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Essay: A Good Life Has Passed Him By


Regardless of your political view on income disparity in this country, the truth remains that there are haves and have-nots in our society.  Lake Effect essayist Jim Spangler says the have-nots have occupied a little more of his thinking recently:

Winston Churchill once remarked that the game of golf was, in his words, “a good walk ruined.”

Another way to ruin a good walk, for many of us anyway, is to be hit up by a panhandler as I was the other day in downtown Milwaukee. I thought he looked a little familiar, “Na, they all look alike” the cynic in me said. But he did remind me of another panhandler I saw years ago in my then hometown of Wichita.

Why do I remember that guy? I made a mistake while snapping, “No thanks” at his pitch. I looked at him. He was about my age and about my build. But what I just can’t forget about him were his eyes, the sad, joyless, faded blue eyes of a beaten man. When I told him “no,” his expression didn’t change one bit. He expected it I guess. The cynic kicked in again, “Sure, he’s been practicing that ‘hang dog’ look for years. It puts a bottle in his hand just that much faster.”

Well, maybe. The social science guys tell us many street people suffer from addiction and many have mental illness issues and I don’t doubt the experts. But what came before all that I wonder. Am I alone? Haven’t all of us, at one time or another when we see a panhandler, asked ourselves, “How’d that happen – how did he get to where he is now?”

As I think back, I’d like to have another crack at Mr. Faded Blue Eyes. The Human Resources guy in me would buy him a meal if he would tell me his story. Our minister in Wichita heard lots of stories from the bums and panhandlers that found their way into our church. We had a lot of that traffic because the church was on a main highway. There were so many of them that we worked out a deal with the diner across the street. The bum would get a voucher for a free, nothing fancy meal, but no cash. Many were grateful, but there were always a few who wanted cash only. Some insisted to the point that a couple of times a year the pastor would have to call the police.

Who among us has not looked at these street people as objects of scorn and ridicule? “Get a job” we think to ourselves. “Make something of yourself.” Some do, but I’d bet the percentage is really small.

Perhaps mixed in with our ridicule and contempt is just a twinge of unease. Why are they on the street and we go to a comfortable home every night? That’s a question most of us don’t want to think much about.

While probably none of us will ever end up on the street, many live their lives walking on an economic banana peel. Do we know with certainty our future? Are we in total control of our economic destiny? The recent so-called great recession was a harsh reminder of our vulnerability.

When I was 17 I knew everything. Remember? Now that I’m sneaking up on three quarters of a century. I’m not so sure about a lot of things. There are mysteries to our own lives and the lives of others that we can’t seem to unravel. Maybe the existence of homeless people is something we are not destined to fully understand.

Maybe it’s just enough to be more thankful for what we have and be willing to share a little more of it. Maybe we don’t have to understand.

But nevertheless

You’re about my age,

About my size

And the good life

has passed you by.

We’re worlds apart,

Old Faded Blue Eyes

And I wonder why.

We’re worlds apart

Old Faded Blue Eyes

And I’ll never know why.

Lake Effect essayist Jim Spangler is a retired newspaperman who now lives in Brookfield.

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Jim Spangler comments on the life experiences we all share, drawing on a 40-year newspaper career in Human Resources and labor relations, following a business degree from the University of Iowa and a stint in the Marines.