Thursday, August 18, 2011

Uptown Bill's - One Candle

Okay, let me be very clear.  And let you not perversely misunderstand.  Justice beats charity any day.  The current tax structure of the United States is unjust.  At least, that is what Jesus and the Prophets would say.  Charitable people can't make up for the size of this injustice, and shouldn't have to try.  The fixed notion that we can is diagnosable.

Fair Taxes

Warren Buffett was curious and did some research.  Last year Buffett's taxable income was roughly $40,800,000.  That's after deductions.  His taxes were 17.4% of that amount.  Every other person in his office paid somewhere between 33% and 41% of their taxable income, an average of 36%.  He doesn't think that's fair.

Nobody thinks that is fair.  In fact, a lot of rich people and the Republican Congress think he paid too much.  Nevertheless, there are indeed other rich people who agree with Buffett, that they get more than most out of government services, the type of services that help them accumulate even more, and they should pay more.

I have enough to rant about without taking on tax policy.  So let me focus on the implications of our current tax policy for mental health policy.

What Jesus And Amos And Muhammed Said 

Last week I told you it is time to step up, join with others, and do what the government and the people who own the government do not have the political will to do.  Feed the hungry.  Welcome the stranger.  Visit the sick and in prison.  Those phrases come from the Christian Scriptures, Matthew 25, but were spoken by a Jew who got his religion from a long line of Jewish prophets.  We can round out the authorities of monotheism with the Muslim requirement to give alms.  For you non-theists, you have to be your own authority.

I'm just saying -- Do it.  Charity is an insufficient substitute for justice.  Do it anyway.  While Facebook and the blogosphere are filling up with calls for justice, people are dying out here.

That is where I left off last week.  This week, the example I promised, one light lit against the darkness, Uptown Bill's.

Bill Sackter

Bill Sackter spent most of his life in a Minnesota state institution, placed there when he was seven, because he was mentally retarded.  He got out when he was 53, when institutions downsized and transferred care to the community.  Only there wasn't a community.  There was one social worker with a case load too large to give Bill adequate help to adjust.

Bill was on the verge of going back to that hellhole, as he called it, when Barry Morrow, a young filmmaker in search of a project met him, befriended him, became his guardian and brought him to Iowa City, Iowa.

Barry worked for Tom Walz, the head of the University of Iowa's sociology department and the kind of idealist that thrived in Iowa city in the 70s and 80s.  Except Tom is a practical man.  And he listens.  And he got Bill the kind of job that Bill could do.  He could make coffee.  He couldn't make change, but he could make coffee.  That was fine, because the social work students who patronized Wild Bill's Coffee Shop could make change for themselves.

Barry made two movies about Bill's life, starring Mickey Rooney, and Bill became a symbol of how people with disabilities can contribute to our common enterprise.

Uptown Bill's

That would have been the end of it, but, like I said, Tom Walz is a practical man.  A practical man with a vision.  When Bill died and Tom retired, Tom helped to create Uptown Bill's, a small mall of businesses owned and operated by people with a variety of disabilities, a book store, a graphics design business, vintage store, furniture repair and refinishing, and yes, Wild Bill's Coffee Shop.

Today Uptown Bill's includes all of the above, plus a music shop, home repair and maintenance business, classes on how to start e-businesses, and programming in the arts.

This is community care that works.  Emphasis on the the works.  I think it works for two reasons:

1) People with disabilities have abilities.  My dog Mazie taught me that we all come with surplus.  To lose one, or even several, leaves us with loads.  Well, we all have things we can and cannot do.  Whether we fit into the economy, whether the community is structured so we can contribute and receive, says more about the community than about us.  For that matter, our labels say more about the way the community is structured and less about us.

That is both obvious and invisible in the public arena.  But some people have eyes to see.  So a place like Uptown Bill's is possible.  People with disabilities can run our own businesses.

2) If you own the business, you don't get laid off when the funding gets cut.

Now after the manner of Hebrew poetry, I said there were two reasons why Uptown Bill's works, and I add a third.

3) There are people who do not carry the label disabled who decide to work in partnership with others who do carry the label.  They don't run the show, but they add their own abilities to the mix.  These people don't have to believe in one sort of tax structure for the United States or another, have one faith perspective or another or none at all.  They just have to want to live in a community that can receive the contributions of every member of it, without regard to labels.

Off The Grid

I write this from Costa Rica.  I live in a little fishing/tourist/beach town with enormous disparities of wealth.  Michael Jordan and Madonna own property in this part of Costa Rica, though I don't think they can see the doorway where that man sleeps from their infinity pools.  I live behind razor wire, in a middle class/working class mixed neighborhood.  Some of my neighbors make do with barbed wire.  And I watch the United States on a trajectory toward the same.  Except there won't be papaya trees growing wild up north.

When I go downtown, I see a mentally ill and homeless person who makes a living by buying a pack of cigarettes and selling them one and two at a time for a profit.  I see people who buy their cigarettes one and two at a time from him.  Because they are a pueblo.

Sure, keep trying to turn the Titanic around.  But do something else, as well.  Our government doesn't work for us.  I think it is time to figure out how to piece together a pueblo, instead, to join with others and do what we can with each other.  One candle, one cigarette at a time.


flair by facebook.com
scales by Johannes Regiomontanus, 1512, in public domain.
image of the prophet Amos by Gustave Doré, 1866, in public domain
book cover by amazon.com
dvd image by amazon.co
photo of razor wire by Helen Keefe and used by permission
photo of cigarette in public domain 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for writing about the history of Bill Sackter, and the impact he had on the community. And how Tom Walz continued in the spirit of Bill, in his help with creating businesses run by people with disabilities.

    Tom and I have worked closely together over the past decade in bringing out the real life documentary of Bill Sackter's life, called "A Friend Indeed - The Bill Sackter Story".

    Tom is one of the many featured people in the documentary, and there is a lot of archival footage of Bill taken by Barry Morrow back in the 70s and 80s. (In the tv movie "Bill", Dennis Quaid played Barry and Mickey Rooney played Bill.)

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