Moral dilemmas are much easier when contemplated from a distance. I can orate with great passion about various social injustices, the raising of other peoples’ children, and Arizona’s immigration policy. I feel a personal obligation to force myself not to look away from ugliness, brutality and the messes in our midst.
Homelessness sickens me, as it should anyone with a beating heart. I know that it’s complicated; I used to represent people who were applying for Social Security based on mental illness and/or substance abuse issues back in the days before Congress made itself feel virtuous by making it impossible to obtain benefits based on drug or alcohol addiction. Many of my clients lived in shelters, or on the streets. I have also tended to give money to homeless folks on the street when I had enough to share, believing it was not my business what they did with it. Why is it any better for me to blow twenty bucks on fatty food and eyeliner than it is for a Vietnam vet to buy a couple of bottles of malt liquor? Is it my charter to monitor his lifestyle choices because I am a well-heeled white girl with a vast safety net?
In the past few years, my firm position has come shaky. We live in a large college town, on a street where all of our neighbors are student renters. The average age of our neighbors is 20, and life is a constant whirl of football Saturdays, cramming for finals, and walks of shame. I am pretty sure none of my neighbors could lend me a cup of sugar, but most of them could come up with a joint if I needed one. They sometimes annoy us with noise, but at the end of the day…we care about them. We are parents and they are children. We lend them cookie sheets and shovels, and they rake our yard when we aren’t looking. We come to love some of them, and remain friends as they sail out into the open seas of jobs, marriage and adulthood.
Into this already unstable mix of town and gown come the “Can Guys.” Drawn to this neighborhood because students tend to have lawns strewn with returnable beer cans and bottles, they come on rickety bikes or on foot. In rare cases someone has an ancient car with rust holes and dicey suspension. Some are very respectful and maintain a distance from inhabited houses, others feel free to walk onto our large, open porches, take half-smoked cigarettes out of the ashtrays, look under furniture for stray bottles, or knock on doors to ask for a smoke or a couple of bucks.
For the first few years of our life here, I ran out to give them our cans and bottles, and felt nothing but indignation at the fact that these men were reduced to scrambling for dimes to support themselves. A couple of years ago after a rash of thefts in the neighborhood, I had a conversation with a police officer who warned me to “be careful about the can men.” I assumed a veneer of patient attention, waiting until it was my turn to talk so I could let him (The Man) know what I thought about the whole thing. As he spoke, I found myself drawn in, and questioning my smug assumptions. The Can Guys were mostly not homeless; they lived at the Rescue Mission or in halfway houses in Lansing. They were nearly all paroled felons, many known to the police through their Parole Officers. Many had committed violent crimes against women. I recalled a story told to me by a tiny, Goth girl living in cooperative housing at the end of our street. She described being the only person home in the vast, old Co-op, and waking up to see a Can Guy in the doorway of her bedroom asking if she had a cigarette. My stomach pleated and my mouth got dry.
As it turns out, I can‘t save everybody: the Can Guys are victims of the system and need my empathy, and the students are vulnerable and naïve and need my protection. I imagine that the Can Guys are my husband, my father, or my brother after a long, hard road, and I am outraged that there is no better opportunity for them to earn a living after prison. I imagine that the students are my son, my niece or my stepdaughter, and I am terrified at the proposition of violent ex-cons hanging out around their houses, many of which have locks that don’t work really well.
So last night, I warned a group of female students to be careful about the Can Guys. I told them that it feels good to help them, and that lots of students adopt them as if they were pets (secretly thrilled to have a Real Live Poor Black Guy drinking from the beer bong). I told them that these guys aren’t gentled domestic creatures; they are men who have had to struggle to survive. I told them to keep their doors locked, and to feel okay about telling the Can Guys that they weren’t comfortable having them come onto their porches. I told them that if they were really uncomfortable, they should call the police.
I can work for justice, put my money where my mouth is, and believe that everyone in this country is entitled to a safe place to live and an opportunity for a fresh start. Right now, though, the silly, unsophisticated children who play house in my neighborhood are my first priority. It may not be the way things should be, and I would undoubtedly have a different perspective from a great distance, but I can live with this. Mostly. I think. I have to.