Observed at Haight & Cole Streets

8:45 PM. I’m inside a convenience store. I’m standing in line about to buy four rolls of toilet paper. A young man in his early twenties purchases two 40 ounce bottles of Mickey’s and a box of toothpaste (the latter purchased so he can meet the $10.00 credit card minimum). He buys the liquor for a homeless man, who is already quite inebriated, and smiles at the clerk behind the counter and the homeless man. He tells the homeless man, “Alright, man! Time to enjoy yourself!” I’m unsure if he means anything diabolical by this. The remark seems straightforward enough.

1. Is the buyer of Mickey’s culpable of contributing to the homeless man’s inebriation? Is he helping to blot the homeless man’s mind out from the real world? Or is he committing an act of genuine philanthropy beyond my comparative ken? Will the liquor help the homeless man survive another day in the streets?

2. Is the clerk complicit by finalizing the transaction and not remarking upon its consequences? * (Corollary: Are all clerks complicit when they sell cigarettes and alcohol to troubled souls? Or does the free market dictate that a person is entitled to whatever he wants? Why is it so easy to let others, who have homes to sleep in, make bad decisions over more trivial matters and yet so troubling to me to watch this man purchase liquor for another? Further, why can I accept some young person buying another person alcohol and not this man’s actions? Why does class shape my views? What right do I have to possess these assumptions when there’s a double standard?)

3. Am I complicit in my silence? I could have voiced my dismay. I could have stepped in and bought the man a slice of pizza. If I had chosen the latter, the homeless man, his eyes widening at the malt liquor, may have refused my offer. He’d clearly prefer eighty ounces to block out the sights of his horrid world rather than nourishment which would at least settle his belly.

General Feelings: Unsettled by the philanthropist, saddened by the homeless man’s addiction, infuriated that I did not do anything. The defendant pleads guilty.

* — The great irony here is that, when the young man and the homeless man shuffled out of the store, the clerk remarked, “I don’t know why he did that,” to which I could have easily responded, “I don’t know why you did that.” It’s easy for all of us to walk this earth, unaware of our own ironies.


  1. Well, there are many places where homeless people can get free food in SF, but not any where they can get free alcohol. And it’s not necessarily any more a sin to buy a homeless man a drink than it is to buy any man a drink.

  2. – Anyone who sells alcohol, unlike fast food which at least has a smidgen of nutritional value, will be an accessory in contribution to the poor health of some buyers, even if the majority of alcohol users do not overindulge (which is probably wishful thinking anyway). This is something that any seller of alcohol must rationalize.

    – Anyone who sells cigarettes does so knowingly at the expense of the buyer’s health. There is absolutely nothing good about cigarettes. The age for cigarette purchase should be 21, and there is no way to rationalize their sale. Similarly, anyone who offers a cigarette to anyone else (especially the un-addicted), or gives one to a person in need, or someone who is trying to quit, is just as bad.

    – What is the argument for preventing the down-and-out bum from consuming alcohol? If he is denied, will he join an AA group? Will he get straight? Will he get a job? Most homeless people are on the street because they are mentally ill. If nobody is willing to take them in (kids, parents, social services) what’s the harm? At least they can either a) get drunk, b) be happy, or c) fall asleep on the cement/in the cold more easily.

    – If the homeless man had $4, would the clerk have denied him the purchase? From the clerk’s last statement, he must subscribe to the philosophy that “if you can afford it, and it’s legal, you can have it.”

    I guess the real crime is that the buyer didn’t get the homeless man something good.

  3. Rephrasing Ed’s ethical dilemma:
    In the city quarter that i have just moved in there are a lot of junkies. The square is theirs. They drink, sometimes sleep, and in the adjacent roads they find a suitable apartment block entrance to shoot up and fall in heroinic torpor. Apart from the aesthetic part they bother nobody. No serious crimes of any sort. Maybe because they can’t even move properly i don’t know. How can a man conduct a respectable robbery with the junkie’s suspended gait? The thing is that they constantly ask for change. If you give them your 50 cents you know that it goes right into their veins. Should you? On the other hand, these 50 cents contribute to another person’s (elusive and, to us straight people, horrid) temporary bliss. Should you give bliss even if you do not see it as such? Knowing that in a small way you are contributing to their slow and inevitable death. Ed?

    ps. Once in a cafe a junkie thrust his forearm in my face, full of needle holes, and said “Please man i need to shoot, please just 50 cents!”. I immediately gave it to him. Better his honesty than the endless lie.

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