Saturday, September 19, 2009

Voice of the Oracle

Daring to listen to those who are ignored ...

On the first day I passed her at the bus bench in front of the South Miami City Hall: a small, middle-aged woman just beginning to turn elderly, with the usual collection of shopping and garbage bags filled with all her worldly possessions. The sort of person we have all become accustomed to turning away from and ignoring lest they accost us for money.

But she was impossible to ignore, because she was in the middle of a tirade against the world. As I came closer she turned a withering gaze at me, lips curled in a snarl as her teeth bit out these words:

"I never broke the law, and that's more than I can say for you, Jack!"

I acknowledged her with a nod as I went on by, meaning only that I had heard her words and accepted them. She was probably right about never breaking the law. Except that now, having been forced into her current circumstances by who knows what convolutions of fate, economic violence, and lack of social concern, her condition itself has been declared illegal. We live in a country where one is not assured of a home but not allowed to be without one, the ultimate of all Catch-22 paradoxes.

Kurt Vonnegut described it this way in one of his novels (paraphrasing): The way it works is, gravity causes everyone to have to stick to the planet, but some people own all the places there are to stick to, so everyone else has to pay them for the privilege.

So I believed her that she was innocent, and when I reflected on it I knew she was right about me as well. Oh yes, it is true that I have broken the law. No matter now that the infractions were minor, or that I never got caught, or that I'm sorry and would not do it again, or that enough years have passed for the statute of limitations to have expired several times over. Time doesn't change the fact.

On the second day I passed her in the same spot on the same bench, but totally transformed. Now meek as a kitten she came up to me and with sorrowful eyes said simply, "Do you have anything to spare so I could get something to eat?"

"I have something," I said, and gave her most of the change from my left pocket (preserving my dollar coins for the morning commute in the other one because, hey -- I have to look out for myself too).

Guilty? No, not really. I gave, and having given moved on. My drop in the bucket would take her as far as it could, and someone else would have to take over from there. That's how we do it, such as it is. And she's right about one more thing: we owe it to her.

On the third day she was gone.

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