Street Corner Bums

As a child of the 60’s I grew up listening to all those long-hair musicians.  It was an age of protest and self-indulgence, of pushing for justice for others but selectively obeying laws for ourselves.

We were ahead of the curve in some ways, far behind in others.  The Civil Rights Act?  Check.  Women earning their rightful place in the workforce?  Check.  The Age of Aquarius?  Um, not so much.

Bob Dylan was about a month shy of his 21st birthday when he wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind.”  He threw down an angry gauntlet to the oldsters, the Establishment.  Referring to the social, racial and gender inequalities of the age he sang “How many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see?”  The answer, he concluded cryptically, is out there somewhere.  Blowin’ in the wind.

I dug it as a kid, always happy to poke the old folks in the eye.  Now I’m the old guy.  I’m the Establishment.  And the truth is that Dylan’s gauntlet still rest comfortably on the ground.   Sure, we’ve made some social progress since then, but we’re struggling with the same old issues—poverty, hunger, hopelessness, cruelty, prejudice, and the steadily widening gulf between the haves and have-nots.  Our pretend solutions mimic the tired tactics of those who went before us—acknowledge the problem, appear concerned, spend some money, and wait for the fuss to die down so we can get back to ignoring what we don’t want to see.

On a business trip to Las Vegas last year, while my associates were spending their evening doing the things most people do in Sin City, I strolled up and down the street known simply as ‘The Strip.’  I’m sure my face displayed the usual touristy bewilderment at the gaudy and decadent grandeur of one of the strangest places on earth.

Along the way I saw a man sitting on the sidewalk near a busy intersection.  The tourists treated him like a river treats a large rock in the current .  They flowed around him effortlessly, unconsciously.   Their pace, as well as their laughter, never faltered.

For his part, the man on the sidewalk looked to be in his thirties, maybe older.  There were bits of trash around him.  A sandwich wrapper.  A bread crust.  An empty water bottle.   A small sign rested against his hip, asking for money.  A ball cap turned upside-down held a few quarters.  A bus rolled by, filled with people in air conditioned comfort on a hot summer night. None of the riders noticed the human detritus in plain view, but that wasn’t surprising.  Our eyes turn to what is unique and interesting.  Evidently, the man on the sidewalk was neither.

We teach our children to look away from the unkempt pleadings of others, and in the absence of being able to understand what would drive some humans to live, beg, and sometimes die on the streets, we construct stories about them in our heads, and decide that our judgmental daydreams must be true.   Of course I don’t know this man’s story any more than any of us can truly know any man’s story, but that doesn’t stop us from our generalizations about ‘people like that,’ which usually and happily absolves us from any responsibility to help, reach out, or care.

As for me, I did nothing to help the man on the street corner.  Didn’t even leave him a quarter.  If I had, would it have helped?  I have no idea.

I know, I know—we can’t help each broken person who enters our view.  But both you and I can at least have the wisdom to stop passing judgment in ignorance when we see another of life’s refugees standing on the cliff’s edge of this sometimes hard and bitter world.  Perhaps we can begin to learn how and why some of us end up on the ash piles of life.  Perhaps we can find someone—one person—to help.   And perhaps we can start when we stop turning our heads and pretend that we just don’t see what’s right in front of our noses.

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