Tuesday, November 24, 2009


We started off today with our hero, Jacob Jankowski, blubbering away in a nursing home. He is ninety, or ninety three. He isn't sure.

Madison's Homeless Book Club met today to discuss chapters 5, 6 and 7, but we didn't get as far as planned. There's a good reason: we had the itis.

Let me explain.

You know that overwhelming urge to fold your hands and doze off? It nearly overpowers you. It's especially common this time of year, and contagious. It's often triggered by eating a wonderful meal, say, like Thanksgiving dinner. My teenage sons call this urge the itis. That's what we had. The itis.

Steve, Bethel's chef who also happens to own and operate Mad Dog Eatery on Henry Street, prepared a fabulous Thanksgiving dinner for the men and women attending the Homeless Spiritual Support Group. The meal included the usual fixings: Turkey. Stuffing. Sweet potatoes (never had 'em so good), mashed potatoes (from scratch), gravy, and pumpkin pie. Is your mouth watering yet?

Oh, and green bean casserole.

Not too surprisingly, since rumors of food travel quickly on the street, attendance today reached an all-time high. There were many new people at the support group and about 30 stayed for the meal.

After this belly-bulging Thanksgiving meal, a handful of us managed to haul ourselves away from the table and up to the Good Shepherd Chapel. We lost a few attendees along the way, to the itis. Or second and third helpings. Once settled, we found ourselves strolling more leisurely than usual through our chapters. Nonetheless we traveled seventy years. Backward. That's quite a feat.

In chapter 5 Jacob is in his nineties and making a scene in the nursing home dining room. He is upset with the food. When the attendees confront him, he gives his tray a shove--a bit too hard--and it slides to the floor. Crash. Mess. A nurse immediately wheels Jacob back to his room. The doctor is called and decides Jacob is depressed. "Common among the elderly." She prescribes an antidepressant. (Very realistic.) Jacob refuses to take the pill at first but caves in after being threatened with a shot of Valium. He takes the pill but ends up getting the injection anyway. Unfair, he says. The medicine turns him into a "Jell-O eating sheep."

In chapter 6, Jacob is 23 again. Lucky dude, you might think. Except he's just lost his parents, his home and his chance to complete a degree in veterinary medicine at Cornell. It's fair to point out here that members in our group have indicated similar overwhelming accumulations of loss at various times in their own lives. For some, fact registers more brutally than fiction. Now young Jacob is working in a circus, sleeping nights in a train car on a wet horse blanket just feet from Kinko, a Shakespeare-reading-dwarf who hates him; and Jacob is falling in love with the lovely Marlena, who is married to August. Lousy circumstances. That's fiction for ya. Good fiction, anyway.

August caused some debate. Is he friend or foe? At this point it's a bit unclear. In some ways August takes care of Jacob--sets him up with the work, gets him clean clothes and a bucket of clean water to wash up. At the same time August cleverly sets Jacob up for trouble--the bucket of water belonged to none-other-than Kinko! August devises other 'accidents'. There is the scene where August tells Jacob to open the cage of Rex, the lion, and feed him, and Jacob obeys. Rex bites down on Jacob's arm and Jacob fears the worse. Imagine the young Jacob's surprise and relief to find his arm still attached.

Rex is toothless.

We learned more about Uncle Al, too, the circus owner. He suddenly uproots the circus and heads to Joliet in an attempt to score a freak for his circus. The freak is a person named Charles Mansfield-Livingston, described as "a handsome, dapper man with a parasitic twin growing out of his chest." Nowadays calling people freaks is freaky. Do that and you are the freak. Trust me.

Jack got back to us today about the term 'on the lam'. Jack is core. He's come to every meeting. During our 4 weeks of existence he's been solid. Reliable. When he offered to look up the origin of this saying, he meant it. 'On the lam' comes from the word lambasted and means to 'beat'. To beat it. Scram. Flee. To be on the lam generally means to be running away from trouble, as from the law. Thanks Jack, for the information and for being here. Reliably.

All in all, it was a good day for Bethel's homeless ministries. The support group was well attended, the food delicious, and the discussion interesting. But here's my favorite part. When we concluded with the book discussion, nobody seemed eager to leave. Was it the itis? I don't know. We lingered...

And we struck gold. Pure gold.

One of the members told us the book club helps because talking about what she's reading makes it stick better. She likes it well enough to avoid scheduling anything else on Tuesdays. In addition, she really likes the book. Then she thanked us! Meeting like this makes her feel less alone.

"It's like someone cares," she said.



Next Meeting:
Tuesday December 1st at Noon
Bethel Lutheran Church
312 Wisconsin Ave.
Chapters 7, 8 and 9

Thanks to members of Celebration Circle for their generous financial gift to support Bethel's homeless ministries.

1 comment:

Grinder said...

That is awesome. Somebody DOES care!

The average age of a homeless person in Madison is 9 years old.