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This place matters

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Things that breed contempt

I didn't want to talk about the presidential election. You know who I'm voting for, you know who you're voting for, and there's nothing gonna change that. 
But then Mitt Romney said this:
There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it -- that that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. ... These are people who pay no income tax. ... [M]y job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.
At first I was filled with righteous indignation. Okay, still am. He's talking about a hell of a lot of people that I love, after all. Only he's not, and that's the problem. Mark Twain said that familiarity breeds contempt, but I think the exact opposite is true. If the only experience you have with the poor is the aggressive panhandlers outside your office building, or the lunatic OWS people that the media chose to spotlight, it's perfectly natural for your brain to paint all people with the same brush. You can argue in the comments about whether a presidential candidate has a responsibility to actually get to know half the people he hopes to lead, but that's not what this post is about.
This post is about Joe. Not his real name. He's not Reagan's welfare queen, he's a real man, a man I knew, one of the most remarkable men I've known. 
We don't know much about Joe before he moved into the group home where I worked, because he couldn't tell us. Somebody found his social, and from that learned his work history. He was a a blue collar guy - factories and warehouses. Worked all his life until something happened in his brain. A stroke, a head injury, some trauma, we don't know what because he couldn't tell us. It took away his ability to speak intelligibly. It's called Wernicke's Aphasia, and it's characterized by an inability to produce meaningful language. The afflicted can make strings of words, but those words don't make any logical sense. He might be trying to say "I'm hungry," but what comes out is "Chickens like marigolds." 
After whatever happened that took away his speech, he lost his job. It's hard to keep a job when you can't answer your boss' yes or no questions. It's near impossible to get a job when you can't even call the company to schedule an interview.
So he ended up on the streets. Someone in a shelter heard his nonsensical ramblings and assumed he had schizophrenia, so he ended up in the mental health system and at my group home. 
He wanted to work. He needed to work. He did his chores in the morning before the rest of clients woke up. After that, he did other people's chores. Sometimes, when I was vacuuming, he'd just walk up and take the sweeper out of my hands. He'd brook no argument. He was up doing my chores after the other clients went to sleep and he asked nothing, nothing in return. I was getting paid to do all that stuff (don't worry, I found other stuff to do to earn my paycheck). He didn't get a nickel. 
One day I saw in his chart that it was his birthday, so I baked him a cake - which I probably had time to do because he was doing all my other work. I didn't quite know how to bake a cake back then, so it kind of looked like a pan full of dirt. Then I frosted it, so it looked like a pan full of  dirt covered in frosting. Then I tried to write his name on it, but it looked more like Təf. I brought it into the dining room. "We're not allowed to have birthdays," he said. 
It hadn't occurred to me that homeless people don't get candles and cake and presents on their birthdays. You don't want to know what I'd do if I didn't get cake on by birthday. There would be pyrotechnics. Not the fun kind.
 "You made me a cake," he said. We sang him Happy Birthday. "You made me a cake," he said. "I can't eat that cake. You made me a cake." 
I put a slice (okay, gooey pile) on a plate and gave it to him. "I can't eat this. You made me a cake." It was about five minutes before I caught on. "Yes," I said, "I made you into a cake, and you're delicious."
He sat down and ate his cake. 
He came up to me and informed me that I'd made him cake for a week. Maybe he was grateful to me. Maybe he was just grateful he could string together a sentence that actually made sense. Maybe he was trying to tell me he thought he had cancer and that's all that came out.
(Another client probably did have cancer, judging by the fact that he kept coughing up things that looked like pieces of lung. His case manager didn't return our calls. She had four dozen clients, and cancer wasn't high on her priority list.)
From the minimal speech therapy stuff I picked up working with kids with disabilities, Joe and I made some progress getting him talking sense. He told me his teeth hurt like hell and he needed a dentist (His case worker didn't return our calls. We ended up taking him to the ER when his fever got so high from his infection, the whole room reeked of it. [I can smell fevers. Worst super power ever]). He's never going to pay that ER bill, the deadbeat. 
 We didn't get terribly far with the speaking. I was busy having a mental breakdown the semester I majored in speech therapy. But someone who majored in speech therapy for more than five minutes could have gotten him talking, at least well enough to tell someone he thought he had cancer. Or ask a hiring manager for a job, if only by explaining he couldn't talk right but could operate a forklift just fine.
If the Akron mental health system had job placement resources like the County Board of Developmental Disabilities has, Joe wouldn't even have needed to talk to a boss. You don't need to talk to mop the floors at McDonald's overnight, and I promise he'd have been delighted to do it. I'm a proud member of the 53%, and I wouldn't do that job for nothing. 
Working at the group home, I met a few deadbeats, people who treated scamming the government like a full time job. I'm not happy that a big old chunk of my every paycheck goes to them. But for ever deadbeat I met, there were half a dozen people like Joe, people who need money a hell of a lot more than I do.
Maybe you think it's okay to tax the rich to help the poor and maybe you don't. Maybe you think we have a moral imperative as the richest nation on earth to not let guys like Joe wander the streets cold and hungry and maybe you don't. But you need to know that Joe doesn't just believe he's a victim. He didn't believe he was entitled to anything, even a jacked up birthday cake. You need to know that while a fraction of the 47% are everything Romney claims them to be, a whole bunch more of them are guys like Joe. And they deserve respect and they deserve better than be publicly trashed when they're not there to defend themselves. Even if the only thing they can say in their defense is that chickens like marigolds. 

2 comments:

CNC said...

You're right, that was a damn good post. It filled me with righteous indignation, though...and more than a little guilt.

UCDenny16 said...

I just want to say this us a great post, if more people like Joe existed maybe Mitt wouldn't have as much opportunity to piss people off.

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