Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Jester and Gesture

It is the excitement akin to finding an unattended $10 bill laying on the pavement, and "M." (I won't say his name to protect his identity) has the same reaction, first shock, "is that a $10 bill?" then reticence, "Is there anyone around here who will see me pick it up?" then glee, "that IS a $10 bill and it is now mine!"  Outside the City/County building in Salt lake City, "M" doesn't find cash, he discoveres something far better, a political statement in the form of a drunk transient, asleep in the bushes.

The timing couldn't have been more perfect for the earnest activist.  "M," along with half a dozen others, had just addressed the Salt Lake City Council opposing a plan that will allow for a small number of bars to be licensed in many Salt Lake City neighborhoods.

Mayor Ralph Becker is fond of the idea for a couple of reasons, he feels it will promote a sense of community in Salt Lake City's diverse blocks and streets, and he believes it make the city safer, as people walk or peddle to a neighborhood pub rather than drive to a bar miles away from their homes.

"M" and others make a convincing argument against the idea, citing statistics about alcohol related crime, underage alcohol use and binge drinking.  Ultimately however the proposal wins with the overwhelming support of the council, 6 to 1.

As Mayor Becker, reluctantly agrees to an interview and is rolling, bike in hand, towards a bank of cameras setting up for television live shots outside city hall, "M" rustles the sleepy, weary $10 bill to his feet, and shoulder to shoulder with the groggy, still slumbering man, makes his way towards the mayor, "Mayor, Mayor," "M" beckons the man who proposed the neighborhood pubs idea, "this is what alcohol does," "M" announces, loud enough for the reporters and the mayor to hear, as he attempts to steady the man who is now semi-conscious and wondering if he is being arrested by police.  Becker, clearly misses the moral point, glances at "M" and with a shrug, "oh, let's call security."

After his interviews, the mayor mounts his bike and peddles home, zipping past "M" and his prop.

The odd couple is quit the sight, "M" meticulously manicured, his eyeglasses propped properly on his nose, his grey recently pressed suit, and his red-power tie, especially powerful under the brazen Tungsten lights switched on by television photographers.

"M" continues to hoist the drunk man up, like a friend, helping you move a heavy microwave, waiting for you to open your door, so he can finally plop the contraption down on your kitchen counter.  The formerly sleeping man appears to be native-American, a red, white and blue baseball cap askew and rumpled atop his head, and a matching patriotic windbreaker covering his torso.  The two do an uncomfortable dance, the drunk leading, as he sways one way then the other, "M" attempts to follow his lead, stutter-stepping a couple times as he misses the drunken man's alcohol influenced dance moves.

It is 10 PM on the nose, time for television live shots, and behind the rows of camera's, blazing lights and reporters, stands "M" and the now alert and increasingly confused gentleman, who just 20 minutes ago was enjoying a pleasant nap under the trees.  The two men drift in unison, as "M" gets into the drunken grove, "M's" head is bowed as reporters give their notepads one last glance, straiten their collars, and inserting their ear pieces, ready to listen for their cues.  "M" understands the power of images, and this one, I assume he believes is a potent one.  "M's" prop in hand, he stands in a place he believes is directly in the camera's lens view, it turns out all the photographers have angled their cameras just past "M" and his statement, so they can capture the talking head in the foreground, and the majesty of the City/County Building, in the background.

As the newscast moves onto the next story, reporter's detach their earpieces from the boxes affixed to their belts, the photographers click off lights and stow their camera tripods, "M" senses, his imagery didn't impress the brigade or journalists, as his head darts from one disinterested reporter to the next, you can see as the stoicism and artificial concern for his dance partner drains from his face.

"M" imagines, the swaying drunk embodies everything he had preached against as he addressed the city council just minutes earlier: rampant drunkenness left unattended.  The man, who likely does not have a home, was "M's" perfect embodiment.

The weary drunk represents something indeed, but it has nothing to do with happy hour, mahogany bar stools, or after work cocktails, he, ironically draped in the colors of the flag, is a picture of a the deep, difficult and intractable American issues associated with mental illness, substance abuse, and homelessness.

What "M" might not understand, is the man, who has no home, likely didn't get smashed in a charming Irish pub, near his 2200 square foot ranch home.  According to police I've talked to, men and women who make their home on the streets, likely guzzle cheap Rothchild's Vodka purchased at one of a dozen liquor stores owned by the state of Utah, or he, as according to the head of the downtown police precinct adjacent to Pioneer Park, a swatch of green space infamous in Salt Lake as a hangout for people like "M's" example, drinks cheap mouthwash or hairspray to achieve his high.

The inebriated man's issues are likely not related, to a walk able pub in his charming bungalow dotted neighborhood, but are probably rooted in years of mental heatlh issues, lack of family support, and unbreakable, and untreated alcoholism.

As "M" parades the man in front of the camera's he wears a solemn, stoic and grief stricken face.  He also bows his head in what appears to be a prayer, as reporters rundown the meetings happenings on camera.

By this time, The man with whom "M" stands is beginning to come to and is grinning as he takes in the lights, the reporters and the mayor, "Mayor!" he happily slurs to Becker, who responds with a simple, cheerful, yet detached, "hello," as he peddles home.

A few minutes later, after I disconnect my earpiece, and stuff my pages back into my briefcase,  I glance back, only to see both men have disappeared, "M" likely heads to his home in the prestigious SugarHouse neighborhood of Salt Lake City, the man he had held earnestly and tightly, has vanished as well, likely back to his spot under a tree to finish his slumber.  When he wakes in the morning, he may not remember that for a brief few minutes, he was a callous, grand, political and media gesture and jester.

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