Writing about the first season of The Real World all summer long, I’ve found it almost impossible to avoid using the words “earnest” and “idealistic” over and over again. This week, we’ve got what may be the most heartfelt, overtly political episode of the entire season. In a densely packed 22 minutes, "Julie in A Homeless Shelter?", covers all the pressing issues of the day: homelessness, abortion, gay rights, presidential politics. And here I thought sexy TV commercials were the biggest problem facing America in 1992.
Maybe I was hormonal or overtired, but damn it if I didn’t get a little choked up watching this episode, in which big-hearted, open-minded Julie befriends a homeless drug addict named Darlene (a.k.a. Puddin’). It all begins one afternoon when Andre and Julie just happen to be walking Gouda along the river, 80+ blocks north of their Soho loft. The scene is introduced by a heavy-handed montage, set to god-awful canned music, of images of urban blight: tipsy homeless guys, boarded-up apartment buildings, an abandoned employment office. Look out folks, because things are about to get "real"! As Norm explains in voiceover, Julie and Andre stumble upon a “Reaganville,” an enclave of homeless people living in cardboard boxes. They’re a common thing in the city, says Norm. (Not anymore!)
Julie strikes up a conversation with Darlene, who’s been living in the improvised shelter for a year. She says welfare only allows her to spend $215 a month on rent, which isn’t enough for a decent apartment, and that she doesn’t want to go back uptown, where her family lives, because someone is likely to offer her drugs.
It’s a cliché to point out how most New Yorkers are inured to the suffering around them, but it’s also true. Watching Julie interact with Darlene, I couldn’t help but feel a little guilty about my own indifference to the homeless; just the other day, I walked past a haggard-looking guy lying unconscious on the street, his hand buried in a half-eaten watermelon. The incongruity of the watermelon is probably the only reason he made an impression on me, such are the realities of living in a big city, even one that's been sanitized considerably over the past two decades. Julie, a more empathetic and compassionate person than I will ever be, asks if she can spend a night with Darlene to find out what it’s really like to be homeless. Here’s further evidence of my theory that Julie is the greatest reality “character” of all time: she’s funny, telegenic and wide-eyed, without being a total naïf.
A few days later, Julie returns to spend the night with Darlene. She's dressed in her usual squeaky clean garb—stonewashed jeans and a striped turtleneck sweater that almost certainly came from J. Crew. Darlene tells Julie of her latest woes: her boyfriend has run off with her welfare check, probably to buy drugs, and hasn't returned. Darlene’s friend talks about how he likes to have sex when he’s high, and how he pays girls to sleep with him using drugs. He gives Julie a tour of his “condo,” a relatively plush cardboard box stocked with candles and a can of Lysol. “You gotta keep it smellin’ fresh,” he says. It's a lot for a 19-year-old from Birmingham, AL, to handle, but Julie never once wrinkles her nose or hints at any kind of moral judgment. In maybe the most poignant moment of the episode, Darlene tells Julie “I want to go and be a baby again and grow up knowing the things I know now.”
In the episode's final act, Julie once again heads uptown to go to church with Darlene. It’s Easter Sunday, and Julie explains that it’s the first time she’s been away from home on the holiday and so she’s feeling a little sad. Decked out in her Easter finest—opaque white tights and a prim dress suit—Julie looks all of 12 years old. Darlene doesn’t show up at All Angels Church, so Julie heads over to the rotunda to look for her, but she’s nowhere to be found. Her things are gone, and someone tells Julie that she was last seen going to buy crack. “I might not ever see Darlene again, and that hurts,” Julie admits. The skeptic in me wonders if Real World producers didn’t perhaps encourage Julie’s friendship with Darlene, but Julie’s empathy strikes me as extremely genuine. There’s also something poignant and utterly heartfelt about the way Julie deals with her homesickness—by putting on her Sunday best and going to church. I may be a filthy liberal heathen, but I can appreciate Julie’s need for a little perspective, for the comforting traditions of home.
Julie is not the only loftmate worried about the state of the world. This episode unfolds against the backdrop of the 1992 presidential primary. Julie, Norm and Andre head to a rally for their favorite candidate, former (and current) California governor, Jerry Brown. Michael Moore is there! Brown was the insurgent candidate that year, the one whose grassroots campaign (supporters could not give more than $100 and donated via a 1-800 number) caught on with young, progressive voters. (Though, weirdly, Brown also supported a 13% flat tax, which doesn’t quite square with his progressive image.) Wearing a super-stylish pro-choice hat, Becky heads to her polling place and pulls the lever for Brown, too, even though she thinks Clinton might have the edge in the general election.
The roomies, especially Norm, are upset when Brown places a distant third in the New York primary. The reason for his drubbing in the Empire State? Brown mentioned that he might pick Jesse Jackson as his VP, provoking the outrage of the state's Jewish population. Norm decides to channel his frustration by painting a mural of Brown’s 1-800 number. Julie and Becky join him, and end up covering each other in paint. It all feels like a Levi's commercial, or something. The mural painting is cathartic for Norm. “I really needed to get that paint out,” he says. What I’m wondering is whether they actually hung the mural somewhere other than their living room.
The other big issue in this very issues-oriented installment of The Real World is abortion, that perennial front in the culture wars. Julie, Heather, Andre and Norm head to DC for an abortion rights rally. On the way, Norm, driving a car that he’s decorated with handmade pro-choice signs, gets pulled over for speeding. The cops say they’re “sympathetic” to Norm’s cause, but give him a ticket anyway. I call bullshit on them. Dear cops: why do you hate women so much?
The gang eventually makes it to the Mall, where they join hundreds of thousands of other pro-choice advocates, including Charles, Norm’s kinda-sorta boyfriend. “The last thing I expected to see in a million people was Charles,” Norm says, but truthfully the whole thing seems weird. Did the producers dump him there? Did he know Charles was going to be there and accidentally-on-purpose engineer a run-in, which is what I totally would have done? Whatever the case may be, they seem happy to see each other. They lie on the Mall, cuddling and listening to Joan Baez belting out some very Joan Baez-y lyrics.
I gotta admit, Charles is pretty cute, earrings and all:
Then suddenly, we’re in a classroom where Kevin asks his students about abortion. Heather and Julie are sitting in on the class, and they get in a heated conversation with a girl in the class who’s staunchly pro-life. Heather and Julie are both pro-choice, though Julie admits she doesn’t think she could have one herself. There’s a conspicuous lack of context to the scene to the scene—what is Kevin teaching, exactly? Who are these students? Why are they talking about abortion? And why did Julie and Heather pick this day to come to class? Anyway, it all makes my producer-radar go off, but whatever. There are worse things than staged, sober discussions of complex social issues, right?
There’s a sad coda to the all the warm fuzziness of the rally: Norm gets dumped by Charles the dreamboat. Truth be told, I kind of knew Norm’s relationship was doomed from the very beginning. You could tell he was just a widdle bit too into Charles—not in a creepy way, mind you, but in the way that we all are at some point in our lives. “I was extremely overtaken by Charles,” he says, and his near-obsession is pretty obvious. Don’t worry, Norm, we’ve all been there.
- I am about 90% sure that the location of the “Reaganville” where Darlene lived is the 79th Street Boat Basin, which is now a favorite warm-weather haunt for frat boys looking to swill domestic beer from plastic cups.
- The best-dressed award this week is a tough call. The pro-choice cycling hat that Becky wears to the polls is pretty rad, but I’m kind of digging Julie’s buttoned-up denim shirt look. Excuse the blurry pic:
- The episode sort of makes me wonder where Julie, now a married mother living back home in Birmingham, stands now on the political spectrum; does she look back on her days of painting Jerry Brown murals and attending pro-choice rallies as a fleeting youthful rebellion?
- Some commenters have criticized Norm for being less than forthcoming about his sexuality, but I disagree. It’s telling that he only ever describes himself as gay, not “bisexual.”
- As a parting shot on this day of dire Wall Street news, I leave you with an image of the National Debt Clock that flashed briefly in this episode. $3 trillion? How quaint!