Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn't there
He wasn't there again today
I wish, I wish he'd go away…
When I came home last night at three
The man was waiting there for me
But when I looked around the hall
I couldn't see him there at all!
Go away, go away, don't you come back any more!
Go away, go away, and please don't slam the door… (slam!)
Last night I saw upon the stair
A little man who wasn't there
He wasn't there again today
Oh, how I wish he'd go away…
It was rumored that a ghost roamed a house in Antigonish, Nova Scotia (Canada). Inspired by accounts of this apparition, American poet and Harvard educator Hughes Mearns wrote of an encounter with the spirit in 1899. As a component of a play called The Psycho-ed, the poem didn’t create much of a stir, but as a witty and succinct comment on the vagaries of existence it has survived and blossomed, integrated into a myriad of media – movies, song lyrics, cartoons, political critiques and more.
Means’ poem expresses wonder, revulsion, horror and whimsy simultaneously. Having met “the man who wasn’t there” and expressing a wish for him to “go away” without conflict (“please don't slam the door”), the request is ignored “…(slam!). Following multiple entreaties, the conflict and contradiction of what is there and what is not remains unresolved.
Applied to our present political circumstances at all levels of government, Means’ ditty can be seen as a clear warning similar to that sent to Ebenezer Scrooge in the Dickens classic, A Christmas Carol or a satirical remark reflecting a chasm of political differences. In either case, examination of behavior and underlying premise is warranted.
One of the most pressing issues currently confronting local society is the cost of living and its deleterious effect on individuals and families. Rapid transformation of the workplace from pastoral to technological has created a freefall for many in which uncertainty is a certain result. The irony is a reprise of the “little man,” an illusion of reality that we wish would go away. But, just as the apparition on the stair is simultaneously present and absent, so does the specter of instability continue even for those who presently have the means to support themselves and family. Both visible and invisible, many people at the lower end of the economic ladder struggle for basic subsistence. Societal efforts to assist are a reminder to all of the tenuous hold others have on what is believed to be economic success. What appears may be real or an illusion – a fearful realization: “Go away, go away, don't you come back any more!”
Fear is stoked by fact infused with illusion. In the present debate over use of “Navigation Centers” to aid homelessness individuals find permanent housing, the little man is neither fact or fiction, rather a complex combination of circumstances that threaten stability. Of course, it is undesirable to even think of being homeless and without resources. The little man is on the stair, yet if we shout loud enough, maybe he will disappear. Unfortunately, volume is not a good answer to fundamental challenges. The question to be answered is not if the little man is on the stair or not, rather why is his existence such a point of contention, anger and terror.
Until we face the little man without dread and revulsion, he will continue to appear at three… waiting.