It was hard to get up and get ready for work each morning, I wasn’t sleeping very well. I had hurt my back on the job a few years before, and it still wasn’t right. I was in pain all the time.
Finally, I was unable to work at all. My doctor suggested I see a therapist, because he thought I might be depressed. Well, yes, I was a little down. After all, I had no income, I was behind on my rent, and my doctor wouldn’t take my injuries seriously.
The therapist and I had several unproductive sessions. I wanted real-world solutions to my problems; he wanted to talk about my dead relatives. I tried to explain to him that I needed medical help. I needed a disability income. I needed something to happen before I became not only disabled, but homeless.
“How long have you had this fear of being homeless?” he asked.
When I arrived home, there was an eviction notice tacked to my front door.
Airway Heights, Washington
I’m sitting at my computer ready to start work when the doorbell rings. It’s George. He lives around the block. Over a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich with half an apple and barbecue potato chips (his favorite), he tells me he’s going to be six on September 28. I tell him my birthday is three days before his. Can he come to my party? he asks. I tell him I’m not having a party. He still wants to know if he’s invited. He also wants to know if he can eat at our house all the time.
When he’s done eating, George zips around the house with the dust buster. No crumb escapes his eagle eye. After a few minutes of purposeful cleaning, he transforms the small vacuum into the motorcycle he’s always wanted. Finally, it becomes an airplane and flies as high as he can reach — and then crashes.
It’s time to go outside to blow bubbles, George announces. Will I watch him? Of course, I say softly over the computer’s insistent hum. I sit on the porch steps and applaud the streaming, rainbow-tinted spheres he sends floating toward me. Come on and do it, too, he pleads. I tell him my favorite bubble wand is the one with the hearts, and he hands it to me. We wonder why the bubbles it makes are round rather than heart shaped. We create glistening planets to wish upon.
George’s father, Melvin, works part time. I’ve heard that George’s mother lives somewhere else and is addicted to drugs. When I first met Melvin, he staggered into his living room red-faced from drinking, looking desperate and exhausted. Melvin’s mother is raising his four children; she’s too old to be a mother again, but she does the best she can.
When I have to send George home, I give him the rest of his sandwich and apple in a white paper bag and tell him I can play again tomorrow. He picks up his bike and pedals away, a hopeful grin on his face.
Katherine C. Hobbs
He just appeared one March day at our ranch in Arizona. We didn’t even know he was coming. No phone call. No letter. He arrived driving a fifteen-year-old RV, tan with brown stripes. The top-mounted air conditioner hit the hinged sign over the ranch’s front entrance, causing it to swing. We hadn’t seen him in several years, and when he first stuck his bearded face out the driver’s window, I didn’t recognize him. Then he leaned farther out the window and grinned at me: my brother Gerry.
For most of his life, Gerry had had trouble with drugs and alcohol — and women. He’d had five or six marriages, some lasting a month and others a decade. Now, at fifty-six, he had worked a sufficient number of years as a lineman with the telephone company to have earned a pension, which his latest wife was attempting to acquire through the divorce courts.
“She took everything,” he said. “All I have is this old RV and maybe a little pension money, if my attorney doesn’t get it all.”
We parked his RV in the hay barn and hooked up the water and power. “I’ll need to dump the dirty tanks every week or so,” he said cheerfully. “Dig a hole and down it goes. Where’s a good spot?”
Gerry had once owned horses, and so he took over the feeding chores and helped saddle the horses for our ranch guests. He finished the long-neglected picket fence around the garden and painted and hammered and mowed. He bucked hay and raked manure. He helped with the bonding and breaking of a couple of wild mustangs and plowed the hard-packed dirt inside the round pen. He did all of this with a beer in hand or nearby.
My wife, Denise, fixed a plate for Gerry each evening, and I brought it out to his RV. Sometimes, if we weren’t busy with guests, he would eat his meal in the kitchen with us. Each morning, I’d deliver a pot of coffee to his door. The Oregon courts had taken his driver’s license several years earlier, and he’d only recently gotten it back. “I’m on thin ice if I get stopped for anything — especially drinking and driving,” he said.
Some evenings, Gerry would sit high in the hay bales, watching the sunset and scratching the dog’s head, a beer in hand and several empties lying next to him. Other times, he would drive the old ranch pickup into town and drink at Doreen’s Back Street Bar, though the cigarette smoke bothered his sinuses. When he returned, the truck’s headlights often swept across our bedroom walls well after midnight.
Late one night in early May, I awoke briefly to the muted sound of a running engine. In the morning, when I brought Gerry’s pot of coffee to the barn, he was gone. I stood in the cool morning air, and a lonesome shiver passed through me.
Stuck to the barn wall with a knife I’d loaned him was a note: “The demons have found me and chase me every night. The wind blows hard against me. I go south across the border. Thank you both for everything.”
You’re smoking crack in a trailer park in Florida when your boyfriend flips out and gives you a black eye, and you take off, stuffing everything you can grab into the back of your Ford Aspire. You charge cheap motel rooms on what’s left of your Visa card because you’ve got your beloved dog with you and the battered women’s shelter said, “No pets.”
You wind up waiting tables and living in another trailer in Arkansas. You sit up nights with the cook, drinking Scotch and watching CNN. “Let’s get drunk and be somebody!” he likes to say. He tells you he served in Vietnam and is divorced. He came home one day and discovered his wife had cut off all his pants at the knees. Sometimes he talks about taking up painting or reading the classics. You know he never will: like most drunks, he’ll just sit around and talk about it. But you don’t say anything. You just watch him pour.
The cook dries out at the VA hospital in Little Rock, and you get a job as a nurse’s aide for seven dollars an hour. You notice that the really sick patients are usually the nicest, while the ones who are basically in good health and going home soon sometimes treat you as if you have no purpose on this earth other than serving their breakfast, changing their bed linens, and emptying their urinal.
They will never know that, several times in your life, you have been called “beautiful”; that your college English teacher thought you had real talent and even invited you to one of her fancy cocktail parties, where you drank expensive wine and stood on Oriental rugs discussing art and literature with writers and professors; that you actually sold three paintings and won a fellowship to graduate school — but you didn’t go because you were afraid. You once dreamed of a life filled with beauty and art, but that was before the false glamour of drugs and booze and all the wrong kinds of sex brought you here, where you try not to vomit as you dump patients’ shit into the toilet.
You go home every night to a one-room apartment downtown. Somebody breaks into your car, and the girl downstairs gets raped. Scared out of your wits, you move out in a hurry, and the landlord keeps your deposit — two hundred dollars. You eat peanut butter on toast for two weeks and think about forgiveness.
A year later, you are doing better, but still you wake up at 3:30 every morning, terrified because you don’t really belong anywhere, and you are starting to get the feeling that nobody will ever love you. You sleep with the lights, the TV, and all your clothes on. You press your face into your pillow and whisper, “I love you.”
That’s when the memories come: Daddy, drunk as usual, playing George Jones’s “The Race Is On” over and over on the stereo until something disrupts his whiskey-ruled universe, and he throws his dinner plate against the wall: spaghetti, your favorite. Mama made it just for you.
You’re not really sure, but you think he might have hit her after that. You were just a little kid, and you didn’t understand yet that this was not the way life was supposed to be.
In 1975, at the age of twenty-two, I followed my girlfriend to San Francisco. For years, I had roamed the South, picking up odd jobs to support myself, so I felt confident that I could do the same out west. After about three weeks of looking for work, though, my cash reserves had dwindled to fifty dollars, and all I’d found was that I couldn’t even wash dishes or sweep the streets without being in a union. Having little money and no place to stay, I was on the verge of panic. So I took a number at the welfare office.
The waiting room was crowded with people: elderly women, young mothers with babies, street people asleep in their chairs under old coats, and a group of black men playing cards. I sat down beside a white man in his twenties and across from a pretty black transvestite wearing red lipstick and rhinestone earrings and holding a patent-leather purse in his lap.
After a while, the man beside me invited me to go out back with him to smoke a joint. Boy, I thought, wouldn’t I love to get high and forget all my worries, but I couldn’t afford for my eyes to be red during my interview, so I said no thank you and saved his seat while he went out back alone.
When he returned, red-eyed and friendlier than ever, he offered me a Valium in case I was nervous. Again I said no thanks, and he took the Valium himself. Fifteen minutes later, he pulled out a handful of other pills and asked me which direction I wanted to go. “On the house,” he said, “to help with your situation.” I said I really needed to keep a clear head today but, thank you, some other time. He swallowed about half the pills in his hand. At this point, I began to worry about his mental state. His speech was be coming slurred.
Next, the man beside me pulled out a six-inch knife and started to clean his fingernails with it. Everyone around us made eye contact when the knife came out. I could tell he was enjoying our reaction. When his nails were clean, he leaned over to me and said, “Watch this.”
Jumping out of his chair, he placed the knife to the throat of the transvestite sitting across from us and said, “Hey, nigger, you ever been cut?” Everyone froze.
Suddenly, the group of black men stopped playing cards and came toward us. “Hey, motherfucker,” one of them said, “you want to cut somebody?”
I didn’t even have the chance to say, “I’m not with him,” before they pushed me out of the way, beat the man, and cut him with his own knife.
All I could think was It sure would be nice to have that Valium now.
When my number was called, I got seventy dollars a month, $125 a month in food stamps, and a cheap hotel room south of Market Street. I never knew getting a handout would feel so much like earning it.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
As I stepped off the bus at 3:45 A.M., the cold, wet coastal air stung my face. I inhaled deeply. Freedom! For years, I’d yearned to smell the sea air of my home city.
There was nothing open but a twenty-four-hour restaurant a mile down the road. I had no money. The Manila envelope in my hand held all my worldly possessions. Tucking the envelope under my arm and thrusting my hands deep into my pockets to keep them warm, I started walking. Maybe I could wait out the night in the restaurant’s foyer before being run away as a vagrant.
By the time I got there, my clothes were damp with dew, and I sat shivering on the bench in the entryway. I thought of what the morning would bring. Would my ex-wife let me see my son? Would I get any support from my family? Should I go find my old crew? No, I thought, that’s what got me sent up in the first place. It wasn’t going to be easy, but this time I would try to make it on my own.
The waitress inside the restaurant kept looking at me through the inner door. Finally, she opened it. I felt sure I was about to be booted out, but instead she smiled politely and said, “Sir, there’s a gentleman inside who says that, if you’d like some breakfast, he’s buying.”
I was instantly suspicious. But it was also an opportunity to stay inside until sunrise. “Sure,” I said, and I stood and followed her to the booth where the man was sitting.
I took a seat across from him, and he smiled and shook my hand. While the waitress went to get my coffee, I said, “Look, dude, I’m gonna tell you right now, if you’re looking for some action, you’re looking in the wrong place. I don’t play that shit.”
He chuckled softly and said, “I’m not sure what you’re talking about, but I don’t want anything. I saw you walk by the window all hunched over, and when you didn’t come in, I figured you could use some grub, or coffee, at least. Order anything you want. No strings attached, OK? My name’s Steve.”
Reaching to shake his hand again, I said, “I’m Rob.”
Then I took the menu and ordered an especially large breakfast so that, even if he left, I’d still have some food on the table and be able to stay until I finished.
I noticed the faded U.S. Marine Corps tattoo on Steve’s forearm and asked if he’d been in long. It turned out he’d served in Vietnam at the same time as my father. We talked about our children. Finally, I admitted that I’d just gotten back into town after doing some time, and everything I owned was on my back or in the envelope on the table.
“Listen,” Steve said, “why don’t you let me get you a room for a couple of days?”
“No way,” I said. Why was this guy doing this? “What’s your trip?” I asked him.
“There was a time when I was in a situation like yours,” Steve said, “and someone helped me out. I wanted to pay him back, but all he said to me was ‘If sometime in the future you can help someone who’s down and out, then do it.’ Simple as that.”
I was moved by Steve’s story, but I didn’t take the room he offered. That was twenty-two years ago. I never got my son back. Life on its own terms proved too much for me. I’m back in prison, this time on death row.
Robert M. Edwards
San Quentin, California
Some days, I met him after school in the basement of our apartment building and gave him my lunch money. I intentionally skipped lunch to save the money for him, figuring that he needed it more than I did. Other days, I’d see him standing across the street from my high school, waiting for me. I wondered whether he was there because I was his daughter or because he wanted something. I decided it didn’t matter; it just was what it was. I expected nothing and hoped that no one would find out what was going on.
One day, my father gave me a poem for my mother, who was recovering from a brain tumor and too sick to deal with him. The poem was beautiful — all about forgiveness and tenderness and kindness. I memorized it, but I never gave it to her. I kept it for years, folded up in my wallet, reading it from time to time.
Finally, when my mother was well again, I told her about the poem, and she understood why I hadn’t given it to her. He had failed us too many times, forgetting that his children needed food, shoes, a Christmas tree. (We had to go out on Christmas Eve with our pockets full of change and practically beg for a tree.) He just wasn’t strong enough. I will probably never know why.
My father died not long after that. When I heard the news, I just sat on a swing and cried. I said a little prayer, yearning to forgive, to somehow know and understand my dad.
Now, whenever I see a man who is obviously down and out, I swallow some tears, give him all my change, and pray.
New York, New York
I’d never been in a welfare office before. Having grown up in a middle-class family, I had preconceived notions about the kind of people who were dependent upon social services: lazy, uneducated, and looking for a handout.
While I waited to go into a cubicle and beg for help, I glanced at the others around me. Compared to them, I was clean and well dressed, just a little down on my luck, having suffered a temporary setback. I was entitled to a little help, I thought. After all, I’d been paying into the system since I was sixteen.
A skinny woman about my age walked in with four filthy children, all of them soaking wet from the rain. She was carrying the youngest, who was sucking on an empty bottle, while the oldest, a boy of perhaps six, dragged a garbage bag behind him. The mother walked up to the desk and quietly asked for help. She’d just left her abusive husband, putting all she could carry into the garbage bag. She didn’t know what to do next.
The stone-faced woman behind the desk told the mother about a shelter eight blocks away: she could walk there, in the rain, or wait to talk to someone here. The mother took a number and sat down next to me. I was grateful when my number was called, so I wouldn’t have to speak to her.
I entered a cubicle and sat down, embarrassed to be there at all. Without looking at me, the welfare worker asked for my name, Social Security number, address, and phone number. Then he listened as I explained how my husband had been laid off, our home was being threatened with foreclosure, and my credit cards were maxed out because we needed the cash to pay bills. Glancing at my pay stubs and doing some quick calculations, the man shrugged and told me he was sorry, but we made too much money to qualify for assistance. He said that if I quit my job, I’d be eligible for a number of programs for the unemployed. I left his cubicle feeling shock, anger, and fear.
As I walked out, I heard the woman behind the counter giving directions to the mother of four. It was pouring rain outside, but if the mother made it to the shelter by 10 A.M., she’d get some breakfast for her hungry kids. Checking my watch, I saw that it was 9:45. There was no way she could make it in time. I felt bad, but I kept walking.
In the parking lot, I got into my car and sat with my head in my hands and cried. How could this be happening? What could I do? What if I ended up like that mother? What if no one would help me?
When I went back inside, the mother was staring out the window, waiting for the rain to let up. Her baby was still sucking on the empty bottle. I offered her a ride to the shelter. She looked at me with such gratitude that I almost started crying again.
Castleton, New York
I was just another woman trying to leave an abusive, alcoholic husband. Once, I hid all night in the storage attic of an apartment building. Another time, my daughter and I slept in the bushes around her junior high school. I remember dragging our pitiful belongings to a restaurant, where I stuffed precious quarters into a pay phone, trying to find room in a shelter. They were all full.
Luckily I had a meager job, and my daughter had school, though she missed so many days it aroused her teachers’ suspicions. My co-workers, despite harassment from my husband, kindly offered us places to stay, and once even a temporary apartment. But I felt I’d used up their generosity with all my past attempts to leave, and I was too ashamed to accept any more.
Instead, I managed to steal back my car (though my husband had yanked the spark-plug wires), and for several weeks my daughter and I lived in my hatchback. We spent our evenings riding around, nervously looking for a safe place to spend the night. Once, we parked under some low-hanging trees down a dead-end street — until a teenage boy banged on our window and asked what we were doing there. Every three nights or so, we slept at a cheap motel so we could shower and rest more soundly. Before going to bed, I’d brace a chair under the doorknob.
It was a long time before I could afford a deposit and rent on an apartment. Eventually, we got back our cats, most of our belongings, and our dignity. We avoided the police, Child Protective Services, and, finally, my husband.
That was nearly twenty years ago. Even now, I sometimes notice food that I could steal if I had to, places where I could hide a car. I see dark shrubbery, sheds, overhanging branches, and I think, I could sleep there.
When I became a senior manager with a seat on the board of directors, an abundant flood of perks came my way: a corporate car, a personal executive assistant, fresh flowers in my office every week, an obscenely large expense account, and an endless stream of complimentary tickets to events. Growing up in a blue-collar Polish Catholic neighborhood, I could never have imagined such extravagance.
About a year after my promotion, I came down with a serious respiratory infection that I couldn’t shake. I plied it with antibiotics, herbs, acupuncture — everything I could think of — but it wouldn’t budge. I got sicker and sicker. Finally, I discovered a massage therapist who combined heavy doses of aromatherapy with aggressive lymphatic drainage, and the infection began to yield its tenacious grip.
I emerged from each therapy session dressed in my rattiest sweats, my body slick with oil and my hair plastered to my head, feeling slightly dazed and giving off strange, potent aromas. One day, I had a bit of an appetite and was feeling well enough to eat, so I walked around the corner to a bakery and asked for a cinnamon roll. The young clerk looked at me intently and then went over and whispered to an older woman, who must have been the manager. When they were done conferring, the manager handed me a big bag stuffed with hard rolls, sweet rolls, and cookies. “Please,” she said, “take these and enjoy them, on us!”
It took me a minute to realize that she thought I was a street person. I wanted to laugh and say, “Oh, no, you don’t understand!” But when I looked into her compassionate eyes, I stopped myself. I thought about what she saw: a sick, vulnerable, middle-aged woman who at that moment needed a little tenderness.
So I said, “Thank you, and God bless you.” And I meant it. Her gift was more precious to me than any company perk times ten.
San Diego, California
I was born in a hand-built, one-room log cabin in the woods. My parents were trying to live the simple life. My father had fled the corporate rat race and now lived by his own schedule. As a result, income was scarce, and supper sometimes consisted of nothing but potatoes. We could rarely afford winter coats or new shoes. We had no car, so we were forever at the mercy of others for rides.
Our family was an oddity in our blue-collar, conservative community, yet many of our neighbors looked out for us, giving us their hand-me-downs, extending countless dinner invitations, bringing gifts during the holidays.
I did have an idyllic childhood in some ways — playing barefoot outdoors all summer, befriending blue jays and turtles, meeting a steady stream of interesting seekers who came to talk with my parents. Even now, I am drawn to living simply.
But if I could go back and change just one thing, it would be the charity case mindset that developed from always depending on handouts. As an adult, it took me years to stop shamelessly asking favors of people. I still struggle with the residues of it and have a ways to go before I stop thinking, deep down, that the world somehow owes me a living.
I was traveling west in a dented yellow 1971 Volkswagen, with just enough cash in my pocket for food and gasoline. At the end of each day, I’d pull off the road, throw down my sleeping bag, and fire up my small portable stove. Then I’d fall asleep under the stars, thinking that I was really living.
Among the hitchhikers I picked up along the way was a man in his fifties named Jack. Dressed in secondhand clothes, ragged tennis shoes, and a black knit cap, Jack was the Norman Rockwell image of the American hobo. His thick gray beard was the only part of him that looked well-groomed. He was cheerful and talked nonstop, and his stories fed my romantic notions of life on the road.
When Jack heard that I was planning to camp by the roadside that night, he suggested stopping in the next big town and spending the night at the local mission instead. I never would have agreed had he not kept talking about how “ripe” we were and how nice a shower would feel. So, as darkness fell, we pulled up before a run-down storefront decorated with New Testament verses printed in chalky lettering.
The inside smelled of cooked cabbage, musty wallpaper, and years of sweat. A heavyset preacher herded us into the chapel, along with thirty other men, and read us the rules: “No cussing. No stealing. No masturbation while you reside with us. No fighting. You may not leave the premises until after morning service.”
The hour-long evening service consisted of a five-minute sermon and fifty-five minutes of singing Baptist hymns. Dinner was a meat-and-vegetable soup (heavy on the cabbage), a toasted cheese sandwich, and a glass of instant iced tea. Most of the men were between fifty and eighty, bearded and shabbily dressed like Jack, but without the endless conversation.
After dinner, we were marched to the shower room, where we lathered up under the lukewarm water, trying to avoid elbowing each other. Then we were assigned clean pajamas and shown to our beds. The lights went out, and soon the wooden walls were practically vibrating with the sound of the men’s snoring. Though I wasn’t entirely comfortable, I was glad Jack had suggested we stop here.
The next morning, following breakfast and a short service in the chapel, the doors opened, and we all poured into the street. As Jack and I drove off, I said, “They sure try to make your stay there nice, don’t they?”
“Yeah,” Jack said thoughtfully, “but nothing can replace the family you lost.”
For a moment, before Jack resumed his chatter, I felt the depth of his loneliness, and my romantic notion of life on the road disappeared.
Bowling Green, Florida
Being the first person in my family to go to college, I was expected to get a job right away. I graduated during an economic slump, however, and couldn’t find anyone who’d hire me to do anything, including flip hamburgers or wash dishes. I ended up wandering from one friend’s home to another, trying not to impose on anyone for too long.
Having no money to buy books or magazines, I decided to get a public-library card. I took the bus to the central library downtown and spent a leisurely afternoon browsing the stacks. As dusk fell, I brought my books up to the counter and told the librarian I needed to sign up for a card. She asked me for identification, and I showed her my out-of-state driver’s license and my expired student ID. Then she asked for my address.
I hesitated. I didn’t know the address of the place where I was staying. Figuring the librarian would never know the difference, I made up an address. She punched the street name and number into a computer, then looked over her bifocals at me and informed me that there was no such address. I stammered something about having just moved there, and that I must have gotten the number wrong. I offered another number. That one came up bad, too.
At this point, the librarian pulled out a map with the street I had named on it and started quizzing me on nearby landmarks. I floundered for answers. Finally, she gave me a cold glare and said I would need to present proof of address and a valid ID to get a library card. Putting her hand on my books, she swept them away from me.
I stepped outside and began to cry. I couldn’t even get a library card. I felt like a nobody.
I was working as a waitress at Bob’s Big Boy. The job required that I wear my hair in a mass of large, barrel shaped curls, and on top of that, attached firmly with bobby pins, an inexplicable orange circle of cloth that was supposed to be a hat. My husband, Tom, sometimes had a job, too, but he got fired a lot. He had trouble getting along with his bosses.
One evening, after working since seven that morning, I walked up to my front door and smelled beer and cigarette smoke through the screen. Inside, my husband and my two-year-old son were watching TV. Tom had a tall Bud next to him. At least he was still conscious.
“How you doin’, babe?” Tom said. He was slurring his words, but not too badly — yet. When he drank, he fell into a casual Texas accent. I never understood why, since he’d been born and raised in Wisconsin. I sat down on the orange-flowered love seat, and Tommy, my son, came over and sat next to me.
“Cookie?” he said.
“Not yet, sweetie. We need to eat dinner first.” I gave him a hug. “Did you have fun today with Daddy?”
I dragged myself to the bedroom and sat down on the waterbed with the crushed-velvet bedspread. A long time before, Tom had gotten a settlement from a car accident and had bought everything he’d ever wanted. The settlement hadn’t lasted very long.
I changed clothes and grabbed my purse to throw my tips in my change jar, but the jar was already open and nearly empty. Son of a bitch. Beginning to shake with fury, I walked into the living room.
“Tom, what happened to my money?”
“I bought you a birthday present, babe,” he said, as if he’d done something great.
“With my money?”
“Well, I didn’t have any. Here.” And he handed me something I neither wanted nor needed.
“I don’t want a birthday present. I want my money. Don’t take my money!”
Things got heated, as they always did, and he stomped out. In about two seconds, I went from outrage to hopelessness. My heart started to flutter, and it was hard to swallow. “People are afraid of you,” he always said. Maybe it was true. Maybe I was awful. I made a mental list of my failures, proof of my worthlessness. I tried to hang on to the anger, but it was hard to stay angry at someone who wasn’t there.
“C’mon, sweetie,” I said to my son. “Let’s go over to Antoinette’s.” She was the weekday baby sitter, and I owed her some money. I grabbed what was left of my tips and walked across the street to pay up and maybe chat awhile. Unfortunately, Antoinette wasn’t home, so I dropped her payment in the mail slot and walked back.
At home, I opened the refrigerator to try to pull together dinner. Not much to work with: no milk, a little cheese, and two six-packs of tall Buds. I checked the cupboard: a package of macaroni and cheese, a can of peas, and some tuna. That might work. Too bad there wasn’t any milk. I’d have to buy some. I opened my purse: only thirty-five cents left. Damn! Then I got an idea. I took Tommy by the hand. “Let’s go for a walk.”
There was a liquor store nearby where Tom would buy beer on credit before payday. The guy there knew him. Surely, if they let a man buy beer on credit, they would let a woman with a little kid get a quart of milk.
But the man at the liquor store, whom I had seen in there before, said, “I don’t know anyone named Tom. Nobody has credit here.”
“Sure he does,” I said. “He’s told me. You’re his first stop on payday.”
With a smirk, the man said, “Lady, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
My face burning, I put the milk back in the cooler and walked out the door with my son. On the way home I decided that I hated that man at the store more than I had ever hated anyone.
I needed to take my son and leave Tom. It couldn’t be worse supporting two people than three, I thought. But money wasn’t the real issue. I couldn’t leave because I knew it wouldn’t matter to my husband; he wouldn’t come searching for me. And that, to my mind, would be even worse.
Tommy and I returned home to the empty tip jar. I would work again the next day. I didn’t need to pay the sitter again until Friday. And I wouldn’t see Tom for at least six hours, maybe longer. I made Tommy a sandwich and peeled him an orange. He was such a cute kid, blond hair, a few freckles across his pug nose. But he was so skinny. I didn’t think I’d ever been that skinny in my life.
Too sick to eat, I opened a crossword-puzzle book, but I couldn’t concentrate. Whenever I thought of that liquor-store clerk, my face went on fire again. I knocked a crumb around on the table with my fingernail, then walked over to the refrigerator and popped open a tall Bud.
Huntington Beach, California
When I was a young boy, I spent summers at my grandfather’s farm in Ohio, and he took me hunting in the wheat fields. While Buck, his Labrador retriever, scouted the tall grain for signs of jack rabbits and pheasants, Grandpa would tell me stories about his time in Korea.
One afternoon, Grandpa taught me how to drive the tractor, and we drove all the way across the fields and back. I had never ventured to the far end of his property before. There, I saw a beautiful crystal blue creek spanned by a wooden bridge.
When we returned, Grandpa’s farmhands were finishing up for the day. Grandpa couldn’t afford to pay them much. Most of the time they worked for free just to help the old man out. Grandpa’s military pension wasn’t much, and rough weather, vicious fungi, and hungry vermin had destroyed the bulk of that year’s crop. He earned a small income selling chickens and turkeys to local butchers and restaurants. Now I overheard the farm hands saying that this, too, could be in jeopardy.
“I think the old man’s going senile,” one said. “He keeps forgetting to latch up the cages, and the chickens keep getting out.”
The next day, I made the long trek across the fields to find that beautiful creek again. As I grew closer, I could smell food roasting over a campfire. “The water sure is beautiful, ain’t it, son?” asked a voice. I turned to find a man squatting underneath the bridge, dressed in fatigues, a camp jacket, and combat boots.
“Yep, it sure is, sir,” I answered.
I could see that the man was cooking a chicken — undoubtedly one of my grandfather’s. Not far from his fire were a sleeping bag, a small rifle, and a ragged banjo. Using a cane, the man slowly made his way over to me. “You kin to J.B.?” he asked.
“That’s my grandpa,” I said proudly.
“Your grandpa’s a good man,” he said. “Yes, sir, he is.” The old vet had tears in his eyes. “Tell your grandpa I said thank you, and that I won’t ever forget him.”
I realized then that my grandfather wasn’t senile. He just didn’t like to see anyone starve.
Robert Cabiness Jr.
Perhaps because my elderly parents had grown up before the Depression, I lacked the fear of poverty that seems to drive so many of us today. I also suffered from wanderlust and had a natural hobo bent.
After a year of boarding school in the Berkshires, my longing for close-to-the-bone experience got the best of me. I slipped out the stone gates and over the snowy mountains to an unheated apartment in the city. There, I lived with my boyfriend and a number of other vagabond squatters whose only desire was to be free to do whatever they wanted — including starve.
Though well-loved, middle-class children, we joined the ranks of the orphans and castaways. We got our heat from a tiny gas stove, the circle of our bodies tightening around it as the temperature dropped. When the notion to eat grabbed us, we rustled up some change and walked to the edge of the city, where hulking markets sold burlap bags of rice for a buck and cabbages and bananas for five cents a pound. If things got particularly lean, one or another of us would get a Manpower job for a week or so.
I once worked in the steaming, Dickensesque basement of a jewelry factory, slipping Mickey Mouse rings bound for Disneyland onto racks, to be dipped into eye-splittingly brilliant vats of silver and gold. At night, I would lie on my mattress, and the thousands of smiling Mickeys would dance beneath my eyelids, starker and clearer than daylight. I quit one day short of two weeks and walked around feeling scarred and dazed, as if I’d just escaped some fate too terrible to put into words.
We divided the world into two kinds of people: those like us, whose time and fate (however it fell out) were their own; and the faceless, dreamless, workaday drones who seemed to us a kingdom of Pharaoh’s slaves. “They” bought nice cars in which to speed about their meaningless lives. “We” walked the streets, our eyes on the sky or the sidewalk cracks or the slant of the sun on the buildings. They went to bed early in order to get up for work. We sat on rooftops, drinking and talking, watching their lights thin out, leaving alive only the streetlights, the all-night gas stations, and the evil, blinking red electric towers. We sang “Sisters of Mercy” and “Desolation Row” and laughed ridiculously at pretty much nothing till dawn crept up the river. Then, as commuters crossing the bridge extinguished their headlights and solitary street sweepers appeared with their scratchy brooms, we moved through the dawn to bed.
The world was weighted in our favor in every way except for one: cigarettes. Cigarettes seemed to be the sole enviable province of the gainfully employed.
At just about that time, the shopping malls rose up in the suburbs like Emerald Cities. They were bright and antiseptic and surreal, and we loved them. A visit to the mall was like sneaking into a carnival, like a trip to Crazy World, a vacation to Dr. Seuss Land. (We hadn’t the foresight to see the malls as a threat to the old order of downtown.)
Best of all, the malls allowed smoking only in the main promenade, not in the stores, which made them the equivalent of cigarette soup kitchens. Bargain hunters would light up and, having barely shaken out the match, catch sight of some tantalizing sale within. Husbands would make a brave effort to remain outside the store and enjoy their smokes, but, after a few puffs, each would crumble with anxiety at the thought of his wife going through the sale racks unfettered, and he’d stub his cigarette out and hurry toward the fitting rooms. Best of all, they mostly tapped their cigarettes out gently, as though they expected to return to them, which of course they never did.
I was particularly partial to the cigarettes abandoned by women, whom I perceived (rightly or wrongly) to be more hygienic than men. Those beautiful white tapers kissed by female lips were jewels among the ashtray sand. They were like Easter eggs, laced round with pink and mauve rings, and I hunted them with the same sense of delight.
Eventually, I got pregnant and things changed. For one thing, I quit smoking except at parties. Then, somehow, I woke up one day and found that I was a part-time clerical worker in an insurance agency, a housewife, a grandmother, and the mother of teenagers in the student council and the school band. I can’t remember the last time I drank on a rooftop. My life is full of love and magic but, alas, no adventure. Though I still write a poem or two and pull the occasional all-nighter to assure myself that I remain alive to the moment, I am truly part of that slave world of pyramid builders and commuters crossing the bridge.
In the last five years, I have even quit smoking altogether. Like all ex-smokers, I find that seeing a nice, new pack with the bright, happy foil just removed fills me with Christmas morning delight. But it’s the sight of a long, white, lipstick-smudged cigarette stubbed out especially gently, leaving no blunt, smashed end, that really gets me, like some kind of personal sign.
Riverside, Rhode Island