Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Ruminations On The Denizens Of Mallory Square

I think being homeless and choosing to hang on the streets has got to be the most boring life. That doesn't include those of the altered mental state, or the traumatically brain scrambled veterans, the addicts and drug worn wrecks, the emotional cripples, the spiraling impoverished. They are just the debris of a society where one percent of the population takes home ninety five percent of the income. Recently I read the Republican majority in Congress cut 80 billion dollars a year from the food stamp program. A good tax saving move right? Sure, until you remember if you even know, that the Federal Reserve creates 85 billion dollars a month out of fresh air just to keep the big banks and their clients solvent. Where all this will end no one knows but perhaps this guy reading a paperback at Mallory Square knows something we don't know:

Key West is such a mishmash of people that I am hard pressed sometimes to remember that everywhere isn't like this. Just the other day I watched some tourists stare in astonishment at a local residentially challenged man on the sidewalk enjoying the music at Willie T's. I wondered where they were from that they had never seen a homeless dude free to wander the sidewalks. I don't recall what these visitors in Mallory Square were puzzled by, take your pick.

The things that make Key West a good place to live are for the most part on display and free for all. An ocean view and a seawall to sit on for instance. It's true that the cost of living here tends to be higher but you don't have to sit on a bar stool drinking expensive alcohol to enjoy this town.

The homeless problem in Key West is causing a lot of discussion especially as the city has caved on the lawsuit brought against it by the owners of an expensive condominium complex near the free homeless shelter. The mayor wants to create a new shelter that won't simply house people but that will rehab them which seems like a long shot to me as rehabilitation isn't on the agenda of the hard core true street bums. People seeking help can find it already at the various NGOs around town.

Florida law requires jurisdictions to offer a free safe place to sleep before they can enact laws against public camping, hence the creation of the homeless safe zone. The problem is this fundamental law isn't mentioned by people who want the homeless "gone." These are the same profound thinkers who argue that when the homeless are shipped to the county hurricane shelter in Miami before a storm they should be forced to stay on the mainland after the storm is over. As though Miami wants our street people.

Mallory Square exemplifies this Key West duality. Oddly enough the center of tourism and a main hang out for street people is named for Stephen Mallory a Florida Senator from Key West whose principal claim to fame is his service to the Confederacy as Secretary of the Navy in the devastating 19th century effort to promote human slavery. Weird but true, we celebrate a Key West attorney in the name of this place who turned against his country. Yet Stephen Mallory if you read about his fascinating life, in his own way exemplifies this duality of which I speak, a reluctant secessionist and capable naval administrator in the service of slavery in which he didn't really seem to believe. Interesting indeed.

The paradox of cash generating Key West intersecting homeless Key West is made all the more...paradoxical by the fact that the simple act of the sun setting has become central to the tourist experience in Key West. Get this, the sunset celebration at Mallory Square has become an actual business with its own website History of Sunset Celebration in Key West. I like the story of Tennessee Williams raising a toast to a superb performance by the setting sun putting on an act for the viewers at the water's edge. It's silly enough which makes it even more amusing that that little effort by a writer living out his own sunset years pickled in alcohol has been transmogrified into the dust catcher sales event of the day in a city where anything to make a buck is the way of life.

And up against the chamber of commerce's drive to lower salaries and gentrify the city with more wealthy non working people, this hardy band of do nothings lounge around dirty and smelly and apparently unmovable in the face of societal rejection. Don't get me wrong they aggravate me because I am a worker bee paying taxes etc.. But the reason I am a dispatcher and not a cop is that I have this dreadful ability to see both sides of a coin and I get paralyzed by the view. I don't want to talk to these people, I don't want to know them by name like the cops do, I don't want to arrest them or handle their grubby identity papers. I run them to check for warrants for the officers but I am separated by the radio from the reality of their street lives. Yet I admire their resilience.

They are like the roosters and chickens, a source of wonderment for outsiders yet like the chickens the homeless make a mess of where they live, and like the homeless I could do without them and the chickens both...

Fishing is another great low cost sport with the chance of taking home some protein. My boss is in love with a Canadian who has the misfortune to make an excellent living in the oil fields of Alberta's very frozen North. He recently came back to Key West on vacation and went out for the first time on a boat for five hours to catch fish. "He's got Keys disease ..." My boss laughed noting he did not want to go back to the tundra. "He wants to fish everyday," she said. But Jessica and I know the reality of living here and though it should be one of fishing all day every day that's the pleasure reserved for tourists.

For instance I can't stand free range chickens, they are noisy and messy kicking dirt everywhere and the insects they eat could as well be eaten by quiet dignified native birds like the gentle stepping ibis. But the chamber sells them as a tourist attraction claiming they are descended from Cuban fighting roosters. Which is nonsense as roosters don't breed and if you check art work by people like Mario Sanchez depicting the early part of last century you won't see roosters included in his ultra-realistic street scenes. My skepticism notwithstanding tourists love to point cameras at the feathered rats.

If you take Mallory Square at face value it's a hell of a place to walk or bike or even, yes indeed, watch the sunset. It's a great open space in a city deprived of enough land to have expansive spaces.

Mallory Square's problem is that it carries the burden of too many expectations, mine and yours included. These guys look scary to middle class America, a class of humans seemingly scared by their own shadows these days, but Key West's homeless folk are not to be feared. They are humans and they bully the weak and have expectations of their own, principally focused on free food and hand outs and preying on guilt and fear. I look them in the eye and say good morning and move on. I give them money if they have the balls to ask because I don't think its easy to ask for charity, god knows I have a problem even asking for help sometimes, but they don't hurt people. They live hopeless lives of fear themselves, and they know in a dispute they start out with no credibility and no hope of being heard.

I enjoy hearing from the mystical thinkers who claim the US is a country "based on Judeo Christian principles" though what a Judeo Christian principle is exactly I know not and explanations make no sense to me Judeo-Christian seems to me is is a way of trying not to alienate Jews when you want everyone to live as Jesus taught. Yet when you go back to the Sermon on the Mount squaring the beatitudes with the way we think of and treat the homeless in our midst you know there is nothing Christian about public pronouncements on this subject. The money changers would run Jesus out of town on a rail today.

I figure the best way to deal with this problem is to ramp up social services to deal with them professionally. The peanut gallery says lefties like me should take a homeless dude home to solve the problem. I say the Judeo Christians should do just that in a Biblically inspired way but it's apparent none of us want to deal with them personally so I guess the government is the last resort if we want to reclaim our public spaces. And I can only think some government agency other than 911 would be more apposite and able to do the job right especially as most of the homeless have mental issues. Mojitos at El Meson would taste better bum free in my opinion. And you can check out Pepe's Menu here.

I guess I'm not the only one pushed into a contemplative mood by the complexities of Mallory Square:

And some of us see ghosts where none appear to the rest of us. Perhaps alcohol had unbalanced him or the weight of a life too hard to manage. I didn't want to get involved in his madness thank you. Do you?

Ah youth, all possibilities lie ahead, answers come easily and questions rarely are open ended.

Above the woman's head in the picture below you can see the landing craft that services Sunset Key, home to the extremely wealthy, vacation destination to members of the President's Cabinet, the powerful people who prefer not to see the wreckage of their policies on their doorstep. It says a lot to me that they prefer to separate themselves from us when they vacation. President Truman used to walk around town exercising his legs, accompanied by a bodyguard who stood back as the President shook the hands of ordinary people on the street exercising their right to meet their elected leader whether they agreed with his policies or not.

I don't like the way things are going but I don't have answers, just queries. I wonder why fear is such a pervasive sentiment in a country that became great by believing in itself, that burst with childish confidence that carried the world with it. Nowadays we export manufacturing and good jobs, we allow appalling wealth inequality and pretend climate change isn't happening. In the bad old days we'd have rolled up our sleeves and debated solutions and worked to make things better for future generations. Now we leave it all up to China of all places. I'm relieved I have no children so the future for me is rather short term.

Nowadays we tell ourselves we can't afford to take care of each other, the homeless and the poor and gays are immoral in their own ways and foreigners hate our freedom. Weird that because it's our own National Security Agency the one we pay for, that is illegally wire tapping all our lives, and the people who expose those taps are labeled traitors by our embarrassed leaders. It's our corporations that deny us health care coverage which many freedom hating foreigners take for granted in their second rate countries. We prate about the second amendment and forget the fourth and sixth because they aren't as sexy and simple as guns.

I like to think we will find our way back to a land of lawful optimism and seek measured solutions but for now I guess we are doomed to lurch from crisis to crisis until enough of us get sick of it and demand sensible change from people we've elected who aren't radicals of left or right. Perhaps the crashing sound of unbearable debt will bring us back to our senses but who knows...

Meanwhile I plan to enjoy the sunsets and my dog and my motorcycle and the absence of snow and the people around me who wonder what the next act of the drama will be. I like to think Key West will remain south of reality whatever that happens to be and sunsets will continue as usual whether or not paupers or princes are at Mallory Square to watch.