Volume 22, Number 3

My Name Is Nobody

Keith G. Laufenberg

The outer sense alone perceives visible things and the eye of the heart alone sees the invisible.
—Richard of Saint-Victor (A.D. ?—1173). In E.F. Schumaker, A Guide for the Perplexed, 4, 1977

I am nobody—I know I’m nobody because the whole world tells me that I’m nobody, and it’s the world in which I live—that same world that I hate to live in, but must. As I nod at the man dressed in a suit who I know is a professional man, and I push the shopping cart towards him and he nods at me and grabs the handle, pushing it into the shopping floor of Wal-Mart, I know I am nobody because he only nodded back at me so I would let go of the shopping cart and he could get on with his shopping—they do it to me all day long—and he is a busy man, and I am but a 67-year former janitor who never got the benefit of a pension and must live on a monthly social security check of $750. My name is Joe.

I know they see me because I have eyes also, and I watch theirs as they flick back straight forward and walk right by me and pretend that I’m not there. I can’t help it that I’m in a wheelchair or that I’m paralyzed from the waist down; it happened to me when I was in a car accident—just after I got back from Vietnam in 1971—and they made me into nobody when they said that I would have to rid myself of everything I owned, so that I could qualify to receive money from the federal government—specifically Medicaid. And, for the past 40 years I have felt like—and I have been—nobody. I only sit here outside of Wal-Mart because my checks haven’t come in for the past two months, and I’m broke—I’m broke, and so I’m forced to sit here, in my wheelchair, and beg, but I don’t mind because—after all—I am nobody. My name is Richard.

I know they see me but they pretend not to—especially when they walk past me when they leave their offices in the afternoon when I am just coming in to work—because they know that I am just going to clean their desks, vacuum and mop their floors and scrub and clean their sinks and toilets. I know they think I am nobody, and I used to think I was nobody too but I am starting to think differently because I have been starting to read a certain book. My name is Molly.

I live in New York in the summer and Florida in the winter but not because I am a wealthy man—no, in fact, I am very poor, and I don’t really live in New York or Florida; I just stay in those states, just like I stay in Virginia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Texas and California—and always in the picking seasons—because I make my living picking fruit from the orchards and farms. I don’t speak very good English but I am learning. I know everyone thinks I am nobody, and I know I am nobody too. My name is Juan.

I know what they think because I can see it in their eyes—as they walk past me—they know who I am, and they tell me with their looks of pity and some with their looks of contempt, as they hurry by me on their way to gambling away their paychecks or their mortgage money or their vacation money—in the casino. They know they are somebody because they have on suits and expensive leisure clothes, and they have wallets packed with green bills with pictures of dead presidents and statesmen on them and various plastic credit cards and identification cards, driver’s licenses and military I.D. cards and other identification cards that identify them as somebody, while I mope along in my utility clothes with a small portable dustpan in one hand and a hand-held broom in the other, sweeping up the cigarette butts and refuse that litter the expansive tile floors that lead into the casino’s gambling halls and eateries. I know they see that I am nobody, because I see it too—every time I pass by a mirror or go inside the bathroom that I must clean, but I don’t care because I have my peace at night, after I clock out; I have my small room, and I have my bottle, and it makes me feel—just for that time—like I am somebody even though I know I am nobody. My name is Russell Red Cloud.

I am nobody, and I know it because I have been inside this jail cell for the past three months and nobody even comes to visit me, and I have to watch as the other prisoners have visits from their friends and families and lawyers. I’ve only had one visit in all this time, from the public defender, and he told me that if I pled out—pled guilty—that I would only get a year in the county jail—with credit for time served—which would mean I’d be out in nine more months. The biggest problem I have—with pleading guilty—is that I didn’t do anything, see. I was just in the Quik-Chek store when the cops got there, and the clerk identified me as being one of the three hold-up men, and I didn’t even know what he was talking about. Some of the other prisoners tell me to take the deal but to make sure I get a guarantee that the judge will actually give me the nine months and not nine years, and I’m really confused as to what to do. My street name is Shakes because I always used to shake a lot whenever I was scared but now I don’t shake anymore. I guess it’s because I was scared all the time and, well, you can’t just shake all the time—and so my body must have—like adjusted—know what I’m sayin’? Now I just go by my given name—Bobby Sykes.

I am nobody to just about everybody—I know that—and I know they appear to not even wish to touch me, even when they hand me some money. I don’t understand why they appear afraid to touch me because I am not dirty—quite the contrary—I take two showers a day, and on really hot days I go inside McDonalds or Wal-Mart and wash my face and hands and sometimes I even eat breakfast or lunch—depending on how the day has gone. I’ve been a beggar for seven months now. I have an established corner here at an intersection on Highway 19, just in front of a Wal-Mart Shopping mall. A lot of cars and trucks go by this corner, and there is a 4-way traffic light at the intersection where I beg. I usually beg from six in the morning until noon and then take a break to eat something. Then I go back and beg until it either gets too hot to continue or until I have enough money to eat on for that day. I don’t want to be a beggar; it’s just that I lost my job and construction is all that I know. I was a laborer for four years straight, and then a contractor I was working for offered to hire me as an apprentice carpenter, and I worked for him for five years and got up to $25 an hour, which is top pay for a carpenter in South Florida. Anyway, things went so bad that the contractor I was working for went bankrupt, and I didn’t even get my last two weeks’ worth of wages—two grand I lost. Well, I had a wife and two little boys; Adam was—I mean, is—four and Petey is six. We lived in a really nice house just a couple blocks from the beach but we lost it when I couldn’t make the mortgage payments of $1700 a month. My wife was working at Wal-Mart and the family was together, but after all the creditors started calling her nonstop at work and at home, she had a nervous breakdown and one day just after I had started begging I came home to an empty house. My wife left a note for me—she had gone back to her mother’s house in upstate New York and taken the kids with her. I lived in my house until they padlocked it, and the cops said they’d arrest me if they caught me there. Sometimes I sneak back in and get a night’s sleep but I heard that an investor just bought it, and there’s a for-rent sign in the front yard so I don’t go back anymore but sometimes I get in other foreclosed houses that are empty and sometimes, when I get enough money, I sleep in a motel room where it only costs $25 bucks a night. I filed for unemployment insurance but my employer hadn’t been paying his taxes for the last two years and so I was stuck. A lady at the employment office told me that I should go and see a lawyer but they all wanted money up front. I really miss my kids, and I try not to cry but sometimes I can’t stop it from happening. The cops are the only ones who ever seem to really talk to me, and there’s one guy who’s really a great guy but most of them just hassle me and try to tell me to leave or they’ll arrest me. A preacher stopped and gave me ten bucks the other day, a real good day for me and he invited me to his church, and I’m thinking of going—he left a little bible with me, and I’ve been reading it. At first it didn’t make any sense to me—maybe because my parents never really sent me to church—but lately I been looking in the New Testament, and I’m starting to think I might have a chance now. I think I’m even starting to think I might have a chance to be somebody—again. My name is Pete.

I feel like I’m nobody, and it really feels bad because I used to be somebody. I used to work at the Dollar Store—I was an assistant manager—and I think I could have become a manager. I also got my high school GED, and then I got a six-month dental school diploma so I could work as a dental assistant. What happened was my boyfriend made me pregnant, and he promised he would marry me but he never did, and then I had my baby, and he came around, and he gave me some money every week but then when he missed a week and then started giving me excuses and I took him to court he stopped paying me altogether, and now I really have bad feelings about this life and this world. I am lucky because my parents own two houses, and they let me live in one of them but they have a mortgage on it, and I can’t pay it so they might have to rent it, and then I’ll have to move in with them. I love my baby, and I want to go back to work so I can stay in my parents’ house and help them pay the mortgage and work again but it just seems—sometimes—just so overwhelming. If only my boyfriend would marry me or help me out but he doesn’t seem to care anymore. I cry a lot and feel lost. I go to church with my parents now and sometimes it makes me feel better but then my troubles come back, and I feel bad again. My name is Donna.

I am nobody, and it really feels terrible because I know—everybody knows—that I used to be somebody. I mean I was a millionaire; really, I was. I was a licensed general contractor, and the building boom in 2005 saw my company do so much business that I opened several other businesses, including a chain of Italian restaurants and a temporary labor pool chain that spread to 22 states. Then it all collapsed, and I was forced into bankruptcy. U.S. marshals even seized all my financial records, and I owe over five million dollars—according to them—to so many creditors I’ve lost count and track of them. I was considering suicide for a long time but then I got a visit from a friend of mine—a deacon in my church—and I began attending church again, and I feel better again—well, most of the time anyway. I used to give away hundreds of thousands of dollars to politicians—we bought them—but now the only money I ever give away is to a beggar every once in awhile, and I put some in the plate at church—I’m aware of my soul now and, as far as the beggars go I know how they feel; just like I do, they feel like they are nobody, and they’re right, because we are—to this world.

I’m nobody, and I know I am, and the cops they know I am too. They came around our camp just yesterday and now it’s gone. We—me and three other Vietnam vets—were living in a hobo camp. We had three large tents, and we always kept a fire going to scare off any raccoons and snakes. Anyway, a local murder brought them into our camp, and they just about ruined it; they tore our tents apart and kicked the well-placed stones we had been making our campfires in, and they gave us the third-degree about the identity of the murder victim—and all because he was also a Vietnam veteran, as if we knew every Vietnam vet in the State of Florida. Well, anyway, they questioned all my buddies, and they all told the cops that they didn’t know who the guy was when they showed them the pictures of him. I was the last to be interrogated, and I looked at the pictures—they had six of them—very carefully, they all showed pictures of a man in his 60s who was dressed in rags, with a long white-speckled beard; but then one of them showed a picture of a man in a navy uniform; it looked like he had been a Chief Petty Officer, and it was hard to compare him with the other pictures. I had never seen the guy before, but as I handed the pictures back to the cop he growled at me: “You know who he was?”

I glared at the cop. “Yeah, I know who he was,” I barked back.

The cop glared back at me—waiting for an answer—but all I did was continue glaring back at, him and his eyes narrowed to menacing slits. “C’mon wise-guy, you said you knew who he was?”

I glanced at my three buddies, and they were just as alert as the cops were but the difference was that they knew who he was too, just as soon as I said, “He was one of us.” But the cops were still as stymied as ever, until I added, “He was nobody, officer—just like us—he was nobody!”