WHILE ON MY WAY to pick up a rented tuxedo I was joined by James (not his real name), a 25-year-old black street hustler. Washington has to be one of the few places in the world where an able- bodied young man with a Walkman stereo around his neck can expect a handout. If for nothing else, I admired James for his brashness and tenacity. He never gave up, even when it became apparent that his pitch about being a victim of racism was falling on deaf ears.
I do not feel guilty about James' condition. I feel sorry, but not guilty.
On the way back to my office, James joined me again. This time he added a new dimension to his plea. "I'm hungry," he said. I've been hungry in my life and I've vowed never to pass a person suffering that pain without doing what I can to help.
But James wasn't really hungry. When I walked him to the McDonald's and bought him a quarter-pounder with cheese and a large Coke, he said no when I offered french fries. A hungry man would never have turned down the fries.
By this time I'd spent nearly a half hour with this fellow, interrupting his requests for money with questions that would yield me some insight into his way of thinking, his perceptions of the world, his values. By the time we got to the Old Executive Office Building, it appeared he was not going to get any cash out of me. Instead of becoming antagonistic -- James is too smart and has too good a heart for that -- he used his ace in the hole. With all the desperation of a man who had reached the end of his rope, he muttered, "Please." Call me a sucker, I gave him five bucks.
The next day while returning the rented tux, I ran into James again. He was trying his line on someone else, but jumped over to me when I said hello.
He came on with the same intensity and after listening for a few minutes I told him flat out, "James, if you spent as much time trying to get a job as you do hustling, you'd have more money and a lot more self- respect."
James started to cry and I felt I'd just kicked a cripple. Through the sobs he told me he'd tried to get a job. He'd filled out applications and had never been called back. He'd take any job, he said, but he just can't find anyone willing to hire him. The tears continued.
I put my arm around James and apologized. I firmly believe that God puts people in our path and that as we do unto others, especially those in need, so too we are doing to God.
But more than that, I've written so much about individual responsibility and not waiting for government to solve problems, that had I left James as I found him, I would have felt like one heck of a hypocrite.
I took his phone number and told him if he really wanted work, I'd try to help.
The next day I called several places where friends had seen help wanted signs. James was right about one thing: he's frozen out. He dropped out of high school. He has a minor criminal record and has never had a regular job, so no legitimate employer wants him.
To be fair, he is clearly too much of a risk. Individuals like James too often rob their employer or, after the first argument with the boss, they have a convenient accident which puts them on disability for a year. No, you can't blame the small businessman for ignoring the Jameses of this world and hiring the kids fresh out of high school and anxious to work.
I'd just about given up when a colleague reminded me of an organization President Reagan recently visited in Houston called Cenikor.
The Cenikor Foundation focuses its efforts on people, usually in their mid-20s, usually suffering from the misuse of drugs or alcohol, who've never held a steady job. It removes them from their environment, counsels them, gets them into a living pattern that includes work, trains them and, finally, helps them get a job. The trainees live in Cenikor dorms. They work during the day at Cenikor contracted jobs -- landscaping, the upkeep of the Houston Astrodome, small manufacturing and repair projects -- and the money goes to the foundation to pay for room and board.
I called Houston and was told that James is just the kind of person Cenikor can help, if he wants to be helped. Furthermore, one of their representatives was coming to Washington in a few days and would be happy to interview James. The time and place were set.
It took me three days to get in touch with James. Finally on the morning of the meeting I managed to reach him. I gave him a brief sketch of the situation and he agreed to come to my office and talk about it.
The Cenikor representative was impressive: 26 years old, a sharp dresser, a young man with a sense of confidence. More than that, he was a former drug addict who only three years ago was at the bottom of the heap. Now, thanks to Cenikor and a strong desire to make something of himself, he is back in college doing well and working part time as screener for the foundation that helped him change his life.
James began our discussions by proclaiming himself a victim of racism and that it is the system, not his life, that needs changing. It took time and effort just to get him to listen to what Cenikor had to offer. First we had to convince James that if he is waiting for the society to change, he can expect never to live any better. James blamed the system, especially the current administration, for all his problems, as if 10 years ago his dropping out of school had something to do with Ronald Reagan. If there is a public-policy connection -- and we didn't tell James this -- it is that the greatly expanding social spending of 10 years ago may have made it easier for individuals like James to drop out.
My purpose was not to change James' political opinions so I controlled my ideological impulses and refrained from rebutting him or telling him that in most countries of the world he would either be starving or shipped off to some frozen gulag to work in a gang digging trenches for a pipeline.
During our lively discussion James revealed that he considers himself "learning impaired." His sharp wit and ability to fend off persuasive arguments suggests that description is as inaccurate as his political analysis. I would guess that James gave his teachers so much grief that they threw him in with the dumbbells just to get him out of the way.
Again, you can't blame the teachers. They should not concentrate on the discipline problems at the expense of the kids who want to learn. But now James had a second chance. At Cenikor, he was told, people are trained to take the high school equivalency test.
James, however, wasn't happy about spending two years at Cenikor with no money in his pocket to show for it. The idea that by working he would be paying for his room and board -- something he is not doing now -- and would finish the program with a skill and probably a job didn't seem to matter. Being brutally frank, I told him if he spent two years doing what he is doing now, he'd have nothing to show for it.
This went on for two hours. Finally the Cenikor representative told James that he was not the kind of person his organization could help because, apparently, he didn't want to help himself.
With this said there was a noticeable change in James' attitude. He turned to me and said that even if he were accepted he'd never be able to go to Houston. I pledged my support which included a plane ticket to Houston.
We ended the session with a promise from James to think about it. He got a brochure about Cenikor and my phone number. If he wants to give it a try all he has to do is call.
After our talk, I was more certain than ever that the depressing condition of James' life is in no way due to a lack of government programs or political interest in his plight. In fact, government programs made it easier for him to make self-destructive decisions. Now the government's helping hand has been holding him up so long he's afraid to try to walk on his own.
As far as political attention -- from the way he justified not doing anything for himself, clearly some politicians have been paying attention to James. Worse than that, he's been paying attention to them. They've been giving him excuses for not trying. They've convinced this young man, someone who needs encouragement, that he need not put out any effort because racism will prevent him from living a decent life.
Forget all the blacks who are doing well. Forget the uneducated immigrants, many of whom are black, who because they have no alternative, are supporting themselves and their families. Forget that there are handicapped people, incalculably worse off than James, supporting themselves. The political hustlers whose pitch is envy and hatred and promising something for nothing have been telling James not to try. He's paying a heavy price for believing them.
One can only surmise that the reason James isn't out driving a cab like the multitude of black immigrants who are engaged in that profession here in Washington, or at least washing those cabs, is that he has a totally defeatist attitude toward life. His failure certainly isn't due to a lack of brains or physical ability. Who is responsible for that life-destroying attitude? Well, it isn't Ronald Reagan. And by not going after a low-level job, James has yet to develop the work habits and skills needed to move up even one rung on the ladder.
How many young people out there are just like James -- demoralized and deprived? I am almost afraid to ask.
But James, unlike others, has been given a chance to break out, to build a new life pattern, to develop work habits and learn a skill. I'm pulling for him, but it's been several weeks and James has still not called.
When I walked James to the door after our meeting, he turned, put his hand on my shoulder and told me he knew what I was trying to do and expressed how very grateful he was. The tears were welling up in my eyes. I quipped that I had to help get him a job and making money before I could convince him to be Republican. His reaction: "You mean you're a Republican?
Yes James, I'm a Republican . . . and I care about you.