Firstly I’d like to put your mind at ease and let you know that the letter I received meant for someone else had nothing to do with you or your mailroom, it was a lazy person who wrote the same letter to several people and simply forgot to change a name within the text. I know quite a few people who do this, write one letter and then send it to three or four people, and it makes me sad not just because I’ve put all the time and effort into answering their letters individually and trying to write what could be of interest to them, but the waste of time, a good mind – at least, I hope it is a good mind – and, not least of all in your situation, the cost. I would never expect anyone to write to me if they need the money for something else, I know how little many have when they’re inside, which is why I never make any demands and always wait patiently for replies, understanding why there can be delays. I have also been in a position where there is little or no money for the necessities of life, also lived under bridges and walked the streets, begged and taken social welfare handouts in my time; I would never wish to force that on anyone else. So I find it sad too that someone would waste their money on a stamp, on paper and an envelope, when they’re not writing a letter to the person on the address label, but a generic one which could apply to anyone in the world, and don’t take the offered friendship at the high level it has been offered.

I agree with you completely: there are some who cannot take the downside of life, who experience loss and do not have the strength to get themselves through life, to try to make the most of what they have and seek out a better way or, at the very least, help so that those who rely on them can be well cared for and have a good life. It is, sadly, happening to more and more people in our two societies, as big business makes itself and its shareholders rich, and the politicians concentrate on their well-being rather than that of those in most need. I am also sickened beyond belief at those who would take the last crust of bread out of the mouths of their citizens in order to ensure riches for those who have no need of anything extra, who already have more than they can possibly use in their lifetimes or that of their children and grandchildren. Certain parts of society have failed miserably if this is seen as being an acceptable way of life.

I am fortunate, here in Germany, to have a safety net to fall back on, that we have a social welfare system which lives up to the ideal of security, and that very few are so reduced to poverty they cannot survive. Admittedly, when a person loses their job they must make additional sacrifices before being able to call upon all the services of the State: a person owning a valuable house cannot be supported at a different level to someone who only rents an apartment as they both have the same basic needs, and the State should only be obligated to support these and not a life which had more luxuries or unnecessary material possessions before to the same standard now. Those who lose their jobs here receive unemployment benefit – without the hassle of having to sign on for benefits and payments every week or two – and are assisted in finding new employment. Those who are ill and fall out of employment as a result of their illness are supported by the health insurance everyone is required to have – half paid by themselves, half by their employer. And when that is all exhausted, as there are time limits on everything, there is a further fall back position of social security where the absolute basic necessities are paid for by the State: food, children’s education, health insurance, accommodation.

So many people, though, measure their lives upon the basis of the material possessions they have, how they stand against their neighbours with the size and appearance of their garden, their car or cars, the associations and clubs they belong to, right down to the clothes they wear. The loss of all this, in their eyes, is far greater than anything else: they have lost face in front of those around them, lost their high position in society, are as fallible and human as the next person and that, unfortunately, is unacceptable to some. Our societies have been built up upon the backs of fashion, material possession, being better than the next man and we, or some, simply do not know how to exist without this fake, this pseudo positioning, these outward signs of success and well-being. Take all of this away, the flashy car, the massive house, the nights out at the club and the best seats in a theatre, and only the human being, the man or woman is left; and this is too little for some.

There were times, and I am sure you know what I mean without me going into too great detail, when I was happy to eat something warm or fresh. I walked the streets with a sleeping bag on my back and, sometimes, a change of clothing. There wasn’t even spare change in my pocket. I slept under bridges, in car parks, out in the open when the weather was fine, and had just enough to keep me alive and, to be perfectly honest, I would not exchange this experience, now that it is over, for the world. It has given me an appreciation for how other people, those who are perhaps less fortunate than myself, or those who have fallen on hard times through no fault of their own, feel and live. There is, as I am sure you appreciate, a great difference between these souls, and those people who live off the State, who have never had any intention of gaining employment, who beg aggressively and spend whatever they gain on alcohol and other substances not necessary for a good and fulfilling life. And then there are those who have discovered that they can make several hundred dollars a day begging on the streets in some cities: they drive a big Mercedes or BMW to an area near their place of ‘work’, change into rags and perform their little piece of theatre for the passersby which brings in more income than they could have earned in an office, then change back into civil clothes and drive to their families at home in the suburbs. I wonder how they manage to live with themselves, what their family would think of them if they knew the truth.

You write that you’ve been the only African-American in certain areas, both at work and during leisure times, and I can relate to that on many levels. At work I have always been in a mixed group, where no one could really be called different or an outsider because we were all different. In my leisure times it has been much the same: I mix with those who are of interest and who share the same interests, and it makes no difference to me who they are, what they look like, where they come from. And then I have lived in Belize, where I was the only white in the neighbourhood, where I was the only white in a cinema showing a film on the mistreatment and murder of African-Americans by whites. In theory I should have felt out-of-place, and in the cinema as this film – Mississippi Burning – was playing I could have felt threatened, but I didn’t. Here, during those months and years, it was accepted that many different people lived and worked together who look, speak and act differently, and it made no difference whatsoever. Of course, as you know yourself, you learned who you could trust and who to avoid, that is the same inside and out, no matter in which society or at which level of society you happen to find yourself.

I was talking to someone recently about the views expressed by many people coming from their family and not from their own thoughts and experiences. It seems almost as if people are being raised to take what they are told as being the gospel truth, and not too loo and consider for themselves. I’ve met so many people who claimed to be following one or another path – regardless what the subject matter might be, it could be politics just as easily as religion, education, whatever – because that is the way they have always done it, and they’ve never considered any alternative. I’ve even heard of teachers – at college level – proudly proclaiming they do not read certain political publications, as teachers of politics, because the slant of these papers does not agree with their own view. So what are they teaching, if not an independent, unbiased view of how the political system works? That is the way I believe it should be: we learn how something functions, and then decide for ourselves how to make the best use of it. At the same time we should be taking every single person on this small, insignificant planet for the individual that they are, and not simply access them, accept or deny them because their parents happened to be African-Americans, or Chinese-Americans, or British, Israeli and so on. We didn’t choose our parents, nor the place of our birth. There should be a good sense of loyalty and patriotic acceptance of our own country and birthright, that I agree with to a certain extent, but no blame for us being born in one place rather than another: we had no choice.

Virgil wrote:

At least do not prevent this youth from bringing aid to a disordered world.

If we cannot bring up our children and educate them as individuals with the idea that they should go out into the world and learn about it for themselves, and then bring the world back to how we have always wished it to be, how it could be, then what are we doing? Feeding them a series of dogmatic plans and telling them that this is the only way forward when society and the rest of the world is changing will lead to them being burned and, sadly, many others with them. And it will lead to more trouble and strife rather than mature, open-minded individuals sitting down with one another and talking. At the same time we have to teach our children that the way of the parents is not necessarily the right way, and that they should seek out their own future, their own good luck, their own destiny as best they can.

Like you I have had people spread rumours about me which do not match with the truth in any way, shape or form. I am fortunate, however, in having many friends who know me reasonably well, and who, when hearing a rumour of any sort, do not shy away from checking it for themselves, asking me or someone close to me whether there is any truth or whether someone is playing games. Friends like these are worth any number of companions who are only there for the light that you shine and they can barely reflect. Sometimes I feel it is better to share time and space with those who we know and know we can trust without bothering to look at their political religious or sexual opinions and orientation, so long as we can talk with them, debate quietly and enjoyably with them there is no problem. And is a person who is gay any different to another person? Why should someone who we have known for years – certainly in the case of public figures – suddenly be cast out and burned as a completely different person just because of a preference for someone of the same sex? They are still exactly the same person that we have known for years, and their sexuality, so long as it is not forced upon us, is their own business.

Of course, when you live in a closed community or have a very tight group of friends, it doesn’t take long before any stories which have been fabricated get blown down and shown to be what they are, and then, where does the storyteller stand? So many don’t realise, living in such a small area where everyone knows everyone else, that the truth will come out before too long, and then the person who has lied, who  has tried to do another harm, is more likely to come out looking bad than his victim. This is what happened to me a few years ago, when a fellow member of a club I am a member of decided to try to damage my reputation which, as you can imagine, quickly went in the other direction and left him with a lot of mud sticking to his name, and many people who are no longer prepared to trust him without some form of verification.

We make our own lives, choose our own friends. Sometimes the right way, sometimes the wrong way, but of our own volition. Some people call it fate, others free will. And sometimes we are forced to walk away from what we had hoped to be a good friendship for many reasons, even if we cannot physically leave the person and they are there as a constant reminder of what might have been. And sometimes we find a friendship where we least expected it, and it holds a lifetime.