Saint John ...

...and some other stories

The man sat on a folding chair on 14th Street in Washington, D.C., a shopping cart full of clothing and odds and ends next to him. A sign propped up against the cart read “Saint John.” I saw him almost every day as I walked from the subway to my office. He seemed harmless, so after a while I began greeting him. He always smiled and said hello. Sometimes I gave him money. One very cold January day, I stopped and said, “You know, there are places you can go to get warm in weather like this. “No ma’am,” he said. “Those places are bad. They hurt you. I ain’t going. Uh-uh.”

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 Several years later, in the Maryland suburbs, I drove into a McDonald’s. My nine-month son was in the back seat. The parking lot was crowded, so I had to wait. Suddenly I heard a knock on the passenger side—close to my son. A woman with long hair and bad teeth leaned into the window and asked, “You got any spare change?” I jumped and said no and looked at the back seat. The woman said, “I won’t hurt your baby, ma’am,” and walked away.

Another time, I was leaving a grocery store and a man standing outside offered to help unload the bags from the shopping cart into the car (you couldn’t wheel the cart to your car back then). “No, thank you,” I said. But when I drove up, he did it anyway. I thanked him and he growled, “I’m not doing it for my health.”

Then there was the man who stood next to a highway entrance, holding up a sign that read, “Hell, why lie? I need a drink.”

These memories came back to me when I r attended a talk about New Hampshire’s poor farms. The speaker, Steve Taylor, began by discussing attitudes toward the poor, going back to medieval England. At that time, authorities made no distinction between the “vagrant and vicious poor and the needy poor.” Both were seen as a drain on resources. And this view carried over to the New World and to New Hampshire. The result for a while was towns trying to export poor people to other towns to avoid caring for them. Later, poor farms were established, the idea being to keep them together and make sure those who could work did. And the farms often did bring down the costs of providing for people.

But this experiment had limited success, at least for the poor themselves. In some places, food meant for the residents was taken from them and they were often malnourished. Tuberculosis, mumps, measles and other diseases were rampant. Some farms contained prisoners, as well as sick and mentally ill people.

Toward the end of his talk, Mr. Taylor said, “As a society, we still aggregate the poor. And we still are very conflicted about them.” It’s true; you have only to look at the debates taking place these days about welfare and Medicare and Medicaid reform.

Yes, we are conflicted. I know I am.

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