Thursday, October 15, 2009

The inner hobo

You’d think that the simple act of helping someone out in their hour of need would be reward in itself. Sure, the warm fuzzy glow of knowing that you are in a position to answer the void, whether it is emotional or monetary, or something more practical is there- settling like a butterfly on the petals of your heart, but, having sucked the sweet nectar from the flesh, it flits away again.

Where I live there are beggars. Poor people. Homeless people. Perhaps that doesn’t seem strange in South Africa, where the gulf between rich and poor, or even solvent and poor is wider than the laughing maw of Mexico. Mostly, the poor people I have around me, sleeping in doorways, peddling diseased bodies on street corners or merely passing a life by sleeping in the park are not just unemployed. They have the terminal pleasures of cheap booze and mind-scorching narcotics to blame for their marginalisation.

That’s why it’s hard to help. The streetkids are two sniffs away of the glue from stabbing an old lady for her handbag, the drunks incapable of setting boundaries. If you have a day when you have some money or extra food, and you hand it over like Elvis did jewellery at his sunset concerts, you consider it a job well done. Until the person appears at your door with a slightly different version of the story which induced your generosity. Again, and again.

Eventually you find yourself undermining all your selflessness by shouting at them, when they are threatening you, and telling them to get the hell away and not return. They are immune to threats, and the dulled emotions from the drugs do not respond to threats of police. I’m not violent, but these beggars have clearly had their share of violent giving.

Ultimately, it is not better to give than to receive. The money goes on drugs, the food gets discarded, and the person is disempowered to the point of stretching out their tendrils around the neighbourhood until they cannot leave. It’s a horrible feeling turning people away, and yet it seems to be the only way to avoid this warped culture of dependency. The charities all insist that it is better to give to an organisation, but when these organisations are often merely subsistent; paying salaries and subsuming all the donations, then this, too seems futile.

I sometimes look at indigents, beggars, down-and-outs; socially bankrupt people, and see myself in them. I remain one salary check away from a backpack and the kindness of strangers. We survive. I make it through the month, and feel no joy on pay day, only the staving off of the fear of bedding down on cardboard for another month. Is this just more paranoia, or is there really a soup kitchen with my name on it? Look closely, I could be the man in the browned clothes, the one with the haggard desperate look and the lying hook- I need some money because… because…

Is it freedom to live without bills or bonds, responsibilities? I don’t think so. We live with the knowledge that we are all striving to create some fossil imprint in the earth, but sometimes, even while we live, we blow away as ash, dust, powder.

Cheerful, eh?

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