The Paw Print
“Before that I guess she was just a little kid.”
“Then that’s something”, a little kid’s somethin’ that ain’t a bum or a whore.”
– William Kennedy
The above dialog is excerpted from William Kennedy’s 1983 novel “Ironweed.” “Ironweed” is a novel about a former baseball player named Francis, who aside from being homeless, copes with a string of terrible luck. In the quoted scene, Francis and his friend Rudy have arrived at a local mission only to find a fellow “bum”, Sandra, drunk and passed out on the street.
After lamenting Sandra’s situation, Francis and Rudy decide to bring her food so she’ll get sober and the town’s wild dogs won’t chew her up during the night. Francis and Rudy decide to help Sandra because they see her as more than just a bum. They realize that she wasn’t always in her current state, she was a kid once, and she deserves better than to die on the street.
Now, I don’t claim to see the same sights that plague Kennedy’s fictionalized Albany, but many of the people who rely on the Alamosa Food Bank, where I’m placed three days a week, are not unfamiliar to the crushing weight of poverty or the physical and emotional damage that can do. There are people that use our food bank who live in the worst possible conditions, customers without shoes, customers in tattered clothing, customers who look and smell as if they’ve gone weeks without showering. And each day the circumstances of our customers remind me how fortunate I am. However, there are times, when after handing out food to twenty or so households, the faces begin to blend together, and the stories become more and more familiar. Often times, I’m afraid to admit, I can’t help but see them all as “bums” with the same tired excuses.
“I lost my job ‘cause of my bad knee.”
“I’m just here ‘til the first of the month when I get paid again.”
“Can I get an advance on my food for next month? ‘Cause I still haven’t found work and then we had to fix our car”.
The people keep coming, and some of them can be mean, some can be indifferent. I often find myself losing focus, taking a negative attitude toward our customers, and forgetting they are more than what I see at the food bank.
Nevertheless, as their stories become murky, and I begin to see labels instead of people, I turn back to the idea of that opening dialog between Francis and Rudy. All of our clients have a unique history. Likewise, the patrons of the Alamosa Food Bank, or the guests at the shelter, or the couples applying for assistance in our outreach program, are much more than their immediate appearance and attitudes. They are more than the labels: “bum” or “homeless” Each person has a story, and a past, and hands that have worked, and hearts that have swollen. Furthermore, the same customer that laments the lack of food one day brings in his extra potatoes the next. The same client who rudely asks for extra eggs and extra meat helps an older customer carry their food to their car.
If I take away anything from my service with La Puente and the Alamosa Food Bank, it’s that common cliché: you can’t judge a book by its cover, or a man by his clothing. There is so much of each client’s life and history that I haven’t seen. How can I judge without knowing the whole story?
“Before that I guess she was just a little kid”.