“People whom fate and their sin-mistakes have placed in a certain position, however false that position may be, form a view of life in general which makes their position seem good and admissible. . . . This surprises us when the persons concerned are thieves bragging about their dexterity, prostitutes vaunting their depravity, or murders boasting of their cruelty. But it surprises us only because the circle, the atmosphere, in which these people live, is limited, and chiefly because we are outside it. Can we not observe the same phenomenon when the rich boast of their wealth-robbery, when commanders of armies pride themselves on their victories-murder, and when those in high places vaunt their power-violence? That we do not see the perversion in the views of life held by these people, is only because the circle formed by them is larger and we ourselves belong to it.” (Resurrection, Leo Tolstoy, trans. Louise Maude)

New Readers:

Please start reading with my first post "A Cup of Coffee". Originally posted on March 19, the archival date changed when I made corrections on May 13, which is the date under which you can find it now.

I'll learn to manage this all more smoothly someday, but at present I have at most only an hour online each day (that thanks to the San Francisco Public Library system, without which I would be lost).

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Fun with Verbs

I asked myself, as I walked home from the bus stop at 4:30 this morning, whether I should write here that the streets are strewn with bodies or that the streets are littered with bodies.  Neither phrase is original, but then what interests me is teasing out the meanings in our common usage of words.  A poet might enlarge and develop the meaning of a word by using it in an original way, but I am a journalist.  I attempt to report what I see in everyday language.  What is Eliot's formulation?  Something about using words that are "precise but not pedantic." That's what I aim for.

I was struck by the question of which is the most suitable verb as I wondered how to describe what I saw when passing the Episcopal Church just around the corner from my hotel on my way home.   The west side of the church fronts on an alley, Caledonia Street.  Having seen a rat cross my path just before boarding the bus near work, and having heard a rustling movement in the leaves alongside the church a few nights ago, I was on the lookout for the varmints as I passed the church.  As I crossed the alley, I cast my eyes quickly down it and saw two bodies curled alongside the back of a restaurant, one covered by a blanket, the other, a woman I think, in jeans and a red sweatshirt, lying on her side in a fetal position, with her head resting on an arm folded underneath it.

I had seen someone else sleeping on the sidewalk less than a minute before, near the stop where I got off the bus.  I did not have to go looking to know that there were two more people sleeping at the far end of the same block as they do every night, in front of what used to be the “Val-16” market.  Working at night and therefore keeping “vampire hours” as I do, I see those who “lodge in public” in the various places where they rest every night.  They are more numerous in some neighborhoods than in others, but I have seen them in every neighborhood.

Crossing Caledonia Street, I knew that I had to write about them, and the two alternative phrasings came to mind at all at once.  The only way to decide was to ask what I actually saw.  The image that immediately appeared to my mind’s eye was that of a Giant, an inhuman creature something like the Sutro Tower, striding through the city, tossing crumpled-up lives like wads of paper, each of the people sleeping on the street being a discarded piece of human rubbish fallen among the buildings and coming to rest in random disorder all over town.

In twenty-first century American English, “litter” is more common than “strew”, and its meaning is usually that of garbage discarded in a public place.  Things strewn, on the other hand, are more likely to be beneficial, pleasant, or desirable.  Flowers, and especially rose petals, are "strewn" in the path of a bride or of a Royal personage.  Things that are littered, on the other hand, are always messy even if not without value.  The papers that litter my desk may be valuable, but they have been treated as if worthless.

To be honest, I have to say that the towering giant, which is us, has been treating the woman in jeans and a red sweatshirt -- and all of her peers -- as garbage.  A battlefield may be said to be strewn with the bodies of fallen soldiers because we honor the dead in such a place.  But the truth of what I saw on my way home this morning is that the sleeping forms on our streets are there because we, all of us, are willing to see them as garbage, not as flowers of humanity.

Our streets are littered with bodies.