A homeless man named Roger lives on my block in the entryway to an abandoned building. He sleeps there every night, and every day he wanders around the neighborhood. We always greet each other; sometimes we stop to chat. He knows my kids and my dog, and they know him. He has never asked me for help of any kind. Most of our exchanges are absolutely ordinary—just small talk about the weather.

Except that it’s not at all ordinary small talk. There’s a forced breeziness on both of our parts. We’re both pretending that it’s normal for someone with a wealth of earthly possessions and social capital to be chatting about the weather with someone who has virtually none. We are radically Other to one another. We pretend that we’re commiserating about the rain when, in fact, the stakes could not be more different for...

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