Pacific Sunset, Feb. 2007
photo by Linda Lemaster
©The Home Office
FOR PATCHES Who Died Too Young
I drift through this town around twilight
on my broomstick
made from pain
Folks whisper to their kids, "We remember her,"
then tell me they've forgot my name
Clean water, second-hand bagels
and smelly, putrid plumbing
-- on a good day --
leaves me feeling blessed
On cold days my fingers
and my knees
light up like Rudolph's nose
Other times I'm transparent 'cept my smile
If I have one left
Will it help me pass this gauntlet one more time on my
walk from bus to blanket stash?
Will my bedroll still be there?
Dignified eyes staring down then away
right through me
Curious children hail me with their
innocence and warmth
'til Mommy's Auntie's Granny's haughty frozen glares
arrest their smiles their fingers and
the children's hearts, too, freeze.
The buckaroo boys, all jazz and hip
and shadowboxing on the street
they see me yes then say, "Hey Lady,
got a light?" or "Got a toke?"
But hurry off
like natural dudes when I reply,
"Got four bits
'cause I wanna phone my kids?"
just me and the pavement
Was that really me
Or was it just a joke I played on me?
Whatever . . . it was something just last year
I said I'd never ever want to do.
Guess I'm just a-chillin' now, and dreaming by myself
Trying to remember dreams
Got time for dreaming NOW
No more wishing babies would sleep in
on just ONE Saturday sunrise for a change
No more wishing for "white noise" when alarm clocks
ring at seven
No more staying up late just to fold the laundry or
finish work or bills while wishing rather for
t i m e
for sleep and dreaming
No more daydreams on the bus to class inspired by
my night before's school homework
No more hot flashes in my own clean sheets
No more counting coupons on those rare night
I can't sleep
No more waking up because the neighbor's cat's in heat
or the raccoon's dumping trashcans all along the street
No more peeking at my miracle children growing
ever taller as I watch them lay asleep
No more satisfying tangles on "my" floor
with blankets, pillows, secrets, poems, empty
wine glasses, and You
No more quiet glowing happily alone
Looking at the stars and thinking, "Where's we
buy that wine?"
and "What's it mean?"
and feeling how
You always made it feel like we were both
Once I was made of those fresh cotton sheets and
smells of you
Was that the real me -- always wishing
to recover just a little
shred of dreamtime
the JOY of life, just sleeping IN someday?
I've gained and lost vast heavens and hells
both mine and some I'd borrowed
yet finding now my dreams come back like
homing pigeons and uncompleted Yesterdays
still seeking their Tomorrows
and hoofing all the way
to the Mission's Styrofoam Soup
Got time to dream in the daytime now
and time to dream all night
Yet now no place to lay my head
no respite from hard streets and their
cruel, unblinking lights*
© Linda Ellen Lemaster
This poem was first published in Street Spirit,
Publication of American Friends Service Committee
some back-story and my opinion
The poem above, best read aloud, came to me when I learned a new friend had died of pneumonia after having to live on the streets. And then being pushed and busted around for trying to earn her way by washing car windshields, a fast-moving, often quite cold job. Her pulverized looking hands. She was always friendly while trying to earn a little cash -- never pushy and entirely polite.
I never even learned her "real" name; Patches is her street moniker, a safety nickname. I was immediately struck by how much we once had in common: an ordinary American mom's life. Yet me -- with an old Volvo for wheels and even a rented home -- it felt like we were worlds apart as we met; and me having to say "no" to her squeegie despite a dirty windshield. I was "too broke" yet we became friends that day anyhow!
I have numerous long-term homeless and once-homeless friends, in part because I treat them like human beings and they appreciate that. I learned this from Mitch Snyder long ago. Our first meeting -- Patches and mine -- was at Front Street and Soquel Avenue, downtown. It seemed then a minor instance for us.
Simultaneously, in my city, housed people were making it illegal for homeless people to wash car windows for shoppers, in one parking lot and then the next. I saw this shifting 'social engineering' take place over a matter of months, as both civic garages and "private property" lots outside pharmacies, bookstores and the supermarket pushed her out of her meager yet honorable existence.
I can imagine, but not prove, the pneumonia that killed Patches by age 50 was abetted by the raining and cold "bad days" during which she nonetheless continued working -- to earn her own way instead of begging or dumpster diving or getting institutionalized due to hard luck.
Patches was literally pushed out of surviving because somebodies didn't want to have to say "no" when she offered her service, or else because someone gets jealous as she made friends, and earned maybe an average of $3.50 an hour on a "good day." I feel those petty sorts of "reasons" moved that city to yet another layer of privatization and discrimination against indigent and homeless folks.
It's no longer 'legal' to offer to wash automobile windshield for parked shoppers who wish it. So then life goes on round about, as if nobody's the worse for it. Nobody has to see that they're literally causing suffering because "it's the law". When we sleep peacefully at night, it's at the expense of those who can't.
Maybe there were other extenuating factors adding to Patches early death? I don't know. I know only what I saw happening.
I believe Patches' struggling so valiantly to survive, and her dying while street-homeless, reflects on some deficiency amongst all of us who are housed. Some critical degree of humanity is lacking for us? Or else maybe it's simply class-based bigotry? Whatever the reason, we're making it even harder -- intentionally -- for people to stay alive when they're down. Our shared 'bad attitude' leads to pain, great harm and needless loss of life. In some hard-to-define way, I believe, these mean and obsolete social values lessen any meaning in our own lives, too.
Let's give up a mite of our collective "comfort zone" in order to soften the hell of people daily at risk. Is this unreasonable? Can we not restore the MARGINS of society, as educator and anti-homelessness advocate Peter Marin writes about, so those who can't deal with the whole tapestry of tasks and responsibilities needed to mainstream all at once do not have to get destroyed, including killed, by these social mores and cultural memes and our community-wide lack of compassion?
I hope to write more in the future about these social patterns and policies and about what else we can do to change our mean behaviors.
Linda's Hearth postscript
*for metaphor-unfamiliar readers, This poem was inspired (maybe even largely 'channeled' - poetry can be like that) by Patches' death, which shocked me, about four months after I'd met her. However it is not "about" her in particular. It is about women who are abandoned by society, perhaps? It is about being homeless in the town where I raised my children, for sure. I hope it is about the correlation between "not seeing" and social violence?