by Dan Johnson
It’s 10:50 on a Tuesday morning and no one in the open air patio at the Corner Kafé on 7th St and Maple Ave is willing to address the elephant in the room. A good dozen of us park our asses on busted vinyl chairs that have seen so much sitting, they’ve started to herniate their stuffing into the open air where the horde of flies from the street beyond buzzes in to get while the getting’s good.
Most of us are staring at the long-suffering TV where Drew Carey’s already dysmorphic face pixelates and cracks as the signal fades in and out. Some giddy white woman from middle America is going to spin the wheel and make the showcase. Great.
One fellow is loudly video chatting with a woman who wants cigarettes. Another is pounding down a plate of chilaquiles. In the corner, the pachyderm in question, a scrawny dude with hate in his eyes, is mad-dogging me. I’m not special. He does this to everyone who makes a transaction.
In his mind, he’s entitled to cash or a meal from customers by virtue of the simple fact that we have money to spend on food and he doesn’t. It’s an old school trick coming rapidly into vogue with a new school of Downtown panhandlers who seem to have mistaken America for a place built on something other than English property law.
This sap is in league with Henry from Africa, that bold, Scripture shouting rogue, and the fellow who ran up behind me at the Pershing Square Bank of America ATM on Sunday to demand twenty dollars before loudly encouraging me to say the “n-word” so he could “beat my ass.”
It’s crass and presumptuous, a hair’s breadth shy of strong-arm extortion and a tableau taken straight from the pages of some cheesy GOP fear-mongering tract about so-called welfare queens.
My new friend demands I give him change. When I decline he shouts, “buy me food then!” He gets neither because I am a warm-hearted person with a (generally) good sense of etiquette who has learned to train a hateful, languid stare on those who offend my sensibilities.
The pitch isn’t going well. Someone gives him a plate of pancakes, which he promptly discards. Why? Were they not to his liking?
As the white girl bids on a new camping set and a trip to the Hard Rock Café Bali (loaded with rock memorabilia!), jackass shouts, “give me food, man!” at a fellow cradling an oddly out of place lap dog.
“Do I know you?! Why would I buy you food?!” the customer shouts back. The elephant is jawing now. His loose-swivel head pivots as his eyes struggle to focus on another customer canoodling with an older white woman smacking her gums. He shouts something I can’t decipher at his new mark who leans over his woman’s shoulder and almost whispers, “you better get out of here, homeboy, before you have a bad day.”
With staggering speed, the elephant stands and marches out of the patio to the bus stop where he stares back at us and pouts.
This is Skid Row. A complex and much-maligned petri dish of humanity that brings out the best and worst in people. It’s hard to get a good idea of what the neighborhood is all about, because every person capable of painting its portrait hedges toward one extreme or another. It’s either a “community” steeped in “recovery” and the righting of all the wrongs endemic to the Western World or an apocalyptic slum where, even as we speak, the crack dealers are assembling their addicted minions to sack Patti Berman’s lofted Rome.
I appreciate Skid Row. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: a dedicated zone of supportive services and low-income housing is crucial to maintaining Downtown’s equilibrium. A Downtown that works for the wealthy alone is no sort of Downtown at all, it’s a billboard for a cruel spectacle that is ultimately devoid of spiritual merit in proportion to the degree it divorces itself from the problems of the world. Case closed.
One of the things I really value about Skid Row is how natural it is. John Singleton Mosby famously said, “society is a thin coat of varnish.” Strip away wealth and phony laudations and prestige and you see humanity for what it is—a system of disparate hierarchies that pits the quest for dignity against the species’ most base impulses.
Dignity is an interesting thing. It’s not like your virginity. You can get it back in some measure once you’ve lost it. (Been there.) It’s not quantifiable in a dollar amount. Nor is it an obvious thing to cultivate. It takes a deeper sort of character to see after the pillars of your dignity.
There are physical components ie: hygiene, grooming, posture, presence. A dignified mind has its own facets. Mostly though, dignity is the marriage of a philosophy of respect (outward and self-directed) put into daily practice.
From whence this daily practice springs eternal is a matter of hot debate in our United States. Is it a product of institutions or the fruit of an individual’s will? Can it be given or must it be earned? Does the artifice of wealth create dignity or merely mask one’s lack thereof?
The answer is somewhere in the middle—the kingdom of the golden mean. Unfortunately, we live in a zero sum world. Our society is built on bellicose metaphors that encourage even the wisest and most benevolent sage to think of life as a struggle between warring in-groups, not a cooperative gambit.
Dignity is found in balance. It is not a province of ego, but an exercise in humble surrender and the endurance of compromise. Achieving dignity can be messy and uncomfortable, especially to ideological purists and those with a messianic bent. Yet, it’s worthwhile.
Our little patio tiff between John Q. Asshole and the customers of Corner Kafé illustrates a larger point. There will be demanding douche bags at all points along the way in our city’s journey. It’s exhausting to spend a lifetime denouncing or plotting to destroy every dickhead that exists in this world for the undignified purpose of serving self-interest. To navigate the obstacles of asshattery requires keeping one’s feet in the fire and learning to employ a few choice words or a simple statement of action in lieu of declaring war. One option leads to grace another to internecine destruction.
Everywhere I look in Downtown, it feels like we’re reaching a boiling point. Everything is intensely symbolic and heavily divisive. Battle lines are drawn in every corner of the sandbox. We’ve come to imagine our city’s destiny is a winner takes all affair. Everyone is itching for a fight. The whole thing smacks of fear and insecurity—two of the least dignified emotions in the human spectrum.
Turn off the gas. Hold your heads high. Fight fair. When absolute dignity fails, try a modicum of decency.
(Which, incidentally, is completely lacking in the food staff at the Corner Kafé who served me a grotesque plate of huevos rancheros built on fetid habanero sauce, past due eggs, and brittle tortillas that resisted every stroke of my plastic knife. Also, I should mention the hair. The free keratin deposit lurking beneath it all was not a welcome addition to my meal. You bastards.)
I award the Corner Kafé a “0” on the binary and encourage every Downtowner to take a long hard look in the mirror and ask yourself, “is this a dignified way to go about my life?”