“Even if my father and mother abandon me, the LORD will hold me close (Psalm 27:10)”.
Francis Phelan is a bum. That’s what he calls himself and his comrades on the streets of Albany, New York. Today, we call people like Francis homeless.
Francis is the lead character in the book “Ironweed” by William Kennedy. The book won a Pulitzer Prize.
In addition, the story was made into a movie by the same name. Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep were both nominated for Academy Awards for their roles as Francis and his girlfriend Helen.
The story is a moving and troubling one. It’s 1939 and Francis has been running from his past since 1910, when he dropped his infant son, resulting in his death.
His life had once been promising. Francis had even played Major League baseball.
Now he goes from place to place in Albany, trying to find a place to sleep for himself and Helen. Francis scrounges a dollar or two out of odd jobs mainly to buy booze.
Helen is seemingly the more responsible of the two. She is better with money anyway, and chastizes Francis for his free ways with a buck.
Yet, she is also haunted by her past. Helen came from a good family and appeared to have a career as a singer or pianist in view.
However, she was eventually abandoned by her married piano teacher, a man who also seduced her. Helen, like Francis, ended up on the street.
“Ironweed” portrays the plight of the homeless from day to day. If it is true, as F. Scott Fitgerald wrote, that the rich are not like you and I, then you could say the same about the homeless.
Out on the streets, it’s open season. The hobos of Ironweed have a tough existence.
Before he returned to Albany, Francis rode the rails, a common occurrence in the Depression. During one episode in a boxcar, a man who admires his shoes tells Francis”I’m gonna cut off your feet” and proceeds to go after him with a meat cleaver.
Helen has her purse snatched on Halloween by a group of masked urchins. She had what amounted to her life savings in the bag -15 dollars.
Helen also suffers indignities no woman should have to face. Francis, seeking a place for her to sleep, puts her up in a car with a bum who spends his nights in an old wreck of a car.
Francis knows Helen will have to do more for the man than just be pleasant. However, in his mind he doesn’t have many options for her.
Both Francis and Helen are subject to incidents of mental illness. Francis hallucinates that the men he has killed in his travels, including the meat cleaver bearer, are in his presence taunting him.
Helen is invited to sing at a gin house by the bartender, a former renouned singer himself. As she sings, she imagines the audience is hailing her performance with cheers and great applause.
The truth is, when she finishes, Helen receives a mild clap or two. She idly leaves the stage with a sense of disappointment.
The life of the bum includes poverty, crime, mental disability and addictions. A good many of us have never experienced lives like those of Francis or Helen and can’t imagine having to live that way. However, in our current times having to scramble hour after hour to exist isn’t beyond the realm of possibility.
It’s not just the extremists and conspiracy theorists who are warning of potential economic collapse. Every day, I read some report in which a reputable government official or business person is decrying the state of the world economy and hinting at a future of economic hardhsip at least as difficult as the Depression.
I’ve never been homeless or extremely poor, although I’ve come close a time or two. It is a hopeless and powerless place to be.
At times I have been poor enough not to be able to afford health coverage for my family, but with enough income to not be eligible for assistance from the government. During one of those periods, it was extremely frustrating to not be able to find medical care for a sick daughter at a free clinic because we didn’t live in the county offering it. (Our county was next door and didn’t offer such a service.)
When you are homeless and in poverty, or close to it, you feel abandoned. And you are to some degree.
In once scene from “Ironweed”, a drunken woman is sick and drunk outside a city mission. The preacher who runs it is a good man, but he refuses to take people who are not sober in over night.
Francis tries to help her, but he is powerless except to ask for a blanket and some soup for the woman from the mission. When he returns, he and Helen find her being eaten by wild dogs.
The Bible describes such happenings. People in dire straits are subject to the attack of wild animals (Psalm 79:1-2).
Sometimes the predators are human. Jesus desribed them as “dogs” (Psalm 22:16).” Wild beasts of all varieties are out there who would like nothing better to make a feast of some vulnerable person on the street.
We may not have the greatest digs in the world, and might even end up homeless, but the person who follows Jesus can know one thing: they have not been abandoned.
In fact, every day we can live, at least spiritually, in a mansion. The Psalmist wrote:
“One thing I ask from the LORD,
this only do I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD
all the days of my life,
to gaze on the beauty of the LORD
and to seek him in his temple.
For in the day of trouble
he will keep me safe in his dwelling;
he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent
and set me high upon a rock.
Then my head will be exalted
above the enemies who surround me;
at his sacred tent I will sacrifice with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make music to the LORD. (Psalm 27:4-6)”
Governments, corporations and corrupt people may try to take away our dignity. That’s impossible though because the source of our self respect is in our relationship with God.