Poor people on TV

The night after The State Of Minnesota versus Amy Senser screeched to its soap operatic conclusion, I headed to the Beat Coffeehouse in Uptown to hear my songwriter friend Julia Douglass sing about love, loss 

and the state of humanity. 

Her husband had a child

With her own twin sister

Now they all live

In a double-wide

Like many Twin Citians, especially those of us who regularly take or travel past Exit 235A, the Riverside Avenue/25th Street ramp where Senser struck and killed Anousone Phantavong last August, the parable of the two shattered families and their respective fates had been on my mind, and I’d been sussing out how to proceed with it all when Douglass eased into her tune “Watching Poor People On TV.” 

They named the baby Doolittle

They call him Doo

The studio audience 

Starts to boo

Wry as hell and sung in Douglass’s schoolmarm chirp, the song is an indictment of our national addiction to schadenfreude — the German word for “pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others” — as a spectator sport. Last week it was the Sensers and Phantavongs whom We The Rubberneckers couldn’t get enough of; tonight it’s the Octomom update and Ryan O’Neal talking about not talking to his daughter on Larry King. 

And we’re watching 

Poor people on TV

Poor people on TV

Poor people on TV

Thinking,“Thank God that’s not me”

“She got her come-uppance,” I heard one observer say about Amy Senser, minutes after the jury’s guilty verdict came in, which was followed by comments about the Edina woman’s class, race, trustworthiness, and how “it’s hard to feel any sympathy for her.” It was the same throughout the trial, as the cheap seaters put forth opinions on the situation and offered their own theories as to what happened on that dark and winding road that night. Some of the saner ones sat it out entirely.

 The cops burst in a house

The folks there are really high

They beat each other up

It’s pretty low

As a city, last Thursday was our Mary Magdelene moment, and if you took a second to step back from the emotion of it all, you might’ve asked yourself, as I did, sitting in that coffee shop in Uptown: Why not me? Why am I alive and why is Anousone Phantavong dead and why is Amy Senser going to jail and why was I lucky enough to be making too much noise eating my Pad Thai at a cozy little singer/songwriter/storyteller night?

Their skin is really bad

They drop their I-N-G’s

It’s like an economic minstrel show

For me, the three most poignant scenes from the past two weeks were: 1) The accident scene the night of the crash; 2) The 14-year-old daughter trying to spell her name for the court through gasps and tears and glances at her mother; and 3) Joe Senser’s coat on the back of the couple’s car in the parking ramp after the verdict, abandoned so he wouldn’t have to face the glare of us, via Fox 9 cam, one more time.

We watch crack babies being born

Some seem a little bit too still

We drink sodas and make popcorn

The network pays the hospital bill

“There but for the grace of God go I” was the onlookers’ chorus throughout the trial, but that doesn’t stick, because what happened to the Senser and Phantavong families happened to more than just them. The good news is that the opposite of schadenfreude is “mudita,” a Buddhist concept that translates to “sympathetic joy” or “happiness in another’s good fortune” — a national addiction we could all use at the moment.  

And we’re watching

Poor people on TV

Poor people on TV

Poor people on TV

Thinking, “Thank God that’s not me.”

Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet.