With the economy such as it is, I am approached with much greater frequency than before by a man with a story of his family, just in from Alabama in search of work, who only lacks 13.00 needed to keep from being booted out of Motel Six. I am slowly learning more about this man than he ever intended for me to know.
I will call this grimy fellow, and all like him, Cain.
I will call this grimy fellow, and all like him, Cain.
Cain is not the minority: the people who had good jobs and lost them. I am talking about career paupers. Despite their chicanery, I know some things about them. For instance, they are liars.
I know they are probably lazy, most likely alcohol and drug addicted, and definitely unmotivated. I know they would be doing much better if they had only the smallest smidgeon of an industrious spirit. I know they have abandoned the American dream, and now they are pleading with me to give up mine, one small scene at a time. They are undeniably dirty, unquestionably disruptive to my routine: a complete nuisance. They have the freedom to become anything they could imagine and they turn their backs on this American feature in favor of pan handling.
Oh, did I mention that I was one of them? I was never homeless, but I could have been. I was in debt, earned a low wage, and lived paycheck to paycheck, which by the grace of God, kept trickling in. If I had been laid off, which could have easily happened, I would have been destroyed by next week. If I had lost my apartment, I would have quickly become dirty, smelly and unable to function well enough to satisfy most critics. I was just like them, only employed. I did not see any way out of my circumstance and was convinced by the combined forces of reason and faith that no salvation was forthcoming and there was no way for me to save myself. I suffered a severe case of spiritual insomnia. I knew about the American dream, but I did not know how to dream it. I accepted the fact that I would never be happy or successful. That I was destined to die a miserable pauper was a painful truth that made perfect sense.
How could I do any more than I was doing already? I had scored an irreplaceable job: low pay, overtime allowed. I worked 70 hours per week at a fast food establishment, alongside a bitter middle aged shift manager named Brenda-lee. I told Brenda-lee I wanted more. She informed me that I would be right there beside her ten years from now and to get used to it. I did get used to it. I accepted it. I knew it instinctively. Though I didn’t mind the tasks of the job, and even found them delightfully challenging around lunch time, I despised the idea that this was it: my future.
From that view, I could not see any way out. The idea that I could become a doctor or a lawyer, a businessman, or even a courier, seemed unthinkable. I did not know how to do it. Without a miracle I could never get through college and if I did, I would exit with a useless degree because I did not have it in me to put forth the effort needed to go after more, when I knew that my reward lived in the distant future if it existed at all, and that I was destined to suffer for years, grasping at the hope of this faraway blessing. Keep this in mind: years of suffering was the best case scenario. On the bad end of my prospects was failure or the possibility that my efforts would fizzle out for whatever reason or that they would be obstructed by some pernicious force I had yet to identify. Even if I could overcome all of this, I probably could not really make it happen. Finances, time, my level of intelligence: something would be in the way. The possibility was just not real to me.
I equated success with money at the time; not because that is how I saw life, but because a total lack of financial freedom enslaved me. I would tell people that I didn’t know how to do anything about my situation, that I didn’t know how to make money, that I was doing all I could. This was the absolute truth. If I had taken my rightful place among the homeless, I would have been no more capable than they of finding my way out.
The surface of my head is an infertile garden. Kim, a Vietnamese stylist, is responsible for maintaining my memory of this once magnificent head of hair. Her job gets no easier as the yard grows smaller. I am constantly demanding that she do something to keep it alive. Brimming with optimism she tells me about implants and ointments and assures me that I only need a little more personal discipline to solve my own problem. She charges me a handsome sum for this advice and the landscaping services she provides. From a studio attached to her upscale residence, she caters mostly to upper class clientele. I am a rare exception who happened upon her in a time when there was still hope for the garden. She came highly recommended, and I yielded to extravagance in this one all-important area.
Kim once told me that she could not understand how anyone is unable to succeed in
. She noted how easy it is. Her parents fronted her money for her studio and, in a fit of entrepreneurial courage, she abandoned her career in finance, put out her shingle and the rest is history. When I was impoverished and hopeless, I remember well that I did not know how to cut hair, nor was a career in finance an option for me, nor do I remember having any other marketable skills to substitute for these. I also don’t remember believing that I could become marketable if I just applied myself. It is easy, if you are Kim. She cuts hair and collects an exorbitant fee. See? How hard is that? I would like to explain this to her: I do not now, nor have I ever known, how to cut hair; but I doubt that I could make her understand. I fear she would pick up a pair of scissors and say: Like this, as she sliced away a lock I cannot risk sacrificing at the alter of her demonstration. America
What Kim fails to realize is that all people are not created equal. Individuals: That is what we are. We are not all Kim. She is blessed with virtues that scatter invisible seeds of serendipity and opportunity all around her. There are other individuals, the lower class, as we call them. These outcasts may lack any of the following tools for success that Kim takes for granted:
- Kim has faith that with hard work and dedication, she can make a difference.
- Kim comprehends that what happens in four years or more matters today (if your life is easy, it is easy to see, but if you struggle, future relief seems less real).
- Kim was socialized to honor education and thirst for knowledge and to assume success.
- Kim believes that others see her as useful.
- Kim has confidence that she can excel in whatever she undertakes: college, seeking a job, carving out a suitable place in this world for her to exist.
Problems Kim never had to overcome that Cain takes for granted:
- Cain is extremely bored by things that could lead to success, such as academics.
- Cain intimately knows of the relationship between how daunting a task is, and how confront-able it is. If Kim sees a task as doable, she will confront it. If Cain thinks a task is virtually impossible for him, then mustering the energy to commit to it is equally impossible.
- Cain has faith that he is not intelligent enough to become truly educated.
- Cain’s belief that change is not possible denies him enough motivation to act.
“Life is just what you make it,” my mom used to say; and then follow up with “blaaaaaa.” There was bitterness in that “blaaaaaa.” It was guttural and angry and really said it all. One does not make life. We call this container in which our spirit lives, our life. As we bounce around inside it, we are both cause and effect. We create it, reshape it. It is doing the same thing to us. Some people are fortunate and frequently visited by serendipity; others are graced with strong facilities of intelligence, social acumen, and talent. These attributes are not present in all of us, and certainly are not distributed evenly to any of us. They are the tools we use to shape our container, and to defend against it, as it tries to reshape us. Kim certainly had more tools that I did and I did not even know about the ones I had. We see those with fewer mental and physical resources all around us and we can hardly contain our disdain for them. We blame them for their lacking. They choose dearth.
I grew up without a father. Though I am sure he knew me at some early time in my life, I have never met the man. My mom was an extraordinarily hard worker who always went beyond the call of motherhood to tend to my needs and the needs of the rest of her family. She was mother and father and best friend. Forfeiting any joy she could have conjured up, she gave every waking moment to the cause. Still, she could not rise above who she was. All her diligence sought to maintain, to survive, never to grow. In her mind, this was the contribution she could make and anything beyond it was not real. She did not believe change was possible. The necessary ingredients were not there and being an American citizen with the American dream dangling above her was not enough.
I am often more capable than Cain. It’s wrong to judge him by the same standards used to judge me. From his depressed state, he does not have the same tools for success.
- Cain does not study well.
- Cain does communicate well.
- Cain does not understand what he reads the way I do. He finds most things too boring to follow.
- Cain does not believe his efforts will ever result in a relevant difference in his life.
- Cain cannot imagine a way to even start trying to fix things.
- Cain is not analytical.
- Cain is depressed.
- Cain is despondent.
Do I pity Cain? Do I merely sympathize with him from a safe emotional distance?
I regard Cain loathingly: “Get off the streets and go to school.” It is easy to say, with my attributes and my talents and the roots of my education behind me. It was not always easy, though, back before I was homeless, when I was made of the same fabric as he is; before our fates were sealed, when fortune dispatched me in one direction and him in another. It’s natural to feel scorn for those in need. They want what is ours and they don’t seem to want to work for it, the way we did. That is how I see Cain. I strive for excellence and he covets it in grossly explicit ways. I am not inclined to share the fruits of my labor. I would rather it rot on the vine than reach his decaying lips. He threatens me with his wanting, his needs, his destitution, his desperation. He not only wants what is mine, but he reminds me that if you were to take away the serendipitous virtues and happenstance that separated the two of us, what would be left: One homeless man’s contempt for another.