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.


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.

Whatever Became of Miss Pancake?

Most of us are prone to judging people by what they look like or how they sound — how they pose and shape themselves for the camera of our perception and insight.

Many clever people can put on a good “show” and lead us to believe that the surface of things really does suggest something stable, decent, and worthwhile below the sight lines.

But, as Miss Pancake’s story suggests, sometimes what you think you see isn’t what you get.

The foundation underneath the surface makeup may not be nearly so pretty.

Indeed, outer beauty can suggest a fantasy, something that is very much “made up.”

Miss P was born in 1927, the youngest of her parents’ four children, both immigrants from Eastern Europe.  Along with many other Eastern European Jews, they saw America as a land free of the most obvious forms of anti-Semitism and a place of great economic opportunity. Her father, as the story goes, traveled to the USA in 1912 from Rumania, after a brief stop in England.

Only one problem: he missed his boat to the USA. Its name? The Titanic, or at least, that is what he told everyone.

He went by the name Leo. A tall, dashing, easy-going man with a wicked smile, able to speak at least a little of several languages. His wife Esther was quite a contrast: homely, stocky, with a prematurely lined face; an argumentative woman who never mastered English and never met a person she could trust.

Leo, a Chicago house painter who was hospitalized and nearly died during the 1918 influenza epidemic, made a good living in the 1920s when money was easy to come by and as easily spent. But he was also unreliable, alcoholic; an embarrassment to his kids when he was loaded. Still, a funny, voluble, charming sort of inebriate, never mean-spirited. And always warm and affectionate with children.

The Great Depression was the ruin of Miss Pancake’s family. Nothing unusual there, since 25% of the country was unemployed. Failed banks, bread lines, “hey buddy, can you spare a dime?” Our heroine might have remembered the terror of bill collectors coming to their door and everyone inside pretending not to be home. At some point Leo couldn’t take the unhappy household anymore and left for Winnipeg, Canada, where he had some relatives, conveniently forgetting to take his wife and children along.

But Esther was tenacious and knew that Leo was her only meal-ticket, even if the meals he could buy were now pretty meager. She followed him to Canada, where Miss P’s older siblings remembered the fear that their classmates had of someone from Chicago, the city of Al Capone and his friends. Eventually, they returned to the USA with Leo coming along for the ride.

Esther was the powerhouse of the family. She could brow-beat her husband Leo, who never made a decent financial recovery from the loss of his painting business and whose alcoholism was always an easy target. And his late night carousing left the four children as fair game for Esther’s mix of claustrophobic love, suspicion, and withering criticism as she played one child against the other, leaving them all unhappy.

In spite of it all, little Miss P grew to be a beauty. Tall and leggy, buxom, with full lips and a toothy smile, she was quite a dish. You can see the beauty queen above as she looked in her hey-day.

But as the last one left at home when all the other children had moved out and gotten married, Esther held on to her like grim death. No one was ever “good enough” for her, at least according to her mom.

Miss P was witty, bright, and could play men to show her a good time. She worked as a legal secretary in a big deal La Salle Street law office for a wealthy and prominent Chicago lawyer at a time when such a job had a measure of prestige, before women had much access to the practice of law or medicine beyond being helpful to a male who did.

Miss P. could be generous, even if that devotion always had strings attached. She played the role of confidant to many of those she targeted, eagerly attentive until she figured out how she could use the information they were revealing to her — a tactic she had doubtless learned from her suspicious and manipulative mother.

So long as her beauty and charm lasted, Miss P enjoyed the company of well-to-do men who would shower her with gifts. But, as the bloom came off the rose, her life became stranger and stranger. For a number of years she continued working as a legal secretary. Finally, she decided that there were other ways to make a living than working for an employer who expected you to show up every day and collected your Social Security and withholding taxes.

At some point she was also hospitalized at a state psychiatric hospital with a diagnosis of Paranoid Schizophrenia. She was a reluctant patient, to be sure; not patient enough to wait for a medical discharge, she escaped through an open window.

By now Miss P had alienated all but two of her relatives, both nephews.

She would sometimes promise them that when she was gone they would inherit her estate, but it was hard to imagine that she had much of one. Nonetheless, they extended themselves to her out of their sense of obligation and good will more than any anticipation of a posthumous payoff; when she got cancer on her nose and sometimes needed help in getting to the doctor, they were there for her.

It is hard to characterize what Miss P then did for a living, but scamming people comes to mind. It seems that this took several forms. Variation One involved buying articles from one store, presumably on sale, and then either reselling them for more than the purchase price or returning them to another store in an attempt to retrieve the retail, non-sale price. Eventually some stores wanted no part of her business, having gotten wise to her scheming.

Variation Two required her to buy used merchandise or find things that others had discarded. I’m not sure to what extent this depended upon her ability to “dumpster dive,” but I’d be surprise if she didn’t claim some goods this way. Then she would run advertisements in places like The Reader, a free weekly newspaper that permitted ads she didn’t have to pay for.

On one such occasion Miss P sold some used stereo equipment that didn’t work to someone who, understandably, thought it did. When he called to complain and wanted a refund, she retorted, “Who do you think you’re dealing with? This isn’t Marshall Field’s!”

Variation Three had to do with her residence. Although she often rented apartments, sometimes she lived in the lobbies of posh hotels, washing up in the ladies room and sleeping in the lobby chairs, while her goods remained in storage. Again, eventually some of the establishments got wise to her.

Perhaps the most lucrative variation, however, might have been various nuisance law suits she filed against alleged “wrong-doers,” including the multiple land-lords she had over the years, perhaps against physicians who treated her, as well. These sometimes resulted in significant settlements.

In 2001 she soon expected to be between apartments and asked one of her nephews to pick up several suit cases, presumably all her worldly goods that weren’t deposited in a storage facility, and to hold them until she was settled in another rental unit. He dutifully did so, bringing the suitcases to his suburban home.

Several weeks later, however, when she asked that the goods be returned, Nephew #1 relied on Nephew #2 to deliver them. Miss P claimed that two suitcases were missing. A manipulation? A delusion? Who could tell? Phone contact with Nephew #1 didn’t jog her memory about the number of pieces of luggage she left with him, nor cause him to confess to the charge of theft that she was leveling against him.

Given how far gone she was, by now she probably believed her own preposterous story.

It wasn’t too many days before a police car appeared in front of Nephew #1’s home. Miss P was in the back seat. The officer rang the bell, only to find her nephew’s wife alone at home. He questioned her about the allegations and was satisfied that nothing untoward had happened, confiding to her that Miss P was, in fact, a pretty strange bird.

The officer wanted to leave, but the alleged criminal’s spouse insisted that he first search the premises, to satisfy himself and Miss P that nothing of her’s was in their home. But the beauty of paranoia is that evidence or its absence counts for nothing. Our heroine simply believed that whatever had been stolen from her had been sold before she and the police arrived.

Still, you’d think that with the police’s failure to find anything, Miss P would have been at a dead-end.

No one got off so easily once Miss P had targeted him.

Later in the year, claiming indigence, the Circuit Court of Cook County waved the filing fee that normally would have been required of Miss P to file suit against her relative. With Nephew #2 in attendance for the bench trial along with Nephew #1’s wife, Miss Pancake claimed $1200 in damages for the personal property that she alleged to have been “wrongfully detained,” namely, “two marble tables, one statue, nine pieces of luggage, one carry-on bag; and clothing.”

She lost.

Twelve days later her motion for a new trial was denied.

The judge in her suit was her next target. Our beauty queen completed a form entitled “Request For Investigation of a Judge or Associate Judge” that she submitted to the State of Illinois Judicial Inquiry Board. In it, she alleged that Judge Good (certainly not a good day for him):

…has a disability. He cannot read or has eye problems. He should use glasses. Also, he (sic) is known by Daley (Center) employees that he never reads evidence. He just judges people by appearance only.

Incoherently specifying various abuses she suffered at the hands of the judge, including being discriminated against as a senior citizen, she complained that the judge had stated in open court that

…he liked the defendant because he was rich. Then, he also (said,) “Boy, lots (of) money.”

Two years later, no longer able to sue Nephew #1, Miss Pancake sued his wife over the same property, with the same result, although this time Miss P’s kinsman hired an attorney in the hope of ending the repeated confrontations with his aunt once and for all. This time Judge Plenty, obviously sensitive to the plaintiff’s peculiar and disjointed communications, requested that she be assessed as to her capacity for self-care by the Cook County Guardian’s office.

Nothing came of that assessment, other than, I suspect, a good deal of nervousness on her part at the possibility that she might lose her independence.

A month later, our inexhaustible protagonist consulted a private attorney of her own in an effort to continue the pursuit of her personal property, but that man wrote her to say she had no case, and that (having failed to persuade Judges Good and Plenty) she had exhausted all legal remedies with any reasonable likelihood of producing the compensation that she was seeking.

And that is the way Miss Pancake’s relationships with her family ended.

No contact with anyone ever again.

Time passed.

Nephew #1 would read of her death in the obituary column of the Chicago Tribune. A little investigation revealed that she had become a ward of the state and died of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Who would have thought that the story of the beautiful and clever Miss Pancake would end this way?

The moral: don’t judge a book by its cover, candy by its box, or a pancake by its package.

The photo just above is of Good & Plenty candy, taken by Glane23, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Holiday Depression is Coming to Town

It is that time of year. The TV shows us happy families, all smiles, getting together around the Christmas tree or a turkey dinner. Festive window displays adorn your local department store. Greeting cards proclaim good cheer and the values of family and fraternity. And there you are, alone or lonely, wondering how it is that you haven’t been invited to the party.

The media often represent a version of American life that overstates the happiness quotient of the average person. It is difficult not to believe that many, if not most people are having a better time than we are; are more loved, more popular, and having more fun.

First off, don’t be fooled. You are not alone. Just because you are not represented in the media ads, doesn’t mean that you are solo in your suffering. Many of the “holiday singles” group keep a low profile at this time of year, fearful that they will be judged to be losers if they proclaim their isolation; few want to be objects of pity, and that is exactly what they expect if it should become known that they have nowhere to go and no one to be with on Thanksgiving or Christmas or New Year’s Eve.

But many people are alone: many of the divorced, widowed, and childless; many who live at great distances from their families; many who have recently broken-up with someone; many who are estranged from family or friends; many who have recently moved; and many of the unemployed, who have lost the connectedness to co-workers that was an emotionally sustaining source of support.

Holidays can also be difficult because of the haunting memories of better times. This is especially true if the loss of loved ones is fairly recent. The first holiday or two after a divorce or death is usually especially difficult to endure, so great is the contrast between the focus on family that the holiday brings and the solitary fact of being bereft. Moreover, holidays tend to rob the lonely of the distraction of work, generating significant expanses of empty time, filled only by reflections on one’s sorry state as the time moves with a dull, clumsy, funereal tread.

On top of all this, there is the problem of Seasonal Affective Disorder (appropriately signified by the acronym SAD). Typically, the pattern is one of onset of a depressive episode in the fall or winter, with remission coming in the spring. Additionally, the seasonal condition is not due to some external event (such as the beginning of school in the fall), but rather is thought to do with the relative unavailability of “bright visible-spectrum light” that is characteristic of  “the dark months.”

What to do then, if you are suffering from the holiday blues? Here are a few possibilities:

  • Although your unhappiness presupposes the absence of satisfying social contact, at least consider whether there is someone to whom you can reach out and who might even welcome your participation in his holiday celebration. Social withdrawal tends to feed on itself, only making us feel worse. While it is true that a rejection is painful, many people are more than usually welcoming at this time of year; the risk might be worth the reward.
  • Keep busy doing something productive. Don’t spend hours watching television alone, if at all possible. Clean your house, build something, exercise, or perform some other useful function.
  • Consider volunteering at a homeless shelter or a soup kitchen. Not only is this important work, but it will fill the time and might even make you aware that, however bad your situation, it is still better than that of some other people. One other benefit is the human contact that such volunteerism provides, including the possibility of making new friends, among whom might be some others who find themselves alone on the holidays.
  • Make a list of the things about which you are grateful. Most of us take much for granted. Perhaps there are still things in your life that you can count as blessings. Such reminders are often useful in boosting a sagging spirit.
  • If you have the means, travel can be a good and beneficial use of your time at the holidays. Fares are often cheaper on the holiday itself. Going to a warm climate or a new place might serve to break up your routine and, once again, give you a chance to do new things and meet new people.
  • Social-networking sites on the internet may be worth investigating. While not usually as satisfying as face-to-face human contact, this new type of relatedness can lead to friendship for some, and reduce one’s sense of complete isolation.
  • If you have been on the planet for a while, remember the past difficulties that you have overcome and how you did so. It is very likely that the same human qualities that enabled you to get past other tough times will get you over the holidays.
  • If you have been diagnosed with a seasonal depression (SAD), consider obtaining a light box that provides a full light spectrum for your own in-home therapy. These can be found easily by googling “light box.” Such devices are typically not enormously expensive.
  • Psychotherapy and/or anti-depressant medication are always available should you wish to take on your sadness in a most direct and powerful way.