Sunday, November 7, 2010

A Modern Day 'Weeper

My apartment trashboy visited me again today. At 10am he knocked on my door without pause until I dragged myself out of bed to answer the caller. And there he stood. At 12-years-old, he is vastly undersized for his age. He appears in the same baggy jeans and hooded sweater, apparel far too flimsy for the early Mongolian winter that is upon us. His fingernails are always grimy. Perpetually cinched in his filthy hands is a woven plastic sack which he slowly fills with trash from the apartments in my building. He hauls the sack upon his back, doubling over from the weight of so many glass bottles and bones. Then he trudges his little frame over to the trash pit near my apartment where the plastic bags and wrappers that don't blow away will be lit on fire as cows and dogs bicker over them. He does the work that impoverished women usually do. Seeing them is hard to stomach sometimes. He breaks my heart. It is easy to assume that he is a victim of truancy law violation. I ask him how many people in his family and he tell me he has two younger siblings. I wonder what fate lies in store for them. Will they also be trash children? Will they be doomed to chase down flyaway plastic and clean vomit from concrete stairwells while their peers play on swings and run amuck? And what will become of my little laboring friend? Will he ever lead a normal life? Or will he end his days as a trash collector, stooping until his death to gather the mess of others? Will his child be by his side then, clutching at trash with tiny hands? Whenever I think of him, William Blake's poem 'The Chimney Sweeper' comes to mind. Published as two different versions in Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, it treats on a small Victorian boy who is forced to sweep chimneys with his little fellows. The first stanza goes:
When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry 'weep! 'weep! 'weep! 'weep!
So your chimneys I sweep, and in soot I sleep.
The rest of the poem goes on to talk about faith, God and the divine escape that is Heaven. But this first part catches me and when I look at the trashboy who walks the halls of my building, I see the plight of so many children reflected in him. The horse, trebling cry of 'weep! 'weep! (a child's lisping slang for 'sweep!' but also paralleling tears the boys shed for their plight) wouldn't seem foreign on his lips. He looks like he might sleep in soot. But there is really nothing to be done. No grandiose act of mine could ever release him from the shackles of child labor. I have given him food and a few of my myriad pairs of gloves. I have invited him in for tea. He has become bolder over the months that we've know each other and asks me for specific things now. Yesterday he wanted spices. I beckoned him into my kitchen where he opted for meat-specific spice packets that have been handed down from Volunteers past. I never would have used them. Today he asked for boots and I have him my old pair from last year that I wasn't ever planning on wearing again. They are for his mother. 
I wonder what he sees when he walks into my apartment. Usually warm (though today the heat has been turned off and my space heater killed itself by burning out its plug a few hours ago), the oasis of shelves laden with foreign food and two rooms for only one person must seem so extraordinarily decedent to him. The bunnies darted between his feet today and I don't think he quite knew what to make of it. He looks around so hesitantly at everything I poses. Being here has been a humbling experience; I look at the life I used to live with different, more appreciative eyes. The excess of America can even be overwhelming. But seeing my current life through the eyes of my little sweeper also gave me pause. I still exist in excess though I feel far more Spartan now than ever before. 
I don't know how my donations to him are being used. Perhaps his parents are pushing him to milk the dumb foreigner for more clothes and food. Maybe they are deeply grateful. I don't think it really matters. Honestly I don't know what else to do but to think about this dear boy in the same light as I do all teaching and aid work in general: do everything you can and hope desperately for the best.

1 comment:

E in Atlanta said...

This is a very painful post. While it is true you can't solve the problem...what can i send!!