Homeless in Vancouver: Oh no! Where did Henry’s shopping cart go?
For people who may be unaware of the “Somebody Else’s Problem” field, or believe that it is just a fantasy dreamed up by author Douglas Adams for his multimedia franchise The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I present the following real-life example from the world of homelessness.
On Wednesday, September 13th, my homeless friend Henry parked his shopping cart, filled with all of his worldly possessions, in the mouth of the alley beside the McDonald’s restaurant on the heavily-trafficked south side of 1400 block of West Broadway. He then left the cart there for several days and nights while he wandered off on a sojourn to the Downtown Eastside.
Henry finally returned to his senses and to the Fairview neighbourhood four days later, on the morning of Sunday, September 17. He was quite pleased to see that his shopping cart was unmolested and exactly where he left it.
While luck had clearly been with him, this wasn’t just a case of fortune looking out for a fool. Henry has walked away from his cart this way before and he’s learned a thing or two about how to do it.
Before he bid the Fairview neighbourhood adieu on Wednesday, Henry carefully positioned his shopping cart close to the alley-side of the McDonald’s restaurant and draped a big old comforter over the cart’s mounded contents.
Henry would not have described it thus but Douglas Adams might have recognized these steps as a simple Somebody Else’s Problem field designed to help hide the shopping cart in plain sight.
Exploiting the natural invisibility of homelessness
The way that Henry located and dressed his shopping cart was intended to deflect attention and curiosity—of McDonald’s staff, casual passers-by and of other binners and homeless people.
The location against a window of the restaurant implied that the owner of the cart was either inside the restaurant and watching his stuff, or else just around a corner somewhere. The old comforter hid the contents of the cart and deterred people from being nosey by potentially being what it looked like—a dirty comforter and, by association, suggesting that the cart contained the same kind of unappealing garbage that covered it.
The cart was also carefully positioned not to be in anyone’s way but to look like it had some business being where it was. All in all it was intended to appear inoffensive and uninteresting—totally somebody else’s problem.
And it worked. For four days and three nights people walked by and around the shopping cart without giving it more than a second glance. For all intents and purposes Henry had made it disappear.
Art imitates life and…so on
The Somebody Else’s Problem field, or SEP field, for short, originated in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, as a simple way to make things disappear without actually making them invisible.
In the Tertiary radio series of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the Guide (Adams) explains that:
“The technology to make something properly invisible is so mind-bogglingly complex that nine hundred and ninety-nine million, nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety times out of a billion it’s simpler just to take the thing away and hide it.”
This is followed by the story of Efrafax of Wug, an ultra-famous sciento-magician, who bet his life that, given a year, he could make a mountain disappear. He couldn’t. And, after a year of fruitless effort culminating in what Adams says is recognized as one of the hardest night’s work in history, Efrafax lost the bet and therefore his life.
Better Efrafrax had used a cheap SEP field, exploiting, as it does, “people’s natural disposition not to see anything they don’t want to, weren’t expecting, or can’t explain.”
If, says Adams, instead of trying to make the mountain disappear for real, Efrafax had “merely rendered it pink and then erected a cheap Somebody Else’s Problem field around it, then people would have walked past the mountain, round it, even over it and simply never noticed that the thing was there.”
It’s as funny as it is true.
At its heart, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a satire of the real world. Adams uses the conceits of science fiction to turn us all into aliens so that we can see and laugh at our flaws and foibles.
With SEP fields, Adams was lampooning one of the ways in which we edit out disagreeable aspects of daily life, such as homelessness.
Adams said that the SEP field was simple but he didn’t explain how simple. He left the exact mechanics to his readers’ and listeners’ imaginations.
In fact, it’s as simple as a ratty comforter thrown over a shopping cart. It is so simple that most homeless people, like my friend Henry, can figure it out just by watching how other people on the street look right through them as if they are not there.