The Critical Mass

A country down on its luck

The Great Depression: Irony is pretty funny, unless you're hungry and have no job.

The Great Depression: Irony is pretty funny, unless you’re hungry and have no job.

It’s human nature to be selfish. For some people, that’s not going to change.

Another thing that will not change: Some of us are less physically, intellectually and socially functional than others. On this world, the two forces inevitably collide.

Yesterday morning on the bus, a fellow gets on board who appears to be less physically or intellectually or socially functional – or perhaps all three – than the rest of us. The bus is pretty crowded, but there is a seat next to a woman. He indicates he’d like to sit down, but her purse is on the seat next to her. She refuses to move it. He looks puzzled, walks back up front to the driver and says something. He shuffles back down the aisle and this time, apparently not wanting a confrontation with the driver, she moves the purse. “But don’t touch me!” she snarls as he sits.

A couple of weeks ago, a young kid is sprawled across two seats in the back of the bus, feet dangling in the aisle, apparently asleep. Most of us just step over him and take another seat. No big deal. Then some older fellow gets on. Black guy, doesn’t look like he has a lot of resources to work with, but has an air of dignity about him. I’ve seen him a few times. He walks to the back of the bus and sees this white tattooed skate punk consuming a lot of space. “Get up and let me sit down!” the old guy says in a booming voice, pointing to the seat next to the punk. “I’m not afraid of you!”

The kid pulls himself into a single seat and the old guy sits down. Even though there’s a seat next to me, right behind them, that he could have. I think the old guy was just pissed off by the kid’s selfishness.

I see this kind of bad behavior all of the time on the cable TV news, and read about it in the newspapers and on the Internet. But it’s bad behavior on a larger scale. Like this war on poor people that we’re witnessing this holiday season. Conservatives complaining that, while standing behind people in the supermarket check-out line, they see them using food stamps to buy king crab legs. I’m in supermarket check-out lines all of the time, and the only things I ever see people using food stamps for are baby formula, pasta and maybe a six pack. Let ’em have the six pack, OK? Life is tough enough.

With all of the breaks that influential people fashion for themselves, why do Americans get so bent out of shape about programs designed to help folks who have no voice? Conservatives rage against entitlement programs. But what often goes unsaid about entitlement programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security is that most of us paid for them. We spend our entire working lives paying taxes, getting money drawn out of our paychecks, supporting those programs.

I’ve been employed steadily for almost my entire adult life. But when the Bush economy caught up with the country, and the newspaper industry started to tank, I had to take four or five weeks of unpaid furloughs. It worked. The major stockholders – all nice people, I’m sure, although I’ve never met any of them – got their dividends. And I made sure I got my $400 unemployment check those weeks. Because I’d paid for it. A lot of Americans find themselves in that position today. They probably didn’t think they’d ever have to tap into that unemployment or medical insurance that they’d paid for. But now their job is gone, they’re middle aged, applying for clerk jobs at the neighborhood box store, and they’ll lose their house if they don’t get some help.

Food stamps? They’re just a way of helping along a guy who’s down on his luck. According to statistics, and the randomness of dumb luck, he’s a guy who probably didn’t have the same advantages that you and I had.

Maybe that punk in the bus aisle pissed you off. But what did that first guy on the bus do to anybody? Like I said, some of us are less physically, intellectually and socially functional than others. And we’re living in an increasingly exclusionary country. One where decent people can’t find decent-paying jobs, and schools are no longer functioning. The pensions that our parents retire on won’t be available to us. We are creating a society of no hope. A country down on its luck. And it’s just wrong to not offer our fellow man a little comfort.