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About Just out. (Portland, OR) 1983-2013 | View Entire Issue (Nov. 1, 1987)
The conventional goodness of mankind
The haves pity the have-nots, yet they are unwilling to give up
any o f what they have
capitalism with its good side turned
toward the camera.
M I C H A E L
R E E D
e are walking through the park. It is
Sunday, the weather warm for Oregon.
The ground is laced with shadows of leaves. An
immobilzed Abraham Lincoln catches our at
tention. Dusty, Twink and I all wear blue. We
look for opportunities: a bitchy quip, a pair of
heavenly thighs, the possibility of some serious
shopping. A typical Sunday.
There on the grass, a man is sleeping, a few
paper sacks stuffed with his belongings near his
head. His knees curl protectively to his chest.
The shadows become more intense. The day,
Twink murmurs something about wishing the
winos kept to another part of town. It is as if this
man were littering the park with his dreams.
Twink has spoken for many: please hide your
ugly lot — I do not wish to know.
I am momentarily paralyzed. I envision my
apartment, my walk-in closets filled with racks
of clothes. I see my kitchen where parties are
prepared, my sofa upon which cocktails are
sipped, my bedroom where love is found in
easy touches. I have all this, I think, while this
man must sleep on the grass. No walls to keep
out intruders, no locks to insure privacy. He has
no place else to go.
Then I wonder why Twink is so repulsed by
another’s misfortune. Can it be that it intrudes
upon his cozy, well-fed existence? Does it
threaten his little red convertible or his beautiful
apartment high above the city? Or is it merely
the contempt that winners can have for losers?
Twink has learned how to make money. The
sleeping man has not. Is it that simple?Twink
can jum p through corporate hoops, smile when
needed, say the right things in order to sell
himself. Is it a question of fate or personal
I romanticize the sleeping man. He is a vag
abond poet, eking out a meager life on the
streets, searching for the perfect verse. His
name is Cavanaugh and he walks with sad shoes.
But that is silly. Truth is, he’s probably a
laid-off mill worker from Idaho, searching fora
new life somewhere. Perhaps he left a family
behind, a family that waits daily for his phone
call: “ I’ve got a job now — come right away! ”
But who will hire Cavanaugh with his wrinkled
trousers, his threadbare shirt? Will anyone be
able to look into his defeated face and see
Again, I romanticize. Perhaps Cavanaugh
doesn’t give a damn about any of it. Maybe he
has just given up, doesn’t care, willingly drop
ped out. Is that what Twink thinks? Everyone is
responsible for his own failures and losses, right,
Twink? You made it on your own, why pity
those who can’t or won’t?
Twink. Dusty and I are lucky. We’ve been to
college; we can write a resume; we can articu
late all the reasons why we're good enough for
the job we want. We make a decent living; and
therefore we can turn our fortunate minds to
things beyond ourselves. Most importantly, we
understand the value of a good credit rating.
But instead of simply ignoring Cavanaugh,
Twink would relegate him to the Dipsy Dump
ster near Storefront Theatre. Cavanaugh harms
nothing but our conscience. To dismiss him
summarily only enables us to enjoy our own
good fortune without gratitude. Very American:
little piggies at the trough, getting all we can
before anyone else takes our mouthful.
A man like Cavanaugh might see us quite
differently. He couldn’t care less about getting
on the right guest lists, setting meaningless
words on a piece of paper, or finding a good
bargain at Nordstrom.
I wouldn't blame Cavanaugh for sitting up
suddenly and sneering at our silliness. We seem
very facile and hypocritical in the face of this
Currently looking for a producer for his play
“ Seven Sundays,’’ Michael works fulltime in a
law office. He is a native of Salem, Oregon.
inequity. The haves pity the have-nots, yet they
are unwilling to give up any of what they have
— capitalism with its good side turned toward
the cam era.
I am secretly ashamed because I share
Tw ink's distaste — how many times have I
become angered by the tattered, grimy men
who stop me on the street to ask for spare
change? In Portland, it is certainly not a rare
occurrence. One can’t go anywhere without
being approached for money. Sometimes it’s
genuine need, other times, it’s someone
I become angry at myself for being so suspi
cious, yet knowing that there is good reason to
be suspicious. I cringe when I hear the words,
“ You got any spare change?” because of the
decision I must make. And I find that if I look
— really look — at the person asking, the
decision becomes harder. So I make them invis
ible. Human beings vaporized by selfishness.
Twink might say it’s not selfishness. After
all, he pays plenty of taxes, gives to charity and
is very unselfish with his friends. I can vouch
for his kindness. He could vouch for mine. So
why do I feel guilty? Because it’s a denial of my
humanity to simply make disappear or de
humanize those who make me uncomfortable.
O ur society is already alienating, why make it
Twink is a good man. I am, too, for that
matter. Or, at least we are good men by conven
tional standards: we pay our taxes, obey the
laws, make a contribution to our world and try
not to harm anyone.
In this story, however, Cavanaugh isn’t even
panhandling. He is just sleeping and homeless.
Many people would like to dispose of him like
so much garbage. Except, who is he harming?
Who are the homeless people harming when
they sleep in the parks during the summer? How
many o f us have wished them away, simply
because another's despair was too troubling to
consider? I have, more times than I m comfort
What is needed here is compassion. It
doesn’t necessarily mean giving away our
money or taking responsibility for other
people's lives. What it does mean is exorcising
the priggish self-righteousness and contempt
that we feel for those less fortunate.
And another thing that wouldn't hurt: more
gratitude for what we have. Understanding, al
ways, that there but for the grace of angels, etc.
The conventional goodness of humankind. It
is hypocritical when we give to our society
with the hope that it will take care of these un
pleasant problems so that we won’t have to face
them. It is hypocritical because we believe we
are doing so much, except it is from the distance
o f signing a check to the Salvation Army. When
we are asked to come face to face with one of
those problems, we shudder and say, “ I don’t
mind giving, but please don’t come too close
to me .”
The conventional goodness of humankind.
Yes, please, a heaping plateful for our land of
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Just Out • 5 • November. 1987