Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Diary Of A Rag And Bone Man

by Jack Rafter
No. 6. Desperate Times, Part I.

Dear Mr. Mowgli,
Well, we had Spring for awhile, then we had a cold snap, and now we're back to Spring again. I'd forgotten how hard this time of year can be on the sinuses, especially if you happen to find yourself living out-of-doors. This is my first Spring since losing my home, by the way. But at least I survived the winter.

Vincent and I spent the last three days in Red Dunkel's tent by the freight yards. I've been recuperating from a spell of sickness. Red has a brother in Tucson he goes to see every Spring without fail. He hopped a freight train three days ago, and left me in charge of the tent. So that was lucky. I don't know when--or if--he'll be back, but I expect the dog and I will have the tent to ourselves for a couple of weeks, if not longer.

Anyway, it's been nothing but rain for two days--that slow, misty, drowsy kind of rain that makes a day seem longer than it is. There's a crop of woods here along the south side of the Southern Pacific tracks and you can just look out through the shinnery and see the box cars, flats and tank cars pushed or pulled along by the big yellow-orange switch engines rattling back and forth all day and all night.

There's the beginnings of a little Hooverville in these woods. Or maybe I should say a Bushville: an assortment of crude shacks made of cardboard boxes, discarded pallets, packing crates, sheet metal scraps and tents. I don't know where Red got his tent. It's a nice one, practically brand new, big enough for three people, and you can stand up in it. Red says he doesn't dare walk off and leave it with all the sticky fingers lurking around. So he breaks it down every day. He showed me where he hides it in a fallen tree about twenty yards from here, hollow at one end, where it was uprooted. So I stash the tent in there when I go off to town on a forage.

* * * *

Back during the first warm spell, Vincent and I were walking by this house one day and saw these funny looking contraptions standing in the yard--five or six of them, different sizes, all for sale, from small to large and in between. It's not the first time I've seen these things. It seems to be a little cottage industry in this part of the world, what I call The Wishing Well Fetish.

A hundred years ago, back in the days when things were actually what they were and not just what they seem to be, you'd see these things close to peoples' homes built over water-wells. That was before the utility companies got hold of the water and everything else we need to live and started robbing us blind for them. Anyway, these well-houses had little roofs on them, and a spindle with a bucket that you could lower down into the well and crank back up, and the bucket would be full of delicious cool water. The ones Vincent and I saw were fakes made out of cedar board. They have no function, other than to stand in somebody's yard and look "cute" to passersby. They might have a sign tacked up on them that says, "Wishing Well," or "The Smiths Live Here," or some other nonsense. But there's no actual well underneath. There's no water there, except what runs under the ground through a pipe up to your sink, or to your toilet. The bucket hanging on the spindle wouldn't hold an ounce of water because it's not a real bucket. And the spindle doesn't turn and the crank doesn't crank anything.

And when I look at what's happening in the country lately, for some reason, I seem to think of those wishing wells.

Then we had the cold snap and the very first night nailed me. By the time I got to the shelter, it was full up. I went out to the Bushville looking for Red Dunkel, but he and his tent were nowhere around. Somebody said he might have moved further down the track, but nobody was certain, and I didn't feel like traipsing around looking for him. So Vincent and I headed back to town.

Well, it was a pretty dismal night. We just couldn't find a warm spot. We walked clear over to the Bizzy Bee Grill, but the place was dark. A sign on the door said:

Death in the family.
Come back in two days.
Johnny Blair.

He had glued black crepe paper around the edges. I hoped Johnny was all right. Later, I learned it was his father that had died.

I ended up huddled in the doorway of a bank, of all places. But it was tucked in the building and sheltered from the sleet that was starting to fall. By morning, I was down with a cold. I had a few coins and caught a city bus to the library, hoping to spend the day there and get myself warmed up for the coming night. But when I got there, it was closed. Then, I remembered it was Sunday, and the library's closed Sundays. I could have kicked myself for wasting the coin, but I was feeling too poorly to do it.

At that point, we weren't far from the bookstore, so Vincent and I slogged up there and hung out in the coffee bar till they closed, around nine p.m. At least I got the chill off, but I was starting to feel pretty weak.

It was too late to go back to the shelter. I knew I couldn't stay out in the cold another night. So I headed over to the Mercy Hospital, a good four or five mile walk from where I was. By the time I got there, it was around eleven and I could hardly stand up. I hate that place, but I had no choice. So I left poor Vincent in the bushes and walked in.

First thing that hit me were the lights--bright fluorescents everywhere. Once my eyes adjusted, I could see the place was jammed. Every form of pitiful humanity lined the walls; every chair taken, people sitting on the floor and even lying down, sicker than dogs. Still others were being wheeled in with stab wounds or gaping gunshot wounds. I stood there dizzy and bleary eyed. Then a nurse with mouse colored hair rolled in a bun shoved a clipboard in my hand. "Fill it out," she barked, and kept walking. I found a place on the floor and sat down with my back to the wall to fill it out. The form was seven pages long, and took about an hour to complete.

When I finished, I took the clipboard to the window and started to hand it to another nurse. This one was bent over a sheaf of papers two inches thick. "Don't give me that," she said without looking up. She was about fifty, white hair rolled in a bun; black framed glasses with wings on the ends. A shiny chain hung from the stems.

"Who do I give it to?" I said.

"Give it to the one who gave it to you," she said.

"I don't know who that was," I said.

She looked up, frowning, stabbed the air with her index finger. I looked in that direction and saw the mouse haired nurse wandering around, handing clipboards to the walking wounded. So I turned and went over to her.

"Wait over there," she said after handing her the clipboard. The waiting room was packed like a sardine can. Some folded chairs were set up down the hall to handle the spillover. I spotted an empty and made for it. A few minutes later, I saw the mouse-haired nurse handing my clipboard to the same white-haired nurse behind the window where I'd just come from.

Well, the whole place was pretty surreal. I noticed a number of gurneys parked up and down the halls like taxis waiting in line at an airport terminal. I thought about lying down on one, but they all had people sprawled on them, either passed out or moaning softly. On one gurney near where I was sitting, a bare arm had fallen out from under the sheet; it hung there, as still as the pendulum on a stopped clock. Nobody seemed to notice or care.

Every so often the mouse-haired nurse would bark orders at people, calling out names, sending them this way or the other. She sounded like the foreman on an assembly line. Now and then, she'd remember she was a nurse and would stop to take the pulse of some poor wretch or do a blood pressure check or shove a thermometer in some germ-ridden gob. She performed these acts almost gratuitously. I had the feeling it wouldn't have made the slightest difference to her if someone just keeled over while she stood there counting their feeble heartbeats. On the other hand, she almost seemed put out with some of the strays that staggered through the doors, even some that to me looked almost frighteningly sick, as if it was all she could do to bring herself to wait on them. And I think she included me in that bunch. So she made a great show of her contempt, to let us know, I suppose, that we were siphoning off precious minutes from the truly sick and wounded and dying.

So the time passed. Somehow amidst the cacophony of moans and coughs and wheezes, the rubber-soled shoes of nurses and doctors and orderlies that squeaked as they walked briskly by, the gurneys bumping against doors and the doors constantly flapping as people shoved in and out, somehow I must have nodded off, I was so beat down and tired. Then, in the middle of a dream, I felt the shock of cold metal against my bare chest, and jerked awake. It was the mouse-haired nurse standing there listening to me through a stethoscope. Up close, I noticed she had very red lips, and her perfume--if that's what it was--gave off the scent of strawberries. Her breasts also looked rather nice and full even under the starched white of her uniform. Still, she was all business. "Good, you're awake," she said. "Give us a deep breath and blow it out."

I gave her one. She frowned. She moved the cold steel an inch or two to the right. "Again," she said. I did it again. Then, with a great, tired sigh, she muttered, "You have pneumonia." And walked away.

I sat there blinking, looking around. I was hungry, but I lacked the motivation to try to ferret anything out. There were a few empty chairs along the walls. It seemed the place had cleared out a little. I got up, kind of wobbly, and staggered to the waiting room. Some seats were open there, too. The remaining refugees all looked like they'd been there a long time, hours or days; some just sat blinking stupidly, others were collapsed over onto each other, passed out. A TV blared, mounted on an arm up on the wall. It was a hockey game in progress, taped earlier in the day, I supposed. It was all charge and counter-charge, the sound of manic, cheering fans rising and falling like the rush of a blast furnace. Nobody was paying it any attention, so I sidled up and changed the channel. Jay Leno popped on, asking Ben Afleck something about his breakup with J-Lo. It was maybe the hundred-thousandth time someone had raised this question over a period of months, on whose answer the fate of the entire world seemed to hang in the balance. Ben made some off-hand remark which roused Jay and the whole audience to hysterical laughter.

I switched it again, and there was the 9-11 Commission. Apparently, they were just playing excerpts from a week of testimony. So, I sat down and watched awhile.

Right now, it was Colin Powell sitting there giving his version of things in his reasonable, measured way. At one point, he said, "The moment those planes hit the towers, right then I knew we had to go after Al Qaeda and Osama bin Ladin. I just knew it."

"Then why are we in Iraq?" I hollered at the screen. Woops. It had popped out before I knew what I was doing. I glanced around. A few people were staring at me. I looked back at the screen. There was silence as Powell droned on. I couldn't believe it. Here was this elephant in the room and no one on the commission was looking at it. No one was asking the obvious question. "Ask him! Go on! Ask him the question--why are we in Iraq! Ask him, ask him, goddamnit!" I'd worked myself up so much now I was hacking and coughing. "Jesus Christ! What's the matter with you people? I don't believe this! Lies! Lies! Ah, to hell with it! You're not looking for the truth! It's all a sham! A side-show!"

Suddenly, the mouse-haired nurse was standing there, hovering over me like a police helicopter. You're going to have to be quiet, she snapped. "Can't you see people are trying to sleep?"

"Sorry," I mumbled.


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