Saturday, November 10, 2012

`I Never Remembers a Dream'

Twenty-five years ago this month, while researching a series on homelessness for my newspaper in Albany, N.Y., I spent a night in a shelter in that city. I remember two events: watching The Cosby Show with a group of the shelter’s guests, and being woken in the middle of the night when the man in the next bunk had a seizure and the EMTs took him away. Earlier that year in Albany I had covered the filming of William Kennedy’s Ironweed, a novel about Francis Phelan and other homeless residents of that city in 1938. By the time I was watching Bill Cosby, I thought I’d had enough of cheap ironies, but a month after my night in the shelter I was covering the premiere of Ironweed at a theater a couple of blocks away. These linked memories came back as I read Joshua Mehigan’s “At the Men’s Mission”:

“How many sons-of-bitches no one loves,
with long coats on in June and beards like nests—
guys no one touches without Latex gloves,
squirming with lice, themselves a bunch of pests,
their cheeks and noses pocked like grapefruit rind—
fellas with permanent shits and yellowish eyes
who, if they came to in the flowers to find
Raphael there, could not be otherwise—
have had to sit there listening to some twat
behind a plywood podium in the chapel
in a loose doorman suit the color of snot,
stock-still except his lips and Adam’s apple,
telling them how much Jesus loves the poor
before they got their bread and piece of floor?”

Spend time among the homeless and lingering romanticism about them fades, if your eyes and nose are open and your thinking is cant-free. It helps to see people, not cases; men and women, not specimens. I had dealings with those like the Bible-thumping “twat” described by Mehigan, and they’re little better than most of the pathological do-gooders. This week I also read Alexandra Mullen’s “Mining the Ash Heap,” about Henry Mayhew’s great four-volume London Labour and the London Poor, a work I’ve periodically reread since a friend introduced me to it in 1975. Mayhew (1812-1887) did most of his reporting in the 1840s for the Morning Chronicle, published the work in three volumes in 1851 and added a fourth volume a decade later. Today, we’d call him an oral historian. His subtitle is “A Cyclopedia of the Conditions and Earnings of Those That Will Work. Those That Cannot Work, and Those Who Will Not Work.”  Go here to see an engraving of the Asylum for the Houseless Poor at Cripplegate, included by Mayhew in his book. And here’s an excerpt from the first volume, from the section titled “Of an Orphan Boy, a Street-Seller”: 

“Most likely I should then go to a lodging-house. I don't know that some on 'em's bad places. I've heer'd they was jolly. I has no amusements. Last year I helped a man one day, and he did so well on fruit, he did so, for he got such a early start, and so cheap, that he gave me 3d. hextra to go to the play with. I didn't go. I'd rather go to bed at seven every night than anywhere else. I'm fond of sleep. I never wakes all night. I dreams now and then, but I never
remembers a dream. I can't read or write; I wish I could, if it would help me on. I'm making 3s. 6d. a week now, I think. Some weeks in winter I didn't make 2s.”

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