Bobo and the Jack-in-the-Box

Meanwhile, back on Earth…


As I am sure you can guess, Earth has a myriad of social and political problems that don’t even exist on Homeland or the other civilized worlds. I have to confess that I used to get very impatient with them in my early university days. Isn’t it obvious, I would ask, what causes these problems? And why haven’t those lazy Humans gotten around to solving at least a few of them by now?

But after years of studying the Human race, I have grown to appreciate the true complexity and magnitude of the Human condition. I have learned its historical, social, and anthropological background. I have gained a profound respect for its richness and depth, but I have also developed an aching empathy for the poverty of the Human race. It hasn’t been an easy process, but the simplistic idealism of my youth has been transformed to wiser insights; and I have developed a more detached, philosophical view of things.

Knowing what I do today, I am embarrassed to remember how shallow I was in my glib reproach of the Human race. My remedies were laughable: like trying to melt a glacier with a heat lamp!

No amount of college training in anthropology can adequately prepare you for the real thing, and this is why a practicum is required. I did well in my 90-day stint in Ohio as a convenience store clerk, but many students cannot tolerate a first-hand experience of social squalor; and many drop out. (I think I told you about that practicum before.)

This line of thought bears some explanation. Around noontime last Saturday I met Jack, and the experience has thrown me into a reflective mood.

Jack lives in a cardboard box under a highway overpass. He has situated himself where he can’t be seen by passing motorists, but I was walking by on foot and that’s how I noticed him. He wears a knit cap over his greasy hair, and several layers of aesthetically incompatible clothing. From the smell of it, he has not bathed in quite a while. He acted frightened of me at first, since he did not want contact with strangers and was fearful of the consequences. He also had not eaten in a while, and I imagine that his hunger brought him to see me as a potential source of food, partially overcoming his fear and distrust of strangers.

There are no homeless people on Homeland. Oh, that’s not quite true; at any given moment, I am sure that there are a thousand or two. People “wig out” on every planet; natural catastrophes or family problems destroy their homes and their self-esteem, and they lapse into social autism. But on every known planet except Earth, homelessness is a temporary state of affairs—like being out of mayonnaise. It’s just Homelanderoid nature to get involved to some degree or other, and before you know it, they’re back in the mainstream of society.

It’s hard to suffer from alienation on Homeland for very long, because no one will cooperate with you! On Earth, it is a different matter. Humans react differently to people with problems, and so people with problems spiral downward until they crash, or until someone helps them or they find a solution totally on their own.

So I was hiking along with a backpack lunch. I wanted to enjoy the beautiful Saturday afternoon by hiking along the highway. When I saw Jack, I just sat down nearby and pretended to admire the view (which actually wasn’t very admirable). I completely ignored him, and this helped him to eventually decide that I was not a threat to him.

A long, silent time went by. Gosh, what an ugly view it was!

“This is my place,” Jack said possessively. His voice sounded like he didn’t talk very much.

“Yes, this is your place,” I confirmed. “I have a place somewhere else, but I thought I’d take a walk.”

Another long pause. Hesitantly, Jack said, “It is a good day for a walk.” He looked like he was effortfully composing a sentence. “You ain’t from here; I don’t mean no offense, but you got a accent, like from ... ah ... Jamaica.”

“You are a very clever man,” I congratulated him. “I see I have no secrets from you!” We shared a smile. He looked down.

“My name is Jack,” he volunteered.

I laughed in what you call my ‘musical laugh’ and Jack marveled in it. “I heard about the jack-in-the-box, and now I have met the real one!” He looked at his box and laughed at my joke. I really don’t know how to describe his laugh, but it almost sounded like he didn’t think he was permitted to laugh and that he was afraid that someone might find out and punish him for it.

“Would you like to have lunch with me?” I asked suddenly.

All his openness evaporated. He pulled himself down into his box. “I don’t need no food,” he lied under his breath.

“That’s okay. I’ll just go ahead,” I announced. I unpacked my lunch as Jack peeped at me out of his box. I spread out the cloth and weighted it down with the packets as they came out of the backpack. Fortunately, I had had a monstrous appetite when I packed this thing; I couldn’t possibly eat all this food by myself. I unwrapped the bread slices, the lunch meat, and the other stuff. I set out the butter and the mustard, and started making sandwiches. I did everything twice; two places, two sandwiches... as though two people were going to eat.

Jack’s interest in the food drew him slowly out of his box, but when I looked in his direction, he scooted back in.

“Oh, look at that!” I laughed, “I stupidly made lunch for two, and you said you weren’t hungry.” I looked at hopeful eyes. “Wouldn’t you please be my guest?”

“Well, I might could force something down,” he conceded. He crawled completely out of the box, and knelt at the picnic cloth, directly in front of me. His eyes were fixed on the sandwich, and his hands shook. He looked up at me. I gestured permission for him to eat. He tried to conceal his hunger from me by eating slowly and daintily, but it didn’t work. He wolfed his sandwich down. While his eyes were closed in ecstasy, I sneaked him half of mine.

He had a metal cup, so we could share the beverage I had in my thermos. He became expansive and very talkative. He gave me all sorts of helpful hints about the area, apparently thinking that I shared his lifestyle. Then he asked me questions about my background. (I answered them diplomatically.) He even began to tell me some of the secrets of his own life.

You can’t melt a glacier with a heat lamp, as the saying goes, but we were making some progress. Even a trained anthropologist can’t hope for much in the line of results in such a short time. A case as bad as his requires a lot of help; more help than all the soup kitchens and activists and psychologists on Earth could give in a decade. And most of them do it wrong anyway.

“Cops!” he whispered furtively. I turned and looked: he was right. An automobile with a flashing blue light on top had pulled off the road nearby. I looked back, but Jack had vanished into his box and into his hiding place under the overpass. A uniformed policeman got out of the car and started walking up the hill towards me.

“This is an interstate highway,” he informed me needlessly, “hitchhiking and pedestrians are not permitted.” The policeman apparently did not notice Jack.

“I am so sorry, sir, I did not realize that,” I replied, laying on my Jamaica-sounding Thorgelfaynese accent as thickly as I could. “I was just out for a walk and a picnic lunch,” I explained, pointing to my backpack and the remains of our lunch. “I thought this was a park.”

The policeman smiled, obviously charmed by my accent. (I have always been grateful to be Thorgelfaynese, but usually for different reasons than the accent it gives me!) He took off his hat and scratched his head. “Well, it does kind of look like a park at that,” he admitted, “so I won’t give you a ticket. I’ll just give you a ride to the next exit.”

I thanked the officer for his kindness. The next exit wasn’t very far off, but we did have time for a chat.

The policeman was a very pleasant fellow, too.

The last time we had a bad storm, I thought about jack-in-the-box. I even went back to find him, but he’d moved on. It was mainly guilt that motivated me: a good physician strives for a total cure, not for making the miserable more comfortable as they suffer. Professionally, as an anthropologist, I failed. All I did was give Jack was some lunch, and I cannot know if it helped or harmed him. What he needs is an end to whatever causes his withdrawal.

We need more field workers here. If only the World Council of Countries and Independent Jurisdictions would allocate more money. If only more people would major in Earth Studies at the university. If only Zerpick and Chern would increase their participation in the program. If only Horstmingle would get involved. Alas, but that is not the case.

Maybe by coming to Earth, I have volunteered to melt a glacier with a heat lamp after all.