A Reindeer in Headlights

December 20, 2009 § 3 Comments

E.O. Schaub

At holiday time, there’s really nothing like a story of someone else’s misfortune to completely stop you in your tracks- like a reindeer in headlights. (Whoa! Ho Ho!) It very effectively interrupts all the self-focused thoughts encouraged by the obligations and diversions of the season.

Here’s how it happened to me: it so happens that we’re doing some work on our house, and today, a fellow asked if he could take some of the discarded plywood from the dumpster. Before I could even say oh-my-God-yes-I-mean-we-actually-have-to-pay-to-take-this-stuff-away-so-it-can-sit-and-rot-in-a-landfill-please-please-please-take-it-and-do-something-karmically-better-than-that, he began to explain that it was for a friend, some folks who live in a trailer and have spots in the floor so soft it’s actually dangerous to walk on them, for fear of falling right through.

(Pause.)

Also, he mentioned, he knows another fellow who’s homeless, and currently is residing in an old school bus.

(Pause)

Okay, whoa.

Did I mention that it is 17 degrees outside as I write this? That even the snowmen are wincing when the wind blows today? What kind of insulating factor do you think a school bus provides, anyway? It’s a cliché, perhaps, but it’s still true: what on earth to get Great Grouchy Aunt Matilda, or whether a pad of decorative Post-its counts as a nice stocking stuffer, suddenly didn’t seem to matter as much as it did a few minutes ago.

Living as we do in a small town in the country, its easy to forget that we do have homeless people here too. Just because we don’t have panhandlers on every streetcorner (I mean, if we had streetcorners), or people living out of supermarket carts on the sidewalk (you know, if we had sidewalks), doesn’t mean they aren’t here- that’s bad, because it makes it all too easy to forget about them.

On the other hand, when you live in an urban area, you can’t possibly forget about the homeless and the poverty stricken because part of the constant stimulus one is bombarded with every day, is the constant, neverending refrain “PLEASE HELP ME.” In Rome, the gypsy women, dressed in rags, prostrate themselves on the sidewalk at strategic points on the bridge as you cross over the Tiber River. The message is clear: we beseech you for something- anything. When my family was there last Spring, I felt uneasy explaining this phenomenon to my two young girls- although I know from personal experience that gypsies are generally just as happy to get your money by stealing or tricking you out of it as they are to get it by begging- nonetheless I didn’t like presenting this moral incongruity to my children: yes, these people are asking for help, and no, we aren’t going to give it to them.

So, inevitably, the urban response to the never-ending barrage of need becomes one of denial and rationalization: I can’t help them all, so why help even one? What can I do really? What if they take my pocket change and just go drink or smoke it away? What if this is a trick and I get robbed? What if they don’t really need any help at all?

Of course, no one wants to feel duped, or stupid. We all have some degree of primal tendency to act in a me first! manner anyway, to keep things we don’t need, to save that spare change, to think “What if someday… my life/comfort/safety depends on this five dollars/ this ill-fitting sweater / this can of creamed corn- and I gave it away!” Okay, actually, maybe it’s just me.

Before I moved to Vermont, I had some friends near North Adams, MA who were having trouble making ends meet. They told me this: “It’s easier to be poor in the country. Here, people take care of each other more.” I can see why it might be true: living in the country you aren’t quite so inured to requests for help. Also, people who live in rural areas tend to have a self-sufficiency ethic that goes with the territory, and thus, if you do hear a request for help, its much more likely to be a whisper than a shout.

No, you can’t help everyone, but we can at least try to hear the whispers when they happen. Today my husband and I ended up finding a really warm coat we knew we could part with and never really miss, and gave it to the fellow for the man in the schoolbus. I feel totally conflicted about this. “Was that really enough? You have so much- couldn’t you do more?” says the angel on my right shoulder, while the devil on the other shoulder sneers “There probably is no man in the school bus- the fellow probably made it up, hoping for some cash.”

It’s not easy, trying to be a good person, trying to make all the right decisions for your family, trying to be appropriately grateful for everything you have and all the while remembering to give back to the community in some not-completely-meaningless way. This is the closest thing I have to a religion: this trying to be a good person thing. I like it, but it strikes me as a lot less convenient or satisfying than going to church on Sundays, and requiring a really irritating amount of, you know, thought. Also, no coffee hour. Oh well. If the man on the bus exists, (and I’m betting against the devil on my shoulder that he does) I hope that the coat actually brings him the wish that goes with it: that somebody out there, somewhere, wants him to be warmer.

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§ 3 Responses to A Reindeer in Headlights

  • Gretchen says:

    Thank you, Eve, for reminding me how fortunate I am. I remember many years ago, asking my father what he thought our purpose as human beings was. He pondered very briefly and replied that, for him, it was enough just to try to make someone else’s journey here a little easier. A point well-remembered this cold but most hopeful time of year!

  • Annette says:

    Your essay was so well stated and thought provoking to say the least. I was having a similar conversation with a friend just a few days ago. Like you, I’d rather give the needy, both whisperers and shouters, the benefit of the doubt, along with my spare change, extra food and clothes that I have way too much of. Like Steven Wright once said “You can’t have everything because where would you put it?”

  • What a breath of fresh air to take the edge off after a horrible day. Great prose that really gets the thought covered. Cant thank you enough for taking the time.

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