The back door of the Red Brick Church opens at 10 in the morning. People have been waiting in the parking lot. Some are regulars and know the drill: fill out the form, show ID, sit at the table with the interviewer, get a box with three days’ food.
Two older guys sit at my table and fill out their forms. They are old hands at this, at most things, at most of the hard things in life. One of them was married twice, but doesn’t think about marriage any more. Who would have him? The other was married for all of six months, and he ain’t proud of it, and he’s made some mistakes in life, but why don’t people ever forgive these days?
They work on their forms.
Jen calls me over to her table. A woman named Judith is there, asking about someone named Pastor Gary. Yes, I knew him: he died in November. Judith had not heard that, and begins to weep. Pastor Gary was a good man, and much beloved, and his death makes her reflect. She has made bad choices; she says she has lost her way, and news of his death causes her to want to get right. Weeping, she vows to get her life in order.
Judith needs to get to some dentist appointments but has no money. I make a quick trip up to the corner gas station and buy a gas card. The station sells junk food and cigarettes and slushies. People just like Judith are milling around inside buying or wishing they could buy the things on the shelves, in the machines, on the hot dog rollers. Overweight teen girls in camo pants buy 20-ounce bottles of Mountain Dew and packs of gum. They have the neighborhood look that we have come to know, all those unquantifiable visual cues that mark the people in urban poverty.
Last week I ate dinner at a table with the retired CEO of this gas station company. I do not know him, but I wonder if he has seen the world of his gas stations from this point of view, from underneath. And I do not think these people have seen his world.
I see both and live in neither.
Renee lives in her car because she has no home. She shares her car with her fiance. The word Fiance, here in this neighborhood, is a lie. Whether it is for my benefit or hers, I do not know. It is a lie that they will marry. Does she lie to herself, so as to deny the reality (so obvious to an outsider) that this man is incapable of commitment? Or does she lie to me, so as to attach a thin veneer of marital respectability to her tawdry situation?
The fiance is an alcoholic. He was sober for six months and then lost his job, so he turned to drink. He is destroying his liver and slowly killing himself. Two of his brothers already killed themselves driving drunk. The other was murdered outside a bar.
Renee is deep in debt, in poor health, and has no teeth. She is not any older than me.
James is a stand-up comic. He took drama classes at a college. His career is not in full swing just yet, although he does show up for open mic nights at a local coffee shop. He just needs to hustle together some money to get on the road, and he is going to make it big.
He never was a nine-to-five kind of person, although “society” pressures you to do that sort of thing; James is a born free-lancer. At this time his main comedy activities are open mic nights at the coffee shop, and thinking up new material.
Recently he tried out some of his new material at the Un Mundo cafe. He didn’t drop the F-bomb, but he told a joke–and here he leans toward me and lowers his voice with the tacit assumption that I want to be in on the fun–about an illicit encounter with a 72-year-old woman with one lung.
The owner of the El Mundo disapproved, but James kept at it because as a seasoned stand-up comic he knows to play for his audience and not the owner. And he most definitely saw a few smiles, or hints of smiles, start to form, and he knew it was a dynamic moment, a defining moment.
He will be back at the next open mic night. He tells me that large crowds have never intimidated him. He gets up and peruses the clothes pantry, then takes his box of three days’ food and leaves.