A woman at the thrift shop today asked me if I was homeless.
I had just pulled a pair of Levi jeans off the rack, and a book on writing I’d discovered off the shelf and placed them before her.
“Do you take credit or debit cards?” I asked.
“No, I’m sorry,” she said, “We only take cash. We’ve just had too many problems with cards. That’ll be four dollars.”
I didn’t have any cash on me. I thought my card would do the trick.
Then, she asked: “Are you homeless?”
“Um, no,” I replied. I wore a uniform T-shirt with the company logo of the landscape outfit I work for and sported a pair of pruners in a holster on my belt. I’m a laborer but I’m not homeless, I said.
We just made a quick stop between jobs so that I could find a cheap pair of work pants.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she responded. “I thought you might be homeless. We sometimes can give items free to customers who are homeless.”
This is a church-run outfit in Los Osos, one that provides income for the church and opportunities to serve the poor.
“Well, I’m not homeless,” I said, “but thanks for asking.”
“I’d be offended if someone had asked me if I was homeless,” she said apologetically.
“Really?” I said quickly, incredulous. “Why be offended? Especially in this economy. No, there’s no need to feel ashamed, not for being homeless” I added, the fires burning, “the people who need to feel ashamed are the Wall Street bankers who’ve robbed this country blind for the last ten years.”
She wouldn’t look at me, refused to engage further in my fulmination against the real shame of American culture: it isn’t homelessness but greed. That’s why this country is so fucked up.
That’s why a church woman intending to do well, to serve the poor, would feel offended if someone had asked her if she were homeless.
The more homelessness and child poverty, the more shame to those who hoard their wealth. The real crux of shame in American culture is greed, not poverty.
All that comes to mind, when I think of it, are the French Revolution and peasants who tear down the ramparts and bring to ruin the elite, the effete aristocracy, who would let the poor eat cake rather than deign to show compassion; and the biblical lament, “Woe to you who hoard your riches and refuse to hear the cry of the poor!” §
Stacey Warde is publisher of The Rogue Voice. For a more extended version of this essay, visit ColdType.net.