I work in Center City, Philadelphia. Every day at lunch I walk a few blocks to Rittenhouse Square where I can watch the urban gentry partake of the springtime ritual. I walk around the park and the city blocks surrounding it and soak my surroundings in.
Rittenhouse is gorgeous this time of year. The trees are blooming and their strong perfumed scents fill the air. The cafes and eateries framing the park expand, with tables, chairs and patrons pouring onto the sidewalks. Their chatter can be heard, but it is not unpleasant or overbearing, rather like a murmering white noise that keeps you company as you explore the surroundings and people about you. The young women are glorious (as they emerge from their puffy wintry parkas), and glide down the street in form-fitting dresses, shaped suits and low-cut tops--their necks and faint cleavage bare. All about me there is blossoming, expansion, a pouring-out of life into the world around me. Life grabbing for the sun and embracing the fleeting warmth of the hourlong noon-time break. I see children feeding canadian geese in the grass, lovers laying on a blanket embracing and kissing, an old man and woman, dressed rather formally, holding hands on a bench, each drinking a lemonade from a plastic cup filled with ice and a straw. At Rittenhouse, I see all these people enjoying the simple, natural pleasures of life. These pleasures are modest, even a bit pedestrian, but even the common has its charm.
Yet this isn't the only world I see. The second part of my lunchtime walk takes me down Locust and then left on 15th. There are many homeless and destitute people here. Each person, or 2-person team "stakes-out" a different part of the sidewalk, on either side of the stret, well placed and spaced out from eachother, so as not to intrude upon eachother's "turf" if you will. I think that some of them change shifts and locations, because they work different locations, like clockwork, at different parts of the day.
Some of them sit on the sidewalk asking for change. Some of them are smoking cigarettes, gazing into the distance. Some of them are clearly mentally ill. Few of them are standing, so its hard to look them eye-to-eye. They are all sitting. I look down upon them as I walk. Some return my gaze, especially if they are begging and want me to help them out. But most of them don't let their eyes connect with mine. Clearly, none of them are happy. Angry, yes. Sad, yes. The enjoyment and fulfillment that filled the hearts and faces of those at Rittenhouse is completely absent during this part of my trip. I can't imagine how humiliating and degrading it must be to sit out upon the street, every day, and beg for the right to eat.
The same urban gentry moving with me in a mass from Rittenhouse suddenly become more stern, more gruff, as they try to look away from the homeless people at their feet. Those whose faces were flushed from wine, song and the flirtations of spring, suddenly turn dour and uncomfortable as they are asked for spare change. Very few of them bend over to give alms. Some of them, returning to work from an expensive lunch at Rittenhouse, proclaim they have no money, as they carry Louis Vutton bags and wear Gucci sunglasses. They seem insulted and abused, in a way, having to share the streets with the unhappy and the unlucky, the unwell and the unwanted.
There are a few fellows I see on the same street every morning, when I come up from the subway and walk down the street to my job. Two guys--one black and one white--sleep on a metal grating up on the side of a Starbucks, where large, visable gusts of steam pour out. I don't know if this is from the Starbucks or the Subway beneath us, but they sleep there to keep warm at night and in the morning.
When it was winter, these guys would have 4 carbord boxes with them. They would put one over their head, and another over their feet, with clothes stuffed in the boxes,to help keep their heads and feet warm. They would share a blanket or two, which would be draped over their collective midsections as they huddled together in the night from the cold. From time to time, I see a young, tattooed, goth-chick Barrista from the Starbucks come out and give the guys coffee and a sandwhich. She tries to do this fast, either because the line of customers are growing long and rowdy, or because she doesn't want to get in trouble from her boss. Perhaps its due to both.
I often give them change when I see them. Yet, sometimes I don't have it and can't. Sometimes I am in a rush and don't want to "be bothered." Sometimes I rush past them, lest I make eye contact with them, and become "drawn-into their problems." Yet, when I rush past them, thinking these selfish thoughts, I can't help but feel horrible for having ignored them, in a way. Who am I to ignore these people in need, I with my fancy left-wing ideas and proclamations? Who am I, having overcome such adversity in my own life, to ignore those less fortunate and lucky than myself?
On such days, long after I get to my desk and begin working, I can't help but dwell on my coldness toward them and the guilt of it stays with me until the end of the day. When I get out of work, I sometimes try to "make things right" by seeking them out to give them some money. Then I wonder whether it is even my responsibility to begin with? Don't charities and the government have places to help these people? But then I settle on the idea that everybody should do what he can, when he can, and I give them the money. Perhaps I spend too much time during the day thinking about these things, but I can't get these ideas out of my head. I spend a large portion of my day thinking about it, but not nearly enough doing anything about it, and this realization causes even more guilty reflection and a yearning for pennance and contrition.
I give more than others, but I don't give nearly enough. None of us do. What is it about our society that can have such contrasts stuffed into such close proximity? Are the simple comforts and happiness of the "liberated" people at Rittenhouse dependant upon the degradations of the homeless and destitute a few blocks away? Is there a cause-and-effect relationship? Are the homeless to blame for their own lot? Are they inherently different from you and me? I speak to them and shake their hands. I look into their eyes and I know there is no difference. Are the people at Rittenhouse to blame? Is anybody to blame? Are we wrong to be content, while so many go without so close by?
Perhaps we can comfort ourselves, like proper Bourgeoisie, and say: "nobody is to blame. It is an inherent part of our great system and there is nothing we can do to change it. There will always be rich and there will always be poor. Ours isn't the best system ever devised, its simply the least bad of all the systems devised." And in saying this to ourselves, we rob ourselves of the ability and inclination to want to do anything about the situation. Such a phrase is nothing more than a verbal equivalent of drug-induced inaction, methinks.
Perhaps the folks at Rittenhouse and the folks who beg are just two sides of the same coin? Perhaps we are all winners and losers, due to forces outside our control, our destinies determined by a gold coin flipped by Olympians who never come down from their skyscraper perches above us?
Maybe that's so, but I can't help but feel that if those guys in Brooks Brothers Suits working at One and Two Liberty Place made a little less money, or were taxed a little bit more, that there would be much less suffering among those who have to beg for the right to live at the base of these large temples to wealth. Sure, the wealthy have the "liberty" to earn their millions, but what about the "liberty" of the poor to live and eat and survive? Shouldn't they be entitled to the simple, decent pleasures and idle leisure enjoyed by the people at Rittenhouse Park? Shouldn't they have the freedom to enjoy the sun and bask in the rites of spring without worrying about starvation and shelter?
"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.' They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?'
He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least among you, you did not do for me.' " -Matthew 25:41-45