Unconscious or dead, the filthy, limp figure lay against the shopfront, stinking of alcohol and piss, curled over but swollen face still visible, hooded eyes screwed shut, beard filthy and ragged, features creased like an old cowboy with ruddy cheeks. And everyone walked by. One solitary voice called out, ‘are you sleeping or dead’ whilst kicking the prone body repeatedly, with no great urgency in his slurred tone. And everyone walked by. In San Francisco, the line between poverty and affluence is not drawn in pen but dotted in pencil, not solid, but permeable and staggering down every street.
I buy an old polaroid camera, entranced somehow by it’s ability to aimlessly date every shot: washed out colours and a distance not captured by digital. A purity of memory measured in light, not pixels. I have to learn to frame shots again: no zoom or cropping here except that carried out by my feet as i shuffle self consciously back and forth, filling the viewfinder whilst avoiding the road.
Even the act of using the viewfinder is alien today: an abstraction of lenses and light that distances me from what i shoot, that removes it one degree from reality. By the time the click has cleared and the motor has finished it’s lazy extrusion, the moment is long passed, captured not forever but for a few short years until the autodesctructive chemicals that caged the light consume it in an orgy of entropy, reducing sharp features to chrome then white, destroyed by ultra violet and embrittled by sulphur.
I cannot bring myself to snap this scene: voyeurism is indistinguishable from gawking in this context. If i cannot help, if i will not help, i’m no more use than the others, selectively blind to misfortune and choice.
It’s not that there is a gap: it’s that the gap is so big.
No diatribe about equality and rights: ten dollars won’t help here. The problem is infrastructural, endemic and intractable. At what age do we cease to care? At what point of poison do we abstract emotion out of vision, overwhelmed by the frequency and persistency of the image. it is, perhaps, not an inability to care, but an inability to redeem, an unwillingness to engage.
If society is coherent through it’s actions to one another, these individuals are, by nature and choice, cast out. Sharing the same urban space, but not the same opportunity and permission, not the same value upon their lives. Not our society.
A space can house many communities, connected in many different ways and reliant on each other for purpose and identify, but the collective noun for all these communities is society, and however loosely it’s defined, there must surely be a unified foundation of some sort? Some kind of core values, the ones we would shout out when arguing what we should teach immigrants (on the premise that their own ‘values’ are not as good as ours), before they are allowed to stay. Before they ‘integrate’.
What is the nature of compassion? Is it reserved for children and small animals? I cannot deny that these people, the figures asking me for money, are not lovable. But is compassion determinate on love? Is life more valuable if younger and cute? Or is life sacrosanct itself: what is the price of coherence within our community? Is it survival of the fittest and the ones they love?
Our choices lead to our outcomes, but not all choices are within our control, and not all lives are equal in opportunity and cost. And in any event: by what right do we not care? Willing to benefit from collective labour and shared responsibility, can we abrogate that responsibility when we don’t like the stink?
Or do people select themselves out of our compassion through bad choices and bad luck.
I may, of course, do people an injustice: it may be that many of them volunteer, donate or care in different ways. Indeed, it may be me, observing, commenting, rudely judging, who is at fault: the writer self deluded and arrogant in judgement for the sake of a good story.
Is there social justice? Outside of what the law tell us to do, is there a power outside gods and demons that commits us to action? Is it humility? Kindness? Fear? By what force is our hand turned?
We exhibit an imperfect humanity: a selective goodness. We pity as much as we fear, and yet sometimes the disconnect it too seemingly great to engage. A gulf of misunderstanding and mistrust: and yet i have never slept on the street, never shivered and hoped for salvation. I have no shared experience of their world any more than they have of mine. At best, i act as impotent observer, eyes drawn to the spectacle, but remaining distant, remaining disengaged. Because to engage might bring our worlds together, creating bonds of empathy or trust that i am unwilling to risk.
Justice is not natural: it’s a human construct, a cultural phenomena. It’s crafted and applied by people, and bastardised as we see fit. it’s neither universal nor universally understood.
Justice is contextual and fluid, not absolute and distributed. We fear both it’s absence and application.
Social justice is that which is owed by society: a catch all term for the penance of humanity, or at least those elements of it with the wealth and political power to both write and apply it.
In the absence of justice, we cannot fool ourselves that it will exist or prevail, we cannot kid ourselves that it’s not our responsibility, we cannot pretend that it does not matter or that it is a matter for others, because if our society lacks social justice, it is unequal at it’s core. It is fractured and damaged.
I notice far more food banks in America this year: convenient bridges between the fractured islands of society. Charity codified into subsistence, removing the moral component of money from the equation.
The final irony: i sit in my hotel writing on a leather sofa in front of a blazing fire. A victorian pastiche of comfort to reflect my absented view of the street.
One image persists: stood at the crossing, an old man staring ahead.
Just staring, mouth open, eyes wide. Present in body, but not soul. Somewhere else inside his head. Frozen at the curb: all impetus drained, momentum bled to inaction. I’m reminded of Oliver Sacks and his work on the victims of the Sleeping Sickness: reduced by neurological condition to inactivity and stasis, and yet a change could be effected by injecting momentum from outside: stood on a checkered floor, a gentle push would result in them walking across the floor, until the black and white squares ran out, whereupon the springs were wound down and momentum ceased.
I wondered what momentum this may needed, what thought or action would reconnect him to the society he belongs to in name only. What social justice can be served by a society too busy to care?