Saturday, August 1, 2009

Print and Poverty Ride the Rails

Last night I went to the Ball but came home in tears.

The Fifth Annual Printers' Ball, to be exact. It's a fest sponsored by the Poetry Foundation to celebrate the printed word, especially words printed in verse. There were studio demonstrations of book-making, paper-making, and printing; spoken-word performances, film crews, and radio crews bubbled up through the crowds; handmade paper and the tools to create it were on sale in one gallery; and displays of handmade books lined the hallways and other galleries. The real attraction for disciples of the word were the publishers' giveaways: stacks upon stacks of literary reviews, journals, poetry, and zines—some looked like they were hot off a vintage mimeograph machine while others had weighty four-color covers and established reputations. Music played, paper chandeliers and decor festooned the "ballroom," and two women clothed in 18th-century paper gowns and wigs stood as a centerpiece. An elevator ride made you the captive audience of a writer or poet performing someone's work. I got a chuckle from the imagery of the little robot who donned a metal garbage can for armor, then wondered if it made him look fat.

My aim in attending the Ball was to network. Didn't happen. But I did get a load of free reading material that I intend to peruse immediately (before it gets comfortable in my library) and then pass it along to a friend. Let me know if you need something to read.

The better result of the evening was that my husband accompanied me to the Ball. His chronic health problems usually keep him tethered to our apartment. But last night he ventured out and we enjoyed walking around a neighborhood that has radically changed in the last few years. We had a date! The evening was a success until we were on the train headed for home.

After the first or second stop of the train, an odor tendriled through the car, quickly permeating everything with something akin to over-aged sheep's milk cheese gone bad.

"Excuse me, excuse me," a voice said. "Ma'am? Excuse me."

Was he talking to me? I wasn't interested in conversing with anyone. I wanted to savor the evening I'd just had, watch people, view the city as it passed by our windows. I asked my husband to talk to me so it looked like I didn't hear the pungent fellow, just in case he was addressing me. But I don't think my husband heard me.

So I pretended to fall asleep on my husband's shoulder. And I proceeded to feel wretched about doing so. I never know how to handle such situations. The man hadn't asked me for money, but I was afraid he would. I didn't want to feel guilty about turning him down, even though I had some money. How selfish is that? (I used to give money to strangers until I counted how many times each day I got panhandled. Then I started donating to the food depository, where a dollar went a lot farther.)

The man sat across from me, hardly two feet away—my seat faced forward, his faced backward. How could I ignore him? What must he be feeling? What if I were in his position? He hadn't asked for anything. He'd only said "Excuse me" and then was silent. 

For a few stops, people avoided sitting anywhere near the odor. But as more passengers boarded, there was no escaping it. When we were some distance from downtown and residents of the tonier neighborhoods had exited the train, the man stood and addressed everyone.

"Excuse me, excuse me." He wiped the sweat and grime from his forehead. "Could anyone give me some food, maybe? Or some water? Just water would be good. Could anyone help me?"

The college student near me offered half his sandwich, and as the man took it, I gave him my bottled water. Someone else gave him some money and another offered her bag of Garrett's popcorn. The man was gracious. Then he stood near the exit door, eating and drinking. A few stops later, he left.

My tears started when he asked if anyone could help. I looked around at my fellow passengers, wondering what their stories were, who they were, where they fit into the current economy. Surely more than a few of us could help. Surely 50+ people could save one needy individual? But how?

I thought earlier of offering him one of my prizes from the Ball. A single anthology was light to carry and might provide some solace or affirmation or entertainment for his soul. But in the end, all I gave him was water.

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