Iowa summers offer the type of weather that makes you shake like a dog in an attempt to purge the perspiration from your sticky skin. Seconds after cooling your body in an icy shower, mugginess overtakes you and you cannot help but loathe the carapace of humidity that clings to you like warm butter.
It was such a summer when I crossed paths with Russell. Russell was a vagabond. He wandered into my life one simmering summer twilight, his hair folded back underneath a dusty cap, his mulatto skin glistening with beads of sweat intermingling with freckles. His gray tee-shirt bore the damp signs of a hard day far from air conditioning and his odor reinforced the fact. Russell was wearing camouflaged pants and work boots that were missing more than was left to support his tired, wandering feet.
I was assisting my wife with a youth event at church when Russell first appeared. The sun was just beginning to sink below the dilapidated houses on Iowa Street as we saw the last junior high student off and prepared to head home. As we strode toward our car, Russell shyly approached. A little cautious, we paused,
“Hey there folks. You look like a couple a really great people. Can I talk to you for a few minutes?”
Warily, we murmured some non-committal agreement, and he continued.
“You see, I been livin' down at this ladies house, in her basement? I got her name from Sister Bernice – I've got her number here in my wallet...” He dug out a weathered scrap of leather and unfolded it to reveal matted slips of paper and a library card. At least he reads.
“You see, this is her number here. You can call her if you want.”
The scrap had seven marks, roughly organized in what could have been Sister Bernice's phone number. It could have been the Hungry Hobo on Locust for all I know.
“So this lady I been stayin' with, when I got home from my job roofing with Mr. Johnson – I got his number here...” He handed me another unlabeled scrap of paper, “She had the door locked and told me I couldn't stay there any more. Wouldn't even let me get my stuff.” He waited for a response from Annie and I.
We really weren't sure what to say. He wove a sympathetic tale and I felt bad for the man. Then he gave the pitch.
“Is there any way I could just earn some money from you? I think, if I pay her something, she'll at least let me in to get my stuff. I can work for it! I roof for this guy, and cut grass...?”
Annie and I have long ago established a policy to never give money to people who wander up asking for it. It may sound skeptical, but I am not completely without compassion. If someone approaches me, asking for money, I'll offer to buy them whatever it is they need. I felt encouraged that he was offering to work for his handout, but I had no work to be done. So Annie and I attempt a compromise.
“We can't give you any cash, but we can get you dinner, if you'd like?”
Fifteen minutes later, we'd returned with two big bags of KFC. We'd neglected to ask Mr. Russell what he wanted from the chicken emporium, so we just got a grab bag of wings, thighs, mashed potatoes, and biscuits. We also stopped by the ATM and got Russell $20.
When we returned with our mountain of chicken and money, Russell was eagerly apologetic. His demeanor was akin to a dog that had been beaten for relieving itself on the carpet, but was still overjoyed to see its master return. This juxtaposition of joy and shame was difficult to watch, and I was glad to see Russell trudge down the street, gnawing a chicken leg as he soldiered into the thick night air.
A few months later, we ran into Russell again. He started into a suspiciously similar tale of eviction, misfortune, and a need for cash. Again he offered his services to do, well, anything in exchange for some money. And this time I had a job for him.
“I have a job you can do to earn some money. I own a theater, over on Harrison Street? If you want, I'll give you $10 to do some painting for me for a couple of hours.”
“Thank you sir. I will definitely do that. When do you want me to be there?”
I gave him the time and the address. This would be a test to whether or not he was serious about working for his money. Time would tell.
The day to paint came, and so did Russell. He worked diligently and, while not the most skilled painter, he earned his $10. When the task was completed, he inquired as to any other jobs I may have for him. I told him that I didn't have much, but he could probably stop by in a couple weeks and check. Then his tone became more urgent,
“Could I maybe borrow, I dunno, like $20? I can work it off next week, or even sooner if you have something for me to do?” He proceeded to weave a tale of bus trips, homeless shelters, and bad debt, each stage of the story having a phone number to lend credibility. Finally, I folded.
“Here's $20. You owe me four hours of work. Come back next Tuesday at 4pm and I'll have something for you.”
I had a few projects that were on the back burner, so I decided that, with Russell's help, I'd get them done. Tuesday came. Russell was no where to be seen. I worked on some odds and ends, waiting for my transient labor to arrive. Finally, I gave up. Not only was the work not done. This event dealt a blow to my thoughts on dealing with poverty and need.
I thought I had beaten the system. I was sure that, if given some work to do, Russell would fulfill his end of the bargain. He'd rise to the challenge and earn his money. But when the reward was given prior to the labor, the immediate gratification overwhelmed any work ethic and he split.
Russell came around a few more times, asking for advances on labor that he assured me he'd make good on. When I asked him about the earlier absence, he'd mumble some vague excuse and promise to improve. But I was not interested in fronting this man any more funding. So I told him,
“Do the work, then get paid. Here's the next time we need help. Be there and I'll pay you for the work you do.”
He never showed up.