Friday, June 7, 2013

The Canaries of Inequality

I thought this odd looking erection was part of the annual Sculpture Key West efforts but that annual shrunken extravaganza has evaporated once again and this thing, looking for all the world like a fried calamari ring past its due date, remains. It turns out it makes a passable reclining bench upon which one waits for one's dog to lose interest in it.

Winter is a time of tourists at Higgs Beach, the county's park in the. Idle of the city. It's a place that is patrolled by an off duty Sheriff's deputy and order has been maintained for the pleasure of beach goers. One brilliant solution to the problem of co-habitation between beach overs and the residentially challenged was to outlaw adults at the park benches fronting the beach.

The homeless who come to Key West in droves for the winter season decamped across the road to the tables covered by smaller roofs next to the dog park, another area closed off to homeless "campers," by virtue of a fenced in area created by public subscription.

When Cheyenne and I were passing we could hear another fish story changing hands, "it was THIS big" he told his Cuban buddies out with their dogs.

Cheyenne is a hot property, and I know this because she walks past people's homes and their trapped dogs bay to be let out to play with her, a game of frolic invariably denied by fearful owners. In the dog park Cheyenne was free to frolic so she decided that was a mugs game and ignored all advances. Good girl.

She, like me, prefers to watch.

And while she watches I like to observe and photograph.

Higgs Beach and the White Street Pier and neighboring Rest Beach are the closest Key West comes to a Third Spaces where people like to gather outdoors. Third place - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia Of course some people need to exercise and this is where they can do that too.

It's not surprising considering the beauty of the place and the presence of an actual sand beach, after a fashion. Sand is rare in the rocky Keys.

Some exercise, some rest and some live in public. It's euphemistically called "camping."

These places close at eleven pm and open at seven am or thereabouts and they are patrolled by the night watch to clear these spaces of "campers." Under Florida law the municipality must provide a safe place for people to sleep before they can be moved on, and Key West does that with the Keys Overnight Temporary Shelter- KOTS. Key West Diary: Homeless In Key West

The safe zone, as KOTS is also known, is about to undergo change with a more permanent structure under consideration to provide services as well as sleeping arrangements. However for some, homelessness is a way of life, a choice not just a misfortune or a mental illness. In a town with a perfect climate it's hard to deny that there wil be people here who sleep rough.

In the middle of the continuing debate we have public spaces, bike trails, parks and beaches and if they have facilities they get overrun. State Parks with their entrance fees are exceptions and thus become the refuge of the moderately well to do. City parks are home to the least among us, including pigeons.

I like stopping off in these spaces because I feel it's important to reclaim them for those of us that seek not to live here but to rest and enjoy them for a moment in our lives.

In a town as expensive as Key West there are bound to be working poor and there are always the confused who come to "the tropics" as a refuge from hardship Up North and fail to bring the means or the skills with them to find a place here. It's understandable that residents, some wealthy and some barely hanging on resent in some manner or another those that live "for free" in their midst. The homeless taken as a stereotype also put fear in our hearts, as an Awful Reminder of what awaits those of us that fail to submit and work and who don't keep the implicit promise not to upset the social apple cart.

To me homelessness represents boredom, and I am as capable as any of spending my days in idleness, but only so long as it is at my own behest. Were I so reduced that all I could forward to would be days of pointlessness I think I should go mad. I don't view living "for free" as any kind of freedom, emotional or economic.

The social stigma of not paying one's way is extreme in a country that lives by the myth of self reliance. Poverty in America is a moral failing, as mad as that sounds.

We lack the desire to spend our public monies building and maintaining public works, and we pay the price. Bridges collapse and more bridges threaten collapse and the public outrage is nowhere to be found. Eisenhower's America is dead buried and forgotten. We are told that the public debt is so large we are facing imminent collapse as a nation, yet we keep soldiers all around the world and we build vast spacious embassies overseas and we pay mercenaries ten times what we pay our own honest soldiers to represent us in battles that hold no interest for us or purpose for our modest lives.

We are told that half our national debt was generated by the war in the Middle East, the war that secured Iraqi oil for American corporations that pay us no taxes in return. There is no public outcry because failure to pay taxes is seen as smart and clever and in defiance of a government that keeps us under surveillance. It's an extraordinary narrative so well told that even as its effects prove it to be a lie, it's victims continue to believe it.

Yet the homeless and hopeless are the objects of moral outrage. These people who live on pennies are blamed for our national ills. The narrative put about by the one percent say it must be so, so it must be so. I find it absolutely extraordinary.
I read comments by Canadians who whine about the high cost of living Up North and I wonder at their lack of awareness. Mind you Americans down here are less aware of their neighbor to the North than anyone so it's a two way street. Yet the essential civility of the nation to the north of us, devoted to the public good must be paid for, in gas taxes GST, PST and sales taxes and value added taxes. Sales taxes in Canada - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia The benefits are obscured to many as they look south and see us frolicking tax free. Yet we face economic bankruptcy at every turn in a life filled with stress and anxiety, high fructose corn syrup and mutual disgust. We all of us, liberals and conservatives and libertarians, can lose everything to a bad accident or major disease, yet we cannot agree on a way out of our dependence on insurance companies that deny us medical coverage at every turn.

It is said that a society can be judged by how it treats the least of its citizens, or better yet how it treats it's animals. The pervasive narrative in the US tells us that if we provide the services other industrialized countries provide "they" will live off the fat of the land and not contribute. They are the stereotypes of your choosing, minorities of all stripes of course. Animals we herd in "feed lots," really manure pits and squeeze chickens cows and pigs into torture chambers and feed them drugs to make them fat, and us in turn.

And through it all we blame the government, not the corporations that buy the government at our expense. The narrative is brilliant, and as brilliant as it is flawed. My wife, desperately grateful for her health insurance that keeps her rheumatoid arthritis at bay was brought to her knees by the sight of a man sitting out with a leg in a cast and stuffed paper money into his startled hands. A band aid, even as she seeks her own path off the dependence on chemicals, the very things that enable her to function while enabling Merck to overcharge her insurance.

My only hope is that throughout history when this country has taken a wrong turn after sufficient agony has been felt we have found our way back, usually somewhat peacefully and usually before too much damage has been done. There's something wrong when poverty is a moral failing yet to hoard wealth beyond imagining is viewed as a social good. Throughout history such inequalities have led to violent social change.

How we treat this conundrum of homelessness, poverty, lack of education, wealth inequality and a failure of public discourse is all predicated by the canaries in the social coal mine, the indicators of a society headed in the wrong direction, the modest, despised homeless in our midst.