Moral Relativism on the Phoenix Streets

Author: William T. McGrath '02

I walk through the parking lot of the homeless shelter where I work. The benches under the shade tent are occupied with sleepers and readers, men rolling cigarettes by hand, a guy named Raul listening to a beat-up transistor radio. They are waiting for the soup line to start. The Phoenix sun is unleashing its full salvo upon the city, and the parking lot is pacific. It is too hot to do much other than sit still.

I walk out into the street, trying to catch a piece of breeze, and see Bernard coming down the block.

Bernard is a born grifter. His face is broad and pleasant, and his Hawaiian features exude a natural kindness that charms people into letting their guard down. Every day he wears the same garish Hawaiian shirt—an explosion of red and aquamarine, now tattered after many years. It could be a lighthearted prod at his ethnicity, or it could be the only shirt he owns. I think it is something more calculated, though. I think it is a façade, an image of relaxed leisure, something to mask the incessant churning of his mind, which is not relaxed, which knows no rest, which knows that—as Primo Levi once said—"There is always war."

He sees me and sprints down the block. He arrives panting.

“I need some ice, man.”

“Bernard, you know we can’t give out ice.”

“You don’t understand. It’s not for me. You know my friend Rico? He got beat up, bad. You know those bangers that are always hanging out on 9th Avenue? They jumped him. I just need to get him some ice, get the swelling down.”

“Here’s the problem, Bernard. We only have a little ice in the kitchen, and if anyone out here sees me giving you ice they’re going to flip. I’ll have a riot on my hands.”

“Come on, man. Rico needs it. He’s lying out there half dead. People will understand.”

I hem and haw. I mentally flip a coin.

“Okay, listen. You’ve gotta be discreet about this. I’ll see what I can find, but this never happened, okay?”

“Hey, you don’t have to tell me twice. I really appreciate this.”

I go into the building and fill a large plastic bag with ice. I entrust it to Bernard with the utmost stealth, reminding him that this is a one-time deal, for special medicinal use only.

Five minutes later I find Bernard, out on the other side of our building, selling ice for 25 cents a cube.

This is not an isolated incident. Bernard only scams me once, but everyone on the staff gets taken by him at some point. At first I am furious, my trust violated like that. I want him kicked out of our parking lot, banned from our services, but cooler heads convince me I am overreacting. Eventually I come to understand something. Bernard’s lies are not really lies. I can’t legitimately feel hurt or angry, because I am applying reactions from another life, from a life I lived before I came to Phoenix. In this new life, these feelings of indignation and betrayal are inaccurate. When trying to survive on the street, people act. The idea of duplicity being involved in someone’s actions is irrelevant. People act so they can continue to live. The concepts of honesty or falsehood are luxuries of the rich, those not beneath the boot heel.

One day I see Bernard stop before a man in a post-binge stupor, a man lying semiconscious in the street, bearing the full brunt of the sun. Bernard rouses him, leads him to the drinking fountain, forces him to drink. He cups his hands and splashes water on the back of the man’s neck. He takes the man to the thin swath of shade provided by a palm tree and settles him there against the trunk. It is an act of indescribable beauty. Then, as the man drifts back into his drug-laced dreams, Bernard rifles through his pockets, looking for money or drugs, anything with street value.

After the soup line one night, Bernard and I are talking as we walk outside. He is drunk and rambling, telling me about the time he found 50 fresh hamburgers in the dumpster behind a McDonald’s. When we head out the door, I notice several Hispanic men sitting on the curb across the street. They have just arrived in the city, have come through the desert in the night. Some are my age and younger; some of the men might be their fathers. They are dirty and scared, and are being lectured at by a middle-age Hispanic man wearing crisp new blue jeans and gold chains around his neck. His head is shaved, and he wears black wraparound sunglasses. His chains shake and jingle as he sweeps his arms in expansive gestures.

This man is a recruiter. He will gather these illegals and take them to work, like indentured servants, on a ranch somewhere or maybe with a construction crew. This recruiter will steal their money and sell them into slavery. He will promise them a new life in America and barter them like chattel to a rancher. He will take their wages for his finder’s fee or his transportation fee or his management fee, whatever he calls it this time. These poor illegals have no idea what is going on; the fear on their faces is mingled with anticipation, with hope.

Bernard starts yelling in Spanish. I never knew he could speak Spanish. He is drunk and slurring, but we all understand what he is saying.

“You are not slaves!” he is yelling at the illegals sitting on the curb.

“Remember that you are human beings, that you have dignity!”

The recruiter turns, starts cursing at Bernard in Spanish, worried that he might lose his audience. He turns back to the men sitting on the curb and tells them that Bernard is a drug addict, that he is lazy and doesn’t want to work like a man.

“You are not slaves!” Bernard yells. “Don’t forget that you are men, not animals!”

The recruiter turns to move toward Bernard, who starts forward to meet him in the street. I pull him back.

“Bernard, please.”

He turns to me, his eyes unfocused, his breath reeking of alcohol.

“Somebody has to make them remember.”

William McGrath works for Detroit Public Radio.