San Francisco’s Fourth Street is a work in progress, but pretty fast work as urban development goes, and I’m making good progress myself on this particular day, heading from the Caltrain station toward the center of town. Until something stops me. A man, an old one, though doubtless younger than I am, is having trouble with his trousers. He is trudging in the same direction as I am, his legs wobbling, but with great determination. The only problem being the length of nylon rope through his trouser loops, a pseudo-belt that is not doing the job. His trousers keeps slipping and, worse, he keeps turning around, as though seeking an answer from my direction. He is a black man, hair wild, unshaven and carrying a loose bundle under his arm, a bedroll, pieces of clothing. His personal goods are nicely wrapped with a man’s belt. It is a bad deployment of resources, vis-à-vis trousers and rope, the sort of thing one wants to point out. But this man is muttering, having an ongoing conversation with the morning fog. And he keeps turning around, trousers slipping, his pubic hair on full display. As a sidewalk obstacle, he is only one person wide. Still, I want to pass him. I get my chance at the next intersection, bouncing through traffic and up the curb. I don’t look back.
Homeless. Madness. Foulness. Scrounging on the urban streets may not make you the most attractive person, but dangerous? Here I reject my suburban background. I factor in the vulnerability of being in a wheelchair. And, no, I do not downplay how streets and wheelchairs have converged in my life – getting mugged and shot in the spinal cord as a college student. While it would be naïve to assume this man is harmless, the other assumptions seem worse. And those have to do with the voodoo power of the rootless impoverished. Coupled with the horror of the demented. It is all so far from Menlo Park California, too far, in fact. Because it is right here, after all, at the end of the train line. And, like it or not, this fallen man and I are following the same course, moving along the same sidewalk, in the same country. And we all got here somehow.
I wonder what it will be like round about June. Market Street, San Francisco’s wide canyon thoroughfare, scene of tickertape parades when its baseball team wins the World Series…this is where the poor flock in reasonable weather. Homeless or just rootless, they set up card tables to enjoy chess, hawk wares. They play music. They pass time. Is it a community or an encampment or both? By the summer, it seems a safe prediction that there will be more sidewalk people. It doesn’t take much to get here. A hard landing in a hard economy, and voilà. The poor are more visible in San Francisco than most places, because they are more tolerated. Less camping under the freeway, more sleeping on the sidewalk…or so I imagine.
All of which brings us to Jared Loughner. In an ideal society people keep an eye on each other. As someone wanders off the deep end, their progress is noted, perhaps halted. Those around are warned. Something happens, something more than what happened, or didn’t happen, in Tucson. But this is America, hyper-individualistic, ever fearful of the nanny society, and conditions are what they are. Still, one condition, a manifestation of this frontier loner mentality, screams at us. How is it that an obvious nutcase, his behavior noted and chronicled by junior college officials and others…how is it that someone like this can so easily arm himself with military weapons?
He lives in the US, that is the simple answer. Hey, you never know when you might want to pump a couple of hundred rounds into someone. This is a free country. Wouldn’t want to interfere with anyone’s right to bear arms. And what are arms? Well, at the time of the Second Amendment’s drafting, they were state-of-the-art muskets. The latter being a grip-and-shoot device, no sight, something you aimed with the accuracy of a garden hose, fired once, then reloaded by cramming a combination of projectile, rags and gunpowder inside. Of course, arms have developed considerably since then. We now have nuclear arms, for example. And really, when you think about it, the right to bear small nuclear arms is built right into the Bill of Rights. We have an obligation to defend ourselves, after all. And when those immigrants start cooking their tortillas and taking our jobs, we may just have to take out several blocks of their neighborhood, just to defend ourselves some more. Which is why we have the right to bear small nuclear arms. Not the big megaton weapons, of course, although we probably have the right to bear those as well. Problem is they’re just too heavy to lug around in your 4 x 4. Small ones will do.
See, we needed guns to settle the land. Now we need them to settle the score. God helps those who arm themselves. That’s how it goes.
But where it goes, well, that is a frightening prospect. The trick is to not get frightened into inactivity. For what is just over the horizon is the prospect of political rallies in which firearms are on open, mass display. It’s already happened on a small scale. But that scale could easily grow. After all, it’s a right, isn’t it? And if people aren’t listening to you, why not take your piece out in public and show them that you mean business? And so things seem likely to go, and go, until…what? Until someone decides enough is enough.