The Bum

While I am thankful for the gift of being able to create unique humor, I am even more thankful for being able to recognize the lessons in life that humble and inspire me.

I’m not referring to how my dog stands at the kitchen door to be let out.  I could use that as an example, but the fact that he will just stand there and look at the door as if he were metaphysically trying to open it with super dog powers, isn’t what I’m talking a bout.  I mean, yes, I have learned that if I neglect opening the door, I will soon be mopping up his mess, but, still, that’s hardly a life lesson.  Of course, we did have a cocker spaniel named, Rubbi, (which was short for ‘rubbish’ because the garbage man had found him) who always freaked-out during thunderstorms.  We quickly learned that if you didn’t blockade the fireplace with chairs and sofa cushions, he would dive into the ashes and, basically, lose it.  A life lesson, but, again, hardly the kind that humbled me.

To give you a better idea as to what life lessons I’m referring to, let’s look at some wonderfully, inspiring, narrow-minded racists in Los Angeles.  I’m going to get a little help from Hollywood to make my point.

The movie Crash is a wonderful movie.

It’s wonderful (and I know this will sound odd) because it’s full of inner-city racism.  From white cops who subordinate blacks, to mid-eastern shop owners who distrust Hispanics, to upper-class white women who patronize their cleaning ladies, to Orientals who suspect the slightest disruption as a threat, the movie is rich with (and here’s my list of wonderful words): anger, irritation, infuriation, rage, hostility, suspicion, angst, get off my property, don’t touch my property, give me your property, keep out, buzz off, get a life, and, of course, I’ll kill you.  Everyone in the movie is a predator and everyone is the prey. It is human survival at its purest.  Watch your back, or lose your back.

If all that was shown was the first half of the movie, you might come to the conclusion that it is a morbid publicity stunt aimed at persuading us to never enter the city limits of Los Angeles.  If you’ve been there before, well, don’t go back.  It’s looking bleak.

Luckily, the second half of the film exists, and it is that part which leads me to declare the film as wonderful.  Amid the dark gray cloud of bias, destruction, and hate, there is a silver lining offered to those who have the patience and smarts to put an end to their racism.  While most everyone in the movie is the problem, they are also the solution.

Though Crash can be seen as a study of how cultures collide with racism, as well as a study of how there is hope to end racism, I like to use the film in a broader sense, showing how people are trapped in judging other people.  It is because of this judging that so many lost opportunities occur.  In Crash there were life-altering situations that changed people and gave them new perspectives.  The movie very much hit home with me, because I have been there. Not racially, but rather judgmentally. If I never paid attention to the life lessons being taught to me on the spot, then how was I ever going to change?

To illustrate this, let me take you back to my first outdoor art festival in Austin, Texas.  I had just pulled up my van to my 10’ x 10’ booth space that was located amongst other spaces in a long row of tents to protect display walls and art from any threatening weather.  As I unload my van and begin erecting my display walls, I couldn’t help but notice a man who was going through some trashcans. Like any other large city, if you drive downtown in Austin you will see your share of homeless people shuffling along the sidewalks, poking their heads in trash bins and asking for money from just about anyone.  Because I didn’t live in the city, but in a smaller community, it was rare that I came across a homeless person.   As I was there unloading the van, I couldn’t help but stare and think about this grizzly, whiskered bum, whose clothes looked about as disorderly as his appearance. What happened in his past? Drugs? Alcohol? Family abuse? Why was he here?  Did the festival authorities know he was down here?  And for some reason, because he was missing an arm and a leg, I tried my best not to make eye contact. I simply did not want to converse (as if that would be a horrible thing). But unexpectedly, he caught a glimpse of me looking at him.  In that instant, I turned my back and returned to working on my booth.  I could hear the bum walking past me with the jabbing sound of his crutch hitting hard against the asphalt, seemingly making a statement in its own language.   I’m sure he was en route to another trashcan, but I didn’t look to see.  I just knew it.

Later in the evening, the art festival opened it gates to the public.  Most of the people who attended the Friday night opening were there for the wine tasting and mingling—more of a window shopping bunch.  There wasn’t a lot of attention being directed at serious art buying.  Most people who walked into my booth, laughed and enjoyed the art, casually sipped their wine, then went on.  Nice comments, but no substantial exchange of money.

That all changed when a nicely dressed woman became overjoyed with my work.  She had never seen any of my images before, and simply fell in love with them.  She especially favored the painting titled, “The Origins of Craters”, which is a scene of a herd of elephants walking away in the distance.  Above them is a vast night sky filled with stars.  Amongst the stars is also the Earth.  Not the Moon, but Earth.  This is because the elephants are walking on the lunar surface, and it is their footprints that are creating the Moon’s craters. This was the original painting, and had truly captured her attention.

“Don’t sell that,” she said, “Give me ten minutes to find my husband.”

I had heard too many stories of artists holding art for people who said they would return to buy it, but never did, resulting in a loss of other potential buyers in the process. This being my first art show, and not knowing any better, I honored her request. Luckily for me, within ten minutes she had returned, and strangely enough in a golf cart. Seated next to her was a man neatly dressed in a tuxedo.

The man looked vaguely familiar, but I was not able to place him.

“Honey,” she said to him as she got out of the cart, ”Come over here and look at this!  This is the painting I was telling you about. The one with the lunar elephants.”

The eyes.  What was it about his eyes?  I had seen them before, but where?  Then, the second her husband got up to exit the golf cart, it all came together.  This man in a tuxedo withdrew a crutch, helping himself up and out of the cart.  He was missing one arm and one leg.

The bum.

“Hello,” he said, smiling with an air of enthusiasm, “My wife has told me great things about your art, and I can see she was right.  This is indeed fabulous work!”

It was one of those classic Catch-22 moments:  You wanted to bask in the glory of the praise you were being given, but at the same time you wanted to kick yourself for being such an idiot, knowing fully well you couldn’t accept the praise until you made things right with yourself.  The “bum” was now standing in front of you, wearing a Tuxedo.  The bum was highly articulate as he not only complimented, but applauded your work.  The bum was a highly functioning human being who would soon inform you that he was not only a private donor to the local arts community, but was a volunteer who had spent all of yesterday emptying trashcans, replacing trashcan liners, and picking up debris around the fairgrounds.  The bum would also, before the evening came to a close, return to my booth and purchase the original painting of “The Origins of Craters,” because he liked to collect original art.

The bum was not only a wonderful man, but was one whose amputations I would never know the history of.  In the end, that didn’t matter.  What mattered was the fact that he had truly humbled me.  He had motivated me to be very careful about assuming someone’s past because of appearances.  Never again would I be so quick to judge, but would always give people the benefit of the doubt.

And that is exactly why Crash is such a wonderful movie—full of quick, knee-jerk judgments and skeptism, but also, in the end, full of the promising possibilities of change.

Copyright Ros Hill 2014

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