Could you choose to live on the street?

That little farm you see down there is the place where I spent a good many of my formative years after my mother remarried and we moved to Portales, New Mexico. As you can see, we’d had a pretty good year for hay, which dates the picture to 1949, or 1950, before the big drought hit.

When we sat outdoors in the evening the red neon lights blinked “Schumpert Farm Supply” across the top of the long building running diagonally to the railroad tracks until I went to bed. From my limited perspective the Schumperts were ‘rich’. In that small town that railroad running through didn’t identify who was rich but it did identify who wasn’t. That little farm I lived on and no other property that side of the tracks had any rich people.

In the rigidly established social structure in Portales business men generally came down on the side of being ‘rich’, along with professors at Eastern New Mexico University, bankers, physicians, preachers, school teachers and a few elderly ladies who lived in houses big enough to be thought of as mansions. Farmers, ranchers, Mexicans and people who worked in the businesses weren’t ‘rich’.

I doubt the adults paid a lot of attention to the social strata, but school teachers did, and the kids adopted it more firmly than a religion. Rich kids were easy to recognize because they made good grades, weren’t hassled by teachers, got elected to everything, brought cookies to school Christmas, Easter and Halloween, and had the best bicycles early, cars later. For the most part they were insufferable snobs.

But not the Schumpert boys. I was in school with Stephen and Billy, and there was a precocious younger one I don’t recall the name of. Stephen was a year older than me, Billy a year younger, and there wasn’t a breath of snobbery in the entire family. Stephen, particularly, had a knack for getting in just the right amount of just the right kinds of trouble to keep from qualifying as a goody-goody. Good solid boys from a good solid family. I had a lot of respect for all of them.

I left that town early and stayed mostly away for several decades. I lost track of almost everyone I ever knew there.

But after Y2K when I moved into town to Grants, New Mexico, I came across Billy Schumpert being president of a bank there. Naturally we got together and talked about whatever we each knew that might interest the other. Billy’s the one told me what happened to Stephen.

Stephen worked as a bank examiner several years, then became president of a bank in Colorado, maybe Denver. Had a regular family, seemed to be destined to follow a career path and eventually retire. But one morning he didn’t show for work late in the 1980s. Nobody had any idea what became of him. He wasn’t a drinker, didn’t use drugs, didn’t have a ‘secret life’. He just vanished for no apparent reason.

Over time the police and other agencies gave up, assumed he was the victim of some crime, dead. But the family put up a reward for information about Stephen, sent private investigators and others searching for him. Eventually, six, seven years later they located him living under a bridge in Seattle.

Over time everyone who loved Stephen went up there trying to talk him into returning to real life, return home.

“No! I had enough!” That’s all he’d say and he never came back.

I’ve pondered Stephen a lot during the years since I learned what he’d done with his life. In some ways I think I understand, though I’m not sure. My own life has been a long series of reversals in direction. It’s meandered, cutting as wide a swath of human experience as I was able to pack into it. So, from that perspective, I can gnaw at the edges of understanding Stephen’s behavior. But I was a wild kid and I’ve always pushed the envelope, all my life.

Stephen was ‘tame’.

I’d like to see old Stephen again if he’s alive. He’d be 70, 71 years old now and maybe wiser than he was in the 1980s when something told him he’d had enough. I’d like to sit on the porch and talk with him a long time to come to know how he came to make his choice to isolate himself, to impoverish himself.

Simon & Garfunkel – Richard Cory 1966 live
http://youtu.be/euuCiSY0qYs

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19 responses to “Could you choose to live on the street?

  1. http://blueskiessunnydays.blogspot.com/

    Stephen’s story makes me think of how you feel when you’ve had enough of playing the game. Sometimes when I stop and take a look around, I think what pretense we all live under because none of what we seem to value is real in the respect that nothing much is life and death and most of it is sheer silliness, particularly when you have a bit of money. For me, I don’t fully open my eyes because I don’t want to be under the bridge.

    • Morning blueskiessunnydays: Thanks for the visit and the observations.

      When I think of Stephen I always feel a puzzling, nagging admiration for the fact that after several years on the streets he didn’t grab the first escape route to come available. Evidently he knew the joys and hardships, the rewards and punishments of both extremes, probably the middle roads, as well, and hadn’t enough doubt he was where he wished to be to abandon what he’d chosen for himself. Regardless of the priorities and value systems arguing he wasn’t where anyone would wish to be.

      I’ll hope if I ever end up living under a bridge I can share that fragment of his reality.

      Gracias, J

  2. Fascinating! I know some of us want to believe that every homeless person chose their lot (I do not), but here’s someone who did. I think I do understand a little, at least enough so that his story resonates. Maybe it’s the same voice that told me to change my life and “live in a van down by the river.”

  3. I keep coming back here, hoping I will find something to say that comes close to expressing how I feel about this. For reasons I cannot explain, it’s struck a deep chord. Maybe it’s another person who lived so near the tracks, and on the wrong side early on. Maybe it’s the choice Stephen made, and what it says about the world as much as it does about Stephen. Maybe it’s because I’ve cut a pretty wide swath myself and am not sure yet what to make of it. Maybe it’s because it’s just so well-written.

    A really fine post.

  4. Addendum: The S & G song is great, as is the poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson. Nice summation.

  5. Morning Roxanne: Thanks for the read. I swing back and forth on the issue of how our choices influence our later choices ad infinitum, and how the internal gravity we carry into this life that’s hidden under our dashboards and engine compartments, the autopilots we select to influence the routes, the GPSs we squint at to arrive at some understanding of our locations at any given moment [long sentence, eh?] might, or might not be construed as choices, or the antithesis of choices. For this moment in my life I’m tempted to believe it’s all choice, though the choices might have been made without our conscious knowledge, recognition, deliberation. More along the lines of what we ‘need’ to experience for some specific piece of the potential human growth experience.

    In that sense, if in no other, I expect what Stephen felt prodding him to live under a bridge is not unlike what you heard telling you to live down by the river.

    Gracias, J

    Hi Teresa Evangeline. Thanks again for the visits and kind words. Seems you and I have travelled some similar routes this lifetime. I appreciate you. Gracias, J

  6. Here’s a much better, my opinion, poem by Robinson. Tears me apart.

    Old Eben Flood, climbing alone one night
    Over the hill between the town below
    And the forsaken upland hermitage
    That held as much as he should ever know
    On earth again of home, paused warily.
    The road was his with not a native near;
    And Eben, having leisure, said aloud,
    For no man else in Tilbury Town to hear:

    “Well, Mr. Flood, we have the harvest moon
    Again, and we may not have many more;
    The bird is on the wing, the poet says,
    And you and I have said it here before.
    Drink to the bird.” He raised up to the light
    The jug that he had gone so far to fill,
    And answered huskily: “Well, Mr. Flood,
    Since you propose it, I believe I will.”

    Alone, as if enduring to the end
    A valiant armor of scarred hopes outworn,
    He stood there in the middle of the road
    Like Roland’s ghost winding a silent horn.
    Below him, in the town among the trees,
    Where friends of other days had honored him,
    A phantom salutation of the dead
    Rang thinly till old Eben’s eyes were dim.

    Then, as a mother lays her sleeping child
    Down tenderly, fearing it may awake,
    He set the jug down slowly at his feet
    With trembling care, knowing that most things break;
    And only when assured that on firm earth
    It stood, as the uncertain lives of men
    Assuredly did not, he paced away,
    And with his hand extended paused again:

    “Well, Mr. Flood, we have not met like this
    In a long time; and many a change has come
    To both of us, I fear, since last it was
    We had a drop together. Welcome home!”
    Convivially returning with himself,
    Again he raised the jug up to the light;
    And with an acquiescent quaver said:
    “Well, Mr. Flood, if you insist, I might.

    “Only a very little, Mr. Flood —
    For auld lang syne. No more, sir; that will do.”
    So, for the time, apparently it did,
    And Eben evidently thought so too;
    For soon amid the silver loneliness
    Of night he lifted up his voice and sang,
    Secure, with only two moons listening,
    Until the whole harmonious landscape rang —

    “For auld lang syne.” The weary throat gave out,
    The last word wavered; and the song being done,
    He raised again the jug regretfully
    And shook his head, and was again alone.
    There was not much that was ahead of him,
    And there was nothing in the town below —
    Where strangers would have shut the many doors
    That many friends had opened long ago.

  7. Your Coyote post will appear at 12:01 AM EDT Thanks again. You really are a genius.

  8. HI J. I want to say how much I appreciate your response to Roxanne. I have thought for a good long time now, it’s All about the choices we make, conscious or unconscious.

    I like your explanation.

  9. Cletis: Nice poem. Thanks for sharing it. Genius I ain’t.

    Hi Teresa Evangeline: Sometimes when I go back and read what I’ve written there’s a strange feeling to it, as though I’m reading something written by a regular person out there somewhere. This was one such time. Thanks for the visit and kind words, once again.

  10. Great post, great writing, great responses, great thread, this is how the Internet should work instead of having to lock and load and wear a Nomex fire suit while you type on the keyboard. I’m with Jules, there may be something to pre-destination in regards to soul building, it makes a lot more sense to me to plan out a lifetime obstacle course to run during our soul building exercise on Terra (compared to a random existence), knowing the areas that need work on the road to perfection we design our “action plan” our memory of the plan is wiped and zap a young 18 month old baby who knew nothing but eating, sleeping, crying and pooping suddenly has a personality and a soul. Free will and the choices we make or fail to make ensue until the life expires, the brownie points or demerits are added up…we determine where we need to improve and try again, problem might be that we are eternal screwups and never quite get it right which might be why we have been blessed(??) with eternal life. I suppose the answer will come to us one day. Then they hit the reset button. It’s a wonderful life.

  11. Hi Rich: Thanks for the visit and observations. Perfection’s a worrisome prospect. I can’t imagine what a person would do with himself, having attained it. Nowhere to go but downhill from there, but he’d have plenty of downhills to choose from, I reckons.
    Gracias, J

  12. WHEE!!!!!!!!!!!! All these hills and so little time :-(

  13. I knew bill(very nice fellow),don”t remember Stephen. The building looks a lot like what became the Hargis canning co–maybe not. I understand S”s frustration with the rigidity of “normal life”, but thensome of us gotta do it–family. It might be an intersting adventure to “track down” S. I enjoyed the read. KK

  14. Hi Mr. K. Good to see you paying a visit. Stephen was a year or so older than us. Ran around some with Elgin Mallory, Dean Douglas and that bunch. Thanks for the read.

    Edit: Schumpert’s had a bowling alley on the left end of that by ’64, maybe earlier. Back there where you see our place it was all Bobby Borden’s peanut operation by ’64…. tin buildings all over it. Gentry’s and Worley’s operations would be across the tracks out of the picture to the right. Upper right out of the picture would be the County Fair Grounds and National Guard armory. Left off the picture behind our haystacks was Herbert Lemay’s place… You probably remember me telling you about the hogs eating the insides out of his dead donkey lying out there, just beyond our hay but in his barnyard… ate in from the discharge end of the gut forward.

    Good seeing you amigo.

  15. Old Jules that sounds like me. It also sounds like you. If Stephen is alive I may well know him. I am Old Seattle. I prefer life aboard my boat or the bitter mountains but I do love my little time with bridges. I do grieve for a scared family however. Amazing story.

    • arifmvega: You might well know him then, if he’s alive and still on the streets. As for it sounding like me, I hadn’t considered it before, but there’s probably some truth in the observation. Thank you for coming by. Jules

  16. When I worked with the VD clinic in Phoenix years ago, one of my homeless patients used to be an aeronautical engineer for a major firm in the area. Said he lost his family to a drunk driver…nothing else made sense after that…quit the big-bucks job and society, essentially quit life…but was still a tender soul underneath the dirt and sweat and cast-off army field-jacket…said he didn’t miss that life at all. I understand this situation is a bit different than your childhood friend, but it rings similar. Sometimes life is just too much. Excellent post, Jules. Thank you.

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