Last Thursday (not yesterday, but last week, February 2) I spent some time at Nashville, a place I seem to be visiting more often. The drive and parking are kind of an expense and a hassle, but I’ve grown to like downtown Nashville and wish there was some convenient commuter rail option for day trips to the city.
Looking out the window to my left, I observed “Occupy Nashville” camped out on the pavement in front of the War Memorial. I obtained permission to snap the photograph shown above from a nearby room not in use on the day of my visit. After I had concluded my business, I started on my several blocks hike to the parking garage where I’d left Thursday, the coincidentally named 850, and at the corner of the street pictured above at bottom left, thought, “I’ll just walk up to the War Memorial and eat my snack (which I’d small bag of trail mix and another small bag with four generic fig newton cookies) on those steps by the colonnade.” Suiting action to thought, that’s what I did.
Snack eaten, I took my camera from a pocket and took some more pictures. A lawyer sitting on the steps in front of me to my left spent a long time with his smart-phone held about a foot away from his face, punching buttons. Another lawyer walked up to him from a doorway near the foot of the steps to my right and said, “Up here doing some research?” The first lawyer said something in response I didn’t completely overhear, about a break. The second lawyer, looking around at the squatters’ campground said, “You know, I represent the hotels around here.” Gesturing to my right, toward the Hermitage Hotel, he said, “At $400.00 a night, this is bad for their business, but it’s obviously a boon for blue tarp sales.” The first lawyer chuckled politely, and the two parted company, the second lawyer walking back off to my right across the pavement in the direction of the Hermitage Hotel.
As I took a parting shot at the second lawyer, pictured above at right, a man, casually and appropriately dressed for midday walkabout on a sunny, warmer winter day walked straight up to me, sat down on a step above and to my right, about three feet away. His facial features and manner of speech resembled those of actor Tommy Lee Jones. I’d guess he was in height anywhere from 5’8” to 5’10”. “Well, do you think we’re all crazy?” he said.
“I think most of us have traits that at times may rise to the level of clinical significance, but we’re organic beings and the manifestations of our personalities and other characteristics tend to be fluid and changing, so the superimposition of a rigid diagnostic structure doesn’t always account for all of or capture all of the pertinent information,” I said, or something that at least contained all those elements.
“What are you, a doctor or something?” the man asked. I gave him a truthful, as opposed to a self-aggrandizing, answer.
“What statement are you all trying to make with this?” I said, gesturing to the blue-tarp covered tents on the pavement.
“I’m not one of these ‘Occupy’ people,” he said.
“Then which people comprise the ‘we’ to which you referred?”
“Everybody – humankind,” he said. As to the ‘Occupy’ group visible from the steps upon which we sat, “I don’t think they are making any coherent statement. Most of these (he gestured to the tents and the people in and milling about them) are just homeless. I wouldn’t stay here. I do agree that the rich aren’t paying their fair share, but this ‘Occupy’ movement won’t accomplish anything. And legislators, although they could accomplish something, won’t. They have a purpose, and that purpose doesn’t usually coincide with things like social justice.”
Then he told me about himself. 65 years-old, a Viet-Nam veteran, a man who had had “every advantage” growing up, who went to university “to become somebody, I have a math degree. I worked twenty years as a statistician and was well on my way to becoming somebody when I disintegrated.” Queried, he said that what he meant by disintegration was walking away from his work, his family, his home. “I am homeless,” he said, “but I’m not crazy.” He said he could return to the world of work any time he wanted to. He said that after having been homeless for several years, “I straightened myself out and went to school, became a registered nurse, but I washed out of that” after about three and a half years, he said.
“I am in perfect health. I could do anything to try to harm myself, and have tried to in the past, but have remained unscathed. The thing I can’t get past is the guilt,” the man said.
“The fact that you feel guilt, that is, something painful, is evidence that something has, indeed, scathed you,” I said.
“Guilt is just the common experience that befalls all humans,” he said.
“Guilt is pretty common,” I said, “What do you do about it?”
Unfortunately, I don’t remember his answer. I do remember he said that he consciously tries to avoid conflict with other people, stays out of trouble, avoids contact with the police, and “I try not to harm anybody.”
“Have you kept in contact with family, children?” I asked.
“I haven’t kept contact with anyone,” he said, “I don’t have a family, now. Remember, I said I don’t want to do anybody any harm?”
“And you think it contact with you at this time would be harmful to them?”
I talked a bit about my wife and son and about why I think it’s necessary and I want to make the choices that keep me in contact with them, to keep my family intact. He expressed agreement that I should, indeed, maintain the integrity of my family to the extent it is possible for me to do so.
I think in the context of guilt we got talking about soul. We both agreed that the idea of a soul is better expressed by the likelihood that whatever it is the individual reckons as self is probably a byproduct of neurobiological functioning, as opposed to some unseen “organ” that functions superior to observable physicality, and that, to use my words, the human task is to remain aware and aloft above mere autonomic functioning.
I didn’t think of it while we were talking, at least not clearly enough or knowingly enough to mention, but the man with whom I spoke has information that may be helpful to his offspring who share his neurobiological makeup. He may be doing more harm than good by avoiding contact with them from an amoralistic functional perspective.
“Do you know why I do it?” he said, referring to living in a tent in a Nashville wilderness area.
“You tell me”
“Because it’s easy – I am a soldier, I’m used to living outside. I am a Southerner and my father was a woodsman – it is my heritage,” he said and described his way of life as something like camping. He said that as a veteran he is entitled to government services through the Veterans Administration that allow him to remain clean. He said he receives a check once a month, buys one bottle of vodka, drinks it mixed with Gatorade (“I’m drinking now", he said as we talked) gets quietly drunk and remains sober for the rest of the month. During the time we talked, I observed his face redden perceptibly due to the chemical’s effect, and something about the eyes that appeared to indicate something about the alcohol creating a distance between the meeting of our minds.
It was past time for me to go. He told me his name and I told him mine. We shook hands and said goodbye. I left with the strong feeling that I’d met a sort of kindred spirit, and a man I liked who did not want or seem to need my help.