Early Wednesday morning, I walked past John Harris’ house on my right, and a series of homeless men scattered sleeping in the grass lining the Susquehanna River on my left. My motel overlooked the river where Harris first ferried frontier men and women away from colonial control and into Appalachia.
I’m in Harrisburg to poke around archives for any stray documents on my funky monks -Conrad Weiser, Ezechiel Sangmeister, and their Ephrata friends. When they trod these paths in the 1740s and 50s, I suspect they too found men slumbering on the Susquehanna’s banks. However, those men would have been Indians drunk on John Harris’ booze or simply exhausted by their trek.
The men sleeping rough then and now lived literally and metaphorically outside the patriarchal society Harris successfully represented and propagated through his progeny. The men I passed may have families, but they fail to provide protection against whatever form of want sends them to lie alone along the river. The Indians I envisioned as I strolled would have had broad networks of relations, but they too were unable to protect one another from John Harris’ economic reach or the Paxton Boys’ violent rage. The men I saw in flesh and in fantasy could not cement the buildings or the relationships required by our Euro-centric definition of masculine success.
Harris’ historic neighbors, like Weiser, came from south Germany where the mantra “schaffe, schaffe, Hauesle baue” offers eternal instruction to “work, work, build a little house” as the foundation for familial success. Sitting in my Harrisburg motel room, I watched an ad from the National Association of Realtor that conveyed the same message. Only a house can proffer children psychological security and educational success.
I doubt that a mortgaged home as opposed to a rented apartment determines a child’s well-being. Financial insecurity and parents forced to work twenty-four hours a day do. However, I have complete confidence that the ad above makes every child who lives in an apartment – let alone a shelter – feel like a second class citizen doomed to failure and drives their parents to despair. My suburban offspring hold no claims to superiority over those sleeping in the Harrisburg YWCA nor did John Harris’ deserve advantage over the native children sleeping round campfires on the far side of the Susquehanna. A home needs no walls.