Letter from the Editor

Monday, February 6, 2006

He is all but invisible, and if anybody bothered to ask - which they never do except for today - he would say he likes it that way.

He is bent double now, scrabbling through the trash in a Sunrise Park barrel. He shamelessly grunts with the effort, the foul odor of the garbage no worse than that of his own body. With a muffled gasp, he emerges with his prize - two Budweiser empties, which he wipes on his filthy jacket and drops into a black plastic bag.

There are plenty of people like Paul. We see them very rarely in Storm Lake, as in most comfortable rural towns. They are the people who roam the country's alleys and shadows. People who aren't above picking the meat from someone else's bones, or digging in the trash for the means to travel another mile down a road going, ultimately, nowhere.

If we see these people at all, we tend to look right through them. They are mere pests who make us feel a passing pang of guilt, discomfort, or at least stop our sunny day tune in jagged mid-whistle. In the moment before our thoughts turn to more important subjects - like did we remember to lock the back door? - we hope they will just go away. And they will. They have to.

Paul, clutching his bagful of cans and bottles protectively, is one of those people. He spent the night, like most, in the back of his rusted-out Ford beside a Storm Lake park, unless he got rousted out early by the police. Whether he found the place to be heaven or hell, he didn't say. He would be gone before the next nightfall regardless, unsure of his destination but keenly aware of the need to keep moving.

I guessed Paul to be around 40, although he looked 20 years older from a distance, in his battered clothes, with a pocked face and stubble already going to white.

When I approached too close, hoping for that interview on poverty that would make the next issue a prize-winner, he pulled away like a dog used to being kicked.

I don't know what I expected, but he wasn't it.

He allowed me to walk with him for a distance, as long as I kept my notebook and camera out of sight. At most of my casual questions, he just shook his head sharply or muttered a bitter curse.

It seems those wonderful street-poor philosopher characters and their touching stories are a product of the movies.

If Paul's past held any great tales, he wasn't saying so. There were jobs here and there, but the work was always too hard. There was a woman once, but she didn't understand. Was it the arguments with his mother or the run-ins with the cops that first made him run away? He can't say. He left, just left, very young, and he hasn't stopped running for more than a handful of days at a time since. He doesn't even remember how many years ago that departure was.

Does he ever think about what was, or what could have been?

"Hell no."

There is nothing romantic or poetic about him. He is dirty, foul-mouthed, unlearned, unloved. His only possessions are a falling-apart old car, a few pieces of dirty clothing wadded in the back, and maybe on a good day, a cheap bottle to make the hours pass faster.

As for poverty, however, he doesn't look at himself that way. Poverty is for people who beg. People with no choices, he says.

"I go wherever the hell I want, I do whatever I want, when I'm damn good and ready."

In places like Storm Lake, mercifully spared the sight of people sleeping on the sidewalk or sprawling in alleys with needles in their arms, stealing wallets or selling themselves to survive; it's easy enough to ignore the homeless issues.

People like Paul, although he prefers an endless stream of trash barrels to a home, are rare and unwelcome reminders that not everyone lives by the same rules as we do.

But should we feel sorry for Paul? How many young people haven't had the urge to just run away and never stop. How many haven't had an urge sometime to jump into the car and leave everything behind us? Who hasn't yearned for freedom from working, bills, obligations, ties? The freedom not to give a damn about anything or anyone in the world. He has that freedom.

But somehow I can't help but think of Kris Kristofferson singing in a voice like worn tires on gravel: "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose..."

I began to realize that this interview was just wasted time. Paul wasn't going to say anything worth relating - his mind was on the next trash barrel, the next town, and scraping off the stranger who asked too many questions.

And in fact, when I got back to the office, I pitched my notebook into a bottom drawer, a little peeved about my wasted time, and it stayed there, forgotten, for two years.

It was only when I heard of the search for an area child who had run away and perhaps was living on the streets somewhere, that Paul flashed back into my mind.

I remember to this day exactly how that worthless interview had ended:

"I'll leave you alone if you answer one question," I had told Paul, thinking that the answer would never make print anyway. He looked up, red eyes focusing on me for the first time from between strands of long, greasy hair.

"What advice would you give a kid thinking about running away from home?"

He surprised me.

"Runaways, f--ing runaways." He laughed. It had a rusty sound, like he didn't do it often. "I'd tell their little asses that before they want to run, they oughta know there ain't no goddamn place to run. There ain't."

It strikes me that his lesson may be worth repeating.

I held out a five dollar bill. He looked at me like I was the one with garbage on my hands.

Then he turned to shuffle away in the direction of the next garbage barrel. Alone. Unnoticed. The way he likes it.