Last week, nearly all the major media outlets and countless web destinations profited from leaked photos of Ronald Poppo’s eaten up face and the 9-1-1 calls reporting his attack. It’s bad enough that the rest of his miserable life is gonna be spent in pain and beef jerky jokes, there’s no excuse for Ronnie not gettin’ a slice…uh, a cut, a chunk – some money!
I mean, we don’t look homeless people in the eye or give ’em the time of day. We can’t stop to unfold a buck or two and we’ll cross the street if it means avoiding one. But let a bum get his face chewed off and we become wide-eyed pigeons, pecking at the ground — or in this case clicking though channels and websites — for salacious crumbs.
As quickly as the photos were leaked, only to go viral, is as quickly as I decided against lookin’ at ’em. I assure you it isn’t because I’m “mature” ‘n what not, and practically nothing grosses me out. What bothers me is the idea of celebrating sensationalism. Number one, I already knew the gruesome images would resemble a plate of chicken mole enchiladas, and number two, what’s the message? It sure as hell isn’t “homeless people deserve respect.”
Yes, it’s likely we do stuff like this as a protective measure, to distance ourselves from the victim, from ugliness, pain, and trauma so we’re not reminded of the monsters we can be or the depths to which we more and more frequently sink. It used to be that tragedy + time = comedy, but with instant gratification in every facet of our lives we no longer need to wait to traffic in images and make light of abhorrent behavior. So those images and stories spread like wildfire, almost immediately becoming impossible to escape. You can’t go to work or to a barbecue without hearing about ’em. To cope, then, we need to get to the humor sooner. We mock to create distance, relying on distance to protect and defend our sensitive, daisy fresh world view. And we’re the ones who voluntarily sought out trauma and ugliness in the first place!
Does this strike anyone as counterfeit or hypocritical? No? How about weakening or debilitating, rather than “enlightening” or “empowering,” as the information superhighway was supposed to be? Consider that the next time you hear of a study claiming children raised with digital media are better prepared for the future. Too many kids are being taught to expect a psychological comfort zone even for problems to which they themselves contribute.
Sorry, is that not funny? Did I get too serious? Well, let me rush right back to that protective hilarity. Friday, I’m in Burbank, standing just inside the entrance to Urban Outfitters. I hardly fit into any of the insufferable clothes sold there ’cause I’m no longer shaped like I was at 22 — ailing thin — and also because what’s hyped as a Large at Urban is actually a Medium, and so forth. Out on the sidewalk, however, a jacket in the window catches my eye (it’s none of this lameness). Miracle of miracles, there’s one XL in the stack, and I know it’ll shrink to perfection with repeated washing and high-heat dryer cycles.
While trying it on (and forcing on a Large too, just in case) a scruffy lookin’ man burst through the doorway and dropped to the floor, screaming in holy-bloody pain. He was holding his face and rocking his head back and forth, shouting, “AAAAGHHHH! Oh my God! No-no!” He was followed in by a bigger man I’d seen bummin’ change outside. It looked like they were fighting. All the Urban shoppers froze or turned and ran. I froze too, ’til I saw that the taller dude had a big ‘ol smile on his face. They were a couple of homeless guys and the one rolling around on the ground was yelling, “He chewed my face off! He chewed my face off!”
Now THAT’S funny! No money, no power, maybe no place to sleep that night, and they still got the last laugh on everyone’s afternoon. They’d gotten all the background they needed, too — not from a $300 smartphone tethered to the Internet, but by looking through the yellowed Plexiglass of a newspaper dispenser. It was brilliant. They couldn’t breathe, they were laughing so hard. And all at our expense, those of us who trade in images of homeless men permanently disfigured by random sneak assault. I was glad. With all the media outlets and advertisers that have profited from Poppo’s torn-up face, it sickens and angers me that he went from being ignored by us to having his injuries celebrated by us for our own sanctimonious, sniveling reasons.
No I didn’t suddenly turn around and do something altruistic like chase the guys down and offer them my jacket money. I liked the damn thing and I bought it. But the resturant-heavy “downtown” Burbank area is struggling lately with swells in its count of wandering homeless (call it Third Street Promenade East), and before the cops are sent in to hassle ’em, shoo ’em away, or beat ’em to death I hope they mix it up with lunch-breaking locals and keep using ’em as straight men. Why not? Neither they nor Ronald Poppo will ever see any residuals for their exploitation, so they might as well have some fun at our expense.