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Culture Shock

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Back n the U.S.A. with no money and no honey. But no sweat, I have enough friends who have jobs and apartments, and they are generous to a fauit. I am lucky to have friends. I wonder about those Americans who don't have any friends, any body at all to help them out when they are wandering stark-eyed nsane through the Mission or begging numbly on Market Street. Did they used to have friends or relatives, people whose patience and resources have been entirely used up now? Or is it that the Government, the former ally of these miserables, by cutting off their Welfare and turing them out of the mental hospitals, has removed the only thing that ever passed as friendship for these poor people? I I flew from the Far East into LA, late February 1987. Los Angeles can be a cold place, and this time around, it was so with a vengeance. I was not able to contact anyone I knew in town, so I decided to hitch immediately to San Francisco. I took an RTD bus to Canoga Park, and while waiting for a bus to Thousand Oaks, the freezing rain turned to snow. I briefly thought of the guys living in cardboard shacks downtown near Union Station. Then my bus carne to carry me even deeper into the land of walled apartment complexes and shopping mails that is the San Fernanndo Valley. My first 24 hours back in the States, I saw four people who were so overweight they literally belonged in a circus or a hospital. One was a truck driver who picked me up in Santa Barbara. He was easily over 300 pounds, and fat just poured out from every part of his body. In King City, he offered me $10 if I would let him perform fellatio on me. When I declined, he was taken aback. After a long silence, he said, "Well, no hard fellings, eh?" "Not at all," I replied. He put his truck into gear and we were off again. He told me that he was surprised at me; most hitchhikers solicited him. Later he gave me $10 for being "so understanding." It took five rides to get from Thousand Oaks to the Vermont St. exit on US-101 in San Francisco. They all had plenty of disposable income, or at least a generous amount of credit. II My first few days back in the U.S., I spent a lot of my time standing on street corners, gaping at Americans and all their accessories. Lots of greatlooking cars: new Audis, shiny old Chevys, and the occasional Jag. Neon-lit dinnerspots with steak and potatoes for $7.95 (sales tax extra). Everything seemed to be bursting with energy. Maybe a better word might be impatience. Go, go, go! I walked down to the Financial District. I passed a guy in a leather jacket at Powell and Market. He was playing chess for money with passers-by. Ten-minute games, or longer ones, if they wanted. He had a cushion to keep his rear end warm and a queue of willing opponents. I made a note of him and went on. Down in the canyons of finance, the frenzy is at its most intense. Managers, cops and biko messengers all race by in a terrible blur. it never looked this way to me before I went abroad. Has it changed, or have I? I can 't say. The only ones who aren't racing around like sharks are the guys with the signs. There are definitely a lot more of them now. HOMELESS AND JOBLESS. PLEASE HELP. They are on almost (see SHOCK, page 23) SHOCK (from page 9) every corner. And, I noted with curiosity, they are mostly white males, young white males. Being one myself, I couldn't help wondering why these guys, whose combined race-gender-age group made them the most desirable job prospects, were hanging out on corners in the cold, silently asking for dimes and quarters. I asked a couple of them how this carne to be. One guy told a tale of alcoholism, and the other was incoherent. But being nearly broke myself, I told myself that those Financial District types were n a much better position to help these wretches. Tm sorry, I can't help you," I told a couple of them. Fortunately, most of them merely beg with their signs and their hollow, eyes, and don't demand a verbal reply. III I thought back to India, where the poverty and the wretchedness is so mind-bogglingly widespread that it makes the plight of the homeless in the U.S. seem like a tea party. On occasion I would offer food to the beggars in Varanasi or Calcutta, and invariably they would refuse it. They wanted money. Things like that make t easy to take a jaundiced view toward beggars in any country. The hundreds of millions of Indians who are starving andor riddled with diseases like leprosy and polio made my mind reel. My friend Krista and I talked at length about how awful life must be for the beggars and the wretches too far gone to beg. It seemed clear that the Indian Government bore prime responsibility for their plight. The absence of child labor laws there (and statements by the Labor Minister to the effect that a Child Labor Law could not be implemented within 10 years) is one example of how Government keeps its people in misery. And we noted how few Indians helped out those who could not help themselves. The only beggars who seemed to do a good business were the ones working the temples . So why give at all? In India, it seemed that a few Rupees would be a proverbial drop n the ocean - one meal for one out of 300 million Indians (by the Government's estímate) living below the poverty line. Why bother at all? A lot of them were truly better off dead. We were slowly running out of money ourselves, though we were fantastically rich by Indian standards. We couldn't be responsible for every god-damned Indian who couldn't take care of hisor herself. IV I bought some yogurt and walked back toward Powell and Market. There, the chess hustler had his pieces set up, waiting. He saw me from a distance, and gestured to me to come and play. He wanted to play a 10-minute game "for one" (dollar), but I knew that l'd be rusty and said l'd rather play without the doek. We played two games. In the middle of the first game, I made a blunder and lost a knight and got nothing in return. He was a less player, and the game was soon over after that. The second game was much closer, but his endgame was stronger than mine. Two bucks in his pocket. By now, it was almost dusk, and I was really cold. The rematch would have to wait for another day. He seemed cold too, and packed up to go like a guy who's just put in a full day's work. He told me that he was there every day, and he'd like to play me again. I said OK, see you later, and went off down the street. I didn't moum the loss of the two dollars at all. V That night, I went to a bar off Columbus called Spec's. It draws a nice crowd; upscale types who fancy themselves former beatniks. I was sitting at the bar, occasionally interjecting my opinions into an argument over a Conspiracy Theory behind William Casey's brain operation. A woman struck up a conversation with me, and quickly got down to the nitty-gritty. "So what are you doing tonight?" she asked, taking hold of my hand. "Drinking at Spec's." "No, I mean, you know, afterwards." TH go home." "Would you like to come over to my place and have some fun?" She was witty and rather attractive, despite her thinly disguised desperation. But there were too many reasons not to take her up. "No, I don'tthink I can. Not tonight, l'm sorry." She paused for a moment. "Listen, do you need money? I could help you out you know." "Oh no, no." Wow! Being paid for it by a rich, older woman - a teenage fantasy. But I was turning her down. "I really couldn't do that. But you could buy me a beer, though." "Why, sure." She looked perplexed, and kind of upset. I wondered if she said things like that to all the boys. We talked a little bit more about nothing in particular. Then she said she had to go. She reached into her purse and pulled out two bilis. "Would you teil me how much money I have in my hand?" "Fifteen dollars." "Which is which?" This is a ten and this is a five." She then handed me the five, and told me to "take care of" myself. I thanked her, and she kissed me on the cheek and left. In my mind, I balanced the fiver and the beer against the two bucks that went to the chess hustler. VI The next evening, I was waiting for a bus at the corner of Jones and Sutter- "Lower Nob HM." These two white people carne up to me. The woman looked very well off - she wore a nice longcoat and a natty beret. The man was respectably attired in the style of again chic. Polyester slacks, Oxfords, button-down shirt with a button that read "JESUS will save you." He got right to the point. "Pardon me, sir. We are Christians from Australia living entirely on the word of Jesus and the goodness of mankind." (Spoken with an American accent - not a trace of Australia.) "We were supposed to meet someone up on the next corner at 7 o'clock, but he didn't show up, and we need $2 to get back to . . ." I tuned him out. "No, l'm sorry, I don't have it." I had $12 in my pocket. Later, I wished that I had said, "No, I won't give t to you." Having been turned down, they moved down the street to buttonhole a welldressed couple, with not so much as a "Thank you, anyway" or a "Goodbye" to me. I thought back to a time when I was in Santa Rosa, California at 2 am. I had to be there in the morning for a court date. I had taken the bus up from San Francisco after a night at a bar, but I had no more money in my pocket. The Cracker Bank ATM was closed until 6 am. I walked the streets for a while, but it was cold, and I longed for a dollar so I could go into Denny's for an endless cup of coffee and a warm place to sit until morning. Outside the restaurant, I accosted an old man reeking of booze. He was trying to get his key into the door of his Buick. I explained my situation to him, and asked him for a dollar. "Are you drunk?" he asked me. "No sir, not at all." Almost the truth. "Good. Here's a dollar." I was very grateful, and thanked him. The next guy who asked me for spare change in San Francisco got a dollar. But that was it. Almost every one else, from the performers down to the most miserable mother with her babies out in the shopping cart, gets nothing but a cold shake of the head from me. VII Benjamin Franklin once remarked, "So convenient a thing t is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do." VIII Plainly, many Americans are in dire need of assistance. Plainly, the Government "should" do something for them, but it doesnt. Plainly, our moral upbringing chides us for not doing what we can to help out strangers in need. But of course, one would go broke very quickly handing out a dollar to every beggar on the street. Even in a nation such as ours with its relative paucity of paupers compared to the legions of the Third World. Dominique LaPierre asserts that giving to beggars encourages poverty. He may be right, but it isn't enough to remain smugly content with such truisms as you whisk by tired, beaten men who meekly request your change with their cardboard signs. I believe that those who do not reach out to the damned are equally damnable. But I am at a complete loss as to how to truly help those who need it.


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