Is god the bum at the bottom of being who got everything for nothing?
Before I returned to South Beach, my Florida contacts warned me not to move onto the “bad end” of South Beach.
“Oh, don’t worry,” I said, “I know about the bad end of South Beach.”
I thought they meant the southern end of Miami Beach around the old greyhound race track, for that area was pretty “bad” when I lived and worked on South Beach in the late Sixties. But the southern end of South Beach is now called South Pointe and has been upgraded to the highest class of “world-class” existence. I now live in another “bad” neighborhood in South Beach, the southern end of the Flamingo Park Neighborhood between Fifth and Seventh Streets, called Seventh Heaven a few years back because of pervasive drug use.
The cops have gotten rid of the drug problem in Seventh Heaven, but I still hope to move up in the world, perhaps to South Pointe. I could spend my life savings to rent a luxury condo there for a year, where I would write Leaving South Beach. The prostitute would be free because she would love me, and she would chip in on food and liquor. But my budget is pretty tight at the moment. I have $5 a day to live on after rent and utilities, yet I am not complaining. At least I am not a bum.
Please pardon the use of the politically incorrect term. I was once slapped down for referring to a professional panhandler as a bum. “He’s a human being!” shouted my critic. “Yes, he is,” I responded. “He’s a human bum.”
I was conditioned by Midwestern culture to believe that it is better to make an honest living than to be an outlaw, and better to be an outlaw or dead than to be a bum. But that is going against the grain, for every person is a bum at the bottom of his being, is he not? That is, who does not every city slicker at least want something for nothing? Is not god almighty the bum who got everything for nothing? And is that not the ultimate end of buying cheap and selling dear? Since inheritance is nothing more than a handout, why disparage the bum who wants one? Wealth is the predominant form of power, so we tend to idolize those who inherit a great deal of it just as much as we formally praise the so-called self-made man. The awful truth about the monetary demoralization of civilization is that those whose god is money do not really care how a man got his if he’s got a lot of it.
When I was a little boy, people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I was told that good people work, but bums are even worse than criminals, thieves who want something for nothing. I defiantly said that I wanted to be a bum. The brain does not in itself care whether a suggestion is positive or negative. As much as I tried to overcome the early suggestion I had made, every time great wealth was within reach, I spent everything I had and started all over again, as if I was destined to become a bum, for eventually it is too late to begin again. Yet the power of suggestion is not everything, especially when suggestions conflict: I have yet to become a real bum.
It never occurred to me that it might be a wonderful thing to become a very rich bum, a wealthy person of leisure who does not industrially earn his keep. Or perhaps a part-time bum is preferable: someone who draws ten million or more per year for a job that is only worth a hundred-thousand dollars per annum, the surplus being paid for one’s value as a symbol, as an idol for others who are awed by wealth and perhaps want to delegate as much work as possible themselves, eventually, and get as much as they can for nothing. Alas, the gold that paves the streets of America did not pan out for me because I was afraid to actually put my hand out and pan for gold.
Speaking of panhandling, the profession has gotten out of hand in South Beach, especially around Washington Avenue and Lincoln Road. Even worse, the mentally disturbed derelicts who have given up on panhandling and have lost hope are a pitiful sight, often remarked on by tourists.
“Where are the Christians?” I heard one tourist ask her companion last Saturday after a hysterical homeless woman passed by on the beach walk. “Maybe they can help these desperate people on the beach,” she suggested.
“Maybe,” diffidently said her companion, “but highly unlikely. These people wouldn’t be here if Christians really cared about people.”
Although postmodern Christians are understandably reluctant to take forlorn people into their homes, the City of Miami Beach does have an effective homeless outreach program. According to the Miami Beach Police Department, people live on the streets by choice, and not because there is nowhere to go for food, shelter, and recovery.
I met a panhandler when I went over to McDonald’s at Washington and Lincoln Road for a breakfast special Sunday morning. After I sat down with my sandwich and coffee, I noticed an obese woman outside the window, standing on the curb, tucking her blouse into her skirt, obviously trying to make herself presentable. A street woman, I thought, and I thought nothing more of it as I proceeded to have my breakfast and read the wonderful book on comparative politics that I had bought for a quarter—I would like to read the Miami Herald in the mornings, but it is too expensive.
“Sir, please give me a dollar!” demanded a loud voice, the “please” in her sentence entirely wasted.
There she was, the lady from the curb, hovering over me. I felt as annoyed as a junk yard dog interrupted during his meal of raw meat.
“No, ma’am, I have nothing for you,” I replied, forcing a polite tone of voice.
As a matter of habit, I generally follow the rule-of-thumb recommended by some experts: Just say no, politely, and keep on walking. Do not engage the panhandler in conversation. Giving panhandlers money will make conditions worse. There are plenty of places where people can get help.
Aggressive or intimidating panhandling is illegal in Miami Dade County, and can result in a $100 fine and 30 days imprisonment for the first offense, and a $200 fine and 60 days of imprisonment for repeated offenses, while panhandling within 20 feet of an eatery in the City of Miami Beach can draw a $500 fine and a 60-day jail sentence. However, judges enjoy and often employ their discretion to sentence the accused to time served during processing, allowing the panhandlers to return to area where they were arrested, sometimes on the very same day.
“Why won’t you give me money, I need some money!” the panhandler persisted, leaning over the table—I was not about to get up and walk away from the breakfast I had purchased and wanted to eat. “Come on, why won’t you help me?” she asked again.
“Why in the world should I help you?” I asked. “You’ve done nothing for me, are offering me nothing, and I don’t have the means to help you, anyway, so why should I help you? Why don’t you help me instead?”
“I would help you if I could,” she said. For some reason, I believed her.
“Well, I am not asking you for help. And you have not answered my question: Why should I help you?”
“I’ll tell you why, you (expletive deleted)!” she screamed and began to pace around the restaurant. “If you don’t help me I’ll get a (expletive deleted) gun and blow your (expletive deleted) head off and take your (expletive-deleted) money, you white (expletive deleted)! Yeah, [to the manager] go ahead and call the (expletive deleted) police. I don’t give a (expletive deleted) you (expletive deleted), I got nothing to lose!” At which point she rushed out the door as two customers in line laughed out loud at her speech.
I was certainly not amused by her antics. If I really believed she had a gun stashed outside, maybe in a trash can, and feared she would use it, her threat would have been a criminal assault. The manager was not about to call the police—McDonalds at that location is notorious for allowing such conduct inside and around its doors. I did not own a phone, but neither was I inclined to call the police.
My weakness was that I really do care. I just cannot help caring, even though caring under all circumstances can be downright foolish, as can be seen by reading Cervantes. Notwithstanding the expletives, I appreciated her fundamental position. Of course I did not have her case file, but I considered the possibilities as I finished my coffee. For all I know, I conjectured, something happened, she got a bad break, lost her job, tried to find another one, lost her home, did not want to take up drug dealing and prostitution, whatever.
Human beings not to mention animals naturally have an individual right to survive, and the means to that survival might be violent. She had an individual right to get her gun and rob me. I had an individual right to stand my ground and shoot her before she got the chance. Human beings learned to depend more on natural law than on individual right. The natural law of human behavior is the human ability to think things out and to find reasonable, nonviolent means to satisfy needs and wants instead of relying on the natural right of individuals to grab what they can get and may the devil take the hindmost.
Something is really sick about the alienated individualism of this society, I ruminated. People who are in relatively comfortable positions take absolute personal credit for their circumstances. They blame everyone who is hurting for being in bad situations and predicaments. “Just deserts,” they say, and they congratulate themselves for winning the social lottery, denying their luck all the while, and attribute criticism of their lifestyle to the jealousy of have-nots. Did they not deserve their inheritances, being born of worthy stock? Or did they not jump through all the hoops? Did they not by hook or crook climb the slippery slope to success? The very sight of the losers emphasizes their self-worth.
Well, half-truths abound, and both sides have some merit and demerit. The broker I am, the more I side with the broke side. “Society is getting too one-sided,” I opined to my inner other as I finished off my $3 breakfast special. The socialists have made some really good points, I mused. Just read Marx, Engels, and Lenin to begin with. That’s what the private capitalists are afraid of. In effect, they are secretly afraid of themselves, of their motives, and of the dangerous results of their underlying irrational justification, rooted not in the rationalizations they offer but in irrational natural right. Private capitalism needs a virtually enslaved underclass and plenty of poverty to persist. It can’t satisfy the basic needs of everyone and turn a profit, therefore it produces only half of its potential product at the very most, and claims that that is the best of all possible worlds, or that paradise will be realized if only everybody overcharges everybody. Perhaps communism will have a restoration if welfare capitalism does not save private capitalism. Maybe that lady will be useful to society, after all, if she has a gun and knows how to use it.
All the while I cogitated inside, the panhandling woman was pacing back and forth outside the door, mumbling furiously, so beside herself she could not panhandle. I finished my breakfast and walked out the door. She said not a word to me, however. Whereupon I disobeyed the anti-panhandler rule, stopped and addressed her.
“I know where you are coming from, so I want you to help me now. Will you help me? I want you to do me a favor, and take this money, with my blessing, because I think it will come back to me a thousand times over.”
She vigorously shook her head, negatively.
“Please take it.” I pleaded. “It is not much, only two bucks, the rest of my budget for the day. Rich people don’t eat at McDonald’s, you know, not unless they are total cheapskates.”
“There is not much difference between you and me,” I argued as she shook her head miserably. “I am terribly lonely for dollars myself. I’ve been begging for work every day, begging powerful people to give me a break, and so far I have gotten the silent treatment and hundreds of rejections, one automatic rejection slip after another. When I get set, I am going to make sure some people in your shoes have something better to do than panhandle. Panhandling is a lousy job. Come on, take the money, it will bring us both good luck.”
She said nothing, but she took the money. I will not forget her expression, twisted with fury and frustration, eyes blazing behind the tears, telling a story we are unlikely to find in the Sunday edition of the daily newspaper because it does not suit the market needs defined by the publisher. The comfortable majority does not want to pay for a story unless it appertains to some immediate threat to their lifestyle, like serious crimes in their neighborhood. Once the crime is committed or the revolution begins, the news will sell like hotcakes.
I often wonder what happened to that woman, and whether or not she became a career criminal for want of training and gainful employment. She certainly was not cut out to be a professional panhandler. At least I never saw her again. McDonalds remains a popular place for panhandling. And it is even more popular for fast food since it was renovated. A meal there runs around $7. I don’t know about you, but that is $2 over my budget for the day.