It was hot that Saturday morning, 80 degrees at seven in the morning. I could see the thermometer on the side of my shop from where I stood in front of the air conditioner talking on the phone to Caty.
She headed out a half hour before to work, and had jerked me out of dreamworld to report spotting a strange sight. Fifteen miles to the south, a man was pushing a shopping cart full of plastic sacks down the edge of the highway, in the middle of Wheatsville, USA. I allowed that it was uncommon to see a homeless person ten miles from the closest possible home, and went back to bed.
It was just as hot the next morning when she called to say that she had waved at the same guy, pushing the same cart, who was now at milepost 16, 12 miles north of yesterday. What did I want to do about it? I said I would be forced to put on my shoes if I were going to help push a shopping cart, and that my preference was to do nothing about it.
On the way out to the highway, I stopped at Edna’s store and bought a bottle of ice-cold Mountain Dew, the official drink of homeless guys pushing shopping carts through the treeless void. Sure enough, a mile south of Athena, walking north toward traffic was a small black guy, forty-something, missing front teeth, torn windbreaker, dirty chino pants, pulling a standard grocery store cart along the breakdown lane. I guided my little red truck to a whoa in front of him and stepped out.
“Yassuh. What can I do for you, Suh?”
“I don’t know. I just stopped to see if you were alright.”
“Oh, Yassuh. I’m fine. Little warm, little thirsty, but just fine, thanks for asking.”
“Where are you headed?”
“I’m going to California someday. Right now I am going to Washington State, maybe Spokane or somewhere like that.”
“Want a ride? I can get you to the Washington state line. Twenty miles or so.”
“That would be more than just fine. Please help me lift my house onto your truck and we’ll be on our way.”
Once we had loaded his stuff, including a large rock, we shook hands and introduced ourselves. His name was Emmanuel and his hand was wet. I passed him the bottle of Dew. We didn’t talk about the politics of homelessness. Emmanuel was not a talkative guy, but neither did he seem demented or wounded, just solitary. I did learn a few things about his life in the 45 minutes I rode with him.
He was originally from Natchez, Mississippi, which explained the “Yassuh” stuff. He had been on the road for 16 years and three months. He was on his fifth shopping cart house, the one in the back given to him by an Albertson’s employee in Mountain Home, Idaho. The worst place he had ever been was Butte, Montana, where he had done 14 days for vagrancy with “some real nasty white boys.” The best place he had ever been was “in the trees, any kind of trees, where I can hunker and read the Bible.”
As we hit the edge of civilization just south of the Washington line I got a few insights into living out of a shopping cart.
“Now there is a Zp Trip. Very good dumpsters. Folks buy that corndog nacho burrito stuff and don’t like it, toss it away. And it is always poor folks working in convenience stores and poor folks are more generous than the rich ones. Papa Murphy’s pizza place. You get there late at night, just before they close and those kids working in there, they give you all the raw pizza you can eat. Used car lots. You find a big busy one on a late Saturday night, where people been getting in and out of those cars all day, and there’s bound to be pocket change on the ground. Mr. McDonald’s. Stay afar unless you can afford a cup of coffee. They have a company policy to chase you away from every one of those in the world, even call in the police.”
While we were unloading his house below the sign reading “Welcome to Washington, the Evergreen State” Emmanuel’s rock dropped from the pickup bed onto the pavement. I asked why he was carrying a rock around the world. He said “You always should have a rock, in case the wind blows or the dog is terrible big. You’d be surprised how many places that you just cannot find a rock.” Wise words.
Three hours later, my son and I decided to head for the hills and slaughter a few tin cans with a 22 rifle. He wanted to drive. As I got in the passenger side of our little truck I found an almost full pack of Marlboros that Emmanuel must have dropped. We headed for Washington and found Emmanuel just south of Walla Walla, two miles north of where I left him, head down, pushing his cart. When I handed him the pack of smokes he said “Yazzuh. I been looking all through my home for those. Figured I must’ve left them in your automobile. Thank you and the Lord, Brother,” smiled and flashed the peace sign. He was lighting up as we drove away.
J.D. Smith is an accomplished writer and jack-of-all-trades. He lives in Athena.