Hope’s Last Stand

Photo by Philip Jones Griffiths
Photo by Philip Jones Griffiths

“Isn’t that what they called it, Pruett? Last Hope Street?”

He was reading the weekly activist paper sold by the homeless and didn’t want to be bothered by another conversation with Zelda. Even if she was his second cousin and his quasi-rescuer. She always had such an arch in her voice, as if she was studying something from her privledged distance, nose pinched between thumb and index finger. She had to comment on everything. Even the picture on the back page as he read. The photo op page. It was aggravating enough that she always inquired why he bothered to read the paper, put out by people who could barely spell and a staff who was just a bunch of do-gooders.

Well, so what?

“They’re playing at being journalists, Pruett. They might seek education, get jobs for which they’re suited not just emotionally inclined. People should act less from selfish wants. More from practicality.”

“Could be,” he mumbled and read the last paragraph of the article.

“Could be that it was called ‘Last Hope Street’?”

He nodded, turned the page. Zelda sat up in the rocking chair and fiddled with the wisps of hair unravelling from her bun. (“Chignon, a far cry from a bun!” she’d corrected him once.)

“It was such a different place, then, wasn’t it? Nothing green growing, children playing half-dressed on the sidewalks with their grubby hands grasping at you as you walked  by.” She yawned tidily. “It was a place you tried to avoid. Now, well, who could imagine? What strange ways time has with real estate.”

He didn’t want to acknowledge her thoughts. He wanted to be left alone with his own. But this was the way of things now. The house she owned, the room he rented, the other two boarders were here long before he had had to “downsize”, as they said. Whoever “they” were. Whatever that even meant. As if he chose to lock the door of his rapidly sold two story Tudor and drive off without a backward glance. As if he willingly shared a structure with someone who served chilled prunes in a cut glass bowl with a sprig of mint atop, presenting them as if they were delicacies. And shared an opinion on everything.

He turned to the back page. “I suspect the picture is to remind us of a perfectly ordinary street where people once raised families and had fun. That’s what I see.” He held the page with the photograph closer. “Copyright 1958, it says. Well, I somewhat recall it was a decent street if a bit scrubby. Now it’s about to become cleaner and chic. Money gallops right along, setting people to the curb. You do understand the poor and homeless don’t want us to forget what happens to such neighborhoods, Zelda?”

Zelda sniffed, a habit due to a chronically drippy nose that was straight as an arrow and as sharp. She usually had a tissue hidden in a pocket, at the ready. “My point, Pruett. How can some of us forget? It was part of our old territory. And why shouldn’t change be encouraged?”

Tiresome. That’s what he thought of her. It was like entering a maze and struggling to get out again some days. But once started, he couldn’t help himself. Maybe it was part competitive, part entertainment. But this was a topic that mattered.

“If you haven’t been homeless or poor, how could you know what it is to lose your block to bulldozers and condominiums? People all need a place to lay their heads and nurture their babies. Surely you see that.”

Sniff, sniff. “Well, of course. I’m not an idiot, dear.” She dabbed her nose with a folded tissue. “But you are an authority? You taught at university for forty years. Even if it was anthropology. Hardly living on the dole…”

Pruett felt his stomach tighten and rumble. He reached into the fruit bowl on the coffee table and chose a lovely orb of apple. Polished it on his sweater and took a maximum bite. Eating was a good way to render one’s self speechless. Let her think about what she just said.

She resumed. “Running out of money is one thing. Having none to start with seems another. How can one miss what one never had…? Yet it happens. Both ways.”

He stopped chewing and swallowed hard. Was it possible this woman was an absolute boor? No, just so narrow in viewpoint her mind became myopic. She was unschooled. Unable to imagine lack of good fortune since her inheritance was substantial. Zelda had lived frugally, had boarders for years to augment what?–a few million?–and wanted for nothing. Likely never would know destitution, not even close to it.

Nor would he, though sometimes it felt like it as he made his way to the corner room where he had a desk, a single bed, a nightstand and lamp. The taupe brocade wingback chair. A trunk, once belonging to his grandfather, now at the foot of his bed, keeping safe his paper memories. A bookshelf that held less than one tenth of what used to keep him company late at night. It was only a rented room, not a nursing home–good Lord, please, not that for at least another twenty years. If ever. He hadn’t wanted his Marie to live and die there, either, so she had stayed home, battling until the end, ten years of dismantling a vibrant, then weakened, then an unspooled and ashen life. Letting go of their safety nets precipitated a steep descent. Spiritually, emotionally. Financially. Well, she had gone on to a good place if Pruett really saw that soft smile she left him. And he did.

And he remained. With time on his hands and Zelda.  The other two, young boarders, came and went. Their feet clomped up the stairs when he was dozing in his room, then shuffled to their own refuges. As if they were older than the hills when they had years yet to work and save and complain and get old. They shared pleasantries, a dinner here and there, waved in the hallways. They’d move on, be replaced by others. But he was stuck here.

“What do you do there each Monday?”

Pruett startled, saw Zelda’s face in high relief as late afternoon shadows draped her features. Those cheek bones looked faintly dangerous. She was still a beauty but a sadly neglected one.

“At This Planet, Our Home offices? Answer questions that come via phone about the homeless. Edit articles. Work with an aspiring street poet or two. Listen a lot.”

“Educate me, then.”

The apple was crisp, sweet on his tongue. He took another bite and studied the street through the bay window. The rain was splashing everything, cooling things down enough that he wondered where his slippers were. He thought of the historical novel begun earlier, and the wingback with its neatly folded, worn and wooley blanket.

“Well, the numbers. Last year there were over six hundred thousand homeless in the United States. Most were sheltered but about thirty-five percent were not. Unsheltered means they stayed under bridges, in cars, in parks, in abandoned buildings. Even to sleep. In winter. People twenty-five and older were the majority of homeless folks, but one quarter are children under eighteen. New York and California had the highest increase in homeless persons.”

He noted she was listening, though her hands were restless, picking at a stray thread on her nubby skirt.

“In Portland it’s estimated four thousand sleep in shelters or on the streets. Fastest growing subgroup everywhere? Women with children.”

Zelda yanked the thread, frowned as it held fast. He wondered if she intended on yanking until it unravelled, pulling until it required emergency repair. She needed to exercise authority, he thought, in all things. She looked up, eyebrows raised.

“That many? Miserable. Why do you suppose so many end up that way? Do you give them money? One expects they’ll just buy drugs or alcohol, isn’t that right?”

“Of course some are addicts. Too many. Some have just lost jobs and couldn’t make ends meet after a couple months. Families are homeless at an alarmingly increased rate. And mental illness fells large numbers, or physical disability. Veterans can be prone to homelessness.”

“There.” She said this with satisfaction as she captured and broke the offending thread, shook it off. “Certainly, it is clear they need much more than housing. It seems an untenable situation, Pruett, but nothing is impossible to alter. What lasting good can you accomplish by just listening and editing? Maybe it would be better for you to invest time in something more…” She scanned the dusky room for inspiration. “…I can’t know for certain, but perhaps real estate that pays off in a big way. That’s what I’m doing.”

He sat forward, his hands gripping the arms of the chair. “Zelda, you have callouses lining your heart. You’ve been good to me, but really.”

She flashed her eyes at him, as if to say he was being absurd.

“I”m talking about my investment in Hope Street.”

“So that’s why it got your attention.” Pruett ran his hand over his forehead. He felt defeated by her dearth of social empathy. “Zelda, I would love you to come down to the paper’s office with me next week. Will you do that or are you fearful of catching a few bugs?”

He presed a finger to his lips. That could have been left unsaid. Zelda wasn’t that sort of woman, not really. Not fearful, at least! He was impatient when he might be more charitable. His own blood.

“You are self-righteous at times, Pruett. I realize we haven’t been close for some time. I suggest you open your mind a little. As I am trying to do. We are here for the duration in all likelihood, in this house, life closing in on the last years. We should be quite kinder allies, is that not wise? Much more effective.”

Such an emotional appeal seemed extravangant as well as a small embarrassment to Pruett. Quite kinder allies. Where did she get that? Her father no doubt, old military establishment, then esteemed judge, whose fortune she had at her disposal. Yet, she was right. They were here together because of his fate, her good graces, a shared history. He ought to be more friendly, not rubbed raw by petty fractiousness. His, mostly, he admitted.

“Yes, you’re right. I do apologize. Would you like to come with me next week?”

“Well, yes, if is there is some way I might be helpful.”

“I’d think you’d proofread after teaching English for so long. Or just observe the newspaper process. Yes, please join me.”

“Ah, good then.”

They listened to the rain. It had started in the morning, a slow release, a descent of moisture from grey skies after so long a summer. They both liked rain, that was one thing. They tended to read more in rainy season, even paragraphs aloud to each other. Other things that worked: she cooked, he cleaned up often. He went shopping for her as he didn’t mind crowds, even rather liked them. He paid her little but enough that he didn’t have to feel like he was taking advantage. There was no need of that; he could carry his weight even if it was a little. She accepted this with quiet, due appreciation. Every communal group has its hierarchy, its common needs and shared labors. The house ran well because this was understood.

Zelda had a talent for running things but the respect she afforded her boarders was a bonus, despite her patrician bent. She had a moral compass and it worked well even when he failed to see it. The chignon and a few jewels worn daily and the way she spoke blinded him at times.

He turned to her and appraised her straight back, her silvery hair, the creases around still-full lips. She had been a single person most of her life. He was just learning how to do it, a man fumbling in a darkened room for another hand.

“I’m thinking there is another reason you want to come with me to This Planet, Our Home.”

“That’s so.”

“Real estate involved?”

“Yes, Pruett. How quick today!” One eyebrow raised this time.

“Hope Street?”

She then smiled at him and he glimpsed his mother’s smile, or was it his great-aunt’s, but it was familiar in a way he had forgotten.

“Yes, I’m taking one big last stand, Pruett. Against this hellbent world. How much longer can I be of good use? I thought I’d buy the building on Hope and Fifty-third. That red brick, ratty hotel, remember? Terrible inside. I got it for a song and it will cost to renovate but it has good bones. I thought it would make lovely transitional housing.”

“Housing? For homeless people, you mean?”

“Don’t look so  surprised. I do a few things. Not all of us are called to climb into the trenches but we can still use our talents.”

“Well, I’m the fool here.” Pruett pounded the arm of the chair three times with his opened palm. “Excellent idea! The hotel on Hope Street!”

Zelda laughed and rose to get their tea. He watched the rain slap the bushes, slip down the window glass. His brain percolated. A hotel of hope. Maybe thirty studios or twenty one bedrooms. Maybe a community club space on the first floor? He’d love to start something up.

Zelda handed him a Royal Dover fine bone china teacup on its tiny saucer. “Here, Paulie. Time to really talk.”

Hearing his childhood name spoken ignited warmth in his cranky bones. He set the teacup on a side table and leaned closer.

“Maybe call it Hope at Riverside, as that is where it sits. Wait-how about Hope Street Lofts? And we could utilize some of the first floor for a common gathering place. I see ping pong tables, a coffee bar. Let’s make it a place everyone can enjoy.”

Zelda nodded. “Now you’re thinking, cousin. Let’s.”

 

***********

Note: Please see The 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress for more information.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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