Sometimes You CAN Tell a Book by Its Cover

A Light Smile

Check out the photo above. What you think of this lamp-shaded man might tell you about yourself. Stick with me as I explore the human tendency to categorize.

He goes by the name KT. You might think of him as a beggar, but I beg to disagree. To me, he works for a living.

According to KT, his work day can last more than 10 hours. He performs in the heat, in the cold, and in the in-between. Remember what they say about postmen?

“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

He stands up during those 10-hour days, with breaks to visit the rest room and eat. You say he isn’t doing anything? Try standing as long yourself. Better still, get the job guarding Buckingham Palace, a type of inaction thought to be an honorable vocation.

IMG_7861

KT is a friendly man who told me he enjoys people and wants to make them smile. He displays no shame over his costume. To me, he is enormously clever. I say he is providing a service. Even if you don’t talk with him, seeing him brightens your day. Should you offer him a little money, you are likely to make yourself feel better still. He will shake your hand or give you a fist bump, no charge. Sometimes the passers-by request his presence in front of their place of business. On other occasions you’ll find him outside the Walgreens on State and Randolph in Chicago.

This man reframes the role of panhandler to that of someone who is pleased by pleasing you. Moreover, though you can see nothing of his face, he causes you to recognize him as a person.

Far too many people without adequate shelter spend the day on KT’s downtown streets. A few sell a newspaper called StreetWise, produced with the help of the homeless. You can buy a copy for $1.00. Most sit, with placards describing their plight in too many words to read as you pass. Their eyes are downcast. Quite a number stand, cup in hand, saying “God bless you” or “Have a nice day.” Many ask if you can spare some change or rattle the cup to communicate the same message. The majority of these downtown denizens are black.

Princeton University psychologist Susan Fiske and her colleagues have evaluated how the image of the “other” impacts us. Research participants reacted to a variety of photos while their brain activity was recorded. She and Lasana Harris predicted the experimental subjects would respond by dehumanizing extreme outgroups like the homeless. Pictures of those individuals produced a type of brain activation typical of disgust — the same kind of cerebral response characteristic of viewing objects, not people. Perhaps some of us protect our emotions by responding to fellow humans as things. The evidence of history indicates disgust with such Untermenschen (those called subhumans) can lead to casual mistreatment and much worse.

We choose to regard people as foreground or background, as human beings or things. I’ve made them transparent, absent, and invisible myself. Do we strip ourselves of our own humanity in so doing?

There are many reasons we ignore the downtrodden or rationalize our indifference. Some of those justifications appear in an earlier post: On Giving to Street People/ The explanations are not all easily dismissed.

Whatever you do, whatever you believe, don’t think these folks aren’t working. Most are not as creative as KT. Few are as upbeat. Some have had the life sucked out of them. Before you walk past the next time, ask yourself this: is standing or sitting on the concrete an easy thing to do?

If you say yes, try it some time.

The photos of KT and the author with KT were taken by Joni Dobson. They are posted with KT’s permission.

20 thoughts on “Sometimes You CAN Tell a Book by Its Cover

  1. that post made ME smile. Thanks!

    On Wed, May 13, 2015 at 5:03 PM, Dr. Gerald Stein – Blogging About

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  2. Dr. Stein, thanks for bringing the plight of the homeless to our attention.

    KT is quite creative. Imagine what he could do with his talent and personality if given the opportunity!

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    • drgeraldstein

      KT enlightened me, Rosaliene. I recognized the effort required to make a living on the streets. Thanks for your comment, Rosaliene.

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  3. Always a wonderful read (and you look great in hats!! We never see those in Southern California). 🙂

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  4. Gerry. I enjoyed this one but have a question:

    In picture number 2, why is KT having his photo taken with Broderick Crawford? Im guessing they must have been filming an episode of Highway Patrol on the Edens. Ron

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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    • drgeraldstein

      Thanks (I think), Ron. God help me, I never thought aging would come to being Broderick Crawford’s stunt-double!

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  5. I saw him last summer out there in that heat.

    There are all manners of people who occupy the streets for different purposes.

    I understand your line of thinking, but I would caution this as it can be carried to include predators. Thieves can also spend hours working the streets seeking and preying upon victims. Some sexual predators spend hours and even days observing patterns and vulnerabilities before they finally make their attempts. Are these people also working, too?

    I know that there are folks who could never find their way into an office and sit behind a desk, work in manufacturing, service industry, etc. They are unconventional. But, this doesn’t mean that beggars are in the same category.

    Several years ago, I worked for a manufacturing company. We had a nearby small logistics facility and our warehouse manager needed some labor assistance in organizing a large volume of inventory and cleaning up the building. A 1/4-mile away was a freeway offramp where a beggar parked himself, day after day in the rain with a sign that read, “Homeless! Will work for food. Anything helps” and I approached him to offer him a few hours work for some decent pay ($200 for four hours). The man scoffed at my offer saying that he makes that sort of money in 20 minutes on the offramp. A few months later, I happened to watch the same man as he walked towards a car that was parked nearby. It was a newer 8-series BMW…he pulled his keyfob, opened the door and drove away. He wasn’t kidding about his take, working the ramp.

    I know that very few beggars take the same haul as this man and some are truly down and desperate people. When one lives and works in a metropolitan area long enough, it is easy to spot the different types of people and sort through who is working an angle, who is mentally out of sorts and incapable of caring for themselves, who are the liars, etc.

    (this is article, “Everything You Think You Know About Panhandlers Is Wrong” is an interesting read: http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2013/10/30/2856411/panhandling-stats/

    As a veteran, I also all too well about those who lie about being veteran homeless that overshadow the real vets who are out there.

    It probably sounds as though I am avoiding the topic of giving. I don’t give cash if I can avoid it. I give meals, coffee, gift cards (and I used to give my points cards that were good for free food/drinks…i don’t eat like that anymore).

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  6. I enjoyed this but also have worked the inner-city so know a little about homelessness. KT is creative
    and I would have no problem giving money to him. Neither do I have problems with other street people. However there are some people I do have trouble with and those are the kinds that MIGHT be a form a human trafficking. When I see a young woman with a sign and a man on a corner near by that appears to be with her I am concerned. Of course we all see the obvious human trafficking people and even some of them are not what they appear. They may be single mothers looking for a way to earn money. This is a complicated issue. I have encountered them all. Wish I had the answer but I don’t pretend to know. We need to look at this as a society and try to find help for those who need it and want it. I had a manic-depressive cousin who was at times homeless so I do get it. Anyone have any answers out there?

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    • drgeraldstein

      Thank you, Sheila. Hope you are well. I want to respond to both you and Will. My intended focus in this essay, was perception and categorization. As Fiske and her colleagues have noted, many of us don’t “see” these people or see them as things or see them as con men. I fully understand some are not homeless, some ARE con men, or worse. The victims of human trafficking are particularly tragic. I’ve written about the internal conflict some of us feel as we walk down the street and past such folks in the link I offered in the essay. It is interesting to me, even when we do “see” these people, that we ask ourselves questions we don’t ask as often (IMHO) when faced with stock brokers, insurance salesmen, or most anyone else. That is, is this person a criminal (white collar variety)? Is this person scamming us? Is this person cheating on his taxes or his wife? I think it is easy (for me as well) to simply put street people in a category and ignore them. One of the potential explanations for this has to do with “terror management theory” which suggests we automatically defend ourselves from the “terror” of bad things happening to US and those we love. In any case, I have begun to try to see the street people in the same way I look at everyone else: as individuals. Some of them corrupt, some not. Anyway, thanks to you and Will for giving me the chance to say a bit more that might not have been clear in the essay itself.

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      • Thank you, Doc!

        Can I assert that I have a healthy (my perspective, at least) distrust of most humans? I do NOT trust stock brokers and I assume them ALL to be liars and cheats. I don’t trust therapists, pill-pushing physicians, politicians, etc. I assume the worst with these people. I don’t trust most people around my kids.

        I am not paranoid…just hyper-vigilant and very protective…but not in an obvious way. I always check people out. I always assume that people have ill-intentions until they prove otherwise.

        Regarding the occupants of the street, I don’t think any less of them (unless they are walking down the street wielding a sword or baseball bat – both of which I have seen on multiple occasions). I am not threatened by them…I just wonder what their angle is.

        Liked by 1 person

      • drgeraldstein

        Thanks, Will. Message understood. From now on I’m going to be looking for the guys with the swords! 😉

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  7. Gerry, your blog always makes me think a bit more about the subject matter and perhaps look at it a bit differently. KT did make me smile and is certainly not typical of the downtrodden with a piece of cardboard asking for money. I was going to look to uber for my future employment but decided to follow KT’s lead and build a better mousetrap. Just kidding, bravo to you!

    Jack

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    • Thank you, Jack. I once dated a young woman who told me “You make me think.” This seemed like a compliment until I got dumped. Perhaps I made her think too much!

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