Two nights ago I was standing on Coventry Street in London with my family, in the heart of Piccadilly Circus. Big billboards of lights and high end shops separate gift stores selling anything you can imagine with the Union Jack emblazoned on it in ink sure to partially wear off before it leaves your checked bag back at home. It’s Times Square only a bit more civilized, more British.
I understand as I stand there I am fortunate to get to do so. Flights aren’t cheap, hotels the same. But it also isn’t the most expensive destination. We see a concert one night, the reason for the trip in the first place. On this night we are taking our 7 year old son to see Wicked.
But right now, and bear with me, the ‘right now’ is the place and time I am telling this rambling story from though I now sit at my desk in Virginia, we are standing there on Coventry Street in front of a huge sweets shop that sells overpriced American candy bars and local UK favorites as well. A Wispa that will set you back .69p at a Waitros is 1.99 pounds here ($2.60).
As I’m looking around enjoying the sights and sounds, I see a homeless man, or at least a man I presume to be homeless. He stops in front of the sweets shop and looks around and at that moment in time the purple jacketed employee of the shop who usually stands at the large opening is gone, distracted by someone searching for a Curly-Wurly bar perhaps. The homeless man reaches out and grabs a bag of chocolates hanging just inside the shop, stuffs it in his jacket, and walks off down the street. A moment later, the purple jacketed employee is back on post, none the wiser that grand theft candy has just occurred in his absence.
Do I say something to the employee?
Should I have said something to the homeless man?
It happened so fast, it seemed, but in reality was about fifteen seconds. Count out fifteen seconds and you realize exactly how long that is.
This was a man who probably would like to make a better life for himself, but perhaps doesn’t have a way to do so and due to his situation people won’t reach out to help him. Is being in London his best chance for survival? Should he find a way down to Brighton or at least out to the suburbs? Luckily for him he can walk into a hospital and get treated if needed.
Meanwhile I stand there with a 1.99 pound Twix in my jacket pocket because in that store of British chocolates that is the one thing my son wanted. A not inexpensive camera is strapped around my neck. My utterly overpriced iPhone is in my pocket. Never once in the four nights in London did I feel unsafe walking around with my wife and son.
A bit later as we wandered a back street in search of the great fish and chips place that is supposed to magically appear to those pure of heart and full of cholesterol, much like Platform 9 3/4 to child wizards, the homeless man walked past us asking, demanding, change from people.
London is like every bigger city. The income divide is huge. I saw many cars I know to cost as much as the average home in the United States (which is about $188k, by the way) mixed in with banged up Fords and Renaults. New York is the same (though not the large amount of extremely expensive cars as you see in London). Washington DC. San Francisco. Same.
Yesterday when we landed at Dulles airport, we were herded through to the slow-moving customs area. We took the right turn at the U.S. Citizens sign and stood in line with a couple hundred fellow Americans. If this group could be taken as a cross sampling of our nation, the reality is much different than you might imagine. Maybe a third of the group were white. The rest ranged in ethnicity across the global gamut.
This is the real America, the customs line at Dulles Airport.
Almost every single one of us is here because at some point someone decided to make a better life for themself. For some of us it was four or five generations ago or longer. For others it was their own mother or father. Some are first generation, moving here to escape poverty, violence, whatever. It is true we cannot have an open border, but we cannot put up a barrier, either.
Enjoy your lunch, your Starbucks, watching your child play soccer or selling cookies. Sleep in your warm and comfy bed and drive your modestly priced cars. Watch the Super Bowl, or don’t because the refs suck, on your 55″ flat screen HD television with surround sound.
And decide if you would say something to the employee in the purple coat if you saw a homeless man steal a bag of chocolates.