Remember Their Misery No More

I was once a community organizer.  For many years, I was quite vocal in a far-larger-than-some-think subculture. I managed a decent-sized group, organized monthly meet-and-greets, the whole thing.  I discovered one of the harder tasks was finding essentially free meeting space for groups as large as 30 people.  For the record, the hardest task was dealing with non-violent overthrows, but that is another story.

In 1999, while attending graduate school in Lexington, Kentucky, I practically lived at a local coffee shop called Magic Beans.  It was more convenient for me to hold my teaching assistant office hours there. I was such a frequent customer, I got to know the young owner Keith and his wife Melinda.  One slow afternoon, I told Keith about my space problems.  He asked me what the meetings were and as soon as I mentioned the name of my group, his eyes went wide.  My reputation had preceded me again!  Knowing who I was and what we were doing, Keith offered me a trade. I could have full use, all day, of the normally-closed coffee shop on Sundays. All I had to do was “cover” his lunch four days a week so that he could actually leave the place for a while.

I learned how to run the fancy espresso machine, how to make the amazing hot chocolate, why filtered water tastes best, and how to roast green coffee beans in a popcorn popper.  When I say someplace makes a good cup of coffee, I have a passing frame of reference.

It was at Magic Beans that I met “James Brown,” aka Henry Earl. He was a well-known homeless alcoholic, a local anti-celebrity.

He hung around the coffee shop and YATS (which served the most amazing Cajun food) because the staff was kind and well-meaning.  Henry Earl could count on some coffee, a muffin, often some rice. “It’s real food, better tasting,” he would say, eating a few bites, “better than that other shit.” Well, he would say that if he was sober, which was exceedingly rare. Henry Earl would disappear for a few days, a week or two, then he would show up, dancing, singing, begging for change. He occasionally scared away the more timid students and better-dressed patrons from local office buildings just a few short blocks away, but he was mostly harmless.

He wasn’t great for business, but some gentle prodding was usually enough to get him to move along to his next stop. Some gentle prodding accompanied with a couple bucks worked even better.

As the weather changed, the wind grew colder, and the thoughts of students turned towards Thanksgiving and final exams, Keith tried again and again to encourage Henry Earl to move to Florida. “Get on a bus, James Brown,” Keith would say. “Go where its warm, man. Stay the winter.” Henry Earl would take his coffee, mumble something about liking it where he was, maybe sing a song for a few coins, and then leave.

Keith would not be put off. Magic Beans hosted a fund raiser.  The goal was to purchase Henry Earl a one-way bus ticket to Miami, and get him out of Lexington. The support was, well not amazing, but it was there.  A few dollars here, a few dollars there, and eventually enough money was raised for the ticket. Keith successfully put him on a bus heading south; and until last week, that was the last I thought I would ever hear of Mr. Henry “James Brown” Earl.

A few months later, Keith had to close the coffee shop. I moved with the family out of Lexington to a much smaller town, though not that far away. Nearly ten years later, the kids graduated high school and I moved here, to the city with more lawyers per square mile than any other in the United States.  I don’t remember ever thinking of Henry Earl in all that time.

Last week, I saw a news headline “Lexington Man Arrested 1,000 Times.” Curious, I clicked the link.

A Lexington man, now famous for how many times he’s been arrested, is again making headlines.

Yesterday, Henry Earl answered to a judge on a charge of alcohol intoxication – a crime he’s now committed one-thousand times.

Henry Earl is a man well known inside the Fayette County Detention Center and well beyond the walls. He’s an internet [sic] sensation for the sheer number of times he’s been arrested.

I double-checked the photos; it was definitely the same man I had met nine years earlier. I could not believe that the homeless drunk we had sent to Florida on a bus was now an Internet star.  I googled him. There are 6,840 hits for “Henry Earl”+drunk.  There are web pages devoted to his escapades, celebrating each arrest.  There are rss feeds for immediate updates. If one really needs to know the status of this guy, the Internet will provide.

I am not interested.

When I moved to DC, just over a year ago, I noticed the homeless everywhere. I was so proud of my ability to see those invisible people, the ones without homes, without sobriety, without sanity sometimes, that I practically bragged about it.  I carried dollar coins around with me so that I could give them out as “treats” when I was accosted for change.  I bought dollar-meals I didn’t like at fast food restaurants just so I could give them to people who looked hungry.

How I have changed in the last fifteen months. Just yesterday, I was making my way to the sales office for my new penthouse condominium, with my iPod ear buds firmly in place; walking while staring straight ahead. A man dressed in layer upon layer of clothing staggered towards me and tried to catch my attention. I tilted my chin up a little higher, stared at my goal building a little harder, and stepped a little faster. I was passing through the worst part of my short walk and I wasn’t about to stop.  As I passed the man, the stench of unwashed clothing and flesh nearly overwhelmed me, he was that close.  When I didn’t stop, he shouted an expletive at me. I just kept walking, kept ignoring him.

I am still not sure if I was trying to feel safer, or if I was trying to justify my callousness. I remember Henry Earl. I wasn’t afraid of him, but he was annoying. I remember the invisible people are still out there now, just past my door step, living in the park outside the soon-to-be-mine penthouse condo. I am just having a really hard time caring about them.  Sometimes they are really annoying too.

Addendum 10/01/08: A couple of people have asked me if I could tell why I changed, how I went from helpful to heedless.  At first I was going to be all clever and crap. I thought I knew.  However, I started reading through my journal, looking for a clue.  This is for Idol, after all.  I might be able to try and BS the public, but I really can’t be that clever with myself. I found an entry back in June of this year that I had forgotten.

In a nutshell, someone was stabbed, in broad daylight, right at the corner where my building is. I learned this after walking home from the Metro station, through the massive police presence (looking for the attacker who was on foot), past the scene of the crime, and into my building. There, the desk supervisor had explained it all. So, I guess I am scared. I should care about the problems, but I can’t.  Not right now.  And that is a more honest answer.

Addendum 10/04/08 (for the web publication): This essay was originally written for a somewhat grueling writing competition called “The Real LJ Idol” (it is scheduled to last for six months, and the last person standing wins). Since submitting it for public view, some of amazing things have happened.

First, as a direct result, an old friend found me, pointed me to fan group for Magic Beans on Facebook, and there I found Keith! This made me quite happy. I had wondered what had happened to him.  I still have my old Magic Beans coffee mug in storage; I will get it on my next trip back to Kentucky, and use it when I go to Starbucks.

Second, Keith read this essay. Between my medication and my medical history, much of my long term memory has suffered. He was able to remind me of the details of the Henry Earl’s “trip to Florida” that I had wrong.  While I have not changed the entry, as the details do not actually change the point of the story, I appreciate his help.  When I write my memoir, it will be nice to have the details correct.

Third (and last), I have had several days to re-evaluate my feelings, to face my fears. I still live in a fairly dangerous neighborhood. I have seen drug deals. I have been stared down by the dealer’s body guards for being a bit too curious.  I have been followed by groups as I walked home from the grocery store, and I have been invited to work as a prostitute.

The homeless are still everywhere.  I take their photos in parks, and I wonder if I should offer them money for this simple act. This neighborhood, this city, is a scary place, but I do not want to be afraid.  I want to care again, to reclaim my small-town innocence. In time, I think I will.

The Little Death

“Society is held together by our need; we bind it together with legend, myth, coercion, fearing that without it we will be hurled into that void, within which, like the earth before the Word was spoken, the foundations of society are hidden.” ~ James Arthur Baldwin

People enjoy a well-told story. The better the narrative, the more likely the tale will be believed. Like Tinkerbell and the clapping of little hands, repetition can revive a narrative, regardless of all evidence to the contrary, thus granting it new life. In this unprecedented age of mass media indoctrination, coupled with near-instantaneous communication across the globe, a small nugget of truth grows into a full-sized mountain, and slides down upon us. Perhaps the most important story of recent American politics is the existence of an “imminent threat” posed by countries far from our borders, on the other side of the world.

“One cannot let dangers grow to the point of imminent threat to the United States without taking action. And if other measures fail, obviously we retain to right to use force.” ~ Stephen Hadley

While much of the rest of the planet has suffered from the repeated destruction of persons and property on a large scale, on our “island” we enjoyed a sense of security. No missiles could reach our heartland. No bombers could drop their payload of death without appearing on constantly-monitored screens. Our international network of intelligence gatherers were in place to insure our security. We trusted our government. It took care of us.

On 9/11, as the American public has had pounded into their collective heads, “the world changed.”

“On September 11 2001, America felt its vulnerability even to threats that gather on the other side of the Earth. We resolved then, and we are resolved today, to confront every threat from any source that could bring sudden terror and suffering to America.” ~ George W. Bush

Fear is an amazing motivator. If you keep a population fearful and uncertain, you have control of them. Simply offer reassurances and protection from that which goes bump in the night. Thousands of people lost their lives in a coordinated attack on American soil. A great deal of effort has gone into using those deaths, promoting the fear that it could happen again.

“An element of exaggeration clings to the popular judgment: great vices are made greater, great virtues greater also; interesting incidents are made more interesting, softer legends more soft.” ~ Walter Bagehot

The administration of 2001, Democrats and Republicans, went into Afghanistan to remove public enemy number one: Osama Bin Ladin. He remains at large, a continuing threat. Our soldiers still to hunt for him, while the warlords grow their poppies and the women hide their faces. Armed with the sure knowledge possible existence of weapons of mass destruction, the United States collected allies and then invaded Iraq. The goal was to take out public enemy number two: Saddam Hussein.

Part of the “Axis of Evil,” Iraq has had its infrastructure destroyed (we can rebuild it) and its citizens killed (caught in the crossfire). Iran and North Korea are also on the big bad list. Each has the potential, we have been told, to create what other nations already have (and nearly all have given up): nuclear weapons.

“America must not ignore the threat gathering against us. Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof, the smoking gun that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.” ~ George W. Bush

Our soldiers are amazing men and women who have volunteered to fight for our country. We count on our National Guard in times of disaster. They are dying, in ones and twos and threes in Iraq and Afghanistan, though this is rarely news lately. The military has been stretched thin, our Guard is not here. The drums of war continue to pound.

“No one is talking about invading Iran or taking military action against Iran.” ~ Jack Straw

“We’ve been very clear, the president, the secretary of state and others have made it very clear that the United States has no plans to invade or attack North Korea.” ~ Sean McCormack

Of course the administration claims no plans to take on another country. Between the lack of support internationally and the thinness of our current forces, we could not sustain a third front. More importantly, there is no imminent threat. In fact, there is a great deal of evidence against active nuclear weapon development in the countries we have been told to fear. The American public is still nervous, but we are not stupid. We realize now that the troops in Iraq should come home, that there is little to fear from Iran, North Korea, or any of the other countries who might “hate our freedom.”

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” ~ Franklin D. Roosevelt

It is a myth that we must constantly live in a terror-level orange society. We have given up lives, liberties, and even the pursuits of happiness because the-powers-that-be have decreed we must be fearful of an attack from the shadows.

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear… And when it is gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear is gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” ~ Frank Herbert

The Invisible People

I walked home last evening, flushed with the pleasure that comes from a great new hair cut and a beauty makeover. I had my Macy’s bag full of new Clinique skin care products, swinging back and forth in time with my steps. I felt on top of the world.

The man struggled with his cart. He had the entirety of his belongings with him: a moving dolly loaded with old blankets, flattened cardboard boxes, a milk crate stuffed with clothing, and plastic bags of every sort dangling precariously from the stretch-cords he used to hold everything in place. The man was trying to cross from one side of the street to the other, but as the signal light changed, he was still in the traffic lane. A group of women, waiting to cross with the other light, completely blocked his path.

The well-dressed women, designer hand bags adorning their shoulders and wool coats protecting them from the increasingly chilly wind, stepped off the curb. The man pushed, but he had lost his momentum. He stepped backwards, further into the oncoming traffic. Grunting, he shoved hard, but his cart stubbornly refused to go over a raised spot on the sidewalk. People walked around him, completely unaware of his distress.

I reached down to help him. He smiled, a nearly toothless smile, and waved me on. I realized he was not an old man, as I originally believed, but a hard life was written on his young face. After making sure he was finally out of harm’s way, I continued towards home.

My husband Matt has a corporate law job which pays, in his words, “an obscene amount of money.” We have a fantastic apartment, right in downtown DC. If I stand in the right spot, I can see the top of the capital dome. Hard work, and a bit of luck, has brought me to this place where I can indulge in the best restaurants occasionally, spoil myself with Starbucks daily, and worry rarely about our financial status.

I have one of those invisible disabilities, one which could just have easily landed me on the street, homeless. Early in my relationship with Matt, we were less than a paycheck away from being out on the street many times, but we always managed to find a way to work things out. Not everyone is as lucky as we were.

The young woman stood on the corner across from Union Station, a small child beside her. The people coming and going from the busy train station flowed around her, parting like ocean waves around an outcropping of sand. She asked, again and again, for a small bit of change, a cigarette, something, anything… but there was no acknowledgment that she had even spoken. I caught her eye and smiled. Her lips tried to match mine, but sadness and desperation filled her eyes. I handed her a couple of singles from my pocket, and told her I wished I had something more.

Washington, DC, our nation’s capital, is filled with invisible people. The homeless live in the shadows of churches. They sleep near subway grates where warm air rushes out with the passing of trains below. They build homes of cardboard back under the brush of abandoned lots, and they look forward to the van that circles the city each night, handing out hot meals.

My secret shopping assignment was to visit a Popeye’s Restaurant. I had a specific list of food items to buy, and a lengthy form to complete for my experience with the staff. As I made my way home, carrying the bag of food, I passed a grizzled old man, dressed in layers of torn T-shirts, pushing a Safeway shopping cart. There were no groceries in the cart, only empty plastic bottles, rags, newspapers and and worn plastic bags of every sort. I asked him if he would be interested in some fresh chicken and potatoes, still warm. His face lit up. “I haven’t had Popeye’s in months, Ma’am,” he replied, eying my bag. “Bless you. Yes, please!” I handed him the bag, and as I walked away, I could heard him make “mmmmm” sounds as he began to eat.

During the holiday season, news stories encourage (or more often, applaud) actions to help feed those who do not have enough to eat and help provide clothes, blankets, life essentials. When the weather grows colder, there may be an article about overflowing shelters. Missing from the mainstream media outlets are stories of police harassment, fences installed to wall off sanctuaries, deliberate beatings, rampant theft of what little property remains, and so on.

The vignettes above are of my own experiences. The homeless and needy of DC do have a small voice, a newspaper called Street Sense. It provides a chance to earn a small bit of money. It is an opportunity for self-expression through writing: news articles, personal statements, and even poetry. I highly recommend it.

Poverty and homelessness are not only current “holiday” events, they are constant and ongoing events. Those affected are so invisible that what passes for local news ignore them; just like the stream of consumers, executives, and tourists that parts around them on the street. This lack of notice borders on inhumane treatment of fellow humans. The government spends billions a day on an increasingly unpopular war, promises aid to foreign countries, and yet cuts the budget again and again for social services here at home.

So, the next time a homeless person approaches for a handout, take a moment to count life’s blessings. They may be invisible to most, but they are still people. Respect their experience, their situations; do not jump to conclusions. Let them know, in some small way, that they can be seen, they can be heard.

There but for the Grace of G*d, go [I]. ~ John Bradford