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Words by Raymond Greiner
Image by Allen Forrest
*Editor's Note: Previously published in Indiana Voice Journal
I awaken to the hydraulic whine of a trash truck. Nearby a massive waste incinerator emits a polluting stench mixing with incessant rumble of traffic.
Detroit, once a grand city, is in steep decline with eroding tax revenue caused by urban flight becoming stagnated in the residue of its past. Littered streets with blocks of abandoned homes occupied by vagrants and drug addicts. These vacant homes are windowless, empty remnants of thriving neighborhoods.
My apartment is above a bar clinging to its few remaining customers, since most commute resisting over indulgence for their nightly drive. A few young professionals wander in for happy hour a beginning of their ritual, daily mind numbing to be continued nearer home at a more affluent establishment. I go in for a beer on occasion, it’s a fascination to observe patron’s character posturing as they mingle displaying vogue fashion and language in an effort to present themselves as centerpieces of attention.
A homeless man scavenges the dumpster in the ally each night prior to the trash truck’s arrival. I talk with him on occasion, he never asks for money, impresses me somewhat and his name is Joe. He’s an untypical homeless person, bright eyed, a quick mind and clean in appearance, although his dress defines his homeless status. Joe told me he was a Vietnam vet awarded the Bronze Star with a combat V for bravery, and he had worked for 10 years at an automobile factory, was married, had two children, and his life was classic mainstream until the factory closed leaving him jobless. His wife divorced him, and his two grown children shun him. He divided his savings among his children as they each turned eighteen then gradually his life unwound into despair. He became consumed with alcohol then quit drinking after his best friend died of liver failure and he told me his life is now much better than most could imagine. I enjoyed talking with Joe; he revealed warmth and an articulate tone with a surprising vocabulary. I was comfortable with Joe.
I teach engineering and math at Wayne State University, and have yet to participate in “white flight”. I always enjoyed metropolitan life with memories lingering of a vibrant city in the early seventies when I began teaching at Wayne. My classes are scheduled early and I habitually walk to my apartment since it is still daylight. Venturing on the streets of Detroit after dark is risky and should be avoided. One day I saw Joe walking toward me wearing a backpack, and was striding along at a good pace. I stopped and addressed him.
“Hey Joe, how are you doing.”
“Hello Allen, I didn’t recognize you at first. I’m doing fine, just came from the YMCA. I go there almost every day, exercise and get a shower. I’m headed for the library; it’s usually my second stop after the Y. I am taking online college courses, using the library’s computers.”
“Joe, how about me buying you lunch tomorrow, we can meet in at the campus cafeteria, I get a discount. I have a three o’clock class. We can meet at noon.”
“That would be really nice Allen, I can fill you in on details of my life. How things have played out over the past five years.”
“Good, see you then.”
As Joe departed I lost any sense of his homelessness, detecting no somber, sad eyes or expression of aimlessness depicting loss of life’s purpose. Joe exhibited vibrancy that I seldom see in people I meet day to day.
The next day at noon Joe was waiting at the entrance to the cafeteria building.
“I see you made it, glad you could come”
“I wouldn’t miss this, it’s not everyday that an old street dweller is invited to lunch by a college professor. I am grateful.”
We took trays and made our way through the long line. I noticed Joe did not heap his tray, selecting healthy choices. Joe looked trim and fit with good skin color.
“So, Joe, what’s your typical day like? It interests me how you function routinely each day.”
“During my early times on the street was much different than the present time. I had fallen into an unimaginable horrible state. My ambition to work or reconnect to mainstream life had been removed from my being. I would have certainly committed suicide, but did not have the nerve to perform the task becoming an empty, wandering person. I was forced to panhandle, and not very successful; it was degrading, adding anxiety. I begged for food at various places, raided dumpsters at supermarkets, and would show up for charitable handouts. Alcohol fueled my life entirely, any money I could beg was used to buy cheap wine offering escape from my misery.”
“How did you make the transition to the Joe sitting with me now sharing this meal?”
“Allen, I have no short answer to your question. I’m unsure if I even know myself. It’s a classic example of the metaphoric ‘baby steps’. After a time I adjusted to street life, made friends with other homeless people. One close friend was also a Vietnam vet suffering from alcoholism. As I told you earlier he died of liver failure in an ally alone. His death had great impact on me, and a desire grew within to seek higher self worth. By this time I had honed my skills as a street survivor. I became eligible to collect social security at age sixty-two giving me a small but important financial base. I also knew that in order to pull my life in a better direction on eight hundred dollars a month would be a daunting challenge. I was accustomed to street life and decided to remain homeless but with alterations from the previous two years. Alcohol was the first to go, which immediately created a higher plane of stability. I bought a backpack, down sleeping bag and a quality small tent. Using acquired knowledge of the city, I knew places to sleep that were safe and invisible to criminals and police. My system worked well even during the harshest winter nights. I still use shelters on occasion, especially during extreme weather. I am conjecturing that the first question in your mind is: ‘why not leave the city?’ This answer is also complex.”
“Yes, my first thought, as I visualize the danger of living on the streets of Detroit, a crime ridden city on a downward spiral. From my viewpoint it would be my first reaction, relocate geographically, away from this squalid zone.”
“I was born and raised in Detroit, and during formative years Detroit was a joyful and exciting city. I remain emotionally connected to this city, and because it is suffering urban decay I can’t bring myself to abandon it. I personally know most of the thugs and criminals roaming the streets. They leave me alone, knowing I don’t carry money or valuables. I counsel a few young black males trapped in hopelessness. I meet Tyrone Jackson twice a week and am helping him pass online high school courses using library computers. This is a step for him to gain a certified high school diploma allowing opportunity to enter the military. Opportunity is the missing element among inner-city youth. This effort gratifies me, and gives Tyrone a sense of purpose lessening his desire to continue as a street thug.
“The condition Detroit has fallen into is a cycle. All earthy composites experience cycles, some are short and some take millions of years to attain fruition. This is evident to me, and I sincerely believe Detroit will heal and re-establish as a vital city again. Many thoughts and experiences have stimulated my direction during this later stage of life. I still function as a homeless person, raid dumpsters and take meals served by charitable groups. I also escaped the city a few days each month during warm seasons. Detroit has a unique and little known connection. Just south of the city is a forty-eight mile stretch along the river, the Detroit River National Wildlife Refuge. This is a magnificent place. I take the bus to the end of its route then hike a short distance to the refuge. Camping is forbidden, but I have discovered places where I can camp undetected. Few visit the refuge and it has no active enforcement. This place offers wonderful solitude and connection to nature. It’s refreshing to be at such a beautiful and remote place.”
“I am impressed Joe, we must meet again and discuss more about your life, future and the direction Detroit must eventually take.”
Without awareness Joe had become an ascetic and discovered life embraced simplistically reveals a deeper sense of purpose. All great, historical sages and spiritual leaders used asceticism as a vehicle toward spiritual growth and a higher sense of purpose. The logic is that moving away from superficial affluence allows greater dimension to the human spirit, and personal consciousness.
I kept track of Joe, tried to contact him once a week. Knowing his routine helped, the YMCA, library and wildlife refuge were habitual places for Joe. One day I dropped by the library. Joe was standing near a bank of computers occupied by four black youths. He was moving from one to the next pointing to the computer’s screen and whispering his thoughts to each of his students. Joe told me later at one of our routine lunch meetings that he was making an effort to recruit more black youths to participate in his effort to further their education. He said he has never felt so good in his life; interaction with these underprivileged kids kindled his spirit for living. He became friends with Ms. Ambrose, the head librarian, who had observed Joe develop his student count. One day she called Joe into her office, and led him to a separate room. She opened the door and inside was twenty desks with a computer on each desk. Ms Ambrose was so impressed with Joe’s teaching she contacted library benefactors and they purchased these computers to better accommodate Joe’s goals. Joe was overwhelmed at this event, and this thoughtful gift stunned him, simultaneously motivating him. Within a short time Joe had a student count of fifty and had to schedule class time. A reporter from the Detroit News wrote an article on Joe and the mayor awarded him a commendation for his efforts. Joe worked tirelessly to recruit students as some passed their high school curriculum and moved on. Joe continued teaching for two years and then became ill with pneumonia and was hospitalized. I volunteered to be Joe’s replacement while he recovered. I was delighted to help and visited Joe each day at the hospital keeping him informed regarding his class.
One day while I was monitoring the class a young, sharply dressed army sergeant walked in, introducing himself.
“I’m Tyrone Jackson, a former student of Joe’s. I heard he was ailing and took leave to visit him. How is he doing?”
“Tyrone, this is truly amazing to me, you were Joe’s first student. He’s doing fine, will be released from the hospital tomorrow and wants to visit with the class. He’s not quite ready to teach, needs a few more days to recover, but told me all he thinks about is returning to teaching. Can you stop by and surprise him?”
“Sure, what time?”
“I will bring Joe at ten AM.”
As I picked up Joe at the hospital, he seemed weak but enthusiastic. Kept rattling on and on about how much he missed teaching.
“I want to go to the class first, then I have a bed at the shelter to finish recovery. Allen, I cannot express to you how appreciative I am for taking over my class.”
As we entered the classroom, the entire class was in a group and they clapped and cheered when Joe entered. Then hiding behind the group, out walked Tyrone, looking so sharp in his uniform. Joe fell silent, looked at me, and then looked at Tyrone. Tears flowed from his eyes and he was speechless, as he hugged Tyrone.
Tyrone addressed the class, “Well, my brothers, what about this? We are the lost tribe of Detroit, trapped in squalor and dysfunction. We are viewed as hopeless, uneducated, bound for a life of crime. Society shunned us, casts us aside as if we were waste products. Then here comes this homeless, white guy who knows the degradation and pain of an outcast. Joe rescued us, opened a door that nobody else opened. I was deep into a pit of despair when Joe counseled me and delivered me to a better place. I am forever grateful.”
It was all Joe could do to keep his emotions in check. And I invited Tyrone to have lunch with Joe and I. It was one of the most memorable events of my life. Tyrone also told Joe of a young woman he knew who had dropped out of high school because of her pregnancy and wondered if Joe could consider her for his classes. Joe was delighted; he had tried earlier to find female students but failed. This had been a long time ambition for Joe.
I retired from Wayne State and moved to Florida. I kept in touch with Joe, and he continued his teaching. One day I received a phone call from Ms. Ambrose. Joe had not showed up for his classes for five days. She was worried. She filed a missing person report with the police, and they searched for Joe but were unable to locate him. I told her to check the wildlife refuge and that Joe often camped at the refuge.
The state police found Joe in his tent. He had died from an unknown cause. It was such a sad day for me. I called Ms. Ambrose and told her I would pay for Joe’s funeral and asked her to help me with a memorial service to be held at his classroom. Over two hundred of Joe’s former students attended, including Tyrone and his wife Cicely. Who would have ever imagined an old homeless man could have positively impacted so many young men and women mired in a pit of hopelessness. My memory drifted back to my last long conversation with Joe. I had just retired and was preparing to move to Florida.
“Joe, how long do you intend to follow this theme you have created? I am impressed at what you have accomplished.”
“I’ve thought about this Allen, and it seems impossible for me to go back or change my life. I have no place to go, no family, and this effort I have made, and its results represent the highpoint of my life. When I find my way to the library each day and interact with those kids I feel as if a miracle has descended upon me. Each day offers personal significance and enlightenment. I read about the lady they called Peace Pilgrim. Her name was Mildred Norman and she walked the highways for nearly thirty years promoting peace, often going without food and sleeping in culverts and abandoned buildings. Mildred taught various sagacious principles during speeches and contacts in her travels. One of her quotes struck me. ‘Unnecessary possessions are unnecessary burdens. There is great freedom in simplistic living. It is those who have enough, but not too much who are the happiest.’ I think of her message often. Our present day society is inundated with a drive to amass possessions, viewing fiscal wealth as God like. Contemporary cultural design is a glut-oriented facade, placing values amidst social status, fused with consumption and accumulation. This design vividly displays social separation as we gauge and classify our fellow beings according to race, income, size and location of homes, cars we drive, and clothes we wear. This overpowering desire for material wealth generates insecurity, falsely perceiving Utopia can be discovered among these trappings. The kids I teach are byproducts of this condition. They serve no purpose among those entrapped in their shallow lives, engulfed by self-serving materialistic goals. My teaching offers these young people hope, purpose and direction. It gives them personal identity, and a realization that life is what you make it to be, applying energy and thought, seeking inner growth and meaning. I feel I have enough, but not too much, and I am very happy with my life.”
After Joe’s memorial service Tyrone and his wife Cecily approached me and Tyrone handed me an envelope. The envelope contained a photo of Joe standing behind one of his students at the computer, pointing to the screen. He then said, “Ms Ambrose asked us meet in her office for a few minutes.”
We entered Ms. Ambrose’s office and sat in front of her desk.
She spoke, “Allen, I have no idea what to do at this point regarding Joe’s students and their future. We now have in excess of one hundred students, and have increased our computer bank to 30. Joe had the students on precise schedules, using advanced students as interns. This is perplexing and worrisome. Do you have any suggestions?”
As I pondered Ms. Ambrose’s conundrum, I thought of my condo in Florida, the daily beach walks, the pristine sidewalks with little signs along the way reminding the old folks “don’t walk on the grass” and the multiple neighborhood crime watch warning signs. Life as a retiree in Florida is a mundane affair; most are early risers, go out for coffee and conversation. Little boxes mounted along walkways filled with plastic bags to pick up your dog’s poop. Everything nicely structured, with the main event each day to hit the local restaurants for the “early bird special.” It’s a facile, vapid life with much walking, talking and watching TV. As these thoughts passed through my mind I thought of Joe and his belief that life’s values exist more profoundly within our hearts and our contributions. I thought of the day I first met Joe pillaging that dumpster, an odd place to discover a saint.
I was awakened by the hydraulic whine of a trash truck. Nearby a large waste incinerator emits a polluting stench mixing with the incessant rumble of traffic. This morning I am grateful to be awakened; I have an early morning class at the library, and two new students to interview.