Pushcart 2015: Inara Verzemnieks, “The Last Days of the Baldock” (non-fiction) from Tin House, #57

Given the chance, the more sentimental among them would probably return in summer. Summer was when it seemed as if all the residents of the Baldock threw open the doors of their homes to the bronchial, hawking churnings of the passing semis and wheeled coolers out to the picnic tables that had not yet surrendered to rot. There they would sit, cans clutched in cracked hands, as their dogs whipped smaller and smaller circles around the trunks of the Douglas firs to which they were chained. In those moments, it was possible for them to imagine that they had merely stopped there briefly on a long road trip, that they were no different from the men and women with sunglasses perched on the tops of their heads who trooped in and out of the nearby restrooms, mussed and squinting.

We think we know people, based on very little information about them. Say “librarian”, “football player”, “mother”, “homeless”, and you fill in a lot of blanks to come up with a general idea of what this person is like – quiet or outgoing, smart or stupid, pleasant or scary. Good or bad. Worth knowing, or not.

We think we know people. But we don’t.

Journalist Inara Verzemnieks stumbled upon a community of people who were clinging to the last rung of society’s ladder, trying desperately not to slip further – because they know, as we all do, how hard it is to climb back up even one rung, let alone the whole stretch. It’s a community that was about to be involuntarily dispersed. Perhaps that was the best thing for it; perhaps not. But what struck me was how it challenged every assumption we might make about the people who bear the labels we stick on them, and how uncertain it left me as to right and wrong, good and bad, should and shouldn’t.

The community was that of a group of people who lived at the Baldock rest stop on an Oregon interstate. Homeless, you might say. Or, you might not.

The access they gave me didn’t seem to depend on my being a reporter… Instead, I suspect, they were judging me by a more subtle rubric, reading me for clues that would help them gauge my capacity to understand.

Verzemnieks discovers the Baldock in the course of researching a story of a meal-delivery service. She discovers people like Joleen, who’d lived in a van with her boyfriend for three years on top of some intermittent stays when the weather was too cold for a campground. Joleen’s kids visit her at the Baldock on Mother’s Day. She meets The Mayor, who served as a sort of intake worker: “I don’t have money, booze, or cigarettes to give you, and don’t give me any shit. But I always have food to share. Ain’t no one out here gonna starve.”

We meet Ray (Joleen calls him “Dad” as they’ve forged a particularly strong supportive bond), who feeds his dog Sweetpea and gasses up his old motor home with his Social Security check. He may have lived at the Baldock for twelve, thirteen, seventeen years, no one’s sure. And people like Jack, the newbie, caught first in the housing market collapse, then in trucking industry cutbacks.

It’s easy to sit in judgment on the homeless. Why don’t they get a job? Why don’t they make better decisions? It’s harder to look close, and realize each story is unique. Yes, mental illness and general foolishness come into play, but so does bad luck. And don’t forget: it’s not as easy as you think to get back into society, once you’ve fallen out of it. Yes, some people do it. Then again, some people are Yo-Yo Ma and Einstein and Gandhi. Some people are indeed talented, and that includes a talent for navigating modern life. And some people are not so talented at that particular skill, or perhaps they just lack a support structure – family, friends with extra rooms and generosity. That doesn’t mean they aren’t people.

“You know what I love most about Thanksgiving?” Jack said. “Football. It’s been months since I’ve actually seen a game on TV, not just listen to it on the radio.” Everyone nodded and they talked about how luxurious it would be to sit on a sofa again, stupid with turkey, tasked with no other concerns than whether to flick between the college or pro games. It struck them all as the height of decadence, of insanely good fortune.

The Last Days started with a maintenance worker informing the residents the rest stop would now be the responsibility of the Oregon Travel Experience. The handwriting was on the wall:

Others, like members of any neighborhood group upon hearing rumors of possible planning changes, turned to the public computer at the community center for reconnaissance.…And though none of what they could find was written in what one would call plain, unadorned speech, one phrase in particular, about helping the rest stops achieve their “full economic development potential,” seems to them to translate as having something to do with money – be that making money or saving it. Either way, it was not a concept that they suspected would live comfortably alongside homelessness. Intuition told him that much.

Their intuition is straight-on: “the Baldock Restoration Project” was underway. Notice, it was the rest area, not the people, being restored. A solar energy installation was planned. The State of Oregon has published an official report citing the US Department of Transportation’s “environmental justice Order 5610.2” and outlining the planning and execution of the relocation of the Baldockians.

To their credit, they didn’t just send in State Troopers; they did make efforts to understand the community, to meet different needs with different solutions. Yet I wonder why, if they were to select one image of one Baldock resident, they chose the one they did.

It’s hard to find fault with a solar energy project; it’s not easy to be against finding stable living situations for people living in their cars. If I’d just read the Oregon report, I might think they’d done a good thing. But now, having met these people on a more intimate level, I’m not sure. The local news story actually offends me with its high-and-mighty, “Ain’t it Awful” hysterics.

This is what point-of-view can do. And it occurs to me, maybe the “forward/back” “good/bad” theme I’ve been so determined to force on everything, is really a matter of point of view. The Oregon report, while including details of the Baldockians’ varied stories and attempting to take a sociological view, to evince concern and “environmental justice”, is clearly from the observer’s side. Verzemnieks tells the story from the residents’ side. She doesn’t skim over the ugly stuff, but she presents these people as people first. It’s a lot easier to feel compassion for people, when you see them as people, as one of us, instead of one of them.

“Some people would say they wouldn’t be caught dead living like this, in this nasty old RV,” [Ray] said. “But you know what, I consider myself so fortunate to have this. Because when you’ve had nothing – and I’ve been there – living like a no good dirty bum, low as you can go, in the streets, and people won’t even look you in the face, like you’re an animal or something and you don’t have shit, you’re thankful for whatever you can get. Let me tell you, I’ve never been so thankful.”
He jabbed his face with his fists, trying to hide the tears.
“I don’t know what I’d do if I lose this. I can’t live like that again.”
No one spoke.

The piece ends with an intense emotional punch as we see that even success has its price.

Oregon seems to feel it solved the problem. Verzemnieks doesn’t seem so sure. I wonder if there is a solution. I wonder about Joleen, and Jack. I wonder about Ray and Sweetpea. I wonder.

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One response to “Pushcart 2015: Inara Verzemnieks, “The Last Days of the Baldock” (non-fiction) from Tin House, #57

  1. Pingback: Pushcart XL: Jordan Kisner, “Jesus Raves” (non-fiction) from N+1, #18 | A Just Recompense

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