I read a story on Salon.com last week called "Hipsters on Food Stamps." (Tagline: "They're young, they're broke, and they pay for organic salmon with government subsidies. Got a problem with that?") No way I wasn't going to read that gem. The headline conjured lily-white trust-fund babies, smoking American Spirits while they sit around acting bored, listening to Animal Collective. Not working — not even trying to work — taking money from the government while they laze about in their Williamsburg brownstones.
The story centered on two young people in Baltimore who had lost their full-time jobs and worked several part-time jobs just to make ends meet. But the ends weren't meeting, so they qualified for food stamps.
And spent them. At Whole Foods, at Trader Joe's. On organic produce, on gourmet ice cream, on rabbit.
I only skimmed the article. I figured it would enrage me if I read it too closely. I reposted it on my Facebook and went about my business. Friends responded with vague rage and a dash of indifference. On the site, apparently the article caused quite a stir. People left a few comments on the article. With specific rage and heaping passion. They wrote awful things. (First page? "Please die cool cats — and clear the field for the rest of us") Their responses were enough to prompt one of the "hipsters" in the story to respond the next in a letter to the editor, which the site also published. It was part self defense, part shame-on-you and part criticism of the world we live in today.
That's when things really got interesting.
Go read his letter. Go read the original story, too. I'll wait.
A lot of people who read the story, including me, had made a lot of assumptions. Based mostly on the author's irresponsible spin and provocative, sensationalist headline, but also on their own prejudices and values. Duly chastened, I rethought my position: He's doing what he can to stay employed, stay afloat. It's not happening. (It's not happening for a lot of people. If this guy wants to take his government money and blow it on farm-raised rabbit and organic daikon, fine. He's an adult. That's his money. He paid into this program while he was working. And life's hard enough now not to indulge once in a while on some Ciao Bella gelato — even if you really shouldn't.
Then I scrolled down to the comments. Which I normally don't do. Because people are awful and ignorant and use the Internet's warm, comforting blanket of anonymity as an excuse to abuse strangers.
These were no different. These unwashed masses read, judged then lunged for the jugular. But I couldn’t stop. This was one that stuck out, but there were others. Many others.
After each one I read, I thought, "Surely the next one will offer a little proof that there's compassion left in the world." And there were bright spots, people who remembered that compassion and open-mindedness are among the things that separate us from wild animals and savages, people who were logical and rational. (Here and here?)
But page after page, it was little more than sheer ugliness.
By 3 p.m., I had stopped answering work e-mails altogether. I made myself look busy when necessary but quickly returned to Salon when the coast was clear. Before I left the office, I e-mailed myself the link to where I'd left off; I sequestered myself in a single seat on the upper deck of the train and hunched over my iPhone to keep reading.
My heart raced; my shoulders and neck ached from tensing my muscles. It was bizarre to be so fixated on something; most days, I can't even finish a story, let alone start on the comments. But by the time the train was halfway to the city, I was scrolling toward the bottom of the last page of comments. The 28th page.
When I finished, it was as if I'd just ended a fight with my best friend, as if I'd just watched a stranger beaten to a bloody pulp in an alley. I was exhausted. On edge. Defeated. Furious. Despondent. Even at almost 6 feet tall, I'm still so tiny in all this. It's crippling to be part of something so ugly.
I trudged down the stairs from the platform at Ogilvie and out on to Canal Street, fighting my way through throngs of people rushing in the opposite direction. Running toward their trains home, running away for a few hours from the jobs they hate. The ones they took to pay off the student loans that got them the jobs, the mortgages on their houses in the suburbs. To support their families, to subsidize their lifestyles. Because that's what we do here.
They didn't see me. No one saw me. In that rush hour crush, I was just as anonymous as all those Salon commenters.
But I felt no power in that. No desire to trip someone on their way to the train; no compulsion to smack the dirty Starbucks cup out of some panhandler's grasp and keep on walking. A small bright spot.
But it had been a bad day. I brought this heartache on myself, but it had been a bad day.
I started walking across the bridge into downtown, watching the people pass as I blocked the world out with my headphones. Headed for a doctor's appointment while the rest of the city went out in search of green beer. As I reached the other side, one of the passing people looked up and made eye contact. And smiled at me. We held each other's gaze for a moment. Nothing insinuated. No one undressed with anyone's eyes. Just two of us connecting in an isolating age. Two people in the middle of the same mess, remembering what it means to be human. It was the sign I needed to start coming down.
It doesn't take much.
I went to the doctor and made my way home. The night went on; my heart slowed and the rage gradually subsided. And I've resolved to do two things: Be more compassionate and stop reading the comments. And maybe to treat myself to gelato a little more.