Friday, June 12, 2009

To Play the Fool - Homelessness

One of the major themes in To Play the Fool is the Homeless.

This hits home hard in Las Vegas, with our generally warm winters. It hits even harder when you work in a library, often the favored hangout for those who need warmth (or coolness), a WC, running water, and comfortable chairs.

One of the things King did exceptionally well in this book is to show the homeless as human beings. Her characters were real individuals with real personalities. They came from somewhere.

Beatrice Jankowski was ditzy and hard to talk with, but she had a background (Art History), a talent (she was an artist), she supported herself and could be appealing. She tried to stay clean.

Several of the less savory of King's homeless had been in Vietnam. (That is a theme she highlights more fully in her book Keeping Watch.)

There was a reporter who wrote a three part series in 1999, based on a week he spent living on the streets. The series generated a lot of controversy because it showed that many of the homeless "work the system", and can have a pretty good income. The thing I remember best from the articles (which I haven't been able to locate again to share with you), was the reporter's absolute boredom. He had no place to go and nothing to do. So he went to the library and surfed the Internet or read magazines.

King showed that anyone could become homeless. One of her homeless men bashes into a young executive out jogging. Three weeks later, the same executive is out of work, and getting frantic.

What King doesn't show is homeless "working the system." If you've ever been "taken" by a grifter, you understand the fury. (The man had the stones to ask me for a ride, as he took a big slurp of beer out of the brown paper bag.)

Oscar Goodman has made the homeless a huge target, and painted himself as villain by suggesting bussing all Vegas' homeless out to the (then empty) Jean Prison, outside Las Vegas.

On the other hand, sometimes when I walk through the library, with my eyes watering, I wonder if that could work...

The whole topic is a tough one. On one hand the homeless really are human beings, who have often sincerely fallen on hard times for one reason or another. On the other hand, many have psychological problems and can be downright scary to be around.

I've usually found the homeless to be unfailingly polite, when you approach them as real people.

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