The first time I saw her was at a set of traffic lights along an avenue, right where the cars wanting to join the motorway sit and wait. I imagined she was a woman who, just a few years prior, must have looked like Scarlett Johansson in her starring role in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Twelve years later, Scarlett Johansson looks as youthful as ever, perhaps even more than before, while our Scarlett of the Town Center Parkway, despite being younger than the other, looks like an old woman.
A homeless veteran, not related to the person mentioned in the article (one of ten homeless in Jacksonville is a veteran, from Afghanistan, or Iraq or any other US war)
Her face was tanned by the Floridian sun, with the type of skin that surfers and bikers proudly display like a trophy, just like the aristocrats of the Middle Ages displayed their fake scars from battles they had never attended. More than just the sun, her face was weathered by hunger, by some addiction, by her job, and above all, by an unknowable suffering that distorts the soul and which no one deserves.
She works as a ‘homeless’, a beggar. For hours each day, she holds up a piece of cardboard that says “I’m homeless. I am hungry. God bless you”. She looks even older than she is because her forehead, her eyes, her entire face, is contorted by a kind of pain that hurts whoever sees it.
No one bothered to wind down their car windows to leave her a couple of dollars, as opening the window would mean that the air conditioning escaped. For many, the air is not really what is important here: poor people waste the money given to them on drugs and booze. Not giving them anything is actually doing them a favour. Others, like me, have less conservative excuses: the problem of the poor cannot be fixed with handouts.
Despite such a convincing argument, I could not resist the temptation to leave her a couple of miserable dollars so that her pained faced could relax for a moment and so that I felt a little bit better about myself. At three or four dollars a go, this kind of therapy is an absolute steal. Furthermore, I thought, if it is true that the Scarlett of Town Center enjoys a glass of something in the evening, like me, at least she will not die of indifference.
This afternoon, I saw her for a second time. She was going to work in the central reservation of the avenue, of the boulevard, or however it is supposed to be called. On her way there, she crossed paths with another woman who also carried with her, in one of her hands, a little cardboard sign reading “homeless”. The other woman looked more like Brooke Shields, more or less like the actress of The Blue Lagoon looks now, only with something like another twenty or thirty years of age.
The two women crossed. I do not know what they said to each other, but they smiled and greeted the other just like my colleagues do. As if they were happy. Immediately after, the Scarlett of Town Center made it to the central reservation and changed her face. Just as any other great actress enters the stage and becomes another person, she screwed up her forehead, her eyes and her entire face.
For a moment, I thought what decent people would think by default. The pained face that I had seen the previous week was simply a mask. I remembered the baker Carlucho, Doctor Domínguez and a certain Mr Johnson who, each one in their own space and time, explained to me their hatred of this race of human, those they considered to be the perfect parasites of a productive society, faking their misery, choosing to become victims instead of deciding to throw themselves at success like an Olympic diver.
This time, on that afternoon, I hid my confusion behind the green light that had just changed, and I continued on my way without leaving anything for poor Scarlett, the saddest Scarlett in the world, like the miserable handout that I had given her the week before. As I accelerated to merge with the vertigo on the I-295 without causing an accident, the Scarlett of the Town Center followed closely behind me.
Why must we demand true pain from the poor in order to believe them? Is it not what we all do? To fake emotions, hide ourselves beneath masks in order to carry out our job correctly?
Am I not lying every time I stand before a class and fake that everything is perfectly alright, when in reality, I would rather flee to an island in the middle of the Pacific ocean?
Is the waitress at LongHorn not lying when she offers us her best smile, infallible and without exceptions, as if she had never had any problems with her parents, with her boyfriend, with her studies or with the rest of her life? Are we not paying her, and even leaving a tip of up to 20% so that she brings us some quesadillas, some fajitas and an O’Doul’s with a smile as wide as that of Julia Roberts?
Is the young engineer not lying in the interview when they fake their happiness, a sense of team spirit and humility to get the job of inspector in the prestigious Retreaded Condoms Corp.?
Why, then, do we demand more from a poor woman who acts out her own misery than we do from the rest of the official liars, the legitimate liars, the necessary liars, who act out their foreign ambitions? Does she not know her profession as well as anyone, as well as the product that sells the best, i.e., the pain of others and individual kindness?
It is okay to lie on a television ad, showing happy and healthy young people while they smoke or eat a McDonald’s loaded with saturated fat and accompanied by the twelve tablespoons of sugar that some call “Coca-Cola”.
It is okay to sell cars showing a very sensual woman with a universal smile, as if it were her, and not the car, that was for sale.
It is okay to win elections through telling barefaced lies while smiling at and hugging the poor who still dream of fairy tales and who never manage to escape from the reality that awakens them each day.
Yet it is not okay when a poor woman does the same for a handout, and also when they do it badly, when they do not know to act off-stage as they must, and they smile as if they were laughing at their future donors.
This is because we are the miserable ones. We do not allow people to lie badly to us. In our pornographic culture, we do not forgive bad actors, and much less bad actresses.
When those in the middle lie, they are just honestly selling their product or their work.
When those above lie, they are just protecting us from the always-imminent apocalypse of those below.
The huge lying complex is sustained by a foundational truth: it is not the law of supply and demand; it is the Ley del gallinero (literally: the henhouse law). Professional translators have told me that there is no English equivalent for this eminently popular Spanish expression. They are wrong: it is “trickle-down theory”. Yet should this law not be sufficiently cruel, it is always accompanied by an inevitable corollary: the lower one is, the harder it is for them to look upwards.
For obvious reasons.
In Jacksonville, the city in Florida with 929,000 inhabitants where the author lives, the number of homeless people raised over 2,000 during the pandemic. Most of them grouped together in small encampments downtown. Finally, in February 2021, the town administration started to relocate them in hotels.