It was nearly twenty years ago, in a small town, South Georgia, USA. Legion Street was spelled “Leigon” on the road sign and that was just one of the indicators this was a poor neighborhood. In a poor small South Georgia town money for signs did not come easy so money for the poorest of the poor came even more rarely or not at all. Somewhere in the halls of politics a name of a street was plucked from the air at random, so it seemed, so some poor section of town got their street resurfaced and the luck of the draw came to Legion Street. Each Congressional District gets X amount of asphalt for this sort of thing, so each county gets Y amount of asphalt so each town gets Z amount, and so it goes. There didn’t appear this street was worse than the one next to it, or the one that intersected it, but it was on the list to be paved, so the crew went down the list and the work began at dawn.
There isn’t any way to count the number of these tiny street and roads I’ve been a part of paving, no way at all, and I wouldn’t remember this one except for the name was misspelled and we nearly didn’t get done with the road before time ran out on us. The poorer sections of town were not really safe when the sun went down on a Friday and we got through on an August day after five in the afternoon. Young men in slow cars were already cruising by with their music turned up and their faces turned down. This section of tumbled down houses, trash filled ditches, and broken pavement was their turf and they didn’t like us here. One of them threw a half finished beer, or accidentally dropped it, and the asphalt crew all yelled at him about it. The men who work asphalt for a living are real men. Back in the day, asphalt was worked from dawn to dusk and these men walked along with the asphalt spreader without any breaks at all. I worked from a truck but it didn’t have an air conditioner so I usually walked with them. Little streets do not get the attention or the trucks of larger projects so we would wait for trucks to bring asphalt, and sometimes it would be an hour, or more. Time trickled by like the sweat running down the back of my shirt. Seconds turned into minutes as the heat rose higher and higher.
It took two days to finish one road, which was a long time for so short a road, and the breaks between trucks only meant we would be waiting in the hot sun. The first day we started the kids in the neighborhood came to watch, but it became clear to them very, very quickly this was hot and dirty work, and nothing to see here, move along. Yet there on the side of the road was this half naked kid in diapers who looked like he was no more than eighteen months old, just toddling along with us. I kept waiting for some mother type person to come running out of one of the houses, shaken and stirred her offspring had escaped her view, but it didn’t happen. At that age I wasn’t allowed to walk around the yard alone and my mother would have had a stroke if she caught me that close to heavy equipment and hot asphalt.
Through the years I’ve noticed that dogs and cats won’t get near hot asphalt but little kids will. The younger the kid the more powerful the draw to danger, is seems, and this kid was trying to poke at the asphalt with a short stick. I kept waiting for someone to show up and drag him away, but it just kept not happening. Looking back, I wonder what I would have done if cell phones would have been around at that time. But I lacked the ability to flip open a phone and call 911, or DFACS, or anyone else, so I temporized as best I could; I expressed my indignation to the members of the crew.
Paving is hard work, and there are some positions on the crew that pay well, relatively speaking. The man who operates the steering wheel of the paver has to guide it straight and true if the joint in the pavement is to look good, and he also has to keep the paver moving at a pace that is steady so as to eliminate any unnecessary bumps or joints. Then there is a man who rides on the back of the paver, the Screw Man who by turning handles, screws, on either side of the paver screed, regulates the depth of the asphalt coming out of the paver and the thickness of it, from crown to edge, now there is a man making some money, and he usually is the man running the crew. He’ll have one man who helps him, but the rest of the men…well, they’re there for manual labor, and none of them are knocking down much. There are a couple of guys who run the steel wheel rollers who bring up the middle of the food chain, but they are making just above those running shovels for a living.
I asked one of the shovel guys about the kid and he just looked at me. Hell, he growled, his mother has to work like everybody else. That was a popular response to the question, along with the look that went with it. The idea of someone from the middle class despairing as to the state of child care in a poor neighborhood didn’t sit well with them. I didn’t consider myself well off at all, but when I thought about it, my modest home was much better than any house I could see on Legion Street. Some were clean homes, with neat yards, but those were the ones with metal grates on the windows, and their yard furniture chained to trees. Years ago when I was a paper carrier it was the poor people who would invite me into their homes and pay me in cash, on time, every month. The thirty cents for a stamp was far too much for them to afford so I would arrange to meet them at their houses, one neighborhood at a time, and one by one, customer by customer, they would smile and hand me seven dollars and twenty-five cents, and they were some of the nicest people, ever. The more well off customers would complain if the paper didn’t hit the center of the driveway, or if it wasn’t folder correctly, or if there was something in the op-ed they didn’t like.
The Screw Man was someone who had lived most of his life running a shovel, but he had risen to the very top of his expectations and more. On his word men were hired or fired, and it was his opinion that matter to the crew, and it was his attitude towards men like me that determined how the entire crew treated me.
“Not my problem, not your problem.”
This was a man who had worked his way out from under the very bottom of the barrel and was now living a life he could not obtain any other way. By his craft did the rich get richer, and they had rewarded him for it. Now, some young man from the middle class sought to cause trouble in any form? No, there would be no trouble. The road was why we were here, not social justice or child care.
“Pick him up and take him home with you, but don’t do it on my job.” He said this loud enough for some of the others to hear. The Screw Man had spoken. The paver inches forward and he makes a show of doing his job and the other follow suit. The child pokes the fresh asphalt and no one comes to get him away from the heat. The paver inches forward and now the steel wheel rollers flatten it out and compact it. The men operating the rollers ignore the child, but they are careful not to get too close. Take one step at a time away from anything and you will wind up far away sooner or later. It’s odd at that moment I was in my early thirties and I felt so old. The Screw Man was a decade older than I, but looked much older. Twenty years later, he was an old man, the heat, the fumes, drinking, and an accident where his truck was slammed into by a drunk driver left him with a skill that was fading with his strength. His company would offer him a generous retirement, a nice watch, and a party, but he refused to go and they fired him. It was odd, truly odd, to hear that he refused retirement, and they refused to keep him. But they wanted a younger man, and hired one who was, again, a decade older than I had been on Legion Street.
I’m just there to inspect the work, and as such I get to take breaks. I go to lunch and eat at one of the local restaurants. It’s a Southern Buffet and I’m bound to feel bloated. But this is comfort food. And it is also a cop out. I hope the child is gone if I tarry. I see a local policeman but I have no idea how to tell him there is an infant playing in traffic so I don’t. It isn’t my problem, right? These are not my people. I am of a class higher then these people because I sleep in a house in a better neighborhood and this child, abandoned by his parents, can safely be ignored by me, and I have done nothing wrong.
And the child is gone.
Time becomes an issue and we finish late on a Friday. The Screw Man praises me in front of his crew when my supervisor shows up on the next road, and he talks asphalt with me, tries to give me a few pointers, and the crew likes me more for this. I’ve been bought off by the good will of a man who doesn’t want any trouble on his job. I’m a paid coward and it makes me feel good to be part of the team.
Twenty years go by and I’m talking to a man who was younger than I that day. He operated a steel wheel roller on that project but he moved away from asphalt and became a truck driver, and then an asphalt plant manager. He moved up some, and found a good job, stayed there, and now he and I spoke about the Screw Man, and how he got fired. We both were shocked and we both spoke of all the things behind the scenes that he knew and I didn’t. The drinking came up. The drinking was a problem. After twenty years we both had seen it take down more than one Screw Man, and we remembered a man from another company who died in his sleep in his truck on a project. Took a nap between trucks and never woke up. Damn, man.
“Remember that kid?”
No one has spoken of the child in twenty years. Men from that crew have all come and gone, some fired, some quit, some dead, and this man, this last man from that day, twenty years ago…
“That kid with the diaper, damn, what town was that?”
He’s giving me an out. I can say I don’t remember and he’ll back up. He looks at me, and I know he knows, and he knows I remember. This is an accusation, not a question.
“Legion Street.” I say aloud.
“Man, I would have never remembered that!” He laughs loudly, and claps his hands together, and I laugh too, but we’re both remembering the same child on the same day and it wasn’t funny.
I’ve been a coward, paid and rewarded for this for far too long. This man offered me silence and I didn’t take it. Now, it’s my turn. Now, I have to pay him for what he seeks to sell. I have to set himself up for it, and I know I have to.
“What happened to the kid?” I ask. “Did anyone…”
He shakes his head and stops smiling. “I dunno, man, I tell you, we moved on and when I looked back he weren’t there no more.”
And so it worked. I walked away and twenty years later I can invent a mother than came and took him away, or an older sibling, or anything at all. We talk about anything and nothing for a while, but we both now share the truth that neither of us did anything. He held the truth that now I hold; we simply did nothing and now we do not know.
When I see young men working I sometimes wonder if one of these men might be from Legion Street, and if the smell of asphalt brings back memories. Or if the child died, accidentally drowned in a ditch, or killed from disease…
I did nothing. Now I do not know.