Years ago I worked at a vintage clothing store on Haight St. This neighborhood is perennially filled with all manner of humans in various states of inebriation, sometimes between homes, often in need of spare change. If the old time hippies are to be believed, this has been the state of things for over forty years.
Over the 18 months or so I worked in the neighborhood I got to know a few of these folks. Some were awful moochers that should have gotten a goddamned job. Others were sweet, but unlucky, like Steinbeck characters. One of my favorites was an old Rasta looking man with a strange copper necklace and a broken smile that looked like the tips of a skeleton’s hand reaching through red clay.
Despite some structural deficiencies, his smile remains one of the brightest I’ve ever seen. He always shook my hand with both of his and he called me “Scooter” because he would often see me parking my battered old Vespa.
I think of this kind man when the weather’s bad because even when the rain was coming in sideways, he seemed happy as a puppy with a bone.
I walked to work in the rain today and got to my desk a little wet, but dried off quickly. I don’t know if there’s a more defeating feeling than being cold and wet. Over years of working farmers markets and riding motorcycles, I’ve had my share of inclement weather, but there was always a dry towel and a warm bed waiting my adventure’s end. To bed down under an overpass, fearful of what might happen to your things while you sleep, and then wake up just as cold and wet as the day before must take an enormous emotional toll.
The homeless situation in the Bay Area is perhaps as serious as it’s ever been. I don’t have any sort of prescriptions, so I won’t offer tone-deaf techie rants or bleeding heart excuses. It’s a bad outcome I can’t imagine anyone but the most romantic and misguided neo-hobo with a neckerchief, banjo and artist statement would choose.
The municipal government is obviously not going to help and our fellow indoor citizens, many living one paycheck from a similar fate, are not equipped to take up the slack. There are great people out there doing what they can, but for the homeless, this comfort is too often as cold as the concrete many bed down on.
I don’t know what it is that let’s us cry over a video of a sad chimpanzee in a lab and hours later step over a man who might be dead without a thought. If I were to guess, it’s something to do with perceived agency; the chimp never had a choice, the humans do. There’s nothing noble about my behavior, either. I pass an apocalyptic vista of tents and problematic tiny homes made my well-meaning activists every single day and I do little beyond give out the occasional five spot.
If you’re interested in anthropology or social dynamics you may have run across something called Dunbar’s number. It’s an idea that suggests we only have enough cognitive horsepower to deal with about 150 real human relationships at a time. Chances are you have more friends than that on Facebook.
There are several books, including Robin Dunbar’s own Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language, that tie our social callousness to cerebral cortex limitations. The claim is something like: our brains are not equipped to deal with people outside of our tribe, so we either see them as enemies or others. This is as reasonable an explanation for why we don’t give a shit about people suffering in our doorsteps as any I’ve heard.
Despite familiarity with all the arguments against it, I find this “nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw” Evolutionary Psychology perspective compelling. People seem to be awful deep down and if you stripped away society, I doubt you’d find surplus kindness. What I don’t like about this view is how easy it makes it to throw up your hands and give up on growing compassion or developing solutions. If our brains “can’t even” on this stuff, what hope do we have?
I believe humans will rapidly move towards evolution or devolution in the next couple of years. One potential future looks like Star Trek; gleaming space ships full of free food and aliens to hook up with. The other looks like The Road. If the way we treat the least of us is any indication, we had all better get used to gunfights with cannibals.