Rachel and I were driving the other day, she behind the wheel and I beside her, little sidekick Abby asleep in the back. Rachel does most of the driving in California, as a) it's her car and b) LA traffic is scary and c) I rarely carry my license with me. (And once driving without it got me a hefty ticket and a few days later, the worst haircut of my life. I'm not sure how much correlation there was between the ticket and the haircut, but it all happened on the same roadtrip. Aww, college.)
We were stopped at a red light when I asked about the house on Hadley Street. It's a older house, white and flat-fronted. Dignified architecture. The house itself seems to say, "Why yes, I have lived in these parts for a very long time, and I've been a good citizen." But everything surrounding the house says, "Sorry, sucker, your time has passed." Spare tires, old machinery, wire towers with cactus, broken pots, and garden tools ooze out of the carport and onto the lawn and into the spare lot. The pumpkin was what really caught my eye. Think giant and orange. Think the species of larger-than-life inflatable lawn things Wal-mart markets to zealous holiday decorators. It was fully inflated in the front of the carport when I walked by the other day, set on top of an empty papazan chair frame, tilted at a funny angle. That, I thought, has to be at least semi-intentional. I can understand owning a pumpkin (well, sort of) and having no place to put it, but it's January. Why would you have an inflated pumpkin sitting around in January?
I asked Rach if she knew who lived in that Hadley Street house. "Oh, I don't know him personally," she said. "But he's a widower, and apparantly, his house looked normal before his wife died. Now it looks like that."
Today, Abby and I went for a walk, and at the end of our loop, we headed down Hadley Street. The pumpkin was still there, but today, it was flat. We were a few yards past the white house when I saw an older man in front of us. He had velcro shoes with the flaps unfastened. Tan pants and a dark brown suit jacket. "That's him," I thought. He was walking slowly. When he came to the intersection, he stopped in the middle and looked back before shuffling to the other side. Confused. We came up behind him, and he heard us. He stepped into the dirt bed next to the sidewalk and let us pass. He turned his face to look at Abby, and I saw his chin and cheeks, stubbly, unshaven, gaunt. On the left lapel of his jacket, there was a blue plastic nametage. "H. Knight," it read. His eyes lit when he saw my chubby niece, asleep in the stroller, brown-shoed feet stuck straight out in front of her. He chuckled. "Hello, sir," I said, half-expecting him to strike up a conversation. Babies make friends out of complete strangers, I am finding. He didn't say anything, only smiled, and so I walked on.
I walked on. I walked away.
He wasn't like my friends in India, many of whom were so open about their need. When I walked away from them, I turned my face from grasping hands and pleading cries. My heart tore with the pressure of the pain and the dilemma of how to ease it. Today, my heart tore too. I wasn't expecting that, not here in a historic suburb of LA, on quiet and tree-canopied streets. He didn't ask me for anything. He didn't even ask me for a few moments of my time, a few moments of small talk in the stretch of a lonely day.
I will not be able to forget poverty. It's not just in Kolkata, I thought as I turned the corner to my sister's driveway. It's here too. It is in the kind and perplexed face of the widower. Whatever his monetary net-worth, it's absolutely more than that of an average Indian citizen. But his dearth is the lack of companionship, family, love. The walk alone instead of with a wife. The yard gone to pot, perhaps because nothing seems worth keeping up anymore.
The poverty of love is the hardest-hitting.
Oh, how we all need love.