By Mike Krauss
Bucks County Courier Times
You expect it in the Third World — the poor and undeveloped nations of Africa or South America.
As you walk the city streets, dressed for business, beggars will approach and, well, beg. But there is a limit to what you can do, and there are defenses you can employ.
Defense No. 1 is to avoid eye contact, keep moving and look purposeful. You can pretend you don’t see — them. Sunglasses are helpful, for avoiding eye contact.
But I didn’t have sunglasses last week, and I wasn’t in a strange country. I was in my country, Harrisburg, walking between appointments on the streets around the Capitol. But I might as well have been in Haiti. In the space of an hour, my colleague and I were approached five times and asked for alms.
Being well brought up Christians, we did what we could, and wondered that now, as we travel on business in America, we must budget for beggars.
Four of those who approached us — all polite and easy — looked as if they had been on the streets for a while. Perhaps you know the look, may have seen it somewhere; maybe a trip into any of the small cities of Pennsylvania, or many parts of Philly, away from the remaining islands of middle class prosperity in our suburban and ex-urban communities.
But one of those who approached us was a middle aged woman whose clothing had not yet been reduced to a collection of what can be acquired for free. She had not been on the streets long.
She gave us an improbable tale of woe, trying to cover her embarrassment and suppress her shame, thinking perhaps that it was her fault. Another well brought up Christian.
But it wasn’t her fault. It is ours, and the shame.
The German theologian who was martyred by the Nazis, Dietrich Bonheoffer once observed, “You can see the sin of respectable people in their flight from responsibility.”
We responded generously.
“There but for the grace of God...”
But, just in case there are any social Darwinist, survival of the fittest, Ayn Rand Republicans reading this, I want it on the record that no sense of guilt or a “bleeding heart” motivated my small act of generosity. It was anger.
White hot, tear-the-place-apart anger. Because I know this is American now. I know the greatest and most broadly shared prosperity the world has ever known, built on the faith, work and sacrifice of generations is being destroyed.
Three days later, I was standing at the train station in Bristol, headed into Philly. Bitter cold. A kid (Well, maybe 22, but as I am now 62...) came up to the platform, bundled in the attire of an athlete, and we talked sports.
Tyler — let’s call him — is mad for soccer. I played lacrosse and love rugby. We got along. Then a middle aged guy came up, biker type. He overheard the conversation and jumped in. Turns out he has a job in “Guest Services” at the games of Philly’s soccer team.
Tyler came alive. Like I said, mad for soccer.
The biker/guest services professional had Tyler’s full attention. Nice guy, and he proved it. He mentioned that “they” (The club, the stadium? I wasn’t clear) were hiring.
Why did the biker bring that up? I think because these days, if you know about a job, you tell someone.
Tyler jumped at the offer. “Oh, man. I’ll do anything. I’m out of college, and there’s nothing.”
It went through my mind: in the Third World, “anything” means just that. I shuddered. The cold, no doubt.
The biker told Tyler he could apply on line, and advised him to get his name (“Tex”) on the application somewhere. I got out pen and paper so Tyler could write it all down.
The train arrived and we went our separate ways.
I hope Tyler gets that job. Because if he doesn’t, things will not be getting better in America any time soon. The future — America’s future — begins with jobs, or it doesn’t begin.
Jobs. So all the Tylers of the nation can have a future — settle down, raise a family, build a life of their own with some measure of economic security and independence.
Otherwise, I won’t need to travel far to experience the Third World.
And if you are reading this “Tex” — good man. Bless you.
Mike Krauss, formerly of Levittown, is an international logistics executive and chairman of the Pennsylvania Project. www.papublicbankproject.org Email: firstname.lastname@example.org