‘Individual Acts of Hospitality Are Not the Answer’

I think a lot about homelessness, about what it represents in our society, about our responses to it collectively and individually, about the many encounters — with a man named Charles, instance, and with Eric, and with Perry — with the destitute and down and out I’ve had over the years. And about the meaning of personal gestures.

The New York Times just published excerpts of the prison letters of Nelson Mandela. One, to his son Makgatho, talked about effective responses to poverty:

I have been reminiscing a great deal … Those were the days when you lived a happy life free of problems and fenced from all hardships and insecurity by parental love. You did not work, grub was galore, clothing was plentiful and you slept good. But some of your playmates those days roamed around completely naked and dirty because their parents were too poor to dress them and to keep them clean.

Often you brought them home and gave them food. Sometimes you went away with double the amount of swimming fees to help a needy friend. Perhaps then you acted purely out of a child’s affection for a friend, and not because you had become consciously aware of the extremes of wealth and poverty that characterized our social life. …

It’s a good thing to help a friend whenever you can; but individual acts of hospitality are not the answer. …

This is not a problem that can be handled by individual acts of hospitality. The man who attempted to use his own possessions to help all the needy would be permanently ruined and in due course himself live on alms. Experience shows that this problem can be effectively tackled only by a disciplined body of persons, who are inspired by the same ideas and united in a common cause.

Road Blog: Chicago to West Des Moines

Part of the grain elevator complex in Morrison, Illinois, just east of the Mississippi and northeast of the Quad Cities.

I left my power cord back in Chicago, so I will keep this short. After a relaxed, not to say lazy, start of the day, we started rolling at 11. OK — that was kind of lazy.

Made our way out from the North Side out to through the western suburbs on Interstates 294 and 88. Got off of U.S. 30 to continue west at Rock Falls. Right there we had the only weather of the day, driving through a line of thunderstorms that apparently marked a cold front. It was much cooler and drier to the west — 74, for instance, in Morrison, Illinois — see above — where I stopped to check out the local grain elevator scene.

We stayed on U.S. 30 across the Mississippi, through Clinton, Iowa, and on to a hamlet called Calamus. A road sign pointed north to Lost Nation. I kept going, but pulled over half a mile on to consult an actual paper map to see what getting to Lost Nation might involve. Wandering for 8 or 10 miles on country roads, it looked like. We were not under the gun timewise — we were to meet Eamon and Sakura in West Des Moines (they were coming up from Cincinnati, part of their trek from New York to Seattle) — so I did a U-turn and headed up the backroads.

A town of 400 advertising ‘small city security with big city access.’

Lost Nation: The best picture would have been of the road signs pointing out the turn, as the town itself (population 400) proved unprepossessing in our 5-minute visit (it bills itself as offering “small city security with big city access). One wonders about the origins of the name, and the stories that have found their way into print suggest both pestilence and a fanciful-sounding Native American tale as the source.

Me, my expectations tend toward pestilence or worse. Not too far down the road, we passed a sign saying, “Limited government under God: Vote Republican.”

We stopped to see what locals advertise as the world’s biggest wooden nickel, just outside Iowa City. After that, we got on Interstate 80 for the rest of the trip west. Eamon and Sakura got to the hotel nearly at the same moment we did (they would have beaten us, but stopped by the Iowa state capitol building on the way). Then dinner. Then back to our hotel, the Sheraton, and back on the road early in the morning.

California woman with local socio-political attraction near Iowa City.