Propriety among the lumpenproletariat

Until a few months ago, I rented some office space outside my home, in a building with a half dozen small suites in the Fairfax District.  One evening, going into work (for I am a night owl, and my brain starts doing its best around midnight), I found an unfolded pocket knife laying unsafely on the exterior metal back-stairs to the building…

My first thought was simply that someone might be injured stepping on it, especially when it was dark.  I picked it up, folded it, and put it in my office.  It also occurred to me to wonder who had left it on the stairs.

A bit more background.  There had been a particular homeless man who often slept underneath these back stairs (or sometimes sat there during the day).  Really quite an elaborate production; he would often surround the lower landing with sheets for some privacy, making something of a not-quite-as-desperate “urban camping” environment.  Moreover, the fellow seemed to play against type in several ways.  He showed no evidence to a casual eye of mental illness or substance abuse, was relatively young and healthy looking, and cross-dressed to varying degrees.  Moreover, his economic specifics seemed to be a slight mystery, since although homeless, I sometimes saw him or a friend of his who sometimes slept there with him, with a cell phone and a laptop.  Perhaps those are the trappings of today’s homeless folks, or maybe those who make their way to LA with hopes of fame (perhaps he was writing his screenplay under those stairs?).

Beyond feeling bad in a general way that this man (and so many other people) had no home, I felt bad in the specific fact that to go in and out the back stairs at night, I would need to walk, in effect, on his roof, and start my car next to his “tent.”  I tried to walk quietly, and make as little disturbance with the car as possible (e.g. back up a bit before turning on my headlights that would otherwise shine on him/them).

Occasionally we spoke briefly.  During those times, he was quite polite, even apologetic for his effects being in the way or a visual disturbance.  I always said that he need not be so, though I think some other folks in the building had complained to him at other times.

It occurred to me, perhaps not immediately when I gathered the knife mentioned, but a few days later when I passed him going into work, that the pocket knife was likely his.  I felt an annoyance at the thought he might have left it opened in an unsafe location.  And, of course, I had a brief thought that “the homeless” are, we are told, supposed to be perceived as dangerous and unstable… not the sort who one wants to carry knives.  That was a momentary flit though, and it seems more realistically that a pocket knife is exactly the sort of small tool one needs to improvise a tent of sheets, cut food without a proper kitchen, and so on.

On the way out from work, a few hours after passing him entering, I approached him with the knife and asked if he had lost one.  Again apologetic, he said that he had been scared some days ago by a group of guys whom he felt meant him harm, and had left his things ungathered.  I actually hadn’t seen other items, but someone else presumably gathered them between the time of his intimidation (or at least his perception of such) and when I picked up the pocket knife.  In any case, I returned the knife and he thanked me.

One thought on “Propriety among the lumpenproletariat”

  1. Interesting and thought-provoking. Coincidentally, a day or two ago, right wingers had a fit when Michelle Obama went to a soup kitchen to serve food and someone snapped a picture of one of the food recipients using a cell phone camera to snap a picture of Michelle. Apparently, the complainers thought that people rich enough to have cell phones don’t need assistance with their food budget. It was the equivalent of Ronald Reagan’s anecdote about the welfare queen driving the Cadillac, and is used to tar a whole class of people and to denigrate welfare programs at the same time.

    It could be that someone donated the cell phone or the laptop. It could be that this is the person’s last valuable possession before they became destitute. We wouldn’t know unless we asked.

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