I failed my community yesterday.

Editor’s note: Andrew McLuhan is the grandson of media studies pioneer Marshall McLuhan, and a friend of Planet Waves. We’ll be featuring his writing on media criticism from time to time. This piece originally published at medium.com on July 11, 2016.

By Andrew McLuhan

I live in a small town. In a small town, everything is personal.

Andrew McLuhan and son.

Andrew McLuhan and son.

I was walking to work last night, to my part-time night job as a projectionist at our local theatre. It is a great second job because it doesn’t interfere with my full-time day job, and it gives me time to read and write after I sell tickets and start the show (I’d say ‘film’ or ‘movie’ but I’m a stickler for accuracy, and those terms don’t apply to what we show anymore).

I was walking to work last night, which is a short walk, as pretty much everything in town is within a ten-minute walk. I’d already stopped for my coffee.

Ahead of me I see a guy, and I think at first he’s wearing a weird dress, but it turns out to be some sort of oversize sports jersey and he’s wearing shorts underneath it. He says something to a lone tourist with a careful beard, sandals, and oversized camera. The tourist is not amused. The guy isn’t walking particularly carefully, and he is twisting the remains of a cigarette in his thumb and forefinger so the heater and remains fall to the sidewalk first, followed by the filter a moment later.

It’s early on a Sunday evening, it’s been a hot day, and there’s not a lot of action on the Main Street. I’m not talking on a phone, listening to a device, or otherwise distracted by anything. I like to experience my environment as fully as possible.

I’m getting closer.

It really does sort of look like he’s wearing a dress, and maybe going through some gender-identity issues. You don’t see that a lot in my town.

He’s looking pretty rough, and not too with it. You don’t see that a lot in my town either.

Now I’m close enough that I can see more than the back of his close-cropped head, and I realize that I know this guy.

I don’t know his name, know him to stop and have a conversation, but in the 20 years I’ve lived here, I’ve seen him around. I know him in the sense that you know everyone in a small community. In fact, if I were better at remembering names, I’d probably know his name too.

As I start to see more of his face while I’m overtaking him, I see he is indeed rough.

This is when he notices me, and asks “Hey bud, spare some change so I can get something to eat?”

“Sorry man,” is all I can manage as I go past, less than a hundred feet from the theatre. I’ve got less than five minutes before I’m due to get things going for tonight’s showing.

In those lightning moments between being asked something and making an answer, I think a few things:

This guy’s on heavy drugs, or coming off them and needing more. If I give him change (which I don’t have much of) he’s just going to go buy more drugs or smokes. I’m not going to enable that. I’m not working a second job two nights a week to pay for someone’s drug habit — I’m doing it because I have a wife and two little boys.

So I gave my lame response and went to work.

The show was, as usual, very sparsely attended. Half a dozen people. We’re having problems getting volunteers to man the concession stand, so I do that also. I continue reading/studying ‘Theories of Communication’ (M. McLuhan/E. McLuhan, 2011, Peter Lang Pub., NYC).

‘Theories of Communication’ is really blowing my mind right now.

When I leave the theatre a couple hours later, it’s getting dark. It’s that magic time for light: the clouds wear a wonderful magenta tint. The street is even more quiet than before.

My thoughts return to the guy I saw earlier, who asked me for some change for something to eat. I knew this guy to see him. I’d often see him walking around with headphones on, hanging out near the Tim Hortons coffee shop. He didn’t look great, and he didn’t look that bad last time I saw him. He’d never asked me for money before, I’d never seen him ask anyone else either.

What had happened to him?

And then I started to feel bad. No, I don’t know him personally, but this is a small town, and everything’s personal. We’re all neighbours.

I lived the first part of my life in a major city, and I’d have an experience like this and not think twice — you can’t think twice. If you did, you’d never get anywhere, you’d have to stop constantly. You couldn’t function. It’s this reality and attitude that allows for much suffering to continue. [I suppose that’s how we rationalize inaction when we live in a larger community — but if people in big cities treated them like small towns, like everyone’s a friend and neighbour, imagine the reduction of poverty, crime and general suffering.]
But this isn’t a big city, this is a small town. And I let a neighbour down.

If he had been a friend, a relative, I would not have just walked by and brushed him off.

I didn’t have to give him money or worry about ‘enabling’ his habits.

I was almost at work, I had a few minutes to spare, and I could easily have said something to him. If he was a friend, I wouldn’t have thought twice about it, like I didn’t think twice about brushing him off as if he didn’t matter.

“Hey man — are you alright?”
“Do you need some help?”
“Can I help you?”

Three things I could have said, and I could have taken a moment to try and help the guy. But I didn’t, and I feel bad about it now. I truly believe we are all in this together and should try to help each other when we can. I talk about that all the time. But when it came down to it, I didn’t.

I can only hope that next time, I’m a little more conscious.

I failed my community yesterday. I hope that today I help.

6 thoughts on “I failed my community yesterday.

  1. Len Wallick

    Andrew: Thank you so very much for every single nuance of this deeply moving and inspirational piece. It is not yet dawn where i live, yet your words here have already given renewed purpose to the long day of community service which lies ahead for me. By sharing what you call a failure to your community earlier this year, you have saved me from very possibly failing mine today. It appears as though you have truly mastered those theories of communication.

  2. Amy Elliott

    I’ve spoken to a few homeless people in my city lately. There’s been a trope going round: ‘don’t give them money because they’ll spend it on drink or drugs’, etc. etc. In the UK this is currently tied in to the government’s attack on benefits (‘give them too much and they’ll just get a brand new TV or booze or cigarettes’).

    Suddenly we’re all moral arbiters over people less fortunate than ourselves: adults who can make their own choices. And the homeless folks I’ve talked to know this. They say ‘I promise I won’t spend it on drink’, without being prompted. The main effect this has had is that people passing them by give less: they don’t trust as easily; all this really does is make life harder for the rough sleepers.

    How dare any of us, each with vices and luxuries of our own, judge people who do similarly human things, just because they’re in difficulties? It’s bad enough that governments tend to treat poor and vulnerable people like criminals, without the rest of us being recruited as accomplices.

    I don’t mean to reflect particularly on your story, Andrew. By speaking so candidly you are already helping to change things; and I think we could all do more, myself included. But we have to stop this idea that poverty is somehow a moral failing.

  3. Kazimira Rachfal

    I live in NYC, and volunteer at Housing Works and yet I sometimes forget to stop and look at someone who is asking for money on the street or in the subway and I forget to say something, anything. Usually I try to remember to make contact because I want people to make contact with me. But sometimes I’m tired and have my own fears I’m struggling with and I cut out.
    The thing about ‘they’ll spend it on drugs’ doesn’t enter my mind but other things do, such as ‘poverty mentality’. I know it doesn’t make sense.
    I loved reading this article because I long to live
    in a small town, community, but I have the same feelings here in a big city.
    Thank’s for the reminder to be fully human anywhere.

  4. Lizzy

    I read this moving piece, and interesting comments with great interest – and it’s taken me a long time to reply, because I couldn’t get my thoughts clear about it before now. I’ve often felt “there but for the grace of God go I”, when it comes to the less fortunate. Am feeling it particularly strongly since the earthquake struck here, as thousands of people have been made homeless over night, and have lost their livelihoods. Indeed, even the building I live in was structurally damaged by the earthquake – and they’re sending people in to check the roof, which I live right under, to see how safe it is. However, I think that a lot of guilt and judgement comes up when it comes to the question of giving to those in need. I myself was very aware of judging people who were unwilling to buy one of the raffle tickets I sell for my friend each summer (whose son has Down’s syndrome), to raise money for their Down’s association. I saw how uncomfortable it made people feel, and their fear of being judged. And indeed, I did judge them at the time. But it really made me reflect afterwards. I think that people give for many different reasons, and very often because it makes them feel better. I know that this often happens with me. Perhaps a greater act of generosity and compassion is refraining from judging or finding fault with others (or ourselves!), when we are not behaving as we or others think we should.

  5. Heather

    Hi Andrew, thank you for your honest and heart rending story.

    As I read your words, I also recalled a recent encounter, just the other night, from a woman who was seeking money for a ”drink’, she was clean and tidy however was clearly desperate to get her hands on alcohol, she was stopping anyone and everyone, and like you I declined to help her, as yes, I was not going to enable her habit; I would rather give a donation to a local NFP provider to assist her to dry out; and therein lies another challenge; I live in a community that are known as ‘strugglers”, therefore ‘services’ are rather scant on the ground, and ‘others’ of the local community are the ones who pick up the pieces, either via council services or others such as Rotary.

    What I have noticed thru the years is that there are two kinds of people, the takers and the givers, thankfully, there are enough givers to cover the basics, but we definitely do need more in times such as these.

    I also find it most interesting that many with ‘intellectual’ faculties are very challenged with opening their hearts, let alone their wallets!

    I’m a giver, always have been, and yes there have been times where I became totally disillusioned with the majority of humanity and I have not always been able to support what I would like to support, however there are two charities that I do support regularly, one is for animals, who bear the worst of the brunt, and the other is an International humanitarian organisation, MSF, with small one-off donations when and where I can.

    I buy toilet paper that builds toilets for 3rd world nations https://au.whogivesacrap.org/collections/all who not only have to fight poverty but also suffer the lack of clean water, the diseases of poverty stem from the lack of sanitation and clean water; it’s not rocket science, it’s just thinking about cause and effect. Much can be sourced from fair trade organisations these days, you can grow your own herbs fruit and vegies via several seed savers organisations, the list is endless.

    I’m not rich in money, in fact it’s taken me the last two years to dig myself out of a rather large hole, where you can say that I have lost everything but now I am rich in compassion and working my way back at the ripe age of 64.

    Where ever you shine the light of compassion it’s always the few who have so little that willingly share what they have with others who are in need, because they have walked a mile in their shoes.

Leave a Reply