Sunday, July 17, 2005

Tainted charity

I didn't see this coming.

Today, when I walked past the library at the corner where I live, Larry was lying passed out on the grass. "Boxcar Larry," they call him around here, or "Wolfman," for his hairy face. Sometimes, Larry walks around talking to himself, gesticulating wildly. Other times, he can be fairly lucid. Somebody in our neighborhood has a really sick sense of humor: every time Larry passes out on the library lawn, this person pulls the hose over from the library, leaves it next to him, then turns it on and runs. Larry wakes up soaked.

Some welcome wagon. "Welcome to the neighborhood. Now get the hell out."

I stopped for a minute to talk to Milton, sitting in his wheelchair outside the library, and while we were talking, Larry woke up, soaked, the hose lying next to him. He coughed for a long time, then lay back down in the wet grass. I went over to ask him if he was OK. He asked if I had any money, and I said no, and then he asked if I had some food. I said I'd go up to my apartment and see what was cooking.

The she-guerilla was making heirloom tomato spaghetti. Mmm, mmm.

I took some out to Larry, and we got to talking. He's very intelligent, studied history in college. We talked about the war in Iraq. He said he thinks Tony Blair was behind the bombings in London. I said I didn't really think so, but there is no question he will benefit in terms of political capital. We got to talking whether Alex Haley's biography of Malcolm X or Spike Lee's movie was the more accurate portrayal of his life.

Then things went south. In a big way.

I asked about Larry's cough, and he told me that he has an infection and needs to get a prescription filled for penicillin; he has prescription waiting at a drugstore downtown. He's on some kind of assistance program, so the drugs only cost a five-dollar copayment. I told him I didn't have any money to give him, but that maybe we could go to the drugstore across the street (another franchise in the same chain) and try to get the prescription transferred, and I'd buy it with my credit card.

Larry kind of stiffened. He said that if I didn't trust him with the money, I should just come right out and say so. He told me that the only thing a homeless person really has is independence. I started explaining again that I didn't have any cash, but he cut me off.

"You know, I really don't think I like this conversation. I don't like it at all. I don't need your charity. This is all about you trying to feel better about yourself, isn't it? I probably shouldn't be eating this food. I shouldn't eat it at all. It's contaminated. Tainted with your, your... charity."

And he threw the spaghetti, the bread, the fruit, the coffee, all of it into the street. He was really agitated at this point. Told me to get away from him, jumped up, grabbed the sweatshirt he had been lying on, swung it around violently, narrowly missing my face, and stalked away, yelling "It's all a game to you isn't it? Just a big game!"

Milton wheeled over and started yelling at him to calm down, but Larry continued past him up the street, screaming at the top of his lungs. Meanwhile, the birds swooped in and started eating up the spaghetti. So it didn't go to waste, at least. I suppose, in the long run, nothing ever does.

Milton came back and apologized for Larry. "He should show some respect," he said. I pondered that for a minute, and all I could think of to say was, "Nobody respects him, so why should he respect anybody?"

Now I am sitting here, still working it over. The clinical part of my brain says that Larry is most likely displaying the symptoms of mental illness. He has many of the classic signs of paranoid schizophrenia: "flat" aspect, neglect of personal hygiene, speaking to unseen personages, suspicion that other people are out to get him.

But there is another side of this. Part of me knows that Larry nailed me, and that's why I'm still stuck on it. The reality is that there is a selfish motivation that underlies all my seeming altruism: the desire to be in control. This is the eternal problem with the charity model: rather than remedying the disparity of power between giver and receiver, it actually reinforces it. What does it say about me that I gravitate to relationships with people who are down and out, and have all my life? That I like being powerful? That I'm insecure and need to feel in control? In my relationships with "the poor," I hold all the power. I can walk out of the relationship at any time, and lose absolutely nothing. But those on the other side have much more to lose. So they are careful not to argue with me, cheerfully agreeing with almost anything I say. And they are careful to show their gratitude. If I happen to be feeling good that day, I take time to share, to listen, to care. If I'm feeling bad, I stay home. They have to take what they can get, when I want to give it.

Larry was right. It is a game for me, and I hold all the cards.

So now I am trying to sit with this lesson, trying to hear deeply what Larry said to me today.

I am sitting here with the taste of tainted charity in my mouth.


Zanna said...

Sampson -- you seem to have reached the juncture that so many of us have who have also led lives designed to change the status quo. Why are we doing this, and what status quo needs to be changed -- our own inner conversation?

I'm anxious to hear your thoughts as you process through this. I hope you'll share them as fodder for our own lessons. Thank you ever so much, my brother, for sharing yourself in the many ways you do, and for bringing hope to this world and to me.

Sampson said...

Thanks, Zanna. Your encouragement means a lot to me. I hope that you will also share some of your insights gleaned along the way.