N ews item: The U.S. Census Bureau reported that one in seven Americans was living in poverty.
A homeless man sees a car go past. He holds up his sign.
The car doesn't stop.
The driver is distracted, upset at the news from his cell phone. His financial adviser is saying his portfolio is down. It's the third year in a row that his money can't make money. He feels he is going backward; he's working harder, but getting poorer.
He goes for lunch at a nearby restaurant. Sitting at the next table is a married couple in hushed conversation. The wife is upset. The husband bites his lip. Their second home, their dream house on the lake, is no longer affordable. They have to let it go. They worked so hard to get it. "When is this going to get better?" the wife asks. The husband shrugs.
The restaurant owner comes by to check on them. He smiles, but his mind is racing. Business is down. He has to cut staff. He looks at the waiters. He looks at the cooks. He hired these people. Now he has to fire someone. What happened to the days when his business was growing? What happened to his optimism? "I'm getting poorer," he reminds himself. He calls a cook into his office.
When the cook gets home, he slams the door. His kids look up. His wife says, "What's wrong?" They now must get by on her salary alone. She works in a hospital, $18 an hour. Their oldest son is about to graduate and hoped to go to a private university.
"I'm really sorry," the father tells him. This is not how they planned it. But what do plans mean anymore?
The boy goes to school the next day. He tells his counselor to forget about a certain application. The counselor understands. She has seen this a hundred times. Her husband hasn't worked in a year. She thanks the Lord that their kids are grown, though two of the three are unemployed.
She walks down the hall and passes the school janitor. He yawns, exhausted. He has two jobs -- this one, from 7 a.m. until 4 p.m., and a second as a night watchman. Even so, he barely pays his bills. He never sees his kids. His wife is asleep most of their time together.
When he gets home that day, there's a moving truck parked by his small house. The neighbors are moving. "What happened?" he asks. They say they can't make the payments. They shake hands and try to smile. Each remembers happier days, when they sat on porches and watched kids play in the street. They feel they're going backward.
The moving truck enters the poor, rundown neighborhood. A lanky teen is watching. He wonders what's in that truck. He wonders if he could steal it. He wasn't always a bad kid. When he was small, he dreamed of being an airline pilot. But there was never any money and there was never any guidance. His father, laid off years ago, stole things, too. Now he's in jail.
The teen figures he will need a gun. He knows where he can get one. He walks down a service drive that runs near a highway. By the entrance, he sees a homeless man sitting in the street.
"Help me out?" the homeless man asks.
The teen rolls his eyes.
The homeless man sees the teen walk away. He remembers when he was that young. He wishes he still were. He has gotten older, but it feels like he has gone backward.
A car approaches. He holds up his sign. The driver, on his cell phone, doesn't look up. But he -- like the married couple, the restaurant owner, the fired cook, the student, the counselor, the janitor, the foreclosed neighbors, the lanky teen and the rest of us -- could all relate to the words the homeless man wrote. "Help me. Hard Times." And we wonder when they will end.
Contact Albom, a columnist for the Detroit Free Press, at firstname.lastname@example.org.