Is it ever justified to kill? This is a question our criminal justice system claims to grapple with every day. The justice system itself may execute a person if it deems the action justified. When someone kills someone we know, we may be tempted to retaliate in kind. When someone we know is raped or we are raped, same response. When someone attempts to kill us first? Self-defense is often the case, killing the aggressor first. When someone steals from us? Scams us? Cons us? When someone cheats on us? How about the person he or she cheated with? These are all understandable reasons, being emotionally annihilated seems to be justification to kill. I would argue that it isn’t and I personally know the pain that some of the above examples illicit and have navigated the various seductive emotions of anger and revenge.
Is it acceptable to kill to survive? If our basic food and water supply are threatened? This is a harder question to answer. We need food and water so what if someone is blocking our access to it, stole it from us or we don’t have money to buy it? The gray areas seem boundless. Many people would argue that killing in this situation is understandable. Maybe, I don’t know. There is always a choice, even when we’re hungry and thirsty, but I have luckily never been in this situation, so I can’t claim an authentic response.
There is the population of people that our society often ignores, barely acknowledges, who must live with these moral and ethical ambiguities every day. The homeless population in America is about half a million people on any given night. The homeless live on the edge on both extremes, searching for and securing food, water and shelter and navigating a soul’s journey in a way most of us can only read about.
There’s this thing that happened one Saturday morning on Sunset Boulevard but I can’t describe it without laughing and crying simultaneously. Let me explain a bit, I moved to Los Angeles the year before from Minneapolis. It’s been a plan of mine for many years but a couple of things, legitimate things mind you, kept me from doing so . . . College, my dying mother and my first, and really only, serious relationship that lasted eighteen years. So, it was a couple of things in addition to the tremendous fear.
The fear of falling flat on my face in this town, both literally and figuratively. Literally because the sidewalks are buckled and broken in my neighborhood from minor earthquakes. Figuratively because to put it all on the line at this stage of my life is projectile-vomit-inducing as I attempt to pursue a screenwriting career. Here I am, sitting in my car on Sunset, early for a community acupuncture appointment so I’m playing with my Smart Phone which I’m totally stupid at, feeling sorry for myself as I deconstruct yet another one-night stand from the night before, internally bemoaning the fact that my apartment doesn’t have air conditioning as I tweak the vents in my car to blow directly on my face.
An older car pulls up and parks in front of me, I have a little room behind me so I throw my new car into reverse. Sure, there’s a tremendous amount of horn-honking and middle-finger-flipping in this town but for the most part, people are in it together here. Traffic sucks all the time, I mean, all the time so we try to be open-hearted. I give the driver an extra couple of feet to park more comfortably. A man gets out, he looks to be in his fifties and of Latino descent, but I find that I’m terrible at telling age here. People are often younger than I think because the sun has aged them. I’m often told I look ten years younger than I actually am and joke that’s what a life-time of not being exposed to the sun in Minnesota can accomplish. Speaking of this blessed sun that can both give and take life simultaneously, it’s going to be blistering hot. It’s mid-morning and it’s already ninety degrees. I watch curiously as he walks quickly around the back of his car to open his trunk. He starts retrieving empty plastic bottles of varying sizes. The bottles themselves are tattered and dented from repeat usage. He scoops them up and carries them to the side of what looks to be an apartment building.
He removes a wrench from his belt and I’m a little mad at myself, I consider myself a keen observer in most situations, for not noticing the wrench earlier. He loosens a fitting between joints on an exposed pipe on the side of the building, and water comes spurting out. This is not a faucet nor does it have a spigot on it. It’s a water pipe that just happens to pop outside the surface of the building. I watch as he patiently fills each plastic bottle to the brim. He has to be getting drinking water. He has so many bottles, he must be bringing these back to a family. I realize these are all assumptions but there’s a purposefulness in his actions that reinforce this story.
Perhaps his family couldn’t continue paying the water bill or maybe he’s homeless. I look at his car, there is stuff in the back visible through the rearview window so it’s possible, he could be living inside. The numbers of homeless people here are astounding. According to the Institute for the Study of Homelessness and Poverty at the Weingart Center, an estimated 254,000 men, women and children experience homelessness in Los Angeles County during some part of the year. Approximately 82,000 people are homeless on any given night. Youth, especially in the Hollywood area, are estimated to make up from 4,800 to 10,000. 23%-40% are families and 25% are mentally ill. Yes, it’s undoubtedly due to the mild climate, so it attracts “them.”
This is a paraphrase of what I hear so many times when I mention this phenomenon to people. As I continue to watch the man fill the water bottles, I suddenly remember an encounter I had with a homeless person outside a 7-11 store on Santa Monica Boulevard not long before that hot day.
I went inside to use the cash machine, as I exited, I gave a few coins to the older black man holding out a used coffee cup for panhandling. He gave a humble, “Thank you,” muttering incoherently. He would be counted as one of 25% who are mentally ill and living on the street. As I walked back to my car he said something loudly. I turned around, thinking he’s addressing me, and asked him to repeat himself. He chuckled saying, “Sorry, sweetheart! I was talking to myself, reminding myself about the spiritual stuff. Reminding myself not to forget it because it’s important, you know?”
I nodded, suddenly tearful, “Yes, it is,” I agreed as I stumbled back to my car. I’m amazed and astounded that someone in his situation, faced with starvation and violence constantly, can be concerned with such lofty notions as spirituality, until it dawned on me that this is essential to survival. This was a new concept for me personally, I used to carry around a copy of “The Atheist Debaters Handbook” my entire senior year of high school. I shook my head as I used the internet access on my phone to find the address of the Buddhist temple in Hacienda Heights that I’d been meaning to visit for months, but kept putting off. I decided not to listen as intently to that saboteur’s voice that taunted me with the notion that it’s “cute but phony” for a white woman to be interested in Buddhism. I drove there, not even remembering what I’d planned to do before the encounter with the man outside the 7-11, one of “them,” by society’s standards. The inconvenient and unmentionable. He was a glorious Bodhisattva sent to steer me that day in a direction I desperately needed to go. A man that most people intentionally try not to see and I understand why, it’s so hard to watch an extreme. It’s the same reason we try not to let ourselves completely and thoroughly enjoy something because we know it won’t last.
I stood in the lovely temple, I lighted my incense as I made my request; not for fame nor fortune, not for true love nor other such notions. I requested that I can become okay with living as a sentient being, a human with all the failings of body, mind and spirit, to witness the suffering around me as inevitable opportunities to transform pain into something beautiful.
I folded a dollar in thirds, planning to stuff it into the donation box at the temple, to cover the cost of incense it incurs, among other expenses. I glanced at the back of the folded bill before I let it go and saw that strange eye on it. That eye caused people to wonder whether it’s good or bad or indifferent.
I remembered another encounter I had with a homeless white man on Melrose Avenue, this time I had a dollar on me. I handed it to him and he grabbed my hand to earnestly point out that eye on the bill. He kept telling me I smelled really good and I kept saying jokingly that if he could smell me, he was standing too close. “That eye…” he remarked. I offered doubtfully, “The third eye?” He turned kind but serious eyes on me when he replied, shaking his head, “That is definitely not the mother-fucking third eye, nothing spiritual in it.” We both burst out laughing, bringing ourselves to tears at this revelation. He opened my car door for me as I said, “I agree whole-heartedly.” He nodded as he shut my door, waving as I drove off.
Those tears jump back to my eyes as I watch the man place the full water bottles into the trunk after carefully closing the illegally-accessed line of potable water. I know, and he knows I know, that he’s done this before and will again. He is a skillful gatherer in times where this has been ruefully and, I fear soon we’ll soon discover, regretfully abandoned.
We finally obtained the mutual encourage to meet each other’s eyes after he shuts his trunk. We have an understanding. He understands, as he watched me sob in my car, that I have no intention of calling the authorities to report his water pillage, and I understand that certain things need to be done in order to survive. Sometimes, even in America, maybe especially in America, we are still forced to live in the energy of that animalistic self that has to kill rather than be killed.
Neither of us, an assumption, had to kill or be killed that day. He closed his eyes and slightly bowed in my direction. I did the same in return. I watched his car pull away from the crumbling curb. I dried my eyes as I tried to fix my face a little. I thought how fortunate it is that I have a new car, at least new to me. How I got a job the first week I moved here and how unusual, again lucky, that is when I talk to other people who live here, many of them piecing together an existence from two or more part-time jobs which don’t offer health insurance. All of this I have amongst the travesty, yet gift, of the largest population of homeless people in the United States. I say it has to also to a gift because there is always the positive charge to a negative thing. It’s physics. Yin and Yang. All objects are in motion. Whatever we want to call it.
Today is an in-between day, where nothing is black or white. I’m slowly realizing they are all gray. As I grabbed my purse, I thought wistfully that I wished tears were drinkable because I would gladly gather them to quench a thirst. It seemed like such a waste of water, yet I knew that tears are also a transformation. This caused me to smile, and then even laugh a bit. If tears are shed in pain, the salt in them healed our wounds, whether they are physical, mental, emotional or spiritual. In the human body, the same breathing pattern is utilized for laughing and crying. Tears heal when we laugh too, comedy being the finest way to transform pain.
This empathy for homeless people, bums, hobos, vagrants, beggars, transients, have-nots, down-and-outs, or whatever an era in American history called them, began when I was three. My father had a brother living in Philadelphia. We drove across country, all seven of us, to visit he and his wife. We were doing something in the city one day and took the subway for transportation. I wandered a little way away from my parents and began a conversation with the most interesting man who was lying on the floor in the subway.
I don’t remember anymore what we talked about. All I remember is that it was fascinating. My family joked for years how I made friends that day with a bum. My mother said she was frightened, except she knew he couldn’t snatch me away or anything because we were in an enclosed area. It wasn’t until I was older that I understood what “bum” meant. I found out it meant invisible and untouchable. Children don’t engage in these judgments. As an adult, I would engage in countless other judgments but not of the homeless.
Some say it’s a choice they make, homeless people. Indeed this is true for a small percentage. When I was in college, I worked in a neighborhood coffee shop, before Starbucks swallowed the universe. This homeless man would frequent quite often, to write his poetry. He went by the name Iowa Blackie, but he would quickly correct anyone who called him homeless. He was a hobo, and it was a choice. It was a choice akin to an ascetic who foregoes material possessions in a spiritual pursuit.
Iowa Blackie did not beg for spare change but he would sell you a pamphlet of his poetry for a quarter, if you inquired about his writing. I once offered him a sandwich, free of charge but he declined, saying he would pay for it. He was unlike the street kids who would sometimes come in too, looking for a handout as they collected change for a bump of meth. I used to elevate Iowa Blackie over these kids but the years have softened my perception of them. They were just looking to get well too, their choice was drugs. Iowa Blackie’s was using words to transform his experience into something palatable, even joyful.
As an English major at the University of Minnesota, I can’t exactly accuse Iowa Blackie of being a brilliant poet, but there was a deep honesty in his words. I believe now that he was on a spiritual journey, one that I also witnessed over and over in the streets of Los Angeles.
A meditation teacher I studied with there once remarked, “Once a person realizes the true reality of life, they make one of two choices, they either descend into psychosis or they become enlightened.” I believe many of the homeless I have encountered throughout my life are on this path to enlightenment. I may even go so far as to believe that psychosis is part of the journey for many but they unfortunately may get stuck there in the realm society calls crazy. Who am I to say? Many people I know have warned me not to engage with “them,” because they can be dangerous. Indeed, this is true, but it’s never steered me away from an exchange.
Someone once pointed out to me that my point-of-view could be considered a selfish one. That I thought their suffering existed merely for my own spiritual gain. This was true in that every human encountered as we breathe through this existence in the temporal plane is an opportunity for growth; but it goes both ways; it’s physics. I believe that the encounters I’ve had with homeless people have touched us mutually.
The most striking story I have is when I lived in Minneapolis. Truthfully, I don’t know if the street-musician I encountered was homeless, but many of them tend to be on the fringe in some way by society’s standards. I was in a part of city referred to as Uptown. It’s where many of the trendy young professionals live. The rents are high and the buildings are old. However, it is also an area where stores could be found which carry more unusual products. In my case, I was looking for Traditional Chinese Medicine herbs that I had been taking for years. I have multiple sclerosis and decided not to use what Western medicine recommends. I have many reasons but the biggest is that they are dangerous, they tend to cause cancer and organ failure. I am also a juvenile diabetic so I just don’t feel like placing additional organs at risk for a drug that may or may not help me and patients build immunity to them over time.
I saw him standing outside the co-op where I was going to buy the herbs. He was playing a fiddle. He wasn’t an astonishing good fiddle player but he wasn’t bad either. He was playing Kentucky blue grass and I couldn’t help noticing that his long, shaggy gray hair and his tall, lanky stature reminded me of John Hartford, a famous Kentucky fiddle player, who had recently died from lung cancer.
On my way out of the store, I started to dig through my purse, looking for spare change to throw in his open fiddle case lying on the ground. I came up with only a measly twenty-two cents. I was embarrassed as I tossed it in as he continued to play. I started to walk away when he spoke, “Can I ask you a question?”
“Sure,” I responded.
“Do you agree that scientists can discern how fast cars are traveling?”
“Sure,” I said again.
“Do you agree that scientists can measure how fast airplanes and space crafts are traveling?” I nodded, leaning in to see if I could smell booze. I could not; “Then the earth turns every day and we have dark and light and the earth orbits around the solar system in a year and the solar system travels through the galaxy and our galaxy travels through the universe…” I had to admit, I was captivated by his narrative as he talked in a calm and instructive manner, “Do you have any idea how fast we’re traveling?” He asked.
“I have no idea.”
“One hundred thousand miles a second,” he proclaimed.
I laughed as I said, “That’s really fucking fast.” He smiled too as I walked away voicing my goodbye.
“It doesn’t mean you have to affect the way you walk.”
I stopped dead in my tracks and turned to him, “What?”
“Just because we’re going really fast, you don’t have to let it affect the way you walk.”
I stumbled back to my car. Perplexed, confounded, shocked and mystified. The thing was, up until this point, I was having a slight problem with my left leg sometimes dragging as I walked. It was barely noticeable, even my neurologist said this, but I noticed and was very self-conscious about it.
Somehow, this guy, who had watched me walk a total of maybe 75 feet had seen it and felt compelled to give me some perspective on it. Not only would it be conceivable to have such a problem, considering how fast we’re going through time and space, but the other side of the coin was that I needn’t let it impact me since we’re traveling so fast through time and space. It’s so fast that the movement is meaningless. The only thing that’s important to remember is that we are always moving, always changing.
I have tried to fact-check the fiddle-player but I can only find numbers about how fast we’re going as we travel around the sun in a day and in a year, but he had somehow calculated a number beyond this, to include the entire universe.
Since I suck at math, I’m not going to try to investigate further. For me the relevant information has been communicated. We all struggle through life in different ways. The difference between me and homeless people is negligible. The surface details are just that. Reality is within, not without.