about giving. like anita i have unfortunately grown immune to the homeless of NYC. they are everywhere – and it does she to be getting worse. they hang at the 14th st entrance to the union sq subway station as i go to work.

    i used to give, but now i dont — i would rather give to a charity or shelter than directly to someone. several years ago i saw a homeless woman on the street in pretty cold weather. it was morning and i was walking to work with my friend Katherine. after we saw her katherine ran into the deli nearby and bought the woman a bagel and coffee. she sure look like she needed it. i gave the woman the food (kath was a bit fearful of going near her) — and she took the coffee and threw it at me and after two bites on the bagel she tossed it in the street — then screamed “i want money” she was obviously drunk as she slurred…and i guess she wanted cash to buy some more alcohol. the whole incident really stuck with me (and kath, who bought me a new shirt the next day – which i didnt want).

    i so feel for the homeless because there are those out there — for no reason other than mental illness, corporate greed or some other non-choice event.

    i could go on, but i will leave it for now……..

  9. Good post. I think you were too hard on yourself in the Afterword. As little as you feel you did, you did something. And for a few minutes, those two guys felt a connection with another human being and had some hope that they weren’t invisible.

  10. Scarlet- I love the red pill/blue pill analogy. The sign of an informed citizen is whether or not someone who watches that movie thinks to themselves afterward, “I think that’s about US.”

  11. Anita-
    I’ve been reluctant to trust the charitable organizations ever since the Red Cross fiasco. Bureaucratic organizations are run by human beings, the human beings prove themselves to be fallible. Their stated goals might sound important, but then again, so does “homeland security.” Even when people mean well, there’s always that “big-picture”/”ends justify the means” mentality that rationalizes using the $ to build a fancier headquarters building or to go on extravagant fundraiser trips. At least when I give to a homeless person, I know the money will be used by & for the homeless.

  12. distributorcap-
    Interesting story about your friend and the homeless lady and the coffee. Apparently beggars CAN be choosers!

    When I was in college, I worked with a (purportedly) ex-homeless man in the dorm food courts and he made us PROMISE never to give money to the homeless, because in the long run it wasn’t helping them. He claimed he’d been addicted to heroin, and that every time someone gave him money it went directly to his next fix. The only thing that got him off the streets was when they arrested him, which forced him to sit in a jail cell and get clean. Libertarians love that story.

  13. I’ve been reluctant to trust the charitable organizations ever since the Red Cross fiasco. Bureaucratic organizations are run by human beings, the human beings prove themselves to be fallible.

    True, that can be a problem. But if a charity screws up once, does it mean they’re corrupt and completely incompetent? Do decades of hard work suddenly mean nothing? When you give your money to a homeless person, you have no guarantee it will be put to good use either. That’s not to say one shouldn’t do it. You can hope it’ll go to good use, but that’s all up to the person you’re trying to help.

    There is a way to maximize your charitable donations to organizations. The American Institute of Philanthropy (I have no affiliation with them) screens charities for their effectiveness and accountability. Think of them as the Consumer Reports of charities.

  14. Thanks, I was hoping someone would vouch for one in particular. I’m at the point these days where I’ll trust fellow-bloggers more than any official organization.

  15. […] Cross-posted at Jonestown. […]

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