This time of year always makes me pensive and this year I am thinking about all the men I have met in Hastings and all of those who have passed and all of those who continue on, some with our help, others not.
Over the years, there was Hilario, Michael Chadwick, Billy Brown, Cowboy, Dallas and Frank. Dennis and Tommy, Craig and Andy and of course, Jewel. All gone now. All forgotten now. All stuck on a shelf in an urn in storage in some funeral home. But I knew their names. I knew their faces. I knew their stories, some more than others. Ten men in the last couple of years. All farmworkers. All anonymous. All some mother’s sons.
In five years I have known more people who have died than I have in all the years I have lived. And I think of them still and I wonder, am I the only one who misses them, who knows they are not here any longer? Do their names ever come to the minds of anyone else? I think of them, often and I hope I showed them all of the kindness that I could when they were here.
And then I think of the other men I have known. Jewel and Roosevelt. They were the first. Coming to me with stories so harrowing it seemed unfathomable at the time. But how could anyone not believe Roosevelt? A gentle giant, soft spoken and sweet with a love of Andy Griffith and I love Lucy. We could talk for hours about their comedic antics on long rides to and from the safe house we put them in. But then there were the darker stories. The stories of torture and abuse. Of fear. Stories of sneaking out in the middle of the night, skinning through a hole in the fence with no shoes, only to find miles of blacktop reaching from nowhere to nowhere and a whole lot of darkness between them and freedom. Racing heartbeats at the sound of car coming up the road. Diving into ditches when the car lights got too close. Hoping against hope to get somewhere other than where they were. Only to have those hopes dashed when the henchmen found them, grabbed them by the scruff of their necks and threw them into the back of the nefarious white van. Back to where they came from to take their punishment until the next time they worked up their nerve to run.
Besides Jewel and Roosevelt, there are some other happy endings. There is John and George. There have been lots of bus tickets, Leroy, Charles, Alabama, Hector, Linda, Maurice, Mike and Yvette, Tony and John. All safely out of town, reunited with family, living better lives, we hope.
Hastings, I sure never had a clue what I was getting into. But I wouldn’t change one day. It may seem like the world’s largest Band-Aid on a problem as old as time, but one by one, we do some good. One by one, we make some real change and one by one we keep giving the one thing no one can take away: Hope.
I don't go to Hastings anymore. But there is a lot of me still there, with so many of the men I have known.
Marion lives at the end of a dreary road inhabited by pregnant dogs, drunk men and women of ill-repute. It is a road no one goes down unless they have business and it is always no good business.
Up until a year ago, I drove down that road and parked my pie mobile right smack dab in front of the run down tin can that Marion calls home. I would bring him food, we would dance in the yard, he gave me a tour of his home with his picture of a white Jesus next to his bed.
And then one day, his captors told me to leave and not come back. Angrily screaming at me as I backed out of the driveway, literally spitting the venomous words and threats, he was so angry, I feared for Marion’s life and have not been down that road since.
By damn, they can take away hope, too.
But every so often I find a way to reach Marion. Someone who knows will see Marion and he will sneak around behind the Kangaroo and they will follow and get me on the phone with him and he will tell me he is okay and he will tell me the man upstairs is looking out for him and he will tell me he misses me and wishes he could hold my hand and then he tells me loves me and he is glad I am his friend.
And when I lay my head on my pillow that night I will be thinking about Marion, laying his head on his pillow, looking at his picture of Jesus and swatting away the roaches that call that tin can their home. I’ll be thinking I don’t want Marion to end up in an urn in the back closet of the funeral home.
And I will be thinking about Jewel and Hilario and all the others. Their faces etched in my mind, their stories, their lives and their deaths forever in my heart.
Once you know, how can you not know anymore?