Over-the-Rhine on 27 Cents a Day

Wandering & Wondering

It was an early spring morning on Main Street, and a misty rain was falling. The homeless people huddled across the street from my apartment were waiting for the Franciscan shelter to open. It was a place to shake off the chill, have a cup of coffee and maybe a piece of toast. Meanwhile, they sat on the concrete fence in front of the St. Mary's Church garden, with the beautiful lilac buds draped across the wrought iron rails from the bush inside the fence.

The homeless men were disheveled with their coats buttoned wrong — children who've dressed themselves for school. They were dirty; their hair was matted. Most of them had been out on the streets for a few months. "Cleanliness is next to Godliness" had been forgotten, along with other old saws that hung on the walls of houses they didn't have.

Their eyes were downcast and dull. A blue-eyed man showed the effects worst: swollen, red rims and a dead look — no light in the iris, where light from the soul should reflect.

Sometimes I see them foraging for food in the dumpsters or begging cigarettes and money. According to a social worker I used to know, mental illness is a factor in homelessness. The men don't want to come in off the streets at night, into the shelters, because they're hostile, distrusting, off their meds or, like your last boyfriend, just don't want to make a commitment.

It makes them uncomfortable to be locked in a building for a specified time. So they put off going to a shelter, and pretty soon the time gets away and it's too late to get a bed, even at the Drop Inn Center.

The rain stopped, and in the east the sky was growing purple and gold, the sun rising like bread dough in a warm oven. By 7 a.m., early risers were starting their cars, on their way out of Over-the-Rhine to suburban white-collar jobs. By 8 a.m., a woman with two tired babies was trying to find her way to Clay Street, to Manpower. She'd been sent by a state-supported work program from Springfield, Ohio, but she didn't really know why. All she knew was being poor was a full-time job in itself, without working, without raising children.

I imagined her taking the bus back home to Springfield that night and watching a little TV before she collapsed. I imagined her watching the commercials — women happily mopping floors with Spic'n'Span in split-level houses, wondering where she went wrong, what happened to her share of the American dream.

At the Section 8 housing office close to my apartment, the poor wait on the sidewalk, pushing strollers with babies who are frightened of the noise, bewildered by the polyglot of people. Their mothers or their caretakers try to pacify them with bottles or jiggling, but my dog, surprised to come out of our door and see baby carriages, barked at one little girl, and I watched her tiny face screw itself into tears. I was horrified; so was the father.

"Get the dog the hell away from my baby, or I'll kill you." It was my first death threat of the day, and I sighed.

By the time the dog and I got to the park, it had started raining again. I ran for shelter under the gazebo in the pitiful little children's park on Sycamore Street and joined a couple of guys who were smoking crack. "Uh oh," I thought, and I moved on back to the sidewalk, trudging through the rain, and ran smack into a real character.

"Hey, lady," he said. "Can I have 27 cents?"

Mike Templeton, an assistant professor at Miami University presently working on a Ph.D thesis on some obscure nihilistic streak in Chaucer, finally grew so irritated with this one man's behavior that he moved to Northside. (He still comes to Kaldi's for his morning coffee and still gets hit up for money. Since Mike is an intelligent man, the irony isn't lost on him.)

"The next time the son of a bitch asks me for 27 cents," Mike said once, pounding his coffee cup on the counter, "I'm going to write him a check." Mike was quiet for a second. Jimmy Gibson was reading the morning paper, folding the sections like napkins in a four-star restaurant and pouring brown sugar into his cappucino. Officer Bill Fagin, our beat cop, was drinking straight-up coffee. None of that latte for him.

"This is my plan," Mike said, and everybody looked up. "The next time he asks me to give him 27 cents, I'm going to say, 'No. But if you'll wait right here, I'll go back and get my checkbook, because I just don't have exactly 27 cents on me, and I don't want to let you down.' "

Mike laughed a little maniacally.

"Yeah, that'll show him," Bill said, rolling his eyes at me.

"Mike," I asked a little tentatively, "are you off your medication?"

"Yes," he said and ordered a glass of Jameson's, drained it and asked for another one.

Sometimes Over-the-Rhine's just like that. It's in your face every minute.

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