Thursday, April 23, 2009

Mankind is No Island

My friend Mauro shared with me this video today. It's a short film (another favorite cinematic genre), an award winner, and was made for a total budget of $57, using camera phones as the only means of shooting. Pretty much a brilliant and affective piece of art, and if I don't someday have that song on my iPod, I may be a lesser woman for it.

Mauro thought of me after seeing it, having remembered my fascination with the homeless. The word "fascination" doesn't sit right with me, but I struggle with an appropriate adjective to really capture how I feel about this section of society. Being "fascinated by the homeless" leaves one with the mental image of a person walking down the street, coming across a someone begging, pointing at them and yelling, "OOOOooooohhhh! A homeless person! Look! Look! How fascinating!"

That's not it.

When I lived in New York, I saw my fair share of homeless people. Anyone who's visited that city can tell you, it's pretty much part of the experience of the place. There they were, every day: on the train platform headed to work, in the subway car I sat in, in the station that I changed at, at the corner before I got to my building. I once had to step over a man passed out on the ground to get where I was going, and to this day I still wonder if maybe he was dead. All of these bodies, littering the streets: in New York, you sometimes stop thinking you are surrounded by people, and start only seeing bodies. (And when you start seeing the bodies as sheep, then maybe you need to quit your job as an MTA employee.)

I used to journal every day on the subway, mostly during my near-hour commute each way, to and from work. Several of my entries mention, touch-on, or solely occupy themselves with the homeless person I happened the encounter during that ride. Sometimes I sketched them, taking pains to note how their spines were shaped in a seat, or how their facial features were laid out. Sometimes what struck me were their voices. I watched one man over a period of about three months totally alter. He had a voice like a sideshow barker, and his clothing went from a wrinkled-but-tailored suit, to sweats. He would ask for food or money, and would end several of these calls for assistance with, "even a penny!" One day near Christmas in 2006, I remember seeing him on the train I was riding, when someone offered him a candy bar. He yelled (barked) at the person for giving him a "piece of crap," complaining how he needed a piece of fruit or something healthy. It was our fault he didn't have a proper diet. He still took the candy bar.

What struck me most of the time, and what I have most frequently recorded, is dialogue. Things you'd never imagine could come out of a human's mouth--certainly not out of your mouth--you hear from the homeless and desperate. Once a woman (high or coming down, or something) came onto the train I was riding and was near tears begging for help, for money, and she just kept repeating, "It's all my fault. I know it's all my fault." It felt like she was pleading with us while she confessed this, but we couldn't save her, not in the way she really needed to be saved anyway.

I am deathly afraid of becoming homeless someday. It's one of my top anxieties about life, alongside being completely alone and pissing away my potential. And both of those fears somehow correspond to the fear of homelessness in my mind: piss away your potential and fail at life, and you'll become homeless; a large part of being homeless is being completely isolated and alone, sometimes even from yourself. And I think the number one reason people turn away when they see someone on the street, or turn up their iPod, or pretends to be asleep, or is thankful that their sunglasses are dark enough that their eyes don't show through them when someone comes by with a paper cup on the subway, is because the homeless serve as a reminder to us that yes: this does happen; and yes: it could happen to you.

There are less homeless people to be found in London. I won't make the claim that there are less homeless, but there are less to be found--you don't see them nearly as frequently as you do in New York. London comes off, by and large, as a "cleaner" city, even if at times you can't find a trash bin if your life depended on it. Consequently, none of my journals since October mention any homeless people at all. Yet still the fear remains: I was walking to the tube from school the other day and passed a girl seated on the sidewalk, coat over her legs, holding a paper cup. She was had my color hair, my hair length, and looked about my age. And it shook me. I always figured I'd get around to making some piece of art about all of it someday--that I'd write a play about a homeless man, or that I'd play a homeless woman, that I would somehow examine that way of life that terrifies me. It hasn't happened yet.

I'm not an activist. I'm just an artist. While some people identify themselves as both, or feel it's part of their responsibility by identifying with the latter to fulfil some promise of the former, I have never really felt morally obligated to make people feel one way or the other about anything. To me it was just always more important to try to present something as honest as possible, and to just get people to feel, period, which can sometimes be a hard enough job in it of itself. As a society, we tend to dull ourselves a little bit (or more than a little bit) just to get by. I don't want to make up some one's mind about something, but I would like them to think. This film affected me that way. I don't believe I'll go out and help out a soup kitchen, but I may. In the meanwhile, I'm thinking again. That has to count for something.


cokaly said...

gorgeous (is that the right word?) video. and i agree with you on the music.

Lea Maria said...

I think "gorgeous" does nicely, Clayton, yes.