Often, after I pick up Miss V from school, we take short drives around town -- sometimes on specific errands, sometimes just to "go for a drive." Today we took the offramp from the 520 to Bellevue's Crossroads neighborhood, and as we waited for the light to change, I turned and observed, for a while, a homeless man panhandling by the roadside.
There are many panhandlers scattered around Seattle's Eastside now, significantly more than there were when we moved here seven years ago. When they first began to appear in the area, it was common for drivers to roll down their windows and offer money or an encouraging word. But these days I see more and more people keeping their windows rolled up and their doors locked, staring straight ahead at the stoplight, choosing not to make eye contact, pretending they don't see. To some extent, this is a coping mechanism. When times are tight and you worry about feeding your own family, or when you see the same panhandler claiming he "just needs change for a bus ride home" for months at a time, the delicate moral instruments of compassion can be blunted or corroded by cynicism. But still I wonder -- how often do we really see beggars? How often do we recognize them as people, rather than hindrances?
So here's a little social Gedankenexperiment I'd love to try some time: I'd like to contact twenty or so A-list Hollywood actors and actresses -- internationally known names and faces -- and quietly invite them to Seattle. I'd put them up in a nice place for their trouble. And each morning for several days, I'd make them up to look as scruffy and unkempt as possible, pad some of them out with fat suits, dress them in ill-fitting thrift-store finds, give them handmade signs and scatter them along offramps and street corners all around the Puget Sound to beg for an hour or two.
The point of this exercise wouldn't be to "raise awareness of the homeless," although that might be a nice side effect. The point would be to see how truly observant drivers are of facial features, once they have mentally categorized people as homeless beggars. How many people, idling at the red light, would be able to recognize a famous face far outside its usual context in first-run films and supermarket tabloid covers? Would they glance over and see only some scarred, dissipated old man in a three-day beard with "Anything Helps God Bless" on a ripped section of cardboard, or would their eyes linger long enough to let their brains recognize Harrison Ford? Is that just a haggard, underfed woman with gaps in her teeth and a stolen shopping cart full of stuff, or is it Anne Hathaway? And what would people do once they did recognize a famous face begging?