Thanks for Everything, and Why

By Becky O’Malley
Tuesday November 20, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving to all and sundry. It’s the custom of the place to gather together family and friends and enjoy a lavish meal, to celebrate—well, to celebrate having family and friends and lavish meals. My Puritan ancestors in New England usually get the credit for popularizing the custom, with occasional nods to the generosity of their Native American neighbors, though Virginians and even Canadians also had Thanksgiving events early on. When you think about it, it’s a Puritan kind of thing at its theological heart, a tribute to how nice it is to be among the Elect, to be one of those lucky souls predestined for salvation, as per the beliefs of the first settlers who landed on Plymouth’s rocky shores. Due credit is given to the creator for choosing the right folks to save, of course.  

Over the years some new customs have grown up which include the less fortunate in the banquets. Institutions like the St. Vincent de Paul dining room in Oakland and the Alameda County Food Bank will provide even poor and homeless people with nice dinners on Thursday. But the not-so-attractive aspects of the Pilgrim thanksgiving still cast their shadows over our civic culture. 

An anonymous correspondent forwarded me an item from the draft agenda for the first Berkeley City Council meeting after Thanksgiving with this comment: “Looks like Mayor Bates wants to play Scrooge to the homeless for this year’s season of giving.”  

That’s right, the Public Commons for Everyone Initiative is back, just in time for the holidays. It’s still a shapeless mish-mash of carrots and sticks, with no clear purpose and no plausible solutions to the real problems which exist on city streets here and everywhere else in this country. 

The problem it purports to solve is the reluctance of the Saved, those who will go home to nice Thanksgiving dinners on Thursday, to be confronted on the street with the disorders of the Unsaved, the unlucky among us. The Mayor, for example, once told a radio host that he is made uncomfortable by a Street Spirit vendor who approaches him as he’s on the way to partake of the abundance which is the Berkeley Bowl.  

Street Spirit sellers are the elite among the homeless, people who can keep it together well enough to buy papers to resell for a bit of pocket cash. The ones I know are for the most part cheerful, energetic and even clean. Our favorite is the tall, robust African-American woman with graying dreads who hangs out at the Tuesday Farmers’ Market (which, by the way, has better produce than the Bowl.) She has a nickname and a quip for everyone, and she reads her paper before she sells it, so she can tell you what the best pieces are.  

If you can’t deal with Street Spirit vendors like her, you’ll really be frightened by the genuinely down-and-out, the street dwellers who may smell of alcohol or worse, the people who can’t even tell you to have a nice day when you look away from their outstretched hands. The guy on Shattuck who can’t talk at all but just stands on a corner howling his anguish is unnerving, perhaps even worse than the one who screams intelligible obscenities at passers-by.  

No one can deny that there are too many people with unsolved problems on the street. The Commons-for-Some proposal on the draft agenda references the need for social services and bathrooms and asks for higher parking fees to pay for them, but the only concrete action called for is passing new ordinances which penalize smoking on the street and lying around on the sidewalk. A lawyer who sometimes defends people accused of such crimes tells me there are already plenty of laws like these on the books to harass street people, and the Berkeley police have started enforcing them with even more enthusiasm ever since this new proposal first surfaced.  

If you are going to be able to sit down to a pleasant table on Thursday, you might devote a few minutes to thinking about how lucky you are. That’s what you really are, you know, lucky—the theological construct of predestination is just a fancy description of luck plus divine intervention. Some of us are saved, but some are not. Some are housed, others are a paycheck or two away from homelessness. Some of us are in our right minds most of the time, others lost their wits long ago through no fault of their own. Some have managed to parlay a comfortable middle-class upbringing into comparative wealth, others started on a lower rung of the ladder and now have slipped off altogether.  

Very little about how we’ve ended up is our own doing. 

Another correspondent is a woman who has lived in an apartment downtown for many years. She’s gotten to know and like many of the regulars on the street, even those who seem scary when you first encounter them. She writes this week: “It is important for us to speak up on this issue.” 

She’s organized the “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime” Singers to urge the City Council to temper justice with mercy. They first serenaded the workshop on the proposal, held a month or so ago, which only a couple of councilmembers bothered to attend for even a few minutes. Here’s her plan to try to get their attention on the 27th: 

“We will assemble on the steps of Old City Hall at 6 pm and sing until time to go in to the meeting. Please send this on and try to enlist as many people as possible. This attempt to criminalize poverty is a cruel attack by a heartless city leadership on some of the neediest among us.”  

Songsheets include not only the classic song with words by Yip Harburg, but some Woody Guthrie selections—everything easy to sing even for the tone-impaired. If you are lucky enough to enjoy a nice Thanksgiving, you might be moved to add your voice to theirs at 6 p.m. on the 27th. 


—Becky O’Malley