Backpacks did not figure in my life as a child. At school in Maryland, most students either carried their books in simple satchels of various sizes and shapes made of imitation leather or, in high school, symmetrically arranged on three-ring binders balanced against the hip. Even when theology studies began, I had only a simple drawstring canvas bag from Woolworth’s. In the 1980’s, however, on joining the staff of St. Aloysius Church in Washington, D.C., I noticed that students at the adjoining Gonzaga High School were carrying their books in actual backpacks. My own first step in that direction came when I noticed a discarded black one on top of a trash barrel in the school parking lot—in good condition except for a broken strap. I simply cut off that strap and slung the remaining one over my shoulder. That initial backpack remained in use until its primary zipper gave out years later.
Moving about now, to and from America House, I notice ever more elaborate models, with multiple zipper compartments and nylon pouches for bottled water, soda and other bulky objects. The one I currently use is a sturdy blue number, discovered (again) atop a pile of trash bags in front of an upscale apartment house, almost as if it were expecting to be found and claimed. Written with a ball point pen on the beige trim and in several other places is the name Riley. Despite several trips through a washing machine, Riley’s name has remained, and I have sometimes wondered whether a now-grown-up Riley might some day recognize what was once his property and demand to know where I had found it.
If he does recognize it, I hope he will not demand it back, because its capaciousness has proven useful. Some of the Jesuits at America House leave clothes at my office door as donations for the Catholic Worker, which has a clothing room for the benefit of the many homeless men who go there in need of both food and clothing. Once as I was leaving at the end of the day, I heard the literary editor’s assistant say as I passed her office, “That backpack is almost as big as you.” It did indeed hold a lot of donated clothing.
The backpacks I notice on the streets and in the subway are generally used for everyday items by people going to and from work. They contain the extras of life, so to speak, rather than the necessities; and in a way their backpacks reflect our ever more consumer-oriented lives. For low-income workers, though, they might also hold the tools of their trade. Late one afternoon, I noticed three young Hispanic workmen leaving a work site near America House. Each had a paint-spattered backpack slung over his shoulders. The three rounded the corner and headed home.
For homeless people, the situation is different. They carry no tools or extras in their backpacks, but rather the sum total of their possessions. In the early morning, I often see men and women (mostly men) dozing on benches in the subway stations, their backpacks beside them or on their laps. True, not all homeless people have real backpacks; many have their possessions crammed into a variety of carriers. One day, for example, I noticed a homeless man asleep on a subway bench with a blue and white Delta Airlines bag beside him.
Public institutions in general do not look with a welcoming eye on homeless people who carry their meager possessions with them. At the largest and most centrally located branch of the city’s public library, a sign in the vestibule reads, “No more than two bags permitted in the library,” an implicit warning to homeless men and women who frequent the libraries as safe places to rest during the day.
For those just a step away from homelessness, backpacks can serve to transport the secondhand wares they sell on the sidewalk. On Sundays I see a number of unlicensed street vendors on Broadway near Chinatown. Emptying their backpacks onto pieces of cardboard spread out on the sidewalk, they stand beside their meager displays of assorted used items found in their travels around the city, with a wary eye out for the police. Police officers do indeed descend upon them, scattering the vendors who may not have time to gather up their wares before the sweeps begin. Sometimes, I have heard a vendor send a warning up the line to alert others to an imminent police presence.
At another spot popular with semi-homeless vendors, I once saw a man with his backpack balanced on an upended plastic milk crate. He was clearly waiting till later that Sunday afternoon before daring to display his wares on the sidewalk. I did not linger to see what his offerings might be, but I am sure they held little that would have been of interest to the well educated and well-provided-for Rileys of this world.