Wednesday, October 20, 2004

A Note For Bill

Bill is unable to read this because Bill suffers from a combination of cataracts, macular degeneration, and retinal detachment stemming from a congenital defect. You see, Bill is guilty of the apparently unforgivable sin of being born to a mother who suffered from chicken pox during her pregnancy, and, as is frequently the case in this scenario, Bill didn't come out exactly as he was supposed to. He's not deformed to the point of being miserably handicapped. There aren't any missing limbs, and his brain is in superb working condition, so superb in fact that Bill managed to finish two years of college and even now earns a little money helping people who aren't particularly computer literate set up web sites and install software. He hasn't too much difficulty getting around as he has a nearly flawless map of Memphis stored in the area of his brain dealing with navigation and spatial relationships. He'd probably have little difficulty at all if he didn't constantly walk into telephone poles and flower planters, frequently injuring him just enough to make his life difficult and painful, but not enough to hospitalize him.

As Bill and I walked towards my house tonight so that I could get him the makings of a few sandwiches and some iced tea he held his left eye open with one hand, turning his head at specific angles attempting to counteract the effects of the macular degeneration. On the walk we chatted about his condition, Bill slowly and carefully explaining his situation, not angry with the world that had left him this way, but rather somewhere between disappointed and hopeful.

Bill told me that about seventy percent of Memphis' homeless are either "mentally disabled or substance abusers." He said that he falls into that "other" category, the men and women who just fall through the cracks of the system. As someone who is through experience wary of drug addicts and alcoholics, I wondered for the first few blocks of our walk together if Bill wasn't selling me the Brooklyn Bridge. After all, maybe the milky color of his eyes had something to do with smoking crack, and perhaps I was just unable to notice any of the classic symptoms of an alcoholic with which I am so familiar. No, Bill had approached me with a great deal of reluctance, only asking for anything at all after he was sure that I wanted to listen, lacking entirely the practiced nonchalance of a freeloader. We must've exchanged three or four sentences of casual greetings before he inquired if it would be alright for him to ask me what he was sure was "a redundant question." I, being flat broke and sure that I wouldn't be moved to offer money, but just a pastrami sandwich from my fridge, decided to listen to his pitch. And so, upon my invitation, a blind beggar accompanied me on my walk home. The drivers of several cars looked strangely at us, their aversion to Bill's disheveled state quite clear on their faces. I found myself almost glad that Bill couldn't see them.

When asked what sort of assistance he received from the government he replied that Social Security, a system we all know to be on wobbly legs at best, sent him $117 a month, of which 27 cents remained now, two-thirds of the way through the month. "There isn't much way to withdraw 27 cents from a bank, and it wouldn't do me much good if I could," Bill lamented. Bill told me that Tennessee was good enough to provide him some level of health coverage through Tenn-Care, a nearly bankrupt and poorly managed attempt at providing health care to Tennessee's poor. However, like many attempts at reforming health care for the "indigent," to use Bill's own term (a term that filled me with the frightening images of Dickens' world), Tenn-Care fails to provide for preventive medicine of any sort, instead choosing to await serious illness or injury to be useful. I asked why it was that he received so little in the way of government assistance, and was floored. Bill, a man unable to walk without periodically impacting random objects, does not qualify as one-hundred percent blind, and thus does not qualify for full disability. "When I'm fully blind," the anticipation in Bill's voice sending a shiver down my spine, "I'll get a lot of help."

Gathering that I was interested in politics Bill asked my opinion regarding embryonic stem cell research, knowing that many researchers believe that it could correct the effects of both the macular degeneration and the detached retina. "I really believe," he firmly told me, "that if I just had the money something could be done, something to fix all this." The only answer I had for him was that, yes, most probably, something could be done.

Bill was polite in the extreme, a shy sort of politeness that comes from a combination of good manners and constant rejection. If only my own generation could muster this sort of politeness in their daily life. As I walked with Bill I thought of Bellevue Baptist Church, a massive religious complex in the overwhelmingly Republican East Memphis sometimes referred to as "Six Flags Over Jesus." I imagined the massive sums of money that were brought in every year though donations and fund-raising events, such as their Broadway-like annual Christmas pageant, "The Singing Christmas Tree," a production of such magnitude as to require the participation of hundreds of cast and crew. I remembered a specific scene from one year during my childhood in which blacklights made the innumerable phosphorescent hands of the cast glow. I imagined those hands and the money that had purchased the phosphorescent paint put to use to help Bill and the millions of other Bills around the world. I imagined a world in which a structure the size of Bellevue Baptist Church might house Bill. I imagined a disability system in which a man who is functionally blind could receive more than $117 a month to help him survive, and I imagined a world in which Bill would not have to be blind, a world where preventive medicine and ongoing treatment would be available to him, a world in which the proven miracle of stem cell transplants would be allowed to give him back his sight. I imagined a world in which people understood that Christ did not mandate that the meek wait their turn to inherit the earth or that only mud return the sight of blind beggars. I imagined, and I prayed, but I gave Bill a good sweat shirt and $7, enough for him to stay three nights at the shelter, because I can't seem to muster Bill's hopeful tone, just an angry one.

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