Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Me vs Humanity

With the worsening economy, our neighborhood is suddenly becoming the favorite parking spot of the indigent. It's a nice, cozy neighborhood, safe to park at, but also near enough to busy traffic so you wouldn't stick out like a sore thumb. I think about what it would be like, living in your car, hoping to remain invisible enough to survive. But, of course, there's also the fear, of who these people are, how safe the neighborhood is becoming. The other day, the guy living out of his white van came up to our house and started taking water out of the outside tap. He was hostile and unpleasant. Who wouldn't be, living out of a van, having to steal water? I'm bitchy if lunch is an hour late. Still, we felt like it was a good idea to report this to the police. Our water bill is huge and theft is theft and where is that fine line of self-protection versus social good?

This morning our friendly local police officer knocked on our door and lectured us on safety: pretend you have a dog, don't confront strangers, don't give out information, always lock the door, don't hesitate to use pepper spray, etc. He'd worked on Skid Row for a number of years and knew all the scams. His message was clear: no good deed goes unpunished. Therefore, do not feed the indigents. Do not show kindness. It made me think of the Luis Bunuel film Viridiana, where a virtuous, kind young woman opens up her house to the homeless only to be despised and raped by the very people she was trying to help. But, isn't the counter-weight to that George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London? Orwell will forever change the way you look at the indigent.

I guess even kindness is complicated. And I started thinking about living in New York and that time a middle-aged businessman came up to me and asked me for money. He had a sad, if unoriginal, story. He was at Rockefeller Center and lost his wallet — he thought someone had stolen it. He needed to get home to New Jersey. Would I lend him the cost of the train ticket home, because he would mail me back a check as soon as he got home? Of course I knew instantly I was being scammed and on most days I would have walked quickly away, my hands firmly gripping my should bag. But this time, maybe my blood sugar was really low, I started thinking: was I really 100% sure? Wasn't there a 1% chance that he was telling the truth, and I, as a human being, should help this person out? So I went to the nearest ATM and withdrew the money, money I, as a poor freelance fact-checker, really needed myself, and even gave him a subway token to Penn Station. The man looked at me with wonder and what looked like pain in his eyes. Strangely, I didn't feel conned, I didn't feel stupid. I had this firm belief that I had done the right thing. I suppose, in the end, what I was really betting on was my own humanity. After all, we are scammed and conned every day, by big conglomerates, local businessmen, insurance agents — let's not even start with politicians — and it's so hard to find a way to go against this tide that seems so universal and so timeless. To say, hey, can't we be better than this? And maybe (probably a small maybe), the man, seeing my humanity, was confronted with his.

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