the circular runner

daily cruelty in the Mission…

In observations on November 17, 2010 at 12:16 pm
San Francisco Assisi Church, Mission District,...

Image by Ed Bierman via Flickr

I’ve been thinking a lot about cruelty.  It’s not exactly the best thing to think about for any length of time, but I started thinking about the small acts that many of us just accept as the price of living in an urban center.  Recently, I was driving to my job in the Mission District in San Francisco.  I was on 25th and Harrison, waiting for the car in front of me to get through the intersection when a young man crossed in font of me.  He was holding a stack of colorful paper, maybe fliers, though I couldn’t be sure.  And then, out of nowhere, he flings this paper rainbow onto the street.  This was no accident, and at the same time, it didn’t seem conscious.  It was natural, every-day common.

The image of this has stayed with me.  It was kind of like watching a magician fling cards into the air except that magicians usually make their cards turn into doves or chickens or something that doesn’t end up on the floor.  The rainbow colors that this young man threw into the air were beautiful when backlit by the sun, but quickly turned awful by the time they hit the ground.  There was no magic there.  Only cruelty.

It may seem odd to think of littering as an act of cruelty.  Maybe it isn’t, strictly speaking, if by cruelty, we’re referring to something conscious.  I don’t think this young person meant to do harm.  He probably was thinking he didn’t want those papers any longer, and he couldn’t see the point of carrying them the extra twenty feet to the trash can on the corner.  Why this is so, I can’t say with certainty.  As a writer of fiction, I tend to want to make up the reasons why people do what they do.  I have wondered if this man is a selfish person by birth, or if he was taught this in the home or in the neighborhood he lives in.  The Mission is not an ugly place, but then again, like any other urban neighborhood, it isn’t always beautiful, either.  Did this young man see some of the old buildings in the area—the ones that still haven’t been bought up and refurbished by hipster-techies—and think that a little more ugliness wouldn’t hurt?  Or, is the ugliness something more human, less place-centric?  Are the gangs that run around these blocks, committing little cruelties here and there, responsible for this young man’s numbness?  Maybe, I think, it’s the unemployed day-workers on the street corner, bored and desperate, some drinking, others selling drugs, that are causing this man to have a day’s dark night of the soul.  Does he know that the liquor store he just came out of is owned by a man who recently sent his ancient father to go out and beg for food from a local food bank only to then bring that food back to the store so his son could sell it at prices that no one in the neighborhood can afford?

What’s a little more trash in the street?  What does a little more cruelty really matter?  Maybe it doesn’t.  It’s just paper.  But then again, there’s something about watching that young man that sticks with me.  Whatever the reason for what he did, there is no way to avoid the fact that ugliness, whether ugly acts or tread-on paper in the street, just makes for more ugliness, which in turn, makes cruelty seem like just another type of act that we each have to accept as commonplace.  I, at least, can escape the cruelty and come home to my wife and our humble home.  I’m not so sure that this young man and his rainbow-litter has any options, or at least he’s never been made aware of them.  And the result is that he walks around angry, without knowing he’s angry, destroying his environment and not giving a damn about anyone, not even himself.

It’s a cruel world we live in, I know.  I know, but I don’t like it.


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