The Aztecs were firm believers in predestination. It's probably helpful to think that everything is meant to be when you are about to have your heart cut out of your chest and presented to the gods; you can resign yourself to your fate. But there is a downside to this belief system — if you think there is nothing you can do to change things, then someone like Cortés can come dancing 'cross the waters and destroy your entire civilization almost overnight.
Montezuma knew of a prophecy that said an evil god would arrive from the ocean and bring an apocalypse. It was even written into the calendar. Strangely, Cortés showed up at that exact time, making the ancient Mexicans even more sure of their inevitable demise. Who knows what would have happened if they had operated under a different set of beliefs, though the Spaniards still had guns and horses, two things that took down the Aztecs.
The American version of predestination was hard determinism, which said that you had your place. If you were poor, it was because that was simply supposed to be your lot in life. This idea has trickled down to the belief many of us (especially conservatives) hold now: that poor people got that way on their own and so they can get themselves out of it. How else to explain how we can ignore people begging on the street? I myself do it several times a day. A woman will say, "I'm hungry," and I automatically convince myself that she isn't hungry, that she wants money for booze. Drinking is a choice, right? Ergo, she has chosen to be a homeless drunk, and any guilt I might feel from not giving her some change is alleviated.
Last week I walked through Civic Center on my way to the Deco Lounge on Larkin, a route that is not only one of the windiest in the city, but also one of the most panhandle-heavy. I trudged up the street, ignoring almost everyone while I watched well-heeled people on their way to the symphony also ignoring almost everyone.
I left the street people outside, entered the Deco, and let my eyes adjust to the light. Unbeknown to me, it is a gay men's bar. I figured this out a few ways. First, the rainbow flag hanging over the door. Second, there were only men lined up on the stools. Third, they were playing a Thelma Houston song.
I'm sure the name Deco came from the '20s-era filigree above the bar, which hangs over the bartender like a Radio City Music Hall marquee. There were a few side rooms attached to the main bar, one of which had a pool table, but I simply plunked down on the last remaining stool. I ordered a Sierra Nevada, which came warm and tasting a bit like WD-40. Something was up with the taps.
I asked for a glass of ice and surveyed my surroundings. It was a mixed group of old and young, professional and blue-collar, punky and straitlaced. The bartender was very kind and called me sweetheart. The TV was playing Animal Planet, where a viper was being wrangled by a snake handler in slow motion and was releasing its venom into a glass vial.
The bartender and the guy next to me were talking about the same thing I had overheard several times that week in various places — Susan Boyle's "electrifying" performance on Britain's Got Talent that has been making the YouTube rounds. Neither myself nor the guy he was talking to had actually heard her, just seen her plain face and general frumpy doughiness. I had tried to imagine what she must sound like to have created such a sensation. The only voice that could come close to impressing me would be one like Karen Carpenter's. I had decided that if Boyle sang like that, then I, too, would be her biggest fan.
"She said that she'd never even been kissed," the bartender said. This seems to be Boyle's prevailing appeal. One woman I overheard on Muni just flat-out said that Boyle was, "let's face it, unattractive."
"Her whole life changed overnight," my co-worker had said.
All of this has convinced me that we are definitely no longer slaves of predestination. In fact, Americans especially love a story of someone who is given a certain deck of cards and still manages a royal flush.
When I finally did watch Boyle later that night on YouTube, I enjoyed it. She wasn't as good as Karen Carpenter; in fact, if she had been conventionally attractive and 27 instead of 47, I don't think she would have made such a big impression. But she was triumphant. She had changed her own fate. She had felled a mighty conquistador with a slingshot. We love that.
Deco was a nice enough place to hang around, and when the next bartender came on, he even introduced himself and shook my hand, which has never happened to me in a bar before. But I found $5.25 to be a bit steep for warm beer, so I took my exit.
Right outside, to the left of the door, was a very small man in a wheelchair. He was the size of a child and must've weighed about 60 pounds, partly because he had no legs. He had bright eyes, despite his shriveled body. He asked me for money. I can ignore most people on the street, and convince myself on some level that they are there by choice, but someone like this, I could not. It's hard to lift yourself up by your bootstraps when you don't even have feet. At this point, all I had were a few BART tickets. I offered him one. "How much is it for?" he asked me, and I said it was $1.95. "One hundred and ninety-five dollars?!" he exclaimed, smiling broadly, like a little kid. I gave him the bad news that it wasn't for that much. He said that he wasn't interested in the ticket then, but thank you. Meanwhile, he was peeing on the cement below his chair. He continued to talk to me as if it were nothing.
"Is anyone looking out for you?" I asked softly. It occurred to me that it would be difficult for him to make it to a restroom and onto a toilet by himself. I also didn't know whether he even had normal working parts "down there," as it seemed he was just a torso, cut off at the belly button. He shrugged. I could tell he didn't want to talk about it, but I work with people with disabilities, so I pressed on. "Do you have a social worker?" He shooed me away with his hand and wouldn't make eye contact.
For whatever reason, he didn't want my help. I decided to let him be. I have come to the conclusion that we all can indeed change our fate, but we should never impose our ideas of what another person's future could or should hold.
Yet I can't shake the feeling that that is a copout too.