Working at night was what I think being addicted to heroin must be like. I’ve never been hooked on anything worse than cigarettes and quite honestly I am not sure there is anything worse. Night work stretched out in front of me like a hundred million marathons with each night going on forever with any break in the heat or the artificial darkness or the endless hours. Each day was spent trying to sleep, trying to rest, and trying not to dread the night that rushed towards me like a slow moving mudslide of despair. My social life ceased to exist. I worked over ten hours a day, five days a week, spent one day a week in a daze and one day a week trying to get my life in order for the next week. We did this for eight months and then one day it was all over.
Working on the interstate at night meant out of the darkness would come a human form, shuffling like a zombie, eyes weirdly lit, clothing shabby, and that odd look on his face as if he had been given some mission, finally, he could understand. Yes, we did have work lights out there, portable towers with banks of white bright lights on them, but the light destroyed all night vision and deepened shadows. Fatigue cut into the ability to see, and to react to what was seen, so when a poorly dressed wreck of a human came out of the dark it was a surprise, always, and frightening, sometimes, and weird in a way I cannot explain.
They had learned not to crowd the marks. The training program for the homeless is nothing if not a precise art. No politician ever had a speech written more succinctly. I imagined that one night I would happen upon their university in some dry culvert, with words to be used on one wall, words like “sir” and “ma’am” and “please” and “God Bless” and on the opposite wall, written in chalk from a dirt dauber’s nest, would be the concepts, the storylines, the narratives, of the industry, and all would and could, recite them by rote.
Me and my wife and three kids were traveling down to Florida, and we broke down and got stranded at that last exit so I walked all the way down here looking for some gas, and we haven’t eaten in three days and the dog got hit by a car and died, and I ain’t heard from my mama in a week, and my wife’s cancer came back, and little Timmy’s leg needs an operation, please sir, if you could just gimme a dollar, please, just fifty cents, please, I’m begging for my baby girl, she ain’t et in a week now, and she’s lying there crying, I can’t stand it have you got a beer?”
You’d give one a dollar to get rid of him, to get him away from the work, and later than night see him stumbling out of the truck stop with a six pack of cheap beer, holding it like a running back, heading for the woods, or an overpass, trying to avoid the other homeless who would want him to share. Each overpass a collection of beer cans, bottles, used toilet paper, and the smell of urine. Some of the men on the crew were mean to them; cruel to the point we would have to rein them in. One man threw a handful of change into the highway, into the middle of the Interstate, just to make a homeless chase it. It was incredibly horrible to do this. The homeless would believe forever and ever there was another dime out there he had missed. As we moved slowly forward we left him behind in the dark and as traffic got near he would stand at the edge hoping to see the reflection of silver in the light.
It is very easy, and perhaps even idiomatic, for us to put these people in a category that includes metal illness, substance abuse, or perhaps laziness. What if none of this was who or what they are, but rather a symptom of how they deal with a world in which who and what they are isn’t any more productive than how they are living now? You admire the works of a man who carves angels out of stone, but who was this man if he had been born on an island of fisherfolk living in the South Pacific? Albert Einstein, a man of a remarkable mind and now the symbol of great intellect, who would he be had he been born in the American colonies, on the frontier, in 1700? Georgia O'Keeffe born in Hiroshima, 1920, might have never grown up at all, or never painted. The human wrecks that you see on the road might be exactly as they appear, and they may be all we expect them to be. Or it may very well be they are human beings whose minds, and spirits and talents fit into our world not at all.
These people seem so alike in so many ways I wonder sometimes if they are now all part of some genetically alike group who we are forcing into extinction. Our heavily structured society gives them no way to reproduce and survive except on the outer edges. Like the Natives of this country who were pushed off their lands and nearly died out, the homeless may be of a tribe of people who cannot adjust to a society that is so bound by the clock and so enslaved to money. They version of freedom seems to us a life of squalor and despair yet they are not the ones out on the road for months on end, working a dangerous job for little money and no comfort at all.
The idea of some people being genetically predisposed towards being unable to accept civilization as we define it is sort of a foggy thing. Yet so much of how we have advanced in culture was considered too weird or insane, in the beginning. I am not saying that each person you see on the road is a genius undiscovered. I am saying that each person on the road is not some drunk who crashed out of society and landed at the bottom. We, those of us willing to work long hours for no joy, created this world. Who are we to judge those unable to live in it?