Cardboard Biographies by Debra Roberts

This is a story. It is not pulp fiction, written to wring momentary empathy from us so that we can feel good about ourselves — our station, our comforts, our meager charity. This is a cold reality I see regularly, and have seen regularly for the past seven years.
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Nebraska and Kansas are magnets, mid-trek stopping points for the long migration coast to coast — not only for migratory birds, but for human beings, too. These two states are center plate of the big melting pot, the Bible belt, the Bread Basket of the world; and I witness the unfolding of a hundred sad stories, as semi-annually, many make their trek from east to west and west to east, each and all chasing friendlier climates.
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*****
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I watch as a reality show flickers upon the screen of an unkind truth. Again, today, I witness the brutality of disparity – yes, even here in the Bible belt, where pioneers understood the tenuousness of life and were greatly dependent upon the charity of others for survival; where settlers knew the necessity of “sticking by” one’s neighbor meant more than just watching for the smoke to rise from their sod huts. But here, now, this comfortable – and even, affluent – culture, smack dab in the middle of the world’s bread basket, and yet so far removed from those very virtues which made it possible to inhabit — the Have’s are scared and the Have-not’s are depressed and desperate.
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A woman waits at the Walmart corner lot, as if firmly staked down. Both she and the sign she bears are as drab as the brown grass under her feet, and turbulent as the wind-whipped air on that stretch of road, on that hill at the top of town.
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This is where “they” line up, taking turns by pre-designated (?) days, as if they must cast lots for each turn at the post known for handouts of a meal, of coffee and coin — whose turn for the slim pickings this day, for the other six?
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I imagine her, all big-dreamed, now reduced to shy supplication; once-grand ideas diminished to stark print reality, scrawled across a cardboard sign, pleading:
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Fallen on hard times
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Please help
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God Bless!
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The sun beats down a promise of sweet charity. My car, others, stop, look, a window rolled down to openness & a kind gesture. “‘Tis better to give than receive.” How much I’ve been given. Even having ‘worked for it’ – “it” is a gift, the result of the gift “to work.” And so the kind-hearted stop and give. The good-hearted andwise thinking, “this could be me.”
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Down the road, another day, she thinks: A ticket out, if just enough; a bus to take her far away, a train, a ride to anywhere but Here.
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This is her Ground Zero. It’s always Ground Zero. But here, the tinkling coins paraphrase a cache, collecting all she can of help beyond the spot of notoriety, unwanted, singling out.
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I know there’s a difference between she and I. It was only a break in the weather; the one which brought me fairer winds, the other passing her over and by.
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You can’t judge a book by its cover. Some biographies are written on paper, some on gilded leather,while others glare back from the cheap cardboard refuse littering the landscape behind one outpost representing one of the richest families in the world!
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The end of this story is yet to be decided. The true measure of the heroine or hero:
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How one lands when one falls.
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