Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Economy, 2009: Brother Can You Spare A Dime?

(My essay about the swelling ranks of the homeless--The New American Disenfranchised--originally published on The Huffington Post-5 January 2009)

A Blessed and joyous New Year to one and all.

Hopefully, you woke last Thursday -- New Years Day, 2009 -- in your right mind.

Hopefully, you woke on New Years Day in a warm house, in a comfy bed, under a ton of quilts and comforters, wiping the residue of 2008 from the corner of your eyes, and pulling the dawn of 2009 into focus.

Many of you will have jobs to report to on Monday morning. Others will be gnashing their teeth as they stare at pink slips. All of us will feel the pinch on some level. Some will still try to party like it's 1999. It's not. Don't forget what Prince said: "Life is a just party/ and parties aren't meant to last."

It is what it is. Just ask anyone who just lost their job, or their home. Better yet, ask one of Bernie Madoff's clients.

However, some people woke up into this New Year of 2009, with a square of sidewalk for a pillow, a cardboard box for a comforter, and an off-ramp to some suburb-exurb-expressway-near-you as the roof over their heads. Kissed on the lips by ten degree wind chills. Homelessness is a-not-too-distant-reality sitting outside many doorsteps and parked inside many driveways. It used to be a few paychecks away from me.

Now, I'm only a few weeks ahead of it.

The queues at the soup kitchens are getting longer, and its' population is no longer confined to ex-cons and those discharged from mental institutions. The New Disenfranchised come from the ranks of the banking industry, the entertainment industry, I.T., the auto assembly lines, health, construction, you name it. This recession is just the latest flotsam washed up by that F5-of-a-crossfire-hurricane-known-as President George Walker Bush. As we wade through the polluted maelstrom he and his administration created, I hope and pray a Providential wave of good will and grace, navigates President Barack Obama into a channel of calmer waters. A Providential wave of good will and grace that can guide President Obama to help U.S. get back to shore. But it's going to be a tough row. Most assuredly, it will get worse before it gets better.

It's said that the difference between sympathy and empathy, is the level of compassion. Check it: two men were walking on a long road. One wore a pair of brand new and really expensive hiking boots. The other was shod in a pair of broken down oxfords: laces missing, gaping holes in both soles. Broken-Down Oxfords is also limping on his journey. Hiking Boots says to Broken-Down Oxfords, "Aw man, I am sorry you're shoes are jacked-up, dude." That's sympathy.

Empathy is Hiking Boots exchanging his expensive kicks with Broken-Down's dilapidated oxfords, and then Hiking Boots hoisting Broken Down on his shoulders, and carrying him for the duration of the journey.

I made a short film five years ago, For Lack Of Honest Work, so I could differentiate between the two. I used to walk six miles from my warm but humble abode in West Baltimore, all the way downtown to the Barnes and Noble at the Inner Harbor. En route, I saw a lot of homeless people. They would ask me if I had any change. When I could spare a few dollars, I would stop in Donnas Café on Charles and Madison to buy them a meal, or a cup of coffee. I was too wary of giving them money, as I didn't know whether it would atomize into sickly-sweet crack perfume, or a be gulped down in pint of Wild Irish Rose. I would listen to their stories. Most nights, I would have tears in my eyes as I recounted their moving and compelling narratives of how they fell through the floorboards of society. Or, as one person told me, "how they got there."

I made For Lack Of Honest Work with my two "Sunz," and scored it to a truly haunting track by the same name, composed by the brilliant Todd Rundgren, from his 1985 masterwork, A Cappella. This is a short film -- 3:52 -- about a guy who reached his there, and how it overwhelmed him.

I disagree with the great Gertrude Stein: there is a there there. I guess this film is my interpretation of the there of the homeless. I wanted to know how it felt being an involuntary American nomad. Walking with the shame of trying to look as if you have no shame -- for circumstances beyond your control -- as you stuff the entire contents of your life in a dirty overnight bag, with broken zippers. There. No place to sleep. There. No place to live. There. Sifting through garbage cans for your next meal. There. Given the severity of the economic forecast, maybe this film is a primer for my there. Or your there. God forbid. But God only knows, and God Willing, none of us will ever have to find out. But if we do, maybe we'll find empathy and compassion. There. I hope you enjoy the film.

You can view the film here

Thanks for stopping by. Bmc

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