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Poor Kids

My nephew and I were having a chat on the phone, like he does, calling his old uncle from his stroll to some mid-town bodega, though I’ve learned not to be surprised to hear it’s mid-town Caracas, or Riyadh, or just maybe his childhood hometown of Eugene Oregon, where he was a poor kid. Or just as likely midtown Manhattan, near NYU, where he got his masters after Portland State, and where he was well and truly launched into his current stratospheric social orbit. A poor kid from Eugene’s Jefferson West neighborhood. I will not throw anything at my sister here, or her husband, who were and are hardworking people who have a lot of fun; music and theater, and fun, good for them. They paid the bills, fed the kids, they were good parents to their two sons, I’d say better than most. But… (like me and my kids) little houses, old cars, no fancy anything. No skiing, no Disneyland.

So… back to the phone call… he says, have you ever heard of… and rattled off a five or seven letter acronym, and I’m like squinting, and I go, “...UN?” and he says no it’s not, but it is non-profit, it is global, it is well-financed. “And…?” I asked. “And they’ve offered me a job. I think I’m going to take it,” he said. We let that sink in, and maybe took a minute over something else, and then I said, “Wait a minute… you said they’re headquartered in Europe…?” He said yes, and I said excitedly, “So their HQ is going to be Brussels or… Paris? Are you moving to Paris?” “In three months,” he said.

Reminds me this morning of Judy Collin's song, where the lyric goes:

My father always promised us

that we would live in France...

we'd go boating on the Seine

and I would learn to dance.

- J. Collins

I may make it to Paris, though I won't be holding my breath; don't you either. The summer I turned twelve, my older sister and I did get off to camp for the first and last time. We were ranchers’ kids and normally camp wouldn’t make much sense for us, because our lives were just all about our never-ending outdoor experience anyway. I mean, we were on horseback afterschool, weekends, all summer… how exotic that must sound. For that matter, how wealthy it must sound. It wasn’t either. (Well, sure, OK, but compared to what?)

This was the Lewiston valley; high desert, and we lived on the big ranch next to a little exurban strip of hobby farms and big lots, two dozen homes tops, on a back road that ran the length of my grandparent’s winter range. There were lots of kids and families in our neighborhood there had a pony or two, just like they might have a quarter acre irrigated to fatten a steer; it was cheap and easy. Compared to today, expectations weren’t real high for those horses and ponies, or the kids for that matter, who were all cheerfully expected to take a few lumps in the course of a busy day. The ponies were mutts, I suppose, like the neighborhood dogs, but so what, they were fun. My sister and I were doubly blessed because not only did our grandparents raise really nice little ponies - for fun on that great big chunk of ground AND we were living with them - but also the grandpa was a serious horse guy and knew what he was doing and was good at it; so we had a chance to learn horses pretty right and get good. And that’s how we got to a camp that summer too, because the grandparents got us into a 4H riding group with a bunch of kids like us, and we all got to go to camp, how cool.

Camp was fun, and I remember I flirted with a pretty girl at the dance; but the thing that’s burned into my soul forever was about a poor kid I knew named Mary, and what happened to her on the way home from camp, and that’s really what I think I wanted to tell you about today.

Mary and I had been classmates and spelling bee rivals since the second grade. She had red hair. She was sensible. She looked and acted normal except that she was smart. A couple of us were smart; she was one of them. The school was tiny. There were maybe… eight or nine kids in my gradeschool class, Mary was always there. Now… half of us were ranchers’ kids, and we bussed in, and half were townies and walked. They were the insurance guy’s daughter, and the construction company owner’s son, and the other townies, including the millworkers’ kids: Scotch-Irish tough, fast with their fists, vulgar, smokers, early dropouts. Mary was cousin to one of those families, and her’s was poorer than most; she was always in cheap clothes, cheap shoes. And we were always the last ones standing for class spelling bees cause she got straight As and was way frickin smart.

Mary went to the same camp too that summer, and now that I think about it I’m not sure why, because she wasn’t part of our riding group (poor kid, no horse). I’m going to guess, (across the decades) guess that she kept, what, bunnies or something? Or ... maybe some little discreet scholarship...? I don't know. And come to think of it there were a couple of other kids there who weren’t horse kids either. So OK, so Mary went to camp, and I don’t remember anything about her at camp, (there was a hundred kids easy, I don’t even remember seeing her there). It was the thing that happened on the way back, because it rained real hard our last day there, and me and my sister and a couple of kids got a lift back to town in the back of the Extension Agent’s pickup; he fastened a canvas tarp over the pickup bed and probably thought it was ok.

It was ok almost, I mean, weren’t any of us made out of sugar. Except at the end when we let Mary out. Her suitcase had somehow gotten soaking wet, and it was a cheap little thing to start with, made out of cardboard, and when Mary had said goodbye to us, her classmates, and friends, and got to scramble out over the tailgate and find the ground, the suitcase caught on something maybe, and fell apart on the tailgate and spilled all of her things onto the wet ground: shirts and sox, a top, a sun-dress, a diary with a locking clasp, a pair of panties, spilled out in the rain. It still makes me weep with shame and rage for her. What happened to Mary Palmer who was so smart? Well? What happens to poor kids? Poor girls? In little tiny rural milltowns with eight or nine kids in the seventh grade. Most of them, in my experience, do not move to Paris.

I suppose it helps to write it down. I mean, I read this again - and again - and didn’t get so emotional this time. As emotional. I know, now, writing, that I have similar feelings of shame and rage about Jesus. (Yeah, Jesus again, happy easter.) Here’s the thing about Jesus in a nutshell: he was tired that morning. Just didn’t get enough sleep. He didn’t get any breakfast either, and he’d really like to go to the bathroom and smoke a cigaret - by himself - and he can’t do any of those things because there are people everywhere, all looking at him, calling out have mercy on us, son of David, have mercy on us, please please please. And it rained that morning and it’s muddy. Sandals and mud, yuchhhh. And then, in the story, which the scholars tell us either did not happen at all, or it is at best roughly representative, the parts that aren’t flat made up, in the story I say, he suddenly stops and turns and says who touched me. And of course Peter, perfect fall guy, says whattaya…? C’mon…! We’re surrounded by people… Whattaya mean, somebody touched you? And Jesus is like, just wait a minute, and there she was in front of him, just freaking scared to death she’d done something wrong, and he says come here, sister. That's the difference too, isn't it? Somebody came up to me I'd say wow that's rough, what are you taking for that? Jesus says come here.

So anyway, she said to herself, just touch his clothes, and maybe… who knows? Maybe! What can it possibly hurt? How could it possibly be worse than this constant, horrible, un-cleanness, this twelve-year period, for God’s sake, and those idiot doctors. “Just the hem…” she said to herself, and in the event of course Jesus said be healed and go in peace sister, and she was and she did, amen and amen. When it hurts me, it hurts because he was busy, busy, he was already going to Jairus’ house for Jairus’ daughter. He was always busy, and he didn’t say no to people. He was the A student, he was the best speller in the whole school, so he got the worst jobs and when he was all used up doing the worst jobs we killed him to stop him from talking to us about loving shitty people. Rage and grief. I am not reconciled.


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