Tag Archives: poverty

Transacting the Humanity out of Society

Commerce. Transcations. Goods. Units. Revenue. Profit. Growth. Market. Market share. Margin. Money. Money. Stuff. Stuff. More. More. More.

More work, more money, more time, more things. So much. So-so, much.IMG_0044

I walked through LA’s Santee Alley in the fashion district. There were crowds of us walking right next to each other looking at $1 sticks of lipstick that claimed to be MAC and $10 shoes that looked exactly like Chuck Taylors save the Converse logo. T-shirts, piñatas, skin tight pants and bustiers went on for blocks and blocks. The people behind the counters or in the isles hocking goods did not appear to be particularly concerned with makeup or fashion, they were interested in transactions. They were merchants, not artisans.IMG_1475

That same day, only a few miles away I strolled through The Grove. The street is wide enough for the double decker trolley to roll on its tracks and still allow the crowds to meander in safety. There the MAC lipstick is $25, the Chuck Taylors are $50. You can easily find skin tight jeans and bustiers (maybe not piñatas) but they will all be much more expensive. Still, the people selling them were just retailers. They may be better funded consumers, but they are not artisans, just merchants.

It is hard to comprehend or appreciate the grand scale of how many dollars and units pass through these places daily, monthly, yearly. The volume of dollars, the hours spent creating, shipping, distributing and retailing is almost incalculable. Almost. No- not true. They are absolutely calculable and that is why they, we, go through the trouble. We are making calculations and transactions because that is what we do. It is how we live. It is who we are, or at least it is who we have become. We are a society of consumers on a grand scale.

Walk through any mall in any suburb in any state and amid all those people buying, selling, and transacting, what you will rarely find is a person behind the counter doing what they love. So many of them, of us, me, are not following passions but just doing things and tasks to get by. We are trying to make it, and by make it I mean pay the rent. Maybe pay for our kids to do something they like. Maybe. Some of the people doing the buying may appear a little happier, but they are only visiting, this isn’t what they do to survive. Many of the buyers in malls are simply enduring. They are on an errand to get some sort of affordable necessity, meaning it is what the other kids are wearing and not conforming will cause discomfort. Maybe they are like me and have gained ten pounds and two inches resulting in the need for a new pair of Hagar slacks. Navy blue non-iron with those invisible stretchy side tabs allowing for the 5 extra pounds still to come. But in that mall is a fountain that no one stops to look at, a sculpture by an artist with no name, and performances attended only by parents and friends.

And the scale is astonishing.

Commerce. Transcations. Goods. Units. Revenue. Profit. Growth. Market. Market share. Margin. Money. Money. Stuff. Stuff. More. More. More.

More work, more money, more time, more things. So much. So- so, much.

I see all those widgets and things and the time and the effort and the dollars going strictly to transactions and I feel dread.IMG_4296

I feel that dread because I have also seen people struggle to pay the rent or buy food. I have known people whose entire existence is a struggle for the day to day necessities of life. I have seen people turn to crime or medication, or wish for death, because they cannot get their hands on enough money to flush the toilet, or heat the stove, or pay tuition, or drive a car. These people will never have need of a financial planner or investment manager. These people will never need a real estate agent, stylist, or consultant. There are plenty of things they will need, they are obvious, but they won’t, or don’t, get them. And what is even worse, is that these people will likely never be able to spend their hours doing things they love. They will look inside themselves and see their own value, and they will feel passion for this or that, and they won’t ever get to go there or do that, for any meaningful period of time.

Anything neglected over time will wither and die. Plants, muscles, passions, and self worth.

I was and have been told, that there is no helping others, at least not on a societal level. I have been told that the problem is the poor themselves. I have heard and been told and been taught, that the answer is God and that things must stay this way till God comes to Earth and everything becomes heaven by magic. I am quoted the scripture that says the poor will always be with us and that I should just do my best to care for me and mine. It is odd that despite my belief in God, real, actual belief, I don’t believe that. I can’t and I won’t.

I cannot believe that we humans must wait for divine intervention because we lack the knowledge will or ability to help the poor huddled masses- because I have seen Santee Alley and the Grove. I have seen and watched and participated in the wonder of producing, shipping, distributing, warehousing, selling, and consuming of piles and piles and dollars worth of stupid pointless things. The drive for dollars and plastic toys or mascara, or a fourth pair of shoes, has made distance from China to Arizona irrelevant. It has made the state of oil in the ground and rubber solidified into soles of shoes the monetary equivalent of a night at the movies. We pay millions to individuals, and billions to businesses, whose sole purpose is getting a ball through a hoop. We spend millions of dollars and millions of hours to risk our lives climbing mountains for the sole reason of saying that we did. We do all of that all of the time.

And we have to wait for God to come to Earth to find jobs for poor people? It will take Jesus and Armageddon to educate immigrants?

It makes no sense at all. None. No sense in that I see the merchants in the alley who do not love these little trinkets and have no passion for taking money in exchange for toys- but yet they do it. Every day they do it. I see the people buying things at the mall and they don’t really love that stuff and the teenagers who work there hate the stuff, and even the manufacturers who make the stuff could care less what stuff they make as long as there is profit. There is no love in it at all and I cannot stand it.

We have sacrificed passion, craft, and humanity on the altar of efficiency and revenue. We killed the unblemished lamb and blessed it with the name of free market capitalism. We have slaughtered the scapegoat and called it communism. We have made these sacrifices and at the end I fear we don’t have blessings just dead animals. I have this fear because I know so many good people doing great things, yet they, like me, remain a foundational part of the problem.

I know a doctor who spent decades studying and suffering to earn the ability to save lives, and now that he does in fact save people’s lives, he bought himself a motorcycle in addition to his every day car just for fun and because he has earned it. Meanwhile the life of the person whose life he has saved is in shambles because the insurance won’t cover the procedures and now he cannot afford to sustain his newly saved life. I know of a farmer who toiled with dirt and with books till he accumulated enough money and knowhow to industrialize. Now he makes a fortune producing food that is shipped around the world to feed the poor yet those who still work on his farm are mostly undocumented because those with rights cannot afford to live off the wages the farmer pays and those without rights have no choice but to try.

We have inhaled so completely the myth of American meritocracy that we feel we deserve the good we get and that others deserve the bad. We believe that the freedom we covet is inherently tied to private property and capital yet turn a blind eye to the correlating truth that tying freedom to those things robs the poor of all hope to be free. Every business person I know will parrot the axiom that it takes money to make money, knowing full well the poor don’t have any, and the act of loaning anything to the poor is so remarkable that doing so at a non-predatory rate will win you a Nobel Prize. Watching and hearing this is infuriating and it is easy to see why so many who care for the poor from some religious obligation could lose hope in humanity and resign themselves to wait for deity. Not me. The deity I know has never really forced the human hand and while there is definitely drama in divine interactions, they are not normally mixed with direct compulsion. Destruction maybe, but not forced action. In addition, humanity has an amazing, even godlike capacity, to strike out and accomplish whatever it is they, or we, decide we wish to do.

So the question is not, nor has it ever really been, “how do we solve world hunger?” or just, “how do we help the poor,” but rather “how do we decide to help the poor?” or “How do we convince ourselves to put people above profit?” It is all about the will. And this lack of will, or our misplaced will, is where my feelings get hurt. Because we, as a whole, have so readily and foundationally dedicated ourselves and our will to something, or everything, that so many of us simply don’t care about.

We dedicate ourselves to daily work, because we believe we have to, and our heart is not in it. Meanwhile, we gloss over or walk past, things, or activities, or people, in which or in whom we would and could so easily invest, but we do not. We cordon off our hearts and passions as extracurricular or as hobbies and see charitable donations as a tax exemption, viewing poverty as a political issue. Some discover and chase passion projects or are lucky enough to synchronize fulfillment and career, and they are almost always beginning in the middle or upper class.

If we can create a world where we can pull oil from the ground in Wyoming, ship it to China where it is formed into a Shopkin, then ship it back to California and sell it by the truckloads at Target for $2 per trinket, we can do anything we want.

Is it possible that we could restructure in a way that those who are currently laboring with transactions with no heart at all could instead follow their passions and still fill their belly? Isn’t that what a 1st world society should be? Would we be less efficient and productive? Probably. Could we craft a true meritocracy that enables the ambitious without crushing the lost and lowly? Maybe. But maybe we would also be better. Not better on an income statement or maybe not even better quality products all the time but possibly we would be better people.

Maybe. I don’t know. I do not have the detailed answers but I am convinced they exist. Maybe the one who has, or who could, decipher the answers is right now making change from a five dollar bill for someone who wants to buy a one dollar stick of lipstick.

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Industrial Tools in a Digital World: or what good is money to a cave man

I once found myself sitting at my desk with a magic check book. I could scrawl out numbers large or small to anyone (except myself) and those checks would clear. I was under the general charge to use those checks to help those in need, and records were to be strictly kept, but other than that, it was all up to me. I was the genie, I could grant wishes, and I really wanted to help. I wanted to do good, to tackle the troubles facing those within my reach and now I had the ultimate tool; a magic checkbook.phillysky

This office was right on North Broad Street in the heart of one of Philadelphia’s most blighted neighborhoods. I was positioned perfectly. I was right where help was needed, with all the money I could imagine, possessing more will to do good than I knew what to do with, and I have never felt more useless and impotent then I did during that time.

I didn’t even make a dent.

This isn’t to say I wasn’t able to do some good or help some folks here and there, nor am I fishing for support with self-deprecating comments. No. I really wasn’t able to fix a thing. I have never felt so utterly thwarted.IMG_0423

I wrote a lot of checks, but not as many as you might have thought. We did our best to be financially responsible by not replicating services available elsewhere and thanks to WIC, food stamps, section 8 and a plethora of slum lords I paid out a lot less on rent mortgages and food than others I have seen with similar check books. I paid for a refrigerator, a water heater, paid tuition, bought subway tokens, patched a hole on someone’s roof, and funded a lot of plumbers and electricians. I also paid for some mental health services. Those ones were tricky, not because the money or service was funny, but because I discovered that those who needed these services most were hard to track down. They kept going homeless and getting arrested or admitted to hospitals. I did pay for some phones. Those were probably the most useful things I wrote checks for.

There was one woman I knew who was battling Cancer. She was unable to work and didn’t own a car that ran. We used to sit in her living room, her reeling from the effects of chemo, me reeling from the stacks of unpaid bills that she kept incredibly organized in a stack next to the couch. She knew who she owed, when things were due, and how much she had, but what she couldn’t get was a straight answer from anyone on the phone. She would be in the ratty recliner queuing up the bill, I would make the phone call and use my best respectable white man voice to try to get some clue as to what number to put on my magic check. Mostly I was put on hold or lectured about financial responsibility or sternly warned about service interruptions.

There was this other retired woman whose inherited house was reassessed and she magically owed back taxes. Old age and epilepsy made getting a job a non-starter so she borrowed money from friends and family to scrape together taxes. Scraping included not paying her water or electricity. She had previously been on a payment plan for both, and these plans included the stipulation that should you ever miss a payment you would be required to pay all the fees that would have accrued had you not been on said plan. I wrote a check for $2,000 to get the water turned on and $1,700 for the electricity. She was incredibly grateful and as we flipped the switch and there was light, she stared off into space and asked, “What am I supposed to do when the tax comes due again next year?” The house wasn’t particularly nice.copandfire

There was the truck driver who was on a rent-to-own program to gain full ownership of his rig. He was forced to forfeit with two payments left because someone rear ended him at a stop light. There was guy in the carpenters union who was laid off for over a year and then billed for two years of apprentice school when he finally took a menial job outside the union. There was even a stripper who didn’t want to dance but was struggling to find a way to pay her bills when she had no other marketable skills. There were all sorts of stories and I wrote all sorts of checks, but what I was mostly unable to do was change anyone’s long term situation.

My endless checkbook’s funds were insufficient in the face of greater contexts.

In some respects, and to some extent in retrospect, the failure was mine. I was afraid of going big and swinging for the fence. Every month I would meet with approximately five other men who had similar checkbooks but with different jurisdictions. They were mostly suburban and they almost always spent more money than me. They were also older than me and more experienced. We would meet and talk about solutions, and principles of work, and the overall theme would be in wondering how we could write fewer checks or get people to stop asking for money. There was much ado about responsibility and self-sufficiency, both of which I was on board with, but as we talked each month they would bring up a small redundant set of scenarios, or even repeat certain family names again and again, and here I was talking about everyone and everything. They would repeat to me some principle about work having it sown value and that rather than handouts we needed to encourage people to take control of their own situation. I would talk about the woman with cancer, or the new taxes, or the carpenter, I didn’t share the stripper because that would have seemed salacious, and they would just repeat those principles. I found it very dissatisfying and I was branded a passionate young firebrand. Whether it was the branding or the caution toward frugality, I never did what I really wanted to do which was to just pay off all of these people’ bills with some sort of trust moving forward, freeing them from the crushing weight of the unpaid bill shuffle or the impending doom of bills yet to come. I wanted to just write some big numbers that would give these people more than just some wiggle room but the solid footing needed to build a skill or chase an opportunity. But I didn’t. No one told me directly not to do it, yet I remained afraid knowing full well how the others interpreted those principles and my magic was rendered impotent.IMG_2057

I remember that check book any time I read policy debates about public school funding, government entitlements, or healthcare. Any time I hear the statement that problems cannot be solved by throwing money at them, I hear echoes of those monthly check writer’s meetings. They sound the same and that same feeling I had there rings and resonates inside me with the same feeling of helplessness and I know that this discussion will fall short. I know this because I am no longer a young firebrand but rather I am a little older and experienced. I know better now and were I to go back to my former self in those meetings and with that checkbook, and in the discussions of policy now, I would write those giant checks.

I would agree that the problems of a post-industrial world cannot be solved by just throwing money at them- then- I would add that any solution that doesn’t include throwing lots of money at it, is incomplete and wrong.

We live in a 1st world country with 1st world problems and those who have the means to become world traveled know this. They point out that the impoverished in America have so much more than almost everyone else in the world. I haven’t been to those places but I get it. I understand. I realize that in some countries people walk miles to get water from a well in bare feet and toil with seeds and soil to pull out rice or yams to eat in their tin roofed shacks with dirt floors. I am reminded of these things or these places when Americans look at our budget deficit or entitlements or failing public schools. We are rich and we are wasting it and we need to stop the bleeding and become more responsible. I get it.IMG_3343

But I cannot tell that retired woman that rather than asking for $2,000 to get her 1st world water turned back on, that she should get a bucket and walk to the well. Because there is no well.

I cannot tell the man from the carpenter’s union to stop wasting his money on rent and use his skills to build himself a tin roofed shack. We don’t allow that here.

I cannot tell that dancer to employ her health in planting and harvesting because she has no land, no seeds, and no time.

And the woman with cancer. Were she in one of those places the answer would be somewhat more direct. She would go untreated and die. Because that is what happens there.

Truth is that in America people need money. If someone has some money, they must spend their time in accruing more in order to keep up with the clock because in America time has a cost. If you happen to have an abundance of money you can buy time, and spend it as you choose. But if you start out with no money you will at some point need to borrow or beg because you cannot afford the cost of living that time demands while you are spending your time in the act of accumulation. And that initial cost of time is the rub.

Time is the rub because it is so much more expensive than we realize and our 1st world has completely adjusted to those who can already afford it. It has taken us quite some time to get here, but we have arrived and if we just deal with now, acknowledging how we got here but willing to deal with the present, we have a lot of work to do and it is going to be more expensive than we realize.

For instance, schools are not only expensive to run, but opening up charter schools and options for parents, is mostly only open to those who can already afford the costs of changing schools, including the cost of time in researching and applying. Retraining those displaced from industrial jobs due to mechanization is not just expensive as it relates to tuition or instruction, but the time it takes to learn and get re-hired. Who pays the bills in the meantime? It is as if any one who finds themselves at zero is being fooled by the goose egg. There is no such thing just as time never stands still. Zero lasts only a moment before it becomes a negative and as soon as you realize you have hit the bottom you are in negative numbers.

So as I remember back to those days where I had the magic check book but was too afraid to write a tectonic check I also remember that one of the reasons I did not, one of the reasons why I felt so helpless, a foundational contributing factor to my in effectiveness, was that money wasn’t and would never be, enough. I knew it then. I couldn’t stop time. I didn’t have enough extra hands, enough hours, enough extra bodies or opportunities, to throw at these people’s problems in addition to throwing money. Because it was instantly obvious that this is what was, and still is needed.

We cannot solve the problems of poverty by simply throwing money at them. Reality is that it takes money and then it takes more. Throwing money and throwing time.

Developed society has left behind the sweat of our brow and replaced it with allowances either purchased or granted. Because of this we cannot expect any progress within the lower half of society unless there is some sort of concession granted by those who control, or own resources. We will never solve poverty in the 1st world till more of those who can afford time, start spending it on helping those who can’t.

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For Christmas I Want More Christ-like Behavior: from everyone

I like stuff, especially nice stuff. Sometimes I focus on “stuff” or things, because inanimate objects can be subjected to scrutiny without rebuffing the scrutinizer. People, or society, do no such thing and not only despise scrutiny, but too often dish it out in inhumane ways. I may be guilty of this myself, but for today’s Christmas wish I’m ignoring my own faults and look at others.IMG_1647

For Christmas I wish people with money would stop complaining about those with less.

Even those of us, especially those of us, who work hard yet still struggle to almost hold on to middle class, should stop complaining or worse yet blaming poor people for the problems of the world.passed out subway

I wish we, all of us, would stop that. It isn’t Christ like. This is Christmas.

Those in poverty are not without their faults, nor are the middle or the rich. What the poor are without is comfort and power. Why would those of us with something, no matter how little, resent those with less? The idea that the poor are the source of modern American troubles is not only false, but in my mind, a morally indefensible idea. WE, the collective we, including the rich and the middle are all guilty of moral corruption and I am tired of the demonization of those who inhabit the bottom rung of society.couchontheblock

I can think of nothing crueler, nothing as polar opposite of charity and kindness, than to abuse (in any way) those who suffer in poverty. For Christmas I wish we as a nation would be more Christ-like.

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Maybe I am Poor, Thanks For Noticing.

I think it was the car.IMG_1987

I drive not only an ugly, but a busted, car. We have two cars, one that looks almost passable but doesn’t run well, the other looks broken but runs reliably. I suppose we could spend a little money to fix the ugly car up, like paint the hood so that it matches the rest of the car, repair the dented bumper, and replace the missing headlight. But those repairs would cost more than the value of the whole vehicle and besides, it runs just fine. The other car looks almost normal but has a knock in the engine and leaks coolant. It will die soon but until it does, we will drive it.

These cars are a choice. Now some of that choice is dictated by money, if we had more we might just buy new cars, but we don’t have more money and consequentially we drive what we have. We could get a loan and buy a new car, my credit is good. But I don’t want a shiny new car enough to have a shiny new car payment.  So I choose to drive that ugly thing.IMG_6564

It must have been the car. It couldn’t be our apartment.

Most of my money goes toward rent. I pay too much in rent. We chose to live where we do, despite it being overpriced, because we wanted our kids to go to a specific school. We wanted this school because it was the best school within close proximity to my job. It was the cheapest place to live that was still on the right side of the street. It is cheap compared to the neighborhood yet remains ridiculously expensive.

Maybe it’s the clothes my kids wear.

I think they look fine. Sometimes the outfits they choose aren’t in line with my taste, but for the most part I let them choose, and they don’t choose crazy things. We don’t spend a lot on their clothes. They grow so fast and don’t have real strong opinions about brands, so I will admit; most of what they have is second hand. Macklemore said this is cool. I don’t really trust him but I hear others do.woody

It had to be something.

It had to be something because today the Church of Christ called my wife. They said they got our number from our children’s elementary school and that we had been referred to them as a family who might need a free turkey for Thanksgiving. My wife was a little surprised and politely declined. The person followed up by explaining that they were prepared to help us buy Christmas presents for our kids. Again my wife politely declined. Having turned down the caller’s generosity, they ended the call.

Should we be flattered that someone thought to do something nice for us? It didn’t feel flattering. Maybe it didn’t feel flattering because it was obvious that whoever referred us didn’t really know us, they simply judged us. I could be wrong. I want to be wrong. This feels wrong.

It feels wrong because I am not really poor. I know what poor is and while I surely don’t have what I would like, I know full well I have more than I need. It feels wrong because someone tried to do something nice and I don’t feel nice about it. It feels wrong because we invite people into our home to eat almost once a week and someone thought that we couldn’t afford enough food to feed our kids. Why would they think that? Because of our car? Because of our clothes? Are those things that important?IMG_3346

I don’t know who thinks we have fallen on hard times and maybe that’s what bothers me. It bothers me because I don’t think they know me either. Do they want to know me?

We all make assumptions about all sorts of things. It is natural and it is easy. We assume things for just those reasons; because it is easier than investigating and learning. It is easier and faster than asking questions. It is easier than caring. This does not feel like caring. This does not feel like help. It actually hurt.

It hurt because someone just looked at me, at us, and decided we couldn’t handle things. Someone looked at us and just decided we needed their help, and the help they were willing to give was a turkey. Just last week my wife and I discussed with each other our plans to hedge against our children’s holiday materialism and then the help someone thought we needed was another toy to go in our children’s already full toy bin? No.IMG_3163

Make no mistake this is not my pride speaking; I am not above help. I would love some help. I would love a promotion at work, I would love for one of my paintings to sell, I would even love a new headlight. I would love a Jeep Wrangler, I would love to see Istanbul, I would love for my daughter to have her ballet lessons scholarshipped. Give me any one of those things and I will grovel at your feet. I will sing your praises and write a post in your honor.

But no. Now when I pull up by the curb and idle my bucket in that long line of cars and kids I know you aren’t thinking, “Oh there’s Dalyn and the kids.” You are thinking, “look at those poor people.”

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The Suburban Middle Class Mind-Set: Four Wheeling Through Poverty

I have always wanted a Jeep Wrangler. Four slightly large but not huge tires, top down, and the doors removed from the hinges. Forest green, maybe black or midnight blue, not yellow. I have pictured myself driving it off road in the dirt, on the streets passing strip malls, and even pictured parallel parking it in Manhattan between a cab and a Smart car.  It was never an obsession, not a top priority, but it was always there. In 8th grade, drifting off during math class-Jeep. College, sitting in a dorm room eating instant noodles-Jeep. I have always thought it the perfect vehicle for the person I wanted to be, the vehicular expression of the inner me. I may wear a suit and tie to work, but deep inside, I’m a Jeep.

Funny thing happened when I lived in Philadelphia’s inner city, the Jeep drove away. It was not buried under life’s cares, it wasn’t towed away by day-to-day practicality, it simply drove out of my consciousness.061004-philly-W(4)

I have since moved to another local and to my surprise, the Jeep, or rather a vacant parking space meant for a Jeep, has returned to my imagination. I can’t shake that stinking contraption, it’s there all the time. I suppose I could exorcise the demon by simply buying one. I can think of a million reasons not to do that, but none of those reasons can shake the fantasy. I’m doomed and the realization of this doom has caused me to reflect a little on why this is the case. I have also reflected a little on why Philadelphia somehow made me mentally Jeep-proof. I think I know the answer, and it makes me just a little afraid of myself. It makes me a little afraid of us all. I will explain.

Philadelphia was the first place I had ever lived, not visited, where there were a lot of poor people. Now I have never been wealthy, or even very stable (reason number one for lack of four wheel drive dream car), but in Philadelphia there were people, a lot of them, that were very visibly doing much, much, worse than I. The longer I lived there, the more I not only saw such folks, but I got to know them. Names. Situations. Humans. This familiarity and proximity provided for me a new opportunity; I was able to help. I didn’t help much. In fact it could easily be argued that the net effect of me living there nine years was zero. At least zero in the dent I made on poverty. But being there and working there made a huge dent in me. That dent came from a constant blow to my chest that eventually crushed by ribs and touched my heart. I felt it. It hurt. But it didn’t only hurt it also gave me this sort of zealous energy and joy. This trying, this being needed, and this involvement in something bigger and more important than my day to day life was invigorating despite the pains I picked up along the way. Not only was it not only painful, it was also not only poor people. This was the first place I met real life rich people.

When I say rich I’m not talking the “I own a car dealership” kind of rich, I’m talking the “My name is Henry Ford the 5th”, kind of rich. Now no, I never really met the heir to Model-T dynasty, but surely I now know players in that same league and I will admit there was excitement in such encounters. Some such folks were wonderful, and others not so much; just like the poor people. Some people were doing fascinating and wonderful things with their resources, and others were just minding their own business. Knowing these people and peeking into their world taught me a few things, but it didn’t hit my heart. Some of those folks bruised my eye a little, but nothing lasting.cheesesteak

In Philadelphia I saw these two worlds, the wealthy and the destitute, rub up against each other. Watching these two tectonic plates, these huge forces of nature that have to our knowledge always existed, grate and rub, I learned what humanity is. Humanity is people, you me, us them, rich and poor. Humanity, these individual and singular people are what are important. Not the money, not the lack of it, but the person is what is important and one person interacting with another can do big things. Huge things. Things that matter! Not matter in the way that getting the high score on Angry Birds matter, but matters in the life outcomes and eternity sort of way. I got to live in that world. I was one of those people getting ground up between these two forces of nature, poverty and power, and I got to do a few little tiny things that really mattered.

And none of those things required, or had anything to do with a Jeep. That gorgeous chariot and all it offers never even occurred to me while I was there.

I have since left that city. It is a hard place to be and my job sent me somewhere else. Where I live now is wonderful. No potholes. No abandoned houses, no panhandlers, and no rib crushing blows. My kids go to a great school where I never worry about their safety and my wife never complains about the weather. I like my job, my friends, most everything about the place. I love it here-but the Jeep is back. I see it driving down the sunny streets and parked right over on the other side of my desk where chairs should be. It no longer has chrome rims, but it’s still green or blue. My dream car has returned and my chest has started healing. That dent, that damage, doesn’t hurt quite the same way, and that, is what makes me afraid.IMG_3945

My daydreams are not the faces of the people struggling to make it day to day but rather a gas guzzling car. The pain of tragedy and struggle is being replaced for a desire to have a little fun. Now make no mistake, I never abandoned fun, but it’s becoming my default setting. I had for some time filled my thoughts with doing good for other people, but without even trying, my thoughts are drifting to Jeeps. In fact I’m trying really hard to focus on doing good stuff for other people but Jeeps are all-terrain and apparently so are my daydreams. I have learned that seeing struggles on television, or the radio, or even talking to struggling people on the phone, just doesn’t hit my heart quite the same way. There is too much meat and bone, perhaps a little flab, protecting my heart from the outside world and I have a new found appreciation for a wounded heart’s ability to heal. This makes me afraid for myself. It also makes me afraid for all of us. I’m afraid because I think I might just be a normal person. Not super special or unusual, and if this is the case, than what are the rest of us dreaming about when we could be dreaming about helping people? Mine is a Jeep, what is yours?

And this matters because the one thing I refuse to forget is that those others, the ones who need help, really do need help. They need help from other people… more than I need a Jeep.

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I Abandoned A Homeless Man: what a horrible thing to say, uhhhh… do.

Calvin James *not his real name.
Today I got great news. I was informed that I am no longer responsible for a homeless man. Yup, he’s off the books.
This doesn’t mean he is all the way off the streets; he’s just off my plate.slumpedcorner
Off my plate.
How cold. Like left overs.
Has-been, second rate, and inconsequential leftovers. It feels heartless to talk about him this way because it is. I feel heartless that I was even able to walk away from his life, but I have. It is good that I’m no longer responsible for him, I was never very good at it, but I was all he had. I wish I could say I left him in a better spot than when I found him, but that isn’t true.
That isn’t true mostly because he wasn’t homeless when I found him.payphone
When I met Calvin James he was a competent, cocky, guy. He wore shined shoes and suit jackets along with gold hoop earrings. He was a little flashy for my taste but always well put together. He was funny and friendly and above all else, he was sure of himself. But he had reason to be.
Calvin can cook.
When we met he was the head chef of a fancy prep school. He had a kitchen and a staff. He loved what he did and took great pride in it. The man could, and really still can, cook.
We met in church.pushforhelp
This cocky guy came in contact with some missionaries and couldn’t shake them. He began to realize that his life lacked depth and this new church had it. Now I have met some others in church who came there to escape their past. Calvin wasn’t doing that. I have met some who lived hard lives, or maybe lived life hard, and once on the bottom looked to God as a way back up. That wasn’t really Calvin either.
Calvin had it together. He had done some college, business school, had a career he loved, and he wasn’t all that old, just a little over 40. He was single, no kids, owned a house. He came to church, not necessarily came from somewhere else.
That was Calvin.
Then came cancer.
I don’t know all the details, I’m not a doctor. I know he lost a lot of weight, he was never very big, went through radiation of some sort but kept his hair, and I know it was very hard on him. He had to take time off work to get healthy; Dr.’s orders. He took so much time off that his job let him go.
It wasn’t right for them to let him go and after a lot of haggling the courts agreed and he got a settlement. He got a settlement, but not his job. He was also awarded disability benefits but not a clean bill of health. So now he had a little bit of money but still had cancer.drugtires
Losing the job hurt him a lot. Chemo is painful and so is unemployment. Calvin tried to kill the pain. But Calvin found this pain was hard to kill and then the doctors told him it wasn’t just ordinary pain, it was depression. For those keeping score we are up to cancer, unemployed, and depressed.

 

Then came the fire.
While Calvin was in the hospital there was a fire in his house. He didn’t know about it till he got home. Calvin was, and still is, a nice guy; the kind that lets people live in his house. Some of the sorts of people who just live in a friend’s house are also the sort that just runs away when a fire starts. Sometimes when you live in an old house in North Philly and you get cancer you don’t really think about things like insurance. Calvin didn’t have homeowner’s insurance.
For almost a year Calvin lived in a fire damaged house with no windows and a door that wouldn’t close all the way. He spent most of that time trying to kill the pain. Now a bunch of us tried to tell him things, warn him about stuff, and he tried coming to church, but none of the words, or sitting in a pew, made the pain go away.

 

shopping cart

Then Calvin just kind of went away.
I would go by his house, the one with the open door, but he was never there. Sometimes some very suspicious people would be there, but never him. After a while the people who were there didn’t even know who he was. He was gone.
But he was never all the way gone. He would turn up, usually in a hospital, and usually when it was cold. Sometimes he would just show up on a Sunday to say hello. He would be there looking a little unkempt, never asking anyone for anything, just wanted to say hello and go to Sunday school. He told me the cancer was gone and he was doing OK. I never pressed to hard. People who have hit the bottom don’t normally like to be pressed too hard. When you are on the bottom being pressed feels like being smashed.
One day Calvin called me in tears. His father had died.
He told me his father had been sick for some time, living in a nursing home. The funeral was tomorrow, he had just been told today. He found out via an aunt. All the arrangements had been made by one of Calvin’s two brothers, but none had thought to tell Calvin.
Calvin asked if I would come with him to the service and just be there with him. I took the day off work and went.couchoncurb
I never knew Calvin had a family and when we showed up at the service, I didn’t really learn anything different. They all knew who he was, he looked exactly like his two brothers, but it was equally as obvious he wasn’t really one of them. I sort of stood back and observed as Calvin looked in the casket and touched his father’s face. We sat off to the side as the service went on, speaker after singer after speaker. Everyone in the family got a turn. But not Calvin. In fact Calvin’s name was not in the obituary, not on the program, and not on the lips of anyone who spoke that day. When it was all over I pulled Calvin’s arm over my shoulder and half carried, half drug, this grown man to my car. Then I dropped him off at a shelter.

 

He was a wreck.
About a year after that Calvin called me for a ride. We had been in and out of touch so this was not completely out of the ordinary. This ride was to the social security office. He had to be there at 9am. He asked me to sit in on his appointment. This part was not ordinary.
As the woman began shuffling papers around and talking in official tones I began picking up that there was a problem with Calvin’s money. The money didn’t come right to Calvin, it went to his aunt. Because Calvin had once been hospitalized for depression and dependence, the state would not just hand him some cash, they required a responsible third party to make sure it was spent responsibly. The aunt was now refusing to be this responsible party.
She asked Calvin who the new “payee” would be.
He stared at his hands in his lap, said nothing, and sheepishly looked over at me. I wanted to argue. I wanted to walk away right there. But I knew just enough of his family and situation to know I was there because he had already tried everything else. I signed the paper.
Shortly after signing the paper I got a government ATM card with my name on it in the mail along with an IRS accounting form. I had to report to them how every penny was spent.
From then on I also got a phone call on the first of every month from Calvin. Well, not every month. Sometimes he would disappear and then pop back up in a hospital. There was always a story that went along with it, but after the third one I stopped believing. Not long after that I stopped listening.
Once Calvin started trying to put the pieces back together I began trying to really help. We got him a phone he could afford. The doctor found him a half-way house recovery program. Calvin and I went back to his burned out house and loaded some clothes into trash bags and took them to this half way house. If you have never been to a half-way house for recovering addicts the first thing that you will notice is that they are filled with recovering addicts. Obvious, recovering addicts.boardedup
The man who ran this first house wore fur coats, gold chains, and had his fingernails painted like American flags. Most of the men in the house weren’t really recovering. I learned this because Calvin began buying his stuff from his roommates with the money he was supposed to be spending on food.
The second place we went to had forty men staying in about 1500 square feet.
We tried having Calvin live on his own. We stopped trying to have Calvin live on his own after two more trips to the hospital.
Calvin has a good therapist. This good therapist found Calvin a spot in a home run by the Catholic Church. Calvin has lived in this shelter for a little more than a year.
We have been at this for some years now Calvin and I. Long enough that if I’m honest with myself I must admit I stopped really trying to help a long time ago. A long time ago I met with the director of the shelter and worked out a plan. I pretty much turned it all over to him. At first I would get a call from Calvin on the first of the month, and then I would deliver a money order for his rent and some cash for his food. Then a little later on I would deliver some cash and make him go get the money order.
But really, near the end, what I did was make a withdrawal, make a delivery, and then make an accounting to the IRS. Calvin became an errand.
I feel bad about that.
The good news is that Calvin has been clean and stable long enough that the he is no longer required to have a payee. The money goes right to him. The bad news is that I’m not confident that Calvin will be OK. He isn’t the Calvin I first met. He isn’t the cocky guy who loves his job. In his place is a beaten down guy who is mostly tired of living with addicts.
I watched this guy go from there to here and at the end of it all I am mostly just glad to not be his payee. That is it. The prevailing emotion, the feeling, is the same relief one gets from crossing off the bottom of the honey-do list.
But he isn’t a task he is a person.
A person with a life. A person with problems bigger than anything I face and at the end of it all I walked away. Well, really I drove a moving truck away, but none-the-less I left. I left a man with problems. A man I tried to help but failed, and then I just sort of shrugged my shoulders and moved away. I shrug my shoulders, move away, reflect, and write it up as a story. I write a story mostly about what I feel.
What about Calvin?

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Where I Am is Not Where I’m From.

What do you see in your day? Does it matter?

Sometimes you have to look despair in the face to find the beauty. Most of us never do that. Despair’s gaze is incredibly uncomfortable.

If you do look you may find more than you assume. Ugly doesn’t go away, but you find there is more to it.

From decay can grow new life. I see it every day. If I did not look, I would never see it. I see a lot of things.

The dark lump at the bottom of the subway platform was a man. He lay crumpled up, shaking and mumbling. People just walked past and did nothing. I did like all the rest. The next day I walked past the same spot and he was still there. I did the same thing as the day before. It is one of the reasons things don’t change. The lump at the bottom of the stairs doesn’t change and neither do I.

Just around the corner, on the same block, are the kids. I remember the game they are playing, I played it when I was their age. The ball bounces off the wall and you have to catch it within the first bounce. If you don’t, or if you touch the ball without catching it, you have to run and touch the wall before someone else can throw the ball against the wall. If the ball beats you to the wall, strike one. On the third strike you assume the position; both hand on the wall, legs spread, and this time the ball is thrown at you and not the wall. You just have to stay still and take it.

We used to love that game. The kids are laughing and joking with each other. I’m no where near where I grew up but it takes me back. I smile.

What do we see? As I look around I wonder if others see what I do. The deeper I look the more I realize that looking rarely lets you see the whole picture.

The ruined green door does not tell me what it once was or how it came to be that way. I have seen other green doors before but I have no idea if their stories are the same.

What do we see when we look around, if we even choose to look? Normally we see whatever we choose to see, no matter what is really there.

Beauty and despair sometimes share the same space.

As I walk and I look, and sometimes I see, I like to think I am learning. I get caught up in what I learn and what I see when others don’t, till I realize, that like all the rest, I just keep walking.

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