Thursday, June 17, 2010

Culvert People

As you travel along I-75 you might zip past and over hundreds of minor drainage structures and never know they are there. The bridges you may notice as they span waterways and low areas, and when they span traffic or rail they are called overpasses. It may occur to you to wonder who you’re passing over, or under when you use these structures, but I doubt it. This is the world of concrete and steel. Humanity exists only in the context of your cabin space of your own vehicle, and the world passes as you sit still, it seems.
We’re working on I-75, resurfacing all of the lanes, and that means we’ll start at the beginning of the project, go to the end, and then back up to the beginning again until we’ve finished all three lanes. The first time around was nerve racking because we were all new to the project, and the first night on the Interstate is always the hardest. But this is a veteran crew, and a very solid contractor. These are men who have the wherewithal to handle any problem that might arise, and they are professionals. There is no shouting or fear, no hysteria or confusion as to who is doing what job. I’ve had Interstate projects as well, I’ve worked with all of these people before, and I know better than to try to get involved in areas of interest outside my own. That’s the real key to management, or inspection, and that is to let the people who are supposed to do the job, do the job. Don’t try to hurry things. Don’t try to put your own spin on the activity. Know when to do nothing.
As darkness falls the first night I catch movement out of the corner of my eye and I see something moving at the periphery of my vision. I shine my flashlight down off the road, and see something move back into a culvert that lies under an abandoned road just west of the Interstate. Something just moved back out of range of my light, and I’m betting it was human. Homeless people use dry drainage structures as shelter, and this would be a good place to bed down for a night, that is if you’re homeless. But I have a job to do, and cannot worry about the Culvert People.
Two weeks later we’re back at the beginning and this time I see a man standing outside the culvert, and he sees me. He ducks back in, but in a few moments decides to give the crew a pass, to see if he can gain anything from our presence. He struggles up the slope, slipping a few times, and I wonder how someone let themselves get so wrecked physically. Yet this is a person outside my cultural reference. I have a house, pay bills, hold down a job, and write. This man, unless he writes, does none of this.
I wonder if there is a trade off here that is actually beneficial to him. He doesn’t have to worry about money at all past his next meal or next six pack of cheap beer. Insurance is not something he has to debate. There is no concern for the Great Gulf Gusher, or if the economy tanks. His long range planning exists as a function of the day at hand, and once he gets enough food or drink, the rest of the day is his to spend as he can. But freedom comes at a price, and today the price of that freedom comes in the form of triple digit heat.
The man shuffles up to me, asks for a cigarette, and then scours the crew with a glance to see who is smoking. Smoking makes sense to the homeless because it is an appetite suppressant. A pack of cigarettes may be expensive but you can go a whole day on a pack and not be hungry. He asks me of a dime. A dime? Yeah, a dime, just a dime, it isn’t much, if you can see it in your heart to give me a dime, just a dime, I sure would appreciate it, sir. It’s a clever ploy, this is, to get me to give him anything at all in front of the crew. If I give him a dime, and everyone see me give him the money, maybe everyone else will pitch in a dime, or maybe even a quarter. A cheap six pack of beer is four dollars. If he can get ten or twelve people to give a coin he might be able to pull it off before sunset. But the sun is not setting.
“Wanna know whash wrong with people?” He stands up a little straighter, and waves his hand out in front of his chest, and looks me in the eye.
“Tell you what.” I tell him. “I’ll give you five bucks if you say something interesting.” I fish out a five and hold it out so he can see it.
“Teddy bears!” he exclaims.
“?” I reply.
“Yeah!” He never takes his eyes off the five. “We give out kids something to hold onto at night but it’s something. We teach them that a thing has meaning, it has emotions, and the kid falls in love with that thing because we keep giving it to them. They get older and we’ve trained to love things so they have less inside for people. The more things they got the less they care about who gives’em the things cause we’ve trained to love the thing not the person giving. “

I hold out the five, floored.

He shuffles off towards the nest exit, a quarter mile away at a pace I didn’t think he had in him. Someone taps me on the shoulder and tells me we’re starting in five minutes and when I turn around the man is gone. I can’t stop and look for him, but I don’t see him on the road, and I steal a glance towards the culvert and no one is there.

Take Care,

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