« Aqualung My Friend »

Today the stock market took a dive in the worst fall it has taken since the day of September 11, 2001. This news doesn't look to be an isolated instance of the market's fickleness in the age of globalization. My anticipation is that this is only a taste of things, and that sooner or later things have to reset somehow, in a big way as the market hiccups and shudders in what James Kunstler calls the Long Emergency.

homeless man petitioning for cash or help from the side of the road near mission valley mall.Today was just another day of driving wastefully about the city and county as I deliver technical documents to architects and engineers who build places I deplore. While out and about, it is impossible to not see the growing number of panhandlers on the street corners and intersections. Maybe it is just that I do so much driving now that I see it this much, but I am certain this subculture has to be growing in population. Almost invariably, they are white people. A work buddy of mine said in December 2005 that they were all white, and since then, I have paid attention to the validity of that claim, and just by my observation, he was nearly 100% correct. I honestly believe that in the year and more that has passed since then, no more than two men in such situations were something other than white. He claimed that the latinos would not be seen doing such things if they could stand in a work line and get something of a day gig in construction or whatever they specialize in, for it would be an insult to their machismo breadwinner role to be seen begging. So far, my buddy's Wyoming-lensed observation has held out remarkably well.

It is the season of Lent, which usually is the time when people of Christian faith reflect on the sacrifices required to honestly live the faith. As for me, I just feel very disconnected from all that this year because instead of the last week being one to pause and take stock of personal allegiances, it has been 100% "GO!" between my day job and doing some significant domestically demanding work as of late—namely moving house! (So far Kelli and I have made 22 truck and car trips to the new place in Bay Park.) So I have unwittingly and grudgingly taken on the mantle of the workaday schmoe who puts the blinders on and has to "look out for number one." I'm concerned about my job just because the place has fired three drivers in the four weeks I have been there. It doesn't seem to be a very stable place to try to remain, even though I am seemingly doing well and taking on a bit of dispatch duty as needed. It scares me that all my eggs are in that basket. I listen to NPR and public radio all day long, so today I was able to hear the market hemorrhage during the course of the day. And then I looked out to the street corners and saw the broken spirits of the ruthless market economy. I carry no money but for a few bucks each day. I have just my lunch with me. I am not driving to be charitable. But they are there asking for help, just as I sit in the car, stuck as it were, even in a device that usually is associated with ideas of freedom. So I have to meet eyes with these people, knowing full well that I could offer something, and probably would, but being a slave to peer pressure nonetheless, worrying either about how fragile my job is, or what the people in other cars will think, or that maybe the guy I give to is a professional panhandler who makes more than I do in any given day. So I go cynical and drum my fingers till the light changes, and that discomfort will pass until the next major intersection or the next time I pass by that same intersection.

It makes me feel like a great hypocrite and sorry excuse for a human being. But in my culture, what can I say? We are so conditioned to think that there is a scheme, even behind a guy who is panhandling. We are so conditioned to fear that he might do something irresponsible with "our" money. Or maybe it's that if you give to a guy once, and he is there the next day, do you give again? Or do you give to the guy on the other corner opposite where the first is standing?

I spent most of 2006 working on developing some spiritual sensitivity to the world around me, but this year is so different. Different work, different house, different everything it seems. I've been moving away from my church because of a political and time management problem that has not resolved. I have not been able to attend my (usually twice monthly) therapy sessions because my work schedule is what it is. So I feel oddly detached from something that enveloped me last year. Yet, I don't kid myself and think that I am on the right track. More and more the economic storm clouds are coming in, just as I have feared for a couple years now. I guess the panhandler guys on the streets are scary more than anything. They are scary because the look like me or some people I know. They are scary because they might have had what an earlier economy considered a "good job" in some manufacturing or something meaningful, but now they haven't. Then I consider what it means that my job is essentially disposable on the drop of a hat, and that as my costs rise, and as I age, and as the economic-social-political world is transformed into one with a dying middle class, I have a visceral fear that it is not impossible for things to fall that far, even for me.

Even still, for the guy that I don't give a buck to, or the guy I don't give some food to, I am the same privileged asshole in a car that avoids eye contact and is keen to get the hell out of that uncomfortable captive situation as soon as the light goes green. What difference does it make if I spent the last year trying to deepen my spiritual sense if in the most critical moment, I throw it all out as I "look out for number one"? I suppose for my lenten reflection, I have to write this to at least acknowledge that I know that I'm as hypocritical as any other most of the time, operating out of fear of something, and not knowing what button exactly I must push to activate that part of me that knows what is right and good, and to act on it. Empathy I have, but sympathy (the will to act on the empathic response) is still lacking.

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