Hard Times

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We came out of our house and stepped into my truck. As we were driving off, my wife said, “Look at this guy. He walked to the end of the block and turned right around and walked back. He is going to rob our house as soon as we are gone.” She was pointing at a short, neatly dressed, dark-skinned man with a thick mustache. I drove away and made a U-turn on our street, then another turn until I could stop right next to him. “Are you lost?” I asked in Spanish. “No,” he said, “the thing is that I don’t have work right now and I don’t have anything to eat; I used to work at San Lorenzo Lumber.” (This is an exact translation; every one of his words is printed in my mind.) He spoke clearly; his speech was not slurred; he seemed completely alert. We were on our way to listen to a couple of friends playing music and singing in a local coffee shop. It was Sunday evening. I had on me a ten-dollar bill and four ones. My wife, like a real lady, had no money, of course. I peeled off a one-dollar bill and gave it to him. The rest of my evening was filled with shame and a sad sense of missed opportunity, as if I had lost someone dear to me. In a way, I had. Our left-liberal-run town of Santa Cruz often feels as if it has been overrun by thick crowds of the homeless. As is true everywhere, many are poor, mentally confused creatures who need both shelter and protection. Many more are substance abusers who are sometimes harmless, sometimes not. There is also a large minority of seemingly healthy young adult males with no perceptible handicap. Some are downright athletic-looking. They practice the fine art of switching from a plaintive, begging tone to a vaguely threatening one depending on the size, age, and sex of their target and also on the time of day or night. On the one hand, I live downtown where their interruptions of your train of thought are endless. On the other hand, I recognize that living without working is an expression of individual freedom. It’s protected by the Constitution. It even seems to be recommended by the Gospel. (“Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns . . . “ — Matthew 6:26.) On that evening, we were in a hurry and we only had what we had on us. One of the two advantages of advancing age is that often it allows you to trust your intuition. (I don’t know what the second might be, but there has to be one.) My own considerable intuition, fed by many years of observation, told me that there was an honest man, a working man whom circumstances had driven to the edge of criminal behavior. Would I steal if I were really hungry? Almost certainly yes. What I should have done and failed to do was obvious minutes after I drove off: I should have given him the four one-dollar bills, which would have bought him a hot dog-plus at the 7-Eleven. I felt the special taste of bitterness that comes up when one betrays oneself. Our ancestors used to call that “honor.” The sense of loss was for my former, honorable self. I had missed an opportunity to make a modest investment in my ability to continue thinking of myself as an honorable man. But that’s not all. I blame for my downward transformation the left-liberals’ climate in which I have lived for years. Their calf-like, all-encompassing, blurry compassion — always at others’ expense — has made it difficult for me to distinguish between criminal self-indulgence and simple hard luck. Breathing their air has turned me into a moral cripple — this, on a scale so small I am not even aware of it until reality knocks hard at my door.

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