Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Stumbling on Homelessness

Several years ago I represented a really bad drunk. When I met with him at the jail to discuss how and why he came to be charged with both indecent exposure and disorderly conduct in an event that took place right outside a library I used to stop at frequently, I couldn’t wait to hear the story.

I’ve forgotten his name, but he was a pretty decent guy with a terrible drinking problem; a “low bottom drunk” who was way down and still sliding fast. He described wanting a bottle of vodka and of “raising” the money in about an hour.

“Oh, it’s easy,” he said, as if describing a cooking technique. “You just find a busy street, make up a sign and in a couple hours, you got enough for a bottle.” He described how quickly people will give you a buck or two and how it doesn’t take many people like that to gather enough for what you need.

I thought of the times I’d been one of the people handing out a buck and felt like a sucker for thinking that I bought a meal for a hungry man. Turns out that, at least for this guy, the funds went for liquid rather than solid food, fed an addiction rather than an appetite.

I had to laugh, both at myself for my naivete and at him for discovering such a humiliating but efficient means to what made him, well, drunk, and which, at least for now, made him feel happy. Not exactly what Jefferson had in mind in including the “Pursuit of Happiness” in the Constitution, but he caught a temporary happy feeling nonetheless.

But, as you might have guessed from his current location, this time he consumed a little to much happiness and ended up pursued by the cops who pulled up his pants before taking him to the “correctional center.”

It’s a long story, but to make it short, the bottle made him feel playful and the light snow on the ground made for the perfect plaything. When he got in a snowball fight with the kids walking home from school, he was too drunk to play very well. Tragically, during the skirmish, perhaps during a particularly strenuous throw, his pants somehow cascaded down, eventually reaching his ankles and giving rise to the charge of indecent exposure, adding insult to injury.

Needless to say, the kids clearly won the snowball fight but suffered the agony of defeat anyway, witnessing a homeless man’s unwashed ass rolling around in the snow outside the Omaha Public Library in broad daylight, burning on their retinas an image that’ll take years of therapy to dislodge. Nancy Grace, if she reads this, has already hit the speed dial to the Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The Humanity...

Mark was very concerned, surprisingly, about getting the indecent exposure charges dismissed, telling me that, if I checked with the police, they’d confirm his story that he hadn’t intended to show anything to the schoolchildren except a little innocent fun. It just turned out that way when the lethal combination of snowball fight, vodka and beltlessness combined in the perfect storm of humiliating coincidence.

When I wondered out loud why he was so adamant about this charge being dropped, his response surprised me. He had kids about these kids’ age who went to school in Omaha and he didn’t want them to see their father’s name or to have their name associated with such an embarrassing crime. I wanted to say, “Well, how do you think they feel about you not being to keep your pants up out in front of the library?” but I kept my mouth shut.

As he predicted, I had no trouble convincing the prosecution to dismiss the indecent exposure charge and he was out in a few days, convicted of disorderly conduct and given “time served” by a judge who, like me, viewed him as more pathetic than pathological.

But what stuck with me, beyond this case, was his description of the way he used people’s generosity and wish to feed people to feed his alcohol addiction. He sort of stumbled onto the “perfect crime” for a hardcore drunk, panhandling for food and playing on people’s altruistic sense to feed what kept him out on the streets, his need to feed his own addictive, destructive behavior.

I hope he eventually got off the streets. I’m not in the “program” but I’ve seen enough of it to be in awe of those who are truly touched by it. I once picked up the “big book” and read about a time when Bill W. had to give Dr. Bob a few beers to calm his D.T.’s so that he could perform a scheduled surgery, after he’d fallen off the wagon at an AMA convention. From AA to AMA and then back to AA, for some beers before surgery? Cunning, baffling, powerful addiction indeed.

But I’ve rarely, probably never, given money to anonymous homeless people since that day, fearful that, like him, the beggars will use it to fill their bellies with booze instead of beans.

Yesterday I wrote about Daniel Gilbert and his book Stumbling on Happiness. While reading his blog, I found not only a reminder of this former client, but an explanation for the lesson I learned and still apply to this day.

It was 1997, and the man who was crouched on the sidewalk at 68th and Broadway in New York City was one of the most pathetic souls I’d ever seen. His limbs were twisted in what appeared to be arthritic agony and tears were streaming down his face. “Please,” he whimpered. “Please, somebody help me.”
Most passers-by did what they were named for, but my wife and I stopped. The man looked up. “Please,” he sobbed. “I just want to go home.” My hand needed no guidance from my brain as it reached into my wallet and extracted $10. “Thank you,” he said as I handed him the money. “Thank you so much.” My wife and I mumbled some embarrassed words and walked on.

We hadn’t gone a block when she tugged my sleeve. “Maybe we should have gotten him into a cab,” she said. “He could barely stand up. He might need help. We should go back to see.” My wife is the patron saint of lost kittens and there is no arguing, so we went back to see. And what we saw was our horribly crippled friend walking briskly and happily up 68th Street, opening the door to a late-model car, getting in and driving away after what was apparently a short day of theatrical work.
I know two things now that I didn’t know then.
First, I now know that my hand did what human hands were designed to do. Research suggests that we are hard-wired with a strong and intuitive moral impulse —- an urge to help others that is every bit as basic as the selfish urges that get all the press. Infants as young as 18 months will spontaneously comfort those who appear distressed and help those who are having difficulty retrieving or balancing objects. Chimpanzees will do the same, though not so reliably, which has led scientists to speculate about the precise point in our evolutionary history at which we became the “hypercooperative” species that out-nices the rest.
The second thing I know now that I didn’t know then is that this was the most damaging crime I had ever experienced. Like most residents of large cities, I’d been a victim before —- of burglary once, of vandalism several times. But this was different. The burglars and vandals had taken advantage of my forgetfulness (“Why didn’t I double lock the door?”) and taught me to be better.

But the actor on 68th Street had taken advantage of my helpfulness and taught me to be worse. The hand that had automatically reached for my wallet had been slapped, and once slapped was twice shy. I’ve never again given money to a stranger without scrutinizing him for the signs that distinguish suffering from its imitation. And because I don’t know what those signs are, I typically just walk by

Me too, and that’s sad, as some of those people are probably truly hungry. But, like Gilbert’s hand, I was once bitten, twice shy, learning never to trust sad eyes again, thinking that what they were really after was the thing that kept them out there and that they needed to get away from.

1 comment:

Glen Graham said...

Christians are well familiar with the story of the "good samaritan." So, there is a duty to do what Jesus would do (for Christians)(WWJD). It does take more time and a brief "relationship" but I have on more than one occasion bought a homeless man a sandwich or taken him to the nearest store or grill and bought him dinner for the evening. I don't always do this. I am not as good as I should be. I guess the other part of the story or one slant on the interpretation is that it was a "lawyer-like" person asking Jesus some tricking questions which he answered with a story. Stories are important. What kind of story you choose to tell says something about you. Go toward the light, look for the positive, the story you tell goes out into the blogosphere forever to be repeated to our children's children until they become the almost "biblical" like truths of today.
Yours in the Defense of Fellow Human Beings,
Glen R. Graham, Attorney at Law, Tulsa, Oklahoma