In the sixties and early, pre-Watergate 70’s, we heard a lot about the Generation Gap. It seemed that the schism between those who represented the Establishment, and those who had “dropped out” or represented what we called the counter culture, was much too wide for the sake of constructive communication. Much tension occurred as a result, and it often morphed into violence.
That gap was called the Generation Gap because those who comprised the Establishment were substantially older than those of the emerging counter-culture. But today, I find ourselves immersed in an even more serious gap than the age-based gap — a gap that is based on class.
Speaking in general terms, it has not been uncommon for there to be a millionaire in office. But a cabinet composed largely of billionaires? That’s a new one on me, as of 2016. And I’ve been watching this kind of stuff go down since the sixties – since before Watergate – since before the War on Drugs.
And what about on the other side? Poverty has abounded forever. But for so many poor people to lack roofs over their heads? For poverty to engulf the disabled and the developmentally challenged? The Class Gap has never been so wide.
There has always been division – but not like this. There has always been tension – but this is unprecedented. And what about communication? It’s almost impossible for those in the privileged classes to even understand what the impoverished are trying to say. This creates frustration among the underprivileged, and frustration turns to anger, turns to outrage, turns to hate. I see a lot of outright hatred emerging from those who struggle, as they turn to those whose material and monetary wherewithal make them better equipped to help balance the scales, and receive only insensitivity and indifference in return.
I have lived almost sixty-five years, and I have watched this trend worsen. We tend to frame our differences around race, gender, culture, ability, sexual orientation and age. But seen through a lens less often considered, many of these differences really boil down to differences in socio-economic class.
I have worked for the wealthy, and I have generally found them to be very nice people: courteous, accommodating, and caring. I have also been down and out, and have lived on the streets, where the tension is much more intrusive, and etiquette is held to be unnecessary — so much so that any use of it is often viewed to be hypocrisy. On the other hand, the language that is commonly used for communication on the streets is often regarded as crass or even abusive among those for whom such communications are unnecessary.
A poor person who is broke, who finds five dollars on the street, will naturally see it as gift for which to be grateful. But when I told a person who was wealthy that I had found five dollars, that person literally shouted: “Shut the f—k up!” Once when I was renting a room from a very wealthy landlord, he came down and saw me counting the pennies on the table. Scowling in disgust, he shouted: “Stop that!” When I was in a similar position, and I asked a friend for five dollars, he replied: “Five dollars is not going to solve your problem, Andy.” But five dollars could have kept me alive another day.
I saw five homeless people die overnight, having preexisting medical conditions, unable to withstand one more night in the cold. Had any of them had but five dollars, they could have gotten inside a bus and slept throughout the night. Granted, the problem of homelessness would not have been solved by five dollars. But a far greater problem might have been solved — the problem known as death.
This is why frustration mounts, for that same person was perfectly magnanimous toward me when he wasn’t hung up on needing to “solve my problem.” Nor was I asking him to provide a solution, as though nothing but a detailed plan to get me off the streets would be satisfactory. I was only requesting a small amount of money, fearing an overnight death in the cold, as I had seen my other friends die. So naturally, it is easy to rage and roar at the rich in light of such a constant cold shoulder. But to do so does little good for the cause, for some have done so with violence.
I have written a musical that explores the effects of classism, social stigma, and homelessness on the youth of today’s America. I conceived of this musical because I have been there. The impoverished may not be able to afford tickets to this musical once it is finally produced. But the impoverished, the homeless, and the underprivileged, are not the ones who need to see this production. Those who need to see it — at least according to its author’s intent — are those who have never experienced the energy of the streets, nor of the outdoors, of Nature, and the terrifying adventures thereof. I write from a position of one unsheltered, and I write to the sheltered – not to shatter their shelter, nor scatter the remains of their relics abroad to destruction, but to show them the shamelessness of those who are without, that they might be moved, and share of the shelter that is within.
The gap created by class distinctions and social stigma in America has always been wide. Throughout history, it’s been very wide, and a very difficult one to bridge. But it can be bridged — and it must be bridged — if America is to endure. After all, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. But we do nothing to strengthen our weak links. We throw our elders into poorly run board-and-care homes, rather than care for them ourselves. And some of the shelters into which we throw our homeless are little more than glorified prisons. Should we really be that quick to discard from our company those who have lost their homes?
Many of us who have escaped the horrors of continuous homelessness seem driven, or even desperate, to convey a message that at first may appear to be unintelligible. A similar dynamic took place, on a much more grotesque, grandiose scale, when those who survived the Nazi concentration camps emerged with a sudden upsurge of vigor. Viktor Frankl reports that many such survivors entered immediately into massive consumerism, guzzling beer and gobbling down huge helpings of their favorite foods, of which they’d been deprived. In Frankl’s case, he launched wholeheartedly into the book that became Man’s Search for Meaning. They who have survived the conditions of homelessness often display a similar spike of renewed motivation, drive, and sense of purpose.
The gush of enthusiasm with which we who have survived the conditions of homelessness often seek to reveal the hidden secrets of the Homeless Experience can be off-putting. But the message itself is little more than a restatement of time-honored principles that have helped hold this nation together for over two hundred years. I did not coin the phrase: “United We Stand; Divided We Fall.” Still, because of the frustration we tend to express when we feel we are not being heard, and the violent, hostile nature of a conspicuous minority among those who seek to express it, they who have the power to do something about the matter quite naturally turn their ears to more appealing voices. If only they knew that in so doing, they are shunning the voices that count.