Diarist: This Land Is Your Land
11 Years Old and Homeless
Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, February 22, 2007
Simple pleasures, crying needs
Gone are the days when communities band together to take care of their own, without judgments or too many expectations beyond the sense that a favor extended may mean a favor eventually returned, should the circumstances warrant. And even then: to lend a hand in the expectation of any form of return, whether personal satisfaction or eventual payback in any form, is crass and defeats the purpose of service to one’s neighbor, especially when the neighbor isn’t a metaphor or a 73-cent-a-day orphan in Guatemala. I have no interest in saving the planet; the impulse is presumptuous and stupid, and usually an escape from more immediate, more obvious needs (look at Bush and his $3 billion-a-week wars eight and ten time zones away while his own nation’s social fabric is falling apart). But I do believe in the motto of these Notebooks’ namesake: “Il faut cultiver notre jardin,” says Candide: We must cultivate our garden. Take care of what’s under our noses, in our backyards, in our neighborhoods. Our garden, if that’s what one’s modern-day subdivision must be called, had a family in desperate need. So we helped. But what happens when we do cultivate our garden and come up with thorns and muck all the same? I don’t know if this is a parable for our times. It’s a goddamn heartbreak all the same.
Six days ago I wrote about our neighbors here in the subdivision, the family of five washed up from Katrina that, eight months after moving in, was facing eviction. Here’s an update, what appears to be the only one necessary. The story I'm about to tell may sound self-serving: Few things are more distasteful than relating one's own “service” to others, especially in this society where nothing communal seems to get done without the attendant assault of self-promotion. This isn't what I mean to do here; Our involvement Cheryl and I is barely incidental, and in the end proved to be a failure, in a story that must, I think, be told. When I learned of the eviction notice last week I put my local contacts to work, trying to line up work for—I’ll call the man George. He works construction, but he’s been unemployed, like men and women in droves in this county—until last year the fastest-growing county in the United States , booming with construction everywhere. Then it all stopped. So the man has been unemployed. He said he’d do anything immediately. I contacted the school district and got help at the highest level: the district is hiring bus drivers and custodians, full-time work with benefits, the kind of superb benefits school districts are famous for. If George was qualified, and he told me he was, if he could pass one of those ridiculous drug tests, and he told me he would, there was no reason he couldn’t get a job fast and immediately start bringing home around $1,500 a month, more than enough to afford rent and other bills and start paying back some of the past-due bills. If his girlfriend qualified, and it seemed as if she ought to, nothing stopped her from landing a job too. Right there, they could together be bringing in $3,000 a month minimum.
I spoke with the landlord and got her to be cooperative enough that, should the job be lined up and money start coming in, she’d obviously consider pulling back on the eviction. What landlord would rather see money than court costs? As it was, the official eviction process wasn’t going to start until today, giving us all another ten days or so to put everything in order. The power was cut off at George’s place over the weekend. We agreed, at his and his girlfriend’s request and our relief, to take in the 10-year-old daughter—let’s call her Brandy—for the duration of the “transition,” to ease her parents’ burdens, give them time to re-situate themselves, but mostly to preserve a sense of calm for Brandy and let her keep going to school. As luck would have it, she’d been assigned the same fourth-grade teacher we’d had for our daughter three years back, the teacher we’d come to love and befriend more than any we’ve had in all of our daughter’s years of schooling. We’d work together to catch Brandy up on her backlogs.
On Tuesday afternoon at 3 George and I were scheduled to have a meeting at the school district. The one man who can make things happen there was to walk him through all the bureaucratic hassles and fast-track him to his job. Monday evening we talked it all out with George. Cheryl and I explained how step by step every issue, every overdue bill, every hassle could, and would, be taken care of, up to us securing a couple of grants through county and state services designed just for that purpose or even putting together a little fund-raiser if necessary to make all ends meet. Gorge was all for it, if somewhat hesitantly. He’d have to talk it over with his girlfriend. We should have known.
The next day, three hours before the meeting, Cheryl calls me at work to let me know that Gorge was looking to bail, but she’d talked him into at least making the 3 o’clock meeting. An hour later, another call: he was bailing for sure. He and his girlfriend had talked it over: “There’s too many if’s,” is how they put it. I couldn’t believe it. Jobs were practically being handed to them. Eviction proceedings were being eased off. They had the school district on their side, and people cropping up left and right with willingness to help, and jobs. They were refusing. They were preferring their own plan: to leave the house and go to Jacksonville to a family homeless shelter on Wednesday, after Brandy’s string class (in the orchestra Cheryl manages). When I visited George and his girlfriend that evening I couldn’t hide my disappointment, and of course, as people in their position would, they felt even more burdened and showed it: Favors have a way of commanding obligation, which I hadn’t intended yet couldn’t prevent. In any case the obligations weren’t for their sake but for their children’s. None of these efforts would have been nearly so critical if it hadn’t been for these three children, whom we couldn’t image, from one day to the next, homeless.
But there was nothing doing. George and his girlfriend went on about how their landlord would screw them no matter what — the very same landlord who’s allowed them to stay in the house three and a half months overdue, the same landlord who’d offered to do their taxes and who’d lined up three jobs for the girlfriend, one of them within walking distance of the house, none of which she was willing to do. There was something else in play that I couldn’t, or didn’t want to, figure out. Drug addiction. Methamphetamines, judging from the symptoms. A criminal background. Misdeeds in the house. There was one staring us in the face: George had reconnected the power fraudulently, by snapping the power company’s seal and plugging things back up on his own. The company would find out sooner or later. That was theft, even though we’d told him: we’d work it out with the power company too. I left their house dejected. Their defeat was becoming mine.
That same evening we celebrated Brandy’s 11th birthday. Her actual birthday is on the 24th. We wanted to make sure she would have one. She was still with us for that one final night. She picked out her vanilla cake and skipped around all evening saying how excited she was. My three-year-iold was all over her. The two of them have always been a pair, my son speaking her name as if she was his first and only crush. Before bed she asked Cheryl if she’d read her a story, as she had the evening before, her trademark smile, a smile that hides rather than a smile that shines, never leaving her face. The next morning she went about getting ready for school calmly, Cheryl wrote her a card with all our numbers, gave her envelopes and stamps so she could write if she wanted to, and at eight thirty gave her a hug and sent her on her way: there was a child walking to her bus stop for her last day of class, her last night under a roof already over. She was homeless. And there was nothing we could do anymore. Later that morning Cheryl walked her things across the road to her parents.
Brandy was at string class this evening. Normally Cheryl drives her home. Home. A concept so simple, so easily taken for granted, that the word itself is its own shelter. You say the word and it evokes an entire world of certainty for most of us, those certainties we take for granted—the characteristic smell of one’s house the second we walk in, that hint of lunch’s French bread that stayed in the oven a second or two too long, the peculiar warmth of the inside offsetting the February chill outside, the hum of the fridge from the kitchen, that hum of cheeses and drinks and pastries waiting there for our joys of devourings, the music or the television or the computer we’ll turn on at the flick of a switch, the books surrounding us like an added layer of protection, the beds we’ll crawl into, the comfortable, familiar beds to which we won’t give a second thought, and if we did, then only to revel in the self-satisfaction of the hard-working petit bourgeois who’s earned the night’s cozy rumples, the one supposedly owed not only the luxuries of suburban slumbers but the strange right to take it all for granted. The thought that it could all disappear tomorrow seems as heretical as the thought that the coffee won’t be in its proper place in the cupboard in the morning. It simply can’t happen. At about five thirty this evening Brandy’s parents showed up, for the very first time, at the school where the string orchestra holds its rehearsal. They had come to fetch her. Brandy’s smile wasn’t all there anymore. She turned in her violin, she said goodbye again, and the family drove off. As I wrote this, they were probably in Jacksonville already, getting the feel for the homeless shelter they talked about so much.
In the hour or so it took them to drive from here to Jacksonville , we spent $15 million on the war in Iraq , enough to pay Brandy’s family’s rent to 1,500 years. Or a month’s rent, for the mildly luxurious rate of $800 a month, for 1,500 families. In one hour. Thankfully for Brandy, she’s not figured out her multiplications and divisions yet. She’ll sleep better. We ought not.