I once saw a woman lying on a pile of rags that was her bed, in an abandoned storefront doorway that was her home. She appeared to be somewhere between 40 and 60 years of age, but really, it was impossible to tell. Her face had that puffy red look that comes only from years of cheap wine consumption and neglect. Her eyes were a dull and lifeless shade of blue and seemed to be floating in puddles of pastel yellow paint. There were scabs and open sores oozing pus all over her arms and legs. Rags adhered to her by dried pus clung to her body like wallpaper. Although her hair was matted to her head and her eyebrows, it moved in the wind like it had a life of its own. As I looked closer, I could see that the movement of her hair came from the thousands of bugs that infested her head. Her legs and feet were so swollen that she may have suffered from elephantiasis. The covers on her feet (I wouldn’t call them shoes) were split on the sides to accommodate her puffy feet and turned up
at the toes like fairy shoes. The part of her feet that was visible was encrusted with dried skin and dirt and cracked in a pattern like reptile scales. I thought, “This is America, how could this be?”
As her face cracked into a grimace that she probably thought was a smile, I could see that she might once have been beautiful. Maybe she had a husband or children somewhere? If so, surely she must be hiding from them, no one could possibly allow their mother to live like this. The person who gave them life-loved them unconditionally, cried for them when their pride and ego wouldn’t allow them to cry for themselves, sacrificed, and whom they would give their lives for-surely, no one would allow their mother to live like this. How could anyone-how could people live with themselves knowing that they had thrown their mother away?
It seemed like talking caused her pain. However, she finally managed to say, “Sir, would you please help me? I haven’t eaten in two weeks, and I am so hungry that I am in pain. Would you please give me some money to get some food?”
There is no way you could (even in your wildest drug-induced, psychotic-fed delusion) think that I had a lot of money. However, I did have money to buy a John Coltrane CD. I decided to forego ‘Trane for a few days and get this woman some food. I told her, “I’ll be right back.”
Walking two blocks to the nearest fast-food restaurant, I brought her some food and returned. Purring on my famous “Look what I have!” smile, I called out, “Oh, Miss!” There was no response from her, no movement. I stepped closer and called out again; still there was no answer, no movement. I touched her cheek; it was as cold as ice. It was then that I realized she had died.
Perhaps now she is in a place where she is young and beautiful. Maybe now she is loved and needed. Perhaps her soul is now in a place where she is happy. Perhaps now all the pain and suffering-all the humiliation and loneliness is replaced with joy and contentment. Maybe… just maybe, she might be better off. But this is America, damn it! How could this be?
After the formalities with the police, I turned on my Walkman, listening to Miles. I just began to walk, no particular destination in mind, I was just trying to understand how. As I walked, I saw hundreds of people like the woman. People without hope. People who were destitute and hungry. People whose only reason for living was to obtain a substance that would make them feel whole, complete, keep them from feeling the emotional pain and loneliness that’s all part of being human. People who were mentally and physically ill. People who had been knocked down just once too often and who did not want to get up-who were tired of getting up. To get up would mean that they would have to fight, and there was no more fight in them. How could this be in America?
I wondered why I had not seen all these people before. Then I thought that maybe we have a protective device in our mind that keeps our brain from processing certain images that our eyes receive. Maybe this device causes these people to be invisible to us. As I walked, I wondered how many people like that old lady have I walked by, not knowing that they were dead? How many have I simply not seen? For the first time in my life, I was ashamed of myself, because I realized that I had this device, too; that for years, I had not seen these people, the people who for some reason have given up. People for whom the American Dream had turned into a nightmare, one from which they either couldn’t or wouldn’t wake up.
But this is America! America, a country where they can take your heart out of your chest, fix it, and put it back into place. America, a country where things that are invisible can be split to create energy that is awesome beyond imagination. America, a country where food is thrown away by the truckload. America, a country where health care, education, and food are expected. America, a country where telephones, television, and satellite communications are everyday occurrences.
America, a country where people die on the streets, unneeded, unloved, and invisible… how can this be?