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Many who are familiar with my twenty-year history as an IV heroin addict send me links to stories about redemption, reclamation and dramatic recovery, things that inspire them that they wish to share with me. Some of the same people respond to my unflinching posts in the social media about my addiction and ongoing recovery with nothing less than empathy, compassion, and unflagging support. As a recovering addict whose “higher power” manifests as reality itself, who views his fellow human beings as opportunities for spiritual and emotional growth (even if only by negative example at times), I appreciate all of it, and I endeavor to respond as promptly and honestly as I can.
Youtube videos of homeless people displaying an impressive degree of musical ability are quite popular, going viral as they garner views in the millions, but it’s the breathless “Can you believe it?” quality of the astonished bystanders and journalists that I find a little disquieting.
Why are we surprised that there are talented people living on the street? What does it say about us that we are shocked to find people like that out there?
As someone who’s been homeless, I can tell you.
The people on the streets are you and me – they are all of us. We tell ourselves otherwise for our peace of mind, but we’re wrong. Everyone and anyone may take their place among the forgotten and disenfranchised at any time, given the right (or wrong) set of circumstances, despite education or natural ability.
While it’s easy to take notice of Ted Williams’ “golden voice” or Matthew Mustard’s musical virtuosity, what of the many former architects, engineers, mathematicians, chemists, civic planners, teachers, nurses, even doctors and lawyers, whose talent is squandered on the streets? What of the unemployed janitors, truck drivers, and security guards?
Is their predicament any less moving because they lack the power to entertain us?
Are their lives less valuable because they are more ordinary?
Billy Bang Douglas is a freelance writer from New York City where he was a member of the editorial staff of Newsweek for five years before relocating to London, and finally Los Angeles in 1990. As a recording artist, he has toured the United States, Canada, UK, and Japan. Clean and sober for six years, he is the editor-in-chief of Painted Brain News. He currently resides in Los Angeles with his wife, Naomi Barrett.
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