Sunday, March 28, 2004

Diary Of A Rag And Bone Man

by Jack Rafter
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?"

"Pretty 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?"

"No. Yeah."

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?"

"Sure don't."

"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!"

* * *


The tall bloke on the left, carrying the sign marked WE, is Tholos writer, Grayson Harper.

image via

Tuesday, March 23, 2004


Syndicated columnist and renowned tv news anchor, Walter Cronkite, writes of the disaffected retreat of the George W. Bush Administation from a growing scientific consensus, the potentially devastating impact of global warming. Here is an excerpt from his article, Make global warming an issue, posted at, on March 15, 2004.

"The contempt of the Bush administration for environmentalists and their concerns is well known by now. While evidence of man- made environmental damage mounts, the Bush team resists its implications like a defeated army whose rear guard fights off its pursuers as it retreats. That has been especially true of its handling of the most serious of all environmental issues - global warming.

First, the administration claimed that global warming was the work of liberal hysterics and had been discounted by "more sober scientists." Then, it admitted that it was happening but said there was no proof humans caused it, or could fix it.

Retreat No. 3 was the White House discovery that, yes, indeed, some of the warming was due to human activity, and we should take steps, say, to reduce emissions, but those steps should be voluntary on the part of industry.

There are two scientific theories that have been gaining credence in recent years that challenge the sanity of that kind of resistance to fact - and make no mistake about it, global warming is a fact.

Both theories begin with a phenomenon that is taking place right now. Scientists are beginning to understand climate as a complex interactive system that is affected by everything from the emission of greenhouse gases, to deforestation, to the condition of Arctic and Antarctic glaciers.

It is a system with a feedback mechanism. For example, higher temperatures lead to the melting of sea ice, which exposes more water to the sun. The water absorbs more solar energy, which accelerates global warming, and so on. Scientists fear that such feedbacks might produce a self-sustaining and accelerating warming that is beyond human control.

The second theory goes by the name of Abrupt Climate Change. It suggests that catastrophic results of global warming might not occur gradually, as most have expected, but quite suddenly - within a few years. This theory also starts with the melting of glaciers and sea ice, but involves the dilution of seawater's salinity - or salt content - that results. That salt content is a key element in an ocean current that takes heat from the tropics northward and cold water southward and in the process moderates temperatures in the Eastern United States and much of Europe.

The collapse of this so-called conveyor could, in the worst case, produce a new ice age. The best case would give us severe winters, increasingly violent storms, flooding, drought and high winds around the globe, disrupting food production and energy supplies and raising sea levels high enough to flood coastal cities and make them unlivable.

These are not predictions but real possibilities - far more possible today than scientists had previously believed."

"One thing we have to keep in mind: While these might only be worst-case scenarios, many of the conditions and processes scientists think might trigger them already are present or under way. Global warming is at least as important as gay marriage or the cost of Social Security. And if it is not seriously debated in the general election, it will measure the irresponsibility of the entire political class. This is an issue that cannot, and must not, be ignored any longer."

Monday, March 15, 2004


Today is a good day to celebrate Spanish courage, because it seems that the world cannot afford to do without it.. While still registering the shock and horror from the Madrid attacks, voters in Spain went to the polls in a huge turnout to repudiate the Aznar government. The voters there have handed power to the Socialists, because the PP and its leader could not be trusted to act in the interests of the people. The defeated party led Spain into a war in Iraq on the coattails of the Bush Administration and in direct opposition to the overwhelming majority of Spaniards. Voters had valid reasons to reject Aznar and everything he represented. This so-called leader used the long-standing skirmish with Basque extremists, to inflame the voters, before credible evidence could be assembled regarding the actual perpetrators. This effort to manipulate the dead, and use them as counters in a political game, only produced nausea and anger among Spanish voters.

The most alienated commentary (coming mostly from those outside Spain) has been to the effect that the vote somehow suggests appeasement in the face of terrorism. Oddly, even some left-of-center pundits have peddled this nonsense. The enormous expression of public will by the electorate demonstrates just the opposite. It is clear that the Spanish voter is neither intimidated by the terrorist nor by the fear-mongering government that serves at the pleasure of Bush&Co, in a cruel war.

In a democracy, a government will not long stand, if it proves untrustworthy. The others, who are now elected in Spain, must serve the will of the people with more fidelity. Aznar and his party were rejected because of a repellent use of Spain's still-mourned dead. These dead were claimed for political advantage, and voters were right to punish the manipulators.

In the aftermath of the election, a BBC article quotes Spanish economist, Rafael Lopez:

"The youth above all has brought us back. They know what is best for them. They have said no to the war and no to terrorism and all Spanish people want peace."


Sunday, March 14, 2004



"Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem is an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea's throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.
We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them
The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration. A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments."...

--T.S. Eliot, from LITTLE GIDDING , Four Quartets

Saturday, March 06, 2004


"From off your face, into the winds of winter,
The sun-brown and the summer-gold are blowing;
But they shall gleam again with spiritual glinter,
When paler beauty on your brows falls snowing,
And through those snows my looks shall be soft-going."

--Wilfred Owen, from Winter Song

Image via Billmon

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