[Hpn] Sidewalk Objects: Encounters With D.C.'s Untouchables
Morgan W. Brown
Thu, 26 Jul 2001 11:47:48 -0400
Thursday, July 26, 2001
Washington Post <http://www.washingtonpost.com>
[Washington, D.C., USA]
The Extras section
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had it not been for such a response, my agitation would have probably been
replaced by something far more detrimental: indifference.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
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
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!"
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."
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
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
"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
material is distributed without charge or profit to
those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving
this type of information for non-profit research and
educational purposes only.**
-------End of forward-------
Morgan W. Brown
Montpelier Vermont USA
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