The Old-Timer on Sulphur Creek: Remembering the Homeless Dead

by Philip J. Malebranche

This is a speech that I gave on 21 December 2013, at New Song Church, in Harlem, on the occasion of Homeless Persons Memorial Day, an annual commemoration. I made minor changes on 30 December 2013. The New Song Church is no longer at the same address, and may be, in fact, defunct.

Recently, on November 14th, a young reporter and student at Hunter College, named Rosa Goldensohn, writing for DNAinfo New York, revealed that the Strand Bookstore, at East 12th Street and Broadway, near New York University, used sprinklers to disperse homeless people sleeping on the sidewalk under their awning in front of the store. In a report of the same story later that day, the New York Post failed to acknowledge that it was Ms. Goldensohn who broke the story. Such acknowledgement is customary in journalism. The New York Post’s omission and irresponsible attitude toward us, and you, Ms. Goldensohn, will not be ours. We thank you for covering that incident, shedding light on the Bookstore’s unfortunate decision that degrades the homeless. As a writer, a homeless person, and as frequent a customer of Strand Bookstore as my situation allows, I’m especially disturbed by what happened. A quote that I copied from another newspaper, The Epoch Times, earlier this year, may be a propos. The acting assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, named Uzra Zeya, stated this: “When governments [or I may add, institutions like the New York Post] stifle society their countries [or cities] are deprived of the ideas, the energy, and the ingenuity of their people that are needed for long-term stability and success in the 21st century.” Ms. Goldensohn, thanks for being here, today.

Sometimes, I'm surprised about what I remember from junior high school. That was in the early 1970s, in Nyack, Rockland County, N.Y. There was a Math class, at Hilltop Junior High, in which I learned about a Venn diagram. I'm impressed when I remember anything from Math class. The teacher was named Mr. Verhoff. Mr.Verhoff drew a Venn diagram, one day in class, as two circles with a section of each one intersecting, or overlapping, so that the two circles shared a common space. A Wikipedia definition, today, states that a Venn diagram, or set diagram, "shows all possible logical relations between a finite collection of sets.” For example, we might put a group of people in a room, then separate all those who are not homeless from those who are. These might be shown as two circles. And the intersecting portion of the two circles might show people in that room who were formerly homeless. The room would include people who were homeless, and those who were not homeless, and those who were formerly homeless. The Venn diagram would highlight three sets of people.

There was another class that I remember in junior high: English, with Mr. Doorley. In that class we saw a movie of Edgar Allan Poe's short story, The Fall of the House of Usher. What I remember most was the short story, To Build a Fire, by Jack London. London, the early 20th century writer, also wrote The Call of the Wild, White Fang, and the novel, Martin Eden. I read much of Martin Eden on an Amtrak train travelling between New York and Florida, in 1989. The reading was engrossing. It was interrupted only by trips to the restroom and by a walk along the length of the train to find a pretty French girl that I had seen and overheard, as she walked by my seat. I was living in France at the time, and only visiting my family stateside.

Jack London, in his life, knew poverty and homelessness. He travelled a lot, sometimes as a tramp or hobo, boarding ships to cross the ocean, hopping trains across the country, and taking odd jobs. He knew drunkenness and jail; he had sexual adventures and sea-going ones. His articles and stories were often about living in poverty, defending the rights of workers and labor unions and recounting some of those various adventures. The recent news report of a study about how homelessness reduces a person’s life expectancy by more than 30% may explain Jack London's predicament: he was a prolific writer, publishing many books in his lifetime; but he died early, at the age of 40.

Mr. Doorley, writing on a blackboard, taught that fictional stories might have themes such as: man-against-man, or man-against-himself, or man-against-nature. The conflict in To Build a Fire is man against nature. A lone character in the story travels in sub-zero weather in the Klondike, in the Northwest Territories. This area once belonged to Russia, as Condolezza Rice mentions in the prologue of her memoir, No Higher Honor. When a Russian official comments on its vastness and beauty, she reminds him of this history. It was purchased by the United States from Russia in 1867; then it earned statehood in 1959, the year of the Cuban Revolution. The protagonist in the story is accompanied by only a dog. The man travelling in the wilderness was confident about his ability to make it to his destination, a far-away camp, where other men were expecting him. He knew, like the characters of Louis L'Amour's novels of the American West, how to read the land, spot danger to avert it, and survive. We might be able to appreciate To Build a Fire more than we might ever have thought. It may help us reflect on our own experiences and trials--homeless or not; and we might find metaphors in the story; and the story might give us an idea of death, itself.

In To Build a Fire, the man has no name. He is referred to only as "the man." In the second paragraph, we get a glimpse of the vastness of the land. It stretched as far as the eye could see to the North and South. Remember that the distance from New York to Miami is about 1,000 miles. The main trail in the story led 500 miles to the South, and, to the North, to Dawson, 70 miles. Beyond Dawson was another 1,000 miles to the next town; and then to get to the last town on the Bering Sea was another 1,500 miles.

He walks in this expanse of white, seeking to avoid stepping into weakened parts of a creek. The creek is usually frozen through, but he knows that parts of the creek hide pockets of water from springs underneath that descend from the hillsides. This water is under layers of snow and ice and would mean immediate danger to him. These were traps. Getting wet in these extreme temperatures is ill-advised. We now have an idea of the vastness of this territory.

A sign of the extent of the cold: When he usually spits, the spittle crackles when it hits the snow. This time, the spittle crackles in mid-air, before it hits the snow. The man carries his lunch wrapped in a handkerchief against his naked skin, the only way to keep it from freezing.

The man is pleased that he's travelling light. He's surprised, though, at the bitterness of the cold. He guesses that the temperature must be seventy below zero, but still seems to be confident. When his limbs get numb, he beats them against his body. When his face does he rubs it with his hands. The spittle from his chewing tobacco creates the frosty yellowing of his beard, and, if there was someone to talk to, it'd be hard to talk. The moisture of the tobacco that he can hardly spit out because of the accumulation of ice around his mouth lengthens the soiled beard from his mouth. His red mustache and beard become an ice-muzzle. His relationship with the husky is not affectionate, but the dog nevertheless obeys his commands.

The old-timer that I mention in the title of this presentation is, of course, not walking with the man, but the old-timer’s in his thoughts and keeps coming up—he’s actually pretty important in the story, mentioned several times. For instance:

The old-timer on Sulphur Creek was right, he thought in the moment of controlled despair that ensued: after fifty below, a man should travel with a partner.

And:

That man from Sulphur Creek had spoken the truth when telling how cold it sometimes got in the country. And he had laughed at him at the time! That showed one must not be too sure of things.

We get to know the man, this traveller, a little, and get another indication of his attitude of the old-timer when we read:

Those old-timers were rather womanish, some of them, he thought. All a man had to do was to keep his head, and he was all right. Any man who was a man could travel alone.

He takes the time to eat his lunch, sitting on a snow-covered log. The brief moment that he takes to remove his lunch nevertheless causes numbness in his hands. He builds a fire in order to eat, and the dog’s satisfied with its warmth, leaving it with reluctance when it’s time to move on. While the man skirts danger on occasion, he fails to avoid a trap, and must stop to build a fire and dry his feet before proceeding on his trek. The fire makes him content or self-satisfied about surviving.

The fire was a success. He was safe. He remembered the advice of the old-timer on Sulphur Creek, and smiled. The old-timer had been very serious in laying down the law that no man must travel alone in the Klondike after fifty below. Well, here he was; he had had the accident; he was alone; and he had saved himself.

But, from above the fire that he had started in order to save himself, disaster struck. Snow fell from the branches of the tree where he sat to form a mound where his blazing fire was. Suddenly, the heat was gone. The struggle for life was now desperate. With freezing limbs, there was no room for error. But, alone, he couldn’t manage. He has to start another fire with his matches.

He beat his hands, but failed in exciting any sensation. Suddenly he bared both hands, removing the mittens with his teeth. He caught the whole bunch between the heels of his hands. His arm-muscles not being frozen enabled him to press the hand-heels tightly against the matches. Then he scratched the bunch along his leg. It flared into flame, seventy sulphur matches at once! There was no wind to blow them out. He kept his head to one side to escape the strangling fumes, and held the blazing bunch to the birch-bark. As he so held it, he became aware of sensation in his hand. His flesh was burning. He could smell it. Deep down below the surface he could feel it. The sensation developed into pain that grew acute. And still he endured it, holding the flame of the matches clumsily to the bark that would not light readily because his own burning hands were in the way, absorbing most of the flame.

He thinks to kill his dog. That way, he could bury his lifeless hands in the carcass to get warm enough to be able to build another fire.  His hands, and the dog’s suspicions, though, will not allow him such movements. There’s no recourse. The old-timer seems to be with him at his end:

You were right, old hoss; you were right, the man mumbled to the old-timer of Sulphur Creek.

The dog waited by the silent man for a while. The scent of death moved him to turn away and make his way to the camp where he knew he could find food and a fire.

The old-timer is a hovering presence, like Divine Wisdom unheeded.

The man is flawed. Despite his skills and physical prowess, he commits a vital error by allowing the words of the old-timer to linger without giving them sufficient consideration. If London’s intent is to have us listen to our elders, is that the only lesson of this story? This is not to say that our elders are omniscient. They may lack the experience, knowledge or skills of a new generation; but to discount their experience and memory may have grave consequences. There’s a hint that the man’s bias clouds his judgment. He belittles the caution advised by the old-timer. Do we recognize ourselves, one way or another, in this story?

There’s perhaps more to uncover in To Build a Fire. The story may have hillside streams that flow beneath the snows of our reading. Have we thought about the sulphur matches having the same name as Sulphur Creek? Sulphur means salvation. And there might be an African aspect of the story. Is the old-timer a griot or a village elder? Is London alluding to the social problems of his time, of which he was surely sensitive? There’s a mention of what seems to be a plant or a tree in the wilderness in the story: he calls them nigger-heads. Is the expanse of white snow a euphemism? Is this, in reality, an African tale, a product akin to the late Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe, who wrote Things Fall Apart, or like the works of the Kenyan, NgugiwaThiong'o? Was Jack London eliminated because he wrote an African story? Is this an undiscovered classic of African-American literature? The inspiration of African-Americans in 1908, when To Build a Fire was published, and subsequent years, would have clashed with the spreading practice of lynching from the late 19th century to the mid-twentieth.

If we, homeless or formerly homeless, feel that we walk in our own wilderness, we are not walking alone. President John F. Kennedy once said: “Man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty.” President Kennedy’s optimism about our ability to fight poverty endures. The executive director of Care for the Homeless, Bobby Watts, speaks with a similar tone. He’s an expert on public health and often states that good policies, not bad ones, will reduce, and can erase homelessness. He, and the many advocates who are organizing here in the City, including we homeless or formerly homeless who join them and are participating in our own defense, are conceiving what few imagine: ending homelessness outright.

The good, cost effective policies have been proposed in the Agenda to End Homelessness. You may have seen them on the Care for the Homeless Web site: quality and appropriate health care and supportive services for the homeless; Housing First, which is: moving homeless people directly or quickly to permanent housing, with supportive services; supportive housing; increasing the availability of affordable housing for very low-income people, not only the middle class; creating an effective rent subsidy program to transition people; protect homeless peoples’s rights and dignity. We oppose, as we mentioned earlier, criminalizing poverty, and the stigma of homelessness. The National Health Care for the Homeless Council, based in Nashville, of which Care for the Homeless is a member, also promotes universal health care and the rights of those with disabilities.

Mayor-elect, Bill De Blasio, has taken steps to address this crisis in which 22,000 children are homeless. He’s named high officials, Anthony E. Shorris and Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, who are committed to ending homelessness. We look forward to helping them make a smooth transition to reaching that goal.

Nelson Mandela is dead. An epitome of our old-timer on Sulphur Creek, he leaves us a legacy of sacrifice with dignity. The homeless have adversaries, as do the advocates of the homeless. Madiba, to use Mandela’s tribal name, offers us advice even now. Will we take it? He once said, according to the New York Times obituary, “Hating clouds the mind. It gets in the way of strategy. Leaders cannot afford to hate.” Will we leave our hate at New Song Church before we depart? We can replace hate with this thought about God in Psalm 146: God executes justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry, and sets the prisoners free.

Thank you very much.