There was a homeless kid pissing in the alley behind the store this morning when I came out after working our inventory all night. I startled him, walking to my car. He startled me. He was filthy dirty, as my mother would say; pants stiff with grime, hair matted in fuzzy whiteboy dreads, little beard. He had big, dark Dondi eyes and in them was the only youth left in his face, though I'd guess he was all of twenty, twenty one.
I said, "Excuse me," as if I'd intruded, walking out of work, out the door of the bookstore and into the parking lot at one in the morning, to find some junkie pissing on the wall. I was startled, embarrassed, ashamed of him. I couldn't look at him with anything but disgust, not even pity.
All the kid said was "Peace," and then he stumbled off, his pants still undone.
I was so glad to be out of that bookstore this morning, so glad to be done. All the hard work of a bookstore's annual inventory is done before the books are counted. For the most part, working the event itself is just boring, a little hectic towards the end, but boring throughout, numbingly so. It is nothing like the work we do in a bookstore, most days. There is nothing in counting books that makes them any different from pencils or earrings or batteries. There's no real interaction with the books in counting then, or checking the work of the people hired to count them. We try to amuse ourselves, the staff that is required to be there the night of the inventory: we eat the free sandwiches and snacks, and drink the soda from the open soda machine with a sign on it, this one night, saying "free!" and we joke amongst ourselves, and even a little with the counters, though they're actually quite busy all night. We even sang a song for no good reason, at one point, a couple of us. But really, it's work, just not our work, or rather, the least of what we could possibly be doing with the books in a bookstore. There isn't even really time to read anything, even when it's slow. But doing inventory is exhausting.
I'm thinking this morning about the only real poverty I witnessed as a kid, and how different it was, both in it's affect and its impact, to the poverty I see around me every day in a fairly large city. I grew up somewhere between a small town and nowhere special. Both my parents worked. I grew up in the house my father still owns, was never hungry, never knew real want for anything needed. My father had been poor, as were most people when he was a boy during the Great Depression. That experience shaped him, as it did my mother and their whole generation. Knowing what it was to be poor, my parents did their best to see that their children never knew that fearful experience. Both my parents were, of necessity, honest with their children about money and its periodic tightness, but of real poverty I knew little or nothing. Of charity, I saw much. Poor I never was, then, not really. When I went to college, briefly, which neither of my parents had been able to do, I did do without many things rather than ask for more money than I'd already been given, ashamed to admit that the expense was greater than I had assumed or than my parents could ever have anticipated. But this was nothing but pride. I met and moved in with my good husband when I was all of twenty. That ended college for me, more to the regret of persons other than myself, than to me. That necessitated my getting and keeping a job, as I have done ever since, secure in the knowledge that mine was to be a second income in our household. Still is, even with dear A. in retirement. I have lived, in other words, a rather charmed life.
Not everyone with whom I grew up was so lucky. I knew people who did not have money, but I did not know people who did not eat. I knew people who lived in other people's houses, or in houses so ramshackle as to almost defy occupancy, but I did not know anyone we would have considered homeless, even if the term had been current at the time. I went to school with children ashamed at the state of their clothes, though not for want of washing or repair, and I do not remember any child's dress, inadequate to either modesty or the season, who did not find someone willing, quietly, to redress the deficiency.
What I do remember now, looking back with adult eyes, is that distress was more a matter for discretion, though no less a recognized fact, for all that. Comment was seldom passed but in private about the old women I knew who lived in inadequately heated houses, mended their clothes past the point of repair and who may have been grateful for every damaged tin or day old loaf they found in the back of the grocery. My father took such women wood, for their stoves. My mother and grandmothers never visited them with empty hands. As a child, I accepted without thought that my father's elderly friend Ernie lived in an old camper rather than a house like ours, or that so many people still canned their own produce, repaired their own vehicles or walked to their jobs. It never occurred to me, that I can remember, to question why so many people I knew then lived, as my grandmothers would both have said, "simply." People just did, mostly "out in the country," Which meant even further from town than we were. But I don't know that anyone did without unless they would not be helped, or died alone that didn't choose to.
When my father's plant was on strike once for a long time, and maybe a few times besides, we used Food Stamps at the grocery. My mother, I remember, went to the one cashier at the A&P that she did not know well. We ate "government cheese," and venison from the deer my dad was lucky enough to get that season. Neither of my parents ever "carried a note," which is how we called debt where I grew up, for anything other than a car or a mortgage until I went to college, so far as I know. Yet my parents found what was needed to raise a child not their own. They were never thanked for this. That has hurt them, but not so much that they regret what they did. My sister does the same for a playfellow of her sons, now already but grown into a man, and expects no more thanks for it than my parents did.
Growing up, I knew plenty of people with drug and or alcohol problems; women who had the beer distributor delivering once and twice a week -- we were a dry county back then -- men who drank up their paychecks, their families, their homes. Among the friends of my brother and sister, and among my own friends, I could count on one hand the number that never got high, the parties that didn't include grain alcohol mixed with fruit cocktail and Koolaid. Every yearbook, from our little high school, had a "dedication page," memorializing the kids that wrapped their trucks around phone-poles, or fell in the river at a party and weren't missed in time. When people could do nothing else, they all went to the funerals.
My brother has known violent, unhappy men, men so troubled by their memories or their dreams as to feel themselves unsafe at night, alone with their thoughts. They've slept in his house when they weren't safe in their own.
All of that there is that is ugly is just as ugly there as the things I've seen in a city, here or elsewhere. The poverty and desperation are just as real, the violence just as unpredictable, the effect the same. So what is different here, now?
Why does that little junkie in the alley break my heart, blessing me and then stumbling away with his filthy pants still open?
Maybe I am just tired. It was a long night. I don't know. Maybe I'm older now, old enough to be that kid's father, though there's not the slightest possibility of that.
There was something sadder about watching that boy go off alone, without even shoes or a shirt, than anything I suppose I've ever seen, so maybe I'm just a little ashamed, having just watched him go, not having said so much as a kind word to him.
What had I done, but catch him somewhere he ought perhaps not to have been, doing something he meant no harm by? Where else had he? I might have said something to him, wished him a goodnight at least, I suppose. Instead I was embarrassed, disapproving, silent. He had no reason to say to me what he did. But what else had he? He had that, at least, he had that word, whether he meant anything by it or not. The poverty I saw as a child, the violence, addiction, deprivation, was dealt with all in whispers, behind hand, quietly. It was not quite so dirty or naked, but it was as real, and it was addressed, one way and another. At least this boy still has a voice; broken, ugly, misdirected, but not unkind. He has that. There was no other dignity in him, but there was that. He wished me peace. And he got nothing from me, after all, but then, he didn't ask for a damned thing, and I didn't offer. I did what I've learned to do, I looked away.
"And if the house be worthy, let your peace come upon it: but if it be not worthy, let your peace return to you."
I return his wish to him now. Too late perhaps, but I sincerely do. Peace. I hope he may find some, yet. I do. What else can I do now?
Forgive me. I don't know why I'm writing this. When I'm tired, I fall back on old phrases, and I'm tired this morning, as tired I think as I have ever been.