Friday, December 16, 2011
A homeless man sleeps on the front step of my office. If this is the most comfortable lodging arrangement he can find I don't begrudge him as long as he doesn't arrive until the office is closed and then disappears before opening. He is compliant for a while. I don't know what made me expect that a person who has no better sleeping option than to pass out on my step would have the wherewithal to follow my rules and I guess I shouldn't be surprised when the guy who opens the office reports, with sufficient ire to eschew the politically correct term “homeless person” which I prefer, that he's had to struggle to wake “the bum” and shoo him away and then hose down the urine covered concrete.
Sometimes other habituates of the street use our step during the day. Merely opening the door and letting Rover peek out scares some folks off pronto but others are nonplussed by him and pet him and the dumb traitor wags his tail and I get a “See, your dog likes me” smirk of satisfaction. While our regular tenant grows more and more likely to sleep through the snooze button he is relatively conscientious about stowing his gear discreetly behind a shrub. One morning it looks like he's had to beat it fast because his bedclothes are strewn over the sidewalk. The sky is clouding up and a cold storm is predicted. I put on rubber gloves and stash the filthy blankets and pillows into a trash bag and leave them in his usual spot. I explain that I cannot bear the thought of letting the man's bedding get soaked but the guys at the office tell me I've made a big mistake.
Our step-sleeper does indeed interpret my gesture as an open invitation. I am miffed that he has exploited my generosity but apparently he is in the dark with regard to a number of social conventions. Customers call from the parking lot to report that our entrance is obstructed. I cannot open the door to get out myself. I yell at him but he doesn't budge and I have to leave through the back door. I call the police. They yell at him. When I am unable to wake him up sometimes I call the fire department paramedics. They yell at him. No one wants to touch him. If he rides in a patrol car it will require fumigation. The paramedics are squeamish. Excretions even more repulsive than urine begin to befoul the step. I contact my city councilman and ask if there's any way to get the guy some services. An LAPD community relations officer stops by. He says that my only recourse is to sign a complaint. I hire a security company to patrol at night. Yellow reports noting that the patrolman yelled at the homeless man are issued nightly. They are slipped through the mail slot and I find them on the floor when I step over the bum in the morning as I unlock the front door. I, myself, have even started to refer to the homeless man as a bum. Unfortunately, he is my bum.
My only alternative now is seal off his sleeping area. I want to install a handsome redwood fence but it would be a very expensive graffiti canvas so I go with chain link which looks not unlike the gated entrance to the prison visiting area. The step is sparkling clean and odor free when we arrive now in the morning. The bell rings one afternoon and I find a tall man, strangely regal in his filthy clothes. He speaks almost aristocratically, noting that the porch has been fenced. I explain that the decision had not been an easy one. He says that it's my perfect right as a business owner and I should not feel the least bit guilty but he adds that it had been a nice place to sleep. He says he sometimes slept there but that he always used the bathroom at the McDonalds and that he had never made a mess on my step. I thank him and he tells me that it had been a very good place to sleep and he'd just needed to ventilate. He asks for forty five cents and I give him a dollar.
My mother reported to me that once when she was leaving a fancy restaurant with her affluent brother a beggar approached her for a handout and she said, “I need some charity myself. I'm unemployed and disabled.” I will add that while this might technically have been true, my mother had most likely hectored a physician to classify her as “disabled” so she could qualify to receive a much venerated handicapped parking placard. Mom was retired with a pension, lived in a large home that she loved very much, had a sumptuous wardrobe and visited most of Europe and the Middle East traveling first-class with frequent flier miles that she feverishly collected. My mother went on to say that the mendicant, at learning of her plight, reached into his pocket and handed her a fistful of crumpled bills. She says her brother threw his hand up so she couldn't take him. I will add also that this was related to me at about the time that the first signs of dementia were becoming evident, but, as a truth or a an imaging the story is equally salient.
My mother was disdainful of anyone who asked for anything and pointed out always that she herself was needier than anyone on the planet. She frequently reminded me that she never asked for anything herself. This was pretty true but she was a master of the fine art of wheedling, or in the Hebraic vernacular, “schnoring.” Mom would once in a while make a showy charitable gesture and bestow some needy person with something like a wool sweater that was accidentally run through the washer, (“It's still fine. It's just small.”) or something homemade with Oleo and the Myer lemons that grew abundantly in her yard. She would report back to me and either the recipient showed appropriate appreciation (She looked like I'd given her a million dollars!) or was guilty of inadequate groveling thankfulness. (See! No good deed goes unpunished.”) My dad was conspicuously generous too. He did genuinely have a soft heart but he liked it when the unfortunate looked up to him and when has peers noted that he was a good guy.
While I did have to fence out our bum, I do try to act in small ways to assist the less fortunate. I get very uncomfortable when there is acknowledgment of this as it makes me feel dorky and self righteous. This is not to say I've reached a state of pure selflessness. I do feel for the troubled and destitute but my outreach is also fueled by a sort of narcissism. I like the idea of being a person who responds to the world's sorrows thoughtfully and I am afraid that perhaps tweaking my own self image is a stronger motivator than altruism.
I know that my own acts of charity are ego feeders and I try to elevate these “in the real world” experiences out of intellectual realm and into the place of soul and spirit. In Jeffrey Eugenides, “The Marriage Plot” one of the main characters, on a spiritual quest, journeys to Calcutta to work at one of Mother Teresa's missions. Instead of coming closer to God, the experience of bearing real witness to dire suffering yields irrefutable proof of a Godless universe. Perhaps this is why I protect my spirit and keep my forays into making the world a better place in an intellectual realm. The belief in a compassionate God is so precious and sustaining I remain distant from anything that poses a threat. Mother Teresa's own letters would not merit high marks for punctuation prowess but do reveal that her work among the untouchables led ultimately to her own loss of faith.
I call, I cling, I want ... and there is no One to answer ... no One on Whom I can cling ... no, No One. Alone ... Where is my Faith ... even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness ... My God ... how painful is this unknown pain ... I have no Faith ... I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart ... & make me suffer untold agony—Mother Teresa
Christopher Hitchens, atheism's poster boy,who savaged Mother Teresa in print and on film has died as I write this. Hitchen's went as far as to testify at the Vatican in opposition to Mother Teresa's beatification, “representing the Devil, pro bono” as he put it. Ultimately, Hitchens, like his tiny Albanian nemesis, presumably died with no expectation of ascending to an eternal loving embrace. Their paths diverged but Hitchen's intellect and Mother Teresa's experience ironically led them both to a place of non-belief. I turned my head and erected a fence to deprive a pathetic creature a covered concrete slab to sleep on. It is hard for me to reckon with the hardness of the world and I keep it at bay as I cling to the comfort of belief.