The May 2006 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee


National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website



In this issue:

Oakland Tenants Face Eviction

UC Attacks the Berkeley Freebox

Berkeley Freebox Poetry Contest

Reform Profit-Making Nursing Homes

A Berkeley Fair for Street Youth

Ultimate Gift of a Homeless Veteran

Tax Cuts for Rich Harm U.S.

Many Children Left Behind

S.F. Bayview: History Lesson in Urban Removal

Let Their Chains Fall Off

Poor Leonard's Almanack: On Poets and Poetry

May Poetry of the Streets


April 2006

March 2006

February 2006

January 2006

November 2005

October 2005

September 2005

August 2005

July 2005

June 2005

May 2005

April 2005

March 2005

February 2005




Street Spirit is published by American Friends Service Committee.

All works are copyrighted by the authors.

The views expressed in Street Spirit are those of the individual authors alone, and not necessarily that of the American Friends Service Committee.

Let All Their Chains Fall Off

by Joan Clair

Henry David Thoreau

It's interesting the way we venerate the homeless or marginal when they are in the form of a Thoreau or a Jesus. But if a homeless or marginal person shows up in our own family or neighborhood, some of us would just as soon kick them out.

I have a friend, "Lucy," who tells me she's always provided with exactly what she needs, never anything extra, just when she needs it. Just after she's looked hopelessness in the face and feels like she will never see the light, a little light trickles down to her.

At the moment her family was about to cut her off and let her become homeless if she couldn't or wouldn't get a job, she found out she was entitled to widow's benefits. This was several years after her husband jumped off a roof to his death. She'd married him so she could have some say when he was in a hospital. The $700 monthly widow's benefits kept her off the street and in a tiny room.

When she told me about her reprieve from homelessness, I thought of some lines from the song "Paul and Silas" and said, "The dungeon shook and the chains fell off!" And she said, "Yes, they did."

In some ways, Lucy is like a Thoreau without an Emerson to give her some land to build a cottage in the woods. Like Thoreau, she couldn't tolerate traditional teaching. Like him, her writing, some of which has been published and is quite good, has never earned her a living. Thoreau's first work, which he self-published, left him in debt with 706 unsold copies out of 1,000. Even after his death, Thoreau's work didn't sell all that well.

It's interesting the way we venerate the homeless or "marginal" when they are in the form of a Thoreau or a Jesus. But if a homeless or marginal person shows up in our own family or neighborhood, some of us would just as soon kick them out.

I thought of Lucy when I ran into "Kalie" recently in a Starbucks Coffee in Berkeley. One would never think of Kalie as being homeless. I've never seen her pushing a shopping cart around. She's always dressed in a respectable manner, never looks wrinkled. Her age is indeterminable.

The first time I ran into her was also in a Starbucks. She struck up a conversation about politics. In further encounters, she talked about her own situation, which was always changing, it seemed, in regard to where she lived. Once she told me she was sleeping in someone's backyard in her sleeping bag. However, she said she had a family to help her and was waiting for money.

This turned out not to be true. The last time I saw her in Starbucks, she told me she only got a few hundred a month from Social Security. I told her with that little money she'd probably qualify for Supplementary Social Security. She blew up at me, saying that if one more person tried to tell her what to do, she'd go berserk.

As happens to many people, sometimes when I'm thinking of someone, they suddenly appear in my life. One day while driving my car near Berkeley's main post office, thinking about Kalie and the fact that I hadn't seen her for a long time, I saw her walking on the other side of the street towards Shattuck Avenue. I had been wondering if she was all right. She looked neat as usual. But her face was pale and her expression traumatized, like she was still in her dungeon and the chains hadn't fallen off yet.

I couldn't stop the car and get out in the middle of stalled and chaotic traffic. There was no place I could pull over, and I didn't see a parking space anywhere. When I got home, I realized when I saw her she was just walking past a Social Security office near a small cafe.

Why didn't a parking space open up at that moment, as it might have if I had seen Lucy? I would have parked my car, run across the street and asked her to join me for a cup of tea. After we drank our tea, I would have told her about the Social Security office next door and would have offered to go over there with her to check out Supplementary Social Security. We'd wait in the office until it was our turn, and when it was, we would find out she was entitled to the extra money.

But this didn't happen with Kalie as it might have with Lucy. It looked like it could have happened, but it didn't.

Then I think of "Gail" who had no assets of her own and was marginal, as a friend described her, and who disappeared shortly before she received an inheritance. No one knows where she went or has been able to track her down. Gail always told me she had a wealthy friend who was going to give her some money; but when it happened, she was no longer there to claim it.

Why does the dungeon seem to shake and the chains fall off for some and not for others? I think of Jonathan Levin's comment in a book about Thoreau, "sometimes individuals need to position themselves on the margins of social institutions in order to promote their transformation."

Lucy, Kalie and Gail have each worked in their own way for various causes trying to make the world a better place. They've listened to a different drummer, as Thoreau would have said, and are about as practical as he was in regard to money. That is to say, money for its own sake has never been their focus.

I'm troubled that I have not yet discovered that the chains have fallen off for Kalie and Gail; I want to believe they will.

Their situations remind me of a time when I rented a room in a house that was huge and isolated. My room was on the opposite side of the house from the family's rooms, and their dog, "Blackie," adopted me. He always insisted on sleeping in my room at night to protect me.

When I moved away from this house, I called the family to see how they were. The parents weren't home, but their nine-year-old son, "Eric," who was also close to Blackie, told me that his parents weren't feeding him. I told Eric, in that case, he should feed Blackie. The family moved shortly thereafter, and I never found out what happened to Blackie after that. This was years ago, but I still think of him from time to time. I hope his chains fell off too.

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