Posted by on May 9, 2012 in Uncategorized

At the Edge of the Road

By: Ann-erika White Bird

What can I tell you? I haven’t lived in poverty like this since the last time I lived in poverty like this. That’s not entirely true, but it sounds good and it used to be true. However, I haven’t lived in proximity to extreme poverty since the last time I was actually living on minimum wage, poor.

The man lying on the side of BIA 501 at the entrance of the gravel road leading to the grassless, new HUD house might be dead. The man’s face uplifted to the cloudless sky. It’s see-your-breath cold. We stop our car.

Our four year old daughter asks, “Is he dead?” I hesitate.

What do you say to that? The truth. “We don’t know. Daddy’s checking right now.”

This leads me back to the question a friend asked me last fall. Why did you move back? My quick answer, of course, is that we moved back to the rez so I could raise the kids full-time, so they could be raised on the land we know. But that’s not the complete answer. We moved back because we know that as easily as we are the ones in the car driving thirty miles to buy groceries, we could be the man, flat on his back, staring, or not staring, at the cloudless blue sky. What separates me from him and me from you is only a perception of height. Who is better than who based on income, education level, title, fitness, beauty and all around accomplishment? It’s a daily game in Western culture that everyone, to one degree or another, plays. In most circles, we treat each other accordingly, whether consciously or not. It’s in the air like pollution on a cold Denver morning. You either breathe it in, or you move away.

“Mommy! He moved his arm!”

Josh returns to the car, slams the door, and responds to our questions. “He’s drunk and the car parked behind us has already called the cops.” He shifts the car into first, checks the rearview mirror and pulls back onto the road.

My daughter asks, “What?”

So we tell her in unison, “He’s been drinking.”

She says, “We drink all the time!”

We tell her that he’s drinking alcohol and we explain that it makes people sick. She thinks on this. She asks why people would drink alcohol when it makes them sick. “I don’t know my girl. Some people think that it makes them feel good. And then they get sick.” Anyone who drinks enough of it gets sick.

As we pull away, the man staggers to his feet. He’s tall and lanky, hunched over, and attempting to walk. A family of four comes out of the new HUD house to help him. The faceless people in the car behind us stay in the car.

I ask useless questions like “Where is his family? Who are his relatives? What are the cops going to do with him?” I wonder what it feels like, the gravel pinching his back, cold air settling on his face. Maybe he wanted to die that day, or maybe he was just too drunk to care. We turn right down the road that leads to town.

We want, like everyone else, what’s best for our kids. We love them. We feed them a balanced diet, make sure they brush their teeth and get enough sleep. We also don’t let them watch but a few hours of cartoon network a week. We want to raise them to be in tune with the physical world. The action or inaction they witness beyond the privacy fence and the carpeted mall play area we left behind is real life. Maybe that day my children learned that if someone looks to be dead on the side of the road, you stop and find out. People die. Yes, and they can die on the side of the road. You talk to others to make a plan of action. You care. You care when you don’t know who it is. You care when your family is with you. You care when you’re on your way to someplace important and we’re all on our way to someplace important. This is why we are here.