Tuesday, September 21, 2021

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Joe's Neighborhood

And the rain keeps falling


The rain is coming down so hard there is nowhere for it to go but up. Water washes over the roads and creates small ponds at intersections making you hesitate about driving without a life jacket. Will your car actually float? Is this a good time to find out? The flash of lightning and crack of thunder give an edge to the whole scene as the windshield wipers hopelessly push the water one way and then the other. It could be the end of the world, you think gloomily, as you strain to see through the dark and rain. Or, it could be a late summer storm in Iowa. It’s too early to tell.

Way past midnight I stand beneath the awning at a gas station on the west side.  The rain is unrelenting. The wind sends the rain underneath the metal overhang and sprays across my face as I look out into the empty night. My middle son stands next to me. A bit embarrassed. And next to him is his car. Locked. The only set of keys resting carefully on the passenger front seat. Safe and secure from both car thieves and my son. His call brought me out of bed, and we wait together for the locksmith to appear. Both of us looking out into the dark and rain. Waiting together.

joes1Earlier that day, I went to the Federal Building downtown with that same son. As we hustled through the rain, I glimpsed at a man sitting alone inside the bus stop out front. Bent in. Hands clasped. Hood up. Looking cold and wet. When we left the building an hour later, the man was still there. Not a muscle had moved. A pillar of salt.

I suddenly recognize him as I hurry past. The elongated contraption resting against the bus stop should have been my clue. Only one person strings a household together with such ingenuity. Of course, it is Jerry. Huddled out of the rain. Alone.

Gerald Raymond Collette. Living on the streets since 1992. It was two years ago when I last saw him digging through trash in the alley behind Court Avenue. Back then he told me he had “no friends, no family.” His attempts to rejoin the world failed because of “ethics, morals and values.” He preferred the street, he told me back then.

Prep Iowa

And now?

“I’m still living down by the river,” he said. “I’m feeling safe. I’ve been concerned about my health. I got a different health care provider. He did the Anawim application, food stamps, a safe phone. We’re going to be looking at an apartment. I’ve checked with them twice this week. Maybe tomorrow.”

Jerry is clear and articulate. Someone you’d talk to at the bar on Saturday night or after church on Sunday. He recognizes me from two years ago. Back then he told me he didn’t want to be around people, a fact of which I remind him.

“See, that’s the thing,” he said. “You misunderstood me. I don’t want to live in the same room with people. That gets kind of nasty, but I’m all right to live with people. I just need a cubicle of my own. I like to socialize with people. I just want my own space.”

joes2Jerry looks at me intently. He wants to set the record straight. He doesn’t want to be portrayed as some type of eccentric loner. He’s on the edge of the sandbox — he knows — but he’s not outside alone in the grass. Howard Hughes he isn’t.

“I’m trying to get off the street.” he said. “But I’m permanently barred for life at the homeless shelter because of infractions of the rules. Hopefully this new thing will get me an apartment. I ran out of food stamps about a week ago. I’m short every month. I’m trying to make it work. It ain’t working yet.”

joes3So, Jerry sits. Waiting for the rain to stop. Not overly wishful, certainly. And clearly used to disappointment. Most things haven’t turned out for him. No matter. He sits quietly and waits patiently. Expecting the worst and hoping for the best. A solitary figure rooted to his wet bench.

It is after midnight, and the rain is coming down only harder. It has rained on and off for more than 24 hours now. My son and I stand together, looking out on the deluge, waiting for the locksmith to come and rescue us from this bleak spot. Time passes. But in that time, we are able to squeeze in a little anger, a dollop of joy, a lot of humor and a helping of love. All the normal stuff of relationships. Nothing unusual. Just the cost and reward of living. When we have exhausted ourselves, we look out on the wet dark, lost in the elements. Waiting together. Fortunate.

And the rain keeps falling. CV 

Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines. Joe can be reached by email at josephpweeg@gmail.com.

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