The Contradictions and Policy Implications of John
After a somewhat soul-crushing November, few things can lift the spirits like a frenetic, sleepless twenty-hours in New York followed by forty-eight recuperating and reading collections of the work of Mahmoud Darwish.
Not only is it patronizing to talk about the homeless as being a baseline for introspection, but it promotes the idea that buying coffee and a donut for a person once a month is a meaningful fix for large economic issues. Returning from a disappointingly fake coffeeshop in Georgetown, what drew me out of the Circulator to talk to John wasn’t this middle-class guilt.
Instead, I was fascinated with how many things he had accumulated. We tend to romanticize the homeless’s lack of material possessions as it’s own freedom, but this individual in a park in downtown DC had much more than I recall having the last time I moved. I couldn’t fathom how he transported it, and could only fear what psychologically motivated such hoarding.
At the time I approached him, token coffee bribe in hand, John was throwing away shoe boxes filled with neatly cut newspaper articles. Admittedly, I had secretly indulged in a sentimental fantasy that this stranger was a voracious reader and secret genius, but reality was much stranger.
“I was trying to find recipes for after-Thanksgiving meals, I clipped out all of these and sat to read them at McDonalds, but I only found four things that I could use.”
A native of New York state, in transit to Texas to work on oil rigs, John compiles recipes from newspapers to independently publish a cookbook through a social program from a national bank.
Considering that recipes aren’t protected by copyright, John’s business model is legal sound, but philosophically bemusing. On the one hand, there is a precedent this violates some form of professional ethnics. He is, after all, the Shenzhen of the cookbook world, adopting others’ designs and undercutting the market at a third of his competitors’ prices. But, the true elephant in the room is the disruptive idea of someone without a culinary background, or even a kitchen, acting as a downward economic force in the market. Imagine if he were to have Internet access?
After fifteen minutes or so of him waxing poetically about how the cheapness of Americans has ruined domestic industry and sent jobs to far away countries, it was time to go. A few more nights cleaning, reducing his personal affects down to two suitcases and it’s back on the road for John.