Reese didn’t understand.
Walking through the grounds of Cannonball Church, we came upon a homeless man curled up in the corner, resting in a narrow sliver of shade on a hot, sopping humid day. I took a photo. I didn’t say anything.
Reese and I continued our walk.
“Why did you do that?”
I took a deep breath. Even though he knows, he doesn’t always know — doesn’t always want to know. For that, I can hardly blame him. You learn to shut it down. As much as people in this country appear to love a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps story, most people are horrified to learn that those of us pulling those bootstraps might actually be walking among them. People in the professional managerial class want to believe their jobs, their homes, their lifestyle comprise a fortress, an enclave of the truly deserving. When we become visible to them, the upper-middle class reveals its love of aristocracy: WE are born this way, into class, into station, into position in life. You belong – when you are born this way. If you weren’t, then you don’t belong.
“Why did I do it?” I finally replied. “The same reason I call the public park by Maury High the Lyceum. The Lyceum is a shady little grove with benches arranged in a u-shape. It’s where homeless men, and a few women, hang out every day. They watch people pass, comment on the weather, share smokes and the occasional brownbag-covered beer. Mostly, they keep to themselves, traveling back and forth between the benches and the cooled library nearby. There’s laughter, and silence. Sometimes, one among them holds forth. They lounge on the benches, in the shade, telling stories across the U-shape, waiting for the bus that will take them to the shelter 24 miles away. The City of Norfolk wanted them out of the downtown area, ruining it for the creative class and tourists city leaders want to attract to rescue Norfolk from its shameful 200 year history of wanting to be a first-class city again, a title it lost to fire, pestilence, and war during the early years of the nation’s history.
Every time we bicycle by after work, on sunny days, they are all talking and joshing each other and I smile. When it’s raining I’m always a little sad because they aren’t there. But I am glad for the rain on my glasses as I pedal by on those days. The rain is a distraction so I don’t have to think about why their absence makes me sad.
When it rains, the Lyceum is empty.
When it rains, I always wonder: where did they go? To which hiding place did the guy with the bike go? What about the man with the blue sweater and 10 grocery bags stuffed with clothes, a stuffed animals, papers, books? What about that young, cocky guy who likes to catcall the women who ride by? And then there’s the guy with the broken down Harris Teeter cart.
When it rains, I start filing through my memory, ticking off the nooks and crannies of the city, places I’ve seen while walking or bicycling. They are places where I have subconsciously checked off whether it belongs on my list of hiding places: There’s a place to go if it rains. There’s a place to sleep when the shelter is full. There’s a place to go for respite from the heat.
When it rains, I remember.
“I took the picture of the man at Cannonball Church. I know. It seems poverty porn of me or something. I don’t know what to call it. It sure is about romanticizing the poor. I’ll cop to that. Making them out to be more noble than they are. Maybe, at this distance, it’s my way of dealing with it: to make them the wise souls the movies want them to be.”
I took the photo to remember. To remember looking at corners and bridges and benches and shocks of trees and parking lots and driveways, thinking: “Would this be a good place to go? Is this a good place to park the car, so I won’t get kicked out? Will I be safe? Would I have thought of this corner of Cannonball Church’? Would I have been as clever enough to have found this noisy corner where 18 wheelers barrel past gravestones from 1716?’
When it rains, the Lyceum is empty, and I remember.
I got on my bike after work. We pedaled our usual route, traveling Boutetort avenue, crossing Princess Anne where, depending on the weather, I can see ahead to the Lyceum and learn who is there this day, who is missing. I was wondering what this Friday afternoon’s chatter would bring. It was hot like an oven out and the library was closed. The Lyceum would be packed until the bicycle cops showed up at 6 to chase them out.
The Lyceum was empty.
I burst out crying when Reese said, “Yeah, they ripped out the benches here too.” I hadn’t heard the news yet. At the behest of the wealthy residents in a park a couple miles away, the City ripped out park benches so the park would no longer be hospitable to homeless men and women. We fought it as best we could, those of us who were outraged descending on social media, print media, and phones to try to reverse the City’s shameful path. But it was a done deal by the time the public learned about it. The town hall meeting with the only legislator who supposedly gave a bat’s eyelash was a sham.
The Lyceum was empty.
We pedaled by, silent.
I tried to continue, but i was sobbing. Reese made us pull over on Debree Avenue so I could ball my eyes out while he said what I couldn’t say,
“Shameful, isn’t it?”
On Monday, I teared up as we rode our bicycles by the Lyceum. It was empty. I refused to sob.
As we traveled along Debree Avenue, twisting past Maury High School, I looked for the public recycling bins where you could drop off the recyclables that were too big for your curbside recycling can. There’s a couple of trees near the back of the bins, and while there’s a fence, it has been pried open.
The Lyceum was back in operation. Its students had reassembled, cobbling it together our of a couple of dirty plastic chairs, 5 gallon paint pails, and rickety aluminum lawn chairs.
The Lyceum wasn’t empty, and I remembered.
editor’s note: The church referred to is St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Norfolk, Virginia, known as the Cannonball Church after a cannonball that was fired at it by the British in 1776 and was embedded in the church wall for many years afterward.