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Johnathan Harper
Part-time and Full-time Volunteers Needed!


Don’t live in the city. Live with it. Sink into its flesh, even if it is cold and salt full. Find the seams between the concrete slabs and shattered glass, the constellation of stitches and scars, a child’s shoe on the street. Press your hand inside that wound.

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Emily wants to see what china (fired hard—not yet glazed) can be picked from the remains of Syracuse China. The factory just sank. No plan. No lifeboat. No last shipment. One day the machines stopped working, the workers walked with their paychecks and pink slips. They set the wares out in crates in a field, and people came like birds picking at the scraps. Emily tells me in her kitchen, “I’ll have my third-graders paint them.”

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The horror story is this: it is the third grade, and Kasim cannot concentrate in class. Tammy (grandmother) enrolls him in summer school. He head-butts a teacher. He tells the counselor how he once accidentally killed a puppy when no one was watching. He cries about it in class. When it happened, his mother cradled his head and cooed to calm him. Tammy unfolded all his shirts and, with a lint-roller, removed fur from his clothing.

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What about all those hairs? The factories fizzled like old bulbs—popped one after another until the silent bulks of brick and steel grew ivy, rust. Fifty thousand jobs falling like nothing. Simple as shaving. Families washed down the drain. On the bridge carrying the train over the city, an art student from Syracuse University uses his two-hundred-thousand-dollar tuition to write Nothing to do—is everything to do with you. Another says Paid the light bill just to see your face. Just this week we met seven families with shut-off notices. Spent hours to help them keep their lights on. The city bleeds all its money. The city builds a four-story shopping mall to attract Canadian consumers.

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The Guatemalans are willing to pay the price to travel here. To make money and send it home. One man (eighteen, wearing a baseball cap backward, skin darkened from months of farm work) gives us his mailing address. Just the name of a region, a single street. “They’ll get it to my mother,” he says. We don’t tell him we only send the letter if there’s an accident.

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One year, a gas leak and propane explosion on a farm decimated the lives of seven workers. I.C.E. agents took their fingerprints (the ones not burnt off) from their hospital beds. They found the red cards all our members carry and showed up at our office, subpoena in hand. “Where is your computer database?” They hissed and spat when they got nothing. We tell the story to everyone to show them we are not soft. We won’t back down from their problems.

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This one walking home at night, bludgeoned by golf club from behind, permanently disabled, lost immigration papers, needs new green card. This one’s family selling off their furniture in the yard to pay the electric bill—mattresses stacked four high, the sofa with the TV sitting on it. This one with ten thousand dollars of debt her mother signed in her name before the woman died—creditors calling her phone, her friends’ phones every day. This one broke her back, was evicted in the rain from her home. This one injured knee at potato packing plant—needs X-Ray—undocumented worker—afraid boss will fire her if she asks him for help. This one and this one and this one and this one.

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“An organization never defends, only attacks.” I hand a woman a flyer and explain how we stopped utility rate hikes for Central New York—three hundred million dollars kept in the state. She’s moved. Donates a Jackson for a calendar and signs up to volunteer. Ten minutes later a man shouts at me, “You’ll never end poverty. It’s just human nature, man. Human nature!”

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What do you believe? What do you want?

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I am up at six, step lightly to not wake my roommate. He’s a jazz guitarist by trade, trading the last ten years of his life for this. I shower, get coffee, listen to stillness. At eight we are in the office. More coffee, oatmeal from a packet. All our food is donated. We stay down here, in the office, on the street, for the next fifteen hours. We do it seven days a week. 365 days a year. Some people admire it. Most think we’re crazy. We joke, “Poverty never takes a vacation.”

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Saturday mornings we move teams into the neighborhood. Knocking on doors, nodding and waving and smiling at each person we see. Taking stock of the sagging Victorian homes, a hundred years old. Some of them boarded up. Others burnt to the ground. Most just tired looking, worn down from being lived in by families busy surviving. Today I organized all the volunteers, the drivers, the food, the money, the gas. Logistically complicated, our goal politically simple: people, weak in isolation, would chill the blood of this city’s masters once we organized them into a force. One person at a time. Each time a new story. The same story of this dying town. The older generation remembers good jobs, retiring with fat pensions. One younger man tells us he’s peddling drugs with his college degree.

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Waking a month later in Oklahoma. Going out to greet a summer sun, taking the Pomeranian out to piss in my parents’ bushes. When my mother told me I needed to come home to take care of her after her surgery, I split my knuckles over a brick wall. I stare at my hands. Our motto was Here to win, here to stay. I did not stay. I did not stay.


Find Johnathan Harper up north if you're looking to throw down. If you'd like to read more work under this pseudonym or contact about collaborating on some project, you can find him here.