Monday, October 4, 2010

Pilgrims on the Street

Why does it say Salt Rising Bread on the package if it is already risen? Why do they call it Cream of Wheat when there is no cream in it? Why is it spelled sal-mon and pronounced sammon? If it is Norfolk & Western and Baltimore & Ohio, why is it just Burlington Northern? Why is there no sand in a sandwich? And why do they call them green beans when the beans are white and just the little sleeves are green? Why is there a part of the Mass that sounds like “Minnie Mouse”? And why are there no fathers and mothers in Walt Disney cartoons, just uncles and aunts? Why are we Catholics and everybody else is a Protestant?

With these and a thousand other questions that sprouted in my brain by the second I tormented my parents in meal time discussions, which were often shut down by fiat. In this irritating behavior I was probably not unlike many bright young minds scheduled to become neurotics or criminals, but as I think back on those days, I marvel at what I did not marvel at. In the face of dozens of astounding realities, my mind tended to be stupefied with wonder. Those things were there, too large or too outrageous to even question. They were just there. And so was I, dumb flatfooted in front of them.

Come to think of it, that was the way it was with a lot of things. Things of one kind were there and questionable, things of another kind were in a separate world and perfectly consistent, beyond question, and absolute. Even though I could not be said to understand it, Transubstantiation was one of these, why nuns and priests were nuns and priests was another. They had been there since the beginning and were as immutable and absolute as the rock ridges on the mountains and the thunderous locomotives on the railroad. And as fearful.

Somehow the street things were beyond question too, though completely dissociated in my mind from the church things and the movie things and the railroad and mining things. The street was a world in which I lived with my dad, outside Church and somewhere in history where stories from McGuffey’s readers and newsreels and the Reader’s Digest and his life on the road and the rails mingled with the strange creatures we met on our daily walks through town. About these I did not ask why, I simply beheld.

They may as well have been fabulous creatures like the ones I occasionally met in juvenile versions of Bulfinch’s mythology. They were all humans, and that I did not question; I suppose I didn’t even raise that question. When we would see one of these creatures, I would look at my dad and he would look at me and grin and shake his head to indicate he was as puzzled as I, and we would pass on.

Take Wes. Wes was an aging, lumbering fellow whose hat looked as if it had been chewed up by dogs and his baggy clothes as if they had been wallowed in, though he always wore a tie. He rolled rather than walked, his bag of newspapers balanced on his left hip, his right hand always extended to offer passersby a copy of the Bluefield Daily Telegraph or the Sunset News. Well, not offer, exactly; he would thrust the paper into the reading space of each face he saw. Of particular importance to him were the photos on the front page which he would point to with his thumb and say, “purty pitcher, purty pitcher,” regardless of whether it was a picture of a lady or a train wreck. On the infrequent days when there was no photo, he was known to stomp into the editorial offices of the newspapers and demand to know how he was supposed to sell papers with no pitchers. He was said to have a large number of children in a ramshackle house in the west end of town.

Or the man who stood in front of Monkey Wards, as we called it. We never knew his name. His eyes were like tunnels of darkness and his face carried deep pock marks. The tattered sign he wore on a chain around his neck explained that he had been injured in a mine explosion and had received no compensation. He carried a tin cup in one hand and a cane in the other. I never saw him move from his place, but he was said to be picked up and deposited there daily by family “in a big fancy car,” some liked to say. He never moved except to shake his head each time someone walked near him, when he would say, always with the same pleading request, “please don’t do that, please don’t do that.”

Mr. Comer was another victim of the mines. He had lost both legs in a mine accident when a slate roof sheared them off and left him with a family to support. He had somehow built the cart in which he sat and had rigged it with a bicycle chain he could turn with his strong arm, moving it on the sidewalk each day from spot to spot where he sold newspapers, pencils, chewing gum, and so on. Also wearing a tie, Mr. Comer was a cheery man who loved to talk, and he usually had a cluster of folk around him throughout the day.

Though many boys like me also sold newspapers, neither he nor Wes ever complained that we were cutting into their businesses, which we were. There was a kind of code on the streets, a fellowship we might call it. Beyond that I would not try to say what spiritual bond kept us from the kind of greed and backstabbing that ran up and down our streets like cholera. When this disease showed itself in obvious or subtle ways, my dad (and my mom too) had a few words, “big shots . . . Republicans.” The good guys were miners, railroaders, working men, small shop owners, and the honest poor. We watched, and identified with, The Grapes of Wrath and Trail of the Lonesome Pine.

Howard, too, a blind man who became my friend, earned his living on the streets by begging in a dignified way. He had a few pencils in his cup, he said, to keep the cops from calling him a beggar, and he wore a suit and tie, always a white shirt with fraying collars, a Stetson hat, and he kept clean and trim from his tiny room in one of the cheap hotels that catered to the less classy railroad traffic. There stacks and stacks of 78 records circled his always-made bed, mostly jazz, but also the recordings for the blind sent him each month from Louisville. When he had lost his sight in an accident with a car battery as a boy, he had been sent to a school for the blind by the State, but, he complained, “they never taught me anything I could use to make a living.” So he stood on the street, running his business from eight to five, taking a lunch break at Tom’s or Jimmy’s or Harry’s restaurant, where I would sometimes sit and say, “peas at four o’clock, potatoes at ten, burger at six.” Back on the street he would hum or whistle jazz tunes, bob his head, and tap his cane. When it rained, he stood under awnings or theater marquees.

There were others on the street who could not even pretend to make a living. Some were crippled (a word we are no longer allowed to use) from various causes, some were harmless people who were later rounded up and sent to asylums to keep our city beautiful for tourists and customers. Yes, by those same respectable big shots and Republicans. Part of the “other America” as they were later called by Michael Harrington in a book that John F. Kennedy cited when he campaigned in West Virginia. In later days, it sometimes seemed to me that half the city consisted of this other America. Then, they were just the people on the street.

Two such people, extremely different from each other, were June and Glenn. Their only resemblance was that, according to the fancified experts, they were twelve-year-old minds in their twenty-something bodies. They lived on the street, occasionally being fetched up by their families, sometimes taken in by the Union Mission or the Salvation Army, sometimes (June especially) corralled by my mom for a “sanrich,” as June called them, and a rigorous cleansing.

My dad and I were attractive to them because we worked in the movie theaters, a glamorous world where there were not only movies but stage shows (Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Lash LaRue, the Three Stooges, even a production of Tobacco Road). And my dad and I handled the popcorn concession. In a room behind the stage, we popped endless kettles of popcorn which were stored and moved to rooms near the concession stands of two theaters. The popcorn came in fifty- or one-hundred pound bags, the coconut oil in fifty-gallon drums. The popped corn was stored in five-gallon cans and moved on a wooden cart. Unlike Tom Sawyer, we did not have to do anything to attract people who wanted to help. Glenn and June always knew they could make a quarter, bum some cigarettes, and eat as much popcorn as they wanted.

Back then street people had no label, and we did not deal much in labels in those days, at least not for the people my dad and I knew in our rambles. They were what could be called the walking wounded of our culture, the least of these as Jesus called them. There was Sy, who talked to no one but movie stars on the posters outside the theaters, chatting as with old friends and occasionally frowning and giving the villains what-for. And mute Edgar, whose business it was to clean the streets, picking up pieces of paper and cigarette butts and storing them all in cloth bundles he tied around his neck with string until, coming at you, he resembled a department store on the hoof. And Clarence, who had seen his father shoot himself with a shotgun and had from then on called himself Clark Gable and spoke only of the movies he had made and would soon make.

As I remember these people and the way I saw them then, I don’t think I am amiss in referring to them as “creatures,” for they were God’s creatures, and my way of knowing them must be something that I learned from my father. I don’t think I felt pity or compassion for any of them. Rarely, I believe, did we feel impelled to "help" them. More, I felt something less easy to characterize, beyond anything a sociologist could classify. In some distant way, they were fellow creatures on the way, and my regard for them was something like the fellowship of pilgrims. Thus, my education from my father, who then asked me one day as we walked home from the theaters, “do you think I could be a Catholic?” But that is another chapter.