Thoughts on poverty and homelessness in the U.S.A.

Went to buy a sandwich today and thought I’d do something a little radical.

“May I have a glass of water while I’m waiting?” I asked.  Yep, I asked for a FREE glass of water.  I wasn’t paying for it, not requesting the bottled variety, and I don’t drink soda pop.  I just wanted real water–from the tap.  And I did NOT want to pay for it.

I felt a twinge of apprehension.  Would the cashier cringe, throw me a “look,” glare at me from the bottom up to view my attire and thus determine my socioeconomic status, inform me I must pay 15 cents for the cup, or just attempt to sell me something more expensive?

I waited.

To my surprise, the cashier simply rung up my order for a free cup of water then gave me an empty cup.  No questions were asked.  No intimidating stare.  I felt redeemed. Relieved. Grateful. Thirsty.  I grabbed the cup, filled it up with water, and took a sip of that precious resource that someday will only be available to a wealthy few.  (Lots of political ramifications here.  How hard will any of us be able to fight for our rights, to express our opinions, to participate in the management of this country, to care about anything or anyone greater than ourselves, when we no longer have access to that basic resource–water?  When we are painfully thirsty and all of our time and energy is spent up each day by our efforts to just quench our thirst?)

Being the introspective person I am, I questioned my apprehension.  Why did I hesitate to ask for the glass of water?  Why the (albeit tiny) spark of worry associated with a request for a mere glass of water?  The cashier would either say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’  So what is my problem?

And I am reminded of previously requested waters.  The waters of times past.  Taco Bell cashiers who told me I would have to pay for the water, even after I’d purchased food.  And efforts of other cashiers to encourage me to pay for water.  “We have bottled water.  Would you like that instead?” The embarrassment of being watched suspiciously by an employee as I filled the see-through cup (made see-through so that staff would notice if you poured soda pop you didn’t pay for into the cup instead of the water you’d claimed you wanted).

Oh yes, and most interesting water gathering experience of all (and this is fodder for a future blog):  the time when I asked for a glass of water and was refused it because the cashier was worried I might give it to a homeless man.  “Are you going to give that glass of water to that homeless man?” she asked critically. Seemed she didn’t want that poor man to have a glass of water–even if I, a customer who had purchased food from her store, wanted to give my own glass of water to him.  (Again, that story will be expanded upon in a future blog…)

Why so much fuss over water?

Is giving a cup of water to a paying customer such a big loss?  What if I weren’t a customer?  What if I swaggered into that fast-food joint and asked for a glass of water just because…just because I was human and thirsty…just because we humans can live longer without food than we can without water…just because I’m one of your brothers or sisters on this planet and I’m just in need of a little refreshment…

Okay, so does giving a free glass of water cost companies a tremendous amount of money?  I mean, seriously, if someone “stole” that little plastic cup and filled it up with soda pop they didn’t pay for would Taco Bell go out of business?  Doesn’t it cost more money to hire an employee to stand by the soda pop machine and watch customers to make sure they are pouring water and not soda pop into their little plastic cups?  Don’t the surveillance cameras hung all over the ceilings of these restaurants cost a pretty penny?  How much is all this security, this fear of being “taken advantage of,” of “being ripped off,” costing us?  Financially?  Socially?  Spiritually?

I’ve seen restaurants charge a fee, yes A FEE, to allow use of their restrooms.  Any of us who lives or works in a major city knows how hard it is to find a public bathroom in a major urban area these days.  Yet we all need to use the bathroom several times a day.  All of us–rich and poor.  And most of us don’t stay home all day.  Most of us go out and while we are out we are going to need, sooner or later, the use of such facilities.  Yet we are creating a society that requires we pay for that, to pay a fee to do what we must do as humans, to fulfill our human needs.  My question is this:

Why?

Are stores and restaurants really losing money by allowing people to use their bathrooms and drink their tap water for free?  At this time, we are seeing the greatest division between the rich and the poor than has ever been seen in the U.S. in recent history.  And the rich are getting richer while the poor are getting poorer.  Yet we are also seeing basic resources and services diminishing as the rich cry poverty, claiming they just can’t afford to give.  They can’t afford to pay taxes (thus giving back to their community), they can’t afford to pay their employees decent living wages, they can’t afford to provide benefits to their employees, and they can’t even afford to give a glass of water or a free trip to a restroom to people who live and work in their communities.  (Then they claim that if we raise their taxes, they’ll stop hiring employees but they’re doing that anyway–outsourcing labor to third-world countries and downsizing by requiring more work from fewer employees and at smaller wages.  So whom do they think they’re kidding?  I’m not so hungry and thirsty right now (not yet) that I’ve lost my ability to think and reason.)

Greed really has broken through the glass ceiling and hit an all-time high.  I never thought I’d see the day when it would become practically illegal to be human, when we’d have to feel shame and embarrassment for asking another human being for anything, even a mere cup of water.  Yes, I am referring to the need for a glass of water and to go to the bathroom–often at inopportune moments–as “human” needs.

It seems that to ask anyone for anything these days is just an inappropriate thing to do.  Heaven forbid you are walking down a busy street and suddenly find that you must need to…uh…well, pee. The condition gets worse as you mosey on down the street and yet you discover that no one–no one!–will allow you to legally pee in their premises unless you have some money to spend.

It’s getting awfully expensive to be a human being these days.  And I just wonder how does this serve us?  I mean, is this really the way we want to conduct business?  Why are we “sweating the small stuff”?  Why are we counting the water cups and monitoring how many free glasses of water were given away in a day when there are more serious matters at hand–like whether or not you are loved and respected by members of your community, or whether or not you are contributing to that community in such a way that makes it a better (not worse) place to be…

Okay, I’m going off on a tangent here.  But you know, we as a people create the society we live in.  Do we really want to get stressed out over little things like water?  Give the guy the water already.  Let the lady use the “non-public” restroom.  Show a  little humanity, America.  You used to back in the 1930s during the Great Depression.

I have faith in you.  I know you can bring back empathy and compassion–even in the United States.  Come on America, let’s start thinking as humans (not robots) again.  And let’s start thinking about giving instead of worrying about what we can get out of every interaction.

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Comments on: "Water Story:..:Sweating the small stuff is just a waste of water" (2)

  1. Yes and what’s sad is that this was a small, locally-owned business. But I think that even some small businesses try to imitate the large corporations by implementing similar policies.

    Also this happened in Los Angeles, and I found that there was general disdain for the homeless in that city. Part of the reason is that there is so much homelessness there that a lot of people just feel overwhelmed by it and get tired of being hassled for spare change, use of a public bathroom, a glass of water, etc. So many ppl become cruel, but I don’t think they realize how cruel and desensitized they’ve become. People don’t know what to do about all the homelessness (who’ve gotten increasingly desperate and aggressive), so after a while they just blame the victim because they don’t know whom else to blame.

  2. Corporate policy = maximize profit; minimize loss…

    Employee behind the counter has no freedom to extend that glass of water without putting their employment at risk.

    Loss of private owned business = loss of humanity in business.

    Another reason to try and give your business to what few private owned places are still around. Most of them will give you some water and maybe even a smile.

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