Crazy People

The screen on all of our phones is displaying 911 followed by my name. It’s a panic button feature. When 911 is dialed from any of the phones on the system, every phone in the place lights up and blinks with the extension from which the emergency number was dialed. This is so everyone in the place can go to the aid of the user dialing 911. Obviously my emergency wasn’t too dire . . . or nobody paid attention to it. Brian pointed the emergency feature out to me a day and a half later.

I had dialed 911 because of the crazy people in Poplar Street Park. They were fighting again. This time it was a man and a woman who began with a high volume shouting match, clearly audible to me across the street on the second floor of AlphaGraphics towers. I looked out the window to witness the development of a full fledged altercation: tearing of clothes, fighting, scratching and finally rolling around on the sidewalk.

The 911 operator didn’t seem at all disturbed when I called. “911, please state your emergency,” came the calm voice over the receiver.

“The crazy people are fighting again in Poplar Street Park,” I replied. I think I heard the faintest sigh from the other end of the receiver.

“We’ll send someone over,” the voice replied. The fight was over soon enough and I never saw a police car.

I don’t really have a great objection to the crazy people that inhabit the park, except when they’re drinking or fighting. We’ve never had much walk in traffic and most of my customers know to park on our side of Poplar Street to avoid the panhandling and the comments. I’ve never been threatened and by now they know that if they ask for money, I’ll offer to feed them. Most of them don’t really want food. I think that there should be a better place for them to stay than the park, but some of them don’t want that either.

We’ve gotten to know a few of them. There’s the lady who comes into the shop once or twice a week. She buys paper by the sheet to draw on and insists on paying for it. She’ll ask for a specific number of sheets and always wants a receipt for her purchase. She also likes plastic bags . . . two of them each time. She was fascinated by our display cabinet and helped herself to samples of our work until we discovered what she was doing. She liked the colors.

Then there’s Jeff. He’s a singer. He carries the names of all of the songs he knows on sheets of notepaper that once were bound together in a spiral pad. If you give him a dollar bill, he’ll sing you any of the songs. He’ll give you a sample verse for free. He can’t carry a tune in a bucket . . . but don’t tell him I said so.

Jeff came in for business cards the other day. He took about 20 minutes at the front counter to compose the content. The finished product had his name and the services he offered: DJ, lawn and garden work, weddings, auto cleaning, and short-term loans – zero interest. Jeff has no address or phone number. I pointed out that this might pose a problem for potential clients who wanted to get in touch. Jeff didn’t seem concerned about this. I also pointed out that there was little profit margin in a zero interest loan. This was a mistake on my part. Jeff took another 5 minutes to graphically illustrate (using long multiplication and division) how it was possible to turn $5 into $900 in a few simple transactions with no interest charged. He even offered to help me do it if I’d contribute $5 to the cause.

I also have to give homage due to Dr. H. I’m not sure exactly where the doctor earned his PhD, or exactly what his area of expertise is, but I am reasonably certain that at one time Dr. H did receive an education. He has a wonderful command of the English language and is even eloquent when he speaks. He has the bearing (if not the cleanliness, coiffure or wardrobe) of a college professor. His area of specialty is conspiracy theories. For a while, he came daily to copy tedious, hand-written complaints to city officials regarding all sorts of injustices that were perpetrated or planned. I understand that he has occasionally appeared at City Council meetings to read his discovered plots into the public record.

Dr. H is also an artist. In a moment of weakness I was convinced to actually scan and print one of his newsprint collages on signboard. He wanted me to deliver it for him to the Salvation Army, where he was staying that evening. When I told him that this didn’t really fit into our delivery plans, he became irritated with me. I haven’t seen him since. I’ve kept the print, though. Maybe it will be as valuable as a Howard Fenster one day.

homelessLike I said, I really don’t mind the crazy folks if they aren’t fighting, drunk or both. I’ve learned to be a little cautious, though. I don’t know what to do about them. I haven’t joined the church group that comes to feed them on Thursday nights. They feed them burgers and hotdogs and occasionally get them singing a little. I applaud their efforts, but the crazy folks are still left on the streets at night and I don’t think that the gospel message really sticks with most of them.

According to my Dad, the homeless folks have been there a long time. He speaks to them, but doesn’t really worry about them. I have to worry a little. The crazy folks certainly aren’t helping the effort to revitalize downtown and I can’t see that there’s much there to help them either. It’s obvious that most of them are not capable of or willing to help themselves. The police consider them a minor nuisance – they can’t afford to arrest them and couldn’t keep them if they did. The shelters offer a place to sleep in the cold or a meal, but little else.

I’m a little embarrassed at the call to 911. It’s difficult to look across the street without the thought that , “there but by the grace of God go I.” The strength of our republic has been the opportunity America has afforded for success along with the willingness of our people to care for those in need. Living in America has not been a zero sum game. Joe has not become wealthy or successful at John’s expense. We’ve succeeded or failed based upon our individual efforts and our efforts and intentions, for the most part, have been good. I hope that this isn’t changing, but I sense that it is.

We’re not doing so well right now. I mistrust our universal willingness to rely on government for solutions. I’m also embarrassed at my own ambivalence, but I’m not willing to adopt a crazy person either.

God is still in control. Here’s to better days . . .

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