I worked on an Alaskan crab boat in the Bering Sea for a couple of years during the late ’90s, which is why I spent the first couple years of the new century an unflattering shade of blue. To say that it was cold would be like calling a heart attack a slight pain. We were hungry much of the time, and so tired that we fell asleep standing up on the boat’s deck. Each day brought fresh perils, and one particularly riotous bout of weather left the crew so demoralized that the captain had a rare moment of sympathy—or perhaps just fear that we would mutiny and abandon our mission—and proposed a pick-me-up. We would hold an afternoon funeral service for the sailors who had lost their lives to the tempestuous sea.
I have to admit that I couldn’t see much use in it. We were still cold and wet and just as hungry as before, and on top of that we were being rather brazenly reminded of the fact of our mortality. They were dead, and we might be too, and we knew that when we first boarded the vessel, but the captain’s energy might have been better spent taking pains to ensure our comfort and survival. Solidarity’s all well and good, but when it’s a token or show, a pat on the back can feel more like a slap in the face.
Maybe that’s all true. Maybe I’ve spent too much time plastered to my couch watching Deadliest Catch. Either way, that’s what came to mind when I read that the Homeless Services Oversight Council of San Luis Obispo County is holding a candlelight vigil on Dec. 21, 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. “in remembrance of those friends and neighbors who lost their lives without homes.” Why Dec. 21? Apparently it’s the first day of winter and the longest night of the year. It sounds like a well-intended gesture. Maybe they’ll let some homeless people borrow their candles when they’re done with them? That way, they at least get a brief spark of physical warmth out of the gesture, you know, something to match that warm fuzzy feeling in their hearts.
You at least have to hand it to the council that planned this shindig: It’s perfectly scheduled. It gives you just enough time to leave work, light a candle, then maybe grab some dinner and head home for a hot shower. Hell, maybe they’ll go all out: draw a nice bath, toss in some fruity salts, and light whatever’s left of those compassion candles.
Or you could open the mission for one night. Perhaps show some Christ-like compassion and empathy.
Why is it that the most compelling show of empathy we can dredge up is for people who are already dead? I’m sure every homeless man, woman, and child will be relieved to know that when they’re dead a group of concerned citizens will light a candle in their memory. Personally, if I were without a home on the coldest, longest night of the year, I’d want a warm, safe place to sleep. I guess that’s the kind of simplistic thinking that stands between me and a good job with a cushy salary.
If opening the mission is too much to ask, maybe we could show our empathy by braving the longest, coldest night together? The dozen or so councils and committees who keep hosting retreats and workshops to resolve the issue of homelessness, the handful of people who insist on having pissing contests over who is doing the most for the homeless community, the supervisors who purport to care so very much, the writers questioning your credibility. If you really want, you can bring your candles, too. I just don’t know many equations in which a candle and good intentions amount to all that much.
It didn’t work for the little match girl, and I don’t think it’s the sort of bold gesture required to convince the growing homeless population to soldier on against endless hungry, bone-chilling days.
And while I’m on the subject of stepping up and pitching in, let me put another thought on the table for city leaders throughout San Luis Obispo County.
I was stunned to see that SLO City Council members voted to cut their own pay earlier this month. You could have knocked me over with a feather. It would have had to be a serious feather—I’m talking steel reinforced and so heavy it’s hard to lift—but still.
Various city leaders are going to be seeing smaller paychecks in the coming days, and Katie Lichtig, the much-scrutinized and high-paid city manager, said she’d cut her $450-a-month car allowance.
The two council members who voted against the cuts—Kathy Smith and Dan Carpenter—wanted some more “dramatic financial leadership,” meaning they wanted to see the plan go further. I can get behind that! Slash away, oh wise ones!
The overall decrease for the city’s top brass amounts to about 8 percent. Atascadero’s city leaders also recently decided to lower their compensation, knocking their own compensation down 1 to 3 percent. As Carter said about his own city’s move, “It’s a good first step … .”
So the gauntlet has been thrown. The SLO city leaders said they came to their decision because they wanted to lead by example, so let them lead. Ye cities and towns and community services districts, take note. Even if your own savings would amount to less than San Luis Obispo’s $800,000 or so a year, every bit helps. Look into voluntary furloughs. Consider giving up that taxpayer-funded car you never drive anyway.
Your constituents will thank you.
Shredder likes its candles olaliberry-scented. Send matches to firstname.lastname@example.org.