AS I SIFT through federal housing regulations on my desk, I have visions of Andrew Jones. He is an apparition from which I shrink, a restless ghost stirring in the dark corners of thought. I must encounter him again -- how soon, I do not know -- and it will not be pleasant for either of us. You see, Andrew Jones has an idea of the way the world is, an idea that it's my unpleasant task to destroy. I come bearing news of the Copernican revolution to one still marking the orbit of the sun.
The basic reason I must play out this destiny is that Andrew Jones wants to buy a house.
I see him seated across from me, a man nearly 60, large and solid, serene amid the crisp ambience of government urgency. His overalls tell tales of squaring off with the world, of pushing against it and falling back and pushing again, in countless enactments of the basic drama of human labor. A red handkerchief periodically applied to his brow pushes his stocking cap farther and farther back, so that his head begins a gradual procession into the room. His hands, resting placidly on his knee, are blunt and thick, accustomed to grasping and shaping things that yield with only grudging surrender.
To confront those such as Jones and dash their visions is not a common activity for me. My sense of reality is generally framed in terms of city maps, in numbers on paper, in legislation and memoranda. Sharp, clear images of definition and focus. Yet Jones entered my office one morning and thrust me squarely into the frayed texture of a different world.
I've lived in public housing for 30 years, he said. Now, when I was your age, he grinned, I liked a lot of people around. I'd talk and joke around and carry on. I always had enough energy for work. He paused, reflecting perhaps on an earlier season, when the sun's rays were bent at a warmer angle. But now, he said, I'm starting to wind down. I can't have all that distraction. I can't let all that energy go out -- I got to draw it back in. He clutched his hands together at his chest, as if holding the quicksilver of life itself in a dear embrace. I'm getting old, he said, and I need my own house.
Then he sketched, almost parenthetically, the contours of his own personal journey. He'd buried a wife when she was 34. Buried two sons, 17 and 10. One 30-year-old son lives with him now. who I later learned is disabled. His voice rang with pride when he spoke of him. He's a good boy, he said, a good boy. Now, he don't work too regular, because he works construction. Sometimes the weather's too bad to go out. And sometimes he comes home and tells me the man says he just don't need him any more. So I got to tell him not to worry. You're my child, I say. You know I love you, you know I need you. See, he was born in public housing, never known anything else. So I been working away since he was born to get us something better.
In the face of these words, questions about income and savings seemed brutal invasions of a private realm. Yet I knew they were necessary. One must compete in the marketplace with money, not dreams. I softly broached the subject, afraid to uncover the fragile beam that would send down the house that had stood in his mind for 30 years. Jones seemed to sense what lay behind my halting speech, seemed anxious to soothe my unspoken fears.
Well, I make about $10,000, he said, as briskly and confidently as a millionaire filling out a credit form. I nodded numbly, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Savings. How much had he put away over years of bending and stooping, of buying a wife and two sons and going to work the next day to put away a little more for one less person? In the split second before his response I could only send aloft a quiet plea that it be enough.
Jones spoke proudly, the resilience of countless days past culminating in this moment of triumph. I can put down a thousand dollars, he said. I almost think he expected a pinstriped banker to charge into my office at this utterance, whisk him into a private suite, and hand over the keys to a new house. He and his son would have spent their last night in public housing.
I sat back in my chair, as numbers ran through my head like screaming children in the street. Average housing costs in the city of $80,000, mortgage rates of 12 percent, down payments of $15,000, monthly payments of $800. Jones sat across from me, impassive. He had figured out a stern and random universe, paying the price for its vicissitudes, opting only for his small part and a corner to cultivate the future. But somehow the cosmos had changed, the balance of elements had shifted and the old order was gone. Here sat Jones in my office, red handkerchief in hand, on the verge of confronting a new world.
I tried to convey the outlines of this world to him wihtout delivering the final blow. Houses are pretty expensive nowadays, I said. I'm not sure what we'll be able to find. His tone of response assumed my hesitation was born of inexperience, of having not yet caught on to the way thing work. He, of course, had done this, had played the game by its rules, and now simply needed a little help in cashing in his chips.
So he was patient with me, in the time-honored way of elders instructing the young in the worn rhythms of this stubborn world. All you got to do is find the house, he said. I saved up for this. I'll go to the bank and get the rest of the money I need. I won't have any trouble. So you just find something not too expensive. I'll take care of the rest.
I said I could make no promises, he said he understood, and we stepped out from our separate worlds for a moment to clasp hands. I know these things take time, he said in parting. I'll go ahead and pay my rent for this month.
These are the people behind the numbers on the real estate and finance pages. Here are the residents of the fault lines along which familiar ground is collapsing, caught in the dissolution of the old economic assumptions. The figures on the graphs, in startling displays of defiance, appear no longer to heed out attempts to control them. Mysterious new equations seem to govern the universe now, and make it hard for those who, with grit and patience, have mastered the old ones. Andre Jones has spend 30 years building his own small sloop by blueprints once tried and true.
No messenger will ever be more reluctant than I to tell him it will never set sail. Avenue of Eternal Peace was closed. Posters can now be pasted on a wal