Friday, July 17, 2009

Con and Contempt

A few years ago I saw one of the most haunting scenes of suffering I've ever witnessed--certainly the worst I've ever seen in the United States.

It was a crack addict huddled under a blanket outside an upscale department store. She was cadaverous, hollow-eyed, shaking, her face ghostly, her lips crusted with white. She had a cardboard box; she was begging. Clearly she had only weeks to live.

That sight has stayed with me. It's been a touchstone for my idea of poverty. I think of it when I think of social welfare.

Now I think of something else too. This winter I saw the same woman again on Fifth Avenue, about a block from Tiffany's. Same hollow eyes. Same shaking. Same whitish, crusted lips.

I'd been suckered.

I kept walking. No way she could have lived three years in that condition. Two blocks, three blocks, four--. I thought, "I felt so bad for her!"

Another block. And then I thought, "Well, DAMMIT!" I turned around, thinking I might ask her in a loud voice, "Are you feeling any better since three years ago?" Then I thought: Surely there's a policeman around here.

There wasn't, but she was gone. She was staggering through the crosswalk on a green light, with cars and trucks halted in front of her, everybody staring. She got to the curb and a bus went by between her and me. I saw her in front of a store window on a side street, looking in at the display, rocking and shuddering. Another bus went by. I saw a perfectly healthy woman stuffing the ragged blanket into a purse. Her jeans were newer than mine. Her shirt was too. She looked good. The next bus went by, and she was gone.

I've been suckered four times now, but this one was a special case. To mimic genuine, hopeless, profound suffering in order to con people who are too well to do to know what a crack addict really looks like--that's not just a con; that's contempt.

I hope I never see her again. I really might say something, and that would be dangerous.

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