When I was in college it was known as guerilla theatre. I saw a lot of it in Harvard Square – activists in mawkish costumes dramatizing social and political issues, small crowds of curious pedestrians stopping to hear diatribes like “foreign aid: the poor people of a rich nation giving money to the rich people of a poor nation.” It was educational. It was entertainment. Watching made me feel like I was doing my part. Now, forty years later, I’ve started my own theatre- the bum’s walk. I’m taking it to the streets, showing those curious pedestrians just what they’ve done this time. Ten percent of the workforce is unemployed. This is the big one, they say, the worst in eighty years. And, I am part of the history, part of the ten percent.
I used to work. I contributed to society for forty-five years, starting when I was fourteen. I didn’t know how not to work. It took me months to learn how to apply for unemployment benefits. Now, I just walk, miles and miles, all over town. I put it on display – my loss of pride, my shame, my hurt. I throw myself out there in the shabbiest clothes I can find, let the world see what they’ve done. And, it’s working. I get stares through car windows that say; look at that bum, that welfare cheat. Elderly ladies tighten their grip on the steering wheel. Recently, I got a call from a neighbor who wanted to know if I’d lost my license for DUI. I am what they see. This is my mantra, my theatre – I am what they see.
My wife says otherwise. We are still a two-income family, I joke. My wife works extra hours. I leap from my easy chair when she comes in after ten hours. I’m eager to greet, eager to ease her load, clearing a path as she drops her lunch bag, and her computer bag and then her handbag in the front hall. The dog beats me to her, jumping, begging at her legs. I give him a hard shove. “Stop that,” she says. “He’s my problem.”
“You don’t deserve that kind of treatment after your long day.”
I take her coat and offer to warm dinner. While she sifts through the mail, I put a hand on her shoulder, careful not to be too forward. She smells antiseptic.
I wait for the question.
“What did you do, today?”
I put a plate of shriveled stir-fry in front of her. “Painted the deck chairs.”
She hardly touches the food, and instead pours a glass of Chardonnay and retreats to the living room couch. The dog and I follow. I want to take on the mantle of her fatigue, her workload, her office stress. I sit close, thinking it might come by osmosis. I want to do my part. I smile, try to look pleasant, but nothing works. She remains haggard. The television goes on. We don’t speak. At any one time, there are three, maybe four elephants in the room. I dance, bob and weave in my mind, I give the Roladex a spin searching for a soft subject, something not too touchy.
“I put my name in with another temp agency.”
“Local. I doubt anything will happen, but at least it’s something.”
“Yes, it’s something.” She holds out her wine glass for a refill.
It wasn’t always like this. Not much changed at first. Two months of severance pay gave us time to ease into the reality of half our income gone, time to change health insurance, time for her to pick up more hours at the hospital. “No problem,” she said. “Something will come along.” She found meaning in my layoff. “This is the time to redefine yourself, maybe find something you really want.” Back then it was cute. Like in so many romantic comedies, she would support me while I struggled to establish my glamorous career – law school, medical school, the great American novel. We had more than a few newly wed moments, lovers in a bind together. “We’ll always have a bed, no matter where we live,” she said. We were closer than when the kids first moved out.
But, those moments didn’t last. “There’s nothing out there,” I’d say. I posted my resume everywhere: Monster, Craig’s List, Indeed, and Jobs, another dot com. I went on every corporate web site in the area. There were pages of job postings. “But, no one’s filling them. They’re waiting to see what happens.” Then, I’d carry it too far. “Especially with an old guy like me. They’re looking for college kids.”
“What are you saying? That you’re never going to work again?”
At that point, I’d lose her. All the microwaving and dog shoving and osmosis in the world didn’t matter then.
“All I’m saying is, I don’t believe I’ll ever make the kind of money I once made.”
“So do you want me to work even more hours?”
“No, no. That’s not what I meant.” And each time, I’d beg her to understand, wasting even more of her waning energy. The trouble is, I was beginning to enjoy the time off and I think it showed.
I revel in the lonesome feeling of walking around with two dollars in my pocket. Ventures out in the snow and sleet are special too, as are the clumps of slush deposited on my trouser cuffs by passing cars. Bundled in an old coat, I scurry across streets. I imagine I’m invisible to the ninety percent still living, that they’d sooner hit me than look up from their Blackberry’s at society’s failure, society’s mistake, society’s potholes. I move with stealth. I keep my head down, avoiding icy ruts, slowing to quarter-time on slippery inclines so I don’t get hurt. I’d be a dead man then.
I try not to watch a lot of television. But if I do, I make sure it’s educational – National Geographic, Nature channels. I’m haunted by a recent image of an old lion with a broken jaw, cast off from the pride, starving to death, weak from the injury, growing weaker because he can’t hunt or eat. All I have now is my body. My legs keep me fit, strong for manual labor. The days of big money using my intellect are gone. Once the government checks run out, all I’ll have is my strength.
I’m in the hardware store. This guy with an immense ass drooping over the sides of his electric cart zips around the corner. I almost drop the new snow shovel. Even with all my misery, real and theatrical, I am grateful not to be him. That I’m mobile, in the good way, not like that poor sap wheeling around, permanently sitting, head high with the checkout counter. He looks younger than me. I wonder what his deal is. Did he get that fat because he couldn’t walk anymore, or did he just get so fat that he could no longer walk?
I head for the cash register. This is a special bum’s walk today, another addition to the list of ‘the lasts’, along with the last car I’ll ever own, the last winter coat, the last house, the last New Year’s party. Today, with the final swipe of my store gift card, the last snow shovel. After that, I let go of yet another tether to this material earth. But, it’s okay. I still have my legs, my mobility, my freedom to be one of those people on the sidewalk who commuters stacked up at a traffic light will envy until they get the green. I finger the gift card in my pocket. Out of nowhere, the electric cart cuts in front of me, clipping the toe of my boot as he pulls up to the counter. “Hey.” He throws back a quick, “Sorry,” and starts his business with the clerk. The bastard ran over me. I want to say more, confront him, but the store is crowded. Picking a fight with a cripple is not my thing. I let it go.
Halfway home, on the big hill, I feel something sticky in my sock. Maybe it’s just another cramp, the occasional numbness I get in my tired feet. I stare at it expecting to see through the boot. There is just the marred leather where the cart swiped. I don’t dare examine the damage. It’ll have to wait another mile and a half. I start favoring the foot. Add that to the old coat and the snow shovel, I am a spectacle. I’m getting the looks. But, instead of reveling in my performance, I’m focused on my toes pulsing to my heartbeat. Cars go by like gusts of wind and then there is quiet except for the offbeat rhythm of my limp. I realize now the delicate balance in the jungle. How quickly situations can change. I need to be more watchful. I’ll hunker in my cave. I’ll lick my wounds, cradle my damaged appendage. Like the lion, I accept my fate, even infection or gangrene. I’ll let nature take its course.
My wife says otherwise. “You need to see a doctor. I’m making an appointment.”
Reluctantly, I go. I drive, becoming one of ‘them’. I try not to judge the people I see walking. At the clinic, I remember that a big part of going to work everyday was seeing and interacting with people, lots of people. I am buoyed by the sight of them, and happy to wait the extra forty-five minutes for my appointment. The doctor explains my injuries. I picture the sign: street theatre closed for repairs. Three weeks with even more time to think.
I’m getting better at not saying the wrong things when my wife gets home. I’ve learned to give her space, not to smother when she walks in. But now, I have a new challenge, not to look too pathetic with my bad foot, with the hole cut in the toe of my shoe. She starts to ask me what I’ve done today, or to fetch her something, and then she remembers. Street theatre is now home theatre. I move about bravely. I can fake it. I can hide the discomfort, but the gleaming white ball of gauze at the end of my foot stands out like a clown shoe. I’m rock-bottom useless – no work for my intellect, no work for my broken body. I know I’m skating on thin ice, that my wife is at the end of her rope on that thin ice, which is also holding the three or four elephants.
“Are you trying to make me feel bad?”
“I’m not. I’m not,” I say. “I just want to make your life easier.”
“When you act like we’re poor, you make me feel like I’m not doing enough.”
I apologize. I can stop it anytime, this act, these theatrics. But, when friends call on Saturday night saying they’re going out to watch the playoff game at a bar, I do it again.
“What do you think?” My wife has excitement in her voice.
“You’re talking a sixty or seventy dollar night,” I say. “Okay with me if you think we have the money.”
“Fine. Do you think I should just work and never go out?”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“You just stay home and do nothing and I’ll work.”
I try not to reveal that that’s what I’ve been thinking. I toy with the idea everyday. Not that I would do nothing, but I’d find something I like, something low key, low paying, something rewarding. “Of course, we’re going,” I say. “I was just asking, you know, about the money. I feel guilty.”
And then I see her smile. At that moment, my old wife is back. She gives my nose a tweak. “Can it just this once not be about you?”
We meet up with the gang. Everyone wants to pay for my drinks. They say, “Put your money away.”
I insist just enough. “Look,” I say, ” my wife is a proud woman. She’ll throw that twenty out the car window if you don’t take it. I’ve seen her do it.” I pocket the money when she’s not looking.
We settle at a table, order appetizers, more drinks. I look around at my old friends. We attended each other’s weddings, raised our kids together. They all care for me and my plight. Everyone asks about my squashed foot. Everyone has suggestions for what I can do with my spare time. I tell them I can’t accept a paying job just now because I’ll lose my unemployment checks. But, I’ll think about it. It’s a big load to bear, these friends. I’m trying to play the pathetic man out in the streets. All that love makes it hard to wallow in self-pity, to revel in the misery.
I’ve been out six months. I sit outside a coffee shop watching the busy intersection by the highway. Midday, the traffic lights signal green, yellow and red. Arrows direct left turns, then right turns. Trailer trucks grumble, SUVs spill over lane lines, hesitant driver’s draw ire, tinted windows hide prosperity. The wheels of industry turn, two full lanes of it, in four different directions. And suddenly, I’m in that movie again, the one where I’m the hero saying to my men, “Leave me, go on, save yourselves.” My job is gone. I’m never going to make that kind of money again, but it’s okay. The world lives on. I feel good, like I’m doing my part. I see gainfully employed men and women stopping for their afternoon coffee. They drive nice cars, wear new clothes, sport fresh hairstyles.
Then I think, “Hey, wait a minute. What if this whole bad economy thing was just a ruse to get rid of me?” And I slide back into the depths. What did I do wrong? What could I have done differently to not lose my job, to not change my life forever like some car accident, or act of God?
My dreams are grandiose now, my head clear, free of the encumbrances of a full-time job. I dream of Revolution, of Harvard Square in the late-Sixties, of Baby Boomers cast aside. It’s the new world order, the neo-conservative labor camp of shut up and get to work. Those still employed are doing the jobs of two or three. They get unpaid furloughs, and no raises. Workers look forward to that golden time, the other side of all this down turn, when companies start hiring again. A time when the money starts flowing. A time when no one will be looking to hire almost sixty year-olds.
I walk home facing the late-afternoon traffic. I look into the drivers’ faces for an answer. Everyone is so young. I swear I see a time coming when there are bounties on us, black vans scooping up the unemployed, shipping them off to slave camps to make product off the record for corporations. Free labor like the political dissidents in China. The bum’s walk is in jeopardy. I imagine more scenarios, gangs of us on the streets; “They’re watching, pretend you’re busy,” or “Poor Joe with his shabby clothes, he had a job but they picked him up anyway.” We are the gray unemployed, the grumps. Forty years ago in Nam, we were the grunts.
I envision another great march on Washington, walls of gray-haired humanity standing up to the young National Guardsmen. And then it hits me. Economic downturn, my ass. Think what you will, the opulence of the Nineties, the oil spike to five bucks a gallon, the two wars. It’s none of those. It’s the man stickin’ it to the Baby Boomers, payback for the Sixties.
My wife says otherwise. Somewhere along the way, I became her personal secretary. I run errands, pick up her prescriptions, her mother’s Depends. Sometimes, I can’t hold back my feelings. “Sure, I’ll do anything you say. I’m a broken man.” But, she doesn’t want to hear that anymore and says sarcastically, “Well, I’m sorry I spent all the money. I’m working as hard as I can.”
I wanted to do my share. I drove her nuts trying to re-engineer our new half-income life. I developed plans for organizing, for cost cutting, running more efficiently. Maybe we should get rid of the dog: thirty dollars a month for food, fifty for grooming, a hundred and a half for shots. “I’m just suggesting we look at these things.” She laughed and gave me her, ‘you crazy engineers’ look. I wondered aloud if we needed those trays of potted plants she brought home. Or the new solar patio lights. Or the food warehouse-size bottle of catsup.
“Are you trying to ruin my day off?” she says, cutting me slack.
I have no answer. I plant the flowers, install the patio lights and bring the dog to the groomer. I stay busy. There is plenty to do with a house that’s probably going on the market. But, there are also some days when I just let go of the reins and drift aimlessly-napping, skimming magazines, watching television, staring for hours out the back door-another day with nothing to show for it.
Two more months go by. The unemployment checks are keeping us afloat, but the end is coming. I try not to think about it. The wife still comes home from a ten-hour shift and asks the same hard question, “What did you do today?” Friends say I look great, sun-tanned, muscular, ten years younger. But, my wife is deteriorating. Her hair is long past a dye job. She eats badly, junk food and wine. Her asthma is getting worse, she’s using more of the steroid medicine. It’s her birthday. I want it to be perfect. She works so hard, waking in the cold, pre-dawn darkness, coming home at sunset. I wish I could do more. I buy a cake at a bakery instead of the grocery store. It’s expensive, but I’ll make up for it, I’ll cut out a few lunches, a few cups of coffee. I want to give her sex like she did for me on my birthday, but it doesn’t work that way, not for an exhausted, over-worked woman. With cake frosting still on my lips, I kiss the back of her neck. I turn to stare into the face I fell in love with thirty-five years ago, the gentleness and youthfulness still there. She lays her hand on my cheek. I respond, but she pulls away. I try to hide my disappointment, but with all the practice looking sad and pathetic, it comes out strong.
“Do you really want to ruin this moment?” she asks.
She’s right. I need to get me and my hurtful mug out of her sight. I walk out. A couple miles away, a downpour opens up. I’m soaked. There is not a soul out in this weather. I’ve lost my audience. The bum’s walk is just embarrassing now. Lightning flashes nearby, its thunder shaking the ground. A man was killed last week. I realize I’m in the open and for a brief moment I am actually afraid. I need to cross.
I slosh through the flooded street, feeling the pull of the stream hurtling towards the storm drain. Suddenly I’m reciting a rhyme my father used to sing when I was a child:
Fishy, fishy in the brook, Papa catch ’em with a hook.
Momma fry ’em in a pan, Baby eat ’em like a man.
He was the breadwinner. When he came in from work, my mother had supper on the table. I wonder what he would think if he saw me now. He hounded me for years to take the PE exam. I was cocky. I told him I didn’t need it to impress management.
I don’t hear the vehicle pulling up. A horn beeps. It’s my wife.
“I saw the rain rolling in and came to rescue you.”
“I can’t. I’ll ruin your nice interior. Besides, I deserve this.”
“It’s not your fault,” she says.
“It is. I should have worked harder, told one less joke, got to my desk one minute earlier in the morning.” I let it all out and begin to cry. With the rain, who’s going to know?
My wife holds out her hand to me. I get in, dripping on the leather seats. We make love right there in the car on the side of the road, flashers on, windshield wipers slapping away.