Thursday, August 20, 2009

Dregs of Humanity II

A dirty, shaggy person with a plastic cup huddles in the cold, looking for handouts. They are viewed as the dregs of humanity by those fortunates who pass by. Who will come to their rescue and what does this say about us?

Years ago I was walking through Washington D.C. with a colleague when a beggar approached us for some change. He aggressively talked our ears off for almost two full city blocks. He seemed confident and, strangely enough, almost happy, like he was fully content and enjoying himself. The person I was with finally turned to him and said "Why don't you get a job you bum." Eventually he saw that he would get nothing from us and he moved on to another and started into his routine anew. I saw several more just like this one. At the time, although I didn't think about it for too long, I probably would have agreed with the sentiment of my colleague. These were reasonably young and able-bodied individuals that had learned to live the street life. Maybe they were homeless, maybe they didn't have "real" jobs, maybe they earned enough by begging to get by and had grown accustomed to this way of life. I cannot say, but I do remember that I did not feel sorry for these people. However, I do remember the disgust I felt for them when everything in the metro smelled of urine. I thought to myself "why don't the police make them go somewhere else?"

Somehow the silent, desparate forms that I have seen around town lately are different. They look like they have run out of options, like they finally had to tear down any last remaining barrier of privacy and shame that separated them from the outside world. In some ways, the cardboard signs around their necks represent the scarlet letter of shame and humiliation that they must wear, just like Hester Prynne. Where do you go when you have nowhere to go? I wonder how things got to this point. Was their current circumstance their own doing or an unfortunate occurrence out of their control? Did they once have a life with contentment and happiness and friendship? I guess maybe none of this really matters. They are not some socialological thought experiment. They are not zoo animals to be gawked at. They are human beings, like you and me. Like you. Like me. Still I can't help but wonder in some detached way, are they too far gone to even be able to return to normal existence?

(Part 2 of 3)