Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Dec 12, Colin Rafferty on Sherman Alexie's “My Encounters With the Homeless People of the Pacific Northwest”

The problem with Sherman Alexie as an essayist is that he’s usually playing a fiddle numbered somewhere after Sherman Alexie the novelist, Sherman Alexie the short story writer, Sherman Alexie the poet, Sherman Alexie the screenplay writer, Sherman Alexie the stand-up comedian, and Sherman Alexie the singer (maybe not the latter, as I’ve only heard him sing once). Nevertheless, Alexie’s nonfiction, when it does appear, is remarkable in its ability to make a complicated mix of emotions. Like all good stand-up comedians, Alexie realizes that comedy and tragedy share a duplex, and their interaction is maybe the most essential part of the human condition.

Alexie’s essay “My Encounters With the Homeless People of the Pacific Northwest" [pdf link], printed originally in the Fall 2006 of Willow Springs, is a simple list essay: seven narratives chronicling exactly what the title promises. Alexie plays social observer of the urban invisible, calling our attention to these ignored people, a kind of tribe of their own, while still arguing for their individualities. Alexie is too smart (and too aware, I imagine, of stereotypes of Native Americans) to find any quiet nobility in these people; they’re larcenous, crude, and racist, calling him fat and questioning his sexuality (Alexie recognizes one man who’s just called him a “half-a-fag” as the same one who called him a “fag” two years earlier: “from fully fag to half-a-fag in only two years. I guess I’m making progress”).

Alexie’s first six sections ask questions of the reader: how do we, as city dwellers, deal with the mass of tragic humanity living without housing in our cities? How do we help them—really help them? We can buy them food; Alexie does, offering groceries to a man who throws a bag of bagels back at him, saying “I hate that Jew shit.” We can try to engage them; Alexie does, asking three homeless Native Americans which tribes they belong to, to which one replies “the Eat My Pussy tribe.” Alexie suggests that we are driven by a desire to help, but that in trying, we run up against humanity’s tendencies towards conflict and frustration.

As a result, all our encounters with the homeless are unsatisfying, no matter how good our intentions are. Carrying groceries to a panhandler outside a supermarket, Alexie wants “to stop every attractive woman and tell her I bought food for the homeless.” We use the homeless for our own ends, Alexie argues, seeing them when it’s convenient for us, when we need them to make us feel better about our own privilege.

The final section is where Alexie explores that idea to devastating effect. Outside an upscale grocery store, he meets a young woman with a dog, who explains that she needs $500 for an operation, to be performed at cost by a kindly veterinarian, to remove a tumor from her dog. Alexie, “feeling artistic and generous,” asks for the vet’s phone number. When he speaks to the vet, he learns that the dog’s tumor is in his spine, and that even if the operation succeeds, the old dog would suffer for the rest of his short life.

“She has to let him go,” the vet tells Alexie.

He returns to the grocery the next day, but can’t find the dog’s owner, who had assured him that they were always there. Later visits fail to uncover her whereabouts, and years later, Alexie looks for her and her dog every time he passes the grocery; “I can’t let them go,” he writes.

What Alexie wants to tell her is unclear; does he want to tell her what the vet said in order to convince her that she should not save money for the dog but instead for her? Does he want to comfort her in the loss of her companion? Or does Alexie want to prove to her that he did follow up on what he said he’d do, to show her that people—and him specifically—do care about the homeless?

None of these. In the final two sentences of the essay, Alexie destroys our comfortable narrative about our relationships with the homeless, our passive benevolence towards them.

“I can’t let them go because I’m a liar,” he writes. “I never called the vet.”


Colin Rafferty teaches nonfiction writing at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Recent work has appeared in Witness, the Rumpus, and Used Furniture Review.

1 comment:

  1. This sounds like a super intriguing essay. Can't wait to read it.