When I was an enlisted man in the Marine Corps back in the late fifties and early sixties, I was stationed at Camp Pendleton in southern California. On weekends, my buddies and I often went on liberty to Los Angeles or San Diego. Sometimes we took the bus all the way down to Tijuana, Mexico. Even back then, there were homeless people, begging for handouts along the sidewalks in the inner city.
Having grown up in a small town in the middle of the country, I had never witnessed homeless people. I thought it was strange, to see them asking for money. They were in sad shape, in dirty, shabby clothes, and needing a bath and a shave. I was told that most of them were alcoholics or drug addicts. Some were mentally ill. I wondered how they came to be homeless. Once I was on liberty alone, so I found a homeless man and asked him how he happened to end up on the streets. He told me a wild story about having once been rich before he lost all of his money through bad investments. I was believing him, until he laughed and said, “You should see your face. You really are being taken in by my story. I’ve never been rich. I’m one of the displaced, misplaced Americans who never did amount to anything. I did all the wrong things, and that’s why I am here, asking you for a handout.”
I gave him a dollar, which was a lot of money for a private earning $72 per month. He thanked me and handed my money back. “You’re too wet behind the ears,” he said.
“If you don’t grow up and see the world for what it is, you will end up like me, out here panhandling.” I didn’t understand him at the time, but now, after many years of trial and error in various jobs around this country, I think I know. It’s easy to think the world is a big platter of goodies for people like me who are white and educated, from homes with two parents, homes in small towns where the ills of urban life seem far away. After my four years in the Marines, I went to college and ended up gainfully employed, married, and a father. I felt blessed and protected by “the system.” But I still wonder what happened to that homeless man, and if he ever found a way to escape from his circumstances. When I visit urban places these days, I notice that there are many more homeless people on the streets. This causes me to wonder about my own place in the world, and what’s happening in the lives of many Americans. I believe the economy is not working for a large group of my fellow citizens. Something is not working. I don’t know how this can be changed. A friend recently told me that the poorest of Americans is wealthy when compared to people in places like Darfur, Bangladesh, Mexico, rural China, and many countries in Africa. I believe I can do nothing to change this, but then I think that I should be doing something, anything, to make the world better. But I feel paralyzed by my creature comforts and guaranteed security.
I am what I call an obtuse American. I will go on living my life, enjoying my last days on earth, happy to have been blessed by being here in this rich country.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.