Rick Hartwell is a retired middle school teacher (remember the hormonally-challenged?) living in Southern California. He believes in the succinct, that the small becomes large; and, like the Transcendentalists and William Blake, that the instant contains eternity. Given his “druthers,” if he’s not writing, Rick would rather still be tailing plywood in a mill in Oregon. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I don’t know about other urban or suburban areas, but in my city when the police periodically round up the homeless and vagrant, the shopping carts – or wagons or bicycles or whatever – are left in place and only the flesh, clothed in rags, is impounded. One can argue that these fallow conveyances become street-side installation art, temporary testaments to the fragility of modern life, monetary instability, and municipal capriciousness.
* * *
After she produces a twenty-dollar bill from her sneaker and provides the address of a distant niece or nephew, Jane – I’ll call her Jane for convenience, but her name could be Juana or Jasmine or whatever – Jane is released at the police station and unnecessarily cautioned against prostitution. (If this had been John or Juan or Jamal, the caution would have been against pandering or panhandling; such are the vagaries of gender categorization.)
She walks the five blocks back to where she had been picked up, only to find her cart overturned, ransacked, her extra coat gone along with the garbage bags filled with crushed beer and soda cans and plastic water bottles. All worth probably forty or fifty dollars. But what hurts her most is the loss of a pair of knitted baby-booties, the only talisman; touchstone with her estranged daughter.
Jane’s life is disrupted once again. She rights the cart, shovels the discarded rags and clothes back into the cardboard box and places that inside the wire carrier. She drags the cart off the ice-plant onto the sidewalk, then starts to push, only to find that the left-front wheel no longer tracks straight, but wobbles and pulls the cart to the left. An inconvenience for the average shopper. Another major setback for Jane.
She is not a destitute dreg of society’s very public apathy and insensitivity. Nor is she an outcast or loner. She resides alternate nights at opposite ends of the city, gathers with others under the freeway overpass or down in the arroyo between the railroad tracks and the northern crawl of suburbia. She travels the length of the city most days picking up the bottle and can detritus tossed aside by affluence, and on good days finds something of minor worth to sell to a pawnshop. Her needs are minimal: food and water, warmth, and the random companionship of words. Her extravagances are also few: a taste of gin or wine, a cigarette, and the occasional companionship of fleeting love.
Jane is one of the street people who passers-by seldom see. Jane is remarkable and remarked only by those in childhood: the very young and the very old. In awe and interest by the first group; in scorn and fear by the second.
If to be remembered is the true gift of life, then Jane is bereft of presents. To dull the outward bother of living, she caresses the baby-booties in her mind and whets the inward pain of memory.
* * *
Lives enmeshed within steel cages:
Sidewalk transports; time machines.