The other day, I saw a sight that's probably just as common in your neck of the woods as it is in mine: a homeless man by the side of the highway off-ramp, holding up a faded cardboard sign which shared some of his personal troubles and added, "Anything helps, even a smile."
I worry a lot about the welfare of these folks. But I started thinking about him and about the many other homeless folks I've seen in and around Seattle, and I had a sudden epiphany. You know all those trends coming out of Seattle and the western U.S.? The ones that were at first edgy and are now ubiquitous? WELL THE HOMELESS STARTED THEM ALL, friends. They were ahead of these trends 20 to 40 years before anyone thought to popularize them.
Don't believe me? Fine, check this out:
- The homeless "lived lightly on the land" and were using recyclable materials, especially brown paper and cardboard, before the ecology movement ever thought of getting started. They were into "roughing it" before Nike, The North Face or REI made it popular with everyone else. They eschewed the use of cars before the gas crisis, preferring the ubiquitous (and completely hand-powered) grocery cart, and they were re-using plastic bags before the Seattle powers that be even thought of imposing a bag tax.
- The homeless were wearing scruffy beards and thrift-store finds way before the Seattle grunge look took the world by storm. And the sometimes surprising noises they made were clear precursors to Kurt Cobain's mumbled and shrieked vocal stylings.
- Long before people started wearing cell phones on their ears, the homeless were having inappropriately private conversations with unseen friends in public places. Before BlueTooth, they had NoTooth. (Unlimited minutes and no contracts. Why didn't we follow their example?)
- The homeless were asking the American people to bail them out years before GM and the banks decided to follow their lead. And they had a "housing crisis" going on long before the rest of us worried about it.
- Freegans! Think you're awesome and trendy for eating what others throw away? Forget it. The homeless beat you to the dumpsters more than three decades ago. And if you think Jerry Seinfeld popularized soup, you haven't been to a soup kitchen lately.
- The homeless were "hanging out" in public before there was a term for it. They were people-watching years before the advent of "reality TV." And long before social media gripped the nation, the homeless were publicly announcing every passing thought to strangers and scrawling notes on walls for everyone to read.
- Finally, well before the Occupy movement ever got going, you could look under any freeway overpass in Seattle, any night of the week, and find it fully occupied.