Yesterday I returned to Chile having spent two weeks in San Francisco. Turn on the TV in Santiago and it is odd for an American to once again see legions of school children each with jet black hair this characteristic having been passed down from the various indigenous peoples of Chile. Go to a restaurant and in typical Chilean fashion what is available to order does not match what is available on the menu. Drive down the street and a power cable hangs down in the street slapping the windshield in stark contrast to the USA where all the streets are perfect and there are no dangling cables. Violent protests flare up in the north where the citizens demand the closure of an industrial pig farm with its noxious effluvia. Oh,it is good to be home.
Coming back to Chile from my native USA it is like passing through one period in time to another. Down here with regards to the mix of peoples we are closer to the era of the conquistadors than the more modern swarm who have changed the face of the USA from one color to another. America is a mix of peoples while everyone in Chile is more or less the same except the people here are divided into upper, middle, and lower classes delineated largely by hair color, breeding, and wealth.
In San Francisco there are all types of people although it would seem the blacks have largely been pushed from the scene through gentrification. There are more Asians here than in the rest of America. Announcements on the bus are in English, Spanish, and Chinese. In the Mission District, Mexicans sell tacos–these are much better than those sold in Chile where Mexicans are few and they change the recipe. In San Francisco there are two-dimensional sexless Chinese girls with spectacles and straight un-coiffed hair recently descended onto American soil from Taiwan to attend college. These are followed by voluptuous three dimensional Chinese beauties sporting t-shirts whose slogans written across the chest forces you to stare at their breasts drawn is at it were like Adam toward Eve. At the BART subway legions of look-alike Indian software engineers all with the same glasses and haircut head into the office from the hinterland of suburbia long accustomed to the one hour ride. Their copycat appearance stands in stark contrast to their full-figured wives who on the weekend might wear colorful saris. Back on the commuter train there are the overweight white men heading to the office sitting next to overweight white women some thirty years on the job soon to the be crowded out by all the immigrants and early retirement. Finally there are the WASP handsome fraternity boys heading off the Stanford and the barbie blondes headed off to office jobs or to polish their nails. The girls speak the language of the Southern California Valley Girls–every other word is “like”–although I am not sure people still use that phrase. We must ask Thomas Pynchon who is America’s most famous chronicler of California culture.
Yet there is one thing one finds in San Francisco and other major American cities which is not found in Chile and that is aggressive panhandlers some of whom can be called dangerous. Seemingly they are on every corner. Some of them menace passersby. Others not, but most are aggressive.
A friend and I took the cable car to Fisherman´s Wharf. At the cable car roundabout a beggar turned con man was attempting to collect fares from passengers before they boarded the train. He did not work for the city . He offered a discount ticket of $2. No cop and no transit official bothered to run him off. In fact, no police were visible in most of the downtown area.
As people queued up to the train, one woman plied and prodded foreign tourists to give her money. The one person who did give her money was greeted with a “Thank you. God bless you,” as if the benevolent almighty God had somehow sanctioned this gesture which one could characterize as charity or merely the desire to be rid of this annoying person. Those who did not give money were accosted with threats of “What´s wrong? You don’t like black people. You mother fucking white people.”
Same thing happened at Fisherman´s Wharf. A very large black man was asking wide-eyed tourists for cash. He did not bother San Franciscans because he knew they were not so easy prey. We did not pay so he said, “Mother fucking white people. You don´t like black people?” In Chile one would call this assault.
The same happened later that week. A Chilean friend started to give the a beggar money. I told him not to do that and the beggar cursed us both. I told the beggar to go away or we would call the police. What I really I felt was a desire to pound this threat into the pavement, but my friend said we should leave him alone. The San Franciscan does not pay attention to beggars. Instead he has become stoic, thus the problem continues unabated.
One California legislator is trying to do something about this menace and has proposed a bill reigning in such behavior. Predictably the liberal San Francisco Chronicle newspaper weighed in on its editorial page against such legislation. The politicos in America’s most liberal city do not understand it is a frighten-the-kids issues to allow bums to menace people on the street. In fact, in Berkeley they are welcome, so panhandlers blanket every corner. There they are largely white, peaceful, holdouts from the 1960’s hippie culture looking for the long gone Beat Generation and Jack Kerouac. They threaten no one. Instead they greet each other like old friends, as they rummage in the garbage for food.
In Chile, there are beggars, but they do not bother people. The reason for that is the mentally ill can go to the hospital and the state pays the bill. In the USA, the practice is to rotate the schizophrenic into and out of the clinic because of the system of private insurance and civil libertarians have said they cannot be locked up. Outside the hospital, they have no one to make sure they take their medicine, so they grow delusional and violent again. In the USA, they no longer keep people in the mental hospital for years at a time. This is all explained by T.M. Luhrmann in his book “Of Two Minds: An Anthropologist Looks at American Psychiatry.” There is nor more “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”.
That the American system is broken was put on display that very week, as a 58 year old man was pushed in front of a subway train in New York City by a homeless black man in his 20s. The daughter of the man complained that no one helped the man climb back up onto the platform as he struggled 20 seconds to move out of the way of the the subway car that ran over and killed him. A professional freelance photographer instead snapped his photo as the man was pushed to his death. One wonders how people can be so indifferent and cold.
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