The People Don’t Sleep

Tom approached me in the parking lot and asked if I could spare some change.

“Honestly,” he said, “I just want to get out of the heat for awhile and sit in some air conditioning.”

Anyone caught in the Phoenix summer could relate. By midday, the heat can easily work its way up into “the teens” with temperatures outside exceeding 110 degrees. When Tom said air conditioning was his priority, I knew he meant it.

I had seen from a distance that he was dripping with sweat, starting at the top of his tanned head and working down over his cheeks, which were covered in patchy white and gray stubble. His new yellow shirt had already darkened with sweat and was sticking to his body. I knew he had been walking for some time by the amount of perspiration covering him, and the crimson scabs on his forehead, mouth, and arm made it clear that he had taken a spill a week before.

I told Tom I didn’t have any change, which was the truth. But I told him I’d buy him food and something to drink in the McDonald’s just across the parking lot. We agreed to head towards the food while the black asphalt cooked below us.

Tom and I waited for the last four minutes of the breakfast menu to transpire so we could order some cheeseburgers. I bought two big blue Powerades for us to drink in the meantime. The air conditioning felt nice, but out of nowhere, the words “fucking” and “capitalism” erupted inside of me and bounced around in my head.

“It’s best thing for me, I guess,” Tom said, signaling to the Powerade as he filled his cup with ice, “and I can refill it.”

I found myself at ease and happy to be standing beside Tom—whose presence eased my anger. Happily, I asked where he wanted to sit, and he pointed to a television on the wall with a table square to it.

“Not there; they only show ads on that TV,” he said.

So we sat at a table on the other side of the room, and I asked Tom if he was from the Southwest.

“From outside of Chicago, originally—in Illinois,” he replied.

I asked what brought him to Phoenix, and he said that he had moved from Illinois decades ago in order to work construction. He was a carpenter by trade. I mentioned that my grandfather had been a carpenter, and that he had been stationed in Illinois during the Korean War. Then, Tom shared what he missed about Illinois most: the seasons, hunting and fishing, and playing ice hockey.

We continued to connect over many things while we waited for our burgers, but what we discussed most were jobs, the sorry upcoming elections, and, especially, Tom’s fateful diagnosis with MS.

Tom had lost his job not long ago because of his failing sense of balance. And thanks to his former employers’ concerns about him working on a ladder or scaffolding, Tom’s access to work dried up. It would eventually cost him his apartment.

MS was responsible for the scabs on Tom’s body, too. He was getting off the city light rail when he toppled over and fell onto the hot cement.

“I’ve never been this way in my whole life—always worked. But nobody is going to let me up on a ladder with MS,” Tom said, laughing somewhat incredulously.

“I could get a job doing telemarketing and sit all day,” Tom told me, “But I can’t do that; I can’t lie to people like that and take their money.”

Tom looked me dead in the eye while he spoke, and I noticed his eyes were close to the color of the sky.

“It’s just so hot you can’t sleep,” he said. “I’ve got to get cleaned up and talk to somebody because I need answers. It’s like I’m stuck, you know?”

We talked about the economy while we ate. We discussed the bailout of the banksters and the several trillion dollars (accounting for quantitative easing) required to float Wall Street. We agreed on how incredible it was for the public to save the banks but for students not to have their debts forgiven for a fraction of the bankster bailouts.

“The thing I can’t get over,” Tom said, a bit baffled, “is that this country throws away so much food, and we’ve got all these people going hungry.”

Tom lamented the Bush Younger presidency, the wars his administration started, and a subsequent failure to create more opportunity for jobs. When he weighed in on the upcoming elections, which was a sore subject to be sure, he said, “Trump scares me,” and he shook his head from side to side, drawing out each of his words in a solemn tone.

Tom reminded me that in times past, even when things were tough, there seemed to be hope. He noted that women had become welders and expanded the role they played in American labor during the Second World War. And, perhaps in contrast to a more hopeful time, he questioned how things today could be so hard for people.

I had been thinking something similar about Tom himself.