Will Teach for Food, or
Education la Crate
ON THE STREETS, YOU NEVER KNOW WHAT TO EXPECT. Well, sometimes you do-winos, mental cases, etc. But everyone has a story all their own.
When the Philadelphia Committee for the Homeless sent us volunteers out on street patrol, they always warned us not to give anyone money. But some of these stories deserve some kind of recompense, either for their abject misery, or, in other cases, for sheer inventiveness. All we can offer is food, and even that the city is now trying to stop. Just encourages them, they say.
Contrary to expectations, there is a sizable number (about 15%) of these people who work. They work, but the minimum wage doesn’t allow them to pay rent and feed themselves. Another interesting minority out there are the well-read. One of the first things my wife and I did when we started street patrol was to bring books with us-cheap bibles, or at least the New Testament-but many other things as well-popular romances, westerns, etc. When we had depleted the excess in our house, we found a second-hand book exchange that would practically donate grocery-bags full of books when they found out what we wanted them for.
This leads to situations where we spend maybe twenty minutes discussing with a black man lying on a steam grate (it was winter) the failure of fifth-century B.C. Athenians to adequately defend themselves against the depredations of the Spartans.
“But maybe they didn’t deserve to win,” Jerry offered, munching on the cupcakes we had given him as dessert. “Them bastards was mean to their own allies, just because they had the biggest fleet. They said they were making the sea lanes safe for everyone, but it wasn’t nothin’ but a protection racket.”
“But Jerry, look what the Athenians gave us-what about the Acropolis, that beautiful architecture.” I had just enough education to make a fool of myself.
“Yeah, and where did they get the money to build that stuff?
They extorted it from their so-called allies, that’s where.” Obviously, Jerry had read more than the potboilers we were passing out.
“Athens and Sparta was just like the United States and the Soviet Union. They combined to beat a common enemy-the Persian Empire-and they fell to bickerin’ among themselves.” (This was the 1980’s)
“So which is the United States-Athens or Sparta?”
“That remains to be seen.”
I at least had enough sense not to wonder, even to myself, what someone as well read as Jerry was doing lying on a steam vent, cadging enough change from passersby for another bottle of Thunderbird. He belonged to a long line of liberally educated men who would not soil their hands with manual labor. I could imagine him saying, with the superior air of an eighteenth-century English gentleman, “Oh, so-and-so’s in trade.” If you object that it was the booze that kept him from gainful employment, the same could be said for many members of the squirearchy.
* * * * * * * *
Another minority on the streets were the whites, although it was a fairly large one. One I remember in particular was Josiah, a lean, tall man, who lived in a refrigerator packing crate in a narrow alley with a pale, quiet woman who may or may not have been his wife. Unlike the autodidact Jerry, Josiah had been to college, although I don’t believe he ever graduated. When I first came across Josiah, he was reading a hardback book. Andrea (the Jesuit volunteer), Marilyn and I knocked on the “door,” the top of the crate weakly hinged with two strips of leather. After the opening amenities, the bestowal of food, and the gathering of “demographics,” which we were instructed to note on a form, I couldn’t help asking what he was reading. He held the book up so I could see the title. It was The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century I learned that this was one volume of a ten-volume work written by Francis Parkman, all devoted to the conflict between the two superpowers of the day for the possession of North America. Josiah sat at the entrance of the crate, below a stenciled notice, THIS END UP. The woman sat inside, just behind him, looking impassive.
“Parkman was a WASP,” Josiah informed me, ” so naturally he saw the English Protestants as the force of Progress and Enlightenment. The French Catholics, of course, were the reactionaries, benighted and tyrannical.”
I also learned that Josiah was reading through Parkman for the second time. The mind is indeed its own place.
“But, despite that, the person he most admired was LaSalle, who explored the Mississippi for France. Probably because LaSalle. like Parkman, was essentially a loner with an obdurate will.”
“Who do you like?”
“The French, but only because I always favor the underdog. In 1760, when the English finally took Montreal, the French had sixty-five thousand people in New France, while there were a million in the English colonies.”
“The fact that the French lost makes them more than underdogs. It makes them losers.”
“But each time I read about it, I keep rooting for them.”
“The willing suspension of disbelief?”
“Something like that. He paused. “Anyway, it’s not always about winning. Look at Malplaquet.”
“War of the Spanish Succession in Europe. The French had suffered defeat after defeat at the hands of Marlborough, leading the English and allied armies. Finally, the French were exhausted, their army in ruins, the victorious allies poised to invade.”
“Malplaquet. Louis made an appeal to the country, and thousands responded. A raw volunteer force met Marlborough and the allies at Malplaquet.”
“And the French won?”
“No, they lost again. Marlborough cut them in two.”
Josiah had told me he used to work as a changemaker in a penny arcade in a seaside resort. He said that, on slow days, he could get a lot of reading done there. As far as I could determine, this was the only job he had ever had.
“So the allies invaded.”
“No, that’s the point. They didn’t. Malplaquet was the bloodiest battle of the war, especially for the allies. For them, it was a tactical victory, but-“
“A strategic defeat.”
“Exactly. If the French were that determined, invasion wouldn’t pay.”
“So it’s not always about winning.”
He looked at me as a junior high teacher might look at a bright pupil.
Andrea said, “We have to get moving. We’ve still got to cover Rittenhouse Square.”