When I was living in a college town, I’d hang out in a dingy coffee shop with stained couches. College kids would come and go, but packs of vagrants would spend all there day there nodding off, bickering with each other and fouling up the bathrooms. They were surly and they didn’t buy anything. The shop put locks on its bathrooms doors to keep the hobos out. You had to ask for a key from the barista.
When you make a public space warm and comfortable, you invite transients to idle, to intimidate and harass customers, workers and students. The itinerant population wanders in search of accommodation. A space with free water and bathrooms is a beacon to those with nowhere to be and nothing to do.
It’s normal to feel pity for the hobos. It’s also normal to feel contempt. We can blame society and we can also blame individuals. Everyone and everything is responsible for the suffering of the world. We don’t allocate resources or distribute wealth equitably. People are also stupid and dysfunctional. Some don’t have enough support and others have too much. Some people scrap their way out of genetic and environmental ruts and others dig themselves into pits of misery.
I’d scan the hobos for signs of mental illness or physical debility. A stump arm or peg leg, a hobbled gait or crooked spine. Maybe they had crippling arthritis and couldn’t grip a pencil, maybe they were emblazoned with boils. I’d look for crazy, unfocused eyes and listen for gibberish. Anything that would allow me to say they can’t help it. Some people are on the street because the system failed them. An impersonal bureaucracy is supposed to prevent every single person from falling face first into the toilet.
You can design a perfect system but you can’t design perfect people. Self interest bows before self destruction. Even when the machine works and everyone has a chance, not everyone will take it. Some people prefer not to do what’s best for themselves. They prefer drinking, shooting up and snorting. Or they enjoy wayward fornicating and violence more than they like pair bonding and peace.
Some of those drifters appeared healthy and sane enough to work. I’d wonder why they weren’t doing everything they could to get off the street. Surely working over a scalding fryer was better than sleeping on a frost covered bench in the middle of winter. A minimum wage job and a place to live had to be better than running from police and weathering the scorn of most of society.
Why don’t you just work harder? Do something for the love of God.
In the winter of my 31st year, I spend nearly all my free time in the café where I work. My clothes are unwashed and I take an occasional shower at the local Y. Landlords turn down my rental application when they see my credit history. I have a familial safety net but I could also say that society has failed me. It hasn’t prepared me for this job market, it hasn’t given me the resources and training I need to thrive.
Then again, I’ve made my own choices. Even now I’m choosing to type rather than find a new job, pursue more education or look for housing. Even in this desperate state I prefer to piss time away on an indulgent hobby. The shame of being poor and practically homeless melts away when I sit down to write.
We’re adaptable, but there’s a downside to our durability. The intolerable becomes tolerable, we adjust our souls to find comfort in squalor. From the outside it may look painful to wander the streets, to wear soiled underwear and to pass out drunk in a hedgerow. But we can adapt to that kind of life and come to prefer it.
Looking from the outside, I can imagine someone wondering why I don’t just work harder. The solutions are obvious. Do something for the love of god. Put away the pen and make a better life for yourself.
When I look within myself, I’m as dumbfounded as I was when I contemplated the drifters. I don’t know why I accept this condition and they don’t either.
I’m both the inscrutable drifter and the puzzled onlooker. The inept social worker and his dysfunctional client. I’m almost wretched enough to feel the presence of God again, which I haven’t felt since I was a child.