Last Sunday, I went to the grocery store, and on my way from the parking lot to the front door, I was approached by a young man who asked me for money.
We have a substantial homeless population in the area. I’ve never gotten a convincing answer as to who these people are, though there are many opinions and theories. They could be homeless people from San Francisco. They could be the home-grown poor. They could be part of the itinerant population of illegal pot-harvesters in the area. There are some theories about how this is the only county in northern California that is “soft” on the homeless, so they come here because they get free stuff. There are other theories about mental patients from Ronald Reagan’s war on mental health care back in the ’80’s, still wandering the streets like zombies. There are still other theories about other counties actually busing their homeless problem here. Some of the homeless are clearly mentally ill: they walk down the street shouting angrily at people who aren’t there — or at least, who aren’t visible to me. Others look healthy and capable.
This young fellow was one of the latter. He said he was trying to raise $60. It was a complicated tale he tried to spin in the twenty seconds between me and the door, involving some official social program in Ukiah that had put him up in a hotel south of town that cost $60 a night to stay in, that he somehow had to come up with. He said that he had most of it, but he needed another $22.
I’ve been around long enough to not really believe anyone’s story on first hearing, especially when he’s asking for something. I knew I didn’t have any idea what the kid really needed the money for.
But it touched me that he was so specific. Twenty-two dollars. Not twenty. Not fifty. It wasn’t a sob story about getting back to his dying maiden aunt in Oregon, or how he hadn’t eaten in a week, or how he was a homeless veteran. It was a simple financial goal, to have a roof over his head tonight, and he said he was close to reaching it.
Doubtless a con, I thought. He’s figured out that people fall for the old I’ve-got-a-financial-goal approach. And this business of being in a program that sends him out, unsupervised, to drum up sixty bucks by begging stinks like bullshit. Just give him the brush-off.
The angel on the other shoulder whispered, What a fine Republican way to look at this. Congratulations! Why don’t kick him, while you’re at it, and scream, “Get a fucking job!”
The heart has its reasons. I stopped, pulled out my wallet, and handed him a twenty.
He thanked me, politely and sincerely, and then he said there aren’t many people like me around: most people would give him a quarter, or a small handful of change, or a dollar. He said it was hard to come up with sixty bucks, begging: an all-day, exhausting effort. When someone like me came along, it really, really helped.
I’ve been thinking about that interaction on and off all week.
Everyone cites the old metaphor about teaching a man to fish. If I knew how to fish, I could probably teach someone, and yes, that would be better than giving him a fish.
The problem is, I don’t know how to fish.
Yes, I know how to fish, that thing with the pole and the hook and the bait — at least well enough to get good and wet and come back to a cooler full of beer and brats without too much more injury than a sunburn and a rash of mosquito bites. I can even make up stories about how much I enjoyed every hot, itchy minute of it. But if I actually had to live on the fish I caught, I’d starve to death. So no, I don’t really even know how to fish.
But this metaphor isn’t about fishing, it’s about surviving in our modern US society. And I don’t really know how to do that, either.
The truth is, I’ve never had to struggle to survive. It’s partly this thing that racial minorities in the US call “white privilege.” It’s partly that I was raised in a stable middle-class family during that brief period in US history when stable, middle-class families were common, with enough to eat, enough to take an annual family vacation, enough for piano lessons, swimming lessons, and summer camps. It’s partly that I was fearsomely school-smart in that brief period of US history when public education was valued and funded and offered career paths. It’s partly that, pretty much by accident, I picked up some mad skills in software design and development, and then sleepwalked into that brief period of US history when those skills were not only in demand, but proved — unlike almost every other profession in the country other than larceny — to be relatively recession-proof.
Now, I have a killer resume, top-game skills, experience, strong personal references, and that white privilege isn’t going anywhere soon.
What if I had none of that? What if I’d never had it? What if it all became somehow worthless?
I don’t know this young man’s story. Abusive home? Meth problem? Mental illness? Police record? Running from bad people? A trust fund baby who spent it all on whores and whiskey and is now flat on his face in the gutter?
Or maybe just an ordinary guy who lost his job, his family, and his home.
What would I do in this young man’s shoes? I wouldn’t even know how to beg. I’d probably die of hypothermia before I starved. If flu didn’t kill me in the first year, depression would.
My so-called “survival skills” in the modern world are the lucky product of privilege and leisure, useful only in a profession that is the product of privilege and leisure, in a society that is the product of privilege and leisure.
I don’t know how to catch a fish — I buy my fish at the grocery store. I can’t teach someone else how to catch a fish if I don’t know how, myself.
What I can do is give someone who asks for help, twenty bucks to buy a fish.
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