Sunday, August 02, 2009

`This Is a Fellow Human Being'

The library entrance was flanked by three Laroucheites and a beggar. The former stood around a card table on which they had hung posters equating the president with Hitler. They looked grim. The beggar, the first I have seen at the library, was smiling. He wore chinos and a buff-colored shirt buttoned at the collar, and held a cardboard sign that said “HOMELESS” and “FATHER” and other words too small to read. He nodded and I nodded and I hustled the boys inside.

An army of beggars occupied most of the freeway access roads in Houston. In my experience, they weren’t aggressive, just part of the roadside scenery like palmettos and taquerias. In greater Seattle, beggars are scarcer and more genteel, usually better dressed. It’s easy to ignore them, unlike some of their New York City brethren.

As we were leaving the library I heard the scene at the entrance before I saw it – loud, emphatic talking, not quite yelling. I was surprised to see it was the beggar making the noise. “Don’t tell me what I’m doing here!” were the first words I could make out. And then: “I got nothing to do with you people.” One of the Laroucheites said something about “Wall Street,” and the boys and I moved toward the car. The last words I made out were the beggar’s: “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” By the time we were pulling out of the parking lot, library security guards were breaking things up.

I’m speculating here, filling in the missing dialogue, but I assume one of the crackpots used the beggar as an illustration of something or other, perhaps accusing him of being a tool of British intelligence, and the beggar objected. I don’t know his story, the legitimacy of his situation, the state of his mental health or his drug and alcohol habits. He was clean and well-groomed, polite and deferential, seemingly on a downward drift from the middle class. Lyndon Larouche’s followers are not renowned for tact, and the beggar was offended.

In his essay about London Labour and the London Poor, Henry Mayhew’s great four-volume chronicle of Victorian England’s lumpenproletariat, Auden writes:

“Yet, for all its harrowing descriptions of squalor, crime, injustice and suffering, the final impression of Mayhew’s great book is not depressing. From his many transcripts of conversations it is clear that Mayhew was that rare creature, a natural democrat; his first thought, that is to say, was never `This is an unfortunate wretch whom it is my duty, if possible, to help’ but always `This is a fellow human being whom it is fun to talk to.’ The reader’s final impression of the London poor is not of their misery but of their self-respect, courage and gaiety in conditions under which it seems incredible that such virtues could survive.”

Auden’s operative words are “fellow human being” and “fun.” Some people see not a beggar with an idiosyncratic history, mingling the good, bad and indifferent like the rest of us, but a case study, a social category, a specimen in a jar. One wouldn’t expect a Laroucheite to have the patience or decency to talk to a fellow human being, and certainly not to have a well-toned sense of fun.

1 comment:

Bill said...

I love this 'blog!

I came across it in a random search for Pere Ubu of all things, and I've come close to posting comments on a few occasions.

I have nothing to add to this article other than to say it's a particularly good one among particularly good ones.
Thank you!