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Petty Cruelties
December 22nd, 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

Today I was talking to a friend who lives on disability and has been homeless for several months. He told me a story that simultaneously made me angry and broke my heart.

The other day, while he was standing on the street, he saw something that delighted him, and he wanted to get a picture of it. He was getting ready to use his smartphone to take the photo when a couple of women started talking in very loud voices about how he should not have a smartphone.

“That man is begging and he has a $400 smartphone? How dare he! That’s just wrong. He shouldn’t have anything like that!” And on and on.

In point of fact, he got the phone for $70. But really, who cares what it cost? It doesn’t matter, because in the eyes of some people, poor folks should be completely destitute before they deserve anything. And even if they were completely destitute, you know that these very same self-righteous good citizens would still do nothing to help. If my friend were on the street with nothing but the clothes on his back, they’d spit at him and call him a lazy bum because being poor is, in their eyes, some sort of moral and social crime.

I am a very shy person when it comes to initiating social interactions. But if I’d been standing there while these women started in on this subject, you could not have shut me up. I’d have told them where to shove it and invited them to take their privileged asses down the road.

This is the mentality that keeps people on the street. You want homeless folks to get housing and jobs? How are they supposed to do that without a phone, without decent clothing, without food, without shelter, without all of the things that they need?

People and their petty cruelties just break my heart sometimes. My friend is a kind and decent person in a terrible situation who just wanted to take a photo of something that made him happy. And random people passing on the road — people who have never spoken to him, people who have never given him anything, people who have all the food and shelter they could ever need — couldn’t even let him have a happy moment. They had to open their mouths. They had to say something. They had to fuck it up. They couldn’t have a moment of consideration for someone else and just keep their damned mouths shut.

There is so much suffering out there, and the systemic problems are so huge. When people try to find some measure of happiness in the midst of it all, why try to take that from them?

I despair of humanity at times. These cruel, petty microaggressions just tear me up. And then I look at my friend, who has more decency and kindness than almost anyone I’ve ever met. People like him keep me going when I think that the world is beyond redemption.

I hope I help to keep him going, too.

© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg


3 Responses  
  • Matthew Smith writes:
    July 17th, 20249:55 amat

    I work as an agency driver and you need a phone to get work — they will need to get hold of you at any time, including while you’re out shopping and while you’re at work, otherwise someone else will get the booking. I’ve got several computers, a tablet and a smartphone, and if I had to sell any of them then the smartphone would be the last thing to go, if at all, because I’d need it to get any employment – I can store my CV, email, send timesheets, keep a calendar etc on there, and payphones are being removed as more and more people have mobiles. Some people simply have no clue.

  • Isaebl Espinal writes:
    July 17th, 20249:55 amat

    Good for you, Rachel.

    I’ve seen similar stories. Also this article: http://techland.time.com/2013/07/09/a-homeless-man-and-his-blackberry/

    “The idea of a homeless man with an iPhone, but no job or roof over his head, is discomfiting, mostly because poverty is perhaps one of the last bastions of unexamined prejudice in the U.S. Few would argue that people of different races or genders shouldn’t own phones, but it’s still common to temper sympathy for the homeless or destitute if they have a phone.

    Even the most progressive areas of the country can show a certain callousness to what poverty should look and feel like. In San Francisco, for example, city supervisor Malia Cohen sparked controversy when she posted a picture of a homeless man on Facebook, talking on a phone while huddled underneath a freeway overpass. “This kind of made me laugh,” she commented, which lead to an uproar and eventual removal of the picture.”

  • Max writes:
    July 17th, 20249:56 amat

    In the UK, to claim jobless benefits, you need to be able to show you are available for work. In their defininition, in order to be available for work, you have to be contactable by phone. It therefore becomes compulsory for jobless people to have a mobile phone, or they are sanctioned for not being available for work.
    The cost of owning and operating a mobile phone has never been factored into the rate of jobseekers allowance.


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