Sunday, March 6, 2011

Can You Spare A Little Change?

In my former life (no, not one that involves being an Indian rice farmer in the 1800’s….I’m referring to my pre-Nica life), I lived in a large suburban area on the outskirts of Denver.  The official name was Highlands Ranch, a title that no doubt arose from a combination of its altitude relative to the surrounding area and its primary usage prior to catching the eye of a successful land developer in the early 1980’s.  It was the typical western suburb, one characterized by its endless rows of cookie cutter houses (yes, on at least one occasion, I do admit to pulling into the wrong driveway thinking I had arrived home), cute little shopping centers with the uniform big box stores, fast food chains, and roofs covered with faux “Spanish tile”, and lines of enormously large vehicles carrying loads of mid to upper class white Americans watching movies on their built-in DVD players while running behind schedule and telephonically connecting with similar vehicles through their increasingly sophisticated cellular devices. 

Most of those who lived in the area found the experience to be quite positive overall.  In fact I think that the majority of the residents considered their community to be near utopian, as they adorned their vehicles (large SUV’s of course….it WAS Colorado) with license plate covers carrying such slogans as “Highlands Ranch, The PRIDE of Colorado”.  After all, who really cared if you couldn’t park an RV in the driveway, select the paint color of your house, or hang wind chimes on the back porch?  The school system was excellent, there was a relatively high level of safety, and although labels consisting of such words as DIVERSITY may not have been particularly appropriate, all apparent negatives were more than made up for by the overlying blanket of CONVENIENCE. 

Those who found themselves living outside its borders, however, tended to hold a slightly different view of this self proclaimed western version of Mecca, and for that reason there were a number of derogatory nicknames attached to this community as well.  Some may not have been particularly fair or accurate, but as is usually the case in such matters, others were certainly based on an element of truth.  I remember one common reference that hinted at the apparent perfection of the community (emphasis given to “apparent”).  It was “THE BUBBLE”, a name pointing to the fact that in Highlands Ranch, all aspects of life were predictable, defined, controlled, and absolutely perfect.  Of course this was nowhere near the real truth of the matter.  In fact, as a result of my daily brushes with the area’s “less than positive” side through my job in emergency services, I used to say that “behind the well manicured lawns and white picket fences of Highlands Ranch, there lies a whole lot of good old fashioned darkness”.  But whether or not the actual level of perfection was, in the end, achieved, I do believe that there was a consistent effort on behalf of the community to create the appearance of just such a world.

We’ve all experienced it.  The light turns red.  We look to the left.  We see the homeless person with the sign.  “Oh, terrific.”  We fiddle with the radio.  We talk with other individuals in the car with a new found sense of eye contact.  We look for that perfect temperature through precise adjustment of the vehicle’s “climate control center”.  We stare at the color red while praying for it to change as rapidly as possible.  “Whatever you do, do NOT look to the left”, we utter to ourselves, under our breath, as we wait out this seemingly eternal moment.  We do ANYTHING to avoid having to look at the guy with the sign!  Or perhaps we do anything to avoid having that person look at us.  Either way, in the spirit of withholding judgment or examination of the complexities of the situation, I think we’d all agree that such a situation has at least the potential for being quite uncomfortable. 

So what do upstanding, law-abiding citizens do when something is making them uncomfortable?  That’s simple….change the law!  So in Highlands Ranch, as local members of the homeless community began making their way to the southern suburbs in 2004 with the intention of staking a claim on one of its well traveled intersections, that’s exactly what the voters did.  Within no time, the police were given authority to remove any such individual standing on any street corner and asking for any form of personal contribution.  It was a close call, but the perfection was, in the end, retained. 

I think of that sometimes as I make my way around Managua.  I suppose there are technically areas, areas behind walls, gates and private security forces, where one can avoid this type of solicitation for a short time.  But on the whole, it’s simply an inherent part of life.  As far as intersections go, each supports its own little micro labor force.  There are the people selling anything from newspapers to food and beverages to car accessories to dust cloths to small animals.  There are others, I suppose we could call them performance artists, running around dressed as clowns or simply juggling some random object (these days, the object is often on fire) in their everyday wear.  And let’s not forget the classic window washers that tend to wash all windshields without any type of discrimination based upon such factors as the windshield’s level of cleanliness or the driver’s desire to accept or decline such service.  Everyone has their angle.  If you are a small child, you knock on the window and look sad.  If you have been burned, you exhibit your burned face for the drivers to see.  If you have lost a limb, you wave your stump in front of the windshield.  If you’re fortunate, the driver will think something along the lines of “well, I suppose a missing extremity is worth a few cents” and make a small contribution (by the way, I always wonder what the “ranchonians” would think of that one).  Regardless of your respective angle, though, such intersection labor in this area is much more of a contact sport with little room for subtlety. 

But such a culture doesn’t necessarily end with the simple change of red to green.  If you walk down the street, you will be asked for money.  If you eat in a restaurant with an outdoor patio (or often times without) you will be asked for money.  If I leave my door open or read a book in front of where I live, I will be asked for money.  I could go on, but I think you get the point.  Due to an enormous amount of need, there is no shortage of solicitation. 

Hey, these people have no other options.  They are living in extreme poverty and need our help.

Don’t give that guy money.  He’ll just buy drugs or alcohol with it.

That poor kid looks pathetic, and it breaks my heart.  Of course I can spare a little change. 

Nope.  If you give them money, their parents will keep sending them out in the street to beg.

Well if you DON’T give them money, they won’t eat today.

It’s not our problem.

It IS our problem.  It’s a problem of all of us.  If we fail to care, we fail to recognize the humanity that we all share.

Hey, how about doing something productive like work or go to school instead of just sitting around begging your life away.

There’s 70% unemployment.  Where are they going to work? 

That’s where a little initiative comes into play.  They should pull themselves up by their bootstraps, have a little pride, and make something of themselves.

But given such factors as culture, family, community, etc., that’s not always so easy…..or even an option.

Nobody said it would be easy.  You don’t see ME out there in the street, do you?

But you were given an enormous amount of opportunity.  You can’t even compare your background or experience with theirs.

That’s no excuse.

Maybe it is an excuse, or at least should be.

The opportunity is ALWAYS there.  Sometimes it’s just a little harder to find.  In the end, there’s never a complete lack of opportunity.

But in the end, it’s not even really about THEM, but US.  Are we not to focus on such things as generosity, compassion, and love for our neighbor?  Isn’t that the real point at the end of the day?

At the end of the day, you are actually HURTING them by giving them a handout.  You are creating a sense of dependency that will never be broken.  The best thing you can do is to simply turn away.

And so goes the argument, on and on and on.  One side gets labeled as compassionate and ignorant, while the other is viewed as heartless yet wise.  In the end, I think most of us find ourselves vacillating somewhere between the two extremes, eternally questioning the location of that proper line of balance.  As for me, although I did call Highlands Ranch my home for ten years, I was also one of its most vocal critics.  In reference to the aforementioned roadside justice involving the homeless neighbors at the intersections, the idea of ridding the community of such a minute reminder of what life could look like outside the borders of this tiny utopia, seemed absurd.  I used to roll down my window, chat with my less fortunate neighbors for the duration of the red light, and happily give them a small contribution.  I appreciated the short brush with an alternate reality, as I had grown so tired of the homogenous, controlled, monotonous life inside the bubble.
It’s funny how our perspectives can change.  Last year while visiting my old suburban stomping ground, I experienced the strange sensation of being ironically drawn to it, really for the first time.  And after thinking about this for a bit, I realized that it wasn’t the endless rows of beige colored houses that were calling my name.  Rather, it was the overall comfort, predictability, and external sense of ease.  It reminded me of my first visit to the upscale mall here in Managua.  I had spent the previous year immersed primarily in the local “garbage dump community” and found myself outraged by what I found on the other side of the proverbial tracks.  “How can these people walk around like this, casually spending $100 on a new shirt, while there are others, directly across the street, living in plastic “houses” and surviving on one dollar per day?!”  Needless to say, I didn’t stay very long.  Yet strangely enough, I found myself returning to the same location the following week.  What was that about?  I generally detest the malls, or at least the high levels of commercialization and consumerism that they represent.  I certainly had no interest in making a purchase.  What was drawing me back?  And then as I sat there on the large, gently sloping staircase, surfing the web with the free WiFi connection, I realized that, to my knowledge, not a single person had shown any interest in stealing my laptop.  In fact, no one had asked me for money. I saw people walking around casually……with smiles on their faces!  What were they thinking?  I saw entire families…..TOGETHER!  I saw NO acts of violence or abuse, and I had been sitting there for at least an hour!  “Money may not be able to buy happiness”, I thought, “but I sure like what they’re selling here”!

I suppose that upon reaching the point of disillusion with any one extreme, albeit political, religious, socioeconomic, etc., there lies the tendency of heading directly to the side of the other.  But maybe such things would be better viewed through a slightly more balanced lens.  Maybe, as our 1.3 billion friends from the emerging superpower to the East like to say, seemingly contrary forces are generally quite interconnected and interdependent.  Maybe it’s really more about locating that proper equilibrium.  As author Demetria Martinez says, as she warns against seeking refuge in a place located too far toward a particular extreme:

“It’s not enough: to receive the ashes, to ponder our own inevitable deaths, to remember those who died at the hands of death squads or SS guards or those incinerated by bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasake.  We ponder, remember, and repent, but we don’t stop there.  We taste the honey, celebrating the sweetness of life witnessed in a kind act, a work of art, the sky on a beautiful day, an unexpected victory in the struggle for justice.  We honor the dead by celebrating life, loving it so deeply that we find it within ourselves to create a world without holocausts.”

And so I, like most, continue in my search for that often elusive border.   I have to say that although I do visit the local mall on a regular basis, I have no real desire to return to the utopian life of the suburbs.  As for my response to the external needs of my current neighbors, I’ll just say this:  Last week, while coming out of a restaurant with my girlfriend Marcela, I gave a little money to a lady in a wheelchair.  I chatted with her for a moment or two and then honored her second request by pushing her chair up the curb for better positioning (i.e. closer to the doors of the restaurant…i.e. closer to the exiting customers).  She seemed appreciative.  Earlier in the day, a small child had approached the car I was driving at a local intersection.  He was wearing no shirt or shoes and had the typical amount of dirt covering him from head to toe.  He asked for a little money and told me that his feet were burning due to the hot asphalt.  I told him to go stand in the shade.