[All proper nouns relating to the man are fictitious equivalents. The man and the story are real.]
Mike grew up in Schenectady, graduated high school and joined the Navy. After doing a four-year hitch, he spent a lot of time in schools, including Hobart College and the University of Oregon, where he earned a doctorate. Thereafter Mike taught education at a college, which is to say that he taught college students how to become elementary and high school teachers. One of his students was a Chinese girl. Mike asked her so many questions about her home country that she finally said, “Why don’t you go to China?” So he did, and spent fourteen years teaching English at university there. In 2004 Mike had a stroke and returned to the United States.
I knew none of this last Thursday when I first saw Mike. He was standing on the sidewalk in front of my building, which is subsidized by HUD and has 176 apartments. He was a slightly built man wearing dark pants, a jacket too lightweight for Central New York in March, and a baseball cap over long white hair. He appeared to be weak and passive.
A taxi driver was piling cartons of Mike’s belongings on the sidewalk in front of the press plate that electrically opens the front door. I protested to the driver that he was blocking access. He replied that people could reach over the cartons. Not people in wheelchairs, and this building has fifty of them, I said. The driver didn’t care, and pulled away.
I went into the building and alerted the manager to the problem of cartons blocking the sidewalk. She went out and politely asked Mike if she could help him. From her audible end of the conversation, it appeared that the inaudible man on the sidewalk with his possessions wanted to be rented living space. In fact, there were no vacant apartments, and the HUD bureaucratic process requires applications, background checks, and multiple forms to be filled out just to get on the waiting list. The process takes at least a month.
At this point I departed the scene, went to my apartment and prepared lunch. As I took the first few bites I started wondering what would happen to the man. The manager would probably turn “the problem”—for that’s what Mike’s name was at that point—over to the in-house social worker. The social worker has many good talents and skills for helping people, however, whenever anyone with higher status tells her to do something, she does it.
This is true of so many people. They do not use their own powers of discernment and personal moral code to decide if they are being told to do a righteous thing or if they should refuse to follow instructions and do something else instead. After World War II, certain high-ranking Nazi officials were tried in Nuremberg, Germany, for the murderous atrocities they committed during the war.
Before an Allied forces military tribunal, these Nazis defended themselves with the plea of “Superior Orders,” which maintains that if a superior orders you to do something then you, as a subordinate person, cannot be held responsible for following the order no matter how criminal and hideous the outcome. The “Nuremberg Defense” says “It’s not my fault; I was just doing what somebody else told me to do.” When I was a child, my mother never accepted the Nuremberg Defense. She made it clear to me that I was to use my brain to think things through, and I was responsible for whatever I did, no matter what my big sisters told me to do.
The Nazis were found guilty of crimes. The outcome of the trials was that the Nuremberg Defense is not a valid protection for people who commit wrongful acts. Every person is responsible for his own actions. If you are ordered to do something that is wrong, you must refuse. I knew that the in-house social worker would do what she was told, even if it was morally wrong. So what was right?
I sat there with my meatloaf, rice pilaf and Brussels sprouts and asked myself what I would do. Call the police? What would they do? What could they do? What did I want them to do? Call Adult Protective Services? What would/could/should they do? The man needed housing but appeared too weak—probably sick—to fend for himself. What about the state Enriched Living Program? What about the Alternative Living Program? What about Loretto (formerly Loretto Geriatric Center), which has both enriched and alternative programs?
I put down my lunch, picked up the phone and called the office to offer my assistance. I have a long history of effective activism and advocacy in regard to transportation, housing and medical care for people who are elderly, poor or disabled. In other words, I know stuff, have resources and am willing to use them in service of the old man on the sidewalk. Why? Because it’s the right thing to do. The only Superior Orders I take are from God, and God’s order is that we take care of each other. The old man on the sidewalk looked like he could use some taking care of.
I called the office, got the social worker, and asked if I could offer assistance. She transferred me to the manager, with whom I have successfully worked on previous advocacy issues. She said, well, yes, that would be good. She said that the man’s name was Michael; he was 73 years old and a military veteran. He had just arrived from Florida, gone to a suburban HUD property, and been sent here. She also said that the social worker called the police, who said they would not do anything, and Adult Protective Services, who said that the man should be sent to the Rescue Mission or “the second floor of the Civic Center.”
The second floor of the Civic Center is the intake unit of the Dept. of Social Services (DSS). It is where you go to apply for Welfare, Food Stamps, and other government assistance. (To be continued)