“The poor you will always have with you….”
They exist out there. In their own subculture. In another dimension, almost under-ground, in conditions most of us cannot fathom. Men, women, young adults, children. They work paycheck to paycheck, doing the service jobs. Attendants. Gas station clerks. Servers. Some don’t work at all, but sit around collecting welfare.
They are the poor.
Now, being poor is no sin. It’s not a virtue either. I’ve been there myself. More than a few times. Years ago, when I wandered the earth. Many times not knowing where I’d be next week, not having a hundred bucks to my name, or even ten. Hitting bottom meant I didn’t have the money for a pack of cigarettes. That happened once or twice. And that was back when cigarettes didn’t cost an arm and a leg like they do now.
To me, being poor was so miserable that I worked hard not to be. The experience of poverty is a great motivator.
The poor are all around us. We deal with them every day. I have no problem with that. But some few of the poor have had a strange tendency to end up renting my upstairs apartment. And that has caused some minor tribulations in my life.
It’s a nice apartment. Nothing special, but nice. Two bedrooms. Full bath. Living room and equipped kitchen. Private drive and porch.
When Ellen and I bought the house back in May, 2000, “John Doe” was comfortably en-sconced upstairs. So he came with the house. A single man, fiftyish, who made a decent salary driving for an Amish work crew, John was all by himself in the world. Raised an orphan, he had no relatives anywhere except an estranged son from a previous marriage. Or so he claimed.
He was a kindly fellow, a bit rough and uncouth, on the slow simple side. Put a few beers in him and he’d get loud. But he was kind hearted. He lived upstairs with a large declawed cat and sat by his open window on summer evenings and smoked and didn’t make much noise or bother anyone. He usually paid the rent on time or almost on time.
I felt bad for him and tried to include him when we had cookouts and even on holidays. We invited him down for Thanksgiving dinner every year. I took him along to my brother Steve’s place for Christmas meals.
Then John made an unwise decision. He loved golf and decided to take a full time job at the local golf course as a groundskeeper. All well and good, except that it didn’t pay much. Minimum wage, or a few cents more. Almost immediately money got tighter. He fell behind again and again on his rent. I cajoled and scolded and threatened and sweet-talked. To no avail. And so it went for about a year, with him hanging on by a thread, usually behind on the rent and heating bills.
And then his truck collapsed. Expired. Kaput. And that was it.
With no transportation, he could not work. He took the bus for awhile, but he had to be at the golf course at 4 AM, and the bus didn’t leave early enough. I dug out an old bicycle from the garage and gave that to him. Off he went, at 3 AM, the seven miles or so along the highway, to get to his job by four. The old bicycle soon looked increas-ingly wobbly and dilapidated. Eventually it collapsed as well.
By then John was way behind on the rent and fuel costs. He kept assuring me he would pay. Some fine day. Then he began making noises to move, closer to his job. I did not resist. So one day a friend stopped by with a pickup while I was at work and moved him out. Trouble was, he didn’t take all his stuff. And left the apartment in shambles. Absolutely trashed.
By the time we got it cleaned, we had spent over $600.00. John had left cigarette butts everywhere and his cat had not been the cleanest animal. Up in the attic, I found boxes and boxes of trash, and many little tins full of cigarette butts. Interestingly, one box held hundreds and hundreds of old lottery tickets he’d bought in hopes of hitting it big. Instead of using the money to pay the rent. Irritated me.
He did leave a lot of good tools and hunting gear, so I recouped a few hundred bucks selling those to friends. But nowhere near the $1100.00 he owed.
After cleaning the mess John had left, I rented the apartment to a brother and sister from northern PA, who had come to the area in search of work. They stayed for over a year, and mostly kept up with the rent. When they left, the apartment was clean. I placed the “Apartment for Rent” sign out by the road again.
Many people stopped by to look at the apartment. Most from the lower strata of society. I had each one fill out an application, including details on income and so forth.
And then one day she walked in and announced she was going to rent the apartment. She loved it. She had to have it.
I’ll call her “Jane Roe.” A single mom with a teenage daughter. And a cat. And a job. She very much wanted the apartment and seemed to make enough to manage. Her references checked out pretty well. So I decided to rent to her.
Jane came up with the first month’s rent and the security deposit, which was an ad-ditional month’s rent. Unlike my previous renters, Jane took pride in the apartment and hung curtains in the windows and added other homey touches. I thought this one might work out. And it did for awhile.
I soon discovered that Jane had an interesting relationship with the truth. And that’s being kind. The woman lied for no reason, lied when the simple truth would have served her better. I have never known anyone who would lie so freely, even when there was no reason to. It soon got to where every word she said went into one ear and out the other. Everything she said, I just automatically figured was a lie.
But she managed to keep up with the rent. And that’s all that really mattered. All that was any of my business. I often had to remind her it was due. Sometimes it took her until mid-month to get it all to me. But she kept at it and pretty much kept current. And so it went for more than two years. Jane had now rented from me for longer than any other tenant.
Things began to unravel last summer. She made a series of unfortunate job changes. Never lasted long at anything. Always the story of how the money would be here next week. Always behind, always just hanging on.
Somewhere along the line, her fifteen year old daughter established an online relation-ship with some creep from New York. The next thing I knew, an old sedan kept show-ing up in my drive when Jane was at work. I paid little attention; it was none of my business. Until one day the driver took a detour through my yard with the old sedan and left deep tracks in the grass. I was furious.
When I next saw Jane, I berated her. I showed her the tracks in the yard and told her the car with New York license plates had done it. She’d better tell her friends not to do that again. She stared at me and claimed she didn’t know what I was talking about. I just passed off her protests as another lie.
Turned out she didn’t know. And the guy from New York, a thirty year old creep, was upstairs with the daughter when no one was around. Jane notified the cops. They inter-viewed her daughter. A warrant was issued for his arrest.
The daughter became pregnant. It kind of freaked me out that this stuff was going on right above my head, sometimes when I was at home, even. They decided to keep the baby. The cops nabbed the thirty year old creep. He’s now sitting in the Lancaster County jail.
The baby arrived in March. Cute little boy. I went upstairs and admired him. But I felt sorry for him. He has absolutely no chance at all of amounting to anything in life.
And about exactly then, Jane’s decrepit old station wagon breathed its last.
With no car, she couldn’t get to her job. With no job, there was no income. With no income, there was no rent money for the landlord.
By late April, she had made no move to pay the rent, but kept weaving whatever tales her fantastic imagination could contrive to convince me the money would be here by the next weekend. The weekend always came and went, and no money. With the baby arriving and all, I held off for awhile. She and her daughter both went on welfare.
In late April, I’d had enough. I’m not a bank, I told her. If I don’t pay my mortgage, my house gets repossessed. I then told her that if some of the money wasn’t forth-coming by the next weekend, I would be forced to file eviction procedures. The next Saturday morning, she bundled up her daughter and they both disappeared for a full week, staying with family in a nearby town. No explanations, no communication with me, nothing. They just disappeared.
The following Monday, I filed an eviction notice at the local District Justice office. With all the appeal periods, notice and so forth, eviction takes about a month. I figured to have her out by late May. In the meantime, we quit talking to each other. They existed upstairs, and I lived below. Seething each time the furnace kicked on, burning up expensive fuel to heat their apartment. Seething at the fact that they were living above me in my house, making no attempt to pay the rent due. And that it was taking so long to get them out.
The hearing date arrived. I went, but Jane never showed. The Judge granted me possession of my own apartment. Now a ten day appeal period had to pass. I sat downstairs and continued seething while they clumped about above my head.
After the ten-day appeal period, they would be trespassing. I concocted all kinds of schemes to shut off the water and the satellite TV, both included in the rent. Just wait, wait until that day, then righteous revenge would be mine.
The ten days passed. It was a Friday evening. I got home from the gym. Now I could shut off the water. But something held me back. I decided, what the heck, just talk to her and see what’s going on. So I knocked on her door. She came down and opened it a crack.
And suddenly my anger dissipated. Didn’t disappear, but dissipated. I saw a scared woman, out of options, out of stories, out of lies, out of choices. Yes, she was a liar. A deadbeat. A fraud. A freeloader. But she was scared. I would have been too.
I smiled at her. “I just wanted to see what your intentions are,” I said, not unkindly. “When will you be out?”
She opened the door and stepped out. “By the first of June,” she answered.
“You are trespassing now,” I said. “I could shut off the water. But I won’t, if you leave and clean the place up. And leave the stuff that’s mine.”
“I will,” she said. “My daughter and the baby have already moved in with my family. So they aren’t here.”
That was a positive development. I was relieved. When it boiled right down to it, I didn’t want to shut off the water supply to a baby anyway.
“You know,” I said conversationally, “you will never find an apartment this nice for such reasonable rent with such an easy-going landlord. What went wrong?”
“I know that,” she said. “You’ve always been good to us. When my car broke down, everything just went to h—.”
“I understand,” I said, “but that doesn’t make it right. You can’t go around ripping people off like you’re doing to me. It won’t work long term. It’s wrong. At some point, things will balance out. At some point, God will see to that.”
“I know,” she replied, “and I want to pay you the money I owe. Once I get a job.”
That statement didn’t even go in one ear and out the other. It just disappeared, whoosh, straightway into the ether. She owed me almost $2000.00. It might as well have been $2 million. I would never see a cent.
“And I will clean the place when I leave,” she promised.
Fat chance, I thought.
She moved out this week. Strange thing, she almost kept her promise. As near as she was able to, I suppose. Her stuff is moved out, except for a few odds and ends of junk. The apartment, while not sparkling, was vacuumed. Decently clean. The stuff that was mine is sitting in a neat little pile.
And so she’s gone. To pester and terrorize some other poor landlord, and regale him with ever-escalating tales of woe and grief. I hope he’s got a good airtight lease, like I had. I almost wish her well, and I’m relieved that she’s gone. And more than a little irritated. But overall, not really that angry. It is what it is. No sense popping a blood vessel about it.
People, and especially the poor, do what they have to do to survive. Like she did. Things got a bit out of hand, and before she knew it, she was under the waves. And couldn’t resurface.
She could have made better choices. She could have walked to jobs within half a mile of my house at about ten different businesses. But she didn’t. Chose not to.
Some people can’t be helped.
Now she’s gone. I’m wiser but poorer. That’s life.
Next week: My first reflections on Elmo Stoll.
“We did not know our mother’s face; from the prison
of her flesh have we come into the unspeakable and
incommunicable prison of this earth…..
Which of us has looked into his father’s heart?”
It was so long ago. The veil of years cannot be lifted to reveal many concrete details. Few solid facts, the story can only be conjectured.
Their history did not particularly interest me growing up. My parents were my parents. They were just always there and had always been. Immovable, like the sheer rock face of a mountain cliff. And as indestructible.
And so they stood, solid and enduring, for many decades of my life. Only in relatively recent years have I truly grasped the concept of their mortality. They entered this world in the same manner as everyone else. And in the same manner they will pass on. This much is true.
In a culture that strongly de-emphasizes individuality and values “humility,” the murky details of their childhoods remain obscured. And so today we tug at the veil.
They were born in the early 1920s. In the days of the Model T, before the Great De-pression. A few years after the Great War, the war to end all wars. And the Spanish Flu. My father in December, 1921. My mother in July, 1923. Among the muddy rolling hills of southern Indiana, in Daviess County, a hardscrabble farming community. The settlement was small then, in relative infancy, consisting of only one or two districts. But already distinct from all others in dialect and culture. Replete with Waglers, Stolls, Rabers, Knepps, Yoders and Grabers.
In a time when most people were born at home and died at home, they likely were both born at home. With a country doctor attending, or a midwife. Squalling and red faced and wet they arrived, soon cradled in their mothers’ arms on the lumpy beds. They looked up and beheld worn pain-crinkled faces and tired eyes. For their mothers, a few days of rest due, perhaps, after bearing yet another child.
It is difficult to imagine our parents as infants, or little children, because of the dearth of even the crudest visual evidence. But they were. In a time before penicillin, when diseases and plagues silently stalked the earth, and infant mortality rates were stag-geringly high. Either could easily have succumbed at birth, or certainly well before reaching adulthood.
What can be said of the time into which they were born? Of the bare, harsh day-to-day existence of their lives. Of the things they saw and heard and felt and learned. A time that cannot be romanticized, only simply told. (My own reflections on the simply told story may wax lyrical, however.)
December and the biting winds. The men came in from morning chores and ate their ample, simple breakfast. The children bundled up and set off for school, their lunches packed in little round tin pails. The men returned to the odorous barn and harnessed the horses for the day’s work. Cutting firewood perhaps, or hauling manure and spreading it in the fields. That evening one of the boys rode around and told the neighbors a little baby had arrived at the home of Joseph K. and Sarah Wagler. Another son. His name was David.
July, and summer a few years later. The breath and feel of the hot day. The shade trees rustling in the dry withering breeze. The garden dormant and wilting in the sun, now faint and far the mute promise of the heavy fall harvest and the bulging larder. The doctor arrived from Montgomery, the closest town, in his surrey. And the news spread that night, not major news, but important nonetheless. John and Mattie Yoder had another baby. Another daughter. Ida Mae.
They were normal children, I suppose. Intelligent. Inquiring. Both were among the youngest in their respective families, welcomed by clans of clamoring older siblings.
From infancy to early childhood, the days and weeks passed. And the years. They crawled, they spoke and then walked. They grew.
He was a little boy in homemade denims and galluses and tiny rumpled shirt, with coal black curly hair. She, a little girl who stood about shyly with hands clasped before her like a protective shield. Amply mothered by her older sisters.
They absorbed life in the agrarian community that was Daviess at the time. Most people farmed the fertile soil, consuming what they raised. And sold the surplus meat and milk for what little cash was needed. They attended church services and sat on the hard benches. Heard the ancient songs. Listened to the old preachers. Slept on their parents’ laps.
My parents spoke in later years of life in those heady carefree childhood days. Of the peddler’s wagon that came around, the peddler selling pots and pans and knickknacks for the house and bolts of cloth used for making dresses and shirts and pants. And the occasional treasured stick of candy. Of the Jewish man from a distant city, they knew not where, who walked his rounds down the dirty dusty roads, limping along, lugging a large leather case filled with eyeglasses. When evening came, he boarded at the house where darkness found him. Eating with the family and sleeping on the couch or on a feather nest on the living room floor.
At age six they went to school. With their peers, swinging their lunch pails, they trudged the dirt roads to the little one room public country schoolhouse.
There they learned their letters and figures, to read and write and cipher. With his classmates in the middle grades, he learned and recited classic poems, including the “Charge of the Light Brigade” by Tennyson.
In his eightieth year, he precisely recited the lines he had learned as a child.
Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!
“Charge for the guns!” he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
“It was great poem, good literature,” he would say decades later to his sons. “But of course we don’t believe in war. The six hundred were foolish, riding forward into sure Death.”
Ah, but of course. But a great poem nonetheless.
The Depression came, and they lived through it. As children, they saw the hardships around them. The ragged dusty tramps, straggling down the road to no particular destination, lugging their meager belongings in torn rucksacks, offering to chop wood for food. The careworn haggard faces of the adults, the whispers, the stories of loss and hunger and heartbreak. Of families now destitute who lost all they owned. Their own homes remained secure.
He loved astronomy, a hobby he would pursue all his life. With a few carefully hoarded dollars, he bought his first cheap trinket of a telescope. The place and movement of the stars and planets spoke deeply to him of the Creator who had set universe in motion.
He loved to write and wrote extensively. She could express herself with words quite well, as well. Of their childhood writings, nothing survives.
They graduated from elementary school after the eighth grade. He hungered for more. More knowledge. More education. So he was allowed to complete a mail order course and received his high school diploma. The only one among all his peers who had the slightest inclination to do so. And the only one who did.
The years passed into young adulthood. He was a sturdy handsome young man, dark and lithe. And she developed into an astonishingly beautiful photogenic young woman.
I take his word on that. No photos of her from that time survive.
I have imagined that as a young man so long ago, he stood tall among his peers even as he joined in their simple unaffected talk of the farm and the weather and hunting and trapping, and discussed the local gossip and shared their meager dreams and humble goals.
I have imagined that through it all he read his time-worn books and soaked up know-ledge like a sponge, and from those mental journeys, he was painfully aware that there was more, so much more, beyond the boundaries of his unsophisticated world. What personal demons he faced during the metamorphosis of his teenage years can only be surmised; no one knows or has honestly recorded the unfathomable hunger and unspoken passions that raged in his restless and brooding soul.
For without doubt his towering intellect loomed above the provincial and cultural minds of the vast majority of those surrounding and leading him. Perhaps at times he exper-ienced resentment at the boundaries they erected and defended to keep him safely in the fold.
Perhaps in frustration and despair he sometimes walked the fields and the country roads at night alone or with his dogs under the ghostly paleness of the full moon, per-haps he chafed at the narrow confines of the simple, unquestioning Amish theology that demanded his abject submission to ageless tradition that taught any other path would lead to bottomless guilt and eternal damnation.
Perhaps his mind and imagination were briefly unchained when the wild winds howled and swooped at night and sleep was a remote illusion and the thoughts of young men dwell on far and distant lands and noble deeds and flight and great ships at sea and the wild harsh screams of passing trains and the untold secrets of faraway foreign cul-tures, and always, pulsing through his mind, the vague undefined vision of the exotic and impossibly beautiful princess entrapped in the tower, waiting, patiently waiting to be rescued by her knight.
Perhaps at such times he briefly roamed far and free from the mental chains that bound him.
Perhaps, but he returned.
Perhaps as a young man he at times questioned his roots and background and the value of the traditions so tenaciously clung to by his elders. Perhaps he was briefly lured by the modern conveniences of the surrounding society and was tempted by the throbbing beat of the dancing music he heard wafting from the pool hall juke box on the rare trip to town and the roar of fast roadsters as they passed his plodding team and wagon in the heat, leaving him strangled and choking in swirling clouds of dust.
Perhaps the calming breath of the moist and smoldering cigarette never caressed his lips and soothed his gulping lungs, and perhaps it did. Perhaps the harsh, homemade mash whiskey never wet his tongue and throat and settled lightly in his stomach and vapored to his head and cast its poetic and slurring spell upon him, and perhaps it did.
Perhaps all these events occurred and more, so much more, each one singing to him its own song of the destiny he could seize in his hands and forge for himself in a new way and a new land, daring him to forsake forever the seemingly senseless traditions that confined him.
Perhaps, but he returned.
He established in his heart that he would stay. And at some point in that time as a young man, he saw and desired the young woman who would be my mother. Of their courtship, details remain as murky as those of their childhoods.
When he was eighteen, his father, Joseph K., collapsed while threshing oats. He slumped without warning in the heat on the wagonload of bundled oats beside the threshing machine and slid to the ground. His son-in-law, Peter Stoll and others carried him to the shade of a nearby tree. He died on that spot. At home, surrounded by his family.
The drumbeat of the second Great War invaded their community and their lives. And it called for him and his young friends. He would not serve in the armed forces, but would register as a Conscientious Objector, and would serve time in civilian camps.
They married on February 3, 1943, when he was twenty-one and she was five months shy of her nineteenth birthday. Young, by today’s standards. Probably a bit young then too. A rare double wedding was held that day. His youngest sister Rachel married her fiancé, Homer Graber.
The wedding date was moved up because of the looming military draft. Married men were more likely to be excused. They hoped he would not be called up. He was. So in the end, their optimistic strategy failed.
And so they began their lives together.
Their first few weeks and months together were no doubt like some fairy tale. In seeming slow motion they floated along in their newfound wedded bliss. The sun shone on their eager upturned faces, the gentle meadow breezes wafted with the fresh scent of lilacs and sweet clover, and the banquet of life with all the rich and ample fare it had to offer was spread before them like a feast, waiting to be plucked up by her gentle hand and tasted in all the fullness of their youth. Her laugh rippled like music in the air, her fresh and exquisite face glowed with the promise of all the secrets she harbored that were his alone to unlock and discover. His strong arm enveloped her in gentle embrace, and his protective eyes told her that he would not disappoint, that he would rise to the occasion, that he was hers to claim, and that her wish was law to him.
They were alone, lord and lady of vast domains, the king and queen of all their eyes could see. And night seemed far away, and they knew that they would be forever young.