Too often I sit drinking coffee while planning, then jump into the pickiup and rush off someplace without waiting for the excess liquid to need off-loading. Yesterday I did this when I went for groceries in Conrad, so I stopped at the laundromat to use their facilities. The bathroom was busy. I waited.
Out came a man I didn’t know, but a type I know very well -- an anachronism. In the Sixties there were many like him. A high quantum Blackfeet afflicted with alcoholism, poor nutrition, poverty, and a particular style. When I say poor nutrition, I mean childhood malnutrition bad enough to stunt and twist growth and development. He looked to be in his thirties but might have been a little younger. Coming out to find me there frightened him. Clearly he expected a rebuke, possibly even an attack -- not words, blows. He flinched away from me, stuttered conciliation, appeasement, while moving towards the door. I thought of Gollum in “Lord of the Rings.”
The shorthand for him in Browning has become “street person,” though they are actually more “alley persons” in the shelter of the board fences at the backs of yards. Faces burned and pocked, bodies reduced to almost bone except for the swollen middle that gives away a failing liver. In the Sixties we often hired them at Scriver Studio for day labor but also a line of them appeared daily for Bob to try as the city magistrate. Their crimes were mostly public drunkenness, rarely anything that would rise to the level of felony. I was the de facto bailiff, though an officer brought them and stayed with them. “Stand over there -- keep your hands in your pockets.”
Few of them had been students I had taught. They would have done their best to escape any institution and therefore were often illiterate. That’s why they didn’t get the nutrition supplements distributed through the schools. You could say they were “feral” except that they weren’t really wild. Except that they ran and hid if they could. (They don’t actually run because they know that can trigger the impulse to shoot them.) They had no family except each other, so they were what I call “interstitial.” That is, they lived in the spaces between families and they interpreted that as freedom.
Some of my students were also afraid of random blows. They would flinch away from me if I walked down the aisle between desks, even if I were not angry. These guys (mostly guys) were not just interstitial: they were pariahs, like the notorious “py-dogs” of the Third World that lurk everywhere even in Hollywood movies of the Middle East wars. Explosions, gunfire, tanks rumbling, and quickly a bony mutt crosses the road. Hollywood removes the carcasses. We don’t like carcasses. In fact, the whole premise of pariahs is that they are to be despised, excluded, even killed with impunity -- not where anyone can see it, of course.
Why do I get interested in these characters? Why don’t I think of them as a danger, if not violent then thieving? Is it a missionary impulse? Or is that when we were working together in the shop at some tedious messy stinky job, we visited and I learned a little bit about them. They stopped being “other.”
The whole idea of the “Other” is big in philosophical circles: animals as other than human, other genders or nationalities, and so on. Maybe attractively exotic, maybe terrifyingly alien. Not many people want to think about “other” in terms of pariahs, but “otherness” is certainly the definition of pariahs, who are not just different because they are different but also because they are deliberately excluded from the category of “human,” the category of “salvageable,” the category of “virtuous.” “Deserving.” They don't get much help.
As I left town, the man was sitting at the side of the road, hitchhiking back to the rez, I assume. I have an absolute and ironclad rule NEVER to pick up hitchhikers -- male or female, prosperous or not, maybe not even people I know. So I went on by, but it’s still bothering me. He rose eagerly when he recognized my pickup, his thumb up high. Then sank back when I went on.
One very hot day decades ago I was sitting in a restaurant in Spokane. The doors to outside were open not far from my table. “Pssst, psst!” It was a ragged thin man. “Can I have five bucks? I’m starving!” I made him come in, sit at the table and order a meal, over the objections of the management who knew the guy (which was oddly reassuring). He wasn’t rum-dumb, just way out there in moneyless land. He didn’t stink of alcohol. His dirt was road-dirt. He was interesting -- I forget the particulars. He was white and literate. A little money and he would not be a pariah. This was not true of the man along the road. He was marked by his own body.
When I was living in Browning, I kept a can of soup by the door so that when the py-people came begging for “food money” which I figured they would spend on booze, I would give the soup to them with a cheap can-opener. Then I found out they were selling my soup cans (AND the opener) for booze money. I couldn’t get them to come in and sit down to eat soup warmed up. Their eyes showed white all around -- they figured I might trap them, beat them or rape them. Maybe it had happened before. I was so “other,” this English teacher, that they were afraid. They had no idea what I might do.
When all humans lived in tribes and were in turf wars with each other, this sort of thing was natural, even inevitable, so it must have grown into us, even into our genes. People who claimed territory and defended it were, after all, the ones who survived. But now? Part of the trouble is that if a person begins to hand out soup to pariahs, pretty soon there is a line of them. Then what?
Or the py-people themselves become jealous and punish anyone among them who is getting an advantage. Or the other people, the Alpha ones, criticize and maybe suggest that a person who would help such people is probably up to no good. But the strongest reaction is people who are so afraid that they might slip down into that category, that they split within themselves between hatred and terror. They keep guns. They watch for the people with targets on their backs, the untouchables.