“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” Anne Frank
On my way out to water the garden, the living room radio tuned to our local public radio station, I hope I didn’t hear what I think I just heard, especially since I recently renewed our membership to that radio station. But when I come in from the garden, Marcia confirms that some nincompoop guest on said station did, indeed, say, “You shouldn’t give money to the homeless people in Fort Bragg because they’ll just use it to buy drugs.”
If I had a hundred dollars for every person I’ve heard say that about homeless people, I’d be rich. And if I had a hundred dollars for every person I’ve convinced to think otherwise, I could buy each and every homeless person in Fort Bragg a delicious organic apple. I choose to call the guest of that listener-sponsored radio show a nincompoop because the word describes him precisely. A nincompoop is a simpleton, a shallow thinker, someone who speaks without knowledge. And this nincompoop’s statement is not only false, but also cruel, and his cruel lie makes me so angry I absolutely must refute him.
Henceforth I will address you directly, my dear nincompoop. Here are some ironclad facts for you to consider.
1. Many poor and homeless people are not drug addicts.
2. Many people with homes are drug addicts.
3. The only difference between homeless people and people with homes is that homeless people do not have homes, and people with homes have homes.
4. The only difference between poor people and rich people is that rich people have lots of money and poor people have very little money.
Here are some questions for you, my dear misinformed nincompoop. I will supply the answers since you are not here. And though I don’t know you, I am certain these are the correct answers.
1. Have you ever been homeless? No.
2. Do you know any homeless people? I don’t mean, do you know of any homeless people, I mean do you actually know any homeless people well enough to sit around with them and shoot the breeze or take drugs with them or eat food with them? As their pal? No.
3. Where do you get off saying homeless people only buy drugs with the money we give them? You get off saying that because some radio talk show host needs his head examined for inviting you on his show.
4. Have you ever been extremely hungry, as in starving, and not had any money to buy food? No.
5. Have you ever purchased wine or marijuana or prescription drugs? Yes, you have. Thousands and thousands of dollars worth.
6. Do you think buying wine and pot and prescription drugs is qualitatively different than buying illegal drugs? Yes, you do, but you’re wrong.
7. Have you ever heard of Angela Davis? Yes, the political activist scholar with the famous Afro. She has written convincingly, with pages and pages of unassailable data to back up her claims, that poor and homeless people buy illegal drugs because they don’t have health insurance or enough money to afford prescription anti-depressants, painkillers, mood elevators, and all the other legal drugs bought by people with health insurance and enough money to buy such drugs. Poor and homeless people buy speed and dope and uppers and downers and fortified wine to self-medicate just as you and I and hundreds of millions of people with homes and money do.
“Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.” Edmund Burke
When I lived in Berkeley not very long ago, once a week I would take BART to San Francisco where hundreds of poor and homeless people gather at the mouths of the underground to solicit donations. I would emerge into the sunlight and see these multitudes of poor and homeless people, and I wanted to give each and every one of them money because they all quite obviously needed money. But paying my rent and buying food left me very little money to spare. I couldn’t afford health insurance, I didn’t own a car, my clothes were hand-me-downs from friends, and I went out for a meal about never. Indeed, the primary thing distinguishing me from those poor and homeless people begging at the corner of Powell and Market was that I had a bit more money than they and a few more options for earning what I earned.
Just how does one decide which poor person to endow with a buck or two out of the hundreds and thousands and millions of poor people who need money? And by the way, dear nincompoop, even poor homeless drug addicts spend some of the money you don’t give them on food, so they will have the strength to take those horrible drugs that you take, too, only you don’t call them drugs because you are misguided.
Having been homeless for some years in my twenties, and having lived for many years on the verge of being homeless again, and having depended on the kindness of friends to get me through my most difficult times, I knew that anything I gave to these mendicants would be greatly appreciated. Even a dime or a nickel. I did not know if the money I gave would be used for drugs or food or shelter; but I did know that how the money was spent was none of my business. My business was to be compassionate, and so when I felt I could spare a few dollars, I gave them to whoever got to me first.
After a few months of running the gauntlet of these poor and homeless people who had been so abused and abandoned by our fascistic corporate oligarchy trickle down cruel and unusually punishing society, I hit upon the idea of taking a big fistful of change with me whenever I went to the city, and dispensing coins until they were gone. In this way I fulfilled my role as an executor of the final drips of trickle down economics.
One day, having dispensed a few dollars in quarters and dimes, and as my thoughts turned to earning enough money to pay my usurious rent, I was hailed by a young man I had given baksheesh to on a previous trip to the city. He smiled at me and was about to speak, when I interrupted with, “I don’t have any money for you today.”
“Wasn’t asking for money,” he said, shaking his head. “Just saying hello. You helped me out two three times before. Just saying hello.”
“Well,” I said, flushed with shame as I fumbled for my wallet, “I think I might have a dollar or…”
“You don’t have to give me money, man. I was just saying hello because, like…I know you.”
So I didn’t take out my wallet. But I did meet his gaze. And we looked at each other for a short infinity, and I saw that he was I.
And that is the heart of what I want to say to you, dear nincompoop. I am you, and you are me, and we are all together. And your nimcompooposity is mine, and mine is yours. And those poor homeless people, the ones you are so certain will spend the money you don’t give them on drugs, they are you, too. And by not giving to them, you are not giving to yourself. That may be a difficult concept to grasp, but it is absolutely how the universe operates.
The Golden Rule didn’t get to be the Golden Rule by accident. “Do unto other as you would have them do unto you” underpins every religious philosophy that ever lasted more than a week. The Golden Rule might also be called karma. Our actions create our reality. Yes. You are the owner of your own karma. Your actions create your happiness and unhappiness. And another helpful Buddhist idea is that duality and separateness are bogus illusions (as opposed to useful illusions) and as long as we see those poor and homeless people as separate from us, we will remain separated from ourselves.
“Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.” William James
Here is what I propose you do, my friend, my mirror. Go to the bank and take out a thousand dollars in twenty-dollar bills, and do not rest until you have given those twenties to fifty people you think are homeless. And as you give that money to those people, ask them to tell you a little about themselves. I promise you will discover that they are you and you are they, and we are all together.
Now go home and take a luxurious bath and simmer in your own newly spiced juices. Get the living room nice and toasty. Pour yourself a glass of wine or some other refreshing beverage, and make yourself comfortable, because what happens next will blow your mind into brilliance.
(This essay was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2010)