Desperation

By Stan Stalla | Jul 14, 2010

Washington, D.C., is a terrific capital city. For instance, take the Mall. There are vantage points to see impressive monuments commemorating individuals and heroic actions. There's the capitol building where laws are debated and passed; and the White House, protected by a black, wrought-iron fence and uniformed security guards with walkie-talkies and guns on their hips. There are the ginormous buildings that house all sorts of national treasures, ranging from the Hope Diamond to the Declaration of Independence; the amazing art galleries. Yes, indeedy, Washington, D.C., is a place to feel proud of, to wonder at our country's history and its greatness.

Washington is divided into quadrants, of which NW (Northwest) is one. It's where USAID's headquarters is located, not more than two or three blocks up 14th Street from the Washington Monument. NW is where the White House is, not to mention large sandstone buildings with pillars and carved friezes, numbering in the scores and scores (more than "four score and seven," that's for sure). NW is where I stop, on my way to the latest overseas assignment, sometimes for a few days, occasionally for a few months.

Walk about seven blocks from USAID's Ronald Reagan Building (10 minutes at a quick pace), and you'll find yourself at St. Thomas Circle, which is where I like to stay. Between office headquarters and hotel, I pass street vendors operating out of huge, silver trailers, selling sweatshirts and caps, and Polish sausages and sauerkraut, and bottled drinks of iced tea and flavored water. I pass storefronts with fancy clothes and little sub shops where you can get any manner of foot-long subs for $5 (plus D.C. tax, naturally). There are bookstores and banks, insurance buildings and a post office, flower shops and dry cleaners, and even the National Press Club.

And there are also desperate people. At high noon, you don't see this side of humanity much on a bright spring day. But they're there, all right, hard to miss, hard to avoid, sometimes hard not to stumble over, if you get up at the crack of dawn to arrive at the office as part of the early-bird shift.

On a warm day in May, you might even kid yourself that there's something romantic about spreading a dirty blanket on top of a piece of cardboard, sheltered from the elements under the covered doorway of a bank-cum-shoe-store on 14th Street. Sure, the sidewalk must be awfully hard, with only a thin blanket and a piece of cardboard for a buffer. And where and how do those scruffy people go to the bathroom, anyway?

But it almost seems like urban camping, doesn't it? A way to avoid the cost of a hotel room (which, by the way, will easily run you $200 to $300 per night, like the place where I stay). I guess any of us could survive a night on the sidewalks of 14th Street, couldn't we?

But these people are desperate. Traipsing through the wet snow of an early February morning, passing the CVS Pharmacy in the 700 block of 14th Street, you may hear, "Hey man, can you spare a quarter for a cup of coffee?" It's easy to pretend that you didn't hear that stage-whisper, let alone pause and turn and look at the actor's face.

If you do glance sideways, will you actually reach into your pocket, remove your wallet, and hunt for that elusive quarter (that he hopes will end up being a greenback with George Washington's face)? How guilty will you feel if you keep on slogging through the snow, letting those few syllables permeate your consciousness ("Hey man, can you spare a quarter...")?

Yes, along that extremely affluent stretch of 14th Street NW, between the USAID headquarters and my hotel at St. Thomas Circle, you may encounter/avoid a guy on a thin strip of cardboard; a woman with ratty, disheveled hair seated on a public bench, hands clutching a shopping cart or blanket, mismatched clothes and mysterious paper bag; that man, asking for a quarter (and hoping for a dollar bill). Nope, there's nothing romantic about homelessness, about mental illness, about nowhere to turn in a world that looks down on the unemployed and dirty as shiftless, worthless people. Desperation.

When I let that man's words penetrate, even permeate, my consciousness, I think of all the invisible people in this world. It seems like a paradox, doesn't it, to "think about the invisible people"? How do we know that they even exist, except for the exposés of a thoughtful article in the local newspaper? What about those relegated, doomed, sentenced to a rural trailer along the byways of Maine, or huddled in a one-room apartment in an urban jungle? Their desperation is as real — maybe more so — as the humanity we try not to notice on the busy streets of NW.

Such were my thoughts, this morning, seated at my hotel breakfast table here in Addis Ababa, from my second-story vantage point over the humanity walking along the street below. As I ate my fried eggs and plate of tropical fruit, I watched two street sweepers hack away at the crusty earth that buttressed a median strip of trees and weeds.

At an altitude of almost 8,000 feet, Addis Ababa has chilly nights. These women were bundled in an assortment of wraps that protect their torsos and heads from the early morning cold. While one sat on the stone curb that enclosed this long strip of dirt, overgrown weeds, and trees, the other hacked, hacked, hacked at the accumulated dirt, breaking off chunks that could be shoveled off the pavement and tossed into the median strip. One hacked and shoveled for a few minutes. Then her companion, seated on the curb, picked up the shovel and carried on with the crusty work.

That thin median strip serves as a bed for a half-dozen people on nights when it doesn't rain. I know, because I've arisen at dawn, donned running shoes and shorts, and left my comfortable hotel with its queen-size bed, kitchenette, ample bathroom hot water, and security locks, to do an early morning workout on the streets of Addis. Like the NW quadrant, my hotel is located in a nice part of town.

Down the street and to the left on one of the cross streets is a public sports club where I play weekend tennis. Though not as organized as the streets of D.C., here, too, are high-rise buildings for office space and the occasional hotel. Vendors sell a variety of fruits and vegetables under tin roofs and out of wooden crates: avocados, tomatoes, onions, potatoes, papayas, green oranges, limes, bananas hanging on wire hooks.

During my early morning workout, or if I choose to walk the several blocks to my USAID office building, desperation is all around me. Where is even the thin sheet of cardboard or dirty blanket for the people sleeping face down on the median strip? Blind beggars lean against a dirty railing, overlooking a stream polluted by garbage and cast-off detritus, shaking a thin hand of worthless coins.

Their deformed companions sit on the muddy sidewalk (oh, there is a ragged piece of cardboard for comfort, I see it!). Some notice a farenji (white foreigner) passing by, and their monotonous litany of begging syllables takes on a heightened urgency. Does the farenji pause, glance to the side to take in the wasted face at his feet? Does he search his pocket to add a few coins to the accumulation of shiny, worthless brass and nickel objects around the beggar's legs?

What will these dozen coins, whose value may not total more than one of the quarters asked for on 14th Street, purchase for this mother clutching a silent child to her breast? How ironic to walk past tin-roofed kiosks of colorful, neatly stacked piles of green and orange and red and white, framed by hands of yellow bananas hung on metal hooks, and stumble upon helpless mothers clutching silent children, alongside aged and crippled men, steeled against the daily afternoon rains with a piece of plastic over their heads.

Like their brethren on 14th Street, these desperadoes are merely the visible representatives of a sea of humanity hidden in dark hovels throughout the land, waiting for sunrises to turn to sunsets, hoping for a bit of food and the abatement of the pains that consume head and belly.

My thoughts go to a remote town on Haiti's southern peninsula — a finger of land that points toward Cuba and, beyond, to the southern coast of the United States. In the town of Les Cayes, the Missionary Sisters of Charity (Mother Teresa's worldwide band of dedicated sisters) take in humanity's detritus. Children (how old are they? Two years? Ten? More?) lie from sunrises to sunsets in cribs, their bodies twisted by cerebral palsy into unyielding bows of unmalleable masses of sinew and cramped muscle, their skeletons re-formed, deformed in a permanent arch of unrelenting tension. A few spoonfuls of gruel, a smile and pat on the head by a passing sister, are their daily highlights. Except for the unplanned visit of a foreign aid worker, they are invisible to the world.

So, what to make of all this, as I eat my fried eggs and watch the street sweepers hack at the crusty earth that has fallen from the median strip? Do they, or the man with his "Hey man, can you spare a quarter...," have any ambition? (I don't know) Any hope? (I don't know) What to do about the invisible, desperate people in rural trailers and shells of urban high-rises, or in the mud houses of the central African desert and the stone huts on the steep slopes of northern Pakistan?

How to answer? I know that I'm not impressed by people asking for more "things," be they an accumulation of bank accounts in a divorce settlement or simply the latest mobile phone or designer jeans. I'm not so impressed by the Facebook comments that expound on the definitions of love and harmony and compassion, as if merely writing those words would make any difference.

I do draw hope from real people. There's the middle-aged woman from an affluent family who spends four months each year making dreams come true in a Tanzanian orphanage. There's the senior citizen in Midcoast Maine whose ambition is to grow vegetables for her small-town soup kitchen. There's the Dartmouth graduate, now in her mid-20s, whose work with refugees has taken her from one side of the African continent to the other.

There's my friend and his wife, who have given a home to two Liberian brothers, to give them the college education they once only dreamed of. And there's the son of a friend, about to embark on a 27-month-long Peace Corps adventure in rural Zambia, where he'll teach people about aquaculture while acquiring immeasurable life skills in the process. Maybe those people, and the invisible faces yet to be discovered, are my answer.

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