‘In Deafening Anonymity’
As Some Sort of Shangri La, Santa Barbara's a Good Place to Be a Bum
I don’t think I’ve ever quoted a Pope, but this new guy isn’t your grandfather’s Pontiff. He might actually be a Christian. He was in Manhattan during his first papal visit to the U.S. and had this to say about the homeless, the dispossessed, the poor and the perpetually damp: “In big cities, beneath the roar of traffic, beneath the ‘rapid pace of change,’ so many faces pass by unnoticed because they have no ‘right’ to be there, no right to part of the city. They are the foreigners, the children who go without schooling, those deprived of medical insurance, the forgotten elderly. These people stand at the edges of our great avenues, in our streets, in deafening anonymity.” Indeed, Francis, indeed.
The talk in the bars and cafés or in the kitchen at house parties of our big village seems to always come back round to the people who sleep on the street or in parks, behind dumpsters or the narrow green swaths that girdle the big library downtown. There are complaints about aggressive mendicants and the raucous dispossessed drinking beer from paper bags and generally acting, well, happy.
There are happy hours for many street people when someone’s dinghy comes in, and there are smokes and one sort of elixir or another until late at night when sobriety decays and darkness falls. They are, it is said, bad for business, bad for our reputation as some sort of Shangri La, well above the clamor and madness of Los Angeles, which is primarily seen as a place to be escaped from. Salsipuedes. We really would like to see them all just go away. “Try Barstow,” we whisper to ourselves and each other. And, “Where do they think we are? Calcutta?” We see them drool and trip, rant and mumble. And we, of course, feel erect, well fed, linked in, loving the grid and the gadgets spawned that allow us all to be somewhere else while right here.
The homeless are here because it has always (since 1968 when I first hitchhiked through here) been a good place to be a bum. The weather is sublime; there are green patches like a Sherwood Forest for a Merry Man, beaches, and a great public restroom in the Public Library where you can also always find a seat or even, sometimes, a couch.
It would be nice if everyone had a home, but everyone doesn’t. And for the victims, the abused and chemically misbalanced, there should be “people “to take care of them: Scoot them off to some Potemkin village when the cruise ships are in the harbor, feed and board them in auditoriums where breaking the laundry list of rules is the principle form of good, cheap entertainment. Then, let them stay or go where they want to go, and we will live with their presence in the same way we suffered Cheney and, these days, Trump. Or invite them to dinner.
And bums, hoboes, freeway drifters, bindle stiffs had more of a sense of humor They were not a political football, a cause, or part of a political agenda toward which everyone marches in the name of someone else while pushing their chances for county supervisor, mayor, potential councilperson, and the whole flotilla of hangers-on trying to be both pious and baldly ambitious in the same sound bite. Then we were the free, and the people that crossed to the other side of the street to avoid our presence and our perceived threat we called “plastic,” and they called us parasites. But that was okay, too — most of us were parasites, feeding at the teat of the VA, our befuddled parents, food stamps, emergency room care, soup kitchens, a clean bed and a sermon you could ignore, eyes wide shut.
The people on the street live in some shadows into which many like to peek, quickly, at an alternate consciousness. But the reality in which they operate, suffer, and exalt is common to many millions. The future untenable, the deck is stacked, and the dice are loaded. They rant occasionally because they want to be recognized as being here, there, or anywhere.