I know of no author who can portray today’s big city life more masterfully than Don DeLillo. His words are accurate and loaded with the emotion that city living evokes. The insights he shares didn’t come his way by majoring in urban studies at some distant university; he got them by pounding the pavement in his native Bronx and the rest of New York City (NYC) before fame ever found him.
In his latest novel, Zero K, he offers a glimpse of modern city life and especially homelessness:
Languages, sirens all the time, beggar in a bundled mass, man, or woman, hard to tell even when I approach and drop a dollar in the dented plastic cup. Two blocks farther on I tell myself that I should have said something, and then I change the subject before it gets too complicated.
“Before it gets too complicated.” These words still give me goosebumps every time I read them. It’s what we have to do in the cities. Find a way to live with the complexities of languages, cultures, religions, mental states and economic disparities. And you have to embrace it too or it will defeat you.
According to U.S. Census data, a total of 192 different languages are spoken in NYC homes, while 156 are spoken in Chicago. And languages reflect cultures; those who speak different languages also have different customs, traditions, moral codes and holidays. At first glance these numbers seem to be cool statistics, but how do you run a city with them? How do you prepare schools and teachers? First responders? Libraries?
Now, despite their relatively harsh winters, both NYC and Chicago have homeless populations numbering in the tens of thousands. Everyone agrees there is a problem, but agreement on what exactly is the problem is another story. A solution, if their is one, depends on defining the problem(s), identifying the various causes and the level of empathy and tolerance on the part of the overall population when it come to taking actions. Whew!
I suggest you read the DeLillo quote again. We all feel it to some degree when encountering a homeless person. Am I being conned? Should I give? If I do, how much? Is he or she drunk? If so, do I help out or not? What about the next person and the next? Should I offer something more —something that may take my time as well as my money? Should I have said something too instead of avoiding eye contact? Is this person critically ill? Should I call an ambulance? . . .
About all any one person can do is change the subject before it gets too complicated. That and keep the resolve to stay in the city and stay engaged.