"Holiday Sweater "

Merry Christmas!

Now gimme a quarter.

I was just up in Los Angeles this weekend, window shopping with my girlfriend on Melrose when we ran into panhandlers. But not your usual dirty, beaten-down, middle-aged homeless. These were kids. None of them more more than 25 - all of them punked out with piercings, tats, funky hair and a fashion sense more than slightly left of conservative. There must have been a dozen of them working different corners up and down the street.

"Hey man, can you spare a quarter?"

A quarter?

I was almost pissed. At what point can some kid, full of youth, full of life and the future dripping ripe right in front of him be so broken, so weakened that he has been reduced to begging. And I was angry. My father at times worked two jobs so his kids could have everything they needed. He had four kids before he was thirty. His mother worked hard after my grandfather was nearly killed in a construction accident. My grandparents fought a world war. Their parents survived the great depression as immigrants in a new country. And this kid wants me to give him a quarter?

I've personally seen men dying on the street of leprosy and little girl wearing nothing but rice bags for clothing, and you feel life is so hard you need to beg?

Take out the nose ring, asshole, find your pride, and get a job.

Oh you're an artist? How bout working the A&P during the day to finance that art so if you're any good maybe one day the rest of us who work for a living will make you rich and buy some of it later.

Grumble.

And then I felt dark. I felt dirty. I felt shamed.

Who was I to judge? They made choices. More than likely bad ones. And most likely they've known a hell I won't ever comprehend. I could have at least bought the guy a coffee. Maybe asked his name. Maybe when the band breaks onto KROQ I could say I met "Spike" while he was slumming in Hollywood.

I don't know when it happened, but somewhere after college I began to lose compassion. And it's absence is even more apparent during the Christmas season when the spirit of the season is one of giving, of love and of hope through the long winter.

I've not become a penny pinching Scrouge, a bitter, cynical old man, or a Porsche driving Yuppie (not for lack of trying), but I think I might have accidentally thrown that holiday sweater of my compassion in the dryer. It fits a bit snug over the chest these days.

I suppose it's to be expected. When I was 19 the freedom, the opportunity of the world was often overwhelming. Possibility surrounded. It permeated everything. I could smell it in the mountain air, and see it blowing across the top of the San Francisco Peaks in the morning. And every day I found myself surrounded by ambitious, idealistic people. People who weren't afraid to dream. And when they did dream, it wasn't always of that new Porsche of another double digit day on the Nasdaq.

But as I settled into my life, my connections to those people began to fray, my willingness to embrace those emotions began to fade. I'm not sure when it began, but I notice it more every year. Every year I've moved a bit further from that idealism. The container where I kept my hope a little more tarnished. My compassion a little harder to share.

I suppose it starts with a shift in focus. Life begins with a focus on what you can do. But the focus changes - especially here in SoCal where the cost of living is 30% higher than anywhere else in the America (SF and NY excluded) - to what you can get. And when you find yourself surrounded by lots of people with the same focus, it's even harder not to assimilate.

It's like a race for resources. Every year that elusive finish seems just a little closer, so we run faster. But every year life gets more expensive. Every year more wants become needs. Every year we dedicate more resources, more time, more energy, more of our soul to crossing that line. And the finish line begins to pull away.

We send "wish lists" to our family. Boy I want the PS2. Who in my family is going to buy me one?

Wish lists? My God, like I need more stuff in my life. I shop regularly at stores that sell only stuff to hold all my stuff.

I used to reuse, recycle. I used to ride my bike to work. I used to donate. I used to give a dime or offer a meal to every homeless guy I passed on the street. I figured, if someone had become so broken that they were willing to beg, I could part with a buck if only for the chance just the chance - that it might help them begin to find some part of the life and the hope they once had known. Hell, I figured the odds couldn't be any worse than the lottery, and lots of people just gotta have those lottery tickets. And I had a buck to spare.

Now, I sometimes have to remind myself to look them in the eye. I have to tell myself that even homeless they are worth that respect.

I have watched people pass them - eyes anywhere but on theirs. Awkward, embarrassed and uncomfortable. Some just too busy to notice. Busy busy busy busy busy. And some sneer with outright contempt.

Have we been chasing that finish line so long that we are stumbling forward, shaking like a tri-athlete at the end of the race? Have we stared so long into the mirror that we can't see anyone else around us? Are we just taken by our own beauty, or are we so focused on the wrinkles, receding hair and bloodshot eyes that we manufacture needs in a desperate attempt to keep from confronting the reality that all of it eventually fades away.

Or are we running from the memories of the enthusiastic, ambitious, idealistic dreamers we were once proud to be?

I don't know.

But I felt bad. I was bitter when I could have been compassionate. I was materialistic when I could have been idealistic. I embraced indifference when I could have embraced love.

It's the hardest thing in the world to do. To break those mirrors. To quit the race. To love someone unlovable.

I'm not sure I can do it. I'll be honest about that. But this holiday season, maybe I'll do something really extravagant. Something emotionally expensive. Maybe I can find that sweater and try it on again. With a little stretching, I might find that it fits, even if it is a little snug.

You are all my heroes.

Merry Christmas. Happy Hanukah.

Smile lots.


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