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A Paradise Lost: My Summer On Skid Row

An old piece I dug up recounting my experience on Skid Row back in the summer of 2010.

We all have an innate desire for genuine acceptance and unconditional love. A voice that longs to be heard and a spirit that wants to be known intimately. The only thing that separates the poor and those of us that society deems “productive members of society” is the material-“stuff”. Our over abundance of it and their apparent lack.

Skid Row is a 50 block radius in downtown LA where approximately 9,000 people live in various states of homelessness. In LA county there are 80,000 people homeless each night. The average age of a homeless person in the US is 9 years old, and with an average of 3.5 million homeless people in the U.S. that means 1.35 million children are homeless in America.

However, beyond all the statistical data there is a human element and the desires intrinsic to all humanity remain the same. The only difference is that those that “have” use their resources to purchase material goods and use them like proverbial fig leaves to hide our shame, our brokenness, and our desire to be truly known.

In our vain attempts to be known, to receive if even the illusion of acceptance, we purchase and consume so that maybe, just maybe, someone will like “us”. It is under this misguided premise of acceptance that we have constructed a society that revolves around paper thin relationships that are fragmentedly played out on our social networking pages, less anyone truly come to know how broken we are and how much we genuinely desire true relationship.

Welcome to the American dream where the allure of a man made, paradise on earth called the suburbs was programmed into the American psyche post World War II. The nation was sold on the idea that a house in a corporately developed subdivision, a white picket fence, 2.5 kids, 2 car garage, pool, and later, Walmart, Target and corporately developed malls signified that “we made it”.

The pinnacle of success… and yet something was not right, something was missing. 

This notion was eloquently captured in the novel “Revolutionary Road” written by the author Richard Yates in 1961. Yates had caught on to the notion that something was amiss in the safe confines of suburbia. Yates captures this all too well with one of the book’s main protagonists April Wheeler.

“No, Frank. This is what’s unrealistic. It’s unrealistic for a man with a fine mind to go on working year after year at a job he can’t stand. Coming home to a place he can’t stand, to a wife who’s equally unable to stand the same things. And you know what the worst part of it is? Our whole existence here is based on this great premise that we’re special. They we’re superior to the whole thing. But we’re not. We’re just like everyone else! We bought into the same, ridiculous delusion.”

Despite the accumulation of all these things, there was a yearning emptiness in our souls that could not be quietened or satiated. In the quiet of the night, as we lay awake in a cold sweat on our 300 thread count sheets, our conscience screaming out to us worrying about payments: mortgage payments, credit card payments, car payments , all with some sneaking knowledge of the price that is being paid on our very souls and the toll it is extracting on us as we continue the descent into madness attempting to buy the acceptance we so long for.

There is no place for such operatic drama or false pretenses on Skid Row.

Gandhi once said that “Poverty is the worse form or violence” and that statement rings all too true here, for the scene is macabre, violently visceral, and ferociously barbaric on its assault on the five senses.

In California, the land where dreams are made of , the home of Disneyland “The Greatest Place on Earth”, Skid Row sits juxtaposed to those fallacious assertions in defiant opposition. Dreams don’t live here. This is the place where they come crashing down in violent reality with an authority that smothers dreams, and snuffs out broken promises in a clarity that is all too real- a proverbial paradise lost in real time. In this place, reality cries out from the voices of hungry bellies, minds that are stricken with the infirmities of mental illness, addictions that assail the flesh like ravenous locusts and a lack of resources that are inalienable rights to man- food and water. Cracked teeth and faces read like a mosaic of life that has been too short on love, and scars accurately depict the deep grooves of pain etched on lost and broken hearts.

The fallacy of the American dream has not made it here. Weary feet, and broken backs lack the resources necessary to purchase the material trappings of success so greedily consumed by those of who are so foolishly attempting to buy the love and acceptance we so desperately crave. You know who you are.

In Skid Row, we are left with the stark reality of the sinful brokenness within all of us that goes beyond the demographics of our economic standings and which transcends the color lines that so dimwittedly divide us.

There is a quote that says “Take hope away from the heart of man and he becomes a beast of prey.” However, I would argue that you take away the things, the stuff that we use to cover up the brokenness that those of us that have resources try so hard to purchase for our concealment, and what is left over, what the world is given witness to, is man stripped down to his base nature exposing the dire straits of his spiritual condition that so desperately screams out for the hope that can only come by some higher otherworldly authority.

We need to be saved from ourselves.

Yes, the cry of the poor is not always just, but if we don’t listen to it then we will never know what justice is. However, we should also stop and LOOK at the poor, and if we take a moment and separate ourselves from our things that so many of us, consciously or subconsciously think make us who we are, we will peer into the mirror of our own souls and see ourselves. In doing so we will see that we are all poor and spiritually bankrupt people and that no amount of money or material things can pay the cost that is needed to redeem our very souls.

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About Joseph

natty dread bastard child of the first world. something like a literary trap beat.

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