Friday, March 13, 2009
The Bible and the Birth Certificate
c Karen Shafer
Friday, March 13, 2009
a night this week,
rain pours down from the freeway overpass above,
onto cardboard-box houses that are almost empty.
as the water splashes onto my head,
i think vaguely that it has been under car tires
and must be very dirty.
a man from India,
whose face shines near me in the dark
as he stands inside his empty box-house, says to me,
“what you all are doing makes all the difference.”
i battle back the tears
so as not to embarrass him
i will choke on those tears for days,
as the sorrow i see and feel this night makes me ill,
sending me to bed with bronchitis.
it is the sorrow that does it,
not the cold.
i’ve seen this place for years,
this camp outside dallas
erected in desperation by people who have no place else to go –
seen it in various states and stages –
with occupants numbering a hundred,
and with a population of five.
maybe this time is harder
because it is so tragically
just exactly the same.
somewhere downtown in a brightly-lit building,
someone pulls a lever,
and the gears begin to turn.
wheels roll through the streets of dallas,
devouring all in their wake,
and move on down into the trenches,
where people wait, huddled under cardboard.
how many times have the dozers and dump trucks
come to this little community?
almost six years i’ve been seeing the aftermath,
yet i’m just a newcomer.
is this truly the best we can do?
this week, this night,
four friends of the camp’s people
stand helplessly on the sidewalk,
trying to know how to tell the story,
and trying to keep the people alive –
in body and in spirit –
in bitter rain,
and wind which cuts with a vicious bite
through the space
under the freeway overpass.
i walk back and forth
in front of the remaining cardboard houses,
up and down the sidewalk in the blackness,
one new pair of socks left in my pocket.
these few box-houses,
back from the dead of last friday’s raid,
won’t last long
against the dump trucks and dozers
which are sure to come again soon.
a woman comes towards me in the dark,her face hidden in a hood. “he’d just gotten a copy of his birth certificate,” she tells me of her husband. “it was in his Bible. last friday, the city came while he was downtown, clearing out his warrants [from being arrested for being homeless]. i tried to get them to let me back into our [cardboard] house to get his papers before they tore it down and took it away, but they said no.”
her husband was taking the steps he had to take to get off the street.
back to zero.
“wait, wait,” i tell her, and i put my arm around her and walk her back down the sidewalk toward the friends who’ve come with me, wanting her to tell another witness, wanting the words to be hers, not mine. words coming out of a sad face, a cold face, a numb face — a face that can barely hold any more sorrow, but that endures, and one that seems to be past anger, because it has no recourse. as we walk, she asks me, ‘do you have any clothes? they took everything.’ ‘i’ll bring you some,’ i promise.
a bureaucrat gives an order,
and the trucks roar to life.
workers wield their rakes,
clearing the residue of human lives.
‘you can take your id’s — nothing else,’
they tell these people regarding their own possessions –
clothing, bedding, everything is gone.
so the man from India
stands inside his empty cardboard house
on this near-freezing night
with two thin blankets
and says to me, without anger or self-pity,
‘feel these blankets. they are wet.’
he is well-spoken, clearly educated.
i touch the blankets.
‘they are wet,’ i agree. ‘i’m so sorry.’
we have no more blankets with us to give him —
we’ve made the rounds of other camps already —
but what matters to him is that someone sees,
that someone cares.
we all need a witness.
if there is love and caring,
the wet and wind can be more easily endured.
it feels so bitterly cold under that bridge,
though, near the people, it is warm.
trying to rise from the muck,
the woman frantically grasps at the costly sheet of paper,
tucked there within the Good Book,
but both are sucked up into Heaven,
just out of reach of her hands.
the machinery of bureaucracy
is grinding up and spitting out human beings,
along with their hopes, dreams and belongings.
a group of theorists finds the people, counts them, takes in money on their behalf, and spends it as they see fit. a group of bureaucrats collects sizable pay checks in the name of aiding the people, returning to elegant houses at day’s end, yet the people themselves are forbidden their cardboard-box homes, though they have nowhere else to go.
then, somewhere in the past, present and future, a tall, robust man stands at a podium looking radiant and nods graciously to thunderous applause from like-minded supporters. crystal sparkles. luscious food has been presented, nibbled at, pushed away, and removed. by candlelight, wine is sniffed, sipped, and perhaps sloshed onto starched white tablecloths.
the remnants of the food find their way to the landfill,
and mingle there with a Bible and a birth certificate.
“i’m happy to report that we’ve solved the problem of homelessness in dallas!” the man says, smiling an appealing and congenial smile. and, once again, the audience roars to life.
as if the magic of machinery can make human beings disappear.
Janet Morrison’s Community Dialogue:
Dallas Homeless Network Blog:
Conscience & Clarity Blog: