C.W. Gusewelle is away this week. His regular column will return. In the meantime, here is one of his favorites.
A bitter wind whispers at the door crack. Sleet rattles like birdshot against the pane. The afternoon gives way to frozen nightfall of a winter arrived too soon, and all creatures alive are divided again into those who have a home to go to and those who haven’t.
Yesterday I saw a man in a torn green raincoat — a gaunt man with gray hair flying and strips of blanket bound for warmth around his legs — go in the door of a public library. He had a look of purpose, like someone who couldn’t wait to read. But what drew him to that place, you could be fairly sure, wasn’t books. It was the hope of a saving hour or two of warmth before his long ordeal in some lonely corner of the night.
It struck me that although he was not so different, except in luck and circumstance, from a hundred other men I know, he bore no record of his past, and the future could no more be seen in him than in the forlorn birds that fly down stiffly from somewhere to peck and fluff at the feeder.
We keep around us a fairly constant supply of cats and dogs, numbering somewhere between sufficiency and outright scandal. And most of those, at any given time, have been accidental friends. Anything that presents itself at our door can count on coming in. Its past recedes. Its future assumes the immediate shape of food bowls and beds or radiator tops to sleep upon. Provided, of course, that what appears at the door walks on four legs. Old men in green raincoats with rag-wrapped shins we don’t take in.
We think, especially in such weather, of all the cats that haven’t come to us. You spy them sometimes, ghosting sharp-ribbed among the crates and cartons of some alley or eyes reflecting at the edge of the car’s headlights from the tangled grasses of a winter ditch.
They are all the unnamed, unnumbered kin of the ones we keep and feed. Take them in and in a day, a week, they would be indistinguishable from any of the others, shouldering for a place on the bed’s corner, demanding their rations on time.
Just as the homeless staring out of news photographs from some place of pain and ruin are the direct kin of children who sleep between sheets and get braces on their teeth.
Just as the gray man in the green raincoat, with blanket-bandaged legs, is no different in any important way from the gray man in necktie and warm topcoat who sees — or doesn’t see — him shamble past.
It’s the habit of the comfortable and secure to confuse luck with virtue. Whether dogs or cats or men, the ones who have gotten in — the well-fed and warm — listen at the door crack, growling at the footfalls of those others still outside, those less worthy who are passing in the storm.
But virtue is rarely the difference. More often it’s blind circumstance that leads some wanderers to safety or, on a sudden cutting winter blast, blows the others by.