Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The People With the Cardboard Signs

Posted by Fraulein

My commute to and from work takes me through a variety of overcrowded metro Boston thoroughfares, and I actually have three distinct routes which I rotate based on what time I leave, the weather, and the Red Sox home game schedule (because my house is so close to Fenway Park). One route takes me along Memorial Drive in Cambridge, just a stone's throw from Harvard University. There is a particular interchange along this road where a rush hour driver has always been quite likely to see a homeless person or two, standing in the median and begging for change. It used to be, you'd see maybe one or two older guys out there in the morning, holding their signs. The message on the signs was usually something like: "Vietnam veteran. Out of work. Sober. Hungry."

Now, there's more of them. A lot more. Some mornings lately, passing by this one spot, I've seen five different homeless people jockeying for position on this median. Men and women. Young and old. Lately, all of them white, although this hasn't always been the case.

"60 years old, lost job," reads the sign held by the harassed-looking woman standing a foot away from the traffic, a dirty wind rustling her hair.

"Clean and sober. Can't find job," says another sign held by a young man, maybe 30 years old, his back bent as if the weight of his problems is literally bearing him into the dirt.

"Kids at home, no work," says another one. The man holding this sign doesn't look as physically fragile as the bent-over guy. He wears brawny-looking work boots, the kind a construction worker might wear, as if in defiance of his present situation.

Then there's the guy who actually stands in the traffic, at another spot on the same road, a couple of miles from the group at the interchange. Sometimes I approach this area and there is an inexplicable backup, and then as I draw closer I realize it must be because of drivers dodging this particular guy, who seems to want to make sure as many drivers see him as possible. "Hungry," his cardboard sign says.

I'm not sure how we got to the point, as a nation, where we look past these people as if they were invisible, but this is surely where we are. Every once in a while someone does roll down their window to pass out a couple of dollars to the group in the interchange, but this is the exception. I try to do it when I can, even though I find it frustrating in the extreme that there isn't more I can do as an individual to effect change. I find myself wondering if this is the definition of "liberal guilt" -- a white woman who lives in an upscale suburb, with a full-time job and health insurance, rolls down the window of her brand-new car to hand out a few bucks to someone who's desperate. All the time despising myself for not being able to do more.

They're always so sincerely grateful, too.

And this is the part that fills me with rage about the Rush Limbaughs and Newt Gingrichs of the world--the people who would insinuate that the median dwellers beg for money because they're lazy. Because it's so much more fun to stand outside in the rain and the heat sucking down car exhaust than having an actual job.

You have to ask yourself whether the people who hold this view have ever even tried to imagine what it might be like to be so desperate for money that the best solution presenting itself is to take a sharpie pen to a piece of cardboard, scrawl the word "HUNGRY," and go stand in the goddamn traffic hoping someone hands you a couple of quarters.

Maybe if we weren't so short on empathy in this country, things would be a bit less grim for people like this. I know the problems are hideously complex and the answers are hard to come by. But a little empathy, even on its own, would go a long way I think.


bjritz said...

If they lived in Somalia and had to just bring home enough food each day to feed their kids, we have empathy and send ships loaded with food to them. But, since they are here in America, most expect them to pull themselves up by the boot straps and save themselves.

The day you drive by, is the day that this is their job. Hold sign, bring home or where they live under a bridge, some food.

I give when I can, I too, have very limited resources right now. I wish there were a way for those who need to ask for help could do so without impeding traffic.

Sure, they can go to the shelter, but I'd think it might work better to set up near the fast food drive through and you might get a meal.

Now, I hope I'm not sounding insensitive, but there has to be a better way for those needing help to get it.

Fraulein said...

Then on the way home, closer to my office, I saw another guy. Another cardboard sign. This man said he had two kids and no income.

If we had any kind of safety net for these people, I have to believe they wouldn't be out there. It's so unbelievably frustrating that in a country with so much wealth, it's so hard to figure out a way from keeping the poor from falling through the cracks.