Garbage to You

Odis Monroe, homeless and disabled, lost treasured family photos when the city threw his possessions into a garbage truck.
Jim Schutze

All through my damn holidays, a drumbeat. She asks, "What did the homeless people lose when the city threw their stuff into the garbage trucks?"

I don't want to talk about it. I'm off work. I want to buy a tree. The kid's coming home. "I don't know what they lost. You saw. They lost their clothes. When the kid gets back we'll probably find out he lost his clothes, too."

Not a crack of a smile. But it does buy a few hours' peace. Then just when I think it's safe to walk the dogs again, my wife says, "What else did the homeless people lose? Couldn't you ask?"

Oh, my God. No, I couldn't. I don't want to talk to the homeless people. This is the holiday season. Talking to the homeless people is heartbreaking. I tell her the city promised to replace their stuff.

"What kind of stuff?"

This is why rum eggnog was invented. Rum, anyway. And jingle bells. Rosemary Clooney never asked what the homeless people lost when the city threw their stuff in garbage trucks.

We saw it together on the 10 p.m. news: On the morning of December 1--a Wednesday after a bitter night--city crews swept down Cadiz Street through the homeless encampment outside the city's Day Resource Center, a block from City Hall. Cops, sanitation workers, social workers. The sanitation people grabbed up duffel bags, garbage bags, bulging suitcases--all of it into the grinding maw of the garbage truck.

It did seem as if the homeless had been baited with the promise they could sleep inside the Resource Center that night. The city reneged at the last moment; something about complaints from neighboring businesses. The homeless were suffered to sleep instead on the Resource Center parking lot. At dawn while they slept the trucks came.

Afterward, Dallas Mayor Laura Miller said it was tough the homeless lost their crap. "They were told things were going to change December 1st," she told The Dallas Morning News, "so they knew."

Of course, what I know from talking to the social workers is that the Day Resource Center is a major distribution point for anti-psychotic medication. We give them meds to damp down their symptoms, but we do not give them shelter at night. Then we tell them we will arrest them if they fall asleep outside or defecate. Who's crazy here?

Does the mayor think this is like yelling at your teenage daughter to tidy up her room or she can't go rock climbing this weekend? But that was all weeks ago. Now I'm in bed, trying to fall asleep.

In the dark: "How do we know their stuff can be replaced?"

This will kill me.

So all right. Now it's January of a new year. Here I am at the Day Resource Center. I have been here many times over the years. I don't like it here. I don't want to be here. If this is a mercy mission, the mercy I seek is all for me.

I will walk this long half-dark corridor where wraiths in fluttering rags swoon forward on folding metal chairs trying not to smack their heads bloody on the floor. And I will ask.

Weeks ago the city manager apologized for trucking all of their stuff to the landfill. A breakdown in communication. The ones who lost possessions were required to fill out forms cataloging their claims. I have a stack of those forms in my hand.

Tommy Lee Simmons is standing with his back to the wall in blue jeans and a denim jacket, eyes guarded at first. When I ask, he ticks off what he lost: "Seven to eight pair of blue jeans, couple jackets, two-three pair of tennis shoes, caps, pictures, ID. Pictures that are valuable that can't be replaced."

We talk about the pictures. He kept them mummy-wrapped in layers of clear plastic. One was of his son. Another I will try to re-create from his description: In this photograph his grandparents, Clover and Annie Lee Simmons, were standing outdoors on a farm in Arkansas where they were sharecroppers. Clover Simmons wore coveralls, and Annie Lee wore a long flowered dress.

Clover Simmons is now dead. Annie Lee Simmons is still alive in Arkansas. Tommy Lee Simmons received this photograph as a gift when he was in the ninth grade. In a life beneath bridges, in homeless camps and God knows where, Simmons has carried this photograph with him, wrapped in plastic stuffed deep inside his duffel.

The duffel went into the garbage truck. The truck went to the landfill.

I need to step outside for a spell. Here on the parking lot in a milling crowd I locate Odis Monroe, 46, a big man in a wheelchair. I ask him what he lost.  

"Everything," he says impatiently.

I shrug to acknowledge a stupid question.

"We were living out on the street. We had everything we owned in bags. Everything. I had no way of moving the stuff. I'm in a wheelchair."

He says he's been disabled since 1980, when he suffered a gunshot wound. "I'm not from Dallas. I came here in 2000. I just lost my mother and my baby sister in the same year, and I couldn't handle living in the same town where I lost them. I ventured out for something different, and this is where I found myself."

He says he was awake at the time of the sweep outside the Resource Center, but he couldn't get back to his stash of possessions along the fence on Cadiz.

"There was a lot of people had some valuable stuff. They came through that morning and had everybody to get up and wrote up tickets and registered people that had warrants. Then they come and picked up our stuff. They didn't even give us a warning, man."

He lost his identification papers, which have been replaced. I ask if he lost anything that couldn't be replaced.

"They can never replace the pictures. They never can replace the letters, the jewelry my mother gave me before she passed."

I ask what the pictures were of. He mentions his children first. "I have two sons and two daughters." One picture was of a family reunion, "where everybody's just sitting around and having a big dinner. I had pictures of when we went to the park or parades, Juneteenth, all kind of different holidays. I even had a picture of us washing the car. Me and my sons, we did a lot of things together."

Those pictures went into the garbage truck.

Now I must plunge back inside. At the far end of the building in a cave-like day room, every chair is taken and people lie on the floor half-slumped against the wall. On a television set at the far end, a young woman on a reality television show strips off her blouse in response to a dare. Her tits have been pixelated by the censors so that they appear perfectly square and sort of plaid. A few men in the front row grunt huzzahs and "take it all off." But in the rest of the room glassy eyes gaze indifferently toward the green blur of the television.

Not everyone here is on serious meds, but many are. Who knows what pixelated versions of the world they may see anyway, without aid of censors? I bet their reality could kick the reality television show's ass with its hands tied behind its back. Something I wouldn't mind seeing.

I went back to the Resource Center a few times to find these interviews. In between, I covered a hearing of the Dunning Commission, working to find a solution to the city's homeless problem. Retired insurance executive and former mayoral candidate Tom Dunning, head of it, knows every social worker in the audience by name and also knows the names of all the homeless people who attend. Everybody's trying hard. It isn't that people don't care. It's that no one quite knows what to do.

In the corridor at the Resource Center I find Eddie Jackson, 38, a slim, soft-spoken man who rises from a chair to talk. He lost all of his clothes in the sweep, his birth certificate and all other identification. He says none of it has been replaced. I ask about other possessions.

"I had a family Bible that I had since 1998 when my mama died, with a picture of her in her casket. I had my nephew's obituary in it. Everything about my family, I kept in that Bible.

"I got five sisters and four brothers. I got over 46 nieces and nephews. There's always something happening in my family, some nieces being born or something. I kept so much stuff in my Bible. I learned that from my mother.

"I had pictures of my son from when he was a newborn baby up till where he was 16."

I ask more about that. A picture every year from the son: That's something. In response to my questions, he revises his story slightly. He tells me that he had a picture of his son from birth to age 10. But there have been no pictures in the last five years.

"But up till he was like 10 years old, I kept a picture every year. He sent me a picture every summer.  

"Only thing I ever had to look back was that Bible. I valued that more than anything I had."

From his description, I will try to re-create the last picture of his mother. Her name was Selester Cargile, and she died in Little Rock at the age of 77.

The picture showed her in a pink coffin. She wore a white dress. At her neck was her string of pearls. An heirloom ring was on one hand. She wore her glasses.

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