Mirrors, Thin Walls And Cheap Motels
PULASKI COUNTY, Va.--Cheap motels have thin walls and I can hear Michael at his computer. It’s 3 a.m. and he’s editing photos. I’m poring through notebooks of interviews.
For days now, we’ve been talking to strangers, following them as far into their worlds as they will take us. But at dinner, over Cuban and club sandwiches, pieces of our own stories began slipping out.
Michael and I both drink diet Coke, but early on in the trip, he noticed I fill my fountain cup with only a little ice. “That’s the poor person’s method,” he said. Get the most for your money, he meant. It was a statement that revealed as much about him as it did about me.
Michael grew up in foster care and has seen glimpses of himself in more than one homeless person, he tells me at dinner. One man in particular, nicknamed Shorty, led a life that mirrored Michael's own up until the age of 11. The only reason they turned out differently, Shorty had told Michael, was because when the merry-go-round they’d both been riding picked up speed and tossed them off, one ended up in a loving family’s lap and the other didn’t. Luck has something, although not everything, to do with how some people turn out, Michael tells me.
“Why do you think they use the term hanging on?” he says. “Hanging on to what?”
Some of my earliest and best memories are of walking home from elementary school with an aunt. We'd stop along the way to dig through dumpsters for treasures and pick pecans from gutters to sell. If I never felt poor growing up, it’s because that's what everyone around me was. I know what it's like to pay for fast food in coins, drive a car with no paint and shake shoes in the morning for roaches.
By the time Michael and I finished dinner, it was late and we were eager to return to the motel. We would stay awake long into the night, poring through the images and words of others, separated by a wall that somehow now seemed thinner.
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