The Dead's Own
A little man died the other day. Diminutive in stature, he had become all but infinitesimal in bearing and social esteem till he just disappeared altogether. No one was there at his side, no rites were performed, no one came to pay their final respects. They found him dead behind the wheel of his battered pickup truck, parked in the gutter of one of the hard, industrial streets where he resided. He struggled to live in a place that had no place for him, a sad reality where his possessions had lodgings, even though he didn’t. So, he lived in his vehicle. And he died there as well. His name was Alberto. He was 49 years old.
He frequented my business and though he spent many hours there, I cannot say I knew the man, more his temperament and disposition. But I liked him, enjoyed talking with him, and was deeply saddened by his unexpected passing. As I am by all those who pass, ten that I know in 2019 alone. Four of them related to my business. I’ve been there five months. A less than auspicious start, I must admit. Deaths that occur close to us are grim reminders of our own mortality and the fleeting nature of an individual life.
I work in a place completely foreign to any of my life's intentions or grand imaginings. Frankly, I was supposed to be rich and highly regarded decades ago, just like so many others here on the desperate avenue where dreams languish before being extinguished completely, but nobody else got the memo, apparently. Guess I should have sent it out. One of the saddest things I've ever heard is, I didn't expect to end up with (insert name, neighborhood, job, life). End up with. Regardless the grand ideals, efforts, and plans, I didn't live the Dream, I ended up with This, whatever This might be.
This is not to disparage or diminish That which I enjoy. I number myself among the fortunate few to have had a very enjoyable, even desirable life, and fewer still who still have one. I have no idea how I got to be so well situated, nor how I've been able to recover from one catastrophic circumstance after another, frequently caused by my own foolish enthusiasm. Yet somehow, I’ve always found my way out of the disasters I’ve danced myself into. So far.
But in life’s sweet fortune, I am an exception, not the norm. The norm is economic desperation. This is not to suggest I haven’t or don’t feel it, just that conditions in my life have prevailed to allow me a roof and food in relative constancy. In the USA, this land of excessive plenty with a side of plentiful excess and bottomless beverages, that should represent bare bones sustenance, not the devoutly sought pinnacle. But for rapidly growing numbers of our fellow Americans, the roof and food, perhaps medicine, is tragically becoming the goal, not the baseline.
With the filters stripped away, this is tantamount to slavery. You give your life doing the bidding of others and if everything goes right, you get shelter and enough to eat so you don’t starve to death. Which you will admit seems an unconscionable thing to do on a planet which produces so much food it can feed eight billion people and their animals while still throwing away 40% of what it produces. And yet with that knowledge, I encounter food-insecure people virtually every day, and I cannot begin to justify it nor reconcile it with my understanding of why this is. They are irreconcilable.
Many of the people I interact with in my position have no place to live. Owing to the vicissitudes of economics and physiological function, they are homeless. Immediately, the term homeless renders them inhuman, just part of another collective. So many collectives. As their collective reminds other, more fortunate collectives what can happen to them if things work against them, the better-accommodated collectives tend to focus on other, less distressing realities. The homeless are thus stuffed into the huge bag we label Unfortunates and set out by the garbage cans in the gutter. Surely society can recycle them into something of virtue.
John and Dale are two men with no place to live. John had a stroke which destroyed his spoken speech; his wife kicked him to the curb, and now he lives in his battered van and recycles metal. I often see him stripping the plastic off copper wire as he gathers long thin strings of pennies with which to sustain his rootless and uncompromising existence. Dale lost his right leg owing to diabetes acquired over a life of disgusting excess. He at once lamented to me that his daughter wouldn’t take him in, his disdain for her over this, and this followed by him stating that he knocked up her mother and had nothing to do with her owing to drink and drugs.
While both men would be well served with national healthcare, money spent to assist them in their plights, and a much more compassionate society, they both express a baffling support of Donald Trump. While lamenting our current national health failures to adequately help those in their circumstances, the idea of single payer is anathema to them. John likes me and has tearfully spoken to me about the sadness of his life, his loss of dignity, and the difficulty of being taken seriously with his horrible speech impediment; he’s told me I’m one of the few people who treats him with respect. But Dale is filled with hatred for a life poorly used that left him used up, chopped up, and cast off. They both look to the state lottery as their only hope for a sustainable future.
Homelessness has become epidemic since we allowed a billionaire landlord to ascend to a position entirely beyond his skill sets, intellect, and temperament: chief executive of USA, INC. He is the embodiment of the USA’s addled rich kicking us to the curb. He said it very clearly during the sales portion of his fascist campaign in 2016: those who don’t pay will be evicted, whether it be from NATO, or immigrants he doesn’t want to have the sex with.
You don’t pay, you can’t stay.
Should we each have to hit every break imaginable to enjoy a comfortable life? Should only some people be allowed the benefits of a good life while the vast majority scrapes to maintain simple sustenance and shelter? Do people who gamble with other people’s money work harder than waitresses or field laborers or carpenters or nurses? Do they provide a greater social benefit? Is making phone calls really that hard of work? Would you rather make phone calls or toil in produce fields or slaughterhouses?
Is it not curious the people who insist there isn’t enough entirely invented money to provide for the citizens’ needs, or the infrastructure, or the environment, have more invented money than they could spend in ten lifetimes, the majority of it derived from exploiting the environment, the infrastructure, and the citizens, until they crumble into ruination?
Is it not criminal that they exploit this resource and wage war with all we have, trillions of dollars to destroy, nothing left to save? Is this peak humanity? The processes which govern us are the expressions of cruel and hateful minds – war is their most cherished human endeavor, the ritualistic burn-off of humanity and the planet with vast sums of imaginary money to be generated in desolation. Can’t make bank rebuilding it if it hasn’t been destroyed.
The greatest threat we face is not some external antagonist but our personal despair. The thing which keeps so many of us alive is the hope that our conditions will improve, that our desperate clutch at a future doesn’t forsake us. When that hope dies, we necessarily must die with it, incrementally, as it is replaced with unyielding desperation, the winnowing away of our life force until we are nothing. When you realize that it will not get better, you stop trying to make it better – no sense adding futility to failure. Hundreds of millions of humans, likely billions, cling to that desperate hope that the awful will improve, or at least not become worse, that something will present itself to mediate the sundry indignities of lives poorly realized. Hope is the lifeline, the single thing that keeps us from plunging into the abyss of despondency. I well understand this desperation and the appeal of the lotto. False hope is still a kind of hope, and tragically the only hope that is available to most.
I cannot but acknowledge that great numbers of our human castaways, the homeless, have repellent physical decorum, along with negligible social interaction skills. Many of them are simply not good people. As in every other social demographic, the homeless have assholes among their ranks. To this I must respond: the President of the United States of America, who has been given the ability to destroy all life on the planet by other US leaders, finds it empowering to brag to other men about how he gropes women by their genitals owing to the nature of his celebrity. The principal differential between him and the despicable among the homeless is that none of them were gifted half-a-billion dollars from their daddies.
We poor would love to be rich as much as anyone else. If not rich, at least to possess sufficient economic viability to live well. Money scoffs that I and the vast majority of unwashed humanity are economically deprived owing to our personal failings, coupled with our bad investment strategies, that our privation is earned by our fiscal insufficiency. That we do not deserve economic security. Yet every indicator suggests that even billionaires know no economic security, as those who accumulate a billion dollars strive for five, then for ten, fifty, one hundred billion dollars. And that is still not enough. Capital’s only golden rule is that the correct amount of money is always more.
Such people will never feel secure until every coin minted, every dollar printed is in their possession. This hunger is foreign to satiety. Most of us are happy to know the rent is covered and there is something on the table for everyone. The avaricious would gladly eat alone and admonish the rest to eat cake, or the modern corollary based upon the filth associated with rough sleepers: let them eat caked.
Debby rents space at a local storage facility in the San Fernando Valley. She has several units of varying capacities, all of them packed to the gills with the detritus of a shattered life. She loads them in and out with absconded shopping carts, sometimes a train of three or four, overflowing with foundlings. Most of her teeth are gone, she smokes fiendishly, and her skin is desiccated leather; conversations with her are scattered and often unhinged. While Debby has no home, her stuff does. She can muster only enough rent for her possessions, there is no room for her. So she wanders the streets with no place to turn in a social reality that has written her off, and merely awaits death to complete her mission.
Debby lives on the street curb near the storage facility in a tent. She used to have a car with barely room for one as it was so desperately laden with stuff, but the police took it from her and now she sleeps in the gutter. There were homeless encampments further up the street, so the City sent in workers who threw all their possessions into dumpsters, then erected 4-foot-tall chain link fence enclosures to keep them from occupying the dirt within them, the ultimate effect being that they just moved their encampments to the end of the enclosures and set up there. Because really, they have no place to go they will ever be welcome.
And they know it.
We do not have to be cruel, unfeeling monsters, and that we choose to speaks much of the grand American character we are so self-satisfied by. I see it over and over, day after day: decent, hard-working people hanging on the edge of collapse because of a lack of money. No matter how hard they work, how many jobs they do, how many pleasures they eliminate from their experience, it is an unrelenting, life-diminishing struggle one day after the next. The common thread in this is medical expenses: illness, accidents, and premiums cast them into a cycle of debt from which they can never recover. Citizens of the USA spend hundreds of billions of dollars a year to receive inadequate medical insurance that will refuse every claim they can to maintain acceptable profit margins and dump anyone with the audacity to try to collect.
We are told that capitalism is so important that we must be willing to forsake everything to maintain it. So there can be billionaires and palaces and untrammeled power among the greedy and selfish, the vast majority of humanity only need sacrifice their hope at ever living a good life. So that executives can have anything they want, peons must die alone in the filthy drains of humanity where everything and everyone is ultimately flushed into the sea.
The USA’s first TV host president, Ronald Reagan, has the distinction of hastening the mentally ill onto our streets, in part because he didn’t feel the society which made them crazy should have to provide for them, and in part because they assure the need for law enforcement, and in a police state, that is fundamental. The USA’s current mentally ill TV host president won’t be content until we are all living there. Or dying there.
American progress can be seen as dumping the mentally ill from the institutions which provided for them onto the streets, into the prisons, then following up by moving them into the White House. Should the mentally ill be making decisions which impact all of us? Should the psychotic be allowed the final say? Should the mean define the mean, the cruel define compassion? Should toxic polluters be allowed to set our environmental standards?
The USA has hundreds of thousands of Debbys, many more than they report, with hundreds of thousands more waiting in the wings. Millions, over time, who will be cast off because we are not a compassionate and giving people, but cruel and selfish, more concerned with numbers on somebody’s ledger than with human life, suffering in real time, in our full view.
Bad with money? Die in the gutter. It’s the American way.
© 2019 Arturo Hammer