ONE PAYCHECK AWAY FROM HUMANITY
THE STREETS OF CLEVELAND were filled with people last week, due mainly to the record-setting attendance levels at the 33rd Annual Cleveland International Film Festival (CIFF). If anyone doubts the power of the arts to engage citizens and revitalize communities, they would be wise to note how many suburbanites have flocked to downtown for CIFF during March.
AS I WANDERED through the streets of Cleveland and hosted out-of-town visitors, a few other thoughts bubbled to the surface as well. The numbers of homeless on the streets was staggering and seemed to be higher than the dreadful period in the late 80s and early 90s when beggars seemed to outnumber businessmen.
So it was sobering, to say the least — and upon request, I handed out $1 bills to dozens of men and women. I implored them all to avoid using the money for alcohol or drugs. Most were clear-eyed and appeared alcohol free, so perhaps my human investment did indeed go for food rather than ‘the devil’s tonic’ or some other destructive device.
Nevertheless, one of my guests gently criticized me for handing out dollar bills, saying, “don’t you realize you’re being scammed?”
I nodded his way and smiled, and recalled a similar event from New York City a decade prior. I was in New York frequently as a literary agent in 1997, and a nearly identical scenario existed. On every block there was a new person begging for money. Nearly every time I would give them a dollar until my dollar bills ran dry. A friend of mine, a hardened New Yorker who had lived in the Concrete Jungle for over twenty years, flipped out. “What the *%#@ are you doing, man?” he blurted out. “These people are here every day. This is what they DO. Why are you giving them money?”
I turned and smiled, calmly. I’d heard this reasoning many times before, especially during the production of my film, THE PROMISED LAND. “My friend,” I began, “if these people have fallen so far that they feel the need to scam change to survive, then I’ll give them a dollar.” My friend grumbled and uttered something about the streets of Manhattan meting out its “New York-style” justice to those who aren’t strong enough to survive, but I ignored the sentiment.
I once wrote that “the poor will always be my brothers and sisters,” and that even though I was raised as “Middle Class,” and had dined with the wealthy and powerful, that I would always feel great empathy for the poor. Being a filmmaker, at least thus far, has not made we wealthy, so I certainly can identify with those who are “one paycheck away from poverty,” and those who are already suffering.
A number of years ago I was dropping off some clothes and food to a soup kitchen in Cleveland. It was a particularly ugly day; temperatures were in the teens and it was snowing like Antarctica. A smiling African American gentleman lept to his feet and opened the door as I approached the entrance. He thanked me for bringing clothes and food to help the poor. I smiled back and proceeded inside where the soup kitchen was about to open.
After dropping off my donation I came back into the winter cold and pulled the collar of my long American Eagle overcoat up around my neck. As I reached my car, I stopped — and turned to look at the man who had opened the door for me. He waved and smiled as the snow continued to swirl around him.
I crossed the street and approached the man, who was in line with about 100 others. I asked him how long he had been coming to the Catholic center for food and he explained that he had lost his job a few months prior and had been unable to find work.
“Where are you sleeping?” I asked.
“Inside, when I can,” he joked.
“And how often is that?” I asked.
“About two times a week,” he said matter-of-factly.
So I took off my oversized American Eagle coat and told him, “You need this more than I.” He was a big man — about 6’2 — and the coat fit him perfectly, even over the layers of shirts and sweaters he’d been wearing.
“God Bless you,” he said to me.
“No sir, may God Bless you,” was my reply.
Over the coming weeks and months, I often saw the man wearing my coat as I made my way downtown. We spoke a number of times after that, and occasionally I would buy him a coffee. My simple act seemed to touch him beyond belief, but I tried to make him realize how much he had taught me; and how he helped put things into perspective.
During today’s horrific economic times, my “family” is hurting again, and the lack of compassion is more startling than ever. I suspect that we’ll see millions more on the streets, in tent villages, and more in the coming months.
Others will judge, rationalize, pontificate about the “scam artists and the bums” living on the streets, but I will not be among them.
Others will hoard and singularize, but to tell you the truth, I am thinking of walking the opposite direction.
If I can create a film about the plight of the poor, I will.
If I have bread to share, I shall.
If I have kindness to give, I will do my best to provide it.
If I can satisfy the afflicted, I will. And yes, if I have a dollar bill to invest in a fellow human, I will give it gladly.
I know I am naïve, but I still believe in the tenet, “There but for the grace of God go I,” and “what you put out comes back.”
For until things change, our humanity is all we have left. It is a perfect opportunity to change — and to evolve — if we so choose.