“There is only one rule that binds all people. One governing principle that defines every relationship on God’s green earth: The weak are meat, and the strong do eat.”
“Christine, poor people must exist, because without them, there can’t be rich people.”
I was just about to write about my impressions of the online critiques of Cloud Atlas when an authoritative white male voice* coming from the radio caught my attention. My thoughts about that confusing but thought-provoking film can wait: I need to get this off my chest.
It may have been the Morning Edition that was playing on NPR when I thought I had to have misheard this ‘expert’ of some sort talk very authoritatively about Germany’s announcement to take in 800,000 refugees. I was wondering if she, the collective national she that is, may be feeling the need to atone for deeds done past when I heard:
“These are educated people, doctors and lawyers and such. We’re not talking about the bottom of the barrel . . .”
Those words hit me like a punch in the gut. Because these kinds of terms reflect a sickness that seems to have infected so many people—people who make judgments on others based on what they studied, or didn’t study, what they wear or how they look, or even what they eat or what they have in their possession to value their worth as human beings. In other words, if you were not able to afford an education and don’t have the cash to grease the right palms, you are at the ‘bottom of the barrel,’ and don’t deserve any assistance of any sort.
Some of my bosses at my university job made disparaging remarks when they saw photos in the newspaper, “Look at these people, living off of welfare – but they have enough money to buy beer!”
I hear this type of message each and every day, on the radio, online, in my neighborhood, and even within my own family.
My father was one of those at the bottom of the barrel; just another one of those faceless, nameless slobs who was invisible to respectable, hard working people like ourselves.
Dad had been a child refugee in the Russian-Finnish war. He was put on a ship alone (with several hundred other ‘orphaned’ children) at five or six years old and sent from Helsinki to Stockholm. The trip took nearly a week due to the thick, winter ice and fear of being attacked at sea. He spent another day traveling north by train to live on a feudalistic estate.
My father, at seven years old, was put to work in the fields picking vegetables. He slept under a bench in the kitchen of a two-room “apartment” over the dairy on a straw “mattress.” His early childhood was so horrifying that he wrote about it shortly before he died. It wasn’t until he retired and had amassed a healthy savings that he could breathe for the first time in his difficult life and face the nightmares that he had buried since childhood.
He frequently warned me at the dinner table that I had to be grateful for every scrap I was given; I had to think of this meal as perhaps my very last. My father buried his war wounds only far enough to get through the day, but they often bubbled up far enough to seep into my psyche.
What I absorbed terrified me.
But I can’t even begin to imagine what a refugee or homeless person lives through each and every moment. The feelings of fear and abandonment must be overwhelming. I can’t imagine begging for food, shelter, clean water…and being treated like a disease.
They’re human beings, but we look upon them as completely different than ourselves. We walk right past them and don’t even treat them like they’re same species for all the concern that we give them.
We walk just inches away from them in the streets and don’t even see that they’re there.
God forbid actually touching one of them.
I may have gotten a glimpse into how it feels to be treated this way. I’ve seen the sickness and apathy actually seeping out through their eyes . . . the same kind of apathy and ignorance I heard on the radio.
One quiet, sunny, Sunday afternoon, I was wandering alone in Pioneer Square in downtown Seattle. The old buildings were still there, as were some of the old, crusty businesses that have weathered the weekly onslaughts of sports fanatics since the dawn of super stadiums, although I don’t know how. Pioneer Square, once vibrant and filled with artists and musicians and spicy people has become not much more than a grungy destination spot on Seattle tourism maps—and a parking lot for mindless herds of screaming, pumped-up yuppies.
I was turning the corner at First and Washington when I came upon a woman who was sobbing in a doorway. I mean she was really losing it. She was in a very bad place.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“No, I’m not,” she sobbed.
She stood up and came toward me. She had desperation in her eyes. She didn’t seem to be an addict, but I am really blind to that kind of stuff, so who knows. I got the impression that she had ‘mental’ issues, which is extremely likely.
Thanks again, Reagan.
She was a very skinny black woman who may have been in her thirties or forties, but she looked about seventy-five.
She grabbed my arms. “Please help me!” She was still sobbing and could barely talk.
I looked into her eyes and saw that she meant me no harm. She was simply a human being who had reached her limit.
“What do you need?” I asked.
She pulled me toward her and I tried to pull away. She smelled like she hadn’t bathed in many months and the odor was almost unbearable.
She pleaded with me, “Please, I’m sorry ma’am, please: may I ask you: do you have any change that you can spare?”
That ma’am nonsense always makes me feel horrible. Even though I did live in the south for a very short time…
I stopped and listened to what she had to say. She leaned toward me and whispered,
“I need to get some women things! I won’t spend it on booze, ma’am, please believe me, I just need to get me some women things!”
I finally noticed that she was kind of bouncing and crossing her legs.
I saw myself through her eyes, or maybe I saw inside her, I don’t know. I felt her emotion and understood her. Suddenly, she wasn’t a reeking homeless woman, she was my sister and she needed my help.
Her eyes had told me that no one had touched her in a very long time, so I hugged her. I held my breath and hugged her and she broke down again, but it was a little different this time. I sensed her gratitude for just the tiniest shred of compassion that she felt and it gave her enough strength to go on just a few more steps. . . .
I gave her all the cash I had, which was only five or ten bucks, and she looked deeply into my eyes, then hugged me again.
She and I shared a very deep connection.
I turned to walk away and standing there, with mouths agape, was a well dressed, upwardly mobile urban family: a mom and dad with a couple of kids and a dog or two. And a baby in an SUV-sized stroller.
It was the man that caught my eye. He was staring at me like I was some kind of alien behind a window in a lab. His face wore an expression of sick fascination.
He had no idea what had taken place, but I could see that he, an educated, young, white, male, urban professional, had assessed the unusual occurrence from his narrow and entitled point of view and was already giving it a label and mentally writing his Facebook post:
“The homeless are out of control!” or something equally inane and incorrect.
He himself would have never gotten involved.
I saw that revulsion as clearly as I see the clothes he was wearing as I passed him. He seemed to almost jump away from me.
I felt like he had backed away so that I didn’t infect him.
“They just need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps! I did it, so can they.”
Although, my father was a white man. He has no idea what it’s like for a woman. Or for a person of color.
And in the mid 1900s, the world was the white man’s oyster – and there were still a lot of pearls left to grab.
In 2015, however, the powerful are doing all they can to make as much money as they can no matter what the cost, and they are changing international law to try and achieve this (and no one is paying attention).
Deep down, my father was not a hateful man, but his own fear of going without kept him susceptible to conditioning by church and state. He was raised Lutheran. He was a ‘believer,’ and never questioned anything that came from the mouths of his leaders.
Later in life, he nearly accepted a position at the Boeing company in which he would have designed military weapons, even though he himself had nearly been killed by bombs in Finland.
He honestly didn’t see any problem with it.
After all, it paid well. And Making Money is the American Way. Dad had denounced his Finnish heritage the day he mutilated himself to ‘fit in,’ but that is a story in itself.
He became all American.
It is absolutely amazing, the ability in human beings not to see the world as it is. We create nice versions of it in our minds and ignore the ugliness, unless it affects us directly.
Every single one of us is capable of being inhumane and apathetic. In fact, I submit that by not doing anything, we are just as culpable as those who are pulling the trigger, or building giant walls to make sure that those without don’t take what’s “ours.”
I saw a meme that is staying with me all week. It stated that we should be building “longer tables, not higher fences.”
I agree wholeheartedly.
*I do not hate white men. I know many whom I adore. But everyone agrees – even aware white men – that after 200 years of having control, it’s time to have a real representation of the US in charge so that women and people of color can earn the same wages as white men and not get arrested for no reason, or denied access to contraceptives – or even to have control over our own bodies – or shot on the streets if you are not white, or left homeless, which is becoming an epidemic…we need real people in charge, not the rich, corporate puppets that we currently have, who look upon the hundreds of thousands of homeless refugees as just a few more ‘casualties of war.’