Tuesday, March 19, 2013

American Pariahs

I have met a few saints in my life.  One of them was A. Gridley Hall.  We worked together in southern New Jersey.  Grid was well known among legal services lawyers up and down the east coast in the 1970s for his work with migrant farmworkers.  Having spent part of his childhood in Spain, the son of a diplomat, Grid’s Spanish was fluent.  Once a farm owner threatened him with a shotgun if he kept coming onto his land to see the Dominican workers, families forced to live in their cars and an abandoned barn because the farmer would not pay for housing. 

Grid was good with the media and got a reporter and a photographer to come onto the farm the time he visited after the shotgun threat.  True to form, the farmer brought out the shotgun and a picture of the angry farmer pointing his shotgun appeared in a Philadelphia paper.  It was a local grower’s association as much as Grid’s lawsuit that forced the farmer to build his first migrant farmworker housing.  The association’s members didn’t need the unwelcome attention that one of their own was bringing on the rest of them. 

I was not part of that. I joined Camden Regional Legal Services the following year, and I did not work in the farmworkers’ unit.  One night Grid was passing through Woodbury and stopped at the local CLRS office.  I had only met him once or twice before. 

“Want to see some pariahs?” he asked.

“Where?” I asked.

“Come.”

He was driving a twenty-year old Ford a farmworker had lent him.  The farmworker couldn’t afford the repair so Grid paid the bill.  In exchange, Grid used the car to go from farm to farm.

“They don’t think about damaging a car like this.  Unless they see me drive up, they don’t even know how I got there,” he explained.

But we weren’t going to a farm.  We went east of Glassboro and left the highway beside some railroad tracks, then drove about a half a mile to the end of the dirt road, probably made so that railroad repair equipment could reach a transformer station. We left the car beside the station and continued beside the tracks on foot.  There was a corn field to the right. 

“There’s housing for the farmworkers over there, beyond several fields.  One of the men has a sister there, which is how I know about them.”

About a hundred yards past a turn in the tracks we saw two men standing beside a small cinder block building with a rusted metal roof that would have provided shelter only to the extent of concentrating rain into streams. There was no door to the building.  There never had been.

Grid spoke to the men in Spanish, introducing me as a friend.  Grid was wearing jeans, a white dress shirt and an old wool blazer.  He had left his tie somewhere, but in the universal tradition of legal services law he could have qualified to go into court by just adding the tie.  Not elegant, but passable.  I was wearing a suit since I was not yet comfortable with the disapproving looks the local judges gave to the lawyers who dressed like Grid.  I had removed the tie but I still looked more like a lawyer than I wanted to that afternoon.

Grid looked into the building and said something to someone inside who was lying in the shadows. The reason for going there was that Grid had arranged for the man to visit a doctor and he explained to the man lying on the floor and one of the men outside that he would pick them up the next day and take them to the doctor.  Grid always found people who would help.

It was while this was going on that I noticed the dogs lying beside a pile of rubble about twenty feet away at the edge of the corn field.   

“Yours?” I asked the man who was not part of the conversation Grid was having. 

“Not ours, no one’s,” he said. 

“Why are they here?” I asked. 

“Nowhere else for them,” he shrugged.  

I walked towards the dogs.  One was a German shepherd, skinny, old, weak, not quite starving.  The other was—if I had to guess—a collie terrier mix with ears that flopped forward towards the tips.  The shepherd seemed broken as I got closer, with only enough energy to raise his head.  The smaller dog stood and looked at me, cocking his head as if it were a question.

The pile of rubble was mostly made of broken plant pots, red clay, large, probably all once of the same size, as if some commercial operation had used them.  Yet on top of the pile was a wooden Saint Francis, about three feet high, the base and one foot of the saint missing.  Black, charred on one side, someone may have once tried to use it as firewood, but long ago.  It had mushrooms growing out one side and there was a bird in the saint’s hand, also broken, missing the part of the wing that would have extended upwards and away.  The wing that connected with the saint’s torso was still intact, more elegantly carved than one expects of garden ornaments, which it must once have been.  There was still some white paint on the face, and the eyes looked towards the sky as if commending the bird to God. Someone had stood the statue up, propping it with red shards.  I always thought the men in the little camp had wanted to to give some dignity to the broken saint who shared their poverty.

The man I had spoken with caught up with me.  He had a nearly empty can of beans in which he swabbed a piece of old bread.  He got slice brown on one side, tore it in half and threw one piece up the in air.  The collie mix jumped and caught it.  The man put the other part of the slice in front of the older dog, which looked at me in a way that made me turn away, as if I had shamed them by watching this. 

I walked back towards the cinder block structure.  Grid was waiting for me. 

 “Isn’t there a dog catcher?” I asked naively.

“The town would just kill them.  They’ve got friends here.”

As we drove back, he told me the men had been living in the cinder block house for several weeks.

“They’ll move on when their families do, but they can’t live in the housing.  They don't want to give the farm their papers.  They can ride on the backs of the trucks, but unless one of the relatives finds them work, they’ll stay here till the end of the harvest.”

“Why do they come along at all?”

“Desperado, the one I’m taking to the doctor.  Probably the others too.  For things long ago.  They couldn’t do much harm now, obviously.”

“What will happen to the dogs?”

“The migrant families won’t let them in their trucks.  Maybe the one that can move, but probably not even that.”  

“Tell me when they leave.  I’ll bring them some food.”

The dogs were feral, abandoned, but surviving for a time.  In other parts of the world they might join the pariahs at the edge of some village. Their status would be determined by the order of the fluid packs pariahs make and their survival would depend on their adaptation to that order.  Here they had found each other.  They could at least share their sorrows. 

Gridley Hall moved on to the Ford Foundation, working in South America, then died young, of AIDS.  I thought of him, and of that broken Saint Francis, when the new pope chose to take the name of the patron saint of animals.  I am not a Catholic.  Auschwitz exists, so God does not, Primo Levi argued.  If every year millions of animals are gassed, burned, mutilated, forced to fight, terrorized in countless ways, or just abandoned, happiness is not a divine principle for them either.  Yet we sign petitions, scream at the wrongdoers, raise signs and arms to the sky, send letters, because we want some light for them, and for ourselves.

I did not take the time to go back.  When I did it was several years later and I could not find the place, that particular stretch of old railroad, the cinder block building, anything. 

So remembering the broken saint and the camp of pariahs I pet Chloe, a false self-absolution for that and many other sins.

3 comments:

  1. I'm not sure how to praise this piece of writing, so I'm just going to say thank you.

    ReplyDelete
  2. There is always a thread of hope. Thanks

    ReplyDelete