So this is going to be a short one. In it, I’m going to talk about how I spent my Fourth of July this year. Or, at least, a major part of it. This year, for once, I did none of the things that we all usually do on this date. I did not incinerate hotdogs on the gas grill. I lit no fireworks. I hoisted no Corona Lites on the back porch in the company of neighbors who I kind of know and sort of like…and who feel the same way about me.
No. I spent it at the kitchen of a local church. I was serving dinner to three families, three couples, and their children.
All homeless, you see. Including the two toddlers and the baby, and the eleven-year-old boy.
Not any fault of their own. The three families came to this situation because of ill luck or bad circumstances. There was no sign of drug use or of alcoholism among them, though, if there had been, that too would have been luck and not personal failure. And all of them were working, the adults I mean. All had jobs, but even so they could not afford housing.
Oh, one exception. The eye surgeon. Yes, the doctor. She was unemployed. Consider that for a moment. Consider that reality. Savor it. Contrast it with what about what we are told about homelessness as a condition.
It is sobering, is it not?
Anyway, we arrived. It was early in the afternoon. Martha…my wife…and I were charged with preparing dinner for them. The doctor was in the main room with her baby. The other couples were in the rooms of the church that had been designated as theirs for the week.
Martha dealt with the lasagna she’d brought. I wrestled with the enormous Blodgett “Zephaire” oven in the kitchen, and, finally, after looking up Youtube videos on the beast, figured out how to get it to light. Then I cooked the frozen pizza we’d gotten at the store.
Some of the children came out to play. I tried to speak to them, but they were shy.
So were their parents.
Then it was six o’clock. I went to each of the doors and knocked. I told them supper was ready. They thanked me, shyly, not quite certain how to deal with me, just as I was not quite certain how to deal with them.
How do you tell someone that no…no!…just because you are here, in the basement of a church, and I am serving you dinner…that I respect you and admire you and in no way hold myself above you?
That I know…that I know…that with just one cycle of the Rota Fortunae…I could be standing there, and you here…
And only a fool would believe otherwise.
There are so many fools in the world.
And so many of them are in our government.
So many men and women, so very privileged, who think their vast good luck is their reward…the just and earned reward of their own virtue and skill…
Their Darwinian superiority.
Sometimes, I wonder…do they, the privileged and the powerful…the self-described “libertarians,” (who do not value liberty)…the billionaires and cabinet members (an interchangeable set) of Trump’s administration…the Betsy De Voses and Stephen Feinbergs…the Koch Brothers and the Mercers…
Do they ever consider even for a moment that things might change? That someday, somehow, they might be here?
No. Probably not.
Skilled at the gathering of money, they lack (it seems) foresight in other things.
They…our guests…emerge from their bedrooms slowly. They come into the big central room. It is buffet style. They take plates and flatware and cups and then help themselves.
The lasagna was reasonably popular, as was the broccoli that Martha had prepared. But the big seller, of course, particularly with the children, was the pizza. We realized we should have gotten more of it. But, there was enough for everyone to have some. So, that was good.
They eat. We join them at the table. We try to make conversation, but it does not work. Shyness, again, I think. We are the aliens here, after all. Strange visitors from a very different world.
We do get a couple of the parents to talk. One couple wants to know if Martha had put lemon on the broccoli. She said she had. Oh, they replied, it was great. They’d have to try making it that way.
When they were in a home again…
The meal comes to an end. Everyone thanks us for preparing it. Then, we start taking the dishes and the serving utensils back into the food prep area. Before we can stop them, our guests wash their own plates and flatware.
I say no, don’t bother, I’ll handle it. One of the men says, No, firmly. They always wash their own dishes.
Ah, I said, and yield, hearing the steel in his voice.
The families go their various ways. This group doesn’t seem to associate with one another. At least not much. Instead, they go to their rooms, or occupy seats in front of one of the two TV sets.
One of the couples takes their little girl outside in preparation for the fireworks. This church is in the area we call here “The Heights,” and is on a hill to boot, which means it has a superb view of the city. This means it is an excellent place to watch the display put on yearly down at the Balloon Park.
Martha and I finish the clean up. Then, there was very little left for us to do. We ended up staring at our phones, as you will in such situations.
And I find myself wondering, how do I deal with this? Here we are on July 4th, the date we celebrate American greatness…
And, yet, I am spending the day with homeless people…including homeless children.
There should be no such thing as homeless children.
Yet, here they are…
The home of the Free. The land of the Brave. Not to mention the nation with the largest economy in the world…
And yet people are hungry and homeless.
That is horrible.
I find myself, again, thinking of those Others…those on top…those who want to end government programs that aid these people…those who, on some horrible level, genuinely believe that they are superior, and that these people…these three couples and their children… are morally flawed.
Flawed… because they are, for the moment, poor.
Yet, how easily…how easily…the rich and powerful…they may fall.
There is an advantage to a liberal arts education…in spite of the elite’s distaste for such things. (“How are you going to make a living out of that?”) But, a little history, a little literature, and you know about, oh, the rise and fall of empires and men…
I find myself thinking O Fortuna from Carmina Burana, that ancient text which inspired Carl Orff’s famous twentieth century composition (see below), and which is by turns satirical, funny, wise, and fiercely, brutally true:
Fortune rota volvitur;
alter in altum tollitur;
rex sedet in vertice
The wheel of Fortune turns;
I go down, demeaned;
another is carried to the height;
far too high up
sits the king at the summit –
let him beware ruin!
It is eight, now. Another volunteer appears. She will stay with them until morning. We may leave.
We gather up our pots and pans and other stuff, and go. We drive away in the growing dusk. It is not really dark enough for fireworks…and the city’s own display won’t begin for another hour.
But the private displays in yards and empty fields, those have begun. Already you can hear the distant reports like gunshots, smell the sulfur on the wind, hear the sirens of emergency vehicles, rushing to aid those who’ve blown off a hand, or set fire to their homes or to the drought-stricken desert grass around us.
We arrive at home.
I had thought I would not drink tonight, but I find myself pouring a little whiskey in a glass. Neat. No ice.
The great, and powerful, Trump, his people…they do not understand it…they cannot understand it.
But in the end, perhaps they will, somehow, know…
All too horribly well.
Editor’s Note: If you aren’t familiar with Carl Orff’s powerful composition on this theme, you might enjoy this performance with lyrics displayed on Youtube: