Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Truth About Hermits

Bill, Ethan, and Wyatt
When we first moved to our acreage (the old orchard in the local village parlance) there was another farm next door. The neighbor’s barn was in relatively good shape, but not the house. It was very small and dilapidated-looking. Local villagers old us Herman the Hermit lived there. I’d laugh. John the anarchist and the commander of the Michigan Militia lived on our back border, the old dump was to our north and Herman the Hermit lived to our south. I told myself you just never knew where you’d end up.

For a decade I gave Herman (yes, his actual name) his space. If he didn’t want to socialize, I didn’t want to impinge on his right to solitude. Occasionally I’d see him picking up his mail from his post box across the street from his house on the old zoo side of the street. Sometimes I’d see him working when I’d walk the road for exercise. I’d smile and wave. Herman always gave me a worried glance, his lined face squinting in concern, and then he’d quickly turn his shaggy head away from direct contact and briskly walk back across the street to his house. I heard from others in town about his body odor and how bad he smelled. One November I saw him at the polling place, and he grinned at me in recognition. Empty seats were on either side of him. I was surprised at his recognition and sat next to him while we waited our turn to vote. Neither of us said anything. Last winter I saw him walking home through deep snow carrying groceries bags. On the off chance that he needed a lift or would even accept one, I turned my car around and offered him a ride home. He accepted. We never spoke, but he nodded when he got out of my car. I assumed the snow prevented him from getting his old truck from the even older garage, so he had walked the mile to the village.

This summer all everyone believed about Herman changed. Bill and I knew Herman had a sister who owned the acreage backing onto Herman’s, their properties the remaining eighty acres from the original farm, but she lived in Grand Rapids, more than an hour away. On his way into the village, Bill saw Herman and his sister and stopped to say hello, as he’d met the sister before but seldom saw her. She was angry with Herman and asked Bill to help. Herman had had his phone turned off and that was her only way to contact him, and he wouldn’t explain why. What Herman was unwilling to discuss with his older sister, he was very willing to tell Bill who had approached him more times than I had. The plain fact was that Herman didn’t have enough money to pay for the phone.

It seems Herman had never had a regular paying job but helped his mother with what I’ve been told was a dairy farm. At her death twenty years ago, the house and land went to Herman. Since then Herman’s monthly income had been a Social Security payment of $177. After selling off much of the farmland during the 90s to cover his living expenses, Herman was now living in abject poverty and had been for many years. His house had no TV, no radio, no computer, a small counter-top refrigerator to hold the Meals On Wheels frozen dinners he picked up once a week at the local retirement center, and no running water. No wonder he could no longer afford to pay the phone bill.

Bill took Herman into the Social Security office thirty miles away. The woman who took the case was very helpful and very distressed that Herman had ‘fallen through the cracks.’ It was very evident that Herman, while not stupid, lacked social skills and had trouble figuring out technical or financial things. Soon he had a bridge card and ISS that now allows him to buy food and pay his electric bill. A family moving out of state gave him their refrigerator. Several donations from local churches, a big-box store, and individuals allowed some volunteers to reroof Herman’s very leaky roof with steel.

One person said she had passed Herman’s house every night for years going home from work and for the first time she could remember, his lights were on when she passed. Another person said on seeing Herman in town that Herman wasn’t staring at the ground as usual but actually looked him in the face and smiled.

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