In one of America's wealthiest suburbs this morning:
Two prosperous looking men, probably in their early 60s, having a conversation. Woven through the conversation are a number of church and biblical references. They don't sound like 12-steppers. Sounds more like they go to the same church or bible study. They strike me as intelligent, well-educated men. Maybe they're senior corporate executives taking the morning off, or maybe they are recently retired. I could be wrong, but that's a world I know from my own childhood and this neighborhood is full of corporate officer types in that age bracket. Anyway, in the midst of discussing a passage from Romans, one of the men suddenly nods in the direction of a black man on the sidewalk outside:
Bible Man 1: Look. He's got a cell phone. There's something wrong with that picture. He's begging for money and he's got a cell phone.
Bible Man 2: He doesn't even try to hide it.
First of all, the man isn't begging. He's selling Streetwise, a newspaper that hires homeless men and women in support of their efforts to make it back onto the bottom rung of the economic ladder. And I'm more than a little familiar with this particular Streetwise seller. He stands outside selling the paper, year round, even in the bitterly cold weather we've had for the past few days. He's out there at least 10 hours a day, six days a week. He was out there a couple of days ago, in the early morning, when the temperature was 6 degrees Fahrenheit.
He is unfailingly friendly and polite, never pushy. He's been selling the paper for about two years and makes a few cents on every paper, plus any tips. He's doing this because he wants to work and he needs to establish a bit of a track record, develop references and because he wants to be a productive member of society. It's a tough road.
And he needs the phone.
Many of the poor have no home phone, and some, like the Streetwise seller, have no home at all. Cell phones are their only phones. Some people, like the two bible quoting gentlemen, may not have noticed that there are very few public phones anymore. If you sell Streetwise, if you need to communicate in a world where everyone communicates by email and voicemail, having a cell phone to make appointments, to talk to your boss at Streetwise, to deal with emergencies and to pick-up messages is crucial to your survival. When I hear well-to-do people condemn the poor for having cell phones, the most positive spin I can put on it is that the critics are social fossils, maybe living in the 1980s, without a clue as to how damned impossible it is to make your way in the world without a phone. Even if you can find a public phone, chances are that you can't speak with the person you need to speak with and you must have a number they can call back. And men like the Streetwise seller have prepaid cell phones because they don't have good credit. They aren't playing with their Blackberries and iPods. Their prepaid cell phones might be their only tether to a civilized existence.
I'm sure the two bible quoting men think of themselves as very decent human beings, but they were jerks this morning and they are without a clue that they were jerks. The worst part is that they will probably deposit this experience into their mentall files marked, see, the poor are lazy and irresponsible. Maybe they'll bring it up in some future conversation about the poor: yeah, they're so poor, but they're running around with Blackberries begging for money.
I've got mental l files too. This experience is going into the file marked: people can be jerks without knowing they're jerks.