Guilty, We

Just past lunchtime one warm Tuesday last spring, as I walked through my neighborhood to the local Indian restaurant for samosas, I saw a big yard sale going on. I’ve long been a fan of a good rummage sale—that hunt for something tired and old to dust off and love anew. From a distance I could see the usual household bits and bops, some well-used furniture, and piles of clothes and bedding spread over half a block of sidewalk and trampled grass. Odds and ends seemed to have toppled down the steps of the townhouse hosting the event—it was a remarkably disorganized set up. People poked around, others loaded items into trunks and back seats of hastily parked cars as drivers waited, engines running.

When I got closer I realized it wasn’t a sale at all. It was an eviction. The “stuff” wasn’t excess that the owners didn’t want, that they were hoping to cash in to buy a new stove. It was their living room and bedroom and kitchen dumped in the dirt for all to see. It felt angry. Drawers had been turned over, jeans and khakis and old shirts strewn and stepped on by someone in muddy shoes. A mattress lay half in the street, the metal frame dented from a hard landing. There were utensils in the grass, tchotchkes on the pavement, a stack of chipped dishes and mis-matched mugs, magazines tossed to the side. A life, several lives, exposed and, suddenly, up for grabs.

There were no toys, stuffed animals, kids’ furniture or baby clothing, I noticed. A small comfort.

Still, I felt sick, watching. A woman actually tossed a cracked glass into the bushes, and a man and woman argued over a small pine desk with a broken leg. To the people picking through, stacking, guarding “their” pile of loot, how was this not stealing? Because there was no name on anything, no owner standing there in welcome, no one with a cash box making change? Because it was in a public space, because others were helping themselves? Apparently yes, these were reasons enough. All was justified. The mentality seemed to be, someone’s going to get this jacket; it might as well be me.

Maybe the owners had run out of money and simply jumped ship, leaving it all behind. But as likely, the renter was just then pulling a first of two shifts at the Giant or mopping floors at the hospital. She probably didn’t know today was the day that her belongings would be tossed to the curb like trash, and that right now people were scavenging, pecking at her linens and sweaters like pigeons at seed.

But surely the renter had been warned. Probably twice or three times. No doubt he knew how much he owed, had gotten behind on rent before, maybe argued with the landlord, maybe cussed him out once or twice. A notice on stern letterhead was stapled to the door atop an older copy, dirty edges flapping in the breeze; there were no real surprises here.

I imagined being that renter, whose responsibilities had scooted out from under him, sitting on the top step watching. Would embarrassment be a luxury to someone suddenly homeless? Embarrassment is a relatively gentle, soft thing, after all, a reddening of cheeks and a temporary turning away. Seeing one’s life on the pavement and a pad-locked door behind it must penetrate deeper, to where shame lives, a wounded spot that gets reopened again and again by a series of failures. The path that brought him here wasn’t run all at once, I’d bet. It never is.

Meanwhile, here was a group of others on a twisted path of their own, carried forward by some kind of mob mentality. These were regular folk, themselves perhaps just a paycheck away from a similar ejection, abandoning individual manners because others were doing so. Apparently the brain can be in cahoots with the mob: Experts have shown via brain scans that groupthink can reduce activity in the medial prefrontal cortex–where personal reflection and restraint are born.

And that means we’re all potentially guilty. Certainly as kids, at least, most of us have blindly followed others in doing something unsavory–stealing from the convenience store, vandalizing, being mean to the new kid.

And yet, it hurt so badly to see it going down among a pack of grown ups, along a suburban street, on a sunny Tuesday in the spring.

Relative anonymity must have helped drive the bad behavior—people were showing up from elsewhere, not from next door, and the takers avoided looking closely at each other, I noticed. Focused on the loot, intent on the task, none would risk more than a glance at another–into a mirror?–lest they be horrified (or even just gently embarrassed) by the sight.

Does the spreading around of guilt lessen its effects? At least at the time of the act, it appears so. Because here, more so than in the heart of the evicted renter, was where shame should have shone brightest. I spied instead just downcast eyes and quick exits, signs, perhaps, of fleeting self-awareness, tiny acknowledgements of slipped morals.

I wondered if, later, while the renter was sweeping up the remains of her life, any of the thieves would sit alone on a stolen chair and, the brain no longer buffered by others against shame, question the group’s wisdom. Might just one of them ask himself, herself, is this who I am? Can I, can we, not do better than this?


photo from Unsplash by Lance Grandahi


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