These were the times that truly tested the fortitude of our downtrodden and fragile spirits. As we gathered around the fire, burning ever so violently and with the charge of spent fossil fuels in that dented and rusted fifty-five gallon drum, we contemplated our ever uncertain futures with an eye on the present and the trappings that surrounded us. The wind was frigid and biting, often causing us to lose all sensation of feeling in our faces and in our fingers where they had become exposed by our ragged and worn gloves. It was a time of peace and a time of war. It was the worst of times, but it was also the best of times because it gave us pause to consider our blessings and the blessings visited on those around us.
A stale biscuit was my dinner that evening. I remember it well, as it took much work to crack its stiff and hearty skin and pummel it into a chewable form. If you dared to hold the biscuit close enough to the raging oil drum fire of our discontent, you could soften the insides of the blessed biscuit and deliver warm goodness into your stomach.
You could still make a quick dollar or two by making yourself available to the privileged classes. A wealthy woman grounded in the oil industry might be inclined to offer a street urchin a small token of gratitude in exchange for helping her change a tire that had lost its air or even carrying her well deserved groceries into her warm and splendid home. A dollar or two sometimes made all the difference, especially during the holidays when a small bottle of cheap brandy would go a long way in restoring good cheer to a person's heart.
Old Master Crocker was our lord in those days. We were committed to his cruel and industrious service, and in exchange for our toils he would allow us to squat on his property and warm ourselves with grandiose oil drum fires. He had made nearly a billion quid from his furniture business and his plush, regal chairs and his impressively hewn bed frames were all the rage amongst the privileged classes. He owned most of the ten blocks on which we roamed for fear of wandering outside Old Master Crocker's lands and giving ourselves to the viscious and cruel lords who held other neighborhoods. The grand plan of privatization had led to the formation of lords who owned neighborhoods and multiple city blocks. For the most part they were out of the control of the government, as even our beloved and magnificent president would raise a toast to the government not interfering in the lives of its people.
He was widely regarded as a benevolent and caring overlord, but Old Master Crocker had a sadistic side that was not easily satiated. Seldom was it spoken of above the most hushed and guarded tones, but many a lad in our company had given his sister to Old Master Crocker for five dollars and a pint of rancid, flat ale. What he would do with the bleary-eyed lasses that were passed to him was mostly unknown, for he always cut out their tongues and refused to allow them to learn how to read or write. Education, he would say, is for those who have made their way in life, not for those who cannot rise above the rabble. Sometimes, at night, he would come to us and stand with us by the oil drum fires and read to us.
"A person's fate is determined by natural selection and those of you who live in the streets do so because ye simply are not worthy of more. The time has come, filthy beggars, for people of class and capital to fulfill their destinies and for you to drown in yours."
"Thank you for making these remarks to us, govnuh."
My friend Jonathan, a native of the blustery and frigid state of Minnesota before the war forced him to flee his home and leave behind the people he loved, was standing beside me as we listened to Old Master Crocker read from his notebook. His lectures were filled with wisdom and venomous truth of a profound and torturous nature. Jonathan knew how to read and to write, having been to school before the Education Reform Bill was passed and only those making a hundred thousand dollars a year or more were allowed to set foot inside an institution of learning as something other than a sickly janitor or unwashed lunch lady. He was my link to the world of knowledge and I feared straying too far from his side as I needed his learning to guide me through the terrible days ahead. As Old Master Crocker finished his lecture by reminding us that nature was responsible for our fates and not any man or government institution, Jonathan stood and broke the intermittant silence with a round of mock applause. His show of defiance cost him a chance to savor the small bowls of expired apple sauce Old Master Crocker was about to distribute unto us, but it was that defiance that drew me to him.
Old Master Crocker had a son who was dying of the consumption and often coughed up great expectorations upon his clothing, which was then passed onto the huddled masses without being washed before the change in ownership. Old Master Crocker often reminded us that due to our lot in life we did not deserve the dignity of clean clothing.
In those trying days, my closest compatriots and brothers in the struggle were the aforementioned Jonathan Oliver and Raymond "Twist" Harkleford. As Jonathan was defiant and proud, Twist was a different sort, the kind of a lad one might find riding a lame pony or playing table games with very young girls. He was the one who possessed the rapier sharp wit and decisive cunning that powered our very survival against the difficult odds we were confronted with. It was Twist who was willing to travel beyond the borders of Old Man Crocker's lands and into those of the land barons beyond. Twist had a plan and he insisted beyond a shadow of a doubt that we accompany him on his journeys. Jonathan followed because he was defiant and willing to rage against the system. I followed merely because I sought a way to shorten the days and lessen the extent of my own unbearable misery.
An animal, bovine in nature, had wandered into our camp and given Twist the excuse he needed to break from the group. The animal in question was duly infected with mad cow disease, intentionally placed in our midst by people of rank and privilege in order to thin our numbers, and we would lose two dozen of our fellows within the next week. Twist, Jonathan and myself were amongst the lucky ones, or the unlucky ones depending upon your perspective, who were not infected. We had slipped away in the night and before dawn we were outside the estate of a United States Senator, a Lord Cabot Eulridge, who represented the landowners of our state and had been democratically elected by them, just as our nation's forefathers had intended.
Lord Cabot Eulridge, a famed four term senator, was best known for his role in disbanding France during his second term. He had done precious little of value for his constituents over the following years, but as he preached the gospel of government keeping itself out of the affairs of the people, he could best set an example by doing as little as possible in Congress. And so, it happened that Lord Cabot Eulridge was home that evening, but he was certainly not welcoming to our tired and wretched faces.
His manservant, Mr. Gonsalves, was the first to see us approach the grand estate of the illustrious senator. Mr. Gonsalves was shoeing the horses and patching a leak in the canvas roof of the Lord Cabot Eulridge's carriage when he spied us approaching across the south lawn. Most disenchanted he became when he saw us committing to our appointed rounds. He knew we had no business on the property and that we were likely to befoul his gardening with our tomfoolery. And so it came to be that he dispatched the senator's dogs, who were upon us within mere seconds and easily brought our adventurous trio to a tumble towards the ground, which met us in great haste.
The manservant, Mr. Gonsalves, had been brought to the country from one of the minor satellite countries in what was once known as Latin America and was now openly used to harvest cheap labor. He was solemnly aware of the fact that his employment with Lord Cabot Eulridge was the only matter that came between his three meals a day and straw bedding and the life led by the urchins he set the senator's dogs upon. It was for this reason he would defend the property of his master rather than assist in any way those who had fallen into the dangerous landscape of hopelessness and despair.
"What trouble do ye urchins visit upon us?" asked the manservant of us.
"We mean ye no trouble, call off your bloodthisty hounds before they make a mockery of what remains of our expectorated upon garments. Please, gentle manservant, call off the dogs..."
"Where come you from now?" the manservant asked after bringing the beasts under control and instructing them to cease the activity that involved them in pinning us to the ground and making us quake in various degrees of terror.
"We are from the quarter of Old Master Crocker. We have not come to visit trouble upon you. We are merely on a quest to see what we can see in the time allotted to our very eyes, yes, these same eyes we use to look upon a much longed for bowl of soup are wishing to see the great land in which we toil and suffer endlessly."
"You may indeed be worthy of such a quest, but beware the dogs and beware the villainous lords who would exterminate your brittle and parasitic kind, for if you are not careful you will not live beyond the next moon."
"Thank you, gentle manservant. We shall be off then."
"Go with God, my wretched and humble friends with nothing in their lives to give it meaning. Find some meaning for depositing into your cold hearts so that you may, in another life, be worthy of the life of a lord instead of the lives of the vermin that you lead."
"In suffering we are brothers."
"Indeed. An embrace upon you in secret and unseen by anyone. Take this as my gift to you."
"It is more than horrible creatures such as ourselves could dream of deserving, but we will accept it in the grace you have given to us with."
The words had never been spoken as clearly and with such alarming clarity as Jonathan spoke them that evening. The gentle manservant, who possessed a certain understanding of our status and dilemnas, has temporarily aligned himself with us at the risk of offending his master. He allowed us to sleep in a field that was free of trash and foul odors that evening so we could awake refreshed for the journey into tomorrow. In the morning we rose and the manservant returned, bringing with him several coffee cups that still had a puddle of liquid at the bottom of them.
"Lord Cabot Eulridge had a meeting this morning and requested rounds of coffee for his well heeled associates. What they did not finish, you may drink."
"Bless you, gentle manservant, for allowing the residue of this possibly excellent brew to trickle down in good fortune to us."
"Blessings upon you, sorrowful waifs. Finish it and be off with you. The senator may not see you in my stead."
We headed west, knowing that the ocean was no more than a two day journey to the east. We had heard tales of the west, tales that led some to believe a man could rise above his status in life and achieve something through hard work and clever word associations. We did not know if such a place could possibly exist, and we knew we were not at all interested in hard work, but there was nothing else to reasonably justify our journey and quest. We would walk in our old and brittle shoes until they fell off our feet and then we would walk barefoot until all the skin had wore off the bottoms of our feet and our bones freely mingled with grass and gravel alike. Nothing could deter us from the magnitude of our quest and nothing would slow us down.
Dickens' America: Chapter Two