Last night Occupy Duluth met at the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial, where we often do if the weather is ok. Sometimes we have other business elsewhere, or things we need to discuss in a more controlled environment, but we prefer to be in the open and in public. Occupy is meant to be for everybody, and we try to make sure that anyone who wants to talk to us can join in our circle.
Something happened last night that could be progress. We settled in our circle and were soon joined by the usual neighborhood folk, many of them intoxicated, sick, injured, homeless and facing a future likely filled with more and more serious disasters, until sooner or later, the one that will void their ticket and show them to the gaping emptiness of the final egress. Some weep, some laugh over their cries of pain, some blame someone else, some seek revenge or satisfaction or escape. Some sit in stoney silence, trying to wall out the terrible scenes they have visited, but walling in the screaming, horrified, helpless prisoner within them, and sit staring, silent or sullen, at the coals of the fire.
But last night, a group of children wandered down the hill and sat on the concrete staring at all of us. Several of them carried long, skinny black baseball bats, punctuating their conversation with playful feints and jabs, raising or swinging the bats as if at each other or at passing birds or at the trees, then striking the pavement or the concrete wall with a satisfactory warning thump.
Two of the neighborhood women took offense at the testing territorial rough play the children were engaged in, and one woman, the one whose laugh sounded just like weeping, started yelling at them to get out of the memorial or she would call “119” (sic). The kids cursed and laughed, pointed and jeered, raised their bats in the air in defiance. One of the boys jumped up, came closer to our circle, and then swung his bat with homerun abandon at one of our trash baskets. Instantly he turned and raced back to the protection of the cohort.
The laughing-crying woman yelled out that she knew who he was, and she knew who his mother was. “You know my mother? What’s her name, bitch? You don’t know my mother.” Laughing-crying woman struggled out of her chair and stood wobbling on her ankles, hand up in the air, showing the children the full face of her cell phone. She screamed at them and cursed them.
I try not to interfere much with what goes on at the memorial. You hear every kind of story from people. Many of them are just attempts to use emotion to wrench a few coins out of you. I never carry any money to the memorial. I could give them every penny I own and they would still have nothing. I don’t have much, but even if I were rich as a Koch or a Walton, all my money would not lift them up. Instead I do not judge them. I listen. I offer them the little comfort of a spot at the fire, a p-nut butter sandwich, a cup of coffee or a glass of apple juice. Simple human respect, not only for their desperate situation, but also for their inability to find any door out of the mess they are in. I don’t know of any way out for them. The egress yawns into darkness for all of us.
But these kids, jeering and rough as they are, are the future we as a culture are making for ourselves. I stood up from my place at the fire and walked over toward them. Several of them jumped up and waved their bats excitedly. I smiled and shrugged and approached the edge of their group. One of them panicked and took off fleeing across the intersection. Several others followed, all of them screaming in adrenal delight. “He’s chasing us! He’s chasing us!” I sat down on the wall and the rest of them ran off also, all but one.
I sat down on the wall a couple arm’s lengths away from him. “Hows it going? You doing ok?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I’m ok.” He spun the bat with it’s tip on the sidewalk, like a top in his hands.
I figured he was nine, ten years old, but I am not a good judge of ages either. His eyes were calm and his clothes and face were clean. I decided he probably was not homeless. He spoke evenly and clearly, was polite and not threatening in any way. Just a kid with a baseball bat.
“You hungry? We got sandwiches, apple juice, hot soup.”
“Nah. I had supper.”
“Ok, that’s cool. Why did the other kids run away?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
I don’t do small chat well, so I sat quietly and looked around at the memorial and the neighborhood. The evening was so mild, the air sweet, even though the neighborhood was in ruins. The building across the street was a burned out eyesore, and the buildings next to the memorial were abandoned and dilapidated. The sky, a little corner to the northwest, was visible, and the settling sun shone with brilliance and beauty on high whispering feathery clouds.
“It’s a beautiful world,” I commented. “Parts of it anyway.”
“Yeah,” he said, “and it is surprising where the beauty shows.”
I smiled. It was an independent thought, added to the discussion, and showed intelligence.
Just then one of the other kids called from up the street, “Hey, come on, lets get out of here. They are chasing us.”
My young man looked up the hill. His friend was half hiding behind the corner of the alley building. “Come on! Come on!” his friend yelled again. “What are you doing?”
He shrugged and didn’t get up or reply. The friend half hidden behind the building looked down the alley, away from our line of sight, and he seemed torn between running and curiosity. Curiosity won. He came out from behind the building and walked toward us, still yelling “Come on! Let’s get out of here!” In a moment or two he was crossing the street, he was in the memorial, he was sitting on the wall next to his friend. “What’s going on?” he said.
I smiled and asked the alley kid if he was hungry. He shook his head but his large wide open eyes were pulled to the table where we set out food and drinks for the neighborhood. He glanced at me and back at the table again. “It’s ok,” I said. “We got p-nut butter and jelly sandwiches. Apple juice.
“Apple juice?” The alley kid was thin, roughly dressed, probably homeless I thought.
“Sure,” I said. “You are welcome to have some if you want.”
He shook his head again but his eyes kept going back to the table.
“Can I bring you something?” The alley boy said no again, eyes wider than ever.
One of the other neighborhood men got up and walked toward us. The alley boy was nervous as a bird but he did not run. The neighborhood man, a person we see nearly every time we go to the memorial, had been drinking but was not stone drunk. He came too close, stood towering over them, addressed the boys gruffly. “What do you kids think you are doing? Why you bring those baseball bats here? Huh? Why you so mouthy?”
“Nothing. We ain’t hurting no body. We was playing baseball a while ago.” The alley kid was trying to shape his immediate future by making up a plausible story. But it wasn’t well turned. It wasn’t going over and the neighborhood man wasn’t buying any. He frowned and tried to look severe, took a moment to think what else he could say to dominate them. The alley kid’s large eyes turned toward me. “Will you protect us?” he said.
That was a crucial moment, and I failed the test. Intellectual instead of in the moment, I thought of safety and the horrible truth that there isn’t any. Sometimes things are tolerable enough to pretend you are safe. Sometimes the cops and the armies and the guns and the drones and the bombs can make you think you are safe. Just as often they are the source of the terror. And no one is really safe, as long as such things are in the world. Will I protect them? With all my heart if I knew any way to do it. “No,” I said. “I can’t. But you are welcome in our circle any time. You are welcome to sit and warm up, have something to eat, talk to us a while if you want to talk.” It wasn’t enough but it is all I have to offer. I will not lie to them.
The neighborhood man made another stern demand and I stepped back, but not far. “I’m right here if you need anything,” I said to the boys. I could see that the man was trying to hold his gruff, but trying even harder not to smile or let the boys off his hook. I went back to the fire. I heard others of the kid gang up the hill, calling to our boys. The two children broke and ran, taking the safety of flight.
The neighborhood man stayed a little while longer and then decided to walk on down the street, away from the direction where the kids had gone. I listened to the laughing-crying woman a while. I listened to the other woman too, the one with the broken rib of many causes. “I fell down the stairs” she said. “I fell asleep in the parking ramp on the stairs, and I fell.” An hour ago she had been telling me her boyfriend was in jail for beating her up, but he didn’t beat her, she just accidently walked into a wall, scuffing up her cheek and forehead, breaking her rib. Ok. I neither believe nor disbelieve the stories I hear at the memorial. Everyone here knows the details are interchangeable. They don’t matter anyway, if they make any sense or no; the terror, the grief, the pain, the helplessness….they are real. They are all real.
After a little while, the kids came back again. This time they approached the table, wary as sparrows, certain that someone would jump up and catch them or chase them away. Then they worked up their nerve. “Can I have a sandwich?” one of them asked. “Certainly. You take what you need.”
It was the alley boy, with several of the others standing near by, but keeping an open path for retreat if need be. He looked with his large eyes wide at the stack of sandwiches. Then he grabbed one and jumped back. No one tried to grab him. He watched us warily as he devoured the food in his hand. The other kids also edged forward, moved in for a sandwich. Someone had brought warm vegetable stew, another had placed triangular sweet flakey rolls on a tray. The kids took what they wanted and moved away to consume it. The alley boy came back again. “Can I have another one for my brother?”
“Sure.” He took one sandwich, looked around, back at the stack. “Take some more if you want,” I said. He took two more and ran. I would have given him all of them. I would have given him so much more. But truth stares hard into my eyes, not mocking me or threatening in any way. Strangely beautiful and oddly placed. I would have given him anything. I would have given him everything. I can’t. If we all lifted together, we could pick up this neighborhood, rebuild and enrich and beautify everything here, including the people. No one can do it alone. But all together, we could work miracles.