Trout Fisting In America #9 – Empathy

Because like my good friend Kathy Acker likes to say, ‘When they go low, we…(smiles)…we shove our fist up a defenseless trout’s asshole.’

The first time I worked graveyard shift at 7-11 lasted about a year. I did it two nights a week and worked 3pm-11pm the other three nights. I was just out of high school and had just dropped out of community college—’dropping out’ meaning I showed up less and less frequently until it seemed stupid to bother showing up at all. My mom suggested I get a job while I figured out what to do next, and since my mom managed a 7-11 in Oceanside she gave me a lead about a 7-11 near San Diego State that was hiring.

Up to this point I’d worked for RGIS doing inventories and at a dilapidated amusement park in Lakeside called Marshal Scotty’s.

This 7-11 wasn’t in the worst neighborhood in San Diego County, but it definitely wasn’t in the best. Moms buying nickel candy with food stamps so they could pocket the 95 cents change, endless customers buying  lottery tickets & GPC cigarettes, occasional crackheads, and the frequent stealing of beer. One guy, upset because I kept watching him in the mirror while he got ready to steal beer (a repeat offender), came up to the register to tell me he was going to kill me ‘when the race war breaks out,’ which for all I know, he still might.

So anyway, one night I was working graveyard when this guy came in and asked me for help. His money had been stolen and he needed to get a bus back home (somewhere upstate, I think near Victorville). His story seemed sketchy, so I decided to ask him some questions. He answered them all, perfectly, and I got a little less skeptical. He promised to send the money back as soon as he got home, asked for my address (I know, right?), gave me his address, etc. I felt trapped. If he was telling the truth, then how could I say no? And if I couldn’t be sure he wasn’t telling the truth, what kind of person was I if I chose not to believe him?

Even as I gave him the money, I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to see it again. I think I told myself that even if he was lying, he definitely needed the money more than I did. Sure, I lived in an apartment complex in El Cajon and drove a car that shook when you drove it on the freeway, but I was obviously doing better than this guy. When I told my mom what I’d done, she shook her head and told me there was no way I was going to see the money again.

She was right. For what it’s worth, I never saw that guy again. Who knows? Maybe he really did need the money to go home. Maybe he meant to send the money but never got around to it—in those days I knew all about the inability to follow through on one’s good intentions. Maybe he bought drugs with it. Maybe he bought a sandwich.

I had no way of knowing at the time that within 18mos of this encounter I myself would be homeless, living in my car, or crashing on friends couches, or sleeping on the roof of a Dairy Queen, bouncing from one part-time job to another. This situation lasted about 6mos, and even after I got a full-time job (working the overnight shift at a 7-11 in Jamul, b/c god doesn’t laugh he howls) and a place to live, I subsisted on minimum wage and continued to live in deep, deep poverty for the next several years.

Not once during that time did I ever ask someone for money. I stole things from time to time—usually from places where a friend was working—but it seemed pointless to ask anyone for anything. It wasn’t pride that kept me from asking for money. It would just hurt too much if someone said no, and I was already carrying enough emotional fallout from people letting me down (I include myself in that category btw). Besides, you could always sell your plasma for $25, and because my part-time jobs included Dairy Queen and Little Caesars, I was usually able to get fed at work.

Today, I don’t give money to strangers. I give food; I’ve always given food, and most of the time people appreciate it. I’ve given hotline numbers and addresses to local non-profits who can help someone—to get a shower, to get a phone, to get an address (you need these things to get a job). And yet even after being ripped off and lied to all those years ago, I always feel bad when I refuse to give someone money. I always feel a little quiver of shame inside.

I think most people do. Their sadness & frustration might manifest itself as anger, or rants against laziness, alcoholism, public nuisances, whatever, but I think empathy’s a really hard thing to turn off. Evolutionarily speaking, it’s about as hard-wired into our reptilian brain as our sex drives, i.e. empathy & cooperation has been so essential to the survival of humanity for so long that it’s impossible to do away with. So we build defenses, we embrace philosophical justifications for our selfishness (c.f. Rand, Ayn), and we get pissed when we still feel it anyway.

In days like these, with rational thought crumbling all around us and man’s inhumanity to man on full display on our televisions and in our politics—sometimes to the exclusion of everything else—I turn to this idea for consolation. That the joy people take in the suffering of others is a defense-mechanism, that in actuality their guts are churning and their brains are burning, and they get angry at those who suffer, those who lack, for making them experience feelings of shame & guilt and so they say fuck the poor and fuck the hungry and fuck the sick—for making them feel this way, for making them feel badly.

It’s a stupid way for these people to live, to punish the helpless for triggering feelings of empathy, but then no one ever said that intelligence was hard-wired into our reptilian brains.

Trout Fisting In America appears every Tuesday right here at this site. We’re going to keep going until we reach #50, or until the Trout begs for mercy. Check out previous installments HERE.

About ScottCreney

Scott Creney lives in Athens, Georgia. He is the author of "Dear Al-Qaeda: Letters to the World’s Most Notorious Terror Organiztion".
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