Chicken One Day, Feathers The Next
A few months ago, in the deep cold of winter a man knocked on the window of my booth at a garage where I work occasionally. I’d had a fraught encounter with this same man last summer. He’d shown me the globe and anchor tattoo over his heart, said he’s a Marine. He wanted money to catch the train to a program in Worcester in the morning. At the time I had a pile of active checks in the car, and was in the middle of deliveries. Still, his dramatic attitude pricked my conscience.
I’ve often thought since then that I could have put those checks in my trunk and driven him to Worcester. It was after midnight, and there was almost no traffic on the road. It would have been about an hour detour, and probably an interesting conversation. Instead my self preservation instinct got me saying, “Good luck, but I got no cash.”
It would have been wiser to suggest the DAV’s ride program. In my job, often I encounter these men (almost all men late at night), seeking some localized remittance. While adding no value to my life, they want me to give of myself and my family. I’ve always seen charity as a tax on empathy, and this makes me mad. Of course there’s nowhere to direct this anger, except online.
This website is a slow, deliberate attempt to step away from reactive media in order to spend more time with the people I love and to focus on enjoying work by artists I respect. While I appreciate the brainiac attempts to connect us through social media, at this point in my life I need more quality connections.
Someday (for as long as our nukes stay buried) the ethos of legacy news/media/academic outlets probably will survive to realize that they can compete with Facebook, Reddit, Twitter and Quake. Maybe smart publishers will start hiring their own engineers again. But it's hard to make a good app, and even harder to build interest.
Newspapers, Libraries and Universities were Social Media before the term got capitalized. But most of the people involved in more than half of a newspaper's production worked underground. They knew the codes, and set the print. Type setters had a lot of power, until a couple of young and entrepreneurial rich kids moved the game to the Internet.
Now we all get bylines, and that's great for those of us who like to see our names in sparkling text. But it sucks for those who see how hard the Veterans’ rep on Reddit works for the benefit of everyone on Earth for free. There are better ways to organize our efforts, to share in wealth, and to figure out who we’re going to be when we grow up.
The problem with conglomeration is the kind of groupthink that lays off engineers without consideration because they're used to old equipment or trying to understand complex problems that nobody wants to solve.
Agape, a Greek verb “to give of yourself,” I think expresses an essential source of purpose. It’s the ethos that kept gilded age capitalists off of a guillotine and plastered their names on the sides of philanthropic institutions, but it’s also a psychological tool for exploitation. Slavery did not end voluntarily. Neither did child labor. In this new century, we’re faced with a new set of problems. Coal mines are unnecessary, but there’s still lots of heavy lifting and hard work that we can do and need to do to make life better for each other. For as long as humans exist, we will each need to figure out how can we develop our talents in ways that lift up our communities.
Agape refers to the relationship between God and humanity, willingness to die over a principle: for example, money changers should not enter the temple. One reading of Mark (the first known version of the gospel story) explains God’s complex relationship to humanity. We all live off the goodwill of others.
Agape is the reason we still exist as a species. Agape places the common purpose and good will towards all above personal gain. Agape means preparing to welcome strangers into your sacred spaces. But Agape also led to the death of nine worshipers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Which brings me back to the man who knocked at the window of my booth, cold and agitated, this past winter. It almost seemed like he was on a mission from God. As I remember (and you should not trust my memory) he wore a t-shirt and sweatpants, clearly was not strapped, and he had that kind of crisp buffness that only comes from years of steady, grinding workouts.
Sliding open the door, a gust of 20 degree F air filled the already chilly both. My space heater had conked out earlier. The man held out a slimy hand that looked a little bit up, like a brick had fell on it. He said it was frostbite. I started for the phone, said I would call him an ambulance. He said he didn’t want to go to the hospital, that they wouldn’t help him there.
A thought occurred to me as a complete sentence, like I was in the midst of a morality play, “Son, give this man your coat.”
Cursing God, I thought, “Fuck that. This is my navy issue peacoat. The only way to get one of these honestly is to enlist. I’m not giving up my coat to prove I’m moral. I’m not giving up what I earned so this guy can avoid the professional help he needs.”
Paranoia is infectious. Troubled men haunt me. They approach me at gas stations at ten pm, saying their boo kicked them to the curb or whatever. They need a few bucks to warm up by, can they pump my gas. Fuck no. I don’t need help, because from my perspective our relationship will have changed the next time we see each other. I don’t like being a mark. The guy who haunts the end of my street, begging for bucks, feels like an empathy tax. Why grudge him a beer?
I needed my coat that very cold night back in November, but probably not as much as the very cold man at my door. Instead of acting agape, I gave the kid the Pepsi I hadn’t drunk from my lunch and encouraged him to seek out help at the hospital down the street. He walked the opposite way, toward the churches where homeless people sleep in their alleyways downtown. Is it my job to find housing for a sick man at midnight? Must I be my brother’s keeper?
Whatever I do, I won’t be satisfied with this man roaming the streets. So I’ve been thinking hard in deep circles. But if I’m honest with myself, my resources are hella limited, and I’m marginal. I’m dumb. I can’t talk with computers in meaningful enough ways.
I’d thought briefly that cryptocurrency might offer an answer, maybe tying the metadata for physical pieces of artwork to the Ethereum exchange, creating a coin that sustains value based on art produced through creative workshops sold to collectors. What if a coin represented a bed, three square meals and no judgement. But, people get stabbed on these streets over nine dollar bottles of whiskey. Creating a temple for money changers is not a good answer.
What I should have done was given that man my peacoat.