It is often the small things that give me pause, make me think, that lead me down pathways that I did not really want to travel, but whose journey I am helpless to prevent. This morning as I walked our dog, I saw a bag of garbage in the middle of our street. Given the wildlife and the sometimes prodigious winds that we get, I did not find it too unusual. On the way back from our constitutional (which means the thirteen pounds of fluffy fury at the end of the leash was attempting to drag me with all due haste back to the house for his breakfast) I swerved into the street to pick up the trash (what a good neighbor I am). It was garbage day, and I was just going to put the bundle with my bins.
As I approached it, the bag looked odd. It was a heavy black yard bag torn and scraped with reuse and tied with a ragged piece of orange of nylon rope. When I picked it up, it was surprisingly light and rattled with the unmistakable sounds of aluminum cans. Odd. How did a bag of recycle get here in the middle of the street? If it had been an animal, it would have been ripped open in the primal quest for food. If it had been the wind, I would have seen small branches and other garbage around, which I didn’t.
I shrugged and set the bag down by my trash and went inside with Sailor to feed him, but my mind would not let go of the mystery. The morning activities of dishes, feed the dog, make breakfast distracted my thoughts, but left my relentless subconscious to plow ahead uninhibited by false perceptions and self-delusion often provided by my conscious mind. Suddenly as I moved on to gather my items (wallet, keys, etc.) for work, the light bulb moment struck, and my day got immediately sadder.
I stood still for a moment staring and unseeing, an image forming behind my eyes. I saw a man going through a garbage can or recycle bin placed curbside on the night before trash pickup. One can is found, two, three and separated from the other refuse to be placed carefully into a personal garbage bag. In the hours after midnight the street sleeps and there are no eyes to see as the man bends to tie rough orange line about the neck of bag to secure the treasure he has mined. He takes this bag, setting it with others in a bungeed nest on the back of his bike and shakily pedals off to find other bins, other foraged plunders. One of his bags shifts and drops from bike to street, lessening the burden, and lessening the pittance he hopes to reap from this evening’s covert labors.
The silent wraiths whose ranks have become bloated with the tumbled economy have crept from beneath their bridges, out of their cardboard boxes, from whatever tarp or tent that they bed in to hunt beyond the confines of downtown into the neighborhoods to seek out means of sustaining their lives. They are unorganized yet not unintelligent.
I have seen for myself and heard from others how the number of pan handlers has increased in downtown Colorado Springs. I know that they have become more aggressive as their swelling numbers stretch the resources and patience of the people they plead to for spare change and food. When food sources become scarce for bears and mountain lions they leave their habitat to enter the neighborhoods for fruit trees, garbage, and pets. It is not inconceivable that when the food chain is stretched thin for the disenfranchised that they would adopt a similar behavior.
The homeless have always made me uncomfortable, and I have kept them at arms length only giving money or bags of grocery when they are impossible to ignore, when the gnawing at my conscience strikes a calloused nerve of decency. I fear them because I believe I cannot help them, and because there for the grace of God go I. It is not easy to look into the mirror that reflects possibility of our lives; it is often not a pretty picture.
The homeless are ghosts in the truest sense. They wander unnoticed through the ranks of the living, when seen they are often gray, colorless phantoms at the edge of our perceptions that we hope to exorcise through the invocation of the Lord’s name and what loose change we have in our pockets. They are the other one percent. Not the one’s we envy, but the ones we forget about, the ones we deny. They are below the middle class, below the poor; they inhabit the grimy bottom rungs of the ladder of success.
They do not pay taxes, and many do not receive any kind of welfare. To borrow a phrase from the late Hunter S. Thompson, they are the “doomed”. We see them with leathery skin and empty eyes screaming at no one as they walk the streets. We see them with their hungry children on exit ramps holding homeless-made torn cardboard signs begging for food, for help. We see them lined up outside the Catholic soup kitchen in the rain with backpacks, bags, and strollers waiting for the doors to open and a meal to warm their hollow bellies. The old homeless clash with the new homeless in a country that already does not support the former much less address the latter.
As the presidential election looms ever closer, I do not hear either campaign decrying the plight of the homeless, or saying that a concerted effort be made to help them. They talk of job creation, restoring the middle class, and tax cuts, but do not say how these jobs or that class or tax rate cuts can touch those that have sunken below the radar. We the people are deaf to this problem, and they the politicians are both blind and mute to it. Maybe what we should do is concentrate on our independence from the rest of the world, stop trying to influence people who do not want our influence, end sending our fortunes abroad to help the helpless in other countries, and spend time keeping our own house in better order.