Saturday, September 24, 2016

Above their pay grade

The garbage bags were piling up in the forsaken part of downtown. It was really a shame. There were too many people lined up on the sidewalks at all hours to get in there and pick it all up, and you couldn’t drive a street sweeper over a pile of rags and boxes. Someone might be passed out in there. Or lying in wait, ready to ambush invisible assailants. The sanitation department’s official line was that their employees didn’t feel safe, what with all the drug dealing and general craziness down there. You could understand. Tile and concrete were smeared with all manner of bitter liquids and sticky mystery materials, the kind of thing you’d want to hurry by, not clean up.

It’s likely that the sanitation workers were simply tired. Tired of being defeated by the garbage build-up, municipal standards of cleanliness losing ground to the organic rate of decay. Every hamburger bag and plastic energy drink bottle has to go somewhere. The workers were tired of being treated like servants by the city’s homeless, their walls, sidewalks, and gutters bearing the brunt of someone else’s rage, taken for granted.

There was another thing. It wasn’t as easily said or as official as citing safety hazards, but interactions down around the shelter just wore everyone out. The little jokes and stories were innocuous enough, but behind every side comment, every crazy outburst, every complicated excuse, there was a yearning: Notice me. When the last thing anyone wanted to do was look the broken people in the eye. But they were still people, with people needs, and they talked, and joked, and begged, and shouted, and shot up, and hit one another with fists and pipes and grabbing hands and those same garbage bags, swung as last-resort weapons. Useless, degrading, spraying yellow-brown muck.

It was a sequence of streetlamp-lit miniseries, driving by. Here a man in a wheelchair with no legs is impossibly active, zipping from group to group with a bawl and a growl. Here a toothless buzzard chuckles while jostling a younger girl with a butterfly tattoo on her shoulder, a boyfriend-type behind her bristling at the old guy's touch. Mostly men, but women too, and children. But the children’s stories are so beautiful and sad that we can’t do them justice yet, so stand by.

If it weren’t for the action, one would be able to hear the hiss of spray paint, a mere ladder-height above. On the dirty brick rooftop overhead, Lilla’s fingers moved deftly, stained with red and brown spray paint. Her surgically-gloved hands connected wires to a small circuit board. She tied the wires in knots, cheery little loops of red and green. She popped open a breaker box, flipped a fuse. Cut power, then re-connected it to the little device. Testing. All good. Her cell phone appeared, illuminating her brown eyes and lips, dark curls now a glowing halo frizzing out from under her hood.


Her gloved hand toggled the button, and a red spotlight flickered briefly on the blank wall above. She pocketed the phone, decisively spackled the cable into hiding along the brickline, tucked the circuitboard into a damaged section, and covered it all up with mortar.

She swung her bag to shoulder, spray cans clattering in their distinct metallic way, and leapt into darkness.

The human drama continued below, for anyone who stuck around long enough to see it.

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