Please enjoy these blogposts, written between 2011 and 2015. Another blog is on the way.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Bellingham and The Third Man

It’s still raining off and on in Bellingham. My lettuce is doing great, but I’m losing patience. It doesn’t help that we had a truly glorious day last week, bright sun, light breeze, nearly 70 degrees. All that day I thought, Sun, here I am, shine your mercies on me.

The following day it rained really hard, January hard, and on the way into town to do errands, I passed what I’m pretty sure was a homeless person walking his bike, getting soaked to the skin, holding tight to a paper cup of something that was spilling over the rim, and shouting some awful stuff.  Unbridled anger always scares me, but what rattled me even more was my suspicion that the man was not going home to a hot shower and meal, that he would be wet all day and maybe all night, that the next day would be much the same, and that none of this was a recipe for good judgment. 

My first errand that rainy day involved finding a copy of Graham Greene’s screenplay for The Third Man, which I was showing that night to my research paper class—justifying a break in the march through our textbook by assigning some dialogue paraphrase and a plot summary.  I parked outside a used bookstore and forgot to lock the car.  When I came out of the store, book in hand, I saw another soaked homeless person, a woman this time, climb out of my car’s back seat, glance at me and walk fast into an alley. I ran to the car to see if anything had been stolen, but only library books were on offer, and they were still lying on the floor. The car was full of cigarette smoke, and the dog blanket in the back seat had a big wet spot on it, but otherwise, no harm done.

Unlike the anger in the bicycle man’s voice, this tiny non-event didn’t scare me, but it did surprise me. Downtown Bellingham’s homeless, I remember thinking during my first few weeks in town, were the cheeriest I’d ever seen—out and about, meeting and greeting on the corner of Magnolia and Railroad, using whatever resources were available  to stay energetic and, I guessed from a distance, reasonably healthy. I may have been wrong then, but it’s obvious that whatever shape they were in four years ago, life is harder now.

I’ve noticed some other things, too, like young men in alleys checking out back doors. My friend’s purse sat in the window of a coffee house yesterday, and a man passing by took a long look at it. Everyone I know is feeling pinched. If my husband and I are looking for money to help our kids, others aren’t eating today, aren’t getting treated for pneumonia today, don’t have a coat to keep the rain off today. Is cutting resources to people who are already losing hope in our interest? Where is the trade-off between taxing the rich and arming ourselves against the desperate poor?

The Third Man is about post-World-War-II Vienna, much of it bombed to rubble, the city partitioned among four Allied countries, and the populace rationed, cold, and exhausted. But black marketeer Harry Lime, when we finally meet him in the person of Orson Welles, is doing fine. He’s stealing penicillin from hospitals and selling it, so diluted that it doesn’t work, to the sick. When his longtime friend, Holly Martins, confronts him, they are high up in a Ferris wheel looking down at “dots” boarding a merry-go-round below. 

“Would you ever really feel any pity,” says Lime to Martins, “if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I said you can have twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stops, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money—or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man, free of income tax . . . It’s the only way to save nowadays.”

Lime’s diluted penicillin calls to mind our failing safety net, and Lime himself—well, he reminds me of all those who believe that it’s smart to get rich no matter how you do it and dumb to take care of the indigent.  Spoiler alert: the police hunt down Harry Lime.  Pretty soon we aren't going to have many police, and I’m willing to bet that we'll need the ones who are left in our alleys, that they won't have the time or the mandate to arrest the Harry Limes of the world although that's where all the trouble started.

photo by EmilyinChains714, from

There’s a good article on The Nation’s website today about poverty “in the heartland":