Friday, August 05, 2005


I'll come back to the boy pissing into oncoming traffic in a moment. I feel that he is important, and I feel that his counterpart, elder and elite, similarly lost, but driven, is equally important.


I don't claim to know jackshit about poverty (though it sometimes may seem like I claim to -- the dangers of blogging, I suppose), but I know what I do know what it's not: generic. A slogan. Part of a goal on a t-shirt two sizes too big.

Having just seen Michael Douglas on CNN proclaiming how important it is to end poverty and hunger by 2015, I'm a little bit, well, confused. I'm not against Douglas or Angelina Jolie or anybody else who does what they can to raise awareness for a worthy cause; if anything, I applaud them. They are stepping outside of themselves and opening themselves up to any and every blowhard with a forum. (Like, um, me.)

The thing is, it's insidious, poverty is. Almost benign. Yet somehow still devious and deceptive in its banal, everyday simplicity. Cambodia was recently ranked the 10th worst country in the world to live in for mothers and children, and I believe it. Henry Kramm, an American journalist steeped in Southeast Asia, wrote a concise, book on this country that I highly recommend called Cambodia: Notes from a Stricken Land. His ultimate summation? "Cambodia is a basketcase."

No dissenting opinion from these quarters. Things are so sometimes so comically inept here to feel as if they were merely the byproduct of maliciousness; things are too blatantly, blindly disorganized and chaotic, lethargic and inept. A 'basketcase' seems to sum up the country perfectly.

And yet.

That's the problem.

That phrase. That wittiness. That 'summing up'. That band on the stage. That roar from the crowd. That banner on the wall. That goal and that pledge and that deadline.

I don't know. I simply feel such, what's the word, disconnect between what the world and the media focuses on, and the ridiculously commonplace reality of the real issues. A month ago, it seems like, for many people in the West, 'poverty' meant going to a rock concert. There is, of course, something so wonderful in that unity of intent, and something else so wretchedly inappropriate, although what exactly that 'something else' is what I'm struggling to define.

Take today.

I saw a little girl, shirtless and shoeless, walking merrily along the hot pavement as he helped her mother push their garbage cart through the early morning streets. (They were collecting plastic bottles, cans, whatever.) The girl looked happy. I thought: She doesn't know she's poor, and she doesn't know her life is absolutely fucked. I know it, but she doesn't. But then I thought: Who the hell am I to think her life is screwed? After all, she looked happier than I normally do. She has a purpose. She has a mother who loves her. It's not my call to pronoune her happiness or sadness or trajectory in life.

And yet.

One of the girls who regularly begs in front of Lucky Supermarket -- now, suddenly, a teenager, and now, suddenly, pregnant. Still begging.

The cycle continues.

And later:

The motley crew of four or five young boys chasing after me as I hurried down the street with my bag of freshly bought oranges. I waved my hand, wooing them away. They weren't buying it; they could see the oranges' round outline through the white plastic bag. But I was adamant. These were my oranges, goddamnit.

But then, for nor reason, I relented. Reached into the bag. Plucked out a couple of oranges and tossed them to the boys. A regular Mother Teresa, I am. I mean, what. I can't spare two freakin' oranges for some street kids? And what, I'm going to tell them I cannot give you a single orange, because if I do, that will only endorse and thereby perpetuate the dependency you already an unwilling victim of? Fuck no -- at a certain point, you give away the oranges. Not every day, no, and not all the time, no, but there comes a time, like it or not, when the oranges go AWOL. It solves nothing, neither my western guilt nor their impoverished lives, but what the hell.

The cycle continues.

On that same corner, earlier today, the boy. (Remember him? The pissing one, from the top of the post?) I saw him as I rode on the back of a moto as we approached the traffic light, the moto watching the signal (I hoped), me noticing a four or five year old boy, pants around his ankles, nonchalantly pissing on the street, his spray lazily baptizing the blackened pavement. (Can one pee nochalantly? I think one can.)

At that moment, I felt like ringing Bob Geldof. I wanted to get him on the line and blurt: "You should not have had Paul McCartney open LIVE 8 by singing 'Seargeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band'. You should have had this little boy, the one I just saw, the one receding into the distance of my moto's rearview mirror. You should have had this boy up on stage, knees around his ankles, pissing into the crowd. Not close enough to actually have the urine land on anybody, no, but close enough so that they could see and smell and trace the fall of its dribbling arc. That is what you needed." And I would have hung up, and felt like an ass, and wondered who the hell I think I am.

A childish plea, I know that. A nonsensical gesture -- I realize that, too.

It's just that, if the nature of some of these posts somehow inevitably find themselves touching on poverty, it's because it's something that inevitably sometimes touches on me in my daily life. (Or pisses on me, as the case may be.) There's good intentions and UN plans and rocks bands singing cool tunes, and there's a little boy who has nowhere to piss, so he chooses the street, and no one bats any eye. They keep on driving. How to reconcile these two sets of realities remains divided in my mind.

I would feel hopeless, but I sense and I believe in the power of belief. In possibility. In hope. Because right now, all through Phnom Penh, there are women being trafficked and little kids begging and mothers slowly, anonymously fading away, but there is also this: young men and young women studying English, studying business, learning computers. They are optimistic and in motion. They are staying up late and asking questions and wondering just when, exactly when, the corruption will end. And even if that optimism of mine is misguided, amplifying the numbers, then there is at least one. One person. Sick of their society's ills. Lost, but looking for the path. Willing to take their time, to study, to immerse themselves in a political and economic structure only now developing. In time -- ten, twenty, thirty years hence -- that person will emerge, fully formed, agile and focused. He has not heard of Bob Geldof, or the UN, or Scott Spencer, or you. He has been too busy for that. He will not save the country, no, but he will have found the courage to, by and large, here and there, save himself. He will have saved himself.

And a new cycle will have begun.


Anonymous said...

Scott, any boy who pisses on the street at an oncoming traffic is important, man.

Another good post. Keep writing.

Anonymous said...

I think you touched on something very basic that is the only long term solution to getting these kids
out of the street and giving them a future.Something that is probably
the fundamental difference between Geldof and you.In ten years he'll be doing another series of concerts
to hand out charity funds.In ten years the kids you are teaching now will hopefully be self sufficient.

Anonymous said...

To the above post...

you are absolutely right. those kids will not only be self sufficient, but will actually pay back to the community many folds over.