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The Giving Season

Robert Downes - December 20th, 2010
The Giving Season
There’s a man in our town who looks like a walking pile of rags. Ten
years ago, he was a well-groomed street person, handsome in a Brad Pitt
sort of way and wearing stylish clothes, like someone was caring for
him. But he’s dwindled down through the years to the visage of a
ragged scarecrow with long, knotted hair and a matted beard -- his
layered clothes in tatters -- shambling down the streets with the look
of a kicked dog in his eyes.
And he’s not the only one. In late November, while jogging a couple of
loops in the moonlight around the Civic Center here in TC, I noticed a
gathering of homeless men at the small amphitheater on the southwestern
corner. They were nestled in the darkness behind a screen of trees,
smoking their cigarettes and huddling against the cold. They‘re the
guys you see lugging all of their possessions around town in kiddie
trailers, towed behind bikes.
There’s also the Can Man, a well-known presence in town, who walks for
miles each day, picking trash for beer and soda cans and dressed in
heavy layers. Late at night, you can sometimes see him in silhouette,
sitting alone at a picnic table beneath the Civic Center pavilion as the
temperature drops below freezing. I saw him in the darkness there last
week with the thermometer at 23 degrees and going down... Does he sleep
there? How does he make it through the winter? One might conceivably
help this man for a day, but what about the day after and beyond?
Recently, I saw the ragged man standing in the doorway of a store
downtown, watching people walk by. He never seems to say anything --
just watches -- as expectant as a dog. A clerk came out and asked him
politely to move along; he seems to have an advanced case of
schizophrenia and scares the customers. It made me wonder, where can
he go? And what can he do?
Ironically, my office (and the place where I’m typing this column) is
located in a wing of what was once the men’s ward of the old Northern
Michigan Asylum. Today, it’s a renovated section of the Village at
Grand Traverse Commons and a prestigious address. But a generation ago,
the ragged man and the Can Man might have shared some bunks in what is
now our office suite. Perhaps they would have lived in my own small
office, protected from the winter cold by 18-inch brick walls and a
society that was poorer in possessions, and yet more caring than our
own.
A few years ago, while traveling through India, I saw an old man of 80
or so tumble down the stairs of his home and fall unconscious into the
gutter alongside the highway. “Shouldn’t we stop and see if he’s
alright?” I asked our driver. “No, someone else will stop,” he
answered, waving off the very idea. In India, no one would dream of
stopping to help an old man in the gutter -- there are just too many of
them, and they are someone else’s problem. They are their own problem.
Unfortunately, we’ve arrived at the same shores in our own country. We
wouldn’t allow a stray dog to wander around town in the cold for more
than a day, but a clearly insane person? There seem to be a fair number
of them out there. Quite possibly it‘s like herding cats to care for
them without the old institutions around to keep them under lock and
key, and perhaps they even prefer their freedom to being
institutionalized. The State begged off its responsibility 20-30 years
ago when it closed the “inhumane“ mental hospitals in favor of drug
therapy and the mercies of the winter, the blizzard, the cold rain, and
a camp beneath a bridge or in the woods just out of town.
Still, we try to do our bit, each in our own small way, even if our
government has failed to care for the people who need us most. We write
our end-of-the-year checks for charities, drop our dollars in the
Salvation Army buckets, give to Toys for Tots, donate to Manna, join
the Jingle Bell Run, drop off clothes at Goodwill, put an extra $10 in
the collection plate, box up canned goods for the food pantries, and
maybe if there’s a little left, send a check off to Haiti or some other
favorite cause.
But it never seems to be enough, does it?

 
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