It’s funny how we tend to orbit our comfort zone. We get used to doing things a certain way. We go to the same places; we mainly shop the same places.
I suspect that’s particularly true when one regularly goes barefoot. You’re just interested in getting your stuff done, so you go to the places where you haven’t been hassled before.
But it is also true that we tend to exaggerate in our minds the possibility of attention. Even in new places, it doesn’t happen much.
But there are times when it can be a real surprise.
Yesterday one of our cars was in the shop. After it was finished, I did what I’ve done many times before—I walked over to the shop to pick it up. It’s about 2 miles. A piece of cake. The sun was shining. The temperature was an extremely comfortable 41° (5°C). Why not?
You know, we’ve all seen the recent news story about Jeffrey Hillman, the homeless and barefoot man who was given a new pair of shoes by New York City Officer Lawrence DePrimo. No doubt about it, it was a very generous act by the Officer.
But even at the time I was a bit wondering. The story talked about “blisters” from the cold. But it really hadn’t been all that cold, and “blisters” are not what I think of from the cold.
Then it turned out he was seen barefoot again a few days later. He’d put the shoes in a safe place because they were worth a lot of money. “They are worth a lot of money—I could lose my life.” (New York is a lot safer these days, by a lot, and I really doubt that they endangered his life at all.) Officer DePrimo’s response continued to be top-notch classy: “Hey, the shoes were a gift. They’re his now, and if he wants to sell them, that’s his business.”
And then there is this story, that he’s not really homeless, either.
This is a difficult issue. 50 years ago people with problems were simply institutionalized, usually against their wills. And medicated (usually against their wills). And left to rot (almost always against their wills). But allowing them the same freedom we all have/want leads to seeing them out on the streets like this. I sure don’t like it when “the state” (i.e., libraries and the Statehouse) have told me that what I prefer requires that they babysit me. Because it doesn’t.
And it appears that Mr. Hillman is getting through life, too, the way he prefers (even if it is not what we prefer).
This event has also, though, generated the usual onslaught of “give shoes to the homeless” stories. For instance, there’s Lesson From NYPD’s Larry DePrimo: How You Can Donate Shoes To Homeless, and Lawrence DePrimo: Why Aren’t We All Buying Shoes for the Homeless?.
But there is really nothing special about shoes. Homeless people are rarely barefoot, yet it seems to be the stereotypical assumption that people make. And this Jeffrey Hillman story just confirms their expectations. Giving shoes is an easy choice. It doesn’t take much effort and makes one feel good right then and there (even if in the end it doesn’t do much.)
Don’t get me wrong. It’s a great story about compassion and giving. We cannot say enough nice things about Officer DePrimo. But it is also true that he just assumed he knew what Jeffrey Hillman really wanted, because that is the stereotype.
It’s not that dissimilar to those who keep wanting to ship shoes to Africa without understanding that better sanitation is a better solution. But giving shoes just feels so good.
I’ve been offered shoes before myself. (And no, I’m not even close to homeless, and I don’t wear ragged clothing.)
In this instance I was leaving a courthouse in the fall, after having just filed one of the briefs in my lawsuit. A person in a car driving by was convinced that I’d just been let out of jail, barefoot. They wanted to give me shoes . . . or at least socks. I had a hard time convincing them otherwise.
But getting back to what prompted this blog entry, yesterday I walked to go pick up my car from the shop. I actually took a slightly different route, since I felt like a bit more exercise than what 2 miles could give me. This took me through a different neighbor than when I’ve done it before.
I’d barely gotten into the neighborhood (which is actually a rather ritzy one) when a woman leaned out her car window: “Sir, are you okay?”
I have to admit to being rather taken aback. “Sure,” I said. “Thank you.” And I kept walking. I guess I could have explained—I was just very surprised.
So I kept walking, thinking to myself, “Geez, what should I have said?” And then another car slowed down behind me, and another woman asked if I was alright. Maybe the Hillman story was just on their minds, prompting greater charity. But twice? Within 5 minutes of each other? (Yes, they were different women.)
This time I did manage to give a more coherent explanation: “It’s a beautiful day! The sun is shining! I always go barefoot.” She seemed doubtful, but maybe just didn’t want to deal with an obviously crazy person. (Because, face it, that is how we are viewed.)
But my feet were still quite comfortable, regardless, and I was getting some exercise.
And unfortunately, it probably won’t be an educating experience for the women. When we appear on the news, or can present our letters about no Health Department rules, we really can educate people. But in this situation, I suspect they’ve already made up their minds and there is nothing I could have said to convince them otherwise.
All I can do is go on my way. Which I did.
And for the next 3 miles, plenty of other cars passed me, but not a one stopped or was concerned. I guess it was just some sort of cosmic coincidence that I got 2 inquiries in 5 minutes.
But it was rather unsettling.