Harvest Time in the City of New Orleans

For five years I watched for a certain homeless man like others anticipate the first robin in springtime. He came out with the perennials in downtown New Orleans, Louisiana. A frail, aging black man, dressed in thrown-away clothes, he stood for hours on the lawn of the public library on the corner of Tulane and Loyola Avenues. Neither soaking rain nor scorching sunshine moved him indoors. He endured like a displaced scarecrow.

Having grown up in Wisconsin, where the homeless sometimes freeze to death, I wasn’t accustomed to seeing guys like him or pretending I didn’t. For the most part he was deliberately ignored and he ignored in return. Could he see more than shadows and motion through the white film of cataracts? Even other ‘street people’ avoided him, sleeping instead in the remote seats of the air-conditioned library during the day while this scarecrow stood outside on the lawn.

His five-foot frame stooped as his overcoat flapped against his orange and green plaid shirt and brown pants. The crotch of his pants sagged halfway down his thighs, pants unsupported by his rope belt or his shrunken frame. Stick-like shins stuck out beneath the tattered ends of his pants then disappeared into large, unbuckled, black rubber boots. His wrists extended into knobby, gnarled fingers, the kind that grew from years of painful arthritis or repeated injury. Thick, yellow nails and hard, dry calluses covered his stubby fingers.

Like a scarecrow overseeing crops, this shrunken form drove birds, squirrels and other timid souls away. He had somehow defied the efforts of weather and the natural process of decay that recycles things. Three wild patches of yellow whiskers sprouted from the furrows on his face. It was a sign that something grew from the living humus. The horrific smelling rot of his body and clothes refuted the life still clinging to him. It drove people upwind off the sidewalk into traffic.

What kind of tragedy or mental illness drove him to become so detached from life? I didn’t understand. As an officer at the largest bank in the state, I aspired to absolute yuppie hood. I had the status job with the window office and overpriced, covered parking. In my late twenties, a college graduate, I was making enough money writing user manuals and designing training aids to convince myself I couldn’t afford to pursue my real goals in life. I couldn’t afford to write a novel, to risk failure. I had plenty of time.

The Scarecrow, as I came to think of him, communicated through simple gestures – an open hand, a shrug, a nod. He was harmless, small, old and pathetic, which made it easy for me to approach him from upwind. By giving him an apple a day on my way to work in the Big Easy, I thought we both benefited. He gained a little food and I felt noble for doing a good deed that could not be repaid. Ignoring him would have eaten away at my conscience.

One day during the second spring he didn’t bob his head in response to receiving the apple. Of course, it was a small thing, a tiny change in a familiar routine, but it got my attention. For the first time, I spoke to him.

“Do you like apples?”

He nodded then bared his naked gums.

Chagrined, I said, “What do you do with the apples?”

His pants had crusty, stiff folds that scraped together like sandpaper as he shuffled along on the grass. By the time we reached the Times-Picayune States-Item vending box there was a scruffy-looking man standing by it. Scruffy and I looked at each other suspiciously, while Scarecrow placed the apple on the box.

Scruffy suddenly smiled and held out his hand to me. “You the apple lady.”

I presumed it was a question. “Yes.” We shook hands.

“Why you been giving him apples?”

“I like apples.” At that moment I envied all tunneling animals. No such escape for me.

Scruffy laughed and handed grapes to Scarecrow. For the next three years he got bananas, oranges and grapes from me. I enjoyed our daily ritual. It gave me purpose and a feeling of being needed. The giant corporation I worked for proclaimed it needed its people even after profits fell below projections and they handed out pink slips at Thanksgiving. My colleagues called the layoffs ‘getting the bird’ because the pink slips came with the customary coupon for a Thanksgiving turkey. Did I really belong in a place where managers called their people resources?

In mid-May of my fifth spring of feeding this nameless, toothless soul, he disappeared. I asked at the library. They didn’t know. I called a friend who worked a few blocks away as an intern at Charity Hospital, also known as the Big Free. After Kay complained that someone had stolen her wallet while she was sleeping in the doctor’s lounge, I asked about Scarecrow.

“You’ll have to be more specific,” she said, “Short, old, black and unkempt sounds like half the crowd here.”

“I don’t know his name. He probably weighs ninety pounds and has no teeth. He has cataracts. Wears huge black rubber boots.”

“Oh, that’s Stinky. I haven’t seen him lately, but I’ll check on it and get back to you. Why do you want to know about him?”

“I haven’t seen him lately. I just wondered.”

“Tell me you don’t give those guys money.”

“I don’t give those guys money.”

“Good. Let me remind you that some of them are reality challenged and addicted.” A high-pitched tone sounded in the background. “Blast, the ER’s tugging my leash again. Gotta go.”

I went back to my office where two MBA interns, wearing identical Brooks Brothers suits, introduced themselves. They had been sent as test dummies to take the computer-based training lesson for the new system scheduled to go on-line in a month. The fruits of years of labor would soon be harvested. These men were representative of the typical loan officers at our bank, only twenty pounds lighter. They couldn’t type and they feared computers. Like the upcoming software system, these guys were models of impersonal efficiency. At the rate they poked their keyboards their thirty-minute lessons took an hour. I was tempted to reveal that the secretaries we used to test the lessons earned higher scores in half the time, but the male ego is such a fragile thing. I bit my lip.

That night at 6:00 p.m. the phone rang in my office. Managers often called after hours to identify the ‘dedicated’ employees, so I played along delivering the full official telephone greeting according to company policy.

After a long pause, Kay said, “I was waiting for the beep to leave a message. I thought bankers had better hours.”

“Sure we do, Kay. Just like all doctors have time to golf.”

“Well, I found the chart on Stinky. He’s a fifty-year-old John Doe. He died two days ago. No friends or family. So he went unclaimed.”

Unclaimed meant his body could go to one of the medical schools in town for cadaver lab, dissection by the numbers. I didn’t ask.

“Thanks for checking.” Fifty?

On the way to the parking lot I passed his spot on the lawn and saw crows gathered there. The man disappeared like plants after a harvest. I cried all the way home. There I began my writing career in earnest–with a letter of resignation.

Scarecrow had died years before he was buried. Just as he was waiting to die, I was waiting to live. Bribed by luxury, I had given up living and hadn’t realized it. Scarecrow showed me the high cost of postponing goals and dreams. This was real life in the grownup world. No guarantees for a second chance. No do-overs.

In his last years, he hadn’t voted or paid taxes. Gallup hadn’t polled him. Census takers hadn’t counted him. Presidents and fashions had changed without him. Out of work, out of hope, out of time, he had waited through his season with outstretched hands and quietly disappeared.

He taught me that the safety net from failure is not money. It’s faith.

__________

This essay first appeared in Tampa Bay Sounding is a publication within the high IQ organization Mensa. For a while I had a column in it. This essay was also featured on the website WritersCollege.com as an example of the essay format. I changed the name of a friend in this true first-person story so she wouldn’t face the wrath of the hospital administration for discussing a patient. This is a true story from a time when I lived in New Orleans.

Missing June

To support my husband during graduate school, I put my novel-writing dreams on hold and worked as a staff writer for a Fortune 500 bank in New Orleans. Technical writing is as far from fiction writing as driving a school bus is from race car driving, but the friends I made at the company kept me sane. As one of two staff writers, I became very close to the other writer, an Australian journalist named June.

When our company asked for volunteers for first aid and CPR training, I volunteered. Three months later, I got a call from the division head of personnel. He was in a full panic and shouted in the phone that I had to run over to his office. June, he said, had fainted. I ran. June was slumped over her desk, breathing in ragged labored breaths. I told the director to call an ambulance. He said a ride was on the way.

June’s pulse was weak and irregular. She was having a heart attack. I kept her awake and checked her eyes. Both pupils responded to light as usual, so maybe it wasn’t a stroke. Unless she stopped breathing, all I could do was watch her and wait for the ambulance. The division head announced that the ride was downstairs and he and I wheeled June in her chair to the elevator. The security guards and card-entry system downstairs would cause a delay we could not afford. We rolled the chair into the elevator.

“We’re going to Charity, right?” I asked. Charity Hospital had four large specialized emergency rooms and the facility stood three blocks from our office.

June rallied and shouted, “Baptist, I have to go to Baptist because my doctor is there.”

“You are having a heart attack. They can save you at Charity and move you to Baptist.”

“Take me to Baptist or leave me in this chair to die.”

I wanted to swear. June might die of stubbornness. “Minutes can mean life or death, June.”

“Baptist!”

“Okay, okay, June. We’ll get you to Baptist. Just stay calm.” The director tried to reassure her that her wishes would be followed even if it killed her.

Someone handed me June’s purse. June would need her identification and health care insurance card at the hospital. We rolled June from the security guard station to the large double doors that led to the street. The director opened the door to a yellow cab.

june“She needs an ambulance!” I roared at my boss’s boss.

“This is just as quick and it will save her money.”

I grabbed his tie. “If she dies in this cab,” I hissed in his face, “then I will tell the world about it, so start praying.”

We hefted June into the cab and I climbed in beside her with her purse.

I shouted at the cab driver. “This is an emergency, get us to Baptist Hospital. I’ll pay any speeding tickets.”

The driver gave June a frightened look and launched from the curb like a man on a mission. He did not want anyone to die in his cab. We stopped at a light and June pointed to her purse.

“What do you need?” I opened up the purse toward her.

“Cigarettes.”

I dug into her purse and pulled out a pack of Malboro unfiltered cigarettes. I held them up for her. “You can hold them, but I refuse to light one.”

She laughed and rolled down the window beside her. She flung the pack out the window at the same time the cab started moving again. The pack hit a man standing in the median. He looked up at us and waved. He was one of the regular panhandlers who gathered at the library between my office and my parking lot.

Ambulance at Emergency EntranceWe reached the emergency room entrance to Baptist Hospital in about eight minutes, possibly a new land-speed record for a cab. Two orderlies met us at the cab and moved June into a wheelchair. I turned around and grabbed June’s purse.

The cabbie came around to the passenger side. He was sweating. “She going to make it?”

“I sure hope so. Thank you.”

He handed me a clipboard with one of the company account vouchers on it. He had written the cab fare on the voucher. I added a fifty dollar tip to it and signed my name. Let the division head complain. I dare him.

The cabbie read the amount and glanced at the emergency room doors.

“That’s the rate the ambulance charges,” I explained.

The cabbie nodded.

I dashed into the emergency room and a nurse pointed to the doorway on her left. June was on an examination bed with two white coated men standing by her. They looked up at me and started talking.

“We need to admit her. She had a heart attack. Are you family?”

“No, but I can call her husband.”

Minutes later Clive, June’s husband of forty years, blasted through the swinging doors.

“Clive! Over here.” I stepped aside.

His face lit up when he saw June alive.

The doctors started talking to him. I walked back to the nurses’ station and picked up a clipboard. I completed the forms and fell into one of the ugly cushioned chairs in the waiting room. I had June’s purse in my lap and realized that I had no wallet or cash. I remembered that I could use the company’s cab account to get back to the office. All was well in the world. June survived the ride and she was in the hands of doctors.

Clive came out and sat beside me.

I handed him the clipboard and forms. “Sign here.”

He did. “I understand the son of a bitch cheapskate called a cab.”

“I tipped the cabbie fifty bucks.”

Clive grinned and hugged me. “She’s going to make it.”

“Too tough to kill.”

“Too stubborn to die.”

June recovered after a two-week rest. The director never mentioned the cab ride or the cab fee to me and I never brought it up with him. The legal department explained the concept of liability to him in terms and instructions he would remember and obey.

In the years I worked with June she was the keeper of birthdays. She published the birthdays of employees, not the year, but the day of the month, in the company paper. She remembered to send birthday cards to her chosen friends after she retired. I wrote to her about twice a year on her birthday and on Christmas to tell her the news of the company and the people she loved there. I retired from the company a few years later because I gave birth to my one and only child.

In the hectic life of being a new parent, I was late in sending June her birthday card. It arrived a day late. The day after she died. June died on her birthday and the fact that she missed my card broke my heart. I pray she did not feel forgotten because of my lateness.

Three years later when my husband and I moved into Winter Haven, Florida where he joined a medical practice, I received mail from my old company notifying me that the retirement plan held up in litigation was ready for dispersal to participants. All I had to do was get the enclosed form signed and witnessed by a notary and I would get my retirement balance issued by check. The original balance when I retired was five thousand dollars. I got a check for eight hundred because the company stock that backed the plan, had plummeted in the wake of a scandal at the upper level of the company. Those scoundrels escaped with bonuses and golden parachute clauses while the average worker, like me, got screwed.

I called the personnel department and talked with a woman who had worked there when I did. She had been the division head’s secretary and she had moved up to be the benefits administrator. We chatted for a while and I asked if she had heard from Clive. I explained that June had died and Clive had moved to New Jersey to live with their daughter.

She checked her records and quoted the bank’s policy about not giving personal information out. I reminded her that I was giving her personal information, information that she might need to disperse whatever June was entitled to receive. She told me that notices sent to June had been returned undeliverable. I told her that I would call Clive and tell him to call and to ask for this woman by name. She agreed to the plan.

It took two months for Clive to bother with the forms that bore June’s name. I received a card from Clive that read, “Three thousand four hundred and twelve kisses, love, Clive.”

Clive, his daughter told me in a call, was thrilled to have money of his own to spend. He died a year later and his ashes were flown back to Australia. The urn was lost on the plane, possibly behind a panel, the airlines apologized. In death, Clive was traveling the world.