Press your face against the ground. Just once, do it. Press your lips to the sidewalk. Feel each tiny stone, frozen in the mix. A hundred thousand pebbles worn smooth across the glacial eons, the tectonic grinding, held together now with quicklime and spit. Cold to the skin. A heat suck. Hold your ear to the ground and try to sleep. Listen. Try to imagine the thunder of the ruminant herds. A buffalo migration, a thousand miles away. Thosen aren’t MUNI cars. That bleating call is not the train. You are something again. A supplicant of the earth. Praying in the only way you know how.
Look at the clean, rich, healthy people. Stare at them. They don’t kneel, they stand. They wait. They lounge, upright, before the idol that we built in honor of our god. And they are oblivious. A poverty-stricken, broken human being crouching face down on the sidewalk beside them. Ho-hum. Is he praying? Is he begging? Is he bowing? Is he dying? We will never know. Nor will they. They are tourists, out for a stroll in San Francisco’s Chinatown. He is a street-person grappling with his demons in a fetal crouch. Above them all a bright sign reminds us, in two languages, that there’s ready access to wealth, comfort and privelege right here. Just push a button. Instant happy. He finds his solace in a bottle, perhaps, a syringe, maybe. For us we have our machines. The machine. He has no access to the machine. The machine has consumed him and cast him out. They have plenty. He is skeletal, malnourished and so far beyond what we might call depressed that there is no word for his despair. But there doesn’t have to be. We don’t need words anymore. We can see him.
We see only what we choose to see; know only what we want to know. The ubiquitous homeless so easily fade into the background, camouflaged, not through any defense mechanism of their own, but one of our creation. To see them would be to recognize ourselves and to admit our culpability, our apathy. Those of us who are the poorest, the suffering, the sick, the neglected, are merely reflections of a greater truth. The coalmine has been poisoned, the canaries are dying in droves. But deeper and deeper we dig the hole.
Sometimes the camera will catch that which the eye won’t see. A sad choreography of posture and fate. These strange Gestalts. The camera, for me, is a Jungian dowser’s wand, a medium through which I find symbols and synchronicities. You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting the truth. All you have to do is wander amidst the living and the dead; swinging, swinging.
The camera is an eye narrowly focused. It is merely a noise reduction tool and a magnifying glass both. It forces me to look at things through a lens, a filter, a telescope. The camera reveals a hidden world and renders vivid and real the invisible. It is a ghost detector and a time machine. Who is this crouching man with his nose pressed against the sidewalk? It is he I wish to know, his story and history. The quartet beside him holds no interest for me. This is not an essay of judgement. I care not where they’re from or how they came to be standing in this place at this moment in time. But he is a story. He has seen things. He has seen the bottom, he has gone astray, he has lost most of what he was given, he is the poor in spirit, the mourner, the meek. It is he who hungers, he who requires mercy, less persecution, more heart, more peace.
When I look at this photograph, this thin sliver of time, what I see is one poor man who seems to be hiding, who appears to be trying to burrow himself into the ground. I see surrender. I see life. The group of bystanders beside him look more like mannequins than living human beings. They are the ones who are dying. They are the living dead. The zombie apocalypse is upon us. Just who is eating who?
What is going here? How does this even make sense? The whole scene is surreal, set-up, almost phony, like a diorama from some museum of the future where the exhibition is titled The History of Shame. What you cannot see in this photograph is a street teeming with people. People ignoring this person. Make no mistake, this man is dying. He may already be dead. But it doesn’t matter. We’re living, right? We’re not like him. We’re fine. Our clothes are clean and we have things inside our pockets that buy us fantasies and time. Just ignore him children. Look the other way. Don’t make eye contact. We’ll just go down to the wharf and eat chowder out of bowls carved out of sourdough bread.
I don’t know what it’s like to live on the street. I don’t know what it’s like to have nothing, no one, without a hope or a dream or love in my life. I don’t know how it feels to be this man. I don’t know this man or his circumstances. He may have been the loving father of twelve or a murderer. But none of that matters. I don’t have to be homeless, or mentally ill, to feel empathy, to feel shame, pain, despair, anger, frustration. I can give him money. I can donate my time to charity. I can raise my voice for worthy causes. Or I can just look, and see, and ask to understand what may ultimately be ununderstandable. I choose to look. I choose to see. I choose to not to blur, anymore.
o O o