Earl Redux

A few years ago I wrote about a man named Earl in this blog who was the neighborhood homeless guy. He would come around once or twice a week looking to do yard work in return for a few bucks. He always worked hard and, though his efforts weren’t polished, they were thorough. He grew up in rural Mississippi where he learned all about work at a tender age and it didn’t seem to burden him. He never talked about his parents, but he did say that before he was out of grade school, his hopes and dreams had boiled down to this: if he had work that day, there would be food to eat, perhaps a place to stay, maybe some fun. He liked work.  ••• Education was a different story; he dropped out of school after the second grade. All it did was interfere with earning his food. There wasn’t much reason for a young Black guy to get educated at that time and in that place anyway. An education wouldn’t help him get sophisticated work, that wasn’t available to him. He wouldn’t gain anybody’s respect that way (far from it) or build a bright future with it. By the time I entered his life, he had lived for a long time in a world where writing had no place. He couldn’t read a note if I left one, or make plans a long time in advance, nor could he read the news. Yet he made this way of living work out, and he always knew what was going on.  ••• Soon after I met him, he brought a letter around for me to read out loud to him. It was a government form.This one was his least favorite recurring letter; a notification from some agency demanding that he pay long overdue child support to a former wife. The late fees alone were tremendous. Both his wife and child had disappeared from his life a long time back; his son would be forty yeAars old by now. One day the agency threatened to go into his bank account and garnish his wages. That got a good laugh out of him. We whooped over that letter for several days. The only way they could get their hands on that money was to send a person to stand at somebody’s door and snatch the ten bucks he had earned for mowing the yard.  ••• Another recurring letter he didn’t like came from union he had belonged to when he was a steel worker many years ago.These letters all said the same thing: yes he was owed money but they had lost track of the records they would need to issue him a check. Of course they had. I got clear early along that the big decisions in his life were made by bureaucracies, run by middle class white people who lived in a world whose laws and customs were foreign to him. He couldn’t talk to them successfully without a translator. The only thing they could make clear to him was that they knew the rules and he didn’t. And when I began reading these letters to him they didn’t make sense to me either. I seldom had any good advice for him, seldom had any idea what wall had just fallen all over him.  ••• Earl had his ups and downs. Every one of the ups when I knew him involved a car. One day he appeared, not walking as usual, not even riding a bike, but in a car. This car and those that followed didn’t last long. They were broken when he got them. But he loved them and drove the neighborhood over and over in them feeling good. You should have seen the confidence and pride in his posture and his eyes at those moments. Now he had a place to stay at night, a place to eat his meals in, he could keep dry and warm in it, and he was relatively safe there. All the physical assaults he experienced on a semi- regular basis happened when he slept under bushes in parks or in cardboard boxes in a vacant lot. Occasionally he would disappear for a few days or even a few weeks, and when he returned he had stories of a hospital stay for a broken jaw or a stab wound, or a time in jail.Read More…