The Dream Deferred
Every now and then something happens that overturns your life as you know it. My time as a Vista/Americorp volunteer ended abruptly with the death of my father. For awhile, I relapsed into a homeless lifestyle and went wandering around the United States. During this time, I documented the situation at homeless shelters in various US states and attempted to explain the different tactics used to help the homeless.
I got the phone call at 8:00 AM. It was my greatest fear: the death of a parent. My father died of leukemia on February 2nd at age 70. No matter how stable life seems the death of a close family member hits like an earthquake. Foundations crack like a fault line and dreams get deferred until a later date. Time suspends. When I heard the news from my mother I lit a candle and placed it on my stolen candlestick. Then I went into the kitchen and poured a large cup of water into my favorite mug. A filled the glass four times before drinking it – my father once taught me to do this because he was raised in houses with rusty pipes. I consumed the water in one long sip. Then I shattered the mug against the concrete floor where I slept. I didn’t want to later associate that hand-made mug with the memory of that moment. I remember the last conversation I had with him. We spoke about work. I tried to impress him with productive things I had done and implied that he raised me properly. Inside I recognized a lie. I was in poverty and still one step from the streets. My bank account had a grand total of $17. I was insolvent and bankrupt. But, who wants to saddle someone with worry on their deathbed? We talked about work because that is what we understood most.
I went to the shelter and reported for work as scheduled. I followed the routine that I was most comfortable with. I told nobody about the news for about five hours. It was China Mary who first broke the ice. She suspected that a shadow crept over me and mined me for information by offering half her sandwich. Food works every time. She offered consolation but, better yet, she made the rounds to tell other staff. This saved me from having to repeat the hardship of telling the story. Naturally, the other staff members immediately expressed condolences. I wasn’t about to cry on anyone’s shoulder, but I didn’t feel like handing out shampoo or personal bars of soap either. Hark Lay covered my shift while I went to the back room and worked on reports. A few months earlier I discovered four dusty boxes of archival material while hunting for laundry soap. The boxes contained old sign-in sheets and three-year-old records about homeless clients. I compiled the historical information into a data base and calculated growth trends at the shelter.
The amount of homeless was skyrocketing and nobody seemed to understand where clients were coming from or how they moved between social service agencies. There was no way to track migration between states, or to clearly define what constitutes homelessness either. People used our shelter for non-housing services that government agencies did not provide. It wasn’t just about being without a home, the larger issue was poverty. Overloaded agencies dumped clients on us when they tired of dealing with problems. The type of homelessness known in the 1970s had mutated into new enigmatic shapes. Subcultures were molded by government experimentation with welfare reform. Private agencies sprawled out into multiple directions – creating a sort of class segregated living community with its own microeconomics. I craved understanding of this poverty. Therefore, I preoccupied myself with trends and patterns within poverty groups at the shelter. I resolved to investigate homelessness at a deeper level. Maybe I could lift myself out of poverty if I understood more about it.
Based on the archival information I learned that in 1998 client contact at the Berkeley shelter, for the month of January, had increased 20% since the preceding year. January was the busiest month in shelter history (2,592 visitors); with the busiest single week (661 visitors); and the busiest single day (164 visitors). The United States economy was booming at the stock market, but whatever business profits were being made clearly weren’t filtered down to the lowest rung of society. Homelessness rapidly increased. Winter was the busiest season since people used the shelter for warmth and the demand for beds was highest. In colder U.S. states outside many homeless freeze to death every year when they are denied shelter. There are also seasonal peaks in July and August as clients migrated to California for whatever reason – seasonal work, festival circuits, travel fever, the harvest season migration known as the “fruit loop”. October was also a month in which the need of services peaked (pre-winter positioning as clients shuffled to warmer climate).
This report enabled me to think like a sociologist (which I was trained to do in college), and to step out of the mind frame of one still burdened by poverty. My academic voice allowed me to distance myself from harsher reality and to escape the feeling that I lacked value. I developed plans and theories, rather than just responding to the situation. The busiest days were Monday and Tuesday because our small budget limited weekend services to shower and laundry, and staff were less likely to be scheduled. They lined up early every Monday morning to take care of unfinished business (a factor suggesting that clients were actively seeking more case management). I also verified that the busiest day of the month was the 30th; the day before government welfare checks were distributed – General Assistance Unemployable (GAU), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). Client contact always picked up the last week of every month as personal funds were exhausted, and dropped to its lowest point on the first of the month while this money was being spent. These statistics are only based on one localized emergency shelter, but there was potential to use this information to provide more efficient and productive service. At the more personal level the report distracted me from my father’s death. I worked instead of grieving.
I was originally hired by VISTA as the Volunteer Coordinator, so I crunched numbers of all the hours that volunteers worked. Congress heavily advocated the importance of volunteer work as part of its Welfare to Work campaign. However, when I compared volunteer data with client contact information it revealed that volunteers are incredibly ineffective in the field. There is no correlation between volunteer hours and the peak times when the clients used the shelter most. We took volunteers whenever they were willing to serve. Unfortunately, this was generally at times when they were less needed like March, April, or May. The volunteers preferred to work in the middle of the week when homeless used the site less and avoided weekend shifts when we were understaffed. The time of the day when volunteers visited was so random that it served no scheduling purpose. Furthermore, it took staff hours away from clients in order to train volunteers who usually vanished after 2-3 shifts. Volunteer impact was symbolic; it didn’t last long. It looked good on reports to show volunteer recruitment, but what the shelter needed most was reliable and well-trained staff. We needed increased funding to hire more employees, and that is exactly what federal and state governments refused to give. VISTA/Americorp volunteers are a great bargain. We earn a living stipend of only $500-$700 per month (about a fourth the cost of paid staff) and we sign one year long contracts. In turn, VISTA offers an educational bonus of $4,000 (taxed as income) to repay student loans or tuition. I was cheap labor, but in return I had a fighting chance to place remaining debts into control.
Hark Lay was scheduled for his lunch break. I put away all the numbers and the graphs and the spreadsheets to fill in for him at the sign-in desk. It was time to actually spend time with those that needed it most. Its funny how a chart or financial analysis becomes moot once you hear the voice of a person that this data is compiled about. In front of me stood Grant Jones. News travels fast on the homeless grapevine. Grant already heard that my father died and ventured into the shelter to offer condolences. He was back in shelter for the first time since Oscar Crosby relapsed. He looked shaky and weak. His veins had bruises from where he had pierced them with needles – the clean ones that Oscar Crosby had privately given him. Grant inquired if I had heard anything from Oscar. His former counselor had vanished after clearing out his desk. I didn’t know what to tell him. Hark skipped lunch to speak with the two of us.
Hark: “Your father died like a warrior. He took all his pain at once. He could have prolonged life if doctors amputated his arm, but he accepted death with honor. I respect him for that.”
Grant: “I am not sure I agree. I served in Vietnam. I see honor in those that rebuild their lives after having that limb removed. It takes a lot of strength and will. The pain of survival can be the hardest of all.”
Me: “My father had leukemia. He died from cancer inside his bones. I am glad it happened quickly. It didn’t matter if doctors could have removed pieces of him. It was his time to die. If it is your day to die even a blade of grass will kill you.”
Hark: “I don’t know about that. I have cheated death many times. I have been shot at and survived. When I was a Cincinnati policeman, in 1995, gang members fired automatic weapons at me and my partner. They can’t shoot straight since they don’t get much target practice in the housing projects. One time a bullet missed my head by about two feet. I was so insulted that I instinctively – well … I did what I had to do in order to live.”
Grant: “I understand you, clearly, my friend. The will to live makes one capable of surprising actions. Morals are relative to the situation. You would be amazed at things I’ve done to survive in combat …”
Me:: “[I interrupted] Isn’t 1995 when you came to Berkeley, Hark? Weren’t you homeless then?”
Grant: “Look at this souvenir of mine (handing me a smashed chunk of metal). Notice how flat that side of the bullet is? It entered my skull behind my left ear and bounced inside my head. The bullet exited from my neck inches away from my spine. I dodged the golden BB and lived. Doctors placed me on morphine to kill the pain because the bullet sliced up my brain. That is why I can’t remember things well anymore. Brain damage makes it hard to work. I am alive now though. I cheated death. I still keep that bullet in my pocket to bring me good luck.”
The conversation was distracted by Green Flake. He wanted Hark to walk a client to the grocery store. Green had given a government welfare check to a client and worried that jack rollers would swoop down to steal it. This is a serious problem with the homeless community. A nasty sub-breed of humans specialize in robbing the homeless. Some theft is by trickery, especially if the prey is mentally disabled, but other thugs snatch the cash by physical assault. They all knew that welfare checks arrived at the first of the month, and they observed when our clients had representative payee money to spend. Hark also needed to escort the client to the grocery store to make sure that food was bought instead of whiskey. Grant had departed the shelter before I could realize it and I was left holding his bullet. It felt like a heavy dime in the palm of my hand. I sprinted into the streets to find Grant, finally catching up with him in a nearby park. I presented the bullet to him. He took off his headphones and suggested that I keep it for a while to bring me better luck. I returned the item telling him, “I don’t need this bullet yet. It’s your story not mine”.
Back in the shelter I developed strategies on how to fly to Utah for the funeral rites of my father. I only had $17 so I couldn’t afford the ticket. VISTA would reimburse me for airfare later, but I had to raise funds quickly before then. I fell back into my usual routine: hawking used CDs and books. A valid measurement of the U.S. economy might be to establish the rate of transactions at used book stores or music exchange shops. When the poor hit hard times they sell what is stockpiled on their shelves (kind of like a personal savings account). I also made the rounds at local pawn shops. Eventually family members made arrangements for me to fly to Utah for the funeral. Within 48 hours I was on my way home.
The funeral was crowded with friends and family members. I was overwhelmed by how many people arrived. Old friends, neighbors, and golfing buddies of his – that I hadn’t seen in years – came to pay their respects. It was a flashback to my childhood. Even some of my own past friends arrived after reading my father’s obituary in the newspaper. I hadn’t seen some of them since I was a kid. This community was my father’s wealth. He experienced poverty most his life, but he was rich in friendship. The threads that brought his life together formed a tapestry of interconnected relationships. He settled down, got married, and raised children. He branched out to establish lasting ties. He used the fibers of community to pull himself out of poverty. We became a suburban working class family because both my parents found stability by sticking together.
A few days after the funeral I spoke with my mother about poverty. I was curious if she viewed our family as poor or middle class. To my surprise she didn’t identify with either group, “You know your father and I lived on the west side (the economically weakest part of Salt Lake, now crowded with minorities). But, we bought this house in an undeveloped district. It took most our lives to pay off that investment. Now that undeveloped district has grown into a nice neighborhood”. The family house and the neighborhood were the important symbols for her, not the category of economic class. Class was something discussed only at universities and in communist countries. For my mother it was all about location. I next asked if our family was white trash. Her response was, “You know I hate that term. Our family had hard times while raising you children, but we never accepted welfare. We never took government handouts.” For her the dividing line between working poor and white trash was the welfare line. White trash were dependent on government aid while our family was self-reliant.
On a side note I asked if she ever heard the term “Black Irish” since her mother’s side of the family were Irish – coming to Utah from the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Irish and African-Americans often blended together in the poverty of urban slums in early United States. They also mingled in the rural south as slaves and indentured servants – and future competition for cheap labor. At one point the two groups, as strangers, must have learned to dislike each other and been encouraged to fight among themselves. Some theories claim that the Black Irish originated when the Spanish Armada shipwrecked and Moors washed ashore on the Irish coastline. Other scholars claim the term comes from the dark-eyed black hair Irish. Whatever the reason “Black Irish” seems to be an American phrase since it is seldom used in Ireland. My mother never heard the phrase, so it was never part of her identity.
When I finished conversing with my mother she announced that she had a gift for me from my father. When she went to retrieve it from the closet I wondered what present would a father offer his son on his deathbed. When my mother returned she held an American flag in her hand. Since my father had served during wartime he was entitled to have his coffin draped with a flag. It is tradition that the oldest son be given this flag to keep in respect. I held the flag in both hands wondering what to do with it. The American flag symbolized so many things: pride and arrogant nationalism; freedom and enslavement; sacrifice and greed; material wealth and poverty; equality and racism, unity and war; family and individualism. More than anything this flag represented my father to me and for that reason I vowed to carry it, regardless if I was homeless. I was reluctant to ever open it from its package. I decided instead to wait for the right moment to unravel the flag for the first time. The red, white, and blue flag was my burden as an American son.
I spent the rest of my vacation working and traveling to multiple states in America. I studied different homeless shelters. I visited one located on the downtown west-side of Salt Lake. Earlier that week a few individuals froze to death outside, and I was curious on why they weren’t given shelter during the coldest part of winter time. The large Utah homeless complex also had VISTA volunteers who took me on tour. After I walked through a metal detector that prevented hiding weapons the VISTA members showed me around the site. It was much larger than the one in Berkeley. It had 9-10 times the number of beds as Berkeley. Clients were separated on different floors depending on gender and situational needs. The building had some type of tiered system that layered homeless by needs – new admission, transitional housing, work program, and so fourth. There was a long line to a soup kitchen that wrapped around the block. It was easy to observe more Hispanic clients in that line than African-American (maybe due to Utah’s strong agricultural background). The were more whites in the food line, but the number of minorities was out of proportion to the rest of Salt Lake. I wondered if some of my second cousins might have stood in that food line. The facility provided multiple services. It had a writing lab across the street where homeless could work on resumes and write stories (they published a small periodical on occasion).
All this evolved from a few stray men with stolen shopping carts in the 1970s. All this change was within my lifetime. Overall, the social service agency was a contained unit. Everything existed in the radius of 2-3 blocks. It was detached from the rest of the city, but clients could easily navigate to downtown or to bus lines. There was no panhandling on the streets because police strictly enforced an anti-begging policy. Before I left the site I discovered useful information about admission policy. At the entrance was a breath-a-lyzer that tested clients for alcohol consumption. If they imbibed in too much alcohol they were refused shelter. I wondered if the people who froze to death might have asked to be permitted inside but failed the sobriety test.
I continued to tour homeless facilities in the northwest. During my short vacation I caught a ride to Seattle. From there I hitchhiked to Portland and walked around the city as if I was homeless myself. I was curious about what services I could have used in 1997 while living in my car. What shelter could I have taken if I only allowed myself to accept welfare at that time? It is not hard to find the food loop in any city. Just ask the first panhandler that you see where the nearest soup kitchen is. The soup kitchen will likely have paper handouts with listings of shelters. In Portland I saw a variety of shelters. There were the sing-for-your-supper types ran by religious groups, and private agencies offering multiple services. Many of the homeless just preferred to sleep on the waterfront near the Columbia or Williamette rivers. My impression was that social service agencies were scattered around the city rather than being located on one massive block. In result, the homeless were more visible. They mixed with those shopping or doing business downtown. The homeless were mostly white, but again the ratio of black and Hispanic were out of proportion with the rest of the city population. People did beg on the streets, but not to the degree seen in Berkeley. Personally, my tour of Portland made me realize that I could have learned to survive within poverty while there. Rather than volunteer with VISTA or work at the temp agencies. I could have floated aimlessly around the city for months. I could have survived by utilizing food loops and other services.
I hitchhiked back to Seattle to trace my own homeless roots. This is where it all started for me. I crossed over from poverty to homelessness for the first time while living in Seattle (after graduation with a BA degree). It was the recession of 1992 that prevented employment, and my life fell like dominoes since then. It was Seattle where I abandoned the final safety net of couch surfing at a friend’s house. I thought I overstayed my welcome and needed to become self-reliant even if that meant living on the streets. What services could I have accepted in Seattle at that time if my pride wasn’t so strong? I approached this question as if I was a new arrival to the city. I found the food loop and took it from there. From food I found the shelters, and at the shelters I found information about job training and educational programs. A step-by-step process was emerging in which I could go to any city and learn how to survive. This did not imply that I could lift myself off the streets, only that I knew how to survive within poverty. My basic problem was that I couldn’t find employment at a high enough salary to pay off my student loans and various debt. What I needed was affordable housing, substantial income, and a freeze on interest paid to lending corporations. I merely responded to poverty as each situation arose. I was not building a life but reacting to it instead.
At the Seattle food loop an African-American male tried to sell me discounted cigarettes that originated from a Native American Indian reservation (where cigarette prices are lower because they are taxed less). Alex Toponce spoke with a French accent, maybe he came from the Indies. He generated revenue by selling the cigarettes on the streets during lunch rush. He was a suave businessman for somebody on the streets. He had skill in adding value to anything that crossed his path. He was a real player in the homeless micro-economy, sometimes loaning money to other homeless people or contracting out labor as cigarette vendors. He noticed I was a new arrival and tried to work it for income. He pulled out baggies of marijuana to sell. I turned down his offer, but he smoked from his pipe anyway. My father’s funeral took place less than one week before and I thought why not? I joined him for a toke or two. We passed the peace pipe around until we were plenty high. He asked if I had any money, so I gave him a few dollars. Alex directed me toward a homeless shelter. At the doorway of this shelter stood Cinny McGee. He was a tough Irish man who had once been a Catholic missionary, before relocating to Seattle as a musician. After being hired he was promoted to specialist of veteran affairs – working with vets in transitional housing programs. Rumor had it that he could place people into employment, but that he was a hard disciplinarian. Intoxicated, with a few pints and a couple tokes in my system, I asked him for information about the shelter. The shelter beds were full at the moment, but he promised to help me out if I later returned. I gave him a coffee-stained copy of my resume. Cinny was the type of man that you knew you would look for again if you needed something.
I returned to California shortly after my tour of national homeless shelters. Each city had a different homeless composition, with a large minority population, and each city had a different variety of homeless shelters to fill these needs. Private agencies seemed to expand and mutate with the growth of homelessness in the United States. They took new forms that were structured outside of the mainstream. They developed their own housing projects, employment programs, and schools. It was a separate society with its own economy. Small agencies had become large-scale industries with massive budgets. The multi-service agencies received government funding and private donations from philanthropists, but those that benefited from these agencies remained hidden on the margins of society. Homelessness was becoming quite large and it didn’t fit into an easily defined structure. For once, I was taking my mind off my father’s untimely demise. I was setting goals and found a meaningful purpose with this study. I saw a means to use the skills I went to college for. I could generate positive research, and use my negative history of past homelessness to have impact on the situation. I would dig deeper into the problem and find real solutions and development. I had a dream that anchored me.
The shelter sign-in desk was packed with new arrival signatures. Nobody knew where they were coming from. Staff responded as quickly as we could to rising demand. The U.S. economy was still surging, but the cracks in its foundation began to show at the shelter. From these dark crevices homeless people grew from the ground like social weeds ready to be plucked. The shelter was an unfinished project filling with cigar butts and the debris from petulant politicians. We were their ash tray. Money was pumped into the United States military and intelligence agencies, and poverty was treated like a useless distraction. We were noxious weeds that stole funds from more desirable projects. Oxygen bandits, we were. When I returned to work I saw that many of us weeds had been uprooted.
Grant Jones was dead. He was run over by a subway car of the BART system. It was declared an accident because witnesses claimed to see him climb onto the track to retrieve his ticket. Since he wore headphone he didn’t hear the oncoming train, and he was run over before escaping. Supposedly, his body was crushed so badly that he actually grew several inches taller. The word on the street was that it was a suicide. I recall his bullet in the palm of my hand. I could have saved it as a souvenir. It was no doubt in his pocket at the time of death. I bet the doctors wondered what story it could tell.
Isom Dart was also dead. He was found murdered lying in a pool of blood in the middle of the street. Nobody knew exactly how it happened. Street gossip presented split views. Some believed he was killed in gang activity. He experimented with drug sales and crossed into the wrong territory. The rate of black-on-black (male-to-male) homicide is the highest of them all, and Isom was one more added statistic. Others suspected it was a slaying by a white supremacist. Isom vented rage with political action and protest. He networked with whites and disenfranchised groups to build a sense of community. He might have branched out toward the wrong yard and got his limbs clipped for political activism. Isom’s body was abundantly slashed. Whatever speculation, whoever this killer was, he wanted to send a message. Isom’s wounds were like a textbook that read ‘stay in your place’.
People were dying in my life as if it was a Greek tragedy. I had to get out of shelter before lightning struck. I decided to shadow clients to see what they were doing. I followed them on their day-to-day routine. I called it outreach so I could avoid scheduled shifts. Many clients had housing but could not find a job. They hunted for food all afternoon or planned their entire day around a single job interview. Others client received welfare money, but these funds were too small to pay rent – they also stumbled their way to various shelters. Few homeless had enough savings to pay for move-in deposit and rental charges simultaneously. They merely bounced from site to site hoping for that miracle of affordable housing in a city where the price of rent increased daily. I followed our homeless clients to San Francisco where some homeless agencies operated low-income banks in the Tenderloin district. I shadowed clients all the way to Sacramento where they visited the Loaves and Fishes multi-service site for the homeless on the outskirts of the city. I went with illegal laborers into rural districts and joined hoboes for a few train rides.
The homeless were traveling in interconnected loops. They moved from one city to the next. When they ran out of opportunities in San Francisco they would come back to Berkeley, when they stayed in Berkeley shelters for the maximum time allowed they migrated into Oakland. The success stories reported by agencies were often just the shuffling and churning at the bottom tiers of society. Homelessness wasn’t getting solved. It was only getting tilled under like soil. There is a distinct pattern of tiny concentric loops, connected by beginnings (new hopes) and ends (failed endeavors), that ultimately lead to the same spot once again – poverty. Homelessness is an endless journey stuck on a mobius strip.
I was looking into the mirror. The shadow that clients cast only reflected myself. I rotated between new hope and old failure, spinning my wheels until I made the air stink of trash. I knew the end was near. When I returned to California one of my roommates (the woman with full body tattoos) was moving out of our warehouse apartment. She discovered that our communal housing was based on a fabrication. We signed contracts to equally split rent, food, and household duties. However, the female roommate learned the truth behind the myth. The two of us had paid the rent in full. The couple arranged with the landlord to freeze the price of rent, but they continued to increase it with future roommates. In effect, the two of us paid for everything, while the white liberal couple only supplied a portion of food and utility costs. The liberal household was not based on equality. It felt like a betrayal. As inflation increased in California the couple started hoarding food and lecturing us about their tight budget. They would keep tabs on what I ate. The two of us outsiders were squeezed dry. There was no other place that I could afford to move to. I had no choice but to endure the housing situation.
It was shortly afterward when the aftershock of my private earthquake struck. Its epicenter came from above. An upper echelon administrator from CHIEF, the umbrella agency that operated the shelter and adult school, disapproved of my shadowing clients. The shelter was understaffed and needed me on site. I was ordered to halt with my outreach and research projects. However, since my father’s death I felt that handing out soap was a waste of energy. I wanted to add value, rather than just work cheap. The inner administration circle worried that I was getting to close to clients. Since I was formerly homeless, there was a danger of relapse as I began to identify with that lifestyle once again. I was learning the tricks of the trade as applied to the streets. The bureaucrats demanded that I stay on a leash at the shelter, and I was forbid the freedom of outreach. At a shelter staff meeting I exploded in rage. I was angry to have my dream dashed by authority. The reports were my way of lifting burden. I was learning about poverty; they wanted me to distance myself from it. My outburst at the staff meeting was personal. My vented rage focused on the reputation of a specific administrator. In consequence, I was banned from shelter. It was decided that it would be best for me to mourn my father’s death with friends and family. I was fatigued and burnt out. I had decompressed. The chickens had come home to roost.
I was not permitted into shelter again. Hark Lay and Green Flake continued to e-mail. I met China Mary outside one day. She shared half her sandwich with me. Her last words to me were, “You live your life like you are a single chopstick. What value is one alone? Some things become more import when in pairs”. Mormon Charlie provided his interpretation, “What you are doing is sabotage. You’re destroying the good that you created, because you fear stepping to the next level. This will lead to burn out and relapse. You have to break that cycle, man”. The absence of work lead to emptiness. I had the will to work, but now only had a void to fill with free time. I lost my shelter, but I still had education. The staff at the adult school defied the banning rule. They invited me to dinner instead. The teachers ate Thai food and shared dialogue for hours. They wanted to learn from my experiences. Dinner was a going away celebration in my honor. It was all about learning and knowledge for them.
In my last few days in California I took the BART station to a beach in San Francisco where I smoked joints and walked barefoot in the sand. I pondered new strategies for finding jobs and made plans on where to move next. There were new possibilities. I inherited $1,000 from my father. It made me feel rich with opportunity. In San Francisco I stumbled into John D. Lee playing guitar on his day off from the construction company. I threw a dollar into his guitar case saying, “Hey, bum, get a job.” He handed the money back to me, “From what I hear you will need this more than me. I make good money now. I was well-paid for what I did. What do you have after one year of volunteer work? They sent you away penniless after all you’ve done for them. That proves what I told you about not trusting Jews or their corporations. Next time turn to us. My people can help you. You don’t have to do anything violent, just run a few errands when asked”.
Reverent Crossley made a rare appearance at the shelter during my last few days. He had been banned from the adult school until he sought medical treatment. Crossley made a special trip to the shelter to visit with me. He felt sorry to hear the news about my father. He apologized for taking my “brother” away. He still insisted that he was both the Creator and my father – making my adoptive father a sibling in his view. Reverent Crossley refused treatment for diabetes and a huge swelling formed on his leg. His foot had turned blue from poor blood circulation. “You need to go to a doctor and get that checked out, Rev, those lumps can kill you,” I pleaded with him. He became agitated with anger, “I created this health problem. It is my responsibility to cure it”. My protests fell on deaf ears as he stormed out of the shelter complaining.
I flew from California to Utah. I had that unsettled feeling at the airport that a new stage of journey would soon begin, and thought I would kill that queasy sensation in my stomach with food. At a stall near my departure gate a Black Muslim sold fish. It was Isom Dart’s friend, the one that confronted me in anger at the adult school. I never learned his name. He withheld it claiming that there was part of him and his culture that I could never understand. In the absence of his name he suggested that I could just fill the void with an “X”. I bought a fish sandwich from his food cart and was in the process of removing my selection from the self-serve counter, when he grabbed my hand for a brief moment. I looked down to see his black fingers wrapped around my white wrist. With his hand on mine I remembered my first experience with a black man.
I was on a train to Los Angeles, California, with my family. I must have been less than four-years-old. My father was visiting the location where he grew up. This vacation was near the time of the Watts riots (I was actually there when they happened). An African-American rail porter – a common vocation for blacks – served me a bowl of tomato soup. I noticed that the undersides of his hands were white. I accepted that skin could be colored black, but wondered why the palms he offered me in handshake were different. How could he be both black and white? In my childhood logic I reasoned that it was dirt. Dirt came off the palms of his hand and floated in my soup. I refused to eat, whining that the porter was dirty. He apologized and took the tomato soup away in embarrassment.
Isom’s friend placed his hand around my wrist, and I still wondered if I was white trash. Was it my filth that rubbed off on him or the other way around? He held my hand for a brief minute before motioning with his eyes, “You want to take that other fish instead. That sandwich in the corner”. In hesitation I altered my selection. I thanked him and bid farewell. When I unwrapped the different alternative, the sandwich recommended, I had to laugh. Inside the healthy whole wheat bun were two fish stacked together. He had given me an extra piece.
So am I White Trash? Maybe.
Does it matter? I don’t know.