The Winos of Oz

EXCERPT: Dinner is served at Ozanam Inn, a New Orleans shelter run by the Catholic Church.

Fifty or sixty hungry people were already queued up when I joined the line, and more kept straggling in until the crowd was nearly two hundred strong. We were a sorry assembly of the hobbling and the unhoused, burdened by backpacks and bulging garbage sacks, by duct-taped suitcases and grimy khaki duffle bags—misfortune’s impedimenta, everywhere I looked. There were a handful of shopping-cart ladies in the crowd, but most of the Oz’s clients were men my age and older, boozers for the most part, passing pocket pints back and forth with their buddies as they stood in line smoking hand-rolled tobacco and coughing like fugitives from a TB ward.

As I waited in line, taking in the scene, my eye was drawn to the graffiti-tagged wall of the warehouse building that overlooked the far side of the parking lot, where some sardonic joker had spray-painted in big looping silver letters: It’s never too late to have a happy childhood! I wondered how quickly you’d get laughed out of the parking lot if you tried peddling that Peter Pan bullshit to this crowd. And yet, the truth of the matter was that all of us, whether by hard luck or our own bad choices, had been reduced to needy children. Children waiting patiently for the grown-ups at the Oz to feed us our supper. Happy childhood, my ass. The mother of dissipation is not joy, but joylessness—now there’s a tag that would have been more resonant under the circumstances. But how many graffiti artists read Nietzsche these days? Not enough, it seemed, or they wouldn’t be wasting good paint on bad quotes from a pap-slinger like Tom Robbins.

“How’s the chow here?” I asked the guy in line ahead of me, a short black man in his fifties who stood leaning on a tripod cane.

‘Oh, they feed us plenty good here,’ he said. “You ain’t been to the Oz before? Must be new in town then.”

“Just got here this afternoon,” I admitted. “Travellers Aid hooked me up with a voucher for this place. Glad they did, too. I’ve hardly had a thing to eat in two days.”

“Well, at supper they only feed us sandwiches, but you’ll get your belly full anyway. Breakfast and lunch are the two hot meals. You a drinkin’ man, son?”

“Not much any more,” I replied, with a hint of Dixie beer still bitter on my breath. “Even so, watch your step when you’re walking around town,” he warned. “Mardi Gras is coming up soon, and the cops are doing what they always do this time of year—snatching drunks off the streets so the crooked judges can sentence them to community service. That’s who gets stuck putting up most of the bleachers along the parade route.”

“That sucks,” I said. “What a scam.”

“Slave labor, you ask me. Cousin of mine got snatched two days ago. He was fresh out of detox. Hadn’t touched a drop in a week. But the cops still charged him with drunk in public when he stumbled on a rough patch of sidewalk. So, like I say, son, mind how you step.”

Excerpted from the book, Idiot Wind, by Peter Kaldheim. Copyright © 2019 by Peter Kaldheim. Reprinted with permission of Canongate. All rights reserved.

Read more about Kaldheim in our Jul/Aug 2019 feature story.

 

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