There’s an old photograph that resurfaces in my files from time to time. Several people have seen it and I’ve used it to test blog posts in the past and taken it down again but I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone who it is or how I came to have it.
Miss Katie was sweeping off a bounce ride at the fair the first time we ever spoke. A bounce ride, for those who may be unclear on it, is one of those giant inflatable rides that kids jump up and down on in place of the couch. Miss Katie’s was a twenty-seven foot tall giraffe. She was a rail of a woman herself, I was never sure how old, with a gentle spirit and a wise disposition. I used to think that in her younger days before the poverty set in, she might’ve looked like a super model. We got to be friends for the short time that the carnival was in town. She wasn’t born on the carnival or anything, she was in her words, “just looking to make a little spending money”, thought she’d “try it out”. She came back the following season too though it seemed like the wind had gone out of her sails that year. She was over it by then. “Gettin’ off the road once I bonus out this time,” she said. Carnies always say this – it’s like some kind of mantra therapy, so I didn’t give it a lot of thought but sure enough, the third year Miss Katie was absent from the fair.
I went to Tampa the following April and stayed for about a week in a bunkhouse at the livin’ lot where the carnies worked and lived in the winter. There were two trailer parks, the carnival lot, Tom’s Market and some houses and commercial businesses scattered around between them all. It was one of those neighborhoods where you walk through a couple of times and two hours later, everyone knows you’re there. One day around lunchtime, I was standing at the counter in Tom’s Market having a cup of coffee when two women came into the store. The younger of the two was wearing a baseball cap and pushing a frail woman in a wheelchair. They made their way to the beer cooler and when they came back, each had a forty-ounce beer. That’s when my dear friend and sometime assistant Bozo, leaned over and quietly asked:
“Sue – you do want to talk to Miss Katie don’t you?”
I hadn’t heard her name for going on two years so I was immediately excited and transfixed.
“Definitely”, I said to him, “does she live around here?”
“That’s her at the register,” he said.
“Where?” I asked him, looking right at the two women.
“In the wheelchair” he said, stubbing out a cigarette in a black plastic ashtray. “She got cancer; hardly ever comes out anymore.”
I studied her for a few hard seconds. “Miss Katie?” I said, trying to filter out the shock. Both of the women turned to look at me and picking up one side of the camera strap around my neck (the clue), I said, “Do you remember me?”
Her eyes widened and pushing the tube taught against her throat, she said: “Of course I do, how in the world are you?”
The two of them invited me to walk with them, back across the highway to where Miss Katie was living at the time with some people from the neighborhood. There was a man named Coon on that road with remnants of a house on his property. Next to it, and a little further back in the driveway was an aging fifth wheel camper. It blended beautifully into the landscape like all campers do if they’re left alone long enough. Miss Katie was staying in the fifth wheel. It was my understanding that Coon had been letting a crew of homeless friends stay in the fifth wheel and when Miss Katie became gravely ill, they insisted she take it for herself. Over the next few months they transformed themselves into the industrial ghetto version of a team of hospice care workers. They took turns bringing her meals and making sure she had taken her medicine. One person would stay with her if she needed them and the others would sleep outside on couches or in sleeping bags. I sat and talked to them for a long time that day. They asked me if I would take a big group picture of all of them together, said they thought it might be the last one.
Back home, I hurried to get the pictures processed and printed. It took about eight days to get them all together. I packed them into the envelope and mailed them off to Tampa. A few days later, Coon called me up on the telephone. He wanted to let me know that Miss Katie had died early one morning as expected. He added that she wasn’t in any pain and that it was her time. He said later that day, after they had taken her body and the numbness was beginning to wear off, that all of her friends were sitting around his yard feeling “terrible sad” and out of nowhere the mailman pulled up and handed them an envelope of pictures.
“Oh God,” I interrupted him, “I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry girl,” he said. “You turned a really shitty day into something good. It was like a sign. We laughed and carried on about them pictures until dark. It was the best thing that coulda’ happened and seriously, we can’t thank you enough.”
(Addendum: It is my uncomfortable belief that all of these people have died by now, save maybe one. Each had their own medical issues along with some major league addiction and no help or medical care whatsoever. They were beyond repair. I want to live in a country that doesn’t sweep those people into a corner and walk away.)
The Wealth Report linked to a recent article (link below) at The Economist. They report research that suggests those who have the least, give the most. No surprise there, the nagging question is Why? There may be a few leads in the comments.