Sunday, May 30, 2010

Chapter 2 (begun)

7th Street Court

“Where’s Sally tonight?” he asked Larissa.

“7th Street Court.  Not far.”

He nodded.  It was indeed not far: about a mile, more or less, although with Dotty in tow it would take an hour or more.  But they were in no hurry, of course.  There was no job to be late for, no home with people worrying about them, no schedule to keep at all.  And tomorrow would be pretty much the same as today (Johnny thought), so no need to rush its coming.

They strolled leisurely down and across the mall, past the Smithsonian Guy (Larissa had probably told him a dozen times the name of the man whose statue stood in front of the Castle, and what he had done that was so important other than being the first head of the Smithsonian, but all Johnny could ever remember was that the fellow had two first names and had something to do with electromagnets, so he was always just the Smithsonian Guy to Johnny) and the gothic-style Smithsonian Institute Building, which everyone called “the Castle,” Larissa guiding Dotty along gently but firmly (“perfected the electromagnet,” she said softly to Johnny as they passed the statue), and they certainly weren’t moving at a speed that any sane observer would have referred to as fast, but, considering how long it usually took Johnny to maneuver Dotty through a crowd, this was positively joyous.  No question about it: Larissa was a master Dotty-herder, a fact which Johnny had known but somehow never appreciated until today.  She had taken Johnny’s “Lost Our House” sign and slung it casually over her right shoulder, and her left hand just barely rested on Dotty’s right bicep.  Every once in a while she would lean over to whisper a brief word, or even, Johnny noticed, simply tap a little rhythm on Dotty’s arm with her fingers, and somehow Dotty always did the right thing: smile at a passer-by, stop and stare at her feet sadly, clasp her hands together in front of her as if in prayer, or whatever the situation called for.  Johnny quickly got the hang of it; Larissa worked her magic on Dotty, Dotty worked her magic on the crowd, and Johnny was there with the cup and a soft “thank you” or “God bless.”  And the whole time they moved—slowly but steadily—and there was never any time for Johnny to get caught up in any long conversations or have to invent any more complicated stories.  Larissa never spoke to the crowd: she was no good at being anyone other than Larissa when she opened her mouth, but she was quite plausible at playing mute.  She and Johnny had worked together before, and Johnny knew the drill.  “No, my sister doesn’t really talk.  Yes, my mother takes good care of us.  Thank you so much, I better go catch up with them ...”

Past the carousel, across the scrubby grass to the sculpture garden.  Larissa somehow instinctively knew who would give up the coin and who it was best to just walk on by untried.  The sunshine was warm: though Johnny always considered it fall as soon as August faded into September, it was still technically summer, and there would be many more months before you could count on an inch or so of snow falling and paralyzing the city.  So it was a beautiful day, the crowds were plentiful (must be a weekend day, Johnny thought), and they were on a very pretty, very profitable walk to the 7th Street Court of Whiskey Sally.

section break

Wherever Sally was, the street people would gather.  Many people would bring their problems to the no-nonsense woman famous as much for her mostly iron-grey hair and black woolen fingerless gloves as for her ubiquitous flask of Yukon Jack, and she, for the most part, would solve them.  Which of course is what she was really famous for.  The canonical story on the street was that, once upon a time, Sally had been a social worker, someone whose job it was to help the homeless.  Then, in an ironic twist, she herself had lost her job and her home and ended up on the streets among the very people she sought to aid ... but still she carried on her mission as best she could.  There was a lot to be skeptical of in this movie-of-the-week premise, and Johnny was a naturally skeptical fellow (it was a basic survival skill, as far as he was concerned).  Still, there were a few undeniable facts: Sally had an encyclopedic knowledge of the denizens of the DC streets, and when you brought her a problem, she nearly always had a solution.  And, every night, wherever Sally was, people gathered.

So Sally held court, and the various locations where she spent her evenings, in a pattern that was decipherable to enough of the street people to get around, but never predictable enough to be annoying to any particular landlords or store owners, were known as the Courts.  The 7th Street Court was technically in an alley off of E Street, but it was very near the corner of 7th & E, and besides: the E Street Court was a whole different location, down in Foggy Bottom, between the Red Cross and Riverside Liquors.

So the walk was pleasant.  Past the National Archives and left on 7th, across Pennsylvania, past General Hancock on his horse, down in amongst the pseudo-upscale eateries and the bedraggled-looking clothing stores and almost to the liquor store, then a right on E.  It took roughly two hours to make the walk that Johnny alone could have done in under half an hour, but then again they made quite a bit of coin.  They ducked into the alley as the sun was just starting to set behind them, in the general direction of the White House.

By next month, the 7th Street Court might be adorned with a fire in a metal trashcan, but it was still a bit warm for that now.  There were just a few street people wandering around, seemingly aimlessly.  But Johnny’s practiced eye could easily discern the beginnings of the evening’s festivities.  These were the courtiers, so to speak, some of them with legitimate problems, but most just currying favor.  In general, the early birds were the folks who were a little loopy or a little touchy; if you didn’t have an excuse such as that, Whiskey Sally wouldn’t put up with you hanging around for no good reason.  There was Jimmy the Squid, who was the equivalent of the royal guard.  With his muscular arms and his characteristic squint, he looked almost exactly like a real-life Popeye, but no one would ever call him that.  Sally called him Jimmy the Squid and he had adopted the name, so nearly everyone else called him that as well.  Sometimes people tried out the names that Sally gave them and liked them; mostly Sally’s names were just between her and the individual.  For instance, Sally always called Larissa “Ellie.”  Though Johnny never knew exactly why, he knew that Sally, like Johnny, knew the little girl’s name, but had to keep that quiet when in earshot of others; Johnny himself often called her “L” in such situations, and it seemed a logical enough leap from “L” to “Elle” and thence to “Ellie.”  But no one else ever called her that.

Dotty herself was often in this pack of hangers-on; Sally liked to keep her nearby most of the time.  Said it kept her out of trouble.  And, in fact, Johnny was here to deliver her back to Sally.  He and Larissa took up position on either side of Dotty and escorted her forward.  Jimmy squinted at them, naturally; he needed only a corncob pipe to complete the picture.  He grunted and tilted his head back towards Sally.  They moved forwards past blind old Freefall, who cheerily called out their names as they went by.  “Johnny Hellebore! Dotty! and little Alice!  Come on down, children.”  At least Johnny assumed he meant “children,” although it sounded more like “chirren.”  His head swayed rhythmically back and forth, his filmy eyes staring over their heads.  His heavy navy blue coat was way too big for him, as always.  Johnny mumbled something respectful; Larissa actually reached up and trailed her fingertips across his stubbly chin.  He smiled at them as they passed.

Whiskey Sally herself was sitting on a wooden box, her fists planted on her knees.  She examined the small group quietly and confidently.  She nodded at Larissa.  “Ellie.”  Then likewise at Johnny.  “JB.”

On the one hand it made perfect sense for Sally’s name for Johnny to be JB, because Johnny’s middle name did in fact start with a “B.”  But on the other hand, it made no sense whatsoever, because Johnny never used his middle name.  He had never told it to anyone on the streets, and, like most of the street folks, he had no ID.  His birth certificate had definitely not been one of the things he had taken with him when he left home, and he had never had any reason to get a driver’s license.  (If he was even old enough for a license yet ... Johnny hadn’t exactly been celebrating his birthdays lately.)  So there was no piece of paper from which Sally could have divined his middle name.  Theoretically the social workers had access to it, and he had been in the foster care program a couple of times, so, if the rumors about Sally’s past were true, maybe one of them had told her ... although why it would have ever come up in conversation was a complete mystery.  But Johnny had discovered two things over the past several years: there were many mysteries to life on the streets, and, when you had to worry every day about where your next meal was coming from, those sorts of mysteries weren’t that compelling.

Whiskey Sally turned to look at Dotty, and what might have been the ghost of a smile touched the corners of her mouth.  “And Daisy Jane,” she said, eyeing the other woman.  As far as Johnny knew, there was no “Daisy” in Dotty’s real name, but that was what Sally called her.  “How’d she do?” she asked Johnny.

“Fine.  L helped towards the end.”  Johnny started counting out coins; he offered some to Larissa, but she shook her head firmly.  He made two roughly equal piles on the pavement and pushed one towards Sally.  “This is her cut.”

Sally scooped up the change and the few ragged bills.  “Nice day’s work,” she said.  “Nice spot?”  This was the homeless version of polite chitchat; Johnny knew that Sally had absolutely no interest in the actual answer to this question, so he just nodded.  “Anything else I can do for you?”

Johnny shook his head.  “No ma’am,” he said.  She looked over at Larissa and arched an eyebrow.  The blonde waif turned up her hands, palms out, and gave the older woman a wide-eyed stare.  Sally nodded with a wry grin.

“Come on Daisy Jane,” she said kindly to Dotty.  Larissa stroked the woman’s upper arm again and whispered something in her ear.  Dotty seemed to wake up out of a trance.  “My Sally!” she said excitedly, as if she had just now spotted her.  “That’s right, old girl,” said Sally kindly, taking her arm and leading her down further into the alley.


Sunday, May 23, 2010

Feathery, Furry, & Scaly Children

Of course the obvious title would be “Pets Are People Too,” but that would be cliché. It’s a shame how that happens: a meme becomes meaningless through overuse, tired to our ears. We’re convinced that the person saying it is just mindlessly repeating a popular phrase. To look at it from both sides, I can tell you that when I first learned C++ after years of C, there is little way to describe the process that went on in my brain other than “paradigm shift,” and it irks me to know that people will dismiss that as buzzworditis; on the other hand, if I hear one more actor/director/scriptwriter say that the house/city/car in their movie has become “another character,” I think I shall scream. So I am both bothered and completely sympathetic to your likely reaction if I were to say that pets are people too. Thus, I shall attempt to avoid doing so, even though it neatly encapsulates my message.

I heard an interesting story on the radio the other day, about a journalist who was writing a book about his recent experience adopting a new dog. He and his wife, apparently, had chuckled often over their friends who had gone “dog crazy,” doing such things as searching for organic dogfood and taking their canines to pet therapists. “We won’t ever be that ridiculous,” they vowed. And, of course, soon after they brought the dog home, they found themselves the butt of similar jokes from their dogless friends, as they navigated dogpark politics and received prescriptions for canine separation anxiety.

It gives me a bit of hope. I continue to believe that most people who disdain the concept of pets—two of whom are pretty good friends of mine—just lack experience ... that, if by some miracle you could convince them to actually bring home an animal, their whole outlook would change. At least I have to hope so. Because the problem is, people who don’t like animals always strike me as a bit ... creepy. I’ll never forget describing the first person I had a business-partner-like relationship with to my then girlfriend: “Does he have children?” she asked. No, I replied. “What pets does he have?” was her next question. Actually, I told her, he doesn’t like pets, really. “I don’t trust him,” she replied immediately. And, as it turns out, that wasn’t a wholly inaccurate assessment.

At least my two pet-hating friends both have children. But that bothers me too. As a child, I had a rather large proliferation of pets: dogs, hamsters, parakeets, tropical fish, and a turtle or two. And I learned quite a lot from them. I learned the hard way that if you don’t feed them, they die, and if you don’t love them, they turn mean on you. I learned about unconditional love, mutual respect, and vague tolerance. I had richer relationships with my various pets than with most of the other humans I knew. Some people will think that’s sad. But I in turn feel sad for them, because apparently they never experienced the uncomplicated relationship between child and animal; they’ve missed something fundamental in their lives, and it may be too late for them to ever have it now. I hope not, though.

Being the father of various dogs and hamsters and, later, cats and ferrets, made me a better father to my human children. Being responsible for small furry lives prepared me for being responsible for my biological offspring, and whatever balance I’ve managed to achieve between permissiveness and discipline was given to me by interaction with carnivores, not primates. Most of my opinions on how to introduce yourself to new people was formed from hard lessons on how to approach unfamiliar canines and birds and rodents. Cats taught me not to be pushy; ferrets taught me to play every day, no matter how old you are; pythons taught me how to relax and enjoy someone’s body heat; fish taught me that, sometimes, you just need to stop and watch people drift around for a while, and it mellows you out. One of the most common things I hear no-pet-parents say is that pets will die and they don’t want to put their children through that. But what a silly sentiment! As if you could protect your children from experiencing death indefinitely. Most of what I know about death I learned from animals, and I can tell you I’m stronger for it. Could I have dealt with the deaths of my grandparents, who started checking out shortly before my 18th birthday and finally finished up shortly before my 41st, nearly as well as I did without the experience my pets had given me? I don’t believe so. And I believe my own children are better prepared for whatever human deaths they will inevitably have to face in years to come because of the ferrets and cats they’ve had to bury.

Over the years, I’ve had as roommates cats, dogs, ferrets, rabbits, hamsters, guinea pigs, rats, parakeets, chickens, squirrels, iguanas, geckos, pythons, turtles, goldfish, freshwater tropicals (including fish, frogs, snails, shrimp, crabs, crayfish, and rubber eels), crickets, and sea monkeys (although those last two admittedly can double as pet food). Some were my children; some were children of my human roommates that I just babysat for occasionally. I found the rabbits too mean, the goldfish too messy, and the birds too much effort to bond with—and I certainly don’t recommend you adopt wild animals such as squirrels like my mother was wont to do—but other than those few misfires I loved them all in various ways and in various measures (and, to be honest, I even loved the bunnies and parakeets, sort of). They all had their distinct personalities and their individual quirks and their strengths and weaknesses, and they were nearly all capable of showing affection, even the ones that are cold-blooded. When your python snuggles around your shoulders to give you a hug, or when a tank full of tropicals suddenly rushes excitedly towards you when they see you coming, you can explain those reactions in stark zoological terms: the snake is seeking body heat to warm himself up, and the fish have come to associate you with food. Sure, those things are true, but if those reactions also cause you to smile and feel appreciated and loved, who cares?

When I hear someone talk about a person who treats their dogs (or other pets) “as if they were their children,” I can only shake my head sadly. They are their children, and the speaker has missed it. In my experience, having a blind spot sooner or later leads to a crash, and not understanding how to interact with the living creatures that outnumber us by over a million to one—on the basis of quantity of species alone, not even considering raw numbers—that seems like a pretty big blind spot to me. If all animals are to you is food, or amusing child-substitutes for people who don’t know any better, or just generally inferior lifeforms, I think you’re missing something fundamental in life, and while it does occasionally frustrate me, more often it just saddens me. Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not a PETA proponent. I still eat animals sometimes, and wear them sometimes. I believe that we exist as a part of nature, and nature’s way certainly includes creatures exploiting each other for food and other purposes. But that doesn’t preclude seeking comfort in the company of other living creatures, regardless of their species.

Your human children come to you even more helpless, even less able to reason when you first acquire them, even more dependent on you for food and shelter, but somehow the animals are the “inferior” ones. If something happens to one of my human children, everyone understands and respects my need for time off. If something happens to one of my furry children, it’s “just a cat.” As if that makes it any easier.

If you’re one of the people I’m describing, perhaps you should consider adopting an animal. Perhaps when you bring home that singular life, and experience being solely responsible for its welfare, share its love and affection which is so similar to that you receive from your human children, yet so different as well, perhaps then you can understand what it is you’ve been missing in your life thus far. Or perhaps I’m wrong (that does happen a lot) and there are just different people in the world, and some of them just don’t see animals the way I do. But I suppose you’ll never know unless you try. Maybe one day you’ll discover that pets are people too.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Last Unanswered Prejudice

Now, I don’t mean to claim that things like racism, sexism, or anti-Semitism, are cured, by any means, but I think it’s fair to say the majority of Americans (who are all I can claim knowledge of) at least understand that these things are wrong. Sure, we still have our pockets of skinheads and Klansmen, but, like any virulent disease, moronity will never be completely stamped out. And I think that even those people who actually manifest those isms—even some of those same skinheads and Klansmen—still realize that it’s wrong. They do it anyway, but they know they’re being hateful. They just don’t care. Homophobia is tougher: I think there are still people who honestly believe they’re decent human beings even while denigrating large chunks of the population they’ve never met. But, still, we’ve come a long way since Anita Bryant.

But I do think there’s an area of bigotry that is still largely unconscious on the part of a significant majority of Americans (and probably other nationalities as well). It’s ageism. And I don’t mean discrimination against the elderly: while that turns up in isolated areas of our society, I think for the most part we show a good deal of respect for our oldest members, and, when we don’t, we know we’re being pond scum. But what about when we dismiss the other end of the spectrum? What about when we ignore the rights of children?

Because children should be seen and not heard, right? Their opinions don’t really matter until they turn 18. Well, we hear their opinions, but of course they’re immature. They can’t be expected to make decisions for themselves: that’s what we adults are for. When we have debates about education in this country, do we invite the opinions of those who will be overwhelmingly impacted by whatever decisions are made? No, because they have no idea what’s good for them. But we do.

Sure, I’m deliberately trying to be provocative. But does that make what I’m saying wrong? Are you saying to yourself right now: sure, when you put it that way, it sounds bad ... but, really, all those things are true. I think most of you are (and, if you’re not, you can pack it up right now; you’re definitely not my intended audience). I think most of you have a fundamental blind spot that you don’t even notice. But maybe I can point it out.

We, as a society, have decided that there are certain privileges that require a certain level of responsibility for bestowal: driving, voting, drinking, watching R-rated movies, etc. Now whether we should require it is irrelevant to my point (and, really, I’m not against the requirement per se, although perhaps I might disagree with the level in certain cases); let’s just take that as given. Now, when we say “responsibility,” what we’re talking about here is maturity. You need to have a certain level of maturity to cast a rational vote in our democratic electoral process, let’s say. Okay, fine, I’ll agree to that. Let’s assume we’ve already had our battle over what level of maturity we will require and we’ve settled on ... something.

The next question is: how do enforce this rule we’ve agreed to? We need to find a way to keep people who don’t meet our agreed-upon level of maturity out of the voting club. (And, let’s not fool ourselves: we’re creating an exclusionary club here. We have very good reasons, perhaps, but that doesn’t change what we’re doing.) Well, in order to exclude the people who don’t have the right level of maturity, we first have to determine who they are. That means we need to be able to measure maturity. But how do you measure maturity?

Well, perhaps we could design a test. A test in which the answers would reveal how mature the test-taker actually was. The questions would be controversial, as would the interpretation of the answers. And history shows us the likely outcome: it will be used to discriminate against whatever group is out of favor with whatever governmental agency is chosen to administer it, possibly even differing from location to location. So that’s out. Really, any subjective measurement is going to be suspect. But there isn’t any objective way to measure maturity.

So we look for correlations. The closest correlation to maturity is experience. That is, the more experience a person has, the more likely they are to be mature. Note that I do not say that more experienced people are always more mature. There are still people in the world who, for reasons ranging from mental disability to experiential trauma to just plain stubbornness, aren’t any good at converting experience to maturity. But at least we can say that a lack of experience practically guarantees a lack of maturity.

So we just need to count a person’s experiences, and then we’ll agree on how many formative experiences are required before a person is ready to vote. We might quibble over the definition of “formative” in this case, but there’s no point, as we have a much bigger problem: how can you count the number of experiences a person has had? You weren’t there. For any given individual, there is no other single person who can recount every minute of their life. And, since we often have formative experiences when there’s no one else around to report on it, we can’t even tot them up by consulting a variety of different people. And, even if we could, it just isn’t practical.

So let’s look for correlations again. What is required to gain experience? Well, experiences take time, certainly, so the more time you’ve been around in this life, the more experiences you’ve had ... probably. And, the shorter amount of time you’ve been around, the fewer experiences you’ve had ... again, probably. It’s a bit rough, but, you know, given the age of a person, we could speculate on how much experience they’ve had, and consequently how mature they are. And age is absolutely objective, and easy to determine, because of birth certificates and driver’s licenses and other forms of identification. So, voilà, problem solved. We just decide on an age ... let’s see ... how about 18? Yeah, that works.

So now we have a system where, one day, you’re not considered responsible enough to vote (or to be held responsible for crimes you commit, or to marry without your parents’ consent, or even to have sex), then you go to sleep, and you wake up the next day, and bam! you’re good to go. All that responsibility and maturity just popped into your head overnight. Obviously that’s one hell of a night’s sleep you got there, conferring all that responsibility on you in one fell swoop.

Aside from the patent ridiculousness of being mature enough one day but not the day before (and, if you think about it hard enough, you’re actually mature enough one second but not the second before), we’ve also completely forgotten that age has nothing to do with what we’re actually trying to measure here. Age is, in fact, twice removed from what we really wanted to measure, and the correlations were spotty to begin with. I’m not saying that the law should be written another way—law often forces us to make unpalatable compromises, and this is just one of them—but judging a person by how old they are is inherently flawed.

Now, I sense that many people will not be convinced by this argument, particularly if they are parents of younger children. Johnny Depp once compared very young children to drunks: they stumble around and bump into things, and they throw up a lot. Surely no one in his right mind would entrust anything serious to such a being? People in that state can’t be responsible for what they do, or what they say. And that’s true, as far as it goes. But that period of childhood is, after all, relatively short. I think that, as parents, we get stuck in that mindset; we continue to see our children as those miniature drunks long after they’ve grown out of it. Or perhaps we look back at our own childhood and remember all the stupid things we did, and are fearful of trusting children because of it. But ask yourself honestly: did you magically stop doing stupid things when you turned 18? Didn’t you do some stupid things at 25, or at 45, or even at 65? Does that make your opinion invalid?

Perhaps it is true that an average “child” (however you decide to define that term) is less mature than the average “adult.” But imagine if you were reading a scientific study, and you ran across the statement that, statistically, most Japanese tourists wear cameras around their necks. Or that, on average, women don’t have as much physical strength as men. Or that black people statistically claim to enjoy watermelon or fried chicken more than white people do. Forget whether such statements might have any basis in provable fact: would you be offended by such statements, particularly if you were a member of the group in question? In fact, being in a scientific study would likely make it even more offensive: if it were a statement by someone up on stage in a comedy club, you might laugh (especially if you and the performer shared membership in the group at hand). But, as a serious statement, regardless of veracity, you would be offended. But the original statement—that children are, on average, less mature than adults—that didn’t offend you, did it? Possibly you nodded your head in agreement when I made the assertion. All this despite the fact that, as already discussed, maturity isn’t measurable and therefore the statement can’t possibly be proven one way or the other.

I’m always deeply suspicious of people who make decisions for children, their own or those of others, “for their own good.” Such decisions are nearly always made without ever consulting any actual children. We, as adults, seem full of secret knowledge about what children want and need and deserve. We do have one advantage that men making decisions about women or heterosexuals making decisions about homosexuals, lack: we were all once children. But I’m not sure that’s sufficient. We’re still making decisions about other people. When men make decisions about women (at least in modern times), they at least allow the women to say something about it (usually). Theoretically, they even listen to them. Even men making decisions for other men will generally not assume that, just because they share a gender, they automatically know what’s best for them. Yet how many children are allowed to speak at school board meetings, or are seriously considered even if they do speak? How many legislators, or psychologists, or authors, consult children before they pass their laws or make their recommendations or write their books about how children should be “allowed” to act?

Perhaps it’s not taxation without representation, but it’s certainly something without representation. Children (as if one word could encompass the myriad of human beings between birth and age 18) have opinions, and desires, and worldviews, and thoughts both deep and shallow, just like all the rest of us. Yes, often they are unformed and require guidance, but that is true of the rest of us as well. The only real difference that I see is that children seem more likely to recognize that their opinions are unformed; we adults often forget that we don’t know everything, and so our opinions are just as likely to be silly and pointless. Children are still learning, and they know it. Adults, on the other hand, are also still learning ... but sometimes we forget that crucial fact.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Chapter 1 (concluded)


Larissa was the one person Johnny might have called a friend.  Most of the social workers just called her “Alice,” probably because her stringy blonde hair and wide eyes, combined with a deep innocence and a tendency to verbally wander into odd locations—she never babbled, precisely, she just made you feel you weren’t following the conversation she was having at the moment—all called to mind a connection with Lewis Carroll’s young heroine.  She seemed the right age too: she was probably somewhere between eight and ten when Johnny first met her, shortly after he arrived on the streets—must be two or three years ago by now—so she was probably somewhere in the general neighborhood of twelve.  Her eyes were faraway most of the time, as you might imagine Alice’s would have been as she sat on that bank, making daisy chains, just before the white rabbit came along and caught her attention.  And when her eyes would suddenly sharpen, you felt that she had just noticed the pocket watch that you were completely oblivious to.

Of course, the social workers called her Alice mainly because they had no idea that her real name was Larissa.  Very few of the street people knew it—Johnny could probably count on one hand the ones he was allowed to use that name in front of.  When most people asked her her name, she either stared blankly, or answered a completely different question, such as “The largest city in 2,000 BC was Ur, in Chaldea, although of course it was part of Sumeria at that time.  That was where King Amar-Sin tried to build the Tower of Babel, while Mentuhotep II was reuniting the Middle Kingdom and the Minotaur roamed Crete.”  Then she would generally stop and look expectantly at the person who had asked, as if she fully expected them to continue this discussion of bronze age history.  Occasionally someone would be foolish enough to persist in asking for her name; this inevitably produced ever more byzantine and nonsensical answers, delivered in a tone that suggested that the other person might be a little thick, such as “Well, obviously 3.86 times 10 to the 33rd ergs per second at an intensity of 1,370 watts per square meter results in a distance of a little over 93 million miles before it drops below the hearing threshold, so the distance is within physical parameters, but obviously your question depends on just how loud the sun can scream, which is a completely unknowable factor.”  The coolest thing about this, from Johnny’s perspective, was that she could keep it up far longer than the patience of any known social worker or religious volunteer could possibly last.  The person who  held the record (and the stories of it were legendary among the street denizens) was a psychiatrist, or psychologist—who could tell the difference?—who traded obscure knowledge with “Alice” for nearly two hours before he finally admitted defeat.  Larissa, of course, had looked like she was ready to go all night.

That was one of the nice things about not having a job or a home or a family, in Johnny’s opinion: you were never in a hurry to finish anything.  You could always take your time and do it right.  Larissa seemed to share this view, particularly when it came to discussions of arcane trivia.

He had met her on his first visit to the 9th Street Shelter, one of the few places where it was safe to appear without having to rope in someone like Dotty to pose as a parent: trying to sleep at many of the local shelters would get you picked up by social services and shipped off to an orphanage or foster home somewhere.  Which was annoying, as then you had to expend all that energy to get out again.  So he had heard about this shelter where there were no questions asked, and he had cautiously checked it out.  He found several people his age, and younger even, so it seemed it was indeed safe.  The folks who ran it were friendly in an absent sort of way: they had been doing it so long, Johnny figured, that they had realized the futility of trying to get to know anyone.  They were obligated by law, of course, to report unaccompanied children on the streets, but they barely looked at their clientele, so you could skate by if you were quiet and seemed to know what you were doing and where you were going.  The 15-year-olds could pose as 18, even if no one really believed that, but when you were 9, or however young that stringy-haired blonde waif in the corner talking to Whiskey Sally was, you just had to look like your mom was “over there” somewhere.

Larissa had been sitting on a cot staring into space when he came to claim his own tiny bed.  “You’re Johnny,” she pronounced decisively.  He stared at her for a second, but then he realized that of course Whiskey Sally knew everyone on the streets, and certainly knew him.  Obviously Sally had told her who he was, that was all.

“Yeah, I’m Johnny,” he answered cautiously.  In Johnny’s situation, you did nearly everything cautiously, if you wanted to survive.

The little blonde girl lowered her voice conspiratorially.  “I’m Larissa,” she whispered.  “But you mustn’t tell anyone.”

A brief pause.  “Unless they already know, of course,” she added.  “Standard non-disclosure contractual rules apply.”

And that was how he met Larissa.  In all the time afterwards, Johnny never knew her to reveal her name to anyone else on first meeting them, and he eventually came to feel sort of honored by it.  She was such a strange little girl that it was difficult to feel affectionate towards her, exactly, but Johnny did begin to feel protective towards her.  It would have been too simplistic to imagine that he thought of her as the little sister he never had, but they looked out for each other, and that was something.

To the Surface

And so it was that when Johnny heard a young girl’s voice criticizing his recall of bible verses, he had no need to turn around.  “Yeah, I was close enough, though, right?  I think I could have pulled him in even better if I could have figured out what sort of ethnic group to pin on my ‘mechanics.’”  He turned and saw her clear hazel eyes staring intently at the corner around which the CCF had disappeared.

“Hispanics,” she pronounced decisively.

“Oh, yeah?” he asked, a bit crestfallen.  “I was so sure it would be black guys.”  There was no need to question whether she was right in her assessment.  Larissa was always right.  “Well, good thing I didn’t try it then.”  He sighed.  “But, still,” he said, brightening a bit and smiling slightly at her, “it worked out, right?”

She arched an eyebrow at him.  “If you hadn’t gotten on your knees, it would have gotten ugly.  That was somewhat inspired.”

This was what passed for a glowing compliment from Larissa.  “Hey, thanks, man,” Johnny shot back.  “Want to give me a hand with Dotty?  I think it might be time to move along, if you know what I mean.”

Larissa turned her gaze back on Johnny.  “Oh, undoubtedly.”  She unfolded her arms and stepped over to Dotty.  Taking each of her hands in one of her own, the small, thin figure bent to whisper in the older woman’s ear.  Johnny collected the sign and the cup—he was pleased to see that the money had continued to come in while he had been distracted—and scanned the edges of the crowd, looking for cops, transit or otherwise.  Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Dotty swing her head around slightly, and he thought he heard Larissa murmur something with “Jane” in it.  The vacant half-smile never left Dotty’s face, but Johnny was sure he saw her nod slightly, then she got up and followed Larissa up the escalator.  Johnny smiled to himself.  Larissa was a good person to have your back.  Blending seamlessly into the crowd, he let the escalator take him up to the warm autumn sunshine of the National Mall.


Sunday, May 2, 2010

Chapter 1 (begun)


Had you asked anyone who knew of him, they would have told you that the day Johnny Hellebore’s life began to unravel was surely the day shortly after his thirteenth birthday, when he came home to find police cars in his driveway and his father in handcuffs.  His mother was hysterical, flailing and beating at the arms of the uniformed men leading her husband away, as other men and women tried vainly to restrain her.  The man with his hand on Johnny’s father’s shoulder was a large man, a man with a stony, impassive face, and he took no notice of the madwoman thumping his back with her fists.  He did not smile, or frown, or speak: he just moved the sad little man with the goatee that Johnny occasionally referred to as “Dad” down the driveway to a waiting cruiser.  Johnny remembered thinking that the cop should have a moustache.  He wasn’t sure why; just seemed like that big face needed one.  He never found out that policeman’s name, but he never forgot his face ... even long after his father’s own face was fuzzy in his memories.

But perhaps you won’t think it so unusual to imagine Johnny forgetting what his father looked like if I tell you that Johnny rarely saw the man, even before the police came and took him away for bank fraud.  Johnny’s family was very well-off (although not, as it turned out, honestly so), and his father worked, and his mother drank.  Occasionally, if they were feeling particularly saucy, his father would go on business trips and his mother would take designer drugs instead.  But these were minor deviations.

Johnny, like many children of the obscenely rich, was raised by a nanny, a dark-skinned woman named Amiira.  He remembered her as kind, intelligent, observant; deferential to his parents, as a good servant should be; but stern with him, strict yet loving, as a good parent should be.  Anyone who actually knew him would have said that Johnny’s life actually began unraveling the day that Amiira disappeared ... or would have said, if there had been anyone left who truly knew him.

So on that day when Johnny came home to find his comfortable if strangely detached life in shambles in his driveway, that day when his mother would not stop crying and screaming, or even look at him, that day when the servants stared at the ground and shuffled their feet in uncertainty or fear and slowly stepped aside whenever he or his mother came near, already distancing themselves from the people that they innately sensed were no longer their employers, on that particular day when Johnny should have been in despair over the crumbling of his family’s fortune, he felt little.  He felt no surprise, really, because his father had never been honest with him, so why should he have been honest with his business partners?  He certainly felt no sympathy for the woman with the red-rimmed eyes who had given birth to him: he knew that she cried not for the loss of her husband, but for the loss of her income, and possibly for the loss of her sanity, if she were thinking clearly enough to recognize it.  Which, in retrospect, she probably wasn’t.

And so Johnny Hellebore, barely 13, pale and slight, with his watery blue eyes that sometimes appeared green, depending on what he was wearing (“cat’s eyes,” Amiira had called them), slightly tall for his age, with his thick, unruly mane of raven black hair, left the chaos in his driveway and went upstairs to his room to gather those few of his belongings which he felt were precious, because he knew that he might have to leave soon.  And, as it turned out, he was right.

section break

The streets of Washington DC, like the streets of any large city in the United States, are filled with those people who live in the margins of society.  They are commonly referred to as “homeless,” as if a such a simple label can encompass all the myriad reasons why people choose to—or do so without choosing—live without a permanent address, sleeping in shelters or on park benches or in subway stations, or on the trains themselves, moving from place to place seemingly without purpose.  Some have left mental institutions, or been kicked out due to lack of funding, and some have lost their jobs and then their homes when they could no longer afford their rent, and some are criminals, moving from petty theft to petty theft around the city, and some are disabled veterans down on their luck, and some are veterans who are not so much disabled as changed by their experiences in such a fundamental way as to preclude holding down a normal job, and some are people whose fondness for addictive substances has gotten the better of them, and some are people who have grown disgusted with the consumerism that surrounds them and have just quietly dropped out of the rat race in protest.  And at least one was born to a life of privilege that ended abruptly in an affluent suburban Maryland driveway.

In the Metro

Johnny recognized the smiling young man coming towards him immediately: not as a specific individual, but as a general type.  He was what Jimmy the Squid would call a CCF—a crazy Christian fuck.  Not that all Christians were CCFs, of course: only a very small minority qualified.  Johnny could not have said what tipped him off to this; there was something in the beatific smile, a certain way of walking, an intense light behind the eyes ... something that warned Johnny of impending conversion.

Johnny was minding his own business, scrounging for change.  He had his super-size McDonald’s cup (very durable, those), his sign proclaiming “Lost Our House,” a fantastic spot at the bottom of the escalator at the Smithsonian station, and his “mother,” which part today would be played by crazy old Jane Sarin, who was commonly known as Dotty, for obvious reasons.  Dotty was a favorite mother for the street urchins because she was crazy in a very quiet and pleasant way, and she generally stayed where you put her.  Plus she wasn’t so old as to strain credulity, which was important to maintain the illusion for the audience.

Different people on the streets had different attitudes about panhandling.  For many it was just de rigueur.  For others, it was disdained: Johnny knew many who wouldn’t accept coins even when they were offered without solicitation.  Even among those who did it, there were vastly different philosophies on how to go about it.  There were a few who believed in being confrontational, some who believed in saying “God bless you” rather than “thank you,” some who believed it should be approached like a con: you didn’t just sit off to the side begging, you went up to people, started talking, let them know how down on your luck you’d been recently, make it personal, and the money would come.  This latter method required a much larger time investment, of course, but then the payoff was much bigger (when it paid off at all).  Johnny, though, was a fellow who believed in the basics: get a nice heart-wrenching sign, a big cup for loose change, plant yourself at a busy intersection looking pitiful, and the people would pay not to have to look at you.  It was satisfyingly transactional: you offered a service (guilt alleviation), and a compelling pitch (all it takes is your pocket change!), and you dealt in quantity to offset the small margins.

Had it been a social worker coming, Johnny would have disappeared into the crowd and left Dotty to take the rap (this was not quite as cold as it seemed, since Dotty was so lost in her own world that it was essentially impossible for her to be “in trouble”), but, as it was just a CCF, he only moved in front of Dotty to intercept him before the man could get to her.  While it might be amusing to watch people batter their intellects on the breakers of Dotty’s solipsism, it was inevitable that the upstanding citizen would want to find someone to “help” her, which meant having her locked up somewhere long enough for the guy to lose interest so that whichever agency had her could cut her loose.  Which, again, was irrelevant from Dotty’s perspective (since she had absolutely no clue where she was at any given moment, she could care less if she was “locked up”; she probably never even noticed), but it meant depriving dozens of street kids of a perfectly usable mother, which could easily mean tough days on the streets for Johnny until he was forgiven.  If he had to, he’d take off, but one CCF he figured he could handle.

The soft but spooky light in the man’s eyes shifted easily from the “mother” to the “child.”  “Hello, my son,” he said to Johnny.  “What’s your name?”

“Johnny.”  Johnny kept his eyes lowered: while there were some creatures you needed to look in the eye if you didn’t want to invite pursuit, in general it was smart to avoid a direct challenge with an unfamiliar beast.

“Johnny what?” the man continued.  His voice was soft, but Johnny couldn’t help but believe there was something underneath, and it scared him a little.

Being among those street people who had no fear of being “identified,” Johnny nearly always used his actual last name.  “Johnny Hellebore,” he replied.

“Hellebore?”  The crazy light faded a bit, and the man sounded puzzled.  “That’s a weird name.”

A bit surprised, Johnny looked up at the man’s face.  His eyes were narrowed slightly.  Was there suspicion in his expression?  Perhaps the fact that Johnny’s last name contained the syllable “Hell” offended his religious sensibilities.  Johnny swallowed a snort.

“It’s a flower.  Also called a Christmas rose.”  See, Johnny could play the game.  Get Christmas into it, and then we can have a nice chat about Jesus and how he’s my personal savior and yes, I have accepted him into my heart and been born again and Praise Jesus! and all that and then I can get back to my cup and you can go find someone else to save.

The man still looked suspicious.  “A flower, eh?  Well, I never heard of a name like that.”  This latter was stated almost as a challenge.  Johnny snuck another glance at the man’s face; no real danger yet.  He opened his mouth to reply, but then realized that there was no safe reply to this.  He tried out a cock-eyed grin and a shrug.

The man gave an exasperated sigh, but faintly: clearly he hadn’t really been expecting Johnny to rise to this bait.  Hoping, perhaps, but not expecting.  “Well, son, I need to speak to your mother for a moment.”  He made as if to push past Johnny.

Johnny shifted his weight to the other foot, which just so happened to put him even more in the man’s way.  Ever so carefully now, he thought.  “Yes, sir, of course, sir.  My mother’s name is Jane.”  The man loooked confused at this; obviously he had moved past “what’s your name” and was well onto “if you don’t want to burn in the eternal fires of Hell.”  Johnny continued on innocently, still not looking the man directly in the eye.  “She and I came up from North Carolina after our house burned down in a fire.”  He considered putting a little Carolinian accent in there for good measure (“fire” could easily become “fahr”), but decided it was too late for that.  “A lot of the town burned up as well; our church got burned up too, you see, and our pastor, Pastor Frank, he was so busy trying to help everyone that we decided that we needed to get out from underfoot, you know? and so we prayed on it, and then Momma said that God had showed her what to do and that we needed to come up north to visit her cousin”—Johnny dared to take a little breath at this point, because he could see he had hooked the man solid—“because cousin Edna, she always been a God-fearin’ woman, and she don’t have much money, but Momma said that don’t matter, on account of the Lord will provide, you know sir? and we got most of the way there (cousin Edna’s up in western Pennsylvania, which I reckon is not too much further) and then the car broke down, and those Godless mechanics” (Johnny nearly gave the Godless mechanics a racial epithet, but he couldn’t quite tell what this man’s flavor of  prejudice might be, and he didn’t want to risk it) “they want more’n the car’s worth, even, for us to get it back, so we’re down here praying right now, hoping the Lord Jesus will show us the way again, and, sir, I just know He will, ’cause seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness, and all things shall be given unto you and take no thought for the morrow, for the morrow shall take care of itself, am I right sir?”  The man blinked in surprise; Johnny knew he’d mangled the verse a bit, but apparently not enough to make it unrecognizable.  “Yes, sir, I know you understand what I’m saying, and my momma is prayin’ on it right now, you see sir?”  Johnny gestured vaguely behind him and hoped Dotty was staring vacantly at the ceiling—it was a fair chance she would be—and apparently the man bought it, from the look in his eyes when he glanced at her.  “So if you wouldn’t mind sir, just kneeling down here with me to pray with us ...”  Johnny dropped to his knees, put his hand on the man’s arm, and started tugging at his sleeve.  The man looked alarmed now: apparently his plans to save some souls in the subway today did not include getting his pants dirty.

“No, I ... son, I’m going to take your message of need back to my own congregation now, and put the mighty power of prayer to work for you and your mother, with many more devout souls than we could muster here in this place.”

Johnny tried to put the same feverish light in his own eyes that he’d seen in the man when he first started coming this way; Johnny doubted he was a good enough actor to equal the task, but the man’s own light had dimmed a bit, so perhaps it was sufficient.  “Would you sir?  Truly you are blessed of the Lord.”  Johnny made sure to give “blessed” two syllables.  “I thank Jesus for working through your vessel.”

“Yes, son, of course, my pleasure ...”  The man wasn’t really making much sense by this point, but he was walking steadily backwards, so it didn’t much matter.  Johnny stayed on his knees with his hands clasped together in front of him until the man turned the corner, then he got up, rubbing his knees where he’d cracked them on the stone floor of the station.

“Very nicely done,” said a small voice from behind him.  “Although your mastery of Matthew 6:33-34 needs a bit of polishing.  I assume that was the King James version you were trying to quote?”

Johnny didn’t need to turn around.  “Hey, Larissa,” he said, dusting off his ragged jeans.  “How’s it going?”