The other evening while I was in the neighborhood of West Philly visiting someone, I encountered a disabled African American man in a wheelchair. His name was Steven Canty, and he'd been seriously injured by a hit-and-run driver over a year before.
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He had metal splints bolted to the exterior of his legs, in the front, like fixtures. He had a car on his head from brain trauma, which he'd largely overcome except for a slight stutter. He had a colostomy bag, which was broken, allowing defecation to spill all over him. He could not get anyone to help him get home to the apartment his mother had bequeathed to him in Germantown. (I suppose it was a condominium?) He was reasonably articulate and well-spoken, pleasant, held a cogent and knowledgeable conversation. He did need help; he wanted to get a taxi home. I gave him just short of $6 in a five-spot and some change. The cops had offered him fifty cents and a cup of coffee, but wouldn't let him get into a car; the hospital that had just released him but would not convey him home.
This is the kind of thing that has made me a believer in socialized medicine. This was an innocent man who was truly and completely fucked by the world around him. I could not doubt his story.
All of my moroseness over my mother's passing and burial were pushed out by the shock of seeing this happen to someone who was no criminal (as far as I know) and was, as he described himself, an independent, self-sufficient man who had never needed any help from anyone. I couldn't refuse him at least some cash, and I spoke with him about a number of sociopolitical topics as he accompanied me in his wheelchair to the correct part of the neighborhood I was visiting. (One of these was my old teaching position at Strawberry Mansion High School, where it turned out he had attended during the '70's.)
I will not forget this man. Encountering him was a lesson in why I must resist complacency and sorrow, because there is already too much of this. I have never suffered as this man has suffered, and I need to make the most of that simple thing in both my own mind and heart and in what I do. Life is brutal, but if he made it home that night I helped make it less brutal for him, who has suffered immeasurably more than I have ever done. I noted to myself that Americans send billions of dollars to poor and disadvantaged people overseas but never seem to feel anything but contempt for the poor and disadvantaged right in front of them.
I'm glad that I was no American that night.