The Value of a Life

[an analysis by Lindsey Pittman]

Luisa Valenzuela’s “Who, Me a Bum?” follows a bum as he tries to find a place to rest and get warm. First, he is turned away from what is presumed to be a shelter in order to make room for others. He sneaks into the subway station during the chaos that is rush hour, only to hear white collar workers complaining about an inconsiderate suicide that will make them all late for work. The bum decides to speak up; he has identified with the business man already in his life and now he feels a closer sympathy with the suicide. His protests earn him a night in jail. It is a blanket and food, but the police station is a miserable place full of protests as well. He is released and turned out onto the streets again, with no place to go.

The discussion of the suicide is the most powerful literary device in use, demonstrating the apathy with which modern human beings regard each other. First, we have the business man:

Damn it, he would choose this time of day to jump under the train, disgraceful, committing suicide when everybody’s on the way to work, no one has the right to do that, what’s the boss going to say, you’ve always got some excuse he’s going to say, why did that guy have to choose my train, I’ll be late and what can I say, it’s all that imbecile’s fault.

This businessman is given no name, no face, just a voice that embodies the opinion of all the busy, bustling modern working folk. The modern working man has no time to deal with or care about anything aside from his own needs and priorities. A suicide, a human being who chooses to end his own life, is not even a tragedy anymore. It is merely an inconvenience.

This sentiment is reflected onto the bum, who—with no money and no resources—is also a mere inconvenience to those around him. “Get out of here, they shout at me, you have to make room for somebody else.” The bum is forced from a shelter because he is just one of the countless bums who is taking up space. Even the police station casts him out. “They’ve pushed me out in the street: good-by to food that’s awful but regular, good-by to a flea-ridden blanket but a blanket nonetheless.” Everywhere he goes, he is not seen as a human being but as an inconvenience. He is the same as the man who committed suicide in the eyes of the bustling white collars.

The bum himself is not even able to fully sympathize with the suicide. “Back to … the daily grind … where I can’t even get in a little snooze because the 8:37 A.M. suicide comes then and interferes with my rest.” Even this man, who is a victim of the apathy of his fellow human beings—they kick him out of the shelter to make room, they kick him out of the police station although he has no place to go—finds the suicide an inconvenience. Even though he claims to identify with the suicide, his own needs come first. And when those needs are infringed upon by the suicide—causing a ruckus in the train station that will keep the bum form sleep—the suicide is reduced to mere inconvenience.

Human life is reduced to a matter of taking up space or taking up time that—if the white collars are to be believed—belongs to more productive and, thus, “worthwhile” members of society. Valenzuela is able to convey this in a story just shy of two pages in the way she compares the bum to the suicide.

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