Imagine. You’re living a good life in a grand old house with your family, looking out from your veranda onto a beautiful park and delighting in the smell of flowers in the air–until fall arrives and you’re beholding a multi-colored canopy of foliage. But by winter you’re stealing toilet tissue from a restaurant restroom and wondering what you’re going to do with your first welfare check that won’t even pay for the ghetto apartment you and your children are now calling home.
The reality is we’re all only living one or two misfortunes away from losing the people or things we’re depending upon and, if and when that happens, you could easily find yourself enduring A Day at the Fare.
What would you be willing to do to survive its grim circumstances?
From the Book
“I began my tour, tiptoeing with caution, in case I wasn’t alone. The front room was a casualty: huge cracks ran up two walls with chunks of plaster missing, a broken chandelier hung dangerously low from its wires and a heap of clothes and other items lay in the middle of the faded vinyl floor. In one bedroom, a section of the ceiling had caved in, and in the other one, the bottom half of a window had been covered with plywood. The kitchen was ghastly, especially the area where a stove used to sit: the vacant wall was coated with dark brown trails of grease that stopped just short as they oozed towards the floor.
The house was an absolute nightmare. There was nothing I could do with it or for it. Beside the filth, collapse and decay, there was something else present: a vibration that I equated with death. It wasn’t just the hollowness, its rankness or grunge that disturbed me, but a grim ambiance. Who knows what has gone on in here? The house was too near its own end to help me launch a new beginning.
On my way out, I stopped to kick through the pile of things in the middle of the living room floor. A spread of newspapers fell aside and exposed a white linen Christmas tablecloth with dozens of intricately embroidered poinsettias and a dainty lace trim. The two of us had something in common; we represented classiness in the midst of rubble. On a whim, I decided to rescue it and make it a part of my future revival. Together we crossed over the windowsill and back into the land of the living.
The boys didn’t get to go inside that house, either. When Cedric asked how it was, I just told him, “bad–real bad.” As I positioned my left hand on the steering wheel and was about to turn the key with my right, I smelled something. Ugh! The stench of the house was on my hands.
The third address I’d written down, two bedrooms at $125 a month, was on McMillan Street. The house was another version of the houses we’d just left. The roof had a patchwork of different-colored shingles, and strips of aluminum siding on the driveway side were hanging loose. The front gate was locked, but like many others who it seemed had visited the place, I simply clambered over a portion of chain link fence to get into the yard. I had barely opened the front door and set foot inside when an odor resembling raw sewage sent me running back out. I’d seen and smelled enough. This isn’t gonna work.
I’d spent the day running around town, and all I was doing was burning gas and adding miles to my rental truck bill. Not to mention that all I’d seen was shitholes. I didn’t expect to find anything near the level of comfort I had left behind in Savannah–that would not have been realistic–but neither did I foresee being forced to live in such deplorable conditions. With that stark realization, I retreated to the truck wistful and light-headed.”
“My heart was racing. As we hurried back to the truck, I kissed the keys I held between my fingers. I felt liberated. All of the driving around was about to stop, and at long last the truck could be unloaded. Explaining to the children that we probably had a place, I was almost shouting. Granted, I hadn’t even seen it, but I had pretty much concluded that I was going to take it. What position am I in to say no? This was our sixth day with the truck and I was as close as I could be to renting anything just so I could unload it.
Driving nearer to the address, and compared to the other places I’d seen, I decided the area wasn’t looking that bad. I turned onto Payne Avenue and drove up to an enormous, pink U-shaped cluster of concrete tenements occupying the entire lengthy block. I turned right onto West 12th Street and scanned the address numbers until I found mine: 6120, close to the road’s dead end. I walked up to the door, inserted my prized key and, with breath held, pushed it open.
A single multi-paned window lit the tiny front room. The walls were beige, and freshly painted; I could still smell it in the air. The dull brown tile floor had been patched over. There were indentations in it where previous tenants had planted space heaters, and at the top of the wall I could see the thing Mr. Stewart had called the “flue.” Built into the same wall was a closet under the steps, its door cut at the angle of the staircase leading to the second floor.
The kitchen was trying to be white, though it was too old, to succeed. It too, contained only one window–a slim one, that was a crank case type, like the one in the front room. The cabinets were so thickly layered with coats of paint that the hinges had a tough time swinging. I peeked under the sink. Flakes of rust from the bottom of the crusted cabinet drawers had fallen to the space below, and there were gaping holes in the wall around the pipes. A shelved area around the corner from what would be the refrigerator wall served as a pantry. Outside the small kitchen window I saw a large, open common yard, lined with individual pole sets for clotheslines. I hadn’t noticed as I’d driven up, but the building was adjacent to railroad tracks.
Next I climbed the green pebbly stairs to have a look at the bedrooms. The front one, the one I decided would be mine, was a pale, dreary blue. The back one had been painted a drab schoolhouse green. Each had one multi-paned window. Neither closet had a door–just a pole and one shelf. I would have to hang curtains there.
The little bathroom was shadowy. The tub, barely trimmed in dried-out caulk, had tarnished, old-fashioned faucets and a stationary showerhead. I slid my hand across its irregular surface. Certain spots were gritty, while others were layered with paintbrush strokes. But at least it was a standard-size tub. The outdated sink had separate mismatched hot and cold-water spigots and the toilet boasted a black horseshoe-shaped seat, the kind I remembered from elementary school. I couldn’t test the plumbing, because the water wasn’t on.
Living in cement would take some adjusting; it would be like residing inside a vault. And the unit was awfully small; not one room in my home in Savannah had been as small as any of those in the apartment–except maybe the closet in the master bedroom. But although I was torn between relief and dismay, I believed that I could make the apartment do.
I took the boys inside and let them walk through. It was about to be a done deal; the frantic search for housing was over. I would finally have a home base so I could start looking for work and begin rebuilding my life. What a load off of my mind!”
“Friday night was like camping–without the warmth of a fire, since we still didn’t have power. Dinner was canned green beans, cold bologna sandwiches and fruit punch drink. While there was daylight, the children and I moved about like everyone else, but by nightfall we were huddled around the light of candles and using a flashlight to wander around. I had done my best, given the thorny circumstances leading to securing the apartment, but there was no way I could have timed the move to avoid suffering the temporary utility problems. Grateful that we weren’t on the streets adding to the rental truck bill, I was at peace about them.
We were worn out, anyway. I embraced the sleep induced by the evening’s early darkness–except for the overnight chill of temperatures near 40 degrees. The cozy moving quilts were now with Mr. Lawson. Devin and I slept nestled to one another, wrapped in bed sheets and our daily clothes, while Cedric lay on his own mattress. How will we warm ourselves come winter? A space heater downstairs isn’t going to send heat upstairs. I’ll have to figure something out about that.
Since it had worked for us before, once again we walked to McDonald’s to wash up in the ladies’ room and wolf down a couple of toasty breakfast sandwiches. It was our first full day at home and there was plenty of work for me to do. There was sweeping to be done throughout the apartment, as well as unpacking boxes, setting the plants around and hand washing and air-drying what I could of our clothes.
One of my main tasks was reassembling Devin’s crib so he could at least have the familiarity of his own bed. How alien the fine white crib with the Winnie the Pooh Plexi-Glass end panel appeared in the drab room. The lackluster space was nothing like the cheerful, mint green bedroom he’d had in Savannah, with its tall windows, white baseboards with matching crown molding, marble fireplace, and polished hardwood floors. The most noticeable feature of the boys’ new room was its contrast to the other: a single, decaying window, nondescript baseboards painted the same bland color as the walls and a mottled, gray tile-square floor.
Shutting out the memories of a house gone by, I returned to reality, putting a sheet on the mattress and pulling the crib away from the window to avoid having Devin sleeping in a draft. Cedric’s twin bed fit along the longer wall.”
“I was doing a balancing act with three big, plastic garbage bags of dirty clothes filled to capacity wedged inside Cedric’s red metal wagon and every bump along the sidewalks was challenging my steadiness. I pulled it with my back in a hunch as I herded the kids in the rain, just grateful for the change in my pocket. It had taken me half a dozen trips to the store, sometimes buying a single item, to collect the cash in change–the way I did for kerosene. Coin collecting from food stamp purchases was the only way I could pay for our laundry or buy soap, sanitary supplies, hair products, toothpaste and other hygiene necessities not covered by the food stamp program. Diapers were more expensive than any of those items, so they were the toughest to save for, requiring more trips for change over a greater number of days.
Negotiating the curbs along Moncrief Road was difficult. Cedric and I had to press down on the bags inside the wagon while one of us held Devin’s hand. Plodding along with the load jerking from side to side, as I reminisced about my convenient laundry room in Savannah, two of the garbage bags fell to the ground. We halted and I slung them back on top of the pile, and tried to mash them down. There was no rush, of course. We were already wet anyway.
We stood still again at the crosswalk of the 20th Street Expressway, where I noted how long it took the traffic lights to change and looked in both directions many times. It was hard to trust that every car in the double lanes of barreling traffic would come to a stop when those signals went from yellow to red. I strategized our positions for safety: Devin secured to my hip, Cedric depressing the mounds, and me tugging the wagon. Stepping off the curb and onto the freeway, I was a mother duck ensuring the safe passage of her ducklings. Out on the asphalt, entirely exposed to the openness of the roadway, the sidewalk on the other side might as well have been a mile away.
There would have been no sense in postponing the trip to the laundromat because of the chance of rain. A chance of rain is likely most days in Florida; it rained the day before and it was likely it would rain the next day, too. Meanwhile, the boys and I needed clean clothes. Thank you, food stamp change. And thank you, God, for the money and detergent to wash our clothes.”