The Human Condition:

Civilization and Its Stressors – August 30, 2015

Homeless person

I was at my motorcycle dealership in San Francisco recently, getting a new set of tires for R1200R.1 While I was waiting in the showroom, looking over the new BMW bikes and high-end gear, a man came in, sat down in one of the chairs facing a salesman’s desk, put his head back, and passed out. The man seemed to be relatively clean but bearded, barefoot, and wearing only shorts, tee shirt, and a hooded sweatshirt—whose string had become tied up under his nose. Perhaps the string was smothering or choking him.

The sales staff and the store manager tried to revive the man, but he was unresponsive. When they tried to rouse him and lift him out of the chair, he sagged, slumped to the floor, and rolled onto his back. He lay there, visibly breathing, eyes open, but still unresponsive. The staff tried to ask him how he was—who he was—and got nothing. Finally, the store manager called 911 for an ambulance. The medical technician on the phone asked the manager about the patient’s age, and out loud he hazarded mid-thirties at a guess. To this, the man lying on the floor bellowed, “I’m forty-three!”—as if that made a difference. Then he rolled over, put his head on his arms, and seemed to fall asleep.

In a few minutes, the paramedics showed up, put the man on a gurney with an oxygen tube, and took him away.

I asked the store manager later how often this sort of thing happened, and he said he had experienced it several times. One of the sales staff offered as an explanation simply that the dealership was in the South of Market neighborhood. While the area is now becoming gentrified, especially with the new downtown ballpark and Mission Bay hospital complexes, it is still a favorite haunt of the homeless and the drug addled. Since the man on the floor had been relatively clean, though shoeless, he had either just gotten a shower at the homeless shelter in the next block, or his problem was not being homeless per se, but he was wandering through a fantasy world of drugs and alcohol.

Homelessness is a big problem in San Francisco, where the weather is warm and the social services are plentiful. People in most Bay Area communities are also relatively tolerant. If you doubt this, consider that the store manager called for an ambulance—which will end up costing somebody, possibly him, between $1,200 and $2,000—instead of having his three strong young salesmen just pick the man up and dump him in the gutter. However, recent news articles are beginning to complain of foul smells in this beautiful city, which relies on tourists for much of its economic health. When people relieve themselves in alleyways and public parks, and a four-year drought has cut down on the rain to wash it all away, people’s tempers and tolerance begin to wear thin.

I understand from my volunteer work with the East Bay chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness2 that most people are not voluntarily homeless. A large percentage have severe mental health conditions that should be treated in a supervised, residential care facility. It was a combination of good legal intentions, including the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act of 1967 in California and others like it around the country, coupled with failed economics, including lack of funding for the Community Mental Health Act of 1963, that has left hundreds of thousands of patients without adequate care after their deinstitutionalization unless they have adequate family resources.

I also understand that alcoholism and drug dependence are fierce beasts. They can rob anyone of his or her job, position in society, family support, self-respect, and ultimately of housing and a stable living situation. One can too easily go from sipping vintage wines and single-malt scotch to panhandling for the cash to buy anything with a screw cap and a bit of alcoholic content.3 Having beaten a couple of addictions myself—although never having sunk to the level of panhandling in the street4—I know that the old adage is true: “First the man takes a drink. Then the drink takes a drink. Then the drink takes the man.” The addiction robs you of the mental focus and will power needed to mount a defense against it. The path always leads downward, and the opportunities to reverse course become fewer and require more energy and resolve at each step. Beating an addiction takes huge effort plus a great deal of patience, perseverance, and luck.

Finally, I understand that some people are homeless simply through bad luck and misplaced circumstances. They lose their job, lose their home, and can’t find a suitable replacement in the market where they happen to end up. It’s not that houses and apartments are ever in short supply, because housing stock is always available at some price. But the price mismatch between what’s available and what the average person in reduced circumstances can afford may deal anyone out of a permanent fixed address. Buying a house or condominium represents a significant investment, usually the biggest purchase anyone will make in a lifetime, and that comes with a large down payment. But even renting demands up-front resources in terms of demonstrating economic dependability and being able to pay a security deposit, first and last month’s rent, utilities, moving costs, and so on.

Each of us—or at least I hope most of the people reading this—was taught from childhood to strive and “make something of ourselves.” Get a good education. Land a good job with the potential to become a career. Save and invest for a rainy day. Find a mate and start a family. Buy a house in a good neighborhood with good schools. Earn the respect of your friends, neighbors, customers, and coworkers. Build a place for yourself in the community. Create a nest egg for retirement and as a shield against adversity. We are supposed to be a nation of strivers, of self-reliant adults, of mostly rugged individuals.

That’s a lot of responsibility. And modern civilization subjects a person and a family to more stressors than at any time in human history. Consider that our nervous system developed in an evolutionary process that subjected us to limited amounts of stimuli. A member of a hunter-gatherer culture might meet, know, and have to deal with at most a few hundred people in a lifetime, counting close family, extended family of uncles, aunts, and cousins, then the tribal community, the band of potential enemies and possible mates living in the next valley, and finally anyone who wanders into your valley or whom you meet while going off to find new game, a new berry patch, or a stretch of river not already stirred up by somebody else’s muddy feet. In this environment, you quickly run out of stimulating conversation or assaults on the senses—which is a good thing, because you need to keep your eyes open and your mind clear. You need all your senses so you can sniff the breeze to know when the berries are ripe and watch the bushes so the leopard doesn’t sneak up on you.

When humanity settled down to do farming—usually by joining one of those hydraulic empires where some king or pharaoh and his gang of busy ministers controlled the irrigation rights—the average person’s acquaintance increased by maybe tenfold. Suddenly, a person’s rules to live by expanded from “Be nice to me or I’ll kill you with a sharp rock” to encompass elaborate courtesies owed to the sovereign and his minions; customs for trading in the marketplace, drinking from the well, and meeting strangers on the path; and obligations to the local landlord, the district ward boss, the guild of butchers, bakers, grocers, and midwives, and the shamans union. If your king and his army were successful enough, you might end up crowded in a city of a fifty or a hundred thousand, or even a million people—the population of Rome at its height in the second century AD. The Romans were the first civilization to invent tenement dwelling, packing citizens, freedmen, slaves, and foreigners into multistory buildings called “insulae.” And Rome was the first city to deal with all the modern problems of urban living, such as piping in fresh water, managing the food supply through international trade, and carrying away raw sewage—everything but wiring the town for telecommunications and an energy grid.

Population pressure does all sorts of crazy things to most animals. Put too many rats into an enclosed space, and even if each individual rat has adequate food and water, shelter from the weather, and protection from predators—the basics of living, everything except elbowroom—they will turn aggressive, violent, socially and sexually deviant, and morally estranged. Rats packed into a dense environment are unable to survive. This was the finding of researcher John B. Calhoun in experiments starting in 1947 and inspired by tales of urban tensions, aggressions, and dysfunctions from the early 20th century. But more recent research has suggested that people are not rats,5 and not all rats were so affected in Calhoun’s experiments. It was not lack of space that led to chaos in the rat pen, but too much social interaction and lack of privacy. People become inundated when they have to deal with too many other people and don’t have time for themselves.6

I recently posted that we seem to be inundated with movies and books celebrating fantasies of the apocalypse.7 Western civilization has become so personally burdensome, so full of obligations and etiquette, social interactions, government regulations, posted rules, written codes, unwritten laws, and daily calls upon our acquaintance and our attention spans, that many of us—maybe most of us—secretly wish it were all blown away by nuclear war, climate collapse, or the zombie plague. Then we could go back to a time when all you had to do was find the berries, hunt the deer, keep an eye on your neighbor, and hang onto that sharp rock.

Most of us, however, are still coping. We manage to find a job, hold the family together, educate ourselves and our children, and pay off the mortgage. We try to remain interested in current events, church functions, and social media. We make time for volunteer activities. Now and then we can lose ourselves in a really good book or movie, or we pause to enjoy a new ice-cream flavor—all products of civilization.

But then a man walks barefoot into the motorcycle shop, sits down, puts his head back, and mentally checks out. When they finally manage to get him out of the chair, he slumps to the floor and just lies there. Maybe he’s high on drugs or cheap wine. Maybe he’s schizophrenic and gone off his meds. Or maybe he’s met just one too many rats in the urban maze and has run out of coping skills.

I try to think of a life where this shutdown behavior looks like any kind of solution to life’s problems, and the prospect frightens me.

1. This happens more often than you would think or I would like. While car tires are now averaging a lifetime of 40,000 miles, motorcycle tires are much shorter-lived. I routinely get 12,000 miles on a good set, regardless of the vehicle’s weight and engine size. But then, I am cautious on the throttle, light on the brakes, routinely use engine compression to slow down at speed, and never spin my wheels to burn rubber. Younger or newer riders usually get about 8,000 miles on their tires. And this is expensive rubber, costing about $230 per tire. For more about my current motorcycles, see in the sidebar at The Iron Stable.

2. See the sidebar at NAMI East Bay.

3. Speaking of panhandling, a persistent myth says this is actually a good way to earn a living. A Sherlock Holmes story, “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” suggests as much. I know from my own experience at the freeway exit nearest my home, which piles up quite a line of cars at the stoplight, even at midday and non-rush hours, that one or two shaggy people are always waiting at the corner with those cardboard signs saying, “Homeless/Hungry/Disabled Vet/God Bless.” About half the time when I use this exit, someone stopped in line ahead or driving through hands over some money. And from the way it’s passed, these are bills, not loose change. I once calculated that if a panhandler receives just $1 every five minutes or so—and people in the Bay Area are usually rich enough to give out more than just a dollar each time—the recipient would be making $12 an hour. So that’s better wages than you can make flipping burgers at McDonald’s. But still, standing in the sun trying to look deserving every minute and smiling all the time is hard work, and the hours are brutal.

4. See Your Buddha Nature from August 2, 2015.

5. See Carla Garnett, “Medical Historian Examines NIMH Experiments in Crowding,” The NIH Record, July 25, 2008.

6. Consider what this does mentally to the average customer-facing worker in a relatively low-wage job—salesperson, register clerk, bank teller, flight attendant, toll taker—who must interact however briefly with hundreds of strangers each day and perhaps thousands during the week. The psychic battering and loss of any sense of privacy—“Smile!” “Be polite!” “Let the anger and insults roll off!” “The customer is always right!”—must be truly damaging in the end.

7. See Fantasies of the Apocalypse from August 9, 2015.