I want to put in a word for those tender hearts who got in mind to feign dispossession – to slouch out onto the street for a couple of days, sleeping under bridges and depending on the kindness of strangers for their supper — as a way of sending a message to homeless people that we homed people know their pain and sympathize.
Their demonstration was cut short, rather scandalously, as you know. When the going got tough, these faux streetpeople got going – right back to the house. The mercury dipped that first night and they scattered, returned to their several cozy hearths. Cold can do that to a body, draining sentimentality and resolve as it does batteries.
It was more than these homelessness deplorers had bargained for. Humiliating themselves for a noble cause was one thing – donning rags and bumming quarters – but hypothermia? Didn’t frostbite oftentimes require subsequent appendage amputation to head off gangrene? And for what, really? A conscience massage? To bolster a bunch of Freddy the Freeloaders’ self-esteem?
They did well to bail so quickly, I thought. Here’s wisdom from an old veteran of the public pityfest, whose geezer heart used to bleed with unrivaled profusion and dependability at the drop of an unfortunate’s hat: It doesn’t dignify a proposition that’s a bad idea to start with to carry it on through to a conclusion. Fly from it as soon as the donkey starts to bray. Nobody’s going to laugh who wasn’t already tittering. Nobody’s going to think less of you, least of all him you were wanting to feel sorry for.
Wising up wasn’t easy in this instance. You couldn’t put yourself in the homeless dude’s place because he had no place, but you could ask yourself what he would do if he could put himself in your place. Would he pick your toasty four-poster over mossy riverbank for his next repose? And another tray of them nachos and the all-new episode of “Numbers” or “Monk” over another night of rat howdys and tossed ends of pizza crust? Is the bear a Catholic? Does the pope go in the woods?
It would’ve been pure wormwood for Bro. Homeless that someone with as beautiful a domestic situation as yours was hunkered down there in the glint and glare and sour chill of another night at the underpass, and claiming it was for his benefit. Sure it was, he would’ve told you by way of Matthew 8:20. Sure it was.
Listen, these homeless dudes know, and you know, and I know, and Sen. Jim Holt knows, and Fifty Cent knows, and Dame Edna Everage knows, and Vice President Cheney and his harridan wife and his gay daughter know, and everybody else knows that being broke sucks. Being cold sucks. Being adrift sucks. It sucks to be all the time in need of a belt, a hit, a sandwich, a ride, a break, or a purpose in life, and lack the means to obtain it. B.o. so bad that you gross your own self out sucks. Being nowhere, going nowhere, getting nowhere, for no reason, must really suck.
But empty gestures of pretend solidarity suck too. Guilt trips that play out at 36 degrees F. suck. And absquatulating as quietly and quickly as you can is about all you can do to get over it.
Was there a better way of going about this, of essaying to draw attention to the homelesses’ plight?
Maybe. I do know this: you can give the homeless dude a fish, and he’ll be hungry again tomorrow, but teach him to fish and he might never be hungry again. That’s assuming of course that he doesn’t choose Grandma’s well, the municipal water tank, the bus-station commode as his fishing hole. It also assumes he’ll be willing to learn the angler’s artful patience. Not many of the homeless dudes I’ve encountered seem of a proper disposition to take up fishing. Certainly not bass fishing. Also, it’s a safe bet that his knapsack is not going to contain any tackle. You’ll have to bring the tackle. And bait.
In the same spirit, you might teach the homeless dude to hunt. Take him along on your next trip to your deer camp or duck club. Here again, you’ll not only have to instruct him but also supply him with both firearm and ammo, and you’ll just have to hope he doesn’t use them to get the drop on you, thence to wolf your ragout and bolt. Even in the utopia of the deer woods, a tramp always wants to move on.
On occasion I’ve tried to share personal hygiene, grooming and fashion tips with these characters. But I’ve found them categorically deaf to good advice. They only want hard currency. One time as I was coming out of Wal-Mart with a new-bought bag of toiletries, a gone-to-the-dogs former classmate hit me up in the parking lot, and I fished a stick of underarm deodorant out of the bag and handed it over. A subtle hint, I thought. And apropos. But this guy was beyond nuance. Before I could show him the first thing about proper application technique, he had the cap off and ate the stuff in one bite like an ice-cream cone.
Bob Lancaster, one of the Arkansas Times longest and most valued contributors, retired from writing his column last week. We’ll miss his his contributions mightily. Look out, in the weeks to come, for a look back at some of his greatest hits. In the meantime, here's a good place to start.