Sunday, March 28, 2004
Diary Of A Rag And Bone Man
No. 5: A Small Emergency
Dear Mr. Mowgli,
Well, it's been awhile since I wrote in my diary. In fact, I lost my diary for awhile there. I was sitting in The Bizzy Bee Griddle late one night--back in February, I think. It was sleeting outside so the dog and I were trying to stay warm. Johnny Blair, the griddle man whose body is covered in tattoos, doesn't mind us hanging out there when the weather goes to hell.
Anyway, it was kind of quiet that night, and it's almost never quiet in The Bizzy Bee. Vincent was asleep under the table. Someone had left a newspaper. So I was sitting there reading it as I sipped my coffee, when I ran across an item in the back pages about the high number of people losing their homes in Fort Baird and all over the country. Up in the thousands per month, the article said. Not since the Depression of '29 have there been this many foreclosures. Yet, no one is calling what's happening now a "Depression." I figured it must be because the Stock Market is just tootling right along as if nothing was amiss.
I don't pretend to know anything about running a newspaper, but it seemed odd to me that here, on the front page, was a headline about a winning football team, and another next to that about a rock star arrested for deviant behavior, while buried in the back pages was this story about widespread foreclosures of peoples' homes in the midst of a land of plenty, whose military budget would be enough to feed everyone on earth. I was going to jot down a few thoughts about that, but when I reached for my diary, it was gone.
I suffered what you might call a bit of panic. It's hard to explain, but I consider Mr. Mowgli almost my best friend in the world. A person in my position doesn't have too many friends, especially the kind you can confide in. Moreover, the thought of some strange hands picking him up and leafing through his pages filled me with dread. I'm very choosy about what I let people read in my diary. You can't be too careful these days.
It must have slipped out of my pocket somewhere. I tried to think over where I'd been. The last place I could remember having it was when I made my accidental freight train trip to Jeffords, and ended up having Thanksgiving with the switchman, Spencer Dupree, and his wife, Jewel (Episode 4). They gave me a bunk in the caboose and I rode the train back to Fort Baird the next day.
I spent a night here, a night there. The weather turned cold. Then, I ran into Red Dunkel one day at the library. He went in there not to read books, but to get warm. As a matter of fact, I spotted ten or twelve familiar faces, the ones I usually see haunting the city parks, the homeless shelter, the streets, the train yard, more of them than I've ever seen in there before, all looking tired and haggard, leafing through magazines or picture books, trying to stay awake, because the librarians don't allow any sleeping in there, you know. The temperature had dropped into the twenties, as I recall, so they had a good reason to keep awake. Still, it's not easy. The library is a pretty relaxing place if you haven't slept in a few days, or all you've known is the underbelly of a bridge or a hedgerow for shelter.
There were a few other faces in there that were new to me. The newly homeless. Been seeing more of them lately. Yes, you can spot them, if you know what to look for. Something frayed, the beginnings of wear and tear around the edges. Those faces are fresher, of course. But there's a look in the eyes. The look of someone spooked. And more than that: the look of defeat and dismay. After all, they did everything right, didn't they? They worked hard, they voted for the right candidates, they went to church, they said their prayers, they invested their money. What happened?
That fresh face goes away pretty soon, replaced by something else. The miles quickly add up on your odometer when you're without shelter for awhile. Till you can get your bearings and figure out what's where. Some people never figure it out. The shock of losing everything is too much for them. Next time you're sitting comfortably in your nice warm house, eating a meal you cooked yourself on your own stove in your own kitchen, or just having a cup of tea, say, with the cat purring in your lap-- look around at all the things you have. The little things. The table, the placemats, pictures on the walls; pictures of your mother, your father, aunts, uncles; books on the shelves. All the precious little mementos of your life. Consider how attached you are to these things. Then consider what it might be like to lose them. Not gradually. But perhaps rather quickly. Almost over night.
It does something to you. People with plenty of money, who have never experienced that, and can't even imagine it, only those people could vote to deny assistance for the poor. Yet now, more than ever, it's those very people who are finding themselves in trouble. And, like their parents or their grandparents in '29, most of them don't have a clue what's happening. The difference is that in '29, there were people in positions of power who cared enough to do something about it. Then, the Christians among us paid a little more attention to the Sermon On The Mount, and less to the Book of Revelations.
I found Dunkel in the movie section, reading the synopses of the movies on the backs of their plastic containers. Of course, he doesn't own a TV or VCR, so I guess that's as near as he could come to watching them. We traded a little small talk. I asked him if he knew any good places to pass the night. He told me he had a tent in the woods by the train yards and had room for an extra person if I wanted in. "You can bring your dog, if you want," he said. I thanked him, but I said, "Don't count on me, Red." I don't like the idea of sharing a tent with anyone. Besides I figured it was probably some old discarded thing, full of holes, that would let in the rain and wind.
As I started to leave, Red held up a movie. "You ever seen this one, Jack?" It was called Down And Out In Beverly Hills. I was familiar with it, having seen it in better days. Yes, I once owned a TV and a VCR, and a few other appliances, as well. Down And Out features a broke down bum and his scruffy dog, who are more or less adopted by a spoiled rich family living in Beverly Hills. The bum is superbly played by Nick Nolte, one of my favorite actors. The husband is acted by Richard Dreyfus, and Bette Midler is wonderful as his sexually frustrated wife. Of course, the premise is pretty far-fetched. The chances of a rich family taking in a filthy bedraggled bum off the streets, are about as likely as Ken Lay forking over his ill-gotten gains back to all his ripped-off employees at Enron. But to those of you who still own TVs and VCRs, I strongly recommend the movie. Watch it while you can. It's free at the library.
Red's eyes were excited as we talked about this movie. "Yeah, it's a good one," I said.
"God damn, but I'd sure like to see it," he said. "If I could just get my hands on one of those video machines."
"You need a TV to go with it," I reminded him.
"I do? Oh, yeah, I guess I do, don't I?" He thought about it a moment with a serious frown. I could see his gears were turning a little, though they were a bit rusty. Then, with a clicking sound in his cheek, he said, "Well, let's you and me take this movie somewhere and watch it, what do you say, Jack?"
"You have to check it out of the library first," I said.
Again, the frown. The gears turning in slow motion. Then, finally, a hopeful smile. "That's okay, we can do that."
"You got a library card?"
"Library card. No."
"Well, how you gonna check the movie out without a card?"
"All right, let's get one, then."
"You have to give them an address."
"An address? Are you sure?"
"Hm. Well, all right, I can do that."
"You have a permanent address, Red?"
"Naw. I'll just make one up."
"You'll have to show 'em a driver's license."
"You got a driver's license, Red?"
His eyes brightened. Reaching in his hip pocket, he pulled out a wallet so shiny and beat up, it was about to fall apart. He opened it. There was no money in it, of course. But there were some cards, a few. Sure enough, he nudged out a driver's license. "Here it is," he said, handing it to me. It was yellow and faded. The picture, half fogged over, didn't even resemble him anymore. The license had expired years ago.
"We'll have to get you a new license," I said to him, handing it back. "But hold onto that one, Red, for a keepsake. It's a nice picture of you."
"It is?" he said.
He looked at it a long moment with that frown on his face. Then, looking up with a half-smile, he said, "Yeah, it is a nice picture, ain't it?"
* * *
That night, after searching around and not having any luck, I decided a raggedy tent was better than nothing. When I got there, I couldn't believe my eyes. Red not only had a nice tent, brand new, with a ground cloth and everything, but hanging from a tree limb was a shiny Coleman lantern that lit up his whole campsite. He also had a nice little fire going in front of the tent and he invited me to join him, so I did, and proceeded to warm my hands. Vincent went straight for it and laid down as close to the hot coals as he could without singing himself.
I asked Red where on earth he got the tent. "Picked it up somewhere," he said, with a wink. The only problem, he said, was he had to take it down every morning and hide it; said it would be gone if he walked off and left it standing. So, it was some trouble. To that I said, "Well, Red, having a house is always trouble."
"Yes, you're right about that, Jack," he admitted.
"But look here," I said. "You don't have to paint it, do you?"
"You don't have to put a new roof on it every ten years, do you?"
"And you don't owe no property tax on it, do you?"
"No sirree," he smiled.
"Well, then," I said, "count your lucky stars."
Anyway, long story short, once I remembered camping out at Red's place, then I remembered where I left my diary. I jumped up from my booth in the Bizzy Bee, left my coffee and newspaper sitting there, and ran for the door. Johnny Blair hollered, "Hey, what's your hurry, Jack?"
"I left my diary in Red Dunkel's tent!" I replied. "Be back in an hour!"
* * *