Day 22 Down and Out in Eureka; Memorial Day
Strange day here in Eureka, or actually just outside it, the town of Arcata. Last night when I arrived I noticed a number, 4-5 people, who were homeless hanging around in the area. A woman, who wasn’t homeless, said hello to me in McDonalds with the usual refrain that I get: “Well you’re far from home.” As you know, I’m happy to chat with people. But then she told me to be careful with my stuff because there were a lot of ‘scumbags’ about. She said ‘scumbags’ a number of times. It bothered me. I don’t know if she was religious or not but can you be sincerely religious if you hold views like that? I know I can’t.
Of and on over the years, I’ve worked with the people who are homeless and some who had mental health problems. And I make sure I say it that way – people who are homeless – because it emphasizes that they are people first – that they have souls and spirits like everyone else. And I have seen such individuals everywhere I have traveled on this trip and others.
Last night, I walked over and talked with a couple who appeared to be homeless. The man must have been in his 70’s. The woman had a beautiful smile. We just chatted. I didn’t ask for or get their history. They weren’t sociological artifacts to be studied– the homeless – they were just people. The man told me some motorcycle stories of his own.
Today, I had breakfast at McDonald’s and saw two other people outside who were homeless. One just had his head down and the other, a young woman, was clearly hearing voices and talking with imaginary people. Well, I couldn’t see them anyway. I later walked past them and said ‘good morning’ and the man looked up and responded and the woman looked away and mumbled. It’s just a thing that I do but I make sure that I don’t cross the road to avoid people who are homeless, because I know that with the values I have that would make me both a hypocrite and a coward. I’ve been those before and I don’t like how they feel.
By the way, no one asked me for any money. Later, I walked past two men and overheard one say: “Look, stop following me.” The other replied: “I’m not following you. You’re paranoid.”
One thing I noticed was that in the square mile I walked around there were no benches or seats, even outside McDonalds or the other fast food places. I figured it was because the businesses didn’t want people loitering. In fact, since I wanted to sit in the sun for a while the only comfortable seat I could find was back on Big Red. So I went behind the motel, sat on her and smoked a cigar. We commiserated about not being on the road today.
The older man who was homeless who I’d met last night came over to the bike and chatted with me. Thin, grey receding hair and bushy grey eyebrows he reminded me of an older man I once knew when I lived in Ireland. He told me that he and his friend slept “over there” pointing to some green trees in a wooded area behind one of the motels. He told me that he had been a fisherman.
Mark Twain once said: “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.”
I want to say thank you to all those who have served in the military. My father and his four brothers all served in World War Two.
What I always struggle with is this: What kind of vision do we have for America? What type of society have we fought for? Do we want to fight for? How should we treat our least fortunate citizens in a way that is consistent with our personal or religious values? I think of the old man sleeping in the woods and of the younger woman talking with herself.
I also think about the writer George Orwell. Before he published his classic 1984 he lived for a while in poverty and wrote a book about it called: Down and Out in Paris and France. I’ll close with a couple of quotes from his book.
“It is curious how people take it for granted that they have a right to preach at you and pray over you as soon as your income falls below a certain level.”
“It is worth saying something about the social position of beggars, for when one has consorted with them, and found that they are ordinary human beings, one cannot help being struck by the curious attitude that society takes towards them. People seem to feel that there is some essential difference between beggars and ordinary ‘working’ men. They are a race apart–outcasts, like criminals and prostitutes. Working men ‘work’, beggars do not ‘work’; they are parasites, worthless in their very nature. It is taken for granted that a beggar does not ‘earn’ his living, as a bricklayer or a literary critic ‘earns’ his. He is a mere social excrescence, tolerated because we live in a humane age, but essentially despicable.
Yet if one looks closely one sees that there is no ESSENTIAL difference between a beggar’s livelihood and that of numberless respectable people. Beggars do not work, it is said; but, then, what is WORK? A navvy works by swinging a pick. An accountant works by adding up figures. A beggar works by standing out of doors in all weathers and getting varicose veins, chronic bronchitis, etc. It is a trade like any other; quite useless, of course–but, then, many reputable trades are quite useless. And as a social type a beggar compares well with scores of others. He is honest compared with the sellers of most patent medicines, high-minded compared with a Sunday newspaper proprietor, amiable compared with a hire-purchase tout–in short, a parasite, but a fairly harmless parasite. He seldom extracts more than a bare living from the community, and, what should justify him according to our ethical ideas, he pays for it over and over in suffering. I do not think there is anything about a beggar that sets him in a different class from other people, or gives most modern men the right to despise him.
Then the question arises, Why are beggars despised?–for they are despised, universally. I believe it is for the simple reason that they fail to earn a decent living. In practice nobody cares whether work is useful or useless, productive or parasitic; the sole thing demanded is that it shall be profitable. In all the modem talk about energy, efficiency, social service and the rest of it, what meaning is there except ‘Get money, get it legally, and get a lot of it’? Money has become the grand test of virtue. By this test beggars fail, and for this they are despised. If one could earn even ten pounds a week at begging, it would become a respectable profession immediately. A beggar, looked at realistically, is simply a businessman, getting his living, like other businessmen, in the way that comes to hand. He has not, more than most modem people, sold his honour; he has merely made the mistake of choosing a trade at which it is impossible to grow rich.”
Ride safely through this world.