There is one life, live it to the fullest. James Pye, a 78-year old lanky man, hands me a visiting card with this motto at the end of my visit. An authority in African American history, last January he traveled for five entire days to Washington DC “to witness the inauguration of the President. That was great. I went there; I was there on crutches [he laughs]. And I was cramped up on a bus.”
His elongate face has a scar below the left temple, “It was an accident, trying to save somebody.” His brown darting eyes often make contact with mine; his full lips sometimes open to a boyish smile. A veteran, James is proud of his rigorous work ethic: “I have been in the military, working, and just teaching my kids to work. You didn’t sit down and do nothing.” Familiar with different political systems, James is well aware of the inequalities of the American one:
We have the highest living conditions in the world, but we’ve also the lowest. […] There’s a whole race of people that they kidnapped and brought over on the ship. […] And now, 400 years later, we’re in the same boat. We’re not in slavery, we’re not under the gun per se, but we’re not economical.
His struggle to get affordable housing hints to the hurdles to improve one’s living conditions. As tenant of an apartment in a Victorian building, James is afraid to be evicted once the 90-year landlady dies. At the same time, he has been waiting for nearly 30 years for an adequate public housing apartment in a safe environment. He says,
There was a lady, she was a lawyer. She said, “I can’t believe that you’ve been turned down that many times.”[…] She just stumbled into my case.James searches in vain his apartment for a paper showing his eternal stand-by status. He walks through narrow paths carved between boxes, open suitcases, books, bags, and half-inflated party balloons, the lash of the oxygen cannula trailing behind his legs. Superimposed upon the fight for housing is his battle with cancer. A survivor of five heart operations, two back surgeries, and two low bowel surgeries, he explains that he contracted lung cancer “breathing asbestos trapped in the wall” of his ship during the Korean and Vietnams Wars. Where does James get all his strength? He says,
I recommend people, even if they are sick, take a walk or breathe some fresh air, or just get out and see something. Get out. Get out of your problems, your worries, and your situation. At some point, you know, God will help. That’s my therapy.One of six stories on living alone in San Francisco published in Elena Portacolone’s monthly column in the newsletter of Planning for Elders -September 2010 – February 2011