Written Off as Trash

November 19, 2009 · 8 comments

american-homelessThe first time I stepped over a body I was more taken aback by the nonchalance of my fellow workers than those lying on the street. For them this was a matter of no more concern than avoiding dog shit on a park trail. I stopped for a moment to watch as they bantered about the job inside, the kids and weather, mundane chatter without a glance at the human beings lying on the steps of the multi-million dollar company we were about to enter. We were there to implement a new network system for this very wealthy company with human detritus strewn about the entrance to their building.

That picture has haunted me for more than 30 years. Since that time I have been fortunate having more than enough to never be one of the all but invisible street people. Of course I’ve worked hard, made a few good decisions about money and followed the course of mainstream middle class life. The fact is, thousands of other Americans do the same thing. And thousands find themselves living on the street. The difference is a wee bit of luck.

I would like to say we have become a people with no compassion, a society all about “me”. The very computers we work with have “My” things or “iStuff”, the Internet has become more about “Look at me. My profile, My pictures and My agenda.” Granted, there are givers as well as takers, a speck of light in the current darkness of the Me system. I would like to say we have become a people with no compassion, but history shows we have always been without much concern for our fellow beings.

I consider myself lucky, fortunate that “There but for the grace of God go I.” I thank God that I was in the right place at the right time with the right stuff to be merely ordinary. An ordinary middle-class guy with food, clothing and shelter. Anything beyond that is luxury. Coming from poverty as a child, luxury was what others had. I’m lucky to be among the “others” now and have a few luxuries.

Luck. Listen to the self-serving talk about, “There is no such thing…” or “You make your own luck.” If you doubt the power of luck take a trip to Las Vegas and try to better the house at any game of chance. You may go through life making all the right decisions, having the acumen to follow the right path, the shrewdness to understand timing and come out the other end with all the material wealth you ever need. A single mishap, illness, catastrophe, job-loss, a momentary lapse in judgment, can destroy everything you have worked to achieve.

I have weighed the choice, going to the other side. To hell with those who didn’t make it. Leave the dead dregs of society behind. Forget about the fat people who smoke and live in ghettos and single-wides, the black and white trash. Every time I hear some self-righteous, “I did it and so can they” pounding his drum and slapping his back, I know why I can’t go to that end of our socio-political spectrum. I pulled myself out of a poverty most people will never understand. The key is, I didn’t do it alone.

The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other.  It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich.  Consequently, the modern poor are not pitied…but written off as trash.  The twentieth-century consumer economy has produced the first culture for which a beggar is a reminder of nothing.  ~John Berger

Just as no one is self-taught, no one “gets out” without a little help from their friends. A friend may take the form of mentor, someone who has acted as your guide. We are not born with the inherent knowledge of exactly what to do to rise above destitution. If you are reading this, someone in your life lent a hand to get you here. For most people mentors are parents. If parents don’t have the ability or don’t care, it may be a teacher or counselor in school. Hell, it could be as simple as observing what others do and asking questions. You came into this world with nothing; someone, somewhere helped you, steered you either directly or indirectly.

All this may sound cynical. It is not. This is a reminder that our Thanksgiving holiday is near, and if you are not one of the bodies lying on a step somewhere, never forget just how lucky you are. Cliché yes, but take some time to reflect on that person or persons who helped you. Give back. Without material injury to yourself, contribute to the relief of others.

I will not argue with those who condescend to the less fortunate. I have no time for those who look down their collective “holier than thou” noses at the rednecks and trash, the beaten down, the sick and helpless, the dying and starvation in a wealthy country such as we have in the US. You can step over the bodies now, but chance may reverse the situation in a flash. And you know it. And it is a scary thought.


Jon Blackburn November 19, 2009 at 1:27 pm

Very insightful, Hal. It definitely helps remind me of what to be thankful for, especially this time of year. And should serve as a call to action for everyone to give where they can.

Great writing!

Hal November 19, 2009 at 1:42 pm

Thanks Jon. When we set down with our families (for those lucky enough to have a family) I hope all will consider more than the meal in front of them. I know I will.

Clarisa Brown November 19, 2009 at 4:45 pm


What a wonderful contribution and reminder to us all that we need to think of others and do what we can to help. Thank you for writing this magnificent piece. I wish you and yours peace and well being in the Holiday Season, and throughout the year.


Hal November 20, 2009 at 5:29 am

Thanks Clarisa. And the best to you as well.

Michael November 19, 2009 at 11:46 pm

I really liked this one Hal…really I did. Compassion…just to be able to understand what someone else is experiencing and then to try to help them. If only the world had more of that we would all be better off. You are a very skilled writer. Took a tough topic and gave it emotion yet kept it REAL.

Hal November 20, 2009 at 5:35 am

Thank you Michael. I appreciate your comment and thoughts about this. I too wish there was more empathy and tolerance in the world. Peace.

Bret November 20, 2009 at 7:47 pm

Friends truly do make all the difference in this world. This reminded me of how much they and my family matter to me.

Karen Black November 21, 2009 at 7:09 am

Great writing, as always. And a message I hope everyone remembers, not just through the holidays, but daily.

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