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No. 815:
Inner City Dog Sled

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 throw away.

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 me!"

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 work.

(Theme music)

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 wrote:

"... 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: