Friday, April 15, 2011

Reflections on a Tent City

Recently, when a train had stopped on the tracks, I was forced to climb across one of the cars to get to where I wanted to take pictures.  It's a challenging endeavor, crossing a train car. You must get a leg up (literally) on the first rung of the built-in steel ladder on the side of the car, then pull yourself up and climb the one or two remaining rungs.  After that, it's a tricky feat to swing around 90 degrees to the back of the car, shimmy across, swing around again, descend the ladder on the other side, jump off, and ultimately land (ideally with both feet) on the stones below.  If you're lucky, the engineer won't release the brake and start the train moving again while you're still on it.

I hadn't done this in years, and doing so took me back to when I was a kid playing around the tracks.  My friends and I used to climb onto the train cars, even occasionally catching a short ride as the train began to move.  The trick was to jump off before the train got going so fast that you were afraid to.  If you couldn't manage to bail out, you might just end up somewhere miles away on the Pennsylvania Railroad.  And how would you explain that to your parents?  Fortunately, that never happened to me or any of my friends.

Other episodes included motioning for the engineer to blow the horn, checking out the contents of open boxcars, and putting pennies on the track to be smashed into amorphous little souvenirs.  Trains had cabooses in those days, so you had to wait until it passed (so the guy riding in the back wouldn't see you) to get back onto the tracks and try to find your pummeled coin, which may or may not have fallen somewhere among the stones.

A lot of that went through my head as I climbed across the car.  When I finally reached the site of the former tent city on the other side of the tracks, I saw trash and random objects scattered about, as well as a few old chairs, which, except for one, were still sitting upright.  A jacket, still in good condition, was hanging from a tree trunk, as if awaiting the imminent return of its owner.  No one else was around, and everything had been left in place, as if a moment had been frozen.  Apparently, the denizens of the site left in a hurry.

I wondered what vagaries of fate had driven them to live on the ragged edge of the Susquehanna, at the mercy of the elements.  I wondered what had brought one of them to the point of violence.  Some pundits would say they chose that lifestyle, and in a way that is correct.  But it's not the whole truth.  To make good choices, you need good opportunities, and not everyone is handed opportunity as a birthright.  Some endure years of painful struggle and fall to a point where they're unable to cope in what we call "society."

Given the right opportunity, no one would choose to live like these people did.  Judging from what I saw, I imagine it was a harsh, undirected way of life - or more accurately - way of survival.  It's not like kids playing on the train tracks who can go home at suppertime.  These were adults who wound up sleeping on the river bank out of necessity, real or imagined.  Somehow, they had become disenfranchised and slipped through the net, as many others have done recently.  

Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security are among the programs constituting our social safety net, a structure that many politicians, particularly Republicans, want to destroy.  The party of rich and powerful corporate interests is trying to further erode the entitlements many citizens depend on to survive.  What they don't tell you, however, is that entitlements are called that because we're entitled to them.  The preamble to the U.S. Constitution states that one of its purposes is "to promote the general welfare," but politicians who wrap themselves in the document and tell us forced austerity is for our own good, conveniently forget this.  The cuts and proposed cuts to social programs keep coming, with no call for taxes on the wealthy, who could and should pay more.  Although the middle class gets back a little more through Democratic policies as opposed to those of Republicans, both parties are actually what Noam Chomsky describes as two factions of one party, the Business Party.  In other words, neither party really represents the interests of labor or the average citizen.  If the current economic policies of these factions continue, we'll soon have an entire nation of tent cities, with the homeless living like those along the Susquehanna, and how would that be good for our national prosperity?

Any attempt at defending social programs is decried by opponents as socialism, which is supposed to conjure fears of a totalitarian state, like the former Soviet Union.  But if socialism means everyone gets a fair share of the rewards as well as the sacrifice, then give me socialism - and quickly.  

If we don't afford our citizens the opportunity to ascend the economic ladder, we'll be headed down the wrong path, or if you'll excuse the obvious allusion, stopped on the tracks towards progress and affluence.


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