I live in a modest house in a county of extremes. Around my slightly-larger-than-mile-square town, sprawling mansions dot the former farmland punctuated by hayfields and rustic farmhouses. In town, the older Victorians on one side of the main street stand in sharp contrast to the apartments and row houses on the other. Some people refer to our town as "the hole in the middle of the donut" of the Township; it's not an entirely inaccurate way to describe what the demographics look like.
On Saturday morning, towards the beginning of my run, I passed the dilapidated two-family rental that always seems full of shouting. There was a lot more junk than usual at the curb today, though. It looked like someone had emptied the entire contents of their house. There were toys, and furniture, and even food: boxes and boxes of canned goods, pasta, baby food, toddler meals, tossed haphazardly into the front yard. A sign on a plain white sheet of paper taped to a chair read, simply, "FREE." And then, I knew: this wasn't junk. This was the scene of a disaster.
Seeing me pause in front of the chaos of boxes, the landlady, a leathery woman, stuck her head out of the second-story window. "Take as much as you want," she yelled encouragingly.
"What happened?" I asked, knowing.
"Tenant didn't pay up," she said, disgusted. I nodded; she waved and went back inside.
I stood gaping at the piles of belongings. It was hard to look at. But most difficult of all: the impossibly small pair of red sequined shoes--ruby slippers-- smaller even than my own daughter's foot, whose owner could no longer even click them together, and think, "there's no place like home."
I didn't take anything. It would have been a violation of something I felt was sacred. But for the rest of my run, I was haunted by the piles of belongings, the ruby slippers. No matter what the tenant had done, it didn't seem fair to the kids, who, judging by the size of that shoe, couldn't have done anything wrong. Where were they now, I wondered? Did they have a place to stay? And the food, all of that food ... were they hungry?
When I got back home, I found my son playing Legos in his pajamas. "Come on," I told him. "I need your help. We're going on a mission. You can keep your pajamas on." He protested; he was, after all, happily playing. And maybe it was voyeuristic of me, I don't know. But somehow, I felt like he had to see this.
I grabbed the camera, some brown bags, and my car keys. I'd gotten it into my head that it would be better if I delivered that food to the food pantry. I felt powerless, and I needed to feel like I could do something. That at least maybe, even if we couldn't help those kids, we could help someone else.
My son hopped into the back seat, full of questions. Where were we doing? What were we going to do? Why was I in such a hurry? Why was it a secret? Not knowing what we'd find when I returned there--I'd been running for at least another half an hour, plenty of time for people to collect things--I stalled. But when we pulled up to the curb, everything was untouched. I explained, as best I could, what we were looking at, and what we were going to do. He nodded solemnly, took some bags, and began to transfer some of the canned goods out of broken boxes and into my trunk. Some of the canned good were expired, and judging by the assortment, had come in a basket of Thanksgiving items from the food pantry; I tried to sort those out, wondering, worrying about what the children had been eating.
We had been working for a few minutes when the landlady reappeared in the open window, encouraging us again to take more. I told her that we were going to take the food to the food pantry, if that was all right; she said of course, saying she'd thought about doing so, but just hadn't followed through. I told her I understood, that after all, she had a lot to do, to empty the apartment. It's not for me to judge.
Seeing me look again at the ruby slippers, she asked if we wanted more shoes. Some little boys' things, she said. At first, I told her no, but then: "wait ... yes." I could find new owners for the shoes.
She came down with a bag, and as she emptied it for us, displaying the contents, she told us that there had been five children living there, between the ages of 2 and 15. That the mother, according to the accounts of neighbors, had often been high. That the oldest son quit school to hang out. It was awful to hear, her context for the piles in the yard, even if only part of it was true. They lived just a few blocks away from me.
When we'd filled my trunk with food and shoes, we got into the car and drove away. I asked I. what he thought. He said he felt sad, sad for the kids especially, and then asked me why adults don't pay rent. I thought of those five kids, about the parents-in-waiting who would give anything to provide a child a home, and I bit my tongue. In a way I hoped he could understand, we talked about poverty. About how it can have many faces. About how it's a complicated thing, and there are no easy answers. Because I will never know what really happened in that house, and because life happens to all of us, and sometimes we are called to make impossible choices.
We dropped off the food in a bin for the food pantry, and headed back to my son's Legos. I wish I could have done more. I wish the gulf between us hadn't been so wide. I found myself holding my kids a little more closely today.
Tonight, wherever she is, I hope that the little girl who is missing the ruby slippers still feels like she is home.
White Beans with (Sausage and) Chard
This homey stew uses canned beans, like the ones we found in those boxes, and the chard in season at our CSA. It's good for cooler nights that we've been experiencing around these parts, or for using up frozen chard you put up during the winter. You could omit the ham hock if you are vegetarian, but the chorizo does lend a smoky flavor, so I recommend finding a vegetarian andouille sausage to substitute.
1 lb. Great Northern white beans
1 lb. ham hocks
1 whole medium onion, plus two medium onions, minced
2 bay leaves
3 T. olive oil
3 garlic cloves, minced
3/4 lb. chorizo
3 large tomatoes, peeled, seeded, chopped (see note below)
1 small bunch chard, washed well and chopped
Soak the beans in cold water to cover overnight.
drain the soaked beans and place in al arge pot with the jam hocks, whole onion, and bay leaves. Add coled water to cover 3 inches above the beans. Bring to a boil, lower heat to medium, and simmer the beans until tender. This may take as long as two hours, but check them after about an hour or so. Season the beans with 1 t. salt during the last 30 minutes of cooking if desired (I didn't do so, because the meats are salty enough for me).
Remove the ham hock,onion, and bay leaves from the beans. Discard the onion and bay leaves. Cut the meat from the ham hocks and discard the bones.
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium low heat and cook garlic and minced onions until soft (about 5-7 minutes). Add sausages (whole if they will fall apart if sliced, then slice them after they firm up). Cook for about 5 minutes.
Stir in the tomatoes and cook for another 5 minutes but not to a paste; the tomatoes should still be juicy. Stir in the chard and cook until wilted, about 5 minutes.
Add the chard mixture to the bean mixture, and cook over medium heat for another 30 minutes for all of the flavors to mingle. If it's too dry, add water, and if it's too soupy, cook over a higher heat.
Serve with a crusty bread.