[continuing from the last post]
Two days later, the weather turned shockingly cold. I had set out on a walk with Ziva, thankful for the cool gray sky but unprepared for just how cold it had become. I’ll just walk fast to stay warm, I thought to myself and it was more or less working.
“Young lady, where is your jacket?” It was John, riding past in a very sorry looking brown sedan driven by a heavy-set woman. They pulled over while Ziva and I approached the car.
“I didn’t realize how cold it got!” I explained, feeling like a school-girl being called out by her grandfather for a lack of commonsense.
“Do you want mine? Here.” John made a move to take off his Notre Dame sweatshirt.
“No, thank you. I’ll just walk fast to stay warm…I can always turn around if it gets too cold. I live nearby, you know.”
“Alright, I just don’t want you getting sick. Stay safe.”
“I will. Hey, what kind of sleeping bag do you want? I’m going to ask around and see if any friends have extra bags or tents for you.”
“A warm one. And not a mummy bag. I sleep with a blade in each hand and I don’t want to cut the bag.”
“Sure.” I tried to sound nonchalant but the image of this old man with a knife in each hand to ward off midnight attackers was a troubling one. “I’ll see what I can find.”
Two weeks later, I’d had no luck finding either a tent or sleeping bags. Some friends said they might have a tent but I was having trouble pinning them down on it. While driving home and planning a three-ton river-rock delivery for a landscaping project I saw John and another man walking down the hill. Pulling over somewhat haphazardly, I stopped the car and jumped out, calling to John and the other men as they walked past.
“Jessica, how are you, young lady?”
“Good. I’ve got work for you. Moving rock. Could you do it tomorrow?”
“Well, I’ll have to check my schedule and see if I’m free,” he replied with a gleam in his eye. “Of course, name the time and my compadre and I will be there.”
Oh. He’d come too. The other man stood behind John with his head down a bit. He looked younger than John but with an equally grizzled beard and a thick, somewhat matted ponytail. I hadn’t planned on two homeless guys working in my yard. I’d not really even planned on one. It just kind of happened. I liked John but I didn’t know this other man and I didn’t want to suddenly be the softy to whom John brought all his homeless buddies for work.
“Ok, great,” I replied, as I gulped down a bit of fear-tinged resentment. “Tomorrow, then.”
“Tomorrow. Now, we know each other well enough. Give me a hug, young lady.”
I embraced John a bit timidly and then reached out my hand to the other man.
That night, worry kept me from sleeping. The two cardinal rules of “helping the homeless” were (from what I’d gathered online) not to give money and not to let them know where you lived. But, John already knew where I lived … and Adam, too. They walked past my house everyday. And I wasn’t giving them money, I was paying them to work. Maybe they were addicts who would use the cash to get completely twisted. Maybe they were thieves. Maybe they would be back week after week looking for handouts. Maybe….but they were certainly someone’s son. Certainly someone’s brother. Possibly someone’s father. My own brother could easily become homeless. God forbid, but so could either of my children in the future. There was no going back on the offer of work but what exactly I was opening our lives to remained to be seen.
The next day arrived along with three tons of river stone. At the appointed time, John and Adam arrived and quickly got to work. More correctly, Adam got to work and John directed the project. It became clear that both had worked their fair share of manual labor jobs, with John knowing how to lay rock properly and Adam having a passion for landscaping.
“It’s like painting a picture, you know, making a work of art that you can walk into,” Adam explained breathlessly, “I used to do landscaping and gardening for my grandma and I liked to get it just right, like a painting.”
Adam shoveled, explaining his aesthetic theory between breaths. My son and daughter helped, shoveling rock into their tiny red wagon and laying it at John’s direction, who raked the stones level. I tried to help but John kept insisting that my job was to tell them what needed to be done and check that I was content with the work—but he clearly had the role of foreman well in hand. So, I chatted a bit with Adam. He had three children and a mom out in Oregon, was going through a difficult divorce, had lost his job because of a knee injury. We talked about Hunter S. Thompson, the local food movement, his children. Everything about him was tense, alert, frightened. He worked as if some invisible demon with a whip were driving him on. His blue eyes shining out from his sweat-drenched brow, thick beard, and long hair looked like a Sunday School picture of Jesus.
When I went to get both men a drink and snack, I found John enjoying a smoke between rock loads. He started chatting up a storm, as if jealous for the attention I’d given Adam. A life-long South Bend resident, he told me about the geological history of the area interwoven with the rise and fall of Studebaker cars and his own youthful hijinks.
Despite our incessant conversation, the rock work was finished in a few short hours and, true to their word, my yard looked like and enchanted garden when John and Adam had finished. Then, we shared a meal on our back deck. Around the table, Adam no longer seemed hunted and haunted, hunched beneath fears I couldn’t begin to comprehend. He sat back, tall, open, relaxed. John’s bravado quieted and he, too, sat comfortably in his chair. They told stories about the recently murdered anchor-woman who would bring them coffee in the winter, when the 20-below winds whip the streets of downtown South Bend. They laughed about a local politician who’s all for social justice but never talks to the homeless guys outside his office. Then came the story of John’s arrest for stealing defunct streetcar rails (he’d planned on selling the metal for scrap) and his 88-day prison stint, which led to the story of a local judge. John had been up for three felony charges (“A bunch of nonsense when I was all twisted and raving one night). This particular kind-hearted judge dressed-down the public defender in open court for unjustly allowing his client (John) to stand trial for two counts that were bogus (the third was, apparently, legitimate).
“Sounds like the judge was a good guy,” I replied, unsure how I felt about a convicted-felon working in my backyard, teaching my daughter her first real lessons in manual labor, sharing a meal around my table.
“The best. You know, he still finds me downtown by the courthouse sometime and buys me a meal or slips a 5 into my back pocket for smokes. Says to me ‘John, you staying out of trouble?’ To which I always answer, ‘trying to, your honor.’ He’s a good man, that judge.”
The conversation meandered as we relaxed. Adam and Jon explained how to identify prime morrall locations in the woods out back, and reminisced about morrall hunting and catching bluegill in the late spring—a favorite dinner. We all ate our fill and then we said our goodbyes.
As the men were gathering their packs, John turned to me, “Any luck with that tent or sleeping bags, young lady?”
My glance fell to the brick pavers. “Well, our friends said…”
“Yes or no. Tell me the truth.” John’s blue eyes stared at me, piercing through my excuses.
“Not yet. I’m sorry,” I replied quietly.
“That’s ok. Focus on the sleeping bags. They are more important.”
With that, John gave me a hug, Adam shook my hand, and both men set off down the street. Silhouetted by the setting sun, they looked like characters from a Steinbeck novel, vagabond workers from another time, a time when the “the quick profit, annual raise, and vacations with pay” were not the only model of work or marker of human dignity.