October 21, 2011

Seent It #3: Class warfare, on the streets...

"Seent it" is a southern phrase meaning "what I saw".  Why the vast majority of Eastern North Carolinians feel the need to add consonants onto the ends of words, I will never know, but I blame country slang for my life-long struggle with spelling.  Since moving to New York, I'vza seent a many crazeh thangs.  These stories make up the "Seent It" series.

The never-ending war between the classes (and yes, I believe it long ago reached a level where that word became appropriate) is on the home screen of every news app and filling everyone's social media feeds thanks to the Occupy Wall Street protests, which started here in New York over a month ago.  I have until now forgone writing about the activity happening just a few miles away, because honestly I haven't been a huge part of it.  I "stand" in solidarity, but I'm not big on going to protests, and with the massive number of silly arrests (no offense to the police officers who are just doing their jobs, many of whom are sympathetic to the cause) occurring all over the city, I (literally and ironically) can't afford jail time.

But, earlier this week, I witnessed something that brings to life so vividly and simply the problems that the protesters are trying (key word: trying) to define and change.

A friend of mine helped me get an interview at a luxury brand on 5th Avenue, and, as always, I gave it my all and hoped for the best.  5th Avenue is one of those New York City legends that you hear about in movies and read about on endless fashion blogs, but then when you see it there's a bit of an "Oh... um, okay..." moment.  Nonetheless, if you're a fashion junkie like me, seeing the stores of iconic brands is nothing short of a fun afternoon.

After my interview I decided to do some window shopping, and where better to do that than at Prada?  Well, that is, if you can make it into the store.  No, the buff security guard was not the issue.  It was a woman.  A black woman, laying on the sidewalk a few feet from the entrance, wrapped in a child's blanket that was poorly-knitted with thick yellow yarn.  She was shaking furiously, and sweat was pooling in the sunken hollows of her cheeks.  Her back was against a temporary wooden wall that was directing pedestrian traffic away from the building under construction next door.  People were stepping around her, over her, and on her.

To give you a clearer picture, here is the actual screenshot from Google Maps, which is very recent, given the scaffolding is exactly the same:

The woman was laying on the ground between the green wall closest to the Prada store and the man who looks like his purse is being stolen (you may have to click the image and view it in full size for that).  I didn't take my own photo for a few reasons, the most obvious being that I didn't have an actual camera and my phone's is less than desirable.  But, even if I did have a camera, I'm not sure I could.  There is something about taking a picture of someone suffering that I can't endure.  It's an immeasurable guilt, of watching something happen instead of working to change it, that will live forever in a photograph.

A tall white man in a suit (basically, the man) walked by and stepped on her foot.  When she screamed he didn't miss a beat in saying "Get off the fucking sidewalk."  I yelled something along the lines of "WHO THE HELL DO THE THINK YOU ARE" and nearly launched myself in his direction.  He gave me a glance and a grin and kept on walking.  He didn't want to miss the light at the crosswalk.  I bent down, gave her my bottle of water, and asked if she was alright.  She kept on shaking and didn't respond.  A few people close by, who were also screaming at the man, said there was already help on the way.

But honestly, what help could be given to this woman?  Could she even be admitted into a hospital?  Would she be taken to an over-crowded shelter?  What could really be done?  

And yes, there are always unanswered questions as to how people like this woman become people like this woman.  Maybe she has lived her entire life on the street.  Maybe she got sick, couldn't work or afford the medical care and was kicked out of the hospital.  Maybe she is a crack addict and this entire shit storm is all her own fault.  Maybe so!

In that moment, when that man literally walked all over that woman, it didn't fucking matter.  That moment was not about how either of those people became who they are, or what series of events brought them to that sidewalk on that day - it was about the intolerable way one person consciously treated another.  It was about judgement.  It was about selfishness.  It was about pride.  And, under the surface, it was just as much about race, money, and perpetual hate.

Situations like this give me a crisis of conscience.  How can I enjoy or even hope to work in an industry that indirectly, if not directly, immortalizes social and economic inequality by catering to a small and exclusive group of people who have shit-tons of money?  How can I possibly justify the existence of $13,000.00 jackets when people are sleeping on sidewalks wrapped in tattered blankets?  The answer is I can't.  I just fucking can't.  This is when my grandfather would say "Things just are the way they are," and when hundreds of thousands of people make signs out of cardboard and camp on Wall Street.

I have no idea what happened to that woman, or her name, or her story.  Like I said, it doesn't matter.  The visual image of the scene on that sidewalk is all I can think about.  I may as well have taken a photo, because it will be with me forever.


  1. A really thoughtful, powerful and well-written post. Bravo!

  2. This made me tear up, Jason. You sure know how to write. Good for you for thinking like this...it's minds like yours that will change the world.

    Thank you for having such a beautiful heart.

  3. Thanks you guys. It means a lot!

  4. Jason, I dont know you or anything about you. what you wrote is extremely well written and powerful and very insightful. It explains in a very short message how human beings treat those they do not know, and that human kindness is limited in all of us.

    I don't disagree with your conclusion because it is yours, is honest, and is just. However, I would point out that taking that message and applying it to the world at large ignores the fact that life has never been fair for all alive. The idea that everyone should be the same, and have the same things, is a child's tale. Consider that sometimes, inour effort to make the world ideal, we actually make it worse. In terms of a government trying to idealize this for us, this is even more outrageous. In my own opinion, each person should do the best they can, treat others with respect, and not interfere in others' lives. Do the best you can and do no harm. If I care for my own family, treat my friends and strangers alike well, but am successful professionally, why should I be demonized for that?

    I will agree that corporate CEOs make to much money. The ratio of the average worker to the CEO in the US has increased exponentially over the years. There should be discussion over that. But corporations, including large banks, pay a lot of slaries and benefits to us regular people. Without them, we'd have no security whatsoever.

  5. Thanks Tim! It's always nice to get great comments.

    I actually agree with most of what you said. My point of the story was not that everyone should be the same or have the same things - history has shown that that can never happen. I was merely pointing out the huge disparity between and haves and the have nots, and the interactions between them. I see no problem with a billionaire walking on the street next to someone who is making minimum wage. I have a problem with A) how the rich actually get rich, B) how they use their riches, C) how they treat those with lesser means.

    The security you mention that corporations give to their employees is, in fact, one of the issues people are fighting for. 700 airline pilots marched on Wall Street a few weeks ago in reaction to the merger between Continental and United, which has caused a huge labor dispute between the companies and the unions, leaving their security in limbo. Banks and large corporations have the same issues when they merge.

  6. Glad to see you are keeping up your "seent it" posts. Yes, the South may be racist and close-minded but one thing I have noticed during my 5 years here, is that people generally try to treat each other with care. I am glad you are bringing that point of view with you to NYC, where people sometimes forget not to step on each other.


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