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On Those Always With Us

By November 15, 2007 No Comments
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NOVEMBER 2007: ESSAY

On Those Always With Us

by Thomas Allbaugh

In 1972, I landed my first job, at a diner near the YMCA in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan.

The diner was called the Butterwagon, from its origins in the 1950s as a wagon sitting on a walk that ran along one side of the Civic Auditorium, where it looked out over the Grand River. The burgers in this operation were cooked in butter, and the little wagon in those days did a “healthy” business with little overhead.

When I came on the payroll in the early ’70s, long after the operation had moved to a storefront across from the Y, I would occasionally hear people talking about the old days, and I would picture a square wagon with western-style letters scrolled along the side under the windows, and steps leading up into it. The patrons would be arm in arm with their lovers looking out over the river where the lights of the city winked back in watery, moving patterns.

But this was an image I formed from reading between the lines at a time when Richard Nixon was running for a second term as president and Petula Clark’s hit “Downtown” had long since become an oldie in the remainder bin, a time when money in Grand Rapids had started to move out of downtown toward the suburbs. In the city park across from the Butterwagon, the homeless would stop to lean against a wall or sit on the stone benches. There really didn’t seem to be much difference between them and some of the diner’s regulars, men who were perhaps a notch or two up the food chain and rented rooms at the YMCA. Rumor had it that a few of these regulars were “perverts.” Most of them were old and unmarried, certainly, but even then I questioned the label. This was at a time when World War I vets were still dying off, and many who came through the shop for their dinner seemed like stray rooks or pawns lost from the chess sets that had been the armed forces during the World Wars.

After my first month on the job I paid most attention to the jukebox, which always seemed to be two seasons behind the radio, and the girls who came in for their take-out orders from the beauty school around the corner. Even then, however, before the defining moment of my Butterwagon years, I showed an early penchant for social consciousness due to my reading. One evening two girls came in, one of them with short hair and a denim jacket on which was painted “Indian Power” and a brown fist. She didn’t look to have Native American ancestry, but because I’d been reading Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee in my spare time, I left the table I’d been wiping down in the dining room, walked over, and told her that it was a terrible thing that Manifest Destiny had done to an entire people. She started to laugh at me. I’d done something wrong, or maybe she thought I was cute, though at that moment I felt like the butt of a joke. Then it suddenly hit me that the ’60s were over. Her wearing a political emblem had no more significance than her wearing denim or a tie-dyed t-shirt; her testimony was to nothing more than her own coolness. After that, I started to suspect that the most committed people did not dress as though they were.

I eventually learned to see a few other things from Mel, the night manager and high school graduate of four years before, who lifted weights regularly. He liked to sidle up to me when I served the soft drinks to point out the hookers or pimps. His tutoring was quite different from Mr. Wilson’s, the poorly paid manager whose loopy, tall handwriting itemized my pay envelope every Tuesday.

Mr. Wilson, tall and bent over in middle age, a survivor of polio, had worked for the Butterwagon since the old days, when the town had two newspapers and the downtown stores with escalators did well. Now, instead of two papers, there were two malls, and instead of escalators, there were speed bumps in the mall parking lots–a thing not seen when the teens of an earlier day drove the downtown circuit every Friday night.

Mr. Wilson had helped me get my job at the Butterwagon, and all that first year I worked there he wore a “PRESIDENT NIXON” pin on his white apron next to a small, gilded American flag pin. He read Reader’s Digest while on break, especially the word-power sections, and used the first person pronoun “I” in the object position, as in the sentence, “Ralph, please give the catsup to Sue and I.” He would flip from panic when we were busy to being a relaxed, humorous dispenser of folk wisdom when we were not. A faithful Presbyterian, Mr. Wilson quoted Ben Franklin more than he did the Bible, and he was there to gently help me through a bout of depression one night after I had argued with my father over homework. It was Mr. Wilson who chased away the one-eyed bum from the trash bin in the back of the diner.

At first, I didn’t think much about this. The poor–and I now was seeing them frequently for the first time–could be dismissed on the grounds that they had chosen to be poor. Mel made hearty fun of them; Mr. Wilson took a stern, moral position. Though my two managers didn’t like each other, on this point they agreed. One crowded lunch hour when I was busing tables, I was startled when a homeless man stinking of urine entered and stood in line, trying to blend in with the other customers. He had picked up a tray and was looking over the menu above the counter.

Mr. Wilson emerged like a powerful wizard from the work line and shouted him out of the restaurant. I had never seen such an outburst from him, and I was both relieved that the smell was gone–we would have lost business, after all–and upset.

The episode left me confused. The passage in Luke about how Christ had come “to bring good news to the poor” seemed complicated, cancelled out somehow by my real experiences of these smelly, diseased, sometimes insane people. Jeremiah the prophet, whom Mr. Wilson had mentioned once or twice, had referred to a law that would be written on our hearts, but from what I was seeing around me, it seemed that there were definite limits to religious ideas. Apparently, I remember beginning to reason at the time, Jeremiah’s notion was another of those irrelevant Old Testament passages.

Several months after the homeless man was cast out of the diner, I was promoted to waiting on customers at the front counter. By now, the holidays had passed, and the snowfall that had come heavily for a while seemed as permanent a cover as the darkness of the closed movie theatre down the street. On my regular Tuesday night, I was working a shift with Mel. Business had been slowed by the snow, and the owner had decided to save money by putting one less worker on our shift.

After the brief rush of regulars coming in for coffee and hot cocoa had subsided, Mel went downstairs, and I heard the sound of banging in the back by the trash bin. I went to check on it. Opening the door a crack so that the cold air hit my nose, I saw a bum digging in the trash. It was the same bum that Mr. Wilson had rushed, I intuited. His back was to me, but it had to be him.

Though a slender shard of light told me he was only looking through the trash, I still found that I had grabbed the broom leaning next to the door and had begun to shift my weight from foot to foot. Something–the uniform I wore, the way I’d seen the others work around me, the fact that I was in the pay of the diner–put me in a trance. I held my breath, stepped back, and then threw my whole body into the door, which crashed open against the brick wall enclosing the back area. The bum jerked his hand out of the bin at the noise, but seeing that it was just me, a kid in a white shirt and hat, and not Mr. Wilson with his moral wrath, he turned back to dish up more stuff from the open bin. This was his humor, I sensed: the manager wasn’t around and he would not be hurt. I registered this along with the pain that shot through my hip from banging against the door, and I raised the broom over my head, knocking my hat off, and stomped towards him, shrieking. My fury surprised him; he looked up, opened his mouth, and I saw that, besides his missing front teeth, there was a blackened and sealed sunken hole where his right eye had once been. The hand he raised to protect himself was missing several fingers.

He jumped up with a deer’s strength and ran away, leaving the lettuce there in the snow.

I went inside where the jukebox was playing one of the hits from the previous year, “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” I put an extra hamburger on the grill to set out for the bum just as Mel came back upstairs, looked out at the dining room and then at the burgers on the grill, and told me to stop or he’d tell my mom that I was stealing.

I was fed up, but I didn’t push it. I did say something to him that could be taken two ways, something like, “I see why you lift weights.”

To that he just said, “You’re a weird kid.”

Later that night, when I was cleaning the grill, I put a sandwich in a brown take-out bag at the left side of the dumpster. Snow was falling again, and the temperature had dropped, and later that night when we left through the back exit, the snow had begun to cover the bag. Mel didn’t see it.

I never saw the one-eyed stranger again. But I felt some kinship in having seen his wounds, his vulnerability. It stuck me in an uncomfortable way that he was my neighbor. After that night, for the next year or so, I would sometimes help out a patron of the diner who would come in claiming that he couldn’t cash his social security check until the next day, and would I please give him something to eat. He would flatter me for my foolishness, with statements like, “You’re such a good person. You are worth a dozen other people.” The owner eventually found out and scolded me for thinking that the diner was a social agency. And it was true that I always had mixed feelings about helping that patron. It felt a little bit like I was being panhandled.

Like everyone else, I suppose, when it comes to thinking about the destitute, I show either excessive guilt or sentimentality, two opposing failures that occur with the failure of vision. In telling this story, I fear that I have fallen into the latter again.

But I think that Jesus, as quoted in the gospel, was right when Judas complained that the perfume spent on the rabbi could have been sold and the money given to the poor. The poor are always with us, Jesus responded. In these words we hear the Old Testament warning to set aside for the poor, not because our efforts will cause them to be poor no more, but because there will always be poor. Jesus was saying nothing that nullified the law. Rather, he was reminding those who invoked the law to get a woman to stop spilling a jar of costly perfume on him that the injunction they were quoting had been fulfilled in him and could be summed up in the commandment to love God and neighbor. The law should apply to how they managed all of their affairs.

We seem to view this issue from within fundamentally different frames. Christians claim that Jesus came to fulfill the law; before I confronted the bum that meant to me that Jesus had negated the requirement to set aside for the poor. It is, of course, a small step from this idea to the notion that the poor should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Most of the people I worked with at the Butterwagon would have agreed.

But ever since that night when I confronted the one-eyed stranger, whenever I hear that phrase, I imagine him, with his one eye and missing teeth and missing fingers, trying that–pulling himself up by those dirty, greasy laces. And I can’t see that happening.

The poor are always with us. Too often I’ve muted the power of the Old Testament law to speak to the present moment, to teach us that here lies the basis for a real understanding of compassion. Now, I try to imagine how the words might have sounded on the ears of those first hearing them from Jesus, those who knew only too well when Jesus spoke that he knew the law–and that it was not written on their hearts. The law, which came from God, established a system of justice that originated from somewhere else than their cultural ethos, and stood in judgment on that ethos. And on that of Mel, of Mr. Wilson, and of me.

Thomas Allbaugh teaches writing at Azusa Pacific University in Azuza, California. His stories and essays have appeared most recently in Mars Hill Review and Writing on the Edge.