by Jeff Costello, March 18, 2011
So much talk about the rich. They have all the money and get all the press. “Any publicity is good publicity,” said the manager of a band I had in the sixties. Charlie Sheen knows this, but so does Bill Gates. If human life comes down — and in a sense it does — to a battle for attention, no wonder the road is jammed up with big, squeaky wheels.
I was never much for algebra or calculation of odds and ratios. But it isn’t too difficult, despite all the hype about land of opportunity, Jesus wants you to be rich, and all the other cruel “prosperity for everyone” deceptions, that for every millionaire and billionaire there must be X number of people with nothing. It’s a simple matter of balance. Economists may find this beyond their grasp. I don’t know if the rich and powerful do, but why should they care? They know McDonald’s is hiring. Oh, and Wal-Mart, too. Land of opportunity.
My eyes start rolling back in my head and I start looking for an escape route when I hear conversations about the economy. Last time I had a thought in that vein was in Seattle, the very early 90’s, when Starbucks announced they would start selling stock at $14.00 a share. I didn’t have the money and wouldn’t have known how to go about it anyway.
There’s a lot of whining coming from the middle class about how they’re getting screwed, but I have a very hard time sympathizing with these people who bit on the American Dream and found it bites back.
Out on Interstate 5 in the Pacific Northwest, one can see the detritus of our glorious economy in the flesh. In Oregon, between Ashland and Portland, there is not a single rest stop on The Five without at least one beggar. Like destitute veterans, who prefer busy intersections to freeway rest stops, today’s highway beggars, ashamed to ask vocally for help or spare change, hold signs.
The universal theme of these signs is, “Anything Helps.” In most cases there is a religious tint as well. “Blessing” is common, or “God Bless.” I don’t know whether these people are religious, or they are trying to appeal to any charitable Christians who may swing by. All I know is, they are in bad straits, probably fairly new to panhandling, and copy each others’ M.O.
I remember in Midnight Cowboy, how the bum, Ratso, wanted to go to Florida to be warm. He dreamed of sleeping on a beach, no grandiose ideas about an apartment. Oregon ain’t New York, but it is also no place to stay outdoors or in a car all night in February.
The idea to take pictures with the cell phone came when I saw a family sitting in front of a school bus draped with a huge banner: Anything Is A Blessing. The man, woman and two small girls sat in front of the rest rooms. The guy had real long hair and I thought, here is the hippie dream gone sour. I took a long shot from the building. They saw me do it, and before I could give them the designated five bucks in my pocket, they started haranguing me about the picture taking. I saw their point, but my attempt to explain that I’m one of the good guys was a failure, and I learned something: Don’t argue with someone who has nothing to lose. When I said, “How about five bucks?” as if to correct the situation, they let down their guard. From then on I asked permission to photograph others, gave them a little money and encouraged them to hide their faces if that was a concern. Some did.