SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2004        Personal Memory Ethnographies

Julina Bohnsack

We Are Not All the Same

I remember walking through the grocery store parking lot in Phoenix, during the 80’s, with my sister and parents, and noticing a man who was talking to some people right next to our car.  I was pretty young and innocent, probably about 6 years old, so I did not notice what he was wearing or what he was doing.  He was a homeless man who was asking for money.

I was walking through the grocery store parking lot asking people for money.  People turned me down left and right.  I am not really sure why no one had any spare change to give me.  I was a homeless man, and I needed it.

I have only been a homeless man for a year now, at least that is how long I think it has been. I was a hardworking businessman before that, until I was unjustly fired for something that I did not do. After that I could not seem to get back on my feet, and I lost everything including my wife and son.

I walked from one person to the next, and then I saw a family of four walking my way towards their car.  The two young girls and a lady, who was probably their mother, got into the car.

We had all gotten into our car except for my dad when the man asked my dad if he had a dollar. 

He replied that he did not have one to give.  I knew then that maybe I should have just asked for some spare change, and maybe then I would have at least gotten something. As I was thinking this, the strangest thing happened.

My sister, being the caring person that she was, shouted out loud that she had a dollar.   
I remember my dad frowning at her as she gave him the dollar.  My dad gave it to the homeless man, and he thanked us as he walked off.  My dad then got into the car and we left. 

Just before I walked away I noticed that the other girl had an expression on her face of perplexity. I wondered what she was so confused about.

During that car ride to dinner, my dad explained to my sister that he had had a dollar, but he did not want to give it to the homeless man.  He told us that homeless people made him nervous especially around his two little girls.  He also explained that when you give homeless people money, they usually spend it on alcohol and not on food. 

My dad told my sister that he was proud of her for not being selfish with her money though. 
To this day, the thought of alcohol still crosses my mind when I see homeless people asking for money, regardless of whether or not this is their intention.

As I walked away I wondered whether or not the blonde haired girl knew how happy she had made me.  I thought about the conversation that she and her father would have on their car ride home, but most of all I wondered whether or not that girl would grow up to be petrified of the homeless or generous toward them.  

    I just sat in the car and took all of this in.  My first thought was, why in the world would this homeless man make my dad nervous?  To me, he was just any other guy walking around.  I did not see him as a man without a home or as a threat.  I agreed with my dad for not giving him the dollar especially if he was just going buy alcohol with it.  It was not like people walked around giving my dad money to buy alcohol, but then again I was not grasping the concept of this homeless man not having a job as well as not having a house. I was young and I was fortunate so I imagined everyone else was equal to my family.  I thought about how nice it was for my sister to give that man her dollar.  I did not have a dollar in my pocket, but I do not think that I would have given it to him if I did.  It would have been money that I had earned doing chores, not something that I would have just wanted to give away.  The whole situation was rather baffling to me, and the more my sister and I asked about the man, the more confused I got.  I liked believing that everyone else’s life was just like mine, but now I could not.  This left me feeling disappointed that people were not as fortunate as me, and excited because there was now another world that I had yet to discover.
It was quite amazing all of the different things that that dollar represented for each one of us. The dollar represented something that I would have worked hard for and that I would use to buy something for myself.  To my sister, the dollar represented something not of importance to herself, but of importance to the homeless man.  To the homeless man, the dollar could have represented alcohol, food, clothing, or whatever he needed.  Today, a dollar does not mean much to me.  It represents a hamburger or a pack of gum.

But still, my experience with this “borderland” of class has stuck with me all of these years because it was my first interaction with “otherness.”  My exposure to the homeless man introduced me to a whole other world that never existed to me before.  I realized then this man was different than my family and I.  I now know that the homeless man and my father were on different levels of class.  My father would obviously be on a higher-class level than the homeless man. 

Before this experience, I was in the dark in regards to the “borderlands.” Now I understand how race, class, and gender have shaped my world. I know the different levels of each of these categories and what they represent.  Knowing this information has been helpful and hindering.  It has been helpful because I know what my place in the world is as well as what other places are too.  This is hindering because life should not have to be that way, but then again these places can change.

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