I see guys who sleep on plastic and cardboard on my walk alongthe East River. You don’t know what to do for them. You know there’s some loose chain of shelters that takes them in at night if they aren’t too out of it to even get into that ‘system’. I spent a year some years ago volunteering to stay in a homeless shelter that was in a Quaker Meeting House. There were cots for them. Sheets and pillows. Towels and soap to wash up with. Food was there for them, some basic breakfast stuff too. It was a clean and orderly place as far as those places go. It had high ceilings, and the Quaker generosity was in the air. But by 8:00 a.m. they were back on the streets.
Guys like that hang out in the branch library I go to. They come in to use the bathroom. They sit on the soft chairs in the reading areas and pretend to read. They fall asleep and the guard shakes them. Better they sleep than talk to their buddies, I think. They’re way too loud sometimes. Now and then I gingerly tell them to please be quiet. No one else dares. Libraries should not be obligated that way, it seems to me. The city should care for them. Churches should leave their doors open. Libraries are important, too important, to reading lives, to be the refuge of people with no place to go who are not there to read. There should be other places for them.
When I think of how there are no good places for these people to go, I think about poor kids who have to learn to read to make it in this world. They do have a place to go. They have the schools. Each kid in the city has a desk in a well-lighted room. They have teachers and a place to eat. They can get breakfast and lunch for free if they don’t have enough money at home. There are books at school. Even if they don’t have any at home, which a lot of them don’t. They can take books home after school.
The infrastructure for learning is in place. There are enough schools and desks and teachers to teach every kid to read well enough to be a part of the culture. That has to happen. Whatever it takes. There’s no option. Other than the ones you read about, or see on TV, or on my walk along the East River.
I’m reading James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. You know it. You surely know the Walker Evans photos of the Alabama sharecroppers that Agee writes about in 1936. I’m reading it, again, as I start to write in this blog every day. I’m hoping for some of Agee’s daring, and immense writing genius, to get in me.