Places: Homeless camp
Published: October 27, 2009
Modified: January 14, 2010 at 4:37 pm
Just southwest of Union Station, past the ripped-out railroad tracks and odd brick pits, civilization ends and something else begins, an urban jungle at least a football field long but only 15 feet deep.
Back here, shaded by unkempt trees and towering weeds, the homeless ride out the summer heat and winter winds. They're all gone now — nobody's here, unless they're hiding — but what they've left behind is uncomfortable and frightening, a haunted tableau of loss and need, a crime scene in search of a crime.
Here's a concrete slab, partly reclaimed by nature. Forlorn branches droop like slumped shoulders, wrapping it in green, and the remnants of old campfires cling like fungus to the slab. A pair of faded blue jeans hangs from a tree, the crotch about eye-level. Other clothes lie on the ground, grimy, matted and torn. Amid the earthtones, a flash of blue emerges: a sleeping bag. Tufts of insulation erupt from it like frozen geysers.
There's no denying the thrill of standing here, discovering a water-swollen Stephen King paperback and two pairs of high-heeled shoes. Who owned this stuff? What happened to them? The likeliest explanation is that the owners abandoned these things as they moved on to somewhere else — another town, a shelter, a jail. But what's that object, jutting out of the weeds? Is that a bent knee? Oh God, there's someone dead here.
No, no, there isn't. It's just a discarded suitcase, its corner pointing toward the sky.
Further to the west, a graveyard of bottles appears. Cheap wine, cheap whiskey, cheap vodka — pints, liters, gallons. More clothes litter the ground. More high heels. Who gives heels to the homeless?
Something about this is scary. Alien.
People don't live like this. Not anymore. They don't huddle like savages around a fire, drinking themselves numb and sleeping in dirt. Spiders could drop from the trees! Snakes could snuggle up beside you. Strangers could hurt you, rape you, kill you. No one lives like this. We've got walls now, doors that lock. We have big soft beds and five sets of sheets. We wash our hands with scented soap and disinfect our doorknobs. And if our wives have open-toed, strappy shoes that stretch their calves and make them three inches taller, they keep them in the closet like sensible people, not out here in the woods.
That's it. That's the thing that makes this wrong. This isn't an unknown tribe, hiding from missionaries in some sunless hell. This is no cargo cult, collecting our trash as symbols of God. This is us, or what we would be, could be, if we'd fumbled life's brass ring and watched the carousel revolve without us. The urban jungle waits, and there's always room for just one more.
As of early October, the camp no longer exists. It was bulldozed under to make room for Interstate 40 improvements.
-Ken Raymond, Staff Writer