Breaking Trust (cont’d)

Chapter Three: Permafrost

“He that sleeps feels not the tooth-ache”–Shakespeare

“When you sleep outside, you don’t really sleep. It’s more like walkin’ around all night tryin’ to stay awake so no cops kick you and no one steals your stuff. You know that’s how they wake you up, right? They come up and kick you and roll you over with their foot if you’re on the ground. If you’re on a bench they poke you with their club. That’s not my idea of a good morning.” Judah explained his nights on the streets in the city.

When you do not sleep there is never a break for the body and mind. There is no rest. If you hurt waking, you always hurt. Sleep comes in two hour stretches if you’re lucky.

Hunger is like a dog at the door begging. It never gives up.

A new comer, he got advice about where the “feeds” happen, meals for the homeless and poor, and he found out about a place to get a sleeping bag. Other than that, Judah was on his own trying to figure out how to live in a city with no money and no one to help him.

“The noise, the traffic and the smells made sleepin’ impossible for me. I saw old timers who’d been homeless a long time drink themselves to sleep and sometimes I’d take them up on drinkin’ too but I didn’t feel safe passin’ out on a sidewalk. I didn’t have a home but I wasn’t a bum, you know?”

Living outside all day and all night, every day and every night has a relentlessness to it. The day is taken up finding places to wash your face and go to the bathroom, where to get something to eat and scoping out a safe place to sleep even an hour or two during the day. Then night falls and you’re out wandering in the dark and the cold trying to stay warm, avoiding crowds and fearing stumbling onto the wrong people.

“Every dark alley, every staircase without light threatened me. Going downhill on a prosthetic is hard, doin’ it in the blackness of 2 in the morning is impossible. I had no defenses. I couldn’t run, I had no weapons. I learned to keep my distance, stay quiet and look serious. Mysterious is better than weak so I kept it at that.”

Judah tried a Gospel Mission even though others had warned him not to go. “They line you up outside and make you wait while they count people coming in. You’re given a bed and a locker. But people come out of their with Scabies and bug bites, people are loud and it smells really bad. You can’t eat until you’ve prayed and heard about a hundred times that you’re there because you made bad decisions. What was my bad decision-gettin’ my leg cut off? Trustin’ my parents? It’s like they want to make you feel even shittier than you do. What’s the point in that? They told me I was lucky to have a bed like I deserved what happened to me. I figured I’d be better off walkin’ all night so I didn’t go back. Those missions are a dangerous place for sanity.”

He stayed awake at night and went to job centers looking for work and training programs by day. Everywhere he went he was told to go somewhere else, fill out forms, wait in lines and eventually he’d be given a place to live. The lines which wrap around the Department of Human Services can discourage the optimistic, sometimes dozens deep where people go to apply for emergency food and medical care. Housing vouchers are at a different office and charity services like Saint Vincent DePaul are also in another building, on another block. Homeless residents can spend the money they make recycling cans and bottles on bus passes just to get to the places where they fill out forms or check on them. Being homeless is a full time job.

“A kind of permanent distrust settled in me. I was never an out going person but I could smile at a stranger or give directions, I could make new friends, but during this time a kind of frozenness made me rigid. I was afraid all the time of what might happen to me next. I never loosed up. It wasn’t safe. You could say I was in a permafrost state.”

Case workers had him fill out disability paperwork over and over. “They didn’t know what to do with me. I wasn’t an addict or mentally ill, I wanted to work and I was willin’ to go through any programs and fill out whatever they wanted. But these programs assume if you’re out here homeless you’re sick and that’s what they do—refer you to things for sick people, for stuff you don’t need. I kept sayin’ I need a job and a safe place to sleep. It’s the two things they don’t have for homeless people.”

Judah became one of the nameless crowds of people experiencing homelessness in Portland standing in line. He met people with the same experiences as they waited, smoked and waited some more. When all you have is hunger and cigarette butts, “snipes” collected off the sidewalk, conversation passes the time and takes the focus off exhaustion and hunger.

“It’s not as if no one will help. There are churches who feed you and some case workers who take an interest but the problem is not havin’ a place to sleep and a kitchen to cook in or a bathroom. I don’t need a counselor as much as I need those things. If I stay out here long enough, that may change. I may need counseling to help me understand it. It makes you a certain type of crazy. Sleep deprivation, anxiety, hunger, physical pain and isolation—it starts to do somethin’ to your head. It’s why I read all the time and write. I don’t want to lose my shit but I can see how it happens.”

He takes a drag off his cigarette and is deciding if he wants to tell the rest. He nods his head as if giving himself permission to continue.

“There’s something so humiliating about having to go to the bathroom and not being able to find an unlocked toilet. It begins to hurt and you have a desperation. When you’re eatin’ one institutional meal a day you can’t say anything about food that doesn’t agree with you so you eat it and sometimes you get sick. When that happens it’s like a fever comin’ on and no place to use a bathroom. It’s worse than bein’ a street dog or cat because people are not allowed to go to the bathroom outside but there are no open bathrooms. It’s panic every time. There are no work arounds that I’ve seen. I carried dog bags and tried to use those behind a bush at night. Squattin’ behind a bush, takin’ a crap in a bag. It’s not how a human should have to live. I can’t figure that it’s good for anyone to have us out here like that and if a homeless person breaks a bathroom lock or gets caught goin’ outside that can get you a night in jail. You have to go even if there’s no place. We’re human, you know. We still piss and shit. Sometimes I wished I wasn’t, you know, human. Dogs get more care than we do.”

Judah stopped eating after 2 in the afternoon unless he knew there’d be access to a bathroom. It got to him sometimes but he’d beat it back with smoking. Still, every now and then the hunger would get to him, make him angry or depressed.

“I started goin’ around to the back of restaurants and askin’ if I could work for the night sweepin’ up for something to eat and to do, to feel like I earned it. Sometimes they’d bring me a plate of food which is good but I wanted to work and to be inside for awhile. That mostly didn’t happen. I’d shovel the food into a container I’d scrounged and save it for morning. I felt like a stray animal.”

On a particularly rainy night soaked to the underwear with a hole tearing open his shoe Judah fell hard on a staircase he was trying to ascend to an awning where he could wait out the downpour. His leg twisted, he tumbled down trying to brace himself on his left arm and sprained it. His pant leg ripped and his pack fell spilling his soap and toothbrush to the pavement. His one change of clean clothes he’d picked out at a charity meal became soaked on the dirty street. He crawled to his backpack now also wet and gathered up what he could.

“Somethin’ about it, bein’ in the rain soaking wet with my shit on the street tryin’ to get back to my feet broke me. I felt rage and resentment. I did every damn thing I was told, I tried day after day smilin’ and thankin’ people and not one person gave a damn enough for me not to be there-on the street in the middle of the night tired out of my mind. I hadn’t slept more than two or three hours a day for months and everything hurt. I just wanted to not to be wet and sad and sore, even if for an hour or two. I wanted even a speck of privacy where I could sleep safely.”

So Judah picked up his stuff, crawled his way to a wall and climbed up it to his feet. His prosthetic was loose and the foot was slipping. He limped down the street and started jiggling door handles. He found a Toyota Corolla with tinted windows and wide leather seats unlocked and crawled in the back. It was still warm inside. He draped his sleeping bag over his back and shoulders and slipped off his shoe and wet sock. The rain fell against the roof, he curled up and covered his head with his arm. For the first time in months he had the tingling sensation of drifting off and letting himself sleep.

For hours the sleep knitted part of him back together. He could turn over and move his leg off of him, he wasn’t freezing or getting more wet. It was quiet. He didn’t worry about someone walking up on him. He locked the doors. The click of that sound brought him peace.

Six hours later he woke to light pouring in through the window. He had not slept for six straight hours since becoming homeless. The rain stopped and the day held promise. He let out a long breath and started grabbing his stuff quickly. He’d overslept. It felt good but also urgent that he get moving.

Before he could get out of the car, police knocked on the window and ordered him to put his hands up where they could see them. ‘What are the odds?’, he thought.

Standing next to them was a woman in her thirties dressed up for work in an eclectic print dress and leggings with a felt coat and an asymmetrical haircut. He was in the Alberta Arts District. If he had met her in any other way he would have thought she was cute but now she became a face of shame. The police officer had a gun and opened the door with her key. The woman was asking them to be careful, saying that she didn’t want anyone hurt but that she needed her car to get to work. She was late.

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Breaking Trust (cont’d)

This is part seven of the online publishing of the Book “Breaking Trust; The Lived Experience of American Outliers.”  It is a non fiction narrative based on roughly two years of interviews and relationships with people on the homeless spectrum living in the American West. I am a journalist who has traveled the west capturing these stories to share them with you. You can pick up the story from here but you might prefer to scroll down to the story’s beginning just six short segments sooner. Either way enjoy, share and let me know your thoughts. Please follow as well so I may publish this full book later with the support of its readers.

 

The tension at home grew each day no matter how much Judah stayed gone.

He gave up on making his mom meals and greeting her at the door. The house became like a type of large cabinet for people, everyone stayed in their own drawer. Walt ran things when he was around and even when he wasn’t. He’d show up drunk at different hours of the day and night wanting a fight. She’d calm him down most of the time but sometimes he’d start yelling and keep it going. He’d throw whatever was next to his hand.

The quiet, predictable life Judah and his mom created ended as if it had never happened with the presence of one other person. It was like being in a school of fish in a cool stream and suddenly a shark shows up—the echo system cannot bear it.

He privately wondered why neither of his parents could find someone who’d be good to them and treat him with basic decency.

After more than a month of this Judah’s mom wanted a pleasant evening. She brought home ingredients for Judah’s specialty, Walt’s favorite beer and wine for herself. She put out a tray of snacks to eat before dinner on the counter and fresh flowers on the table.

Walt came home and seemed pleased at first. “What’s all this?” He settled in his chair with a handful of almonds and a beer. “ Looks pretty fancy.” Judah’s mom smiled.

“What’s the occasion? The kid get a job or something?” Walt lit a cigarette. The smile left Judah’s mother’s face. “We thought it’d be nice. That’s all. Let’s just enjoy ourselves tonight, okay?”

Walt refused a plate. The air in the house felt thin and tense. Judah and his mom tried to ignore it, serving up food and sitting. They made the noises of small talk commenting on the food, discussing the day and its weather. Walt’s brooding and animated chain smoking took a sinister tone as he’d narrow his eyes and rub out his butts with force.

He watched them eating and scowled until he slammed his beer down on the table. “Here it goes,” thought Judah, “He’s about to make an ass of himself-again.”

Walt stood up, took another drag of his cigarette, lifted his arm to its full extension and came down hard on Judah’s mother’s face, slapping her hair loose from it’s clip. “I told you before I don’t want you playing fancy house with that fucking smart ass kid of yours.”

He knocked his mother’s plate on the ground. It was the lamb Judah spent the day nurturing and basting, asparagus in a Hollandaise sauce, Basmati rice, a small salad with pickled vegetables. A Willamette Valley Merlot in a glass by her plate.

It all came down. Shattered glass and broken plans scattered across the marbled dining room floor.

When she leaned over to pick up her plate, he grabbed her by the hair. “I don’t need all this damn fussy food. I don’t need your cripple cooking for me. I’m a man, this is my house. I don’t want to come home from working all fucking day to have to deal with this shit. Pick this crap up and get out there and make something I can eat.”

Then he looked at Judah. “What are you staring at? You don’t like how I talk to your mommy ? This is MY house. You don’t live here, you’re here for as long as I say so. Pretty soon I’m going to say so. You better start getting your shit ready.”

His mother said nothing. She gave Judah a look of helplessness. She was nothing like she had been before Walt came back. She straightened her hair and pulled a pack of pork chops out of the refrigerator.

Judah took his plate to his room. He wanted to leave, he wanted his mom to come with him. But where? He had no idea what to do. He wasn’t a kid or a cripple but in that moment he felt like both.

At 4 in the morning Judah’s bedroom door flew open and the light flashed on. His mom was sobbing and trying to get to him. Her face was swelling. She had bruises and blood around her mouth. She stumbled on Judah’s prosthetic, Walt was coming up fast behind her and knocked her out of the way.

Judah grabbed the lamp off his nightstand and braced himself against the chair near his bed. “Get the fuck away or I’ll beat your ass, old man.”

He managed to get to his crutches. “I will beat the shit out of you—I promise. Come on, come one more step and find out,” Judah’s normally quiet voice boomed through the house.

The guy was drunk and stumbled around laughing. “Fuck you. Get out of my house now.” He grabbed his mother and dragged her to her feet. “Tell him to get the hell out of here or I won’t find this so funny in a couple minutes.”

“Honey, you better go. We’ll figure this out in the morning, but for now, just go,” she looked at Judah like she meant it. “Mom, you can’t stay here with this piece of shit.” Judah pleaded like he had never done before, not even to save his leg. “Come with me or call the cops and get his ass in jail. Do something,” Judah cried but his mom said nothing but “Go.” Walt laughed. “I told you she’d fall into line.”

Judah, once again, loaded what he could in his backpack, put on his prosthetic and headed for the door. By now it was 4:30 in the morning. His mother was sneaking to her purse to get her wallet, she was grabbing what money she could but it was only twenty bucks. “Please Judah. Please. I’m sorry.” She whispered.

He walked out the front door to the quiet darkness with nowhere to go and no thoughts. Judah felt a silence inside him.

His mother’s car seat felt cold under him. He’d stay in it until the light came up when he could see where to go. Maybe something could happen between that moment and the light of morning. Maybe it could, but it didn’t.

At 7 am he put out his thumb four blocks from his mother’s house and got a ride.

Judah went to Pioneer Courthouse Square and found some guys he’d met before. By nightfall he was the kind of tired he’d felt on the road, but more hopeless.

For the first time in his life he found himself outside, sleeping under an awning in the cold. It was spring. The weather was not yet fully changing. When he woke a few hours later sore and dazed, his wallet with ID and the twenty bucks were gone.

Judah was homeless.

Breaking Trust (cont’d)

 

The silence between them was benign but graceless and mercifully short.

“Judah, are you hungry?”
“Hell yea! Oh I mean, sorry, yes I’m really hungry.”
His mom grinned.

She watched carefully, he leaned his crutches on the nearby counter, hopped to his chair and half plopped down.

“It turns out you can live on half a bag of chips and food out of the garbage but it’s not great.” He laughed and then realized that might upset her. “I didn’t really eat garbage, just a figure of speech.”

She brought the roast beef, mashed potatoes and brussels sprouts to him on a big white plate with little pink roses around the edges. Judah remembered those plates. He broke one helping with dishes one night. He remembered his mother’s disappointment when she threw it in the trash.

“I know you’re not huge on greens but I figure you might be needing the nutrition.”
“It looks great mom. My favorite stuff. Plus, I eat my veggies now. Thank you.”

He gave her a knowing smile and she leaned down kissing his forehead. He was in the habit of bowing and clasping his hands in a prayer position. “Blessings.”

She found it odd but figured it must be a new thing he picked up on his travels along with his pants rolled up at the ankle and the scraggly little beard.

He cleaned his plate, every morsel. After dinner when she brought the cupcakes, he gobbled down two. She smiled watching him eat quickly while making happy groans. “My Judah is still in there.”

He needed a place to drop his pack. Being inside made the smells more pronounced.

His room was small and modest but she’d saved some of his toys from when he was a boy, a baseball glove, some action figures and books. The colors were yellow, red and blue. Judah loved the Steelers as a child. When he leaned on his crutches standing in the doorway she felt a burst of embarrassment. Had she tried too hard or not hard enough?

“It’s all great mom, really. I would love a shower. You think I can wash my clothes too?”

She said to just drop his clothes outside the bathroom door. She would do them.

While the shower ran she heard him singing. He hadn’t done that as a kid. She couldn’t make out what it was but it made her relieved that he felt good enough to sing in her home. Our home, maybe.

His clothes smelled like the road and sweat and hardship. Dirt, grass, food,cigarettes. The one pant leg folded back where his leg no longer was and the one, big brown leather shoe. She braced herself against the washing machine and covered her mouth so she wouldn’t cry.

Showered, wearing new clothes she’d laid out on his bed—sweat pants and a tee shirt, large, she figured would work since young guys don’t seem to mind loose fitting things, he looked like any suburban young man. It pleased her. He left his crutches in the bedroom and hopped on top of the white carpet feeling it squish under his foot to the couch where he dropped down on one hip and then straightened himself. He looked so much like himself as a child. He was taller, his hair was gone, he had a tattoo on his forearm but he was Judah.

“I’m just hoping I can fit here,” Judah told his mom who sat erect in her chair ready to get him more food or something to drink. “Then you will,” she said a bit stiffly even though she couldn’t know if it was true. “Would you like a beer? I’ve got a dark one.”

Exhaustion sent a tingling warmth through Judah. He promised to talk more in the morning and take a rain check on the beer.

The time apart and inelegance of how they came back together created a tight politeness. Still he felt the feelings of home; good food and warmth.

The door closed behind him and the bed in front of him, Judah craved both without knowing that he did, until they were presented. He pulled clean sheets and a blanket around him and let the air fully out of his lungs. He still wanted a cigarette but he felt too good to get up. He stretched out and fluffed his pillows. A clean, warm bed can be so damn nice. No shoes on, no old clothes and a full stomach.

Waking early Judah listened for signs of life. Would it be too pushy to get up and start breakfast? He really wanted another home cooked meal.

The tidy kitchen with its window blinds flung open revealed a Portland fog. Judah put his ear buds in listening to music, hopping around making eggs and toast. Coffee was on and orange juice poured. His mother caught him half dancing and chopping fresh parsley to dress the plates.

He flung his dishrag over his shoulder somewhat theatrically, smiling as he brought bacon out of the oven on a broiler pan. Seeing his mother out of the corner of his eye heading for a cup, he showed her a bottle of hot sauce. “I can’t go anywhere without this. I’ve taken it everywhere with me. It’s the flavor of life-extra hot. You want some on your eggs?” She smiled, “Thank you for all of this. I didn’t even know you cooked. Maybe just a little of the hot sauce?”

Over breakfast they talked about what needed to be done. He needed an Oregon ID, medical insurance and a prosthetic leg plus some new clothes. He had what he wore, that’s it. That’s an odd list with a leg thrown in like a shopping item, he thought.

Getting a new leg takes care and time. The prosthetic needed to be picked out for his weight, height, fitness level, age and comfort. It was painful at times, even with his prosthetic fitted.

“I felt like I was going to fall all the time. Even a pebble on the sidewalk can take you out until you learn how to “feel” things beneath you. Then there’s the way you have to wear a protective sock over your leg and slide it into the socket. It’s weird and alien at first. You can’t just get up in the morning and go. It takes time and thought. You can’t just slap it on any old way. And shoes. You have to buy a size bigger to work with the prosthetic foot so you’re regular foot is swimming in a big shoe and both your feet feel like they’ll go out from under you. I finally bought the right size for my real foot and put a slit in the prosthetic side to make it fit.”

The prosthetic is metal and plastic, not easy to move around. Judah tried sleeping with it on. He had the thought that if he never took it off it might feel like his leg. “But it didn’t work. It’s too heavy, I couldn’t roll over or turn and I woke up feeling trapped under it.”

At first it pained his mom to see his leg flung on the floor next to his bed at night and she wondered about him not using it around the house but he explained the prosthetic was more like a shoe to him, he’d wear it when he went out but at home it’s easier to just hop around. His thigh where the leg ends got sore from being in the socket all the time.

In the kitchen he didn’t want the extra weight, but he needed the stability. “It’s kind of like a ballet keeping your balance while chopping with a sharp knife—I guess it’s ballet while juggling swords.”

Domesticity settled in comfortably: he cooked and kept the house. He and his mom would take slow walks to get used to his new leg. He’d play cards, read, watch television. It felt good not to be told to get a job or figure himself out. His mom seemed happy enough just to have him around.

Judah wanted to learn more about downtown Portland. He’d hang out by Portland State blending in with the others, getting a feel for the campus. Then he’d catch a bus to the waterfront smoking and talking politics and travel stories with others who hitchhiked west. He loved hearing about the places they’d been and how they “spanged” for the stuff they needed. “I wouldn’t fly a sign,” he told them. But they advised him with the missing leg he’d do well. “If you had to, you would. And people would want to help you out.”

He spent time at libraries and street corners, coffee shops and any place he could read—the Communist Manifesto,Tolstoy, Huxley. He’d Skype his brother in Australia. They’d talk through ideas and questions, the beauty of the words on the page. He could feel himself growing. He was enjoying Portland and getting around pretty well.

For the first time in years Judah felt connected.

The months passed, the weather was cold and rainy but not nearly as rough as Pennsylvania and he liked being home. “It was kind of boojee in the suburbs and the people were almost too polite. Everyone riding their bikes around and drinking lattes but I liked Portland.”

When he wasn’t out he would lay on his bed reading and listening to music. He was teaching himself meditation. Breathe in slowly, monitor your breath. That’s it keep going. Ignore your thoughts and stay focused on the breath until your thoughts slow.

The rest and the food agreed with him. He walked faster and felt more fit. He wasn’t drinking as many energy drinks. The tiredness he’d felt since the accident lessoned. He still had pain in his back and hips. If he walked too far or twisted his leg wrong it would hurt. Sometimes he’d over do it and have to lay around for a day or two.

But when his mom came home he enjoyed meeting her with a glass of wine and dinner. It felt good to take care of her. They’d watch movies and joke around.

He didn’t know much about her partner. She didn’t talk about him and he got the feeling it wasn’t a great relationship. She said sometimes she liked it when he did his big construction jobs out of town and she called him controlling. One time she even suggested that just she and Judah might move to a smaller place nearer to town so he could get to his follow up doctors appointments more easily.

Roughly a month later, Judah’s mom called him sounding nervous. “Hey honey your stepdad is on his way home. I’ll be there in about an hour but I wanted to let you know so you don’t get startled. Maybe it’d be better to go out for a bit until I get there to introduce you two.” Judah left the house quickly and waited two hours before getting on the bus back home.

The guy’s truck was in the driveway next to his mom’s car. There was mud on the steps from his boots. Judah wondered if he should knock or just come in. He decided knocking would be too weird. He let himself in.

“Hey mom, I’m home.” he let out a warning that he was in the house. His mom came out from the bedroom looking a little stressed, straightening her shirt.

Her partner followed out after her. A dark man in temperament and manner, shorter than Judah, he came over and reached out his hand. “So the prodigal son has returned. Your mom can’t stop talking about you. Every other word is Judah.”

They shook hands. He had a vice style grip and stared Judah in the eye a bit too long.

“Judah, are you going to cook for us tonight? I’ve been raving about your cooking,” his mom said with a forced lightness.

“She sure has. On and on,” Walt stared at him. “Why do you wear a shoe on that fake foot? It’s not like it’s going to get cold.”

Judah didn’t answer him. “Yea, okay. I can make something simple, fried chicken, some rice, maybe a salad?”

He put in his earbuds and began his kitchen ballet to Marley: “Don’t worry ‘bout a thing…”

Dinner was quieter than usual and when it was over his mom offered to clean up but Judah wanted the excuse to leave the table and get the dishes done so he could retreat into his room. Everything about that guy made him edgy.

Later that night he heard them from the room next door. Loud sex then arguing. “You talk about him like he’s a kid but he’s a grown man. How long is he staying here? ”

Breaking Trust (cont’d)

 

“If you’re in trouble, or hurt or need – go to the poor people. They’re the only ones that’ll help – the only ones.”–John Steinbeck

Chapter two: The Lonely Middle

The view in every direction was flat, clouds sat low in the sky with no discernible boundaries of mountains or oceans or even tall buildings. Spotty short puffs added to its vast blueness. Wind blew constantly, cooling the dry grasses and picking up dust as it went.

Judah breathed it in and listened to the subtle sound of the breezes touching the grass, felt dust dancing on his ankles and examined the sky. “It looked like the day I got in my accident, real calm and clear.”

He walked over to the nearby truck stop.

Diners and truck stops weren’t foreign places to Judah. His dad said you get the best deals there so he felt at home and figured someone at the truck stop would give him a lift. But no one offered.

“I don’t fly a sign or beg people for stuff. If it happens I’m happy. I accept all donations but I’m not a beggar.”

He looked down a long dirt and grass path as it led somewhere outside Oklahoma City where the flatness had a palpable, sleepy quality. The colors mingled as a generalized khaki and the hum of cars going down the highway had a constancy like an open road lullaby.

Judah settled on the path near the road and stared east and west imagining that on one side was good and the other bad—that all his plans would come down to which way he went. He fell asleep just off the road in high grass thinking this then dreaming it. He was visited by angels and demons. They spoke to him of his carelessness chastising him for not paying attention to his own life. At first he fought them in his dreams and later listened to the forces within him.

“I think that book, the Tao Te Ching, was really getting to me. You can’t understand it with your thinking, you have to just let it sink in, you know. So I did.”

Perhaps the metaphor of a path which turns based on his intentions had some merit. But for now, upon awakening, he was aware of his hunger and his drive—his frantic fear in the moment. He wrote it all down. All the pain and the prophecy of the road.

“I figured this was gonna be easy, at first.” Then he found himself in the plains states where only the wind speaks to strangers. “I would walk all day and no one would stop. I’d fall asleep in the weeds by the highway and start the next day. I’d get so hungry, I’d feel pissed off-desperate. It’d chew on grass, smoke cigarettes to kill the hunger but nothin’ was working. I had to tell myself I was training. I’d have to get used to not eating regular. I can see why people steal stuff when they get like that. You can’t think normally.”

The road headed west. He could go back, but to what? There was no food nor comfort to be found there anymore. He would keep going west until he hit the Pacific Ocean.

He had a deeper connection.

“My dad gave me my birth certificate. It said I was born in Portland, Oregon. I figured, well, I might as well see if there’s a place for me there. You get real adventurous when your choices don’t make a difference. Broke with no job, no stuff and no connections makes one place as good as another. I’d heard Portland had a spot for someone my age, plus my mom was there so maybe I’d have family.”

He left Portland as a third grader and hadn’t been back sense. His memory of it was foggy. He remembered bridges and a river and a little bit about his school. That was it.

Finally a trucker stopped and dropped him off at a Church, wide and low with a huge, white, wooden cross on the front. He said it was a place where a traveler might get help. “They took one look at me and were happy to get me a one way ticket west. The lady in the office took me to the Greyhound with a tuna sandwich and a coke. No questions, no counseling, no Jesus-just a ticket. That’s a thing I learned, ask for a one way ticket out of town and you can usually get it.”

The roughly 14 hundred mile trip takes about 47 hours by bus. “I sat back and listened to Alan Watts on wi-fi. That one motel manager guy told me I’d like him on Youtube.”

Judah listened to one talk after another.

“But it’s absolutely stupid to spend your time doing things you don’t like ….”

He clung to the British philosopher’s resonant voice with its breezy way of calling into question everything you know in a detached kind of way, “ … And so, therefore, it’s so important to consider this question: What do I desire?”

That’s how he made it west: Alan Watts and left over food skimmed from the top of garbage cans at bus stations. “I learned the hard way you have to be careful about what you take. No matter how hungry you are. I ate someone’s half left over sandwich and found myself in the bus bathroom for 200 miles.”

From then on he fought with his hunger trying to breathe through it when he couldn’t use cigarettes to cover his hunger.

“I had some kinda romantic idea that I’d fit in Portland and find some part of me I hadn’t seen back home. Maybe I’d be an artist like my brother. He didn’t go with my dad to Pennsylvania, he stayed with my mom in Portland. He was older. Or maybe I’d figure out how to go back to school and become a writer. Everything felt open. I cared that I was hungry but I figured it’d just add to my story later on, later when I made it. I felt proud in some way on how little I could survive, like it was a boy scout badge or somethin’.”

Judah believed maybe his mom, whom he had not seen in years, would still take him in. When his parents divorced, Judah went with his father and moved east. It had been more than a decade since he spent any real time with his mother and they had a distant kind of relationship. He advised her he was on his way and she seemed happy, excited even. So when he finally got to Portland he took city buses and hitchhiked to get to her house in the suburbs.

Neighborhoods built in the 90’s have a sameness to them attempting to look like older, more established places with craftsman style houses. The stained wood doors and glass panes, the porches and wide sidewalks all broadcast a kind of American idealism. Trees line narrow, tight lawns and driveways cut out from wide streets with names like Brighton Way and Burntwoocd Court further the concept.

There are kids bikes by the garage and basketball hoops, all signs of a way of life which hasn’t changed much on the surface. It’s the kind of place where people cluster together and hope to weather out the turmoil of a changing city and economy.

Something about it made Judah uncomfortable.

He stood on the step waiting a long time, breathing in, staring at the door, imagining her opening it. His breath blew out visible air. He wanted a cigarette but that’s not how he wanted his mom to see him first thing. He shuffled on his crutches. “I looked kinda rough. I’d been sleeping in dirt and riding a bus. I didn’t smell great either.”

Her front step was narrow. Judah braced himself not to fall. He finally rang the bell.

On the other side was his mom. She paced between the kitchen and dining room.

Her thoughts moved rapidly from one to another: Will he still like roast beef and potatoes? She made it just in case. He used to love cupcakes, the kind with chocolate frosting and a white center, but he was only eight then. She had a small plate with them in the kitchen. She wouldn’t overwhelm him but…just in case.

Is he tall? In the last picture she saw he looked quite tall and thin, kind of like his older brother. What will it be like-the leg missing? So many times she thought that the accident wouldn’t have happened if he stayed with her. She was his mom, she should have kept him safe.

She wanted to go to Pennsylvania to get him. But he wouldn’t go with with her. Judah had grown more quiet. She struggled to break through. Now she wondered, would she be able to?

She looked out the window as he approached the house. The sight of the crutches caused her to place her hand over her mouth and then heart. It’s okay, she told herself.

The door bell rang. She took a long breath, closed her eyes for a moment and wiped the sweat from her hands on her pants.

Opening the door too quickly, she drowned. The sensation swept her under with anxiety and uncertainty. She wanted to step back and take him in, she wanted to grab him and hug him. But instead she smiled and invited him in like a well meaning stranger. She didn’t know what to do. He wasn’t sure either.

They hugged awkwardly; her holding him, he leaning in but needing to keep balance on his crutches.

Breaking Trust (cont’d)

 

“He asked why I wasn’t going to work. I told him I walked off. I didn’t want to tell him about how that guy acted, how I couldn’t keep up, how pissed I was that I couldn’t do it. I just told him it didn’t work.”

“You can’t quit a job until you’ve got another one. It’s going to be hard enough…” Judah’s dad didn’t finish the sentence. “You have to get another job. Your stepmom and I can’t deal with you camped out in the living room not talking, not doing. You have to make your life. Hard work will fix you up.”

Judah nodded in agreement. The pain between them felt like a connection and a breaking point in one long look. His dad didn’t know what to do and neither did Judah. There are no guidebooks or places where all amputees go and live happily ever after.

“I didn’t know how to tell him that I couldn’t keep up at the gas station. How could I tell him that? I was supposed to go into construction or farming and I can’t even pump gas? I didn’t say nothin.’ I guess I just couldn’t get off the couch. My dad sided with my stepmom, he didn’t want me around anymore. He kicked me out. He told me to get a job. He didn’t understand what he was asking.”

Judah looked around his parents house, the back yard, the road ahead. It all looked bare. There were no hints of possibilities. He thought maybe it was for the best somehow, a fresh start.

No long conversations nor loving good-byes. Everyone was tired. His dad was tired of feeling helpless. Judah was tired of that feeling too.

He set off on another summer’s day. His dad was at work and his stepmom went to the store. “They knew I was leaving that day but no one stuck around. It was just over, I guess.”

Judah took his school back pack with the clothes he could fit, a new toothbrush from the dentist still in it’s package and a bottle of aspirin. He wanted to strip his room bare, throw everything away as if he’d never been there but there wasn’t time and his dad said often enough that everything in the house belonged to him and to his wife. The decision about what clothes to bring had no deliberation. He took what he could fit.

He started off walking. He would go as far as he could on crutches.
“I had this thought that maybe bein’ a guy missin’ my leg and walkin’ across the country could be inspiring somehow. Maybe someone would see me. I didn’t want to hope and be disappointed but I kept thinkin’ if I could do something big and maybe help somebody else who’s lost a leg, maybe it could all make sense.”

But a few miles out of town and the long road ahead killed that hope too. His armpits were raw and red, his arms throbbed and his remaining foot rebelled against every step where he swung down hard on the ball of it. His arms weren’t free to wipe the sweat from his eyes so it stung. His hair had not grown back from losing it in the hospital due to all the drugs he had been given, so his scalp burned. He needed a hat or something to cover his head but he didn’t think to bring one. He strapped a water bottle to his belt and it bounced around clashing against his thighs. He had to stop often and take a drink. “I didn’t want to get dehydrated again and pass out.”

He put his thumb out.

Five miles from home on a residential street with the temperature hitting 80 degrees, cars passed by him. It took 40 minutes for the first person to stop.

A woman who smoked with the window rolled down driving a Honda pulled over and leaned toward him opening the door.
“Get in hon. How long you been out here?”
“I don’t know, maybe half an hour.”
“It’s hot, you’ll have a stroke. I’m going through Ohio to Kentucky. I can drop you anywhere in between or take you all the way. You okay with that?”
“Yea, that’d be great.”
“Where you headed?”
“I guess to Kentucky now.”
“Well, alright. You need any help getting in?”
“No, I got it. I’m used to it.”
In her sixties with grey hair dyed but losing color she asked about how he lost his leg. Judah knew he’d have to tell this story often so he made it short:
”I was in a tractor accident at my uncle’s farm. They couldn’t save it. That’s about it.”
“Well, you’re a hard working young man. I’m sure something will turn up.”

Judah wasn’t sure what she meant by “turn up” but he kept it to himself. He didn’t want another long discussion about all the things he could do when no one really understood what that meant. People dispense advice without a clue, he thought.
She couldn’t leave the silence alone.

“Where you headed?”
“Portland, I guess. My mom lives there.”
“That seems like a good choice. It’ll be nice to have mom around I bet.”
“I suppose,” Judah said slumped in his seat.

He wasn’t really sure he was going to Oregon but it sounded like it made sense so he’d say it for now. It’d be a long 500 miles if he had to talk the whole way. The seats were comfortable and he had plenty of leg room so he could stretch out and let his crutches lean between him and the driver. Leaving home on his own for the first time made him reticent. He needed a small barrier of privacy.

By the time they reached Kentucky it was night. He had slept off and on the entire way. He felt a little guilty for not being better company. He’d try harder with the next one.

“This is it for me. I’ll drop you off here so you can get a room for the night and start fresh in the morning. You need money or are you covered?” She surprised him with her generosity so casually offered.
“I don’t really have any money. That’d be cool but I don’t think I can pay you back.”
She smiled. “Don’t worry about it. It’ll come back to me somehow, or maybe it already has. Here’s sixty bucks.” She had it ready like she was expecting to give it to him.
“Thank you. Thank you so much. Oh, my name is Judah, by the way. I guess I should have introduced myself hours ago. Sorry.”
“It’s okay. You were tired and you have a long road ahead of you, Judah. Nice, strong name. I’ll remember that.” He closed the door and she drove off slowly waving as she moved away.

The night manager of a roadside motel with red doors and clean walkways let him stay that night without asking him to pay. Judah wasn’t sure if he should use the bit of money he had for a room or save it for food. These were the choices he’d have to make from now on. The manager saw Judah standing out front looking at the three twenty dollar bills in his hand trying to decide what to do. But before he could make up his mind the guy came out and put a key in his hand.

“He must have known I didn’t have a lot of money. He asked if I was hungry and I told him no, even though I was. I didn’t want to be pushy like that. He said he’d get some fruit from the lobby and maybe a beer if I wanted. He kept it behind the desk in a mini fridge. I couldn’t say no.”

They smoked a few cigarettes and drank on the curb outside the room. The manager didn’t ask him about his leg, where he was going or anything about his plans. He told Judah he’d been managing the place for about a year and in that time he’d seen more and more people coming through with packs.

“It’s gotta be exciting and kinda crazy at the same time. Just taking off with a single backpack. Hey, I admire it.”
“Thanks,” Judah spoke with relief. “I’m just wandering, I suppose. I couldn’t stay home and I didn’t know where else to be so I took off. I’m sorta working my way to Oregon where my mom lives but I’m not in a hurry. I really don’t know.”
“A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.”
“That’s cool.”
“It’s from a book.”

The two men blew smoke through their noses and watched the road.

“It sounds kinda like what I’m doing. I don’t really know but I’m doing it anyway,” Judah chuckled. “I don’t know how that sounds but it’s true. It’s why I’m kinda quiet most of the time because I feel like I won’t make sense to people. They get frustrated.”
“Those who know, do not speak,” the manager puffed his cigarette and looked like it was the best smoke he’d ever had.
“Is that from the same book? Seems like I should check it out.”
“81 verses. It’s short and paradoxical. It doesn’t make sense at first but you get it eventually.”
“Oh. Is it religious? ‘cause I’ve kinda had enough of that for right now. No offense or nothin’ but I’m not waiting around for God anymore.” Judah looked down at his leg.
The night manager considered for a second. “It’s more like specifically not religious. It’s not against anything but it’s not for it either. It’s called the Tao Te Ching, the Art of the Way, they don’t even know who wrote it. The author’s name means old man.”
“That’s cool. I’ll totally check it out.”

The manager who never bothered to give his name put out his cigarette, grabbed the empty and walked back in the motel without a word. Everything about him was quiet. Even walking away Judah couldn’t hear his feet on the pavement.

Judah woke to the book on his doormat with a note: “The master observes the world but trusts his inner vision.” He looked around but saw a young woman behind the desk. He was gone.

Optimistic and eager to keep moving, he went across the street and ordered breakfast. A Denny’s type place with truckers and travelers ordering pancakes and sausage, he watched the servers filling coffee cups and the customers ripping open sugar packets. He sat at the counter and waited to order. Hungry, Judah wanted something big but got one egg, fruit, toast and a glass of milk. He needed to keep the hunger. Plus that 60 dollars had to last.

A guy two seats down with a huge plate of food and chugging his third cup of coffee loaded with cream and sugar smiled at him through his crutches leaned between them. Judah went back to his breakfast. He wasn’t used to talking to strangers. That’s not how they did things growing up. The guy, an older man with a pot belly and wandering eye sizing people up as they came in took the hint and didn’t start a conversation. But when Judah asked for the check he had already paid it.

Judah grabbed his stuff and went outside looking for the guy and found him checking his truck’s tires and making sure the door on the back of his trailer was secured.

“Hey thanks for buyin’ my breakfast but I can pay for it,” Judah told him breathlessly after walking quickly toward him and dodging potholes in the parking lot.
“Nah. It’s okay. I just wanted to support a veteran. I do that whenever I can.”
“Oh, well I’m not a veteran. I lost my leg in a farm accident. Look, let me pay you back.”
“See how I made that assumption? Sorry. Really, keep it. It was just a couple bucks. Where you headed?”
“Portland, I guess. West anyway.”
“You need a ride. I’m dumping this load in Oklahoma.”
He seemed normal enough and he bought Judah breakfast so he felt some loyalty.
“Yea, that’d be cool.”
“Hop in. We’re leaving in a couple minutes. You got it okay?”
“Yea. I’m used to doin’ stuff on my own.”

They rolled down the highway for ten minutes without talking before the driver spoke up. “You don’t have to do things on your own. God is there for you. You give your troubles to him and he’ll take care of you.”

Judah understood now why the guy picked up strangers. He figured him for a Christian Soldier. No matter how much Judah said or didn’t say he persisted. It went on like that for 800 miles with one exception.

They stopped in Memphis for BBQ and neither one of them could shut up about how good it was. Memphis was nothing much to look at, Judah noticed the houses off the highway with their sagging roofs and crooked foundations. They looked tired. All of Memphis looked like it needed a nap. Even the river slowed down with its sludge churning labored and thick.

The sweaty heat, low skies and high bridges, brick storefronts and Memphis’ general run down appearance reminded Judah of history class. He thought Memphis would be bigger and more colorful but it was kind of like every other city, except for the river and the food and Beale Street.

Judah chuckled at BBQ spaghetti and Tony, the driver, ordered it.

Music poured out of Memphis at night like water from a cracked jug. Tony said they were making good time so he’d drive the eight miles out of his way so Judah could say he saw Beale Street. Neon signs, brick everywhere and crowds in every conceivable place bumping happily against each other jockeying for doorways and patio tables made the small city look bigger.

The streets were dark, cast in a neon glow. Judah wanted to get dropped off there but Tony recommended against it.

“You might struggle to get a ride outta here. Believe me in a couple hours you don’t want to be here.”

Memphis, once the hub of the civil rights movement and now an economically devastated footnote along the Mississippi, suffers from an opiod epidemic, a declining population and is home to the worst schools in Tennessee. 69 out of the bottom 83 schools are in Memphis. It’s a different place from night to the next morning.

Back in the truck, he fell asleep and missed the scenery until Tony woke him up in Oklahoma.

“Okay buddy. Our adventure is over. I gotta drop this stuff off and get some sleep before heading backhome. In a day I’ll start this all over again. It aint easy but it’s a job so I feel lucky to have it.”
Judah nodded.
“Listen, it’s been nice to have your company and wether you want it or not, I’ll pray for you.”
“Thanks. I’ll take it if it comes from you.” Judah clasped his hands in a kind of prayer but added a slight bow he’d seen the motel manager do.

Just a few days ago Judah had no way of knowing any of this would happen.

Breaking Trust (cont’d)

Breaking Trust is a full length book about the lived experience of the more than half a million Americans who have nowhere to live. Many work, many are retired, many are people who are not paid enough to survive. I met and lived side by side with these folks, many of whom I now call friends, for the past two years. I’ve learned about gratitude, caring and shared community. I’ve learned what it means to be more fully alive. I share these stories with you two pages at a time. I publish on Mondays and Thursdays. Please follow and share. We can only solve what’s happening in our economy and to ourselves if we work together.

Judah didn’t know how to cope with the emotions of his loss. “ I was high the whole time in the hospital and it was hard to know how I felt. I guess it was a big deal how much blood I lost and how bad. When I left the hospital weeks later, the drugs stopped and I was left to deal with it. Sometimes I wish they hadn’t found me and taken me to the hospital.” Judah says it then imitates a chuckle and affects a grandmotherly high voice. “Such a fuss. I don’t need nobody to make such a fuss.” He’s not surprised by what he said. He’s said it before.

“From then on any dreams I had about working construction, building a house on the family land, or farming it, havin’ a family myself—they all ended. “

He’s briefly wistful.

“I figured I’d have a place like Pap’s with a two story house, a big yard, maybe a porch and a huge garden, potatoes and collards. But now, who’s gonna hire me? How am I gonna do the work I was used to doing? What girl is gonna want me now that I’m this kid missin’ a leg? I just stared out the hospital window wishing time could be taken back, that I would have had the water I should have brought with me. It’s the little mistakes, the small fuck ups that can change everything. If only I would’ve drank that water, wore a hat, anything…..” He stares off to the side and his voice just stops. He’s picturing that afternoon again.

But Judah struggles to picture the future.
“I kept thinkin’ maybe there’s some special prosthetic. Maybe I could still farm on my Pap’s place but I kept hearing I was being unrealistic. They told me I needed to accept where I was. I figured that’s an easy thing to say standin’ on your own two legs.”

Judah smirks his twenty-two year-old smile. He tugs on his whispy goatee and the look in his eyes is like that of an older man. “Shit. It’s not like these guys really know what they’re talkin’ about. It’s all from a book for them. For me, it’s my actual, real life.”

He initially rejected the advice to settle for the end to his young man’s plans.

“I believed I would be one of those guys who makes it anyway. I figured I’d work hard and get my life back on track—no problem.”

He went back to high school, a newish building connected by pathways and looking more like a private college under its orange and red leafed trees, and his life went on somewhat normally. “No one acted weird or told me I was brave. My friend coasted on the back of my wheelchair and we flew around campus. We sped through the hallways and the teachers didn’t say nothin,’ I could do whatever I wanted. I was like a no-touch, no-discipline student. But mostly, everyone was cool about it. And, in some way my concentration improved. I wanted to learn everything I could. Maybe knowin’ I couldn’t just pick up a hammer made me want to learn more.”

Judah graduated high school with a b average and some college prep classes under his belt. His attendance record shocked his teachers. He did not miss a full day.

“They call it walkin’. It’s funny right? It was more like rollin’ for me. Everything is based on two legs.”

He continued physical therapy, but with no school to go to and no schedule to keep, he forgot what he was trying to prove and to whom. Depression hung on him like an old undershirt he couldn’t get rid of. He wore it everywhere and tried to cover it up. It surprised him that he couldn’t seem to get back up and find anything meaningful again.

“I gave up. I just sat around getting stoned. I couldn’t think about what to do next. We weren’t really a go-to-college kind of family. We were hard workers, outside, for as far back as anyone knew. I guess there was no back-up plan. It was just.. ‘do the work, save up, get a house and a family, drink beer on weekends and everything will be alright.’ No one ever said what to do if that didn’t work.”

He, at his father’s urging, applied for Social Security Disability. He was denied. There was no money. “I tried again, got a lawyer even. Same thing came back. I hadn’t worked long enough to qualify and they said I should get a job, basically. They didn’t know me and didn’t care to. It was just ‘no’.”

So, Judah went to work. He got a job pumping gas and washing windows.

“One day the place was full, all the pumps and a guy inside wanting to buy a bunch of things, Slushies and cigarettes, stuff that takes time. I was by myself goin’ from pump to pump and tryin’ to get the guy taken care of inside. I could see the man at the counter tappin’ his credit card and the drivers were all lookin’ at me with windows rolled down, like ‘hurry up, move faster.”

He started panicking with the realization that he was going as fast as he could.

“I come to this guy’s window who’s been waiting. He’s got a nice, new fancy car and a bling watch. He unloads on me about how long it’s taking and how he’s got a dinner and doesn’t want to stink like gas. I’m sweatin,’ my crutches are slippin,’ my hands feel numb. The harder I try, it seems like it’s taking longer because I’d forget to close a gas cap or miss a pump shuttin’ off.
When the dude looks in his side mirror he notices I’m missin’ my leg. He’s all, ‘sorry, sorry, I didn’t know.’ That’s the first time it hit me people might feel pity. It really pissed me off. But the truth is, there’s no way I could keep up and I couldn’t let myself get fired. I walked off after my shift and never went back.”

Judah went home that night and took a long, hot shower. He shoved his work clothes in a plastic bag and took them to the trash. Settling on the couch with remote in hand, he lost faith in his life in increments. He no longer looked like the people he saw on television. No characters had one leg, no commercials targeted him as a buyer. He was not a regular guy. This would stick to him.

“I felt lost. I felt like there’s no way I could have a good job, make a living. Without that you’re pretty much nothin’ in America. I guess I gave in to being nothin’.”

He said nothing that night or the next day or day after. Judah says he stopped talking and he was already a quiet guy.

Finally his dad took the remote from his hand and pulled the bedding off the couch decisively like a knife cutting meat from bone. His face was both angry and unsure but one thing was clear; he was done.

Breaking Trust (cont’d)

Chapter Two: Judah

“The other side of the shore-so close, yet so far. How can we cross over except in the dark?”  –Judah

8

 

That’s the poem Judah left on my kitchen counter one of the last times I saw him. But our story starts many months before that.

In Oregon where snow drapes over the tops of sharp edged mountains and rain falls for entire seasons, a forecast saying this year is wetter than most, is no small thing. It is the wettest May on record and the all-time wettest month in 121 years of record keeping.

Rain, snow, all elements come and go for people in houses who mutter under their breath as they dash to cars and comment in coffee shops, “So wet out there,” as if it’s the first time they’ve noticed. But for those in the weather, outside, for lack of anywhere else to go a shift in climate-especially wetness, is cause for more than conversation over a warm mug of coffee. It is soaked socks and fungus, it is a deepening cough and a damp blanket which may freeze overnight. It is preparation which may or may not be enough.

Bees drown in puddles of exhaustion and those who wander may indeed be lost in the cold, the wet, the enchanted green and the relentless yet oddly hopeful way of the Northwest seasons, of which there are many including the usual four and two additional: there is False Spring which happens in February with sun and 60 degree days which inevitably lead to snow in April and New Summer which hits in mid-October like a one week reprieve before the long, gray march to June.

In Japan, there are 50 words for rain. In the Pacific Northwest there are three: torrential, constant and intermittent.

For Judah, a 22 year old homeless kid, the day’s weather begins with inventory as he finds a corner in the deep end of book shelves on the upper floor of the university library where wide windows reflect the rainy fog tossed around the Siskiyou Mountains. Garbage bags, tarp, rope, knife, walking stick.

He removes his pack and coat, which he places over a chair. Hidden behind fiction, he takes off his boots slowly and quietly hoping his socks will dry. He sets his purple, red knit beanie on the table. If no one complains or calls the cops he’ll spend the day reading:

“To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover. In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated….”

“That Steinbeck can sure write,” he mutters while folding back the pages of his paperback “Grapes of Wrath.” Judah sees himself in it. He is waiting out the depth of the wetness which soaks through every layer he’s wearing. The previous wettest May was in 1957 when 4.24 inches of precipitation was observed.

He wasn’t born then, his dad wasn’t even born then.

But then, a lot has changed since his father showed up in the world.

“In my family, all the kids worked,” Judah says as he leans back in his chair.

His 6 foot 2 inch frame and lanky presence is cool but energetic. A blue collar kid he grew up in a Philadelphia suburb fully expecting to work construction like his dad and grandfather.

Judah is sitting with his grey backpack strained at its seams with notebooks, socks and books. But he wears most of his clothes on his back. His pant legs are rolled up at the ankle; playful and tragic. They reveal a foreign looking leg. It is metal with a hinged ankle descending into his boot.

He lost everything quickly. “It was hot. I felt weird. Then it was over.”

In minutes, Judah’s life changed for good. He lost his leg from the thigh down when the tractor he was driving flipped and pinned him beneath.

Of course, no one saw it coming. Who would?

Judah’s dad dropped him off at his uncle’s farm in rural Northern Pennsylvania during summer break from high school. The still hopeful days of June lay out before him when summer romances and saving cash seemed probable.

The farm emerged where rock houses and stone bridges rise out of green pathways leading mysteriously to tall and skinny homes with grain silos casting shadows. The heat pulled waves from the thirsty grass and brought farmers begging for cups of water and a break from direct sunlight which bakes the farm country and its small towns all summer through harvest before the winter comes to punish with its relentless dry-snow cold.

Most folks in Bethel make a respectable income in the mid $50’s and they take pride in working hard to keep up the squat shotgun houses which line two way streets and modest government buildings scattered through “town.”

But, like so many things, that too is changing. Family farms cannot compete with the mega farms of the plains states and changes in farm legislation away from dairy hits Pennsylvania hard. Factory jobs scattered within driving distance have all but dried up, some 100,000 manufacturing jobs lost in a decade, taking construction with them. Steel is laying off by the thousands and Judah’s dad bounced around temporary positions building houses and occasional stores.

While bigger cities share the same pain, whether by factories closing or farms drying up, communities see themselves more by culture than economy or geography. Farm country is the kind of place Philadelphia residents disassociate from as “Country” or “Up.”

But Judah was associated with both, a city kid by school year and country farm boy in the summer.

He expected to spend a bit of time helping out at his uncle’s farm in the “ Up Country” before coming home and getting back to his life of finishing high school and patching it up with his on again, off again girlfriend.

There were no long good-byes when his dad dropped him off with a suitcase. “We didn’t hug or nothin’ like that. It’s not how our family did things. We figured we’d see each other soon enough.”

By the next day Judah was astride his uncle’s tractor working a back field.

As the sun rose to its hottest at roughly 3pm, only a few days into the summer, Judah felt faint driving through miles of wheat fields. That faintness turned to heat stroke and Judah lost consciousness. The tractor drifted off its path, hit a tree and flipped onto Judah pinning him underneath it.

He lay under the tractor feeling his blood and life draining from him as the sun went from its hottest point to slowly setting. He expected to die.

“It hurt. But that wasn’t the main thing. It was just so weird feelin’ myself dying and lookin’ up at the sky. It was so beautiful. It didn’t make sense.”

He doesn’t know how long he laid there trapped. He knows he blacked out and that he was beyond escape. His lodged leg went from painful to numb. He knew he was losing blood and he suspected if someone didn’t come soon that sky would be the last thing he’d see.

“I didn’t really feel sad and I don’t remember thinkin’ about God or nothin’ big like that. I just kept noticing what I could see, the sky above, the fields around me, the tree nearby and they were so peaceful and calm, you know, just watchin’ me die. The sounds of the birds were so clear, I remember thinkin’ it’s good they were there with me. I was okay with it. Maybe in some way I almost wanted it. It’s hard to explain.”

When he didn’t show up for dinner, his uncle went to check on him. He was air lifted to the nearest hospital in Philadelphia. “I knew my leg was really messed up but I was like, please, save my leg. I thought they could.” He woke up instead to discover he’d become an amputee from just above the knee down. It took a while to sink in-between the pain drugs and the trauma.

“It’s possible to get sick and get better. You can get a flu that makes you think you’ll never get well, but you do. Your feelings can be like that too, you know, temporary. You can have your heart break like when my dad married my step mom and she didn’t like me, but you can also change how you feel. But when your leg is missin’, there’s no change, no recovery, no next thing. It’s gone and for the rest of your life you’ll be the guy with the missin’ leg. There’s no changin’ that.”

He was just barely 18.

“I could still feel my leg. It wasn’t there, but felt like it was. And it burned sometimes but I couldn’t do nothin’ about it.”