Today, we sled the snows of homelessness. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
I saw her where the street
passes under Highway 59. She was mushing along the
median. Her dog sled was forged from two shopping
carts. The traces were random pieces of leather.
Her three-dog team was perfectly unmatched: three
sizes, three mixes of unguessable breeds. The
tandem carts were heaped with her ragged things and
topped with two passengers -- a pair of alley cats.
The woman herself was a pile of rags. I have no
sense of her face. I can only summon up the memory
as a dusty bundle. I see the homeless every day and
wonder what it is to be reduced to that. I wonder
what it is to be one of the people we throw away
forging a technology of survival from stuff we
We see a lot of ingenuity there, but this woman
stands out -- sledding the cold streets of hot
Houston with her team of imaginary malamutes --
this Susan Butcher of the inner city.
She, of course, is the bottom line on our own
struggle for survival. She lives where I might live
if I make one fatal error, if I drop my guard, if I
slack off. God help us if we forget that her life
and ours are interconnected. Who can look at her
eerie invention without asking, "Why her and not
This faceless woman hovers in my mind more than any
I've seen. Not just for her plight but for the
quality of her action. I don't mean that mad,
ingenious solution to the problem of
transportation. Rather, it's the more primal
problem she's undertaken and solved.
After all, what is homelessness? What is the terror
it holds over us? Far more than the removal of a
roof, it's the removal of love. So this woman has
created a community of three dogs and two cats. And
that's where I am caught short.
For that's what we all seek under our comfortable
roofs, in our many-roomed dog-sleds. We all live
surrounded by bundles of possessions that hold our
sense of self. I, myself, live surrounded by two
dogs and three cats. Don't we all build the same
ark as that woman under the freeway?
I've seen and ignored many homeless people, but I
cannot shut this woman out of my mind. She's
brought poverty down to the same primal needs that
I feel with such intensity. The poverty I fear is
alienation of community. It is isolation. And it is
a world devoid of those material tokens that link
me to a past that formed me.
She went to the heart of that problem with her
surreal dog sled. She struck a note of alarm when
she articulated my own fear with such abstract --
and artistic -- force.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Some while back, a hard-working, intelligent and
successful friend remarked, "My worst nightmare is
that I'll end up as a bag lady." It seemed a
frivolous fear at the time -- one that had no reason
to concern me, and which should not have concerned
her, either. Now this bag lady with her cats and
dogs! Suddenly the full texture of the danger -- and
my kinship with it --stands out all too clearly.
Following the broadcast of this episode, a listener
"... I KNOW that homeless lady at the courner of
Buffalo and 59. I've chatted with her ... and --
like you --have been impressed by her 'dog sled,'
as well as by the love she obviously has for all
those animals. ... [I've] noticed her face. It is a
dead ringer for Dorothea Lange's famous
Depression-era photo, 'Migrant Mother.' I've long
considered asking her to pose for a 1990's
reconstruction of that photo; the similarities,
both physical and situational, are amazing. I only
hesitate lest it seem like I am mocking her or
trying to take advantage of her misfortune."
For more on the Dorothea Lange's Migrant
Mother, click on the thumbnail of the actual
picture shown below:
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
Episode | Search Episodes |