Exceptions to Affluence: The Underclass

Though in general I have been impressed with the way the United States has changed since I last lived here in the 1970s, my thoughts turn again and again to the homeless I see everywhere on the streets of the city.  They sit on benches beside the boardwalks near the beaches with their belongings in wheelchairs or shopping carts; they sleep in little nooks and crannies of pavement shrouded from streetlights by bushes; they use the internet and the restrooms in the public libraries; they beg at traffic lights and in front of supermarkets and 7-11s.  Their attitudes to their plight vary widely.  One of my favorites was a man with a big broad grin who stood at a street corner with a sign that said, “Bet you can’t hit me with a quarter.”  Some nod and smile and say good day; others are sultry and morose and downright malevolent-looking.  Some are fogged-over and nigh incoherent with drugs and/or alcohol, while others are bright and chipper and jovial in spite of their misfortune.

But no matter who these people are and how they act, the fact remains:  in American society they are the underclass, those for whom for one reason or another the American dream has turned into a nightmare.  I speak of the homeless but they of course are not the only underprivileged, deprived people in the US.  There are of course the rural poor, and the poor in ethnic and racial ghettos in the big cities.  But the homeless here, of mixed races and gender, are who I see, and so it is they that have caught my attention.  And I wonder what has happened.  How is it that these people have fallen through the cracks of the most affluent society on earth?  How is it that all around there are veritable palaces of the rich, and at the same time filth-encrusted poor sleep in the nearby gutters?  I can’t reconcile the two visions in my mind.  It reminds me of India, where I would find such stark contrasts as huge slums put together with materials scavenged from rubbish heaps, open sewers running through the middle of the dirt paths, and behind the slums the heavily-guarded towers of the rich.  It reminds me that there is no ideal society on this Earth today, and if we think differently we are only in the midst of delusion.

I have been homeless.  I have wandered the United States, Europe, and even parts of the Middle East and Central Asia without a place to stay, without money in my pocket, dependent upon the largess of strangers, taking whatever odd jobs I could find, sometimes begging, seeking out abandoned buildings or fields or alleyways or gravel patches near railroad tracks or whatever safe patch of ground at night I could find to lay down and rest.  It’s not easy.  Even when you are doing it, as I was, in the spirit of adventure, to have unique experiences that I might afterwards write about, still it was often lonely and discouraging and frightening.  Think how much more it must be so for someone who has no such vision of literary ambition to give them hope, for someone who has fallen through the cracks and sees no way out.

This is what I see of America:  there is great affluence, there is great opportunity, but there is also great despair, great hopelessness, great evil.

And there is not only physical poverty but spiritual poverty.  Only a short time ago a nutcase burst into a movie theater and started shooting those in the seats who had come to watch the film.  Random acts of mass violence are far too common here.  Why do these things happen?  What paucity of honor and integrity could bring on such a deed?  The mind recoils from even attempting to enter such a horrible black pit of spiritual dearth.

No, America is not perfect.  It is not even close.  There is indeed great evil here.  But there is great good as well.  Good and evil exist side-by-side in stark contrast.  What America has that many other nations do not is the ability to choose.  There are opportunities here for those willing to seek them out.  I do not know what brought the homeless people I see to such a state, and I certainly do not feel superior to them, or condemn them, or imply that their sins have caused them to arrive at such an impasse or that the rich are in any way morally superior.  The situation is exceedingly complex and such problems cannot be solved in such simplistic ways.  I have no answers.  I arrived here myself with very little, though, and I find it easy to empathize with those who have even less.  Just a bit of bad luck, a wrong turn or some bad choices here and there, and I could end up on the street too.  Many of those there now do not wish to be.  Some don’t give a damn, but most of them do.  They were all sons and daughters of their parents; most of them had families as they grew up; they went through childhood and adolescence just as we did.  We all have the same standard equipment of bodies, minds, and spirits.

This morning while contemplating writing this I wondered why I had to be so intense, so serious about things.  I recalled other writers who have written about returning to the States after years abroad, and how they were so lighthearted and jovial and flippant about it.  Why is my approach so different?  Because those writers of whom I speak returned in a state of affluence, whereas I am returning in a state of want.  I feel I have more in common with the homeless in the street than the rich living in the hills in mansions overlooking the ocean.  I feel it would be much easier for me to slip and fall to the lowest level than somehow attain the highest.  It’s a form of paranoia, I know, and I have to fight it every day, to stay positive, to stay encouraged, to keep my focus on the upward struggle.

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