The other day I learned – via social media – that Gertis McDowell, a fixture of the Syracuse University Marshall Street area, died of natural causes in his home. His death, and the reaction to it, have stuck with me as an unfortunate example of the way in which we confront – or rather fail to confront – the inequality that pervades our society and culture.
Just about everyday, Gertis would sit in his wheel chair and panhandle in a way that was unique to him. His approach was not so much to ask for money but to shake a cup full of coins while cheerfully greeting passers by. “Hey pretty lady.” “What’s up big poppa?” “Hey little man.” “Let me see that smile.” While most people continued walking, very few ignored him as they would others that hey might pass on the street asking for money. It was hard not to engage with Gertis, even if that just meant smiling back or a cursory greeting.
In light of his cheery demeanor and his near constant presence, the news of his death lit up my facebook and twitter feeds, with almost all mentions of Gertis’ death referring to him as a Syracuse “icon” and fondly quoting his preferred greetings. Though this is certainly touching, I also found the discourse surrounding his passing to be discomfiting. I can’t argue that Gertis was a Syracuse icon, but I’m not sure if he was an icon for anything that we ought to be proud of.
Gertis was a symbol and a reminder of middle-upper class society’s ability to tolerate poverty and inequality in its midst. Many SU students hail from well-off families and park Mercedes outside their apartments. Marshall street itself – where Gertis chose to make camp each day – featured boutiques for design clothing or shoes and bars where students likely spent a great deal more in a couple hours than Gertis Gertis pulled in through his change cup in a week. As an individual,Gertis was a cheery man who would talk with anyone passing by, those that engaged (or avoided engaging) with him are just as important for what exactly Gertis meant as an icon or symbol.
The point is not to criticize those who passed Gertis by. I was one of them. Nor is it to question the sincerity of those that mourn his loss. I enjoyed reading about his life and admit that I did not even know his name until I read of his passing. I am glad to have the opportunity, late though it was, to learn about Gertis as an individual. But we should think honestly about just what kind of symbol Gertis was, and what it says about our society that we can tout someone as an icon once they have passed but pass them by on a daily basis when they were alive.