It was late afternoon yesterday. The sweltering heat was back after a few days in hiding, and in Dog Alley a man was preparing his bed of dirt and rock.
He slipped down into the semi-shade of the ground by a trash barrel as I passed unnoticed. Out of sight from the safe, middle-class houses on the south, deliberately invisible to drivers pulling into the parking lot of a nearby restaurant. Out of sight, out of mind. Everybody in America likes this arrangement.
Sun showered through the lattice fence on a body that had seen better days. Malcom, I will call him, looked to be in his 40s but living on the street can age you fast. He was bare-chested now, skin white as paper, having taken off a dirty shirt and layed it neatly on one side along with his shoes. I could not see through the arm that covered his face. By the time I headed home 15 minutes later he appeared sound asleep, his feet in white socks dangerously near where the wheels of a vehicle might cross.
I have seen this before. Elsewhere, but it is all the same. Hopelessness, grinding poverty, misery, waiting out the day only so you can somehow survive the next one. Immune system shot to hell for one reason or another.
I thought of trying to wake“Malcom” and speak to him but decided against it.
My moment there in Dog Alley got me to think again about poverty, homelessness and dreams. What, I wondered, happened to “Malcom,” that led him to this sorry point. What was he like as a child? What were his dreams? But I knew this much. No way “Malcom” should find as perhaps his happiest moment of the day a bed of dirt and rock on the dark ground of Dog Alley. Not in America.
I thought of the disparity in a wealthy country like this. A land where CEOs get millions of dollars in bonuses even when their companies lose money or fail. How their friends in Washington, the Republicans, continue to fight for tax breaks to these rich princes of industry, unwilling to see the craziness and wreck of Reagan “trickle-down” economics, while many see America oozing down into the marsh of Third Worldness.
A recent government statistic showed a jump of 14.3 percent in impoverished Americans in 2009. That comes to 43.6 million of us under the income poverty line of $21,954. And how far below that poverty line is “Malcom.” For Malcom the poverty line is probably a fortune.
There is this false idea in America: Any person can pull himself up by his bootstraps. Ha. Nothing can be further from the truth. We are not all created equal. We grow up in different environments. Some are abused by the most “respectable” of parents, verbally or physically. Some are abused by men of the cloth, emotionally crippled for life.
No man is an island, John Donne wrote. We are all part of the main, part of the pain. As this country grows colder in common decency and civility and the differences between rich and poor continue to mount, I can see there in that disturbing picture the seeds of a great and violent revolution in America. Not everyone is going to lay down in dirt and rock for long and let the rich man’s rot prevail.