Monday, March 29, 2010

There But For the Grace of God?

This article was originally published by Technorati on 29 March 2010. To see all my Technorati articles, click Lifestyle in the Contents listing on the sidebar.

According to a New York Times report, Times Square is down to its last homeless person.

Homelessness has risen in other parts of the Big Apple. But Times Square, one of the many flagships of the NYC brand, has made major inroads towards cleaning up its act, a trend that began back in the early nineties under then Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Tactics in the war on homelessness have changed over the years in New York. While in the past the emphasis may have been on the stick, today the carrot is more in vogue. Social workers have courted the lone holdout, an African-American man who goes by the handle Heavy (see photo). While their daily offers of free housing have fallen on deaf ears in Heavy's case, he is the last of seven hardcore street people who held out until just last summer.

But Heavy appears to be well respected by the long-time locals around Times Square. He's polite, well-groomed, adequately-dressed, finds coffee to drink, cigarettes to smoke, food to eat, a little spending money from generous strangers. Heavy even has a mission: he says he's "a protector of the neighborhood." And who's to say that he isn't?

Heavy has been living this way for at least 20 years. He understands the contours of that world. He has friends and acquaintances there. One can only imagine the transition his friends have had to make into housing, on to mind-controlling drugs, buying cigarettes at a store, ironing a shirt. When you start a person down that road, the road toward civilized living, life gets complicated in a hurry.

No one claims that Heavy is mentally ill, though there is that insinuation that if he is homeless he must be. But what if he isn't? What is he really giving up that's all that important? Cable television? The pleasures of driving a car?

The only important questions to ask are: (1) Is the way he is living illegal? The answer to that is no. And (2) What is Heavy's state of consciousness?

Those of us who have adapted ourselves to the requirements of the modern world need to be careful about labeling those who are out of step with it. Sometimes it's good for us to feel uncomfortable.

"Bhikkhu"is the word used for a Buddhist monk, and it literally means "beggar." Whether a Buddhist monk or a street person, contact with such an individual can be arresting when it's clear that the lifestyle is voluntary. It jolts us momentarily out of materialism. It dislodges our identity as owners of various things when we look upon one who by his or her presence says, "I own nothing, and yet I am."

Who knows but that Heavy's lifestyle embodies just such an affirmation. In a manner, maybe he really is a protector of the neighborhood.

Photo credit: The New York Times

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