The indignity was that the beggar had to bend his knees to beg.
Sometimes when you read a short story you just know that there’s a sting at the end upon which the whole piece will turn. You can feel it, building tension, stretching the sentences and paragraphs with a feeling of tingled anticipation, and then when everything is turned upside down (or sideways, or inside out), the tension dissipates and the story’s full impact settles.
David H Weinberger’s Summer Streets reads like this to me. I was wrong, but I had a mounting sense that, towards the end, something was going to go wrong.
But let me rewind. Summer Streets is a surprisingly sweet story about a homeless married couple. They live in Berlin, and have been longing for summer. This June will be their third on the streets, and they have become accustomed to their lot, such as it is.
They have their dignity, and they love one another – or at least, the narrator, the male, certainly loves his wife:
We find [a bench[, sit down, and I open a beer for my wife. I still enjoy doing that. Opening a beer for her, offering her the first sip. She is worth it and she has stuck with me through all that has happened. This is one of the only places where we enjoy a bit of privacy. Hard to find when you are homeless.
It is striking how many sentences use ‘we’ instead of ‘I’. This is a man who loves his wife, who tries to protect as best he can given the circumstances, who knows that their life has gone wrong but their relationship, so far, has not. The repetition of ‘we’ – there are over 70 instances of it in across a story with only 2,200 words – highlights far better than any kind of description of his devotion that he is, in fact, devoted. We can tell, it’s embedded in the text.
And they long for summer. The streets are clean, the air is crisp, the tourists and citizens are pleasant and relaxed. They dream of champagne and sea bass and shrimp; they share a bottle of beer and ignore their hungry bellies.
It is interesting how the narrator compares himself to other homeless people. He is sympathetic to them, and sees in them a fallen version of himself. He’s homeless, but not quite as homeless as some of the others.
And I suppose this is true, that there would be a hierarchy of kinds. How homeless can you be if you are sharing it with your wife? I’m not sure – and I hope I don’t find out – but it strikes me that there is something true about this.
And the sting? Well, it never happens. Weinberger skilfully builds a feeling of tension by portraying what is a horrible experience (being homeless) with idyllic feelings and a sense of excitement for summer. This has the effect of creating – at least, for me – a feeling of trepidation that something is going to happen to disrupt this.
But it doesn’t. Sometimes summer days and summer nights are simply that – pleasant, peaceful, rewarding, together safe.