The Gospel in Ordinary Time
by Kevin Swanwick
I watch pensive Johnathan push his shopping cart slowly. He’s making his usual rounds past the corner where crack falls from the sky like snow.
The bored cops look on from their cruisers, more intent on watching those who walk with a strut.
They don’t know that this hunched cart pusher has the East End knocked. Knows better than most the comings and goings and who owes who.
He could fill them in on exactly where the ice flows will stick on the river. How many steps to the vacant crane cabin that keeps watch over Water Street. Why sleeping in the cemetery isn’t a bad deal. Which member of the Barrio Kings threw a bag of crack vials over the rail trestle with the cops in hot pursuit. Where the bag landed.
No shifts for Jonathan. Always on. Always alert. Which is why he's so tired and takes naps in the afternoon.
The men with armories on their hips took away Johnathan’s skimpy belt and CD player and never gave them back.
“You can’t afford a CD player. You stole it,” they said.
So, it was gone, held by the virtue of power where the evidence room becomes a members-only thrift shop.
But Johnathan needed a belt to hold up his baggy pants.
It was after his release, holding his pants up with one hand, that he first preached me the Gospel.
“No one really knows what they do to another. They think they know me, but they don’t. I forgive them,” he said.
No more string quartet to make the downriver wind bite less sharply, but he still hums it in tune. His matins & lauds without headphones.
The nuns are arriving at Johnston Street to reopen the doors after the early morning exodus of souls who slept on the floor with Vellux blankets and a new pair of socks donated by the parish of Saint Mary’s.
[Note: Let Sr. Monica know we have leftover mac and cheese in the fridge. The donations were good and last night’s feeding filled all of the bellies.]
I confessed to letting Frankie in.
Rule: no shooting up before entry. [Which Gospel is that?]
To the amusement of other vagabonds, Frankie fell asleep standing up. Sort of.
A standing nod can take fifteen minutes. He bends slowly, eyes closed and in magical descent. The heroin-induced hologram he inhabits makes his departure and arrival deft and certain. The only flaw is 10-degree weather. Commence vertical as a plumb bob, straight legged on the sidewalk with hips like a hinge and head bowing to the flagstone. The upper body falls like a clock hand to a quarter past and stops. Someone bewitched.
I watch. Is watching helpful? Volunteers are supposed to help. I am seeing the East End with a birds eye view that lets me fly away and return to a warm house: a place where walking on the road (no one calls them streets) is done for pleasure. Or Trick-or-Treat. The thought of a gunshot only comes after Ordinary Time in the echoes of deer hunters in the distance. The hunter. The walker. Baby on Board. Cars have bumper stickers. The who and what of persons is as plain as a traffic sign.
In the spring, landlord thugs in dark windowed SUVs break and enter for overdue rent. It must be too much trouble during the cold months. The city removes the thirdhand couches and chairs from the sidewalk with the garbage. It would have been out of place during the holiday season.
On clear days in spring or summer, a Paul Robeson doppelgänger strides up and down the street holding his King James high overhead and proclaims the red print like Amonasro. He never explains his own exodus but always returns to the promised land and walks steadily over the jagged cobblestones without ever looking down. Some skills stay for a lifetime. A proud basso voce and Newburgh’s river-bound acoustics carry the proclaimed parables several blocks down Broadway.
At the drop-in center on Grand Street, Clare does a brief headcount before closing time to find out who needs socks. She’ll walk the block to the shelter and rattle off names. I throw them from the storage room, a pair at a time, in a grubby game of catch.
Clare is tiny, gap-toothed and wears thick eyeglasses. Her breasts are large and seem out of place for someone so small. The men gaze upon them too long, but their eyes retreat when they remember their moms. She moves about with the bearing of a mother.
She knows how to pose questions to those cleaved from human connection, which questions to ask in the open and which to ask in private. Clare is the roaming, real time almanac of the East End. A trusted confessor. In her absence knowledge is a crapshoot.
In December, she helps plan the homeless count. The Feds are sure to schedule it inside the clutch of the cold months. Frozen-weather couch surfers and those in the depths of derelict buildings miss the tally.
Understatement remains a virtue.
So, what of the ladies?
The overnight shelter is a one-gender affair. When the Sisters of the Presentation arrive late in the morning, one or two sex workers may step in from the sidewalk. The oldest profession admits almighty skills where the dignity of work includes a talent for taking a good punch.
You will notice the newbies by their skin. The faces that still resemble a yearbook photo before mugshots leave likenesses behind.
Pimps play their part and ply the master trade with free and early offers of the backstabbing breakfast of champions. It starts with a smile before the hard-earned wage winnows away cursedly each week and the gift-with-purchase period expires. The subsequent scowl will erase any recollection of a gentle promise to the end of hard luck.
Fact: the ladies are tougher than the men. The more durable ones like Carolyn, who don’t disappear, will have a knife that you don’t need to see: the eyes will let you know. The sense of ill boding must be prescient and borne of instinct.
When walking Ann St., they are shape shifters. A pair of four-inch pumps that advances a drive-by choice can become a weapon in an instant. Limits are made in the mind and the ladies must lay waste to them more quickly than the wrong customer.
Two nights ago, Carolyn did disappear. She had handed Jonathan her a wad of cash for safekeeping in his shopping cart. That was the last time anyone saw her. It was the first day of Ordinary Time. Jonathan attended Mass. Fr. Moore handed him twenty bucks after the church people cleared out. He was rich.
We stood at the corner staring at the twenty bucks in his hand.
He looked up at me with brows raised and then lowered as he spoke. “I don’t need the money...what should I do? Maybe I’ll ask Clare. She will know.”
“Yes, let’s ask Clare” I said.
About the Author
Kevin is a husband, father, son, sibling, technology/business executive, cyclist and freelance writer.
His background covers a business career in software technology and work in human services and homeless shelters in the Hudson Valley of New York. His short fiction and poetry often reflects his experiences working amongst the homeless population from the east end of Newburgh, NY.