Tuesday, November 25, 2014
Back in the late 1950s, there were Tenement housing in St. Paul, where now a large Hospital resides (used to be called Ramsey County Hospital, it has since changed its name), off Jackson Street. My brother had a paper route there, I often helped him, it was really the ghetto, of the city, one of them… part of the slums, it may well be said at the time, and it was one gigantic slum for such a small city of less than 300,000-residents. An abyss of degradation. It was a place which neither you nor I would care to have our children see, less live. Where no person should have to pass his or her life in. It was like a beehive, all humanity festered together.
I had the evil fortune to see the face of this unfortunate man as he stood in the archway, he evidently had just risen from his bed, when we knocked on his door, my brother and I, to pay my brother $2.60 for the monthly newspaper, and my brother said in a whisper before the door was opened, something to the effect of: “Don’t get alarmed, he’s not the best looking guy in town,” and even now a half century later, this gruesome memory, the sight of this man’s face and body, and contours, makes me shudder. He stood there in a mortuary like shell, his body leaning in the archway of the door, a distorted look, he stared, thinned lipped and a mere bundle of mounds covering his skin-boned-body; his hair, matted with filth, and his room a nest of vermin; his boney chest incrusted with shocking sores, his face absolutely covered with bumps, and lesions, boils like, that left no pace clear for a tear to navigate down: he resembled a leper, or a person who had syphilis. His room perhaps eight feet wide, and nine feet long, a bed and a chest with a mirror on it, the bathroom was in the hallway, a community used bathroom. He wore rags for clothes, socks with holes, no shoes, had he wore them surely he would have been in pain, for his legs and feet, and his belly, for his t-shirt did not cover it completely, were leper like also: how in heaven’s name could he afford a newspaper, I asked myself, although he only got the Sunday paper if I recall? I stood in shock; I was eleven years old then—1958, my brother thirteen. I swear he couldn’t have been over forty-five, this ghetto man. He coughed his lungs out, a rag in his hands to wipe his spittle with, I stepped back some, as not to get a face full of it… as he continued coughing as if having convulsions, constantly coughing. He smiled at me, or perhaps it was a grin, or frown, not sure; I was petrified. He gave my brother the money, living and dying at the same time; I thought to myself: I couldn’t touch the money; how fearful I was, how I could think of such a thing. A deteriorated face, still in the process of further deterioration, as I stood there. Perhaps at one time a strong man, with ambition, initiative, now rotting and hopeless, yet now, no longer a man of vigor and stature, perhaps even a soldier at one time, defender of the country. Here, in the ghetto sinks the deepest depths of destitution. And there I stood, the wine of life drained out of me, a story for posterity, for today. He planted his eyes inside my brain for this very day; he looked bestial, it was as if he gouged me with a duel knife, or beat my head in with an iron anvil, with his image. It was as his face and hands and chest had been bitten by rattlesnakes and all that was left was raw bumps and sores, and bugs trying to find their way out of his skin, having chewed their way out of the marrow of his bones. I was so taken I could not swallow. And then he shut the door. And my brother pulled me away from this massed misery, this man of the ghetto, for I was too close to the picture and lacked perspective. Somehow he, my brother, could disconnect from this. I am trying to be level-headed here, not addle-plated, but I never could.
No more of a lifeless sight can be found on this earth than the whole of the awful sight of this ghetto man, and the odors that seeped out, come drifting along with a greasy gust—: his fingernails layer with grease. A pallid, pasty complexion, which is the sure mark of starvation. Enlarge this by my brother’s whole paper route zone, which was composed perhaps of some 10,000-residents, and you will be beneath the truth.
Time has virtually passed it by, that ghetto is of course long gone; left behind for the finer instincts of life, for me, and for the city and for its people I hope. It used to be the proud boast that St. Paul, was the castle of among cities, conservative, and well cultured, and the sacredness of home and life was priority, but it wasn’t so back then. I have spent a decade in Army life, and the dwellings back then, back in my brother’s paper route area, were worse than an overcrowded barracks. Let’s hope it never comes to that again!