Weaving through traffic, driving the first new car I ever bought on my own at the age of 40, music blaring as I sing along as if I am in a bullet traveling 45 miles an hour through downtown Columbus. The songs reach back to childhood (Springsteen, Rolling Stones, Woody Guthrie) to my twenties, (New Bomb Turks, Superchunk, Sinead O’Conner, Dinosaur Jr, Matador Records) and then into the present, (Allo Darlin, Sea Lions, Luke Roberts), giving me moments of elsewhere while waiting for a mini-van to get the fuck out of the way. Watching pedestrians as they bustle with bags and briefcases across steamy downtown streets, all the seriousness that a suit can imply, stuck on faces that look straight ahead; no doubt they are thinking of jobs to be done. In the car, contemplating visions of the past while guitars blast into my ears, I invariably think of a father long gone–a man who choose to vacate his family years ago, I think of Jerry, who is always just a flicker of thought and finally of Jenny and what her life is like these days.
Bruno shouts from the back seat, “daddy, punk rock, daddy, punk rock” , leaning down I skip from a Puccini aria to the Dogmatics, and he is pleased. One day, he may have the faint impression of a memory, sitting in the back seat as his father dodges slow cars, singing along to the soundtrack of Bruno’s childhood. I feel alone. Sensing that all the other inhabitants feel the same as I do, constrained to their bodies, thoughts limited to their own experiences, yearning to feel together if not for just a moment. But with the knowing of the isolation that rises again, the feeling that not only intercourse can relieve because the moments after intercourse are a reminder that yet, again, we are all alone.
It’s a science fiction experiment, these bodies of our, like tiny droplets of rain, hurtling towards the soil until our souls splash and explode against the concrete and dirt of our lives. Swallowed by the force of the ground. It is the music that keeps the feeling of life while sitting in the white Volkswagen with a boy in the backseat, shouting above the din, “daddy, more guitars, daddy, louder.”
The phone rings, yet another example of science fiction come to fruition, “hey, just want you to know, I’m still alive.” It’s Jenny, in the hospital again. “shit is crazy over here,” she explains, her voice muffled from the sheer tiredness of life, “but they can’t kill ole Jenny.” She has the memory of an elephant, at moments she is able to conjure a piece of the past that, even if I were there I would doubt that it would happen, some of it so surreal and outstanding that I scarcely believe that it happened. “I was thinking of that one time we had that New Year’s Eve party in that hotel in Springfield with your brother and all his fucked up friends. Remember?” Searching the moldiest canals of my mind, past exams I took, under papers I wrote, children saying the most fucked up shit, I bump into the memory, sheltered away some twenty-seven years ago. “Um, yeah sorta.” “Remember, you and I went and fucked in that broom closet and then went back to the party . We paid that security guard $20 to pretend he was arresting Donny Acuff, and then the guy got fired and ended up back at the parsonage partying with us all night. And what’s her face killed Russ, your goldfish? Boy, you told that bitch off.” Pulling into the parking garage, I try to balance the memory with the idea that part of my job is to advise treatment, justice and compassion in court today. “er, yeah, I remember that, but I can’t really think about that right now.” “That shit was funny. Anyway, I’m doing ok, trying to figure out how to get my legs working, and I failed my HUD inspection.” Jerking to attention on this last note, “What, how can you fail a HUD inspection when you are in a nursing home and have been in the hospital for two weeks?” I ask, flabbergasted that some moron at the Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority would do such a thing. “Do they know you are in a nursing home?” “Yup, of course they know. They said I still had to do it, so I called a friend to go over there. Everything has to be fixed within ten days or I will lose my Section 8 voucher. But my friend said he’ll fix it.” Thinking to myself, the same friend who beat the shit out of you last month.
“Find out who your worker is over there and I’ll send a letter over and make a few phone calls.” There is a pause, “I don’t know who it is, all my paperwork is at the apartment and I can’t leave here, fuck, I can’t walk.” blowing an air of frustration, with cheeks in full puffed mode, I answer, “Ok, I’ll find out.”
Being poor is not easy, especially in America where people tend to be shuttled between bureaucratic paths that resemble something between a Kafka story and the story of the little girl who feel down the well, at times frustratingly sad but also bold in the ironic malice of workers whose job it is to guard the most basic rights of the poor. I see this on a daily basis, the vilification of the poor and mentally ill, as if those who are blessed with opportunities had in some astral manner, earned these opportunities. The belief that being born into opportunity gives someone the license to dis-empower the powerless.
Every state in the Union has its own laws and guidelines for social workers, counselors and outreach workers, with some states requiring a four year college degree plus the passing of a licensure test to practice the art of helping. Others, have laws that have a minimal requirement, with any four or two year degree sufficing in allowing, someone, usually with good intentions to work with the poor, mentally ill, homeless and addicted. Sadly, in the midst of slogans, uninformed opinions, we, collectively wage war on the underclass as if brandishing their shortcomings in front of them, we will somehow protect our own. Draconian voting laws, every form of stereotype, whether under the guise of patriotism, religion and or capitalism is used as a weapon to keep ourselves from looking at what is barely ours. A fragile shell that is protected by the opportunities that most of us are born into. It is a skinny path we walk, one filled with dangers that can dart suddenly from the underbrush of our lives, in the form of an accident, cancer, job loss, addiction or mental illness. I choose to do what I do as a way to relieve my own guilt for the underprivileged and at times, I do it with a chip on my shoulder, as I have no use for the shaming of the people I choose to serve. I am blunt with the truth as it is the only way I can make sense of the suffering I see, perhaps, I do it to make sense of the confusion I was brought up with or maybe it is a calling.
There was a large farm next abutted next to the tiny chuck of yard where the tiny ranch house stood, a house that resembled one of millions in America, this one set right of the old National Highway. Three small bedrooms and an unfinished basement where Jenny and her younger sister slept, a piece of 1970′s frayed green carpet kept bare teenage feet from slapping against the concrete. Upstairs their little brother Tony slept in the same room with another younger sister, Megan and down a “hallway” that consisted of two medium steps from the closet sized bathroom was the parents room. This was the third house the family had lived in over the past four years, all of them less than a mile apart. The farm behind and next to them was abandon, the silo standing as a white beacon of failure to every passerby. This was the mid-eighties when the scorched-earth polices of Reagan capitalism cindered many a family farm, but the workings of these policies were cloaked in the feel good speech of an old actor who while robbing the heartland blind made us all feel a little safer. Jenny and her siblings each raised a lamb for the annual Clark County Fair, active members of 4-H, they realized the fragile lesson of life, death and the meaning of the cycle of hardship. The sheep would be slaughtered after the fair, and hopefully each child would be able to sell the animal for a good price, money to be invested in college, a car or to help the family out.
After school, we would climb into my tarnished Ford Mustang, bits of it chipped at the bottom with bucket seats that sat so low to the ground you could swear you could feel the heat of the asphalt under your ass. She would run the sheep, who by nature are not the brightest animals, trying to get them in shape to tone the muscles that would soon be ripped from bone and consumed. The animals would stare at her dumbfounded as if she were an alien, they had no reason to run in circles, besides they thought, “it’s hot and we are wearing wool for christsakes!” I would laugh at her efforts, drinking sun-tea while her mother shook her head, “it looks silly, I know, but she wins every year.” This was true Jenny won a lot of contests, her intelligence hidden by her quick wit and outrageousness. She won first place in the State of Ohio Soil Judging Contest sponsored by the Future Farmers of America, as a junior in high school although she was neither a farmer presently or in the future. She twice won the State of Ohio Wool Judging Contest sponsored by the FFA. She was in the National Honor Society and was warned by several teachers to be wary of me, due to my mischievous nature and poor grades although I came from a long line of professors and professionals.
We would walk the abandon farm, in the cold and the warmth of spring, trasping over withered husks of corn, clumps of dirt that remained unmoved season to season, the massive wooden doors of the farm remained locked, shackled together with a rusty thick chain. We tried in vain to get into the barn, with the simple reason to unhinge our teenage lust in the dark shadows and moistness of mildewing hay that was waiting for us behind the tethered doors. The raspy corn would crunch beneath our shoes, the wind would sail across the unproductive patch of earth that surrounded us into our chest, holding hands the questions of our adolescent minds abounded as if compelled by the chilly wind. She would explain things to me as we stepped over forgotten plants, pockets of dirt that remained upturned and why certain crops could grow in Ohio and how crop rotation works. This was all new to me, I had assumed through my lens of persecution that farming just involved listening to Hank Williams Jr while riding on a tractor and telling nigger jokes. Of being provincial and dismissive of outsiders, like myself, although it would take me nearly thirty-five years to come to terms that I was an outsider nearly everywhere I went, including, at times my own house. The lump of distaste and protection I had accumulated over four years in living in rural Ohio slowly melted during this time, and an understanding of the wisdom, care and struggles of my classmates and neighbors came into focus. As Jenny called me out on my class snobbishness, one that was rooted in a liberal sense politics, as we were by all accounts poor in a monetary sense, I felt more at ease in my surroundings.
Nestled in the dirt roughly 200 yards back from the farm, her own house a dot in the distance, we found the carcass of a cow. Almost complete, it’s bones, weathered white and picked clean by birds, rodents, bugs and seasons, we crouched around it in awe. Who would let an animal die out in the field, let alone wouldn’t the animal be noticed? “How does this happen?” I asked, crouching down, examining a hip bone, half buried into the dirt, the white bone resembling a conch shell in the middle of Ohio. She pulled it out, clumps of dirt sticking to its side, it was too cold for any insects, “it’s weird, huh?” I took a few steps back, resting on my haunches, keeping my balance with my left hand I felt something hard in the dirt. There was another carcass and soon we noticed roughly four or five cow skeletons. It as if we had managed to slowly walk into a cave, and slowly brushed a beetle off our arm and noticed that there were thousands crawling around us. “Christ, look at all these fucking bones.” The sky was gray, with soft rolling clouds hanging above the earth as if they were licking their collective lips readying themselves to unleash a torrent of cold rain. A splash of lightening shattered in the distant. I looked at Jenny and she stared at me, a large thick raindrop exploded between us. Wind seemed to gurgle in our ears, and she tried to put the hip bone back where it had submerged, as if it were never disturbed. “I don’t know why anyone would let these poor animals die out here and never collect them”, she said more to herself than me.