"It won't be long now," my neighbor Jim tells me. Over the past few months, the contours of Margo's face have rapidly been replaced by a bloated yellow-gray pallor that looks almost alien in Jim's living room. "It means her liver is failing," Jim says.
Margo and her husband, both alcoholics in their 40s, are currently living under a bridge. When it gets real cold, like it did this past week, they call Jim and beg to be let in.
"She has this way of saying 'Pleaasse, Jim," he says, mimicking her. "I have to let them come over. I just can't take it."
Jim, who has a tolerance level the likes of which I've never before seen, is probably the last person on earth who still takes the two in, even for a few hours. Over the years, they've knocked holes in his walls, broken his telephone, stolen from him, destroyed much of his furniture, leveled a telephone pole during a drunken driving incident, and even, on one occasion, clocked him upside the head with a frozen turkey.
Because Jim, a retiree in his 60s, is my friend, I listen to him agonize over Margo, dreading her return days before she shows up. "Don't do it," I tell him. "Don't let them back in. You don't owe them anything, Jim."
But a day later, I'll see them trudging up my street to Jim's house, Margo smiling her bloated, gap-toothed smile.
You won't hear the full story of folks like Margo in today's media culture, which tends to paint them as victims of a system that could have saved them, if only some program had been given a few more government dollars, if only the rest of us adopted the proper level of guilt for their problems.
But the fact is that Margo's homelessness is no one's fault but her own. She's sleeping under a bridge because the church she and her husband were staying at the last place in Charlotte that would have them tossed them out after they were caught drinking. They can't get an apartment or a room because their hair-raising rental history of drunken debauchery and destruction precedes them. Detox won't have them anymore because they sneak alcohol in or eventually get caught drinking. They've had little trouble finding jobs, but a hard time keeping them because they eventually show up drunk.
I live on the kind of street where neighbors still don't bat an eye or call the cops when the Margos of the world pass by. That's what you pay for when you buy a home in a nicer neighborhood than mine. You pay not to know that the Margos are killing themselves, and that there isn't a damned thing anyone can do about it. You pay to believe that their problems could be easily solved if we all came together as one brotherhood of man or something and fed the world because on some level it is easier to blame Margo's problems on the selfishness of the world around her than to contemplate the true wasteful horror of her 40 years on this earth.
I've learned a lot about human nature in my first year on Logie Avenue. To me, it seems that we basically come in two types: consumers and producers. Margo is an extreme example of the first type. The rest of us fall somewhere in between. It's a rare thing that the two types meet, mix or live side-by-side. But for this brief moment in my street's transition from wasteland to gentrification, they're mixing in a social laboratory that's too fascinating to abandon for any immediate profit I might make on the house I've fixed up.
When you live next to people, when you walk your street everyday, as I do, you get to know them, whether you actually speak to them or not. Once you get the sense of an individual person, the race, income, education or opportunities one was or wasn't born with fade into the background while their inherent level of humanity pours out onto the street, influencing everything around them.
When it comes right down to it, the most critical difference among the various individuals on my street is the level of value they place upon life itself. It can be seen in the little things, in how they treat their children, their animals, their property and, in particular, their neighbors and their neighbors' property.
It's clear, for instance, that my neighbor Judy struggles. She cleans houses and has been known to have $30 weeks. There are rooms in the house she inherited from her uncle that aren't used, because the foundation is deteriorating and there's no money to fix it. But if she's home, she's out on the street no matter what the temperature, watching not just her son, but his friends whose parents never so much as bother to crack the door to see if they're OK. There isn't a stray animal that goes unfed thanks to her. I worry about what will happen when that foundation gives every time I pass by, and marvel at her stubborn resilience.
My neighbors two doors down pay for their home with a Section 8 voucher, although they drive nicer cars than just about anyone else in the neighborhood, including me. When they arrived, they brought a drug dealing relative with them and promptly turned that section of the street upside down as their parade of rough-looking customers formed a constantly moving line of traffic in and out of the house, parking their cars on neighbors' lawns and blaring music in the middle of the night. With help from other Logie residents, the police managed to clear the dealer out of the house, which took no small effort. They still find it easier to throw their trash over the fence into Jim's yard than to take it to the curb. They glare at the people passing by. I work hard at not hating them, particularly because I know how badly other people on the Charlotte Housing Authority waiting list need that voucher.
Then there's the chiseled triathlete Adonis with the brand-new Lexus cruiser who is going to kill a child if he doesn't slow the hell down. His dogs run wild through the neighborhood half the time, and if he doesn't hit them, someone else is going to.
Then there's June. Up and down the street she goes, noticing small critical details that foretell imminent disaster like the street light that's out or the numbers missing from my house. "Police and fire will never find you," she roars at me while she and her teenaged recruits trudge across my lawn to staple a sticky band I hadn't thought to install to my big old trees to keep some kind of bug from crawling up and killing them.
And as the seasons change, some give and give and some take and take and lives of consumption and production intertwine on the same bit of dirt for a brief moment in time.
Scatter though we may, this will never change and like Margo, there's not a damn thing anyone can do about it. *
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