Wednesday, May 2, 2012

What May 2nd Means To Me: Homelessness

A friend of mine scolded me the other day for giving a couple of dollars to homeless guy. She spewed some cliche about how he'll just spend it on alcohol, or something similarly evil and unnecessary.  It wasn't worth the argument, so I didn't pursue it, but it, once again, caused me to wonder about how we perceive the homeless and how apathetic we've become towards them. Louie CK has a great bit (that's redundant) about someone seeing a homeless guy on her first trip to a city, and how appalled and confused she was because no one was helping him. He talks about how he and his friend thought she was crazy for wanting to help the guy, even though she was completely right.  We've gotten used to walking by these people like they don't exist, but it is awfully strange that we choose to do nothing.  If the homeless man was a sad looking dog, it wouldn't go 20 minutes without someone giving it attention.  If the homeless man was bleeding, he'd also probably receive attention, but let's face it, in many cases, their conditions aren't far off.

I'm just as bad as most.  I'm not volunteering at shelters, or doing anything other than giving them cash when I have it and, let's face it, I think I only have it on me five percent of the time.  So, instead of giving them anything, I generally guiltily tell them I have nothing, which probably makes it ten times worse.  

I still clearly remember my first experience with the homeless, though it was a passive one. I think I was about five or six.  My father took me to a Burger King in New City, New York, and the man in line in front of us was in some tattered clothing that didn't exactly smell fresh.  His eyes were kind of watery, his beard scraggly, and he shook slightly as he stood hunched.  Not like a Parkinson's tremor, but a light shiver as if he was cold.  He ordered softly: a hamburger, fries, and orange soda, but didn't even have the energy to communicate with the cashier who asked him what kind of burger he wanted.  All the man did was hold out two one-dollar bills that appeared as if they'd been crumpled in the bottom of his pocket for years.  The cashier wasn't sure how to handle the situation; the price of his order totaled far more than the two dollars he had, but he politely explained that he only had enough for the burger, and asked if that was OK. 

We didn't sit far from the homeless guy and, though I knew it was both improper and impolite, I couldn't help staring at him the entire time he ate.  He sniffed around his burger much like a dog would, and spaced out big bites with vacant stares into the empty seat across from him.  Eventually, he finished the burger, but remained seated, still staring at nothing in particular.  Every so often his concentration was broken by another customer passing by, each of whom gawked exactly like I did, but he never held eye contact with them for long.  We had left to get ice cream elsewhere, but on the drive back I saw him walking alone on the sidewalk, and all I could remember thinking was why couldn't they just give him the fries and orange soda.  I used to ask a lot of questions when I was younger, like all kids do, but I clearly remember not asking my father that one.  For some reason, I either found it taboo, or knew I wouldn't like the answer no matter what it was.  Or maybe my cognitive dissonance was kicked into overdrive at an early age.

There's nothing all that special or memorable about that story, and probably not much to even learn from it.  But it's just something I remember, and always think about, whenever I hand a homeless guy two dollars, which is still far less than I should give.