[Hpn] Sidewalk Objects: Encounters With D.C.'s Untouchables

Morgan W. Brown morganbrown@hotmail.com
Thu, 26 Jul 2001 11:47:48 -0400


-------Forwarded article-------

Thursday, July 26, 2001
Washington Post <http://www.washingtonpost.com>
[Washington, D.C., USA]
The Extras section
Washington District
Page DZ03
Sidewalk Objects: Encounters With D.C.'s Untouchables

By Rich Schapiro
Thursday, July 26, 2001; Page DZ03

When I am hungry, I eat. When I am tired, I go to sleep in my bed. And when 
I see something that I really want, I buy it.

Carl eats every other day maybe. In winter, Doug sleeps atop a heating vent 
next to his wife. And the last thing that Pam bought that she really wanted 
was crack. That was six years ago.

A college student brought up on Cheerios, summer camps and good night 
kisses, I had no idea what to expect when I first began interviewing 
homeless people last August. How would I approach these people? How was I 
going to be received? My mind was flooded with such questions, not to 
mention the one that was undoubtedly the most pressing: Why was I even doing 

After an early meeting with a homeless person, and seeing people's reactions 
to her, the answer to this question emerged immediately. Both inspired and 
troubled by that initial experience, I found a purpose, to raise awareness 
among those who cannot relate to homelessness, and a means, my college 

As the number of articles I wrote increased, however, the effect they had on 
the campus community seemed to dwindle. This only motivated me further, for 
had it not been for such a response, my agitation would have probably been 
replaced by something far more detrimental: indifference.

An Uneasy Coffee Break

The date is Oct. 9, 2000. I'm at the entrance to Starbucks in Dupont Circle 
alongside Pam, a 45-year-old homeless woman, wondering what I have gotten 
myself into.

I open the doors. A pack of bewildered glances is upon us immediately, then 
nervous whispers. A thick blanket of tension rolls in like heavy fog. Smiles 
transform into sneers, informality into uncanny rigidity. All of a sudden, I 
feel like I am in a room full of people whom I have just betrayed.

Glancing back, I see Pam. She is staring through me, as if she is somehow 
aware of exactly how I am feeling. The embarrassment and uneasiness that her 
gaze initially causes gives way to determination. I now feel I must prove to 
her that I am not like these people -- and that I will not submit to their 

Once we are given our coffees, we begin making our way to a small table in 
the back of the restaurant. The whispers grow louder. The looks more 
menacing. Pam seems almost completely unaffected; she probably knows no 
other way.

Before we reach the table, I realize that I did indeed betray all of these 
Starbucks customers. I violated the unwritten code that states that Pam's 
type of people should be kept out of these types of places.

As we sit down, I think to myself, "What a peculiar revelation to have in a 
country still known as the land of freedom and opportunity for all!"

Unfamiliar Territory

The date is Oct. 27, 2000. In front of me is a bustling sidewalk at Seventh 
Street and Independence Avenue SW, a blur of people rushing past. Seated 
beside me is Carl, who uses a wheelchair and has one eye, one leg and green, 
mangled fingernails that look as if they are attached with cheap glue.

This time, I'm the one who has stepped into unfamiliar territory. I am 
sitting where Carl usually sits. I am doing what Carl usually does. The tin 
can that he periodically shakes has become my own.

"Spare some change. Spare some change. Help the homeless."

Within a few minutes, I am reciting this phrase with him, only under my 

With every person who walks past without donating, the pain in my stomach 
intensifies. With every coin that gets dropped in our treasury, though there 
aren't many, a wave of relief comes over me.

As Carl is confessing things such as, "I try to eat every other day 'cause I 
don't want to get too used to eating," I spot a bank and see several people 
who stuff wads of bills into their pocket.

They rush by, gesturing to us that they have nothing. What I am affected by 
even more is the number of people who march past without seeming to notice 
us. What could possibly cause people to act in such a way?

Sitting there, experiencing this behavior firsthand, it doesn't take long 
for me to come up with an answer. What enables the vast majority of people 
to walk by Carl without acknowledging him is that they do not view him as a 

He is perceived as an object on the sidewalk, not unlike a light pole or 
bench. It is precisely this objectification, I think, that allows so many to 
detach themselves from his situation.

By the time I part with Carl, I am both distraught and grateful. Like Pam 
before him and Doug after, Carl opened my eyes to a world I never otherwise 
could have understood.

Last winter, hoping for the cancellation of school, I found myself wishing 
for snow, only to be startled by the voice of Doug replaying within me.

"Snow is fun to look at when you're looking out the window, but if you have 
to trudge 10 miles in it, snow's a little different."

Another time, while complaining about the price of a meal at a restaurant, I 
heard Carl whisper in his raspy tone, "Ninety cents for one [hot dog] bun at 
the vendor. The vendors will send you to the poorhouse."

Hypocrisy Revealed

With such a heightened perspective, hypocrisies have begun to reveal 
themselves to me like neon advertisements. I have witnessed individuals toss 
clothes into donation boxes, while visibly cold and suffering homeless 
people watch not 10 yards away. Similarly, I have watched people deny 
beggars food that they are carrying only to toss it into the next garbage 
can they come across.

"I am doing you a favor," I heard once. You absolutely are, sir, if you 
really believe that what these people are trying to achieve is starvation.

It seems like the majority of people I speak to simply cannot accept the 
idea that homeless people may be homeless because of the circumstances they 
have had to deal with throughout their lives, not because they are weak or 

No matter how much I emphasize the common threads that seem to run through 
almost all of the stories I hear -- poverty, negligent parenting, drug 
abuse, jail -- people cannot appreciate the effect that our environment has 
upon us.

Such conversations seem to always degenerate into me bombarding my adversary 
with questions. Do you think that you would be the same person if you grew 
up in abject poverty? If you often left the dinner table still hungry? If 
your parents were alcoholics, too busy with their own problems to deal with 
yours? If you were constantly surrounded by people who did or sold drugs?

It's not until after such diatribes that I remember to ask the most 
important question.

"Wait a minute. Have you ever once actually spoken to a homeless person?"

"No," comes the reply. "Why would I do that?"

Rich Schapiro, who grew up in West Orange, N.J., graduated from American 
University in May with a bachelor's degree in philosophy. He spent a 
semester abroad in Zimbabwe, where he first began to interact on a regular 
basis with people living in extreme poverty. His work with homeless people 
this year has led him to consider a career in journalism.


**In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this
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-------End of forward-------

Morgan <morganbrown@hotmail.com>
Morgan W. Brown
Montpelier Vermont USA

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