Matthew Lickona 2 p.m., Dec. 18
Those Who Work In Bong Shops Should Not Cast Stones 1
I remember the first time I saw one of those, “Welcome to San Diego, Please Don’t feed our Bums” stickers. I worked in a store on Newport Ave. Someone had put one up in our front window, so it was the first thing you saw as you walked in. I remember being mildly annoyed by it, and thinking that some customers would probably feel the same. But, I decided to ignore it. The following day I left to go camping in Big Sur for a week. I was at a truck stop somewhere in central California waiting in line to pay for some gas, when I looked up at the television they had on for customers. I was astonished to see that the Headline News Network was doing a story about that very sticker, using the one in the front of our store as an example. I could not believe my eyes when they quickly cut to an interview of one our employees. The employee proceeded to defend the sticker by saying that most of the homeless people around here were rich kids that think its cool to be homeless. He went on to say, that most of them even have cell phones and credit cards. I could not believe what I was watching. I paid, left, and spent the rest of the week trying to forget that I ever saw that interview. But, by the time I had returned from camping the following weekend, the story was running on all of the 24 hour cable news channels. And when I went in to work on Monday, people were now wearing “Please Don’t Feed the Homeless” trucker hats and t-shirts.
I am sure some one could make the argument that this is not the kind of attention a beach town, whose economy is based around tourism, should welcome, especially in the middle of such hard economic times. But, that’s not what bothered me about the whole situation. What really bothered me was that it seemed like everyone I spoke to saw it as a clear question of, “Do you support the Black, or do you support the trolls?” (Troll being the local term for a really dirty homeless person.) “What kind of question is that?”, I would think to myself. It reminded of the, “You’re either with us, or against us,” mentality that prevailed during President Bush’s years in office. It made me so angry that no one else saw this. So, I would try to diffuse the situation with a little humor, while also trying to remind people the absurdity of the entire argument. “Of course I support the Black”, I would always respond, “That’s where I buy all my bongs!” However, I never did tell my friends and co-workers, all of which I really cared for and respected, that I thought the message they were embracing was, at best, in poor taste. I definitely never told anyone that I thought it was really divisive, short sighted, and framed OB in a really negative light. I knew better. I knew if I wanted to continue to have friends, it would be best to keep my opinions on this subject to myself. Things got worse when someone eventually decided to organize a protest in front of the Black. Days before the protest was to take place, the local news vans began circling the lower Newport Avenue area like vultures, giving all kinds of free advertising to the Black, while at the same time, giving Ocean Beach a bunch of negative attention it never asked for. A crowd began to gather the afternoon of the protest, long before it was to take place. It seemed like most people standing around were like me, in that they where just there to see what was going to happen. There were a few protesters. But they were clearly out numbered by angry, local counter-protesters. By the time the protest was supposed to start, a huge crowd of angry faces, most of which I recognized in one way or another, had gathered. They did not hesitate to basically humiliate and intimidate the disorganized protesters, most of which I did not recognize, as they slowly began to show up. One local teen I saw loudly hurling insults, could have been close to living on the street himself, if it was not for the kindness of a local couple, who lovingly raised him as if he was one of there own. I heard his real parents suffered from some kind of chemical dependency. I thought to myself, “He of all people should know that not everyone is lucky enough to be born into a healthy, safe family environment.” But, his words and actions indicated to me that he obviously did not feel this way. Neither did the couple that had been raising him for the past few years. They were there, right behind him. I also saw an individual who, I know for a fact, lived out of the back of his vehicle for three or four years. He was allowed to park behind one the local businesses on Newport Avenue in exchange for sweeping and cleaning their bathrooms. It was not until very recently that he managed to save some money and get an apartment somewhere down by Dog Beach. Although I have never been homeless, I am very conscious of the fact that I am only a few poor decisions, and one unlucky event away from living out of the back of my car. I figured this guy must somehow feel the same way. Yet, this guy screamed louder than anyone. Although, in his defense, I never did hear him ask anyone for change or food all those years he was living out of the back of his truck. The fact that so many other people, that I really liked and respected, thought that those stickers and other crap the Black put out were a great idea, made me really question myself, my values, and my beliefs for a long time.
Things eventually calmed down, and after awhile, it all became old news. But, the whole situation continued to bother me. All summer, I saw the stickers and other crap everywhere I went. It would occasionally come up in conversation. More often than not, my friends would confidently declare that these homeless kids are not really homeless, and that we should not feel sorry for them. “They are trolls,” they would say, “They are rich, spoiled children, who have chosen to be lazy, homeless, drug addicts.” Personally, I have always believed in the old saying, “People that live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.” “What perfect lives these people must live if they feel so comfortable making such harsh judgments and generalizations,” I would think to myself. But, then I would also think about the co-worker I originally saw making those same comments on the news back when I was waiting on line at a truck stop. I would wonder if anyone else knew that he had been arrested for dealing cocaine, and was working at our shop as part of a work furlough program when he made those comments on national television. I wondered if anyone else thought it was ironic that weeks later, he was wearing a “Please Don’t Feed Our Bums” trucker hat when the owner of our store called him into his office to fire him for routinely stealing money. I would wonder if somehow, the people that claimed to support the Black had never been down on there luck at some point in their lives, and whether it was asked for or not, had they never received help or charity from a kind stranger. Or, like my ex-co-worker, did they just lie and steal when times got tough. I wanted to ask these people if they agreed with Ralph Waldo Emerson when he once said, “People do not seem to realize that their opinion of the world is also a confession of their character.” Now, I’m not saying people should feel like they have to give homeless people money or food when approached on the street. But, I am saying that it shows lack of character to ridicule some one for doing so. And lately, I can’t help but wonder how much money the Black made off of bringing Ocean Beach a bunch of negative press right in the middle of prime tourist season, and how come everyone else seems to be ok with it.