A Cheap Place to Sleep

THOMAS N. LONGSTRETH

November 30, 1991|By THOMAS N. LONGSTRETH

A few nights before Thanksgiving I lay awake on a cot in a homeless shelter pondering some of the concerns aroused by the approaching holiday season. The school at which I teach requires students to perform community service, and many of them spend nights in St. Paul's Sanctuary in the basement of Old St. Paul's Church, teamed with a faculty member.

Robert Frost's poem ''The Death of the Hired Man'' came to mind. ''Home is the place where, when you have to go there,/They have to take you in,'' says the man. ''I should have called it/Something you somehow haven't to deserve'' is the woman's gentle rejoinder, as she seeks her husband's agreement to grant winter shelter and ''some humble way to save his self-respect'' to Silas, their aged, erstwhile employee, whose ''working days are done'' and who, it appears, has nowhere else to go.

Then Stephen Crane came to mind. Although he is famous for his Civil War classic ''The Red Badge of Courage,'' his more significant and lasting contribution to our culture is ''Maggie: A Girl of the Streets.'' In it he became the first American writer of fiction to deal seriously and honestly with urban poverty.

After several months' incognito residence among the derelicts of New York's infamous Bowery, Crane wrote ''Maggie'' in ''the two jTC days before Christmas'' of 1891 ''to show that environment is a tremendous thing in the world and frequently shapes lives regardless.''

In his view that the poor might be regarded as victims as easily as villains, Crane challenged the prevailing conventional belief, dramatized in the popular and comforting novels of Horatio Alger, that an escape from poverty could always be achieved by simple adherence to the Puritan virtues of honesty, industry, sobriety and thrift. Crane thereby staked out the boundaries of a debate which continues to animate our social and political thinking a century later.

Then I thought of Crane's story ''An Experiment in Misery,'' in which the protagonist comes from a better part of town into the Bowery, finds ''a cheap place to sleep'' in a room among many destitute people, and in the darkness hears one of them cry out in his sleep the ''tragedy of the unfathomable possibilities of [his] dreams.''

Presently I thought of the approaching season of Christ's birth, when we are reminded that those for whom there is no room in the inn may well be the best of people.

Eating dinner and watching some television and spending one night under the same roof with them does not mean that I know any of these people. But I believe that, like the rest of us, each of them has had a dream, and I know that, like all of us, each of them should have a home, a place to come to. In these foreboding economic times, in this nation which enjoys the highest standard of living in human history, the homeless people give us much to think about.

Thomas N. Longstreth teaches at St. Paul's School.

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