I was driving home today and came upon this strange tableau on Bell Street, near Grady Memorial Hospital. Bell Street used to be home to a public housing project that has been razed to make way for yet another mixed-use development.
This scene, which is larger than the picture denotes, is next to the bridge on Bell Street where homeless people have frequently encamped. I’ve seen as many as 50 people sleeping under the bridge. The police clear them out but they usually return a few weeks later. Lately, though, I haven’t seen so many.
I’m not sure what to make of this. It looks kind of like a hybrid of hobo art and installation art, although there is nothing present to suggest that it was actually undertaken as an art project. If it’s someone’s spontaneous creation, it’s certainly a perfect expression of what’s going on in our increasingly soulless culture.
From a distance, the central image looked like a bar, but, on closer inspection, it could as well be an altar devoted to consumer culture. What is certain is that a television, vacuous even when working (like most of the media), belongs amid the refuse that completely litters the scene. Indeed, the TV is the only organizing presence, but it basically functions only to prop up the hideous flotsam of the culture. (And people wonder why the mainstream media are in such decline.)
Much of the refuse scattered about the altar-bar is, like the bottles atop it, food and drink containers. I assume these were salvaged by homeless people in their day-long hunts for food and drink — for survival. But when I look at the scene, I see the degradation of American life generally.
There is nothing here that wouldn’t be in the average American’s home and pantry and, as our economy continues to tank and the dying middle class empties food banks, the so-called underclass swells. Welcome to the new dystopia, where anyone can end up homeless and sick under a bridge, a few blocks from an underfunded public hospital in a culture whose politicians and journalists can’t quite bring themselves to view health care or food or shelter as basic rights.
I have stopped a few times during the last year to talk to people who were sleeping under the bridge. (I wrote about them in my cancelled “Headcase” column.) Contrary to the usual assumption, they weren’t all unemployed. That you can be employed full-time and still homeless and hungry in America is shocking.
I look at this scene — directly across from the building site of the shiny apartments that will replace public housing — and find it both sad and bitterly funny. I wonder how long it’s been there, how long it took me to notice it. We really do need to open our eyes.