Posted by: MC | May 14, 2011

Everyday Desperate Measures

During the work week between 6 and 7 a.m., it’s a different kind of quiet on the streets of downtown Portland. All last week I walked downtown to catch the bus.  The weather was warming, the air softer to the touch.  I liked it.

That time of morning, delivery people dot the grid of city streets.  They roll dollies with boxes of produce.  They use fork lifts to move reams of paper or kegs of beer.  Then there are a few other work-bound folks on foot; more on bicycle.  Scattered other souls wander quietly, smoking cigarettes or warming their hands deep in pockets.  Some still nestle in doorways on and under cardboard or blankets getting whatever sleep they can find there.  Two bodies were covered with recent-issue camo blankets.  The area around these breathing mounds had been well policed (and not byPortland’s finest).  These were not stolen blankets.

I passed the sign abandoned on the sidewalk.  I’d noticed its words.  They moved me.  They made me sad and probably a little afraid.  “To ugly to prostitute.”  The smiley face frowned.

What can I know about this person?  Really, I can’t even know gender.  I’m betting, though, that it was a woman flying this particular sign.  I’m also betting it worked pretty well.  She was not bad at marketing.

The economy calls forward ingenuities that can go missing on people less familiar with the territories of desperation.  Survival defaults to the codes most fundamental to our experience.  It uses the simplest and fewest of words.  It exploits reassurance as if to say (not necessarily from honesty and certainly from expediency), “Don’t worry, I get it that you are superior.  In fact, I accept my station in life relative to you.”  Survival then follows the reassurance with a deft twist of approachability, of humor.  “I also get it that we’re all scared of the sex trades and even more scared of being ugly.  How ‘bout we agree to keep those things at a distance, too.  I’ll be ugly and we’ll all lean in here together on, ‘Who me?  Prostitution?  Wouldn’t even think of it.  What’s prostitution, anyway? Tee hee.’”

Like I say, it’s a pretty shrewd ad campaign.  I hope it made enough for food, and for shelter that night.  Sometimes even ‘ugly’ has its benefits.

My friend Kyle practices Kung Fu forms in a small park nearby.  Kyle has earned a black belt.  His body is strong and quick.  Still his movement through the forms has bursts of staccato, angles and edges that don’t look like the Kung Fu in the movies.  It is tiresomely common for groups of kids to taunt him.  “What’s wrong with you?  You a monster or something?”  Even adults feel free to throw aspersions his way.  “Man, you’re a ugly f**k.  Shouldn’t you be off the streets in some home or something?”

Kyle has lived his life with cerebral palsy.  He’s got a form of the disorder that makes it so he can stand and walk, but his body is asymmetrical, his face is organized differently than most faces.  A few years ago surgery finally made it possible for him to hold his head upright.  Before that it rested on his right shoulder.

Kyle is 25.  Like any normally developing male, he’s been amped with hormones for about a decade.  He is as drawn as anyone to romance, to sex.  Kyle has yet to experience that kind of kiss.  “I don’t know if I ever will,” he says.  “But it’s not like I don’t feel all that stuff.”

Kyle is brilliant.  He’s brave.  He’s navigated the incessant barbs and land mines of social life clear into and through an undergraduate degree in psychology.  He’s lonely.  He’s pretty pissed off, too.  Makes sense.  Kyle knows he carries “ugly” for a culture terrified of age and death, and pretty wacked-out about difference of almost any kind.  “I come into a room apologetic,” he says.  “I know every new encounter carries the first hit – monster.

Everyday, Kyle encounters the barriers we all sustain in one way or another to prevent us from coming to know each other.  That doesn’t change the fact that Kyle and the faceless person behind the abandoned sign are two more in the 6+ billion who have lives with stories.  Some people have precious few experiences of being seen, listened to, acknowledge as someone worth knowing.  Nonetheless, while it can be ignored, nothing can erase the essential dignity of any of us.   The resilience is astonishing, really – waking up every day to do it again.

“You think you know me, but you don’t know me.”

NOTE:  Check out the photographs and brief essays on flying sign in the book, Why are you surprised I’m still here?  It’s from Loud Mouth Press – the publishers for 100 Voices – Americans Talk about Change.

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