A beggar finds that many hearts have hardened

November 15, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

On the day time ran out for all those annoying poor people in America, the crowd outside Jimmy's Restaurant, on South Broadway in Fells Point, gathered for Parris Glendening when this homeless guy . . . ah, that is, street hustler . . . showed up to make a touch or two.

It was noon of last Tuesday, the day Maryland would begin, at length, to elect a new governor. Barbara Mikulski was there, talking about a "national mood" that doesn't make it easy for anybody. She meant politicians. Paul Sarbanes was there, too, talking about a man mostly forgotten now who once brought shunned outsiders into the American mainstream. He meant Franklin Roosevelt.

And then came Glendening, hoping to shake loose a few votes from the lunchtime crowd and catch a moment on the noon TV news. Glendening talked of bright new leadership for Maryland. He meant himself. He never noticed the homeless guy.

"Got a dime?" the guy said to nobody in particular. Heads turned away. The guy was lean and angular and agitated.

"Ain't nobody got a dime?" he said. His voice rose above Broadway now. There were maybe 50 people in the crowd, all of them rounded up to see Glendening, all of them Democrats, many of them alleged do-gooder liberals, the perfect guilt-ridden crowd for a poor guy trying to make a small score. But they backed away, pretended not to notice.

"Ain't none of y'all got a damned dime?" the guy said. His voice had become shrill, and now there was spit flying out of his mouth and, no, nobody seemed to have a damned dime, not for this guy, not for some stranger, not for the poor, not in the whole damned country.

Newt Gingrich should have been there, for he'd have loved it. The next speaker of the House, who looks like the bloated kid everybody used to shun back in junior high who has spent the rest of his life trying to get even, knows he's latched onto something important in the national psyche and has now commenced to play it for all that it's worth: America's mistrust.

Yes, yes, it's too bad about all those poor people, isn't it? Too bad about the homeless, and too bad about the kids with no fathers, but haven't we carried them long enough? Haven't we?

By week's end, Gingrich was putting the beneficiaries of Head Start, Medicaid and the Job Corps on notice. All disasters, he said. Then he went further.

"You cannot hire a teacher to teach your child and walk off and then blame the teacher," he said. "You cannot hire a policeman to protect your neighborhood and then walk off and blame the police."

What does this mean? We should take up arms ourselves, because the Republican cry of "too much government" includes too many teachers and too many police?

On South Broadway last Tuesday, it was fascinating to watch. The Glendening crowd should be sneering at the likes of Newt Gingrich, should be helping the guy asking for a lousy dime. But Newt's latched onto something, and the guy with his hand out is its symbol.

We feel sorry for the poor, but we're also tired of them. In the half-century since Franklin Roosevelt, all our best efforts seem to have counted for so little. So many of the poor refuse to get richer, or to go away, and so now we've begun to think of them as some sort of natural event.

Three decades ago, when we imagined we might still get a grip on poverty, Michael Harrington wrote a book called "The Other America." He said poverty wasn't just a single social attribute, it was an encompassing condition.

Over time, he said, it made people feel "hopeless and passive, yet prone to bursts of violence. The poor are lonely and isolated, often rigid and hostile. It is a fatal, futile universe. They see one another, and that means they see little reason to hope."

Back then, Americans thought we were doing better. We'd come out of the war years far ahead of the rest of the world, and wore optimism on our sleeves. Now we notice the world has caught up, and we wonder if we can hold on to what's ours. In such an atmosphere, who has patience for somebody else's troubles?

So Newt Gingrich is definitely onto something big. We'll show the poor, daring to stay poor all these years, having such an easy time on welfare, refusing to find their way. It's like that guy down on Broadway, walking off empty-handed. If he can't scarf a dime out of that bunch, then we're a whole nation of Newts.

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