Jolt from the past puts a face on homelessness

January 30, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

In that time of our lives, no one imagined the future. Parents mentioned it, but what did parents know? All concept of existence was limited strictly to the present tense, which consisted of 37 hours of algebra each morning until the midday punchball games arrived, then 112 hours of science in the afternoon, until we could spill back onto the playground for more of the games.

All of us were caught, back then, between the last innocent glimmer of childhood and the first onslaught of adolescence. The punchball games were a bridge. At Garrison Junior High School, in Northwest Baltimore, they were also a joyous ritual, a great blender for kids from different backgrounds to find common ground. To succeed here was to guarantee yourself a certain stature in life.

The game itself was simple. It had all the rules of baseball, except you tossed the ball into the air and hit it as hard as you could with your fist. The ball was called a pinky. It was like a tennis ball with all the hair shaved off. Nobody hit it better than Oscar or his brother Walter.

Oscar was sleek and fast. He hit line drives into the outfield alleys and ran the bases like a greyhound. Walter, a year older, big and strong, simply hit the ball so far that no one could reach it.

How were they in class? Who knew? Who cared? They seemed bright and conversant, and that was more than enough. In that time, the games were all that mattered. Youth was all that existed. If it took forever to endure a single hour of algebra, then surely the future itself would never have to arrive.

Then, about a week ago, it did. It was a bone-chilling morning in a West Baltimore shelter, with ice all over the streets outside, and a homeless guy walked over. He wore a battered overcoat over a hooded sweat shirt, and the face that peeked from beneath it seemed ancient and weather-beaten.

"Didn't you go to Garrison Junior High?" he asked.

"Yeah," I said, surprised at the long-ago reference.

"I'm Oscar," he said.

He seemed to have arrived from somebody else's past. We embraced, and then I stepped back and took a moment to search for traces of his face, vanished somewhere with the years. Time takes its toll on all of us. Oscar had a cherub's look back in the late '50s, but now the skin had hardened and formed crevices. It was a face that had known too many winters too intimately.

"You were a hell of an athlete," I said.

"Yeah," he said softly, "I used to be."

"You're on the street now?"


"What happened?"

He shrugged. The moment we leave school behind, we all march off in different directions, but there's an unspoken assumption: We've been adequately prepared to make our way in the world. If we paid attention back in school and played by the rules, there will be a spot for us.

"I went into the Army," he said now. "They sent me to Europe. And, you know, I got into drugs."

The years went by, and he never got over them. When he returned to civilian life, he went to work, putting some of the Army skills to use, hitting the drugs when the time and the money were available. But it's a life of fiction, trying to have it both ways and thinking you can make it last. It's a variation of the junior high existence, imagining the future will never arrive.

The drugs took over, and his life slipped out of control. The jobs went away, and so did a roof over his head. When I saw him the other day, Oscar had just come out of drug treatment at a veterans hospital. He said he was determined to put the drugs behind him.

"How's your brother doing?" I asked.

"Oh, he's fine," Oscar said. "He works for the government, and he's studying for his master's degree."

"Do you talk to him?"

"Yeah," he said softly, "but you know how it is. When you do what I did, you have to get yourself out of it. Walter can't get me out of this. I have to do it myself."

He said he'd been clean for a while, but it was tough getting a place of his own without a job, and tough getting a job in this economy. He said he had a lot of skills, technical and clerical, and he wanted badly to work.

Around the homeless shelter were scores of people with Oscar's history: the days of youth that seemed they would never run out, the drift into drugs or alcohol, the lives gone bad. All of them stood here with their wintry faces, having arrived here from places that once seemed far from despair.

Most of us with a roof over our heads miss the connection of the homeless to our own lives. We think they have no histories like our own. Then someone like Oscar arrives.

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