Groundless Isolation
February 12, 2007
I am sitting in my car, rubbing my cold and hive-ridden hands together (I'm allergic to the cold), fussy that I forgot to bring my lunch to work which meant I had to go out in the cold. Out of the corner of my eye, I see her. I'm not sure I've ever seen someone move so slowly in my life. She's probably not even five foot tall - even in her winter snowboots. Her hair is completely covered by a scarf and she's wearing a puffy, old-skool type jacket, powder blue. She shuffles her feet through the snow and ice covered sidewalk, moving forward perhaps three inches at a time. And the whole time, her mouth is moving as she is muttering or reciting to herself ... it's hard to tell. Her lined face concentrates deeply on her path and holding her grocery bags. My light turns green before she reaches my door. I think about opening the passenger door and offering her a ride, but I know the cars behind me will honk, and I'm hungry, and I'm fairly certain it might take her half an hour to get into my car. Not to mention, I get the distinct impression she'd either say no, or beat me with that blue vinyl purse. I drive back to work.

The last few weeks have been bitter cold here. We're up to the mid 20s today and it actually feels warm. We don't have as much snow as upstate New York, mind you, but our streets have been messy and slippery and accident-prone for even the most careful of drivers.

I drive through downtown South Bend on my way to work. I pass the Hope Rescue Lodge, the Homeless Center and a few other charity organizations. Along with the crazy military surplus shop. (Look, there are military surplus shops that are awesome ... and then there are the ones run by psychos ... this one is pretty out there.) So for the past two weeks, I've seen them more and more.

Usually men in ragged coats, and I mean each one wearing multiple coats, trying to layer every piece of clothing onto their bodies that they can find. One of them was pushing a shopping cart of stuff through the snowy sidewalks - and if you've ever gone grocery shopping in the snow, you know that pushing that cart just as far as your car can be easily the day's cardio. There's a grim and determined look to them ... and something of a hopeless look as well.

They're tossed out of most shelters by 6 a.m. ... the library doesn't open for hours ... and they're often tossed out of there after a few hours.

Recently, four men were found dead and stuffed down the sewer system here. All four of them were homeless men who went around town looking for scrap metal to sell. It didn't make them a lot of money, but it kept body and soul together ... well, until someone started to target them, anyway.

I know plenty of people who say, "Hey, I pulled myself up by the bootstraps ... no one helped me and I didn't wind up on the streets, begging and pitiful."

It takes so very little to wind up on the streets. A health condition that knocks you out of work. Sure there's FMLA time ... but many employers don't pay you during that time. Maybe layoffs. Maybe a sick kid or spouse. Maybe the house you're renting is suddenly yanked away from you by the whim of the landlord ... and you don't have the time to scramble to put a security deposit, first and last month's rent down on a new place.

There are a lot of ways to end up on the streets. A lot.

And once you're there ... how do you pull yourself back out? If you've no phone or address, many places won't interview you for a new job. And even if you do get that far ... it's going to take a while to build up the money for that apartment. And really, once you start making some cash, wouldn't you move into a cheap motel and pay by the week? Get warm ... have a safe place to crash. Of course, those places are hotbeds of petty thievery, drug trafficking and plain violence. But at least you have four walls and a roof and you can lock the door. Better than a cardboard box under the bridge.

I wonder about the guys I see on my morning drive. Were they simply the victims of bad luck who can't see their way out? Are they completely alone, trying to fix themselves on their own?

I have that tendency, as do many people. "I can do it myself ... I don't need any help from anyone." But the fact of the matter is that we do need other people. In the most basic terms, we need the farmer to grow our food, the corporation to package it and get it out to the local store, and the local store to get the food at.

But I'm talking about something larger than that. When we cut ourselves off from other people and insist that we can do everything on our own ... the other people drift away. People like to feel as though friendships are reciprocal, a give and take, an exchange. Sure you don't want the friend who is so needy you're always at their beck and call. But we are social creatures ... even the most anti-social and introverted of us need some human contact other than ourselves. Without that contact we grow stagnant and brackish.

And when we insist that we can do everything ourselves, eventually those around us begin to either believe that ... or simply know that we won't accept the help. And when they don't feel needed ... they slip away as they befriend others who understand the reciprocal nature of friendship.

I will move furniture on my own before asking for help. It's easier and faster, I claim. Of course, if it's a large piece, I'm panting, on the verge of an asthma attack before I'm done. Why don't I ask for help? I know that I can move that piece by myself ... but why won't I share that load with someone else?

And how many of those people out on the streets are determined to do it themselves? How many of them have tried to do it themselves for so long, they can't remember what it's like to be helped?

And how many of them have hit rocks in the breakwater and are ready for help ... but the answers they hear are "Pull yourself up by your bootstraps like the rest of us." ??

The question that haunts me the most: how can I offer help and still keep safe?

Naturally, I can donate time and money and services to various organizations which help the homeless.

But what can I do about that guy I've seen pushing his cart ... not just the shelter that houses folks like him from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.

We need to work together in order to stay grounded in this life. Despite the fact that I've always been rather fond of Woodrow Wilson's Isolationist theory ... it's simply not a realistic way for human beings to function.

We cannot grow and strive and flourish in isolation ... we must stay connected with others ... caring for each other ... being responsible for each other ... give and take ... back and forth. Together.

Posted by Red Monkey at February 12, 2007 6:29 PM | Struggles | | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble |


Red said:

Great post ender, I know what you mean but sadly I do not know the answer. I truly wish I did I wish I had a magic wand that I could wave and make the world right, I don't.

February 13, 2007 12:13 PM


Red said:

Great post ender, I know what you mean but sadly I do not know the answer. I truly wish I did I wish I had a magic wand that I could wave and make the world right, I don't. So I do what I can when I can and hope that other do the same, it not much but at least it's something.

February 13, 2007 12:14 PM


MsDemmie said:

Another amazing post.

My hope is that IF we as individuals do what we can, we will be able to help - even if it is one person at a time.

The system has consistently failed to come up with an answer , a safety net of any kind.

February 13, 2007 3:25 PM
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