On my way home, I go past a place which gives me pause. No one driving by would know anything had gone on there, and it is even unlikely that many people think about what DID go on, despite that it was only a decade ago. In municipal and legal terms it was business as usual. A man named Al Low did something daring and subversive. He took on the Man. When I say the Man, I mean the sometimes formidable force of the state which can be amassed against you given the right circumstances.
There is no question, what Al Low did was illegal. He built a shanty in a wooded enclave on public property, and lived on it. It was not that Al Low was somehow indigent or acting out of bad faith. He was fighting the powers that be to accomplish something noble, and I do not use the words lightly. Al Low was providing for his kids.
Long story short, Al Low worked at a fairly prosaic job as a mechanic in a garage. He had been employed in the same location for fifteen years, so it would be fair to say that Al was a reliable and steady guy, despite being a middle income earner. Like many guys, he was in and out of a few relationships and ended up with three kids and two ex-wives, alimony payments, and child support payments. The only problem was, that Al Low could not afford it.
Plenty is said these days about deadbeat dads. The torches and pitchforks come out, and we celebrate when the state holds their feet to the fire. But I wonder many people consider the position of the man who is paying. Al Low’s judge apparently did not.
Al Low had a few choices. He could have been a delinquent and missed payments. But AL Low did what men have done for millennium. He dug in. In case anybody may doubt it, there is a gene for heroism that exists in most men, and the better side of this can come out in deference to women, and especially children. I know that for me, having kids was an unshakeable water mark which turned Pinocchio into a real boy. A man I did not know existed welled up from inside me who would do anything to put bread on the table. In the course of my working career, I have been taken to the wall and back a few times on that intention. Twenty-six years later, I am still singing for my supper, and not complaining. It is what men are supposed to do.
When Al Low could not make his payments, he built a shanty adjacent to the garage where he worked, in which to sleep. His employer did not mind. The shanty was nothing fancy, just a wooden shack. He went to work every day, and walked across the lot to sleep. Al Low made his support payments. Winter came. Al Low, improved his shack a bit. He ran an underground cable so that he could power a lightbulb, and for heat, he put in a wood stove. Seven years passed.The shanty persisted. Eventually the city took note, and gave Al notice that he must vacate his premises, that its existence was illegal because it broke building codes and fire regulations. He was told of subsidized housing, but did not qualify due to his income, despite the support payments which left nothing for rent. He was offered credit counselling, but the numbers still did not add up. Al Low was a grown up, and he considered his limited options his own problem to deal with. He tailored his lifestyle to fit his commitments, cooking simple stews on his stove at night, and using a bicycle as his means of transportation. He referred to himself as the ‘outdoorsy type’ and did not complain about the hardships of dealing with cold nights or primitive conditions. “I’m forty-eight years old, a grown man. I should make my own way. I came to terms with life a long time ago. You’ve got to play what you’re dealt, you take what each day gives you, accept it and prepare yourself for the next day,” he says.
There are different models of the archetypal hero. One is the Braveheart type, who leads armies and wields a sword in battle. The other kind is less noticeable. He forges ahead quietly over the many years required for a human baby to pass through the vulnerable stages of gestation on into adulthood. His brand of bravery is the every day hero, who over the course of a long time, lives close to the bone and sucks it up. His shadow in the background may never be appreciated, and his story may never be told. He is a model for fathers everywhere, humble circumstances notwithstanding.
Al Lowe’s shanty is gone, except in memory. In another day and time, he would be a survivor, and would rise to the top of the heap through ingenuity and personal industry. But we live in odd times. The modern era is its own kind of jungle, where the rules no longer make sense. Right and wrong can be argued for a long time on some issues, but nobility is not in question when someone sacrifices for the sake of those in his care. For the city, Al Low was merely an irritant, but when I drive by that spot, I raise a silent salute to the working-class hero who lives within the hearts of most husbands and fathers, made locally famous by Al Low.