The hardest thing about returning to LA has been trying to figure out where to ride my bike. The biggest temptation is to fall back into the group ride, of course. But that’s a cul-de-sac. After riding around the country for a few months, the idea of going back to sporty riding sounds pretty dull.
Plus, I’m not mad anymore.
One idea that has stayed with me is the idea of homelessness, and I thought about that as a topic. What is homelessness? Who are the homeless? Does homelessness matter? Why should I care about it?
So I googled a bit and learned that the word itself is fraught. There are numerous other ways to talk about homelessness than by using the word “homeless,” simply because the word itself expresses little, but prejudices much. One of the best things I read was the comment that the description of homelessness should be limited to scenarios where it is relevant. And the more I thought about that, the more I wondered when, at least in my travels, it ever was?
Some people I met lived on the streets, some in shelters, some in cars. Others appeared to simply be moving from one place to other. What relevance was the state of the physical place they spent the night, or the day? More to the point, in my interactions with people I met, what difference did it make where they lived except that, when they appeared to have no fixed abode, it made it easier to approach them and talk?
In the same vein, with a few exceptions, the people I met never talked about where they were living. It wasn’t a point of discussion except to the extent that I asked them about it. This drove home something more common and general about many of the people that I met: They were poor. Some had more housing security, some had less, all were a few dollars away from having nothing.
I’m reading an amazing book right now called “The Invention of Capitalism” by Michael Perelman. In the first few short chapters he makes the compelling point that in order for capitalism to work you have to have poor people. A lot of poor people. And in fact, no capitalist society has ever existed that hasn’t deliberately created them in huge numbers. In the same way that Marxist socialist countries could never demonstrate the workers’ paradise, no capitalist country has ever been able to exist without poor, subsistence-level strata that make the whole thing work.
It drives home a central point, which is that, left to their own devices, no one wants to work for someone else if they can avoid it, and in the sense of being a wage-slave, no one really wants to work at all. It is only the idea of having others work for you, and profiting from their labor, that can really fire people up.
Thinking about the people I met on my bike, I realize that despite the heterogeneity of their living conditions, all were poor and sitting at one end of the security v. freedom spectrum: The more security, the less freedom. The more freedom, the less security.
Humans and all animals want to be free. They want to search for or raise their own food, secure their own shelter, and go about their business without having to punch a clock, wear a uniform, pay a tax, or do what someone else tells them to do.
Many years ago I was in France, visiting with the family of my wife’s friend. The father, Jean, was explaining to me why he had refused to take a parcel of land from his father-in-law when offered it, and instead had bought land and built a home of his own.
“You see this ground?” he asked me.
“Yes,” I said.
“I want to piss here, I piss here. I want to piss there, I piss there. Nobody tell me where to piss.”
Understanding that homelessness has little to do with people unless you’re talking about where they live clarifies a lot for me. One, I don’t have to use the word any more. Two, interactions with people on my bike are nothing more than a way to talk, interact, see if people are in need, and if so whether there’s anything I can do to alleviate it, even if it’s only a few bucks. It’s a way to educate myself and to appreciate the communion of human fellowship.
I’ve run across so many amazing and insightful people simply by pedaling around and taking a minute to chat. Think I’ll keep it up. Beats the group ride, at least for now.