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Tamara Keith: Putting a Freeze on False Assumptions

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Putting a Freeze on False Assumptions

By Tamara Keith, Public Affairs
Posted February 24, 1999

Photo: Tamara Keith

Tamara Keith.

The week before Christmas I did a radio piece for KQED-FM about the homeless kids who live on Telegraph Avenue south of campus and their plans for the holidays. I walk that stretch of Telegraph every day and had probably passed its black-clothed homeless youth several hundred times without speaking a word or making eye contact with them. It may not reflect well on me, but as I approached with my tape recorder, I expected to meet strung out, angry, introverted yet aggressive teens interested primarily in my wallet.

Near the corner of Haste and Telegraph, I became surprisingly nervous. Stashed in my back pocket was a list of questions that provided little sense of security. I wasn't even convinced that the kids on Telegraph would be willing to talk to me.

Quelling my fears and pulling out my microphone, I approached a guy with fangs tattooed on his chin and a pentagram between his eyes. After introductions (his name was Shane), I sat down on the sidewalk and started asking questions.

The first thing I discovered was that although Shane was on the street and hung out with a crowd classified by police and press as "homeless youth," he wasn't a youth at all. In fact, Shane was pushing 30 and most of those around him were at least 21.

As our conversation continued, more and more of my assumptions were shot down. He wasn't into hard drugs, he liked to listen to 1980s "glam rock" (not punk rock) and he loved to chat.

But the biggest surprise was this: I had expected Shane to envy the college kids (including me) who passed him every day on our way to and from class. Instead, he feels sorry for us. Shane said he'd much rather panhandle for change and sleep on the ground than spend his time working to pay for rent and utilities. In a way I envy his freedom, though I have difficulty imagining life without either work or warm showers in the mornings.

Immediately after I got home from my Telegraph Avenue assignment, a winter storm blew into Berkeley -- putting a freeze on everything and everyone exposed to the elements that night, including Shane. If not for the microphone that gave me the courage to talk to him and other homeless, I would not have pictured in my mind, as I lay curled under a warm blanket, those who were outside battling the cold.

Columnist Tamara Keith is a Berkeley senior majoring in philosophy.


February 24 - March 2, 1999 (Volume 27, Number 24)
Copyright 1999, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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