I saw my wife and son this evening. My long, personal nightmare is not over, by any means, but holding my family in my arms again feels like heaven. I saw them immediately as I stepped off the train. My fears that my son would forget me evaporated when he pointed in my direction, smiled his toothy grin, and shouted “Daddy!” As my wife walked over to me, though, my son got shy, and buried his head in my wife’s hair. Anne reached out and held me with her free arm.
I had told myself I wasn’t going to cry. I especially didn’t want to do it now, for fear it would scare my son. I wanted him to want me to hold him. As John Tyler held tight to my wife, she encouraged him to give Daddy a hug. Soon, he looked up, in my direction, and extended both his arms to me. I held him with all my might. He put his left hand around my neck, while his right hand patted my back. He turned his head and kissed my neck gently.
I went back on my word, and began sobbing quietly.
I woke up frighteningly cold this morning. For the past four nights, I’ve elected to sleep outdoors, rather than retain my “overflow” cot in the local shelter. My reasons for doing so are many, but the most important is what I call the “culture of defeat” that pervades the shelter.
The shelter residents’ world shrinks rapidly in size, as they become dependant on others to keep them alive. Their world revolves around the little perks and benefits doled out from time to time by those running the shelter. “What 8:00 treat are you going to be serving tonight?” “When are you going to be getting new movies?” “I need new clothes, a new backpack, a cab ride to my doctor . . . can the shelter pay for it?”
The complacence this creates is alarming. Some shelter residents have been there for months, some for years. I imagine it must be what prison is like. Worse, I know that I’m particularly susceptible to this particular Siren. I spent a few months after my last job litigating the landmark case of Ass v. Couch, with a lengthy and costly appeal taking up another month at a friend’s house here in Reston.
I’d rather not fall into that trap again, so “No thank you, very much.”
I arrived at Union Station ninety minutes before my train was scheduled to leave. What can I say? I was really excited to see Anne and John Tyler again. So I picked up a paper, parked myself in a McDonalds in the station, and looked out the window as the snow fell gently in downtown D.C.
Soon, a group of kids I assumed were from Gallaudet took a seat near me. I say I assumed they were from Gallaudet because they were all college-age, they were all deaf, and they all acted as if their deafness was no more a handicap than the color of their hair or eyes. I’ve always respected Gallaudet, and the sense of identity it instills in its students, many of whom are finding themselves in a deaf community for the first time in their lives.
Well, I watched the students from the corner of my eye as I read my paper. Watching sign language practiced in a group is a treat for me. The movements are so incredibly graceful, yet so matter-of-fact, as to approach the sublime. A song came on the station’s loudspeakers –- “True Colors,” by Cindi Lauper. As I watched this beautiful, multi-racial group of deaf college kids enjoying themselves to this soundtrack, I looked around to make sure I hadn’t wandered onto the set of a Kodak commercial.
Then, something happened to remind me that, sometimes, reality has a bias that has nothing to do with being liberal. A homeless woman walked into the restaurant. Being without fixed address myself as of late, I’ve found it easier to spot other homeless persons. But there was no missing this woman.
She was African-American, and her clothing looked to be a coat of many colored rags. That, in and of itself, is unremarkable. But her face looked as though she had applied stage makeup to create designs on her cheeks and jaw. I wasn’t able to tell if this woman had been burned -- and was applying this makeup to cover her disfigurement -- or whether she was simply making herself up because her beleaguered mind thought it was something worthwhile to do.
Either way, it was no matter to me. In my mind, she deserved the respect of not being stared at or made fun of.
But this concept was apparently lost on the Gallaudet kids. I watched in horror as they repeatedly looked over, staring at this woman, while they engaged in a rapid-fire “conversation” about her. Now, I don’t read sign language myself, but some of the signs –- like the sign for “crazy,” for example –- are easy to spot. I couldn’t believe it. Here was a group of kids who’ve undoubtedly suffered discrimination themselves, blatantly ridiculing someone in public. Talk about a pack mentality. And they figured they could get away with it because, what the hell, it was in sign language.
I was glad that the homeless woman was facing away from them. I sat and tried to ignore what was going on until it was time lo leave. As I stood to leave, I saw that the kids were still at it. As I looked back, though, I saw that the woman was now looking at them. She knew.
As I walked to my train, I said a little prayer for that woman, and for those kids.
The train was not full, but it was pretty close. There were no fully empty seats, so my choice came down to who I thought would make a decent seat partner for the five-hour train ride. What I was looking for was someone quiet, who would just let me look out the windows as the train made its way south.
Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers.
The woman I sat next to was named Lynn. She was an attractive, fit, middle-aged woman, maybe 45-50. She had honey-blond hair that looked to be highlighted, not colored, and a tan that, given the lack of wrinkles on her face, I supposed was probably fake. She wore cute little blue, grey and white sneakers, with matching grey socks. I was guessing she was a tennis regular.
Lynn was originally napping when I sat down, but perked up when her cell phone rang. It was one of her sons, I soon surmised. She immediately launched into a spirited discussion about how she hadn’t known that her son had Spring Break free -– he had just broken up with his girlfriend, I found out later -– and how she was faux upset with him because he didn’t make arrangements to spend time with her. The conversation was so warm, so familiar, I found it hard to believe that this was a woman talking to her son. My own family lacks a certain emotional closeness, it’s safe to say, and my own conversations with my mother sound nothing like this.
Well, Lynn soon set her attention on me after she heard me mentioning to Anne that we were passing a hotel she and I stayed in during my last jury trial. As soon as I hung up, Lynn bombarded me with questions. And though I had originally wanted time to myself and my thoughts, I found myself warming to the conversation instantly.
What was your trial about? What kind of law do (did) you practice? Where are you headed? My husband was a defendant in a lawsuit, and it was such a pain. How do you handle it when you have clients you know did it? Why did you decide to leave?
She was invasive, but charmingly so, and I found myself divulging more to a complete stranger than I would to most people I know. And here’s the funny part . . .
As I kept talking to this woman –- a woman with a home, and children, and a real life -– and as she kept talking to me like I was a real person, I found myself feeling less and less like a homeless refugee as the miles passed. I found myself pulling up thoughts and feelings that I haven’t felt in quite a while –- thoughts that had nothing to do with avoiding the police, or with where my next meal was coming from, or with whether I was going to freeze tonight.
I started feeling a little more human again. A little less like I was “just looking” at life, and a little more like I was going to live it again.
I’m staying in a My Name Is Earl motel in Gold Rock, NC, about five miles north of Rocky Mount. I’ll be here until Tuesday, when I’m going to Raleigh to look for work. Until then, I have a bed, and sheets, and a wife and son who sneak away to meet me when they can.
I say “sneak away” because this is kind of a Romeo and Juliet sort of deal. Anne’s living with her folks, and they can’t stand me, so I’m her dirty little secret until I can get back on my feet enough to get my family back together under one roof. Say what you will, but it definitely livens up a five-year marriage.
The three of us went for a walk this evening. My son headed straight for a field that was next to the motel. As we followed him, I looked down. The ground was covered with little bits of cotton.
I had to smile.