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Thursday, January 17, 2013

A Homeless Man and His Dog

By Dr. Richard O’Connor

The other day I saw a homeless man and his homeless dog asleep on the sidewalk just outside the subway station at Astor Place. It was 5:30 p.m., quite crowded, and everyone had to step carefully around them, but no one looked directly at them. I'm from out of town, but I visit New York regularly enough that I probably wouldn't have paid any attention either except for the dog. How can a dog sleep like that on a busy sidewalk? What's the attachment between the man and the dog? How long have they been together?

David Brook's marvelous book, Bobos in Paradise discusses an uncomfortable but hilarious look at contemporary Yuppie culture; the people who make a fetish of latte and natural fibers and who view shopping as a means of self-expression. One of his themes is the cooptation and assimilation of oppressed cultures. [For instance] we want to believe we can save the world by shopping, that we support indigenous people by venerating their handicrafts, artifacts, and foods. "We want our material things to be bridges that will allow us to effect positive social change", Brooks states (p. 101). It's a way of rationalizing away our guilt about all the money the new economy seems bent on handing us.

The problem the author sees is that irony is wasted on the shameless. [Case-in-point] last night I saw a new commercial for the Land Rover. It shows a young-middle-aged couple using their $65,000 SUV to rescue a dog lost on a busy highway on a rainy night. The screen fades to black with the single word "Courage" illuminated. See what buying the right car means!

But back to the homeless man and his dog. The shops around the homeless man and dog on Astor Place are full of third world artifacts, places to buy things that make you feel like a good global citizen. So if we're so concerned about the oppressed, how come we all walk around the man and his dog?
Because we don't want to think difficult thoughts. It's a lot easier to assume that poverty in the third world is a result of oppression than to entertain the idea that there's oppression in America. We live in a meritocracy where it's still a sin to be poor. If you are poor in this economy, it must be your fault. Either that OR it's mental illness, and there's nothing we can do about that until the right pill comes along. So, since there's nothing we can do for the homeless man and his dog, we pretend they don't exist. Of course, if the dog would only run away from him, then we could use our Land Rover to rescue the pooch. Wouldn't we be proud of ourselves then!

Richard O'Connor, MSW, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist in private practice in Connecticut and Manhattan.  For 15 years he was the director of a large nonprofit community mental health center. Dr. O’Connor received his MSW and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, and extended his education through the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis and the Family Institute of Chicago. He publishes a blog at
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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dear Dr. Richard O’Connor
I have seen your image of the tramp and his dog a few times on the web in a few places and finally i hope tracked it down to the owner ( I hope ) i would love to do a piece of artwork based on your photo and wanted your permission to do so .
The artwork would eventually go up for sale and once sold i would be happy to donate some of the sale price to a homeless shelter in london as this is my city
Kind regards
kimberley thomas