Guest Post: Squatters in the Election Year

I am going to be travelling for the next few weeks. To make up for an anticipated lack of posts, I have enlisted some of my friends to produce content for this site. I took a cue from my friend, Mark, who also pawned his blog off on his own unsuspecting friends.

This post is by one of my best friends, Jeff Harris, who lives in Asheville, NC. I knew Jeff from Mississippi. When he’s not eating squirrels, he studies soil.

My house is in town, but it’s surrounded by thick woods, and sits at the end of a long driveway that winds back behind a huge 100-year old two-story house that’s been vacant for the past five or six years, effectively cutting us off from the view of all neighbors and the street. If I were into horror flicks, I would probably live in terror that a gang of axe-wielding psychopaths might be closing in on our little cul-de-sac at any moment, free to perpetrate their carnage in privacy. I don’t care much for that genre of entertainment, and I don’t harbor that sort of fear (at least not consciously), but I am extremely interested in any human activity I see around the premises of the vacant house that cuts us off from the rest of the world, as you might imagine.

About a month ago, I discovered a squatter living on the back porch of the old house. He turned out to be a harmless but extremely misguided young man who sincerely wants to be healthy and productive, but who has absurd notions about how to achieve that state. He’s an awful lot like I was at his age, but with fewer resources than I had. I’ll call him Kevin. The day I discovered Kevin, I talked to him a lot about his hopes and plans, and he told me about his anxiety disorder and how he was trying to cope with that, and also that he hoped to have enough money from SSI to pay rent somewhere by February. He genuinely seemed to just want to keep his head down and have a hidden place to crash near the gym down the street where he has a membership, and where he works out and showers.

After having tried unsuccessfully to convince Kevin that the rotting, mold-infested house he was squatting in was bad for him both physically and spiritually (it’s a pretty depressing place inside), I decided to leave him to his own devices, at least for a while, hoping he would work things out. He was convinced that being near the gym was better for him than say, staying at the local Occupy encampment five miles away (and he may be right about that) so he stayed in the rotting old house, to my disappointment. A week or two later though, I was happy to see that he had at least cleaned up some debris from the yard, which had been dumped out of an old refrigerator by vandals who had stolen the appliances from the house a year or two ago. It was a tiny indication that he wasn’t spiraling down into terminal homelessness due to depression and nihilism, and so I decided to continue ignoring his presence for the time being, and wishing him the best.

Yesterday, as I rounded the bend in my driveway where the old house sits, I was alarmed to see a guy in in camouflage hunting gear and a machinegun-like device poking around the house. He turned out to be a guy with a metal detector, who said he had been given permission by the real estate agent who’s handling the vacant house. He confirmed her name and convinced me he had actually talked to her, so I wished him luck and went on my way.
Today, the same guy was there again, this time with his young son who was also decked out in serious camouflage and sporting a toy rifle. This time, the guy stopped me as I drove by and alerted me that he had “chased a bum away from the house,” and showed me an old silver quarter he had just found. I told him what I knew about “the bum,” and assured him that Kevin was harmless. He didn’t seem convinced, but when I explained that Kevin had some psychological issues, he looked relived, as if we had finally gotten back on the same page. “Yeah,” he said,” he seemed pretty unfriendly when I ran him off.” I wondered what kind of demeanor he usually expected of “bums” when they were being “run off,” but I couldn’t blame him for his actions – he had done what pretty much any normal person from a private-ownership based culture like ours would have done in that situation. To him, “the bum” was not another human so much as a dangerous intruder, and most likely one that deserved whatever dire situation he happened to be in.

As I was talking to the guy, I looked up and saw Kevin walking back up the driveway toward the old house, in seeming defiance of the guy who had chased him away earlier. Kevin kept his head down and tried not to look our way, just wanting to go about his meager day without any trouble from anyone. But when I called to him and asked him how he was doing, he brightened, looking happier than I had ever seen him, and said he thought he had found a place to live. Unfortunately, since buses weren’t running due to it being a holiday, he was worried that the walk to procure it would take him all day, and he wouldn’t have time to take a shower and would miss the soup kitchen, so he had decided to go tomorrow. I asked him if he thought it would still be available tomorrow, and he said he hoped so, but his face betrayed a tiny bit of doubt. Meanwhile, metal detector guy was following us with extreme interest, looking almost comically surprised at the easy candor I had with Kevin. When I then offered to give Kevin a ride to check out the prospective new housing situation so that he wouldn’t miss the opportunity, metal detector guy’s surprise turned to amazement, and then almost as quickly, into what I can only describe as some kind of peaceful understanding. Kevin had ceased to be a threat, and had become a legitimate human being, just like that. I told Kevin I had to run back down to my house to drop some groceries off, and I’d be back in a few minutes. When I got back, he and metal detector guy were talking, both smiling, and metal detector guy waved goodbye to him as he walked to my car. Belligerence and mistrust had just turned to goodwill, and it had turned so easily.

I tell this story not to call attention to the notion that I did something nice for someone, and that the kindness perhaps even rubbed off a little on someone who was perhaps less inclined to consider the needs of someone less fortunate, but to illustrate that everyone – no matter where they may fall on the cultural spectrum – has the capacity for acceptance at the very least, if not full compassion, for other human beings. The transition of perspective from viewing others as enemies to viewing them as fellow human beings may seem an impossible stretch for some people, especially those who have been subsumed by the worst messages our culture has to offer, but the capacity is there.

This is important to remember as we face the prospect of another election year, which in all likelihood will prove to be an exceptionally ugly one. We will all encounter people who have misguided opinions about what will “fix” the country, and people with pent up rage which they direct toward people of other creeds, cultures and skin color. But it’s crucial to remember that none of these people have the intent to be evil. They are generally just deeply frightened of the uncertainty of life, and are often not bright enough to see how ugly their convictions are (I don’t mean to imply that metal detector guy was prejudiced in this way, but he was almost certainly a part of the particular culture that breeds such convictions). These people deserve compassion too. Their hate is just an instinctual response to fear. And many are greedy and selfish beyond comprehension – but in most cases that greed is really just fearful desperation. When dealing with people who are under the control of such fear, even the smallest gestures of goodwill are incremental nudges toward the diffusion of the fear and hate which fuels their actions. With now over 7 billion people on the planet and a populace deeply divided along certain cultural lines in what has been the most influential country on the planet for the past 100 years or so (we’re all united in our rampant consumerism – some just have more guilt about it than others), we’re sitting on a bomb. De-fusing it will require every bit of courage and delicate, precise action that we can muster. It is crucial that we redirect our disgust away from people we disagree with, and channel it toward their actions, and toward the misguided cultural institutions which reinforce the fear and hate that afflicts them. We must never lose sight of the fact that we are all just frightened mammals – some less frightened than others, and some from a better informed perspective, yes, but equally as capable of causing more strife in the world, if we should forget to view ourselves and others in this light.

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About Pete Larson

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki University Institute for Tropical Medicine

2 responses to “Guest Post: Squatters in the Election Year”

  1. kumasaki says :

    Hello Jeff,

    How are you? It has been long time no see you. Your story is always interesting and unpredictable.

    I agree with you that it is more difficult to let people who we disagree with to have their rights and liberty that demanding ours. I am really afraid that not only the U.S. but the whole world is leaning toward the social conservative and economically liberal.

    I hope that we can see you soon.
    Take care!

  2. stumpwater says :

    Hi Fumie! Yes, Europe is certainly headed that way, at the moment. I’m not as sure about Asia or Africa, but you may be right. I see a lot of cultural movement in the other direction as well though, so who knows? I would love to be able to hang out with you and Pete and compare notes!

    btw, Sayo and I both enjoy your blog (Kumasaki’s Blog).

    Hope to see you soon too!

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