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Research & Writing

Photos from a Dusty Old Box

By August 12, 2011February 24th, 2018No Comments

This week is covered in construction dust. We’re into a remodeling project, which includes turning a closet under the stairs in our century-old house into a half-bath. To prepare, my husband Jihong and I dig out a bunch of old boxes from the deepest reach of the closet; boxes we haven’t touched since we moved to South Dakota in 2000.

In one of these dusty boxes I find remnants of my streets experience of 1999: All the dingy notes James Murray and I scribbled during those 47 days; little items I made in camp to help me keep some semblance of sanity amidst the fear and pain and disillusionment; yellowed newspaper clippings about homelessness in Columbusso much stuff, from so long ago.

My fingers shake as I touch brittle paper. My eyes fill. Maybe not so long ago, after all.

Also in the box are a number of black-and-white photographs taken by Jihong–from the look of them, probably shot during the first week James and I were on the streets, and then on the day we returned home. Easter Sunday, 1999.

I have no recollection of having seen these photos before. I’m sure that I must have. But seeing them now, they are as new to me as if they had just materialized from thin air.

Such old photographs. Bearing such old memories. Carrying such old wounds. I look at myself sitting on the deck of our Columbus home, and remember: a cool day, but after living outside for 47 days, I find it hard to be inside the house, out of the sun, out of the breeze, out of space.

I study me, I study James–such old photographs. But they remind me of today as much as yesterday. They remind me of tent cities that seem to be springing up everywhere, of homeless families who seem to be showing up everywhere. They remind me of the man who the other day was kneeling in the grass of a median strip a mile from my house, sweltering red in nearly 100-degree heat, begging for money for food, for drink. Not here, we say to each other in this town. There are no poor people here.

I couldn’t give the man enough. Only what I had. Then I said what sounded dumb even to my own ears, telling him to “be careful in the heat.” What could he do to be careful? Where could he go?

“Yes, ma’m,” he said to me, painfully polite.

Just a dusty old box. Just some old photographs.

You break my heart.

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Phyllis Cole-Dai

Phyllis Cole-Dai has authored or edited eleven books in multiple genres, including historical fiction, spiritual nonfiction and poetry. She lives in Brookings, South Dakota, USA.

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