Last week, while shopping for groceries at the Food Emporium on 14th St. in NYC, I witnessed a situation that most people would find uncomfortable and forgettable. A homeless man, who managed to scrape together some money, came in to buy some food to sustain life. At the checkout, he and the cashier exchanged some nasty words. He refused to leave without an apology, and came back after walking away to argue more with the supermarket's management. This moment, for me personally, was a moment of clarity.

Why didn't he just leave? Why didn't he just buy his beans and beer and go back out into the street? Why did he have to start up such a scene and begin yelling at so many people? The reason, quite simply, is that for those few minutes he was arguing with people, he existed as a human being.

For most of us who are city dwellers, homeless people are a very common sight. There would be something wrong with the city scene if all the poor pavement dwellers disappeared. The walk down 14th street would not seem normal if you don't pass the homeless teens or old men between 3rd and 4th avenue. For most of us, we have made it a point to pretend that these people don't exist. We simply make it a habit to ignore them. Most people don't even bother to say 'nope, sorry' and continue walking when the homeless ask for change, the whole time, deliberately not making eye contact. In our minds, we shut them out, we make them nonexistent.

So on line at the supermarket, this particular man from the homeless masses existed. He had some money and was ready, willing, and able to purchase some merchandise from the store. He was a customer. He had rights. Despite how disheveled he looked, he was entitled, just like the rest of us money spending folk, to customer satisfaction and service with a smile. The chances of him actually getting that were slim.

So when he was treated like scum in his time of existence, naturally he was annoyed. His argument with the cashier, in which I only picked up the phrase, "shame on you" repeatedly, was well justified. This time was probably the first time in weeks he was interacting with people on a personal level and not asking them for change. So naturally, despite being involved in an argument, he wanted to continue this interaction and exchange of words as long as possible. At any moment after, as soon as he leaves out the door, he no longer is a human being.

The dehumanization of the homeless is something that perpetuates the cycle of poverty. To not even acknowledge them on a personal level discourages them even more from working to improve their condition. The least we could do when we pass them on the street next time is to say, "no, sorry" when they ask you for change. Although it doesn't seem like it, it means more than simply ignoring them.

Excuse me, but did you actually have the audacity to imply in your 'moment of clarity' that because 'city dwellers' were giving this man the time of day that it induced a 'time of existence' for him? Of all the pompous, self-aggrandizing ideas. That man has an existence, believe it or not, OUTSIDE THAT CHECKOUT LINE regardless of whether you deign to see it.

This time was probably the first time in weeks he was interacting with people on a personal level and not asking them for change. So naturally, despite being involved in an argument, he wanted to continue this interaction and exchange of words as long as possible.
PLEASE! Do you honestly think that because this man is homeless that he has no personal life? He panhandles... that's how he gets by. He has friends with whom he can enjoy an exchange of words. He has a place to crash. He has a corner. He has a favorite beer... Seems to me that you've dehumanized him more than someone who just ignored him... you've pitied him and placed him in your idea of his world where his only 'time of existence' is in your checkout line.
Perhaps the most enlightening thing I ever did was place myself in the "homeless" scene. To make a long story short, I loaded up my car with clothes and stuff to sell (rare books, small antiques I had been collecting, and a variety of other belongings. Took one last look at the upper-class town of Woodstock, CT, I had more or less called home for the past 17 out of my then (25) years, and drove away.

I hit the road and ended up on South Street in Philly.

The next two months were a blur of wandering, interacting with all sorts of people, from day traders to panhandlers. I was lucky enough to score a third-story squat on Buckingham Ave, which is near 52nd and Chesnut, west Philly. I wandered the city day and night, and learned some very interesting lessons.

The most important one is perhaps the most obvious. You are judged by what you look. No apologies, no excuses, just the plain fact. When I was unable to score a shower, and was a scrubby, I ceased to exist to the normal populance. I was eyed warily in shops. Cops gave me more than the cursory glance on the street. Other street people were more willing to talk. Whole universes of society opened and shut based on my relative appearance and demeanor.

Lesson Two: I became what I was judged as. When in "street mode", I actually felt uncomfortable around the "normal" people. At first, I was indignant when judged, as the homeless guy in the supermarket in the above node. But after a while..it ceased to matter. I enjoyed my non-being. I reveled in it. I was what I always dreamed of being..

invisible.

Lesson Three: The poser homeless disappear when the cold sets in. So I packed up my squat, loaded my car, and headed to Florida. Catch my daylogs for the story of that adventure.

My point in this whole little story..don't think because someone is scruffy and on the street they are worthless non-humans. WE ALL have a story..it may not just be as clean and comfy as your "city-dweller" existence.
And by the way..I never panhandled once. Now if I encounter one, either I demand a story for my change, or give them some food if I have any.

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