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Sunday, December 6, 2009

My Friend, Bob

Bob is a regular guy who probably had little more to say to a wife than "What's for dinner?" I don't hold that against Bob. I am only trying to say that he is free of pretense, easy-going, able to laugh at nothing, and very likable for these reasons. I admit it: I like Bob, and I do not take to homeless men generally.

Bob says his father was a cop-killer. His father claimed to have come from the belly of a snake. He knew he was a bad man, accepted it, and bragged about it and the number of cops he murdered. Bob has never killed anyone, even though he has been in a few scrapes. His father frightened him, and I remember imagining Bob as a child clinging to his mother, using her as a shield. Bob is proud, nonetheless, of his father's reputation, audacity, and arrogance. His father probably died by the gun, but Bob never got around to telling that part.

Bob drinks. He likes to drink and drinks constantly. He told me he was never going to stop drinking. Apparently, if he does not drink himself to sleep, he cannot stop thinking about his three ex-wives. He had woman problems, but I never learned how those were different from the problems other men have.

Bob used to work, too. He had worked steadily as a younger man at various types of jobs, but drinking probably got in the way as it did with the wives. By the time I met Bob, he was a confirmed alcoholic and homeless. He had already been homeless on the Bay for five years.

Before that, I did not venture to ask: Bob does not talk in a straight line; his train of thought derails here and there. Before long, he is repeating himself about what he thinks is wrong with my truck and why I need a choke installed even though I tell him the truck is fine. So talking to Bob can be tiring, and he just won't stop unless I beg out a few times over and over again that I have something else to do or must get to sleep.

Bob would walk away from my truck, still talking, only now talking to himself. He would often continue in this way into the night, talking to the Bay, to whoever was out there listening. Tired of that, too, I would roll my truck window down and ask politely, "Bob, are you talking to yourself?"

"Yeah," Bob drawled, stretching the word out as though it were a matter of fate and there were nothing he could do about it. "I'm going to bed soon." And he would. He would climb into the back of his truck.

If you recall, I was saddened in March to learn that Bob was ill. He had been diagnosed with cancer and hepatitis. He was on a stolen bicycle because his truck had been confiscated, and he was sleeping on the ground near the Long's Drugstore. That is where my story, Daffodils, ends.

Bob disappeared soon after.

Sensing something wrong after days and weeks went by without Bob, I drove the streets and allies around the drugstore. I phoned the nearest police department to ask if they might have picked up someone of Bob's description. I spoke to any policeman parked in the area in case he might have seen Bob and to every homeless person in the vicinity; but I was losing hope and feeling that much more helpless the more people of whom I inquired.

I felt guilty and selfish, too, that I could not manage to turn up any information and that I did not have the time or resources to do a full search, either by phone or in my truck. Maybe I was just rationalizing the reality that I have to work for money to feed myself, to pay off debts, and to save for a place to live. Maybe I was made selfish by the conditions of homelessness, or maybe the selfishness came first and lay at the root of my homelessness.

Self-doubt can be vicious.

In a pinch, in a bind of my own conscience, for want of other means, I did what other helpless, hopeless, guilty, and selfish people do: I prayed. It was desperate prayer, perhaps the only honest kind. I imagined Bob being taken in by some philanthropic type who was impressed with his good nature and could afford to handle his bad habits. I imagined Bob in a hospital getting the attention he needed by a caring staff. And, I imagined Bob getting to Las Vegas for the last sexual exploit of his life. (Bob once told me his fantasy of having a number of prostitutes sit on him since he no longer had the energy otherwise.) I could not, though, imagine Bob dead. Whether that were my intuition or merely the result of bad faith was hard to tell in the eight months that followed Bob's disappearance.

People who knew me inquired about Bob. Everybody knew how well Bob amused me, how kindly I felt toward him, and how much he seemed to trust me. He was the first homeless person to ever speak to me. We had a little homeless relationship going, but I no more knew what to do about Bob gone missing than I did about my dead dog ending up in the City dump. (That was the well-meaning fault of a neighbor who bagged my dog in a hurry so that children walking to school would not see her in the road.) In brief, I would feel guilty all over again and all the other feelings that amounted to severe self-reproach.

I guess I got over Bob. I figured he was dead in the sense that, like my dog, I would never see him again. I actually never saw my dog die. I never saw her dead body. I only heard about it. Sad to say, since I did not expect any report from anyone about Bob's whereabouts or his status dead or alive, he was dead to me for all intents and purposes. I did not love Bob the way I loved my dog, but the world was emptier without him; and, absent of Bob's ameliorating effect, homelessness took on a grimmer aspect.

Many more changes later --- from late winter turned to spring, spring to summer, summer to mild California fall, the loss of a job to finding another, having a little money to being flat broke, and so much more of the same old thing --- I was getting out of my truck on a Sunday morning at one of the nearest public washrooms. It was a cool, overcast day, pleasant and quiet without the tourists whose absence left only the dark, damp presence of Monterey pines amid the ghostly morning fog.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed someone approaching me. I looked, but I did not see right away and could not, for a moment, put a name on the apparition that finally spoke.

"I didn't come to see you sooner because I thought you'd be mad at me." It was the familiar drawl.

"Bob!" I grabbed his arm and looked him in the face. "What happened to you?"

"Well, I been living in John's truck, and they told me I ought to say hello. I been seeing you out here for a while."

"I looked for you at the Long's drugstore and didn't find you. Are you still living around here?"

"Oh, yeah. I had a stroke. Somebody picked me up and took me to the hospital. I was there for three weeks. When I got out, John let me sleep in his van." Bob spoke so slowly and matter-of-factly one would have thought the incident were far in the distant past. We talked for a while longer; but the day was moving ahead, and I had chores to do before I started another week of work.

The hole in the scenery of my life out here on the Bay has taken the shape of Bob once again. Bob stops by the truck to chat on occasion; and whenever I see John's van, I know Bob is ensconced in the back: he's safe, drunk, and sleeping.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Daily Dance of Going Nowhere

On the other side of expensive vacation rentals, the ocean is an edge of darkness dotted with lights from invisible boats in the distance. Parked at the end of the continent, I am feeling the terrible weight of my stark life. No one can know, really, in all truth, how I got here. It has been worth pondering in therapy, but no answer to the problem is permanent even if I can make it through another week. Week to week. Day to day.

One foot in front of the other, I struggle to endure the daily routines that circumscribe my life; and, to be honest, I am tired and bored of the radius of financial confinement to which I am presently condemned. I seem to be married to it. I am heartsick at the way money has grown to a staggering importance for me, overtaking everything else, but mostly and rudely the things I love. I have lost my focus for poetry, for long afternoons at the beach, for planning anything beyond the next few hours.

Yet, oddly, and to my own amazement, I would not trade my present circumstance for any other reality. I am not even tempted to find a shortcut or detour. For one thing, I'd be suspicious if things got too much easier too fast. For another, I am proud and competitive and want to see this weird life-warp out to the end: I want the victory over the odds as much as I want a ward against this kind of warp ever happening again.

Yet, I admit I wonder if I have not found a modus vivendi, a make-peace, passive compliance, with the warp rather than the path to defeating it. For all my more-than-occasional desire to run --- run anywhere to get out of here (and one could well ask where here is exactly) --- I cannot seem to find any reasonable alternative to the daily dance of seemingly going nowhere. And run? Run backward into a past that no longer exists?

I do enjoy imagining a prize at the end, if there should ever be an end; but I often doubt these feeble attempts at hope. Hope is tricky. Hope, even a little of it, can plunge one into deeper despair. Like salt or sugar, it is best to go light on it, walk gingerly, but just keep going. I hope, but I am not bragging I have any. I'm not running like a child with scissors. I'm keeping my head down.

I imagine a lot of things. My imagination, though, is much richer than what the world seems to have available. I wanted some good gypsy company out here and hoped for it ---- a gal friend with whom to chat over a beach fire, roast marshmallows, share some silence. I have wanted to record her life --- their lives, for my imagination gave me several women friends with whom to share the coming cold evenings. I thought I might write about these women, hoot about their courage. their intelligence, their strength in pulling themselves through difficult times. They probably don't exist. At least, not the way I imagine them.

For instance, there is a curious gal who lives in a truck about as ugly as mine. She spends most of the day on the Bay in one particular spot, though I could not say where she goes to park and sleep in the evening. I see her very early in the morning as I am washing and dressing for work and if I visit the outdoor washroom in her area before dark.

She seemed friendly at first. I often saw her chatting with people who brought their dogs out for a walk or with someone from the Parks and Recreation crew. However, when I tried to chat with her some time ago, I was politely rebuffed. I was offering food. She said she was on a special diet.

I was unsure how to extent myself to her, and I made a patent mistake. The truth is (and I knew this) the homeless are individuals with a keen sense of dignity: no one wants her state of homelessness pointed out to her, not even obliquely through the offer of food. We hide homelessness from ourselves so that we can do that impossible dance every day. We settle for a lack of definition, a myopic haze that takes some of the sharp edges off, and just plain guessing as to who or what someone once was or did. That is certainly more fun, and that, of course, is the wrong word.

No one talks much to each other out here, which should not come as a surprise. There is too much of a chance of tripping over a live wire of dense feelings that have not been examined or were given up on as yielding nothing but pain if unraveled. We are careful, in other words. There are land mines, you see.

The other homeless, truck-driving lady and I tend to meet coming and going from the public washroom. One day a week ago, she asked if I knew who was taking all the toilet paper off the rolls, a daunting feat, really, when you consider how long it must take to swipe the paper from 12 rolls without leaving a trace, save the cardboard shells they came on. I know we both wonder how the thief is going unnoticed, by what means the toilet paper is being displaced, and how it is being transported from the washroom.

It's the aggravation of being surprised, the grim idea of having to trot back to one's vehicle for tissue or paper napkins to fill the lack, and the curse-laden relief of finding that the thief conscientiously left one roll with enough paper on it in the last stall. It is an ill-timed, five-second emotional roller coaster that no one would enjoy in the early morning, least of all the homeless who have to trek the great outdoors to get to the nearest toilet. It is one of those relatively-small things, like the housed who drop trash in the park or play their radios too loudly, that unite the homeless.

A few days ago in the washroom, this same woman wanted to know if she could ask a personal question. I should have said, "No." I am not that clear headed in the morning, and I was caught off guard. After all, I was dressing, and I will probably never get used to having company in my outdoor boudoir.

"Do you actually shower out here? I mean, do you take cold showers?"

It was all downward from there. I was only half-dressed and felt defensive about something that is really no one else's business. But I am polite by nature and tend to deal honestly with others. I answered the questions: Yes. Didn't I know I could use the Y for only $30 a month? And, oh, she hates being cold. She could never take cold showers. I must run warm. I must have a high metabolism. Blah blah blah. Blah blah blah.

All that at around 6 a.m. My first draught of tea would be a half-hour and two miles away.

Her ignorance was deeply frustrating, even hurtful, as it bumped noisily against my fantasized gypsy girlfriends who would have known the secrets of the open-air shower: the exquisite sensation of cold water warming one's insides; the canopy of pines and palms filled with the sweet susurrus of birds; the high, star-studded, velvet sky overhead; and a privacy otherwise denied the homeless and about which the housed know nothing.

I cannot explain her--- the other truck-driving, homeless lady --- except to guess that she wanted to pretend she had choices and perks of which I might not have been aware. We might as well have been talking over our coffee cups at the fence between our backyards replete with laundry waving in the breeze, immaculate green lawns husbanded by men, and swing sets empty of children in school. There was always a standard histrionic quality to the middle-class housewife and her ability to spend, albeit wisely. That image of the other truck lady and myself persisted through the day, and it was a comfort of sorts, though another kind of fantasy that is far out of reach, existing as it does in another era.

Perhaps her fall from the grace of the middle class had been much harder than mine. It takes considerable time to embrace the notion that one has become part of that class against which the armies of the world protect the wealthy.

In any case, in my position, one can only do what comes to hand. I have a job. I have a vehicle. I amuse myself with crossword puzzles and New Yorker magazines I lift from the YMCA after yoga class. I write. I run in expensive shoes that were worth every hard-earned dollar I paid for them. I make friends.

Friends. They are of considerably more value than money alone. I am sitting now with my laptop aboard a sailboat that sways gently in its slip, lulling me as I pursue the educated idleness to which I am accustomed. The sound of a grand harp makes me curious enough to go topside to view well-dressed people gathering for a wedding about to take place on the grounds next to the marina. I return to the cabin on loan to me, the jazz music playing on the radio, and the appurtenances of the temporary world I have managed to eke out for myself, an accomplishment of the bare truth.

My truck stopped running in the middle of the freeway a few days ago, which means my world had come to an end once again. I had just received my new Triple-A card and had not yet paid the renewal fee, but I phoned anyway. The Highway Patrol pushed me off to the side of the road, and Triple A's truck showed up within the half-hour to tow me to the middle-eastern garage. That slow, sinking feeling of doom around not having a place to sleep for a night, a few days, a week, or worse began to swallow me. And what if the truck were, this time, beyond repair?

Despite having working solidly for six months at a new job, I had only a ten-dollar bill to get me to the end of week when I would get the first decent paycheck of my career there. That workplace deserves a few pages of its own, but suffice it to say that a vehicle breakdown at this time, while inevitable with an old truck, was nothing but bad luck after bad.

The cell phone, the necessity of which I have exhorted many times, was the one piece of good luck I had in hand. I phoned everyone in the area whom I thought might be able to help. I happened to reach a friendly couple whom I had met in yoga class who lived near my YMCA. I humbly stated my need, and they were more than willing to open their door to me.

Within the hour, I had a ride from the middle-eastern garage to the home of the most upbeat, offbeat, intellectual, and artistic couple I have had the pleasure of knowing in a very long time. Their simple, tastefully-remodeled beach house was filled with exotic sculpture Pattie had created and was a delight to my eyes. Bill, a former university professor and a keen, sensitive observer of human beings, had himself experienced homelessness. He seemed to know intuitively what I felt and what was needed. I was offered dinner, of course, but I was also offered a place to sleep and Bill would take me to work the next day. I could stay there at the house. Or on the boat.

The idea of sleeping on a boat was just too outre to pass up. So we packed me up and took me off to the marina where I boarded an old sailboat with the few possessions I could manage to carry away from the truck. Bill took me to and from work the next day, but, as though his kindnesses so far were not enough, Bill offered me the use of his vehicle so that I could drive myself wherever I need to go.

So it is now Saturday. I have barely left the boat all day, preferring the soft, back-and-forth motion on the water to going anywhere my legs could carry me. I sleep soundly in the prow of this little boat and feel rested in a way I have not in a long, long time. It is no wonder the history of modern man began in a boat. I am prayerful today, thankful for the blessing of new friends. I verge on feeling hopeful, but I know, too, that I dare every day, win or fail, to keep going, to keep doing the daily dance I think is going nowhere.

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Vulnerable

That evening at bedtime, I lay upon a stack of pillows and a folded sheet spread out the length of the front seat, relishing the quiet. It felt good to lie down and stretch out, and the back windows of the truck cab, as well as the front triangular vents (out of which my father might have flicked his cigarette ash), let in a slight breeze despite the late-August heat.

I will be glad when it is finally over. It will be peaceful and complete the way it feels to lay one's body down for a night's rest. I survey my small quarters, looking up at the ceiling overhead and out the back windows. Very little turned out the way I had hoped --- no big wedding, no husband, no children, no idyllic family life --- and the prospect of those wishes manifesting now at my age are very slim. I'm quite done with it. I'm a hanger-on who might as well leave. Of course, I figure, because I am all too happy to die, I will somehow linger on and, perhaps worse, manage not to find the respite I need from the poison of grief and regret.

I had trouble falling asleep, not because of my wish not to be here, but because of a particularly rigorous yoga class that left me with achy legs. A cold-water shower usually soothes the muscles after a work-out, but I was several hours late getting to the public washroom. I paid for it with tossing and turning and all manner of trying to get comfortable.

Then I was awakened out of deep sleep by the sound of a vehicle pulling up beside mine. I was surprised to be so awake, alert, and immediately drawn in by a peculiar conversation, even though the couple in the vehicle beside me were speaking softly. I heard the word, body, over and over again. We do not usually refer to living things as bodies unless, of course, they happen to be dead.

The couple's language was English, but it was a dialect, perhaps Creole, maybe Cajun. The woman's voice was melodic. She seemed to speak and laugh lightly at the same time, making her words aspirated and giving her voice an overtone. When she stopped talking, she tittered. But I kept hearing about a body . . . when I saw the body . . . I heard her say. I pictured her with small, square, saw teeth visible through lips drawn back in a constant smile.

Her male counterpart would answer with a slow "Uh-huh" in a deeper voice that complemented hers. He would occasionally mumble something in the space she made after the tiny laughs with which she concluded every phrase. Creepy. I lay in my truck attempting to see in the dark in my imagination what the two of them looked like.

It was the hour of thieves, that time in the night, deep in the night, when thieves (and murderers, by extension) come calling. It is a time when no one who is sleeping wants to get up. It is possible to deceive oneself at that hour that one is only dreaming about a signal or alarm that warrants getting out of bed to check the doors and windows. Fortunately, when I had a home, I had a dog that, true to species, was never too asleep to hear the slightest approach of encroachment upon our territory and to react accordingly.

Now homeless, I find I have somehow acquired a new sensory ability to come to full alert. My mind races faster than thought over combinations, possibilities, and outcomes of the situation and possible peril in which I find myself, though, interestingly, unlike the canine, I stumble over human curiosity.

It is not the blind obsession of the horror-movie teenager who moves inexorably (and fatally, of course) toward the danger lying somewhere in wait beyond the next door or just around the corner. Yet, I was very surprised at how long I lay there wondering what was next, whether the couple would get out of their car, if they were really just nice people who happened to park next to me, or if they might have seen me day after day in the same parking lot doing my daily routine and had some unknown purpose for . . . well, my body.

Some years ago, I viewed the scariest horror film I have ever seen in my life, mostly for the fact that it was not fantastical or extravagant and did not rely upon special effects. The movie is Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. It only occurred to me while lying there in my truck ---listening, wondering, imagining --- that psychopaths spent a good deal of time in their vehicles in parking lots, their primary source of victims.

Suddenly, thankfully, time was up and whether perfectly rational or not, I bolted out of my supine position and proceeded, all at once, to sit up behind the steering wheel, tear down the front window shade, start the engine, and hit the gas. I happened to glance to the right to see out the truck's side window that my neighbors were driving a truck at least as large as mine.

For a micro-second, I wanted to tear the shade off the passenger-side window to see what the man and woman looked like, but they would see me, too: now that I were able to identify them, they would have to kill me. It was not a good idea, and I let it slip out of mind as I sped away toward the parking-lot entrance. I spent the rest of the evening under the nose of the City police who have a sub-station not even a block away from the scene of the possible crime.

But then no one would have known there had been a crime. Though I am not entirely out of touch --- I have a cell phone, a lap top, and a calendar in my purse, assuming these items would not have been taken by my abductors --- police, typically, are not pursuing serial killers. They are busy with more routine tasks. It would be days, maybe weeks, before someone missed hearing from me, and more time would elapse before the police were notified. At what point someone would suspect a kidnapping is anyone's guess.

There are stories one hears about homeless people disappearing. Even though the verb, to disappear, does not have an intransitive form in English, I use it in that way, as the Spanish-speaking world does, to evoke the possibility of malevolence. My own friend, Bob, has disappeared, but maybe someone disappeared him.

Indeed, the Online Journal reported on July 8th of this year that the homeless have been disappearing from Washington, D.C. in large numbers, that is, vanishing without a trace, since 9/11/01. Maybe the homeless were only relocated, though no one is saying that actually happened and, if it did, where. The D.C. officials in charge of the homeless, when asked about the disappearances, are being very tight-lipped. One official commented that, with federal camps and a high demand by the transplant industry for usable body parts, he feared the worst may have happened. What a frightening conjecture, but it is even scarier that a public official would say such a thing lest we read in the possibility of collusion with body-traffickers.

Sickening. (And what does "federal camp" mean? Is there an Abu Ghraib for the homeless?)

This makes the purported policy of Atlanta and New York, of dumping their homeless on other cities or paying their transportation out, seem like random acts of kindness. Though I can barely bring myself to think it, I heard a story from Sacramento of homeless people there being kidnapped, murdered, and sold to agents representing facilities that mine body parts that are then sold to hospitals.


This was the word used for the people who were rounded up, detained, questioned, tortured, and then murdered during and after the 1973 coup d'etat in Chile, led by General Augusto Pinochet. While the first four years of the junta were the most brutal, draconian repression through the consolidation of power and the use of secret police effectively neutralized any dissent or resistance for the next 17 years.

Some bodies were found. Some were never found.

My situation with the strange couple is nearly comical by comparison, and I admit a partiality to the quirky films of Joel and Ethan Coen. The script would open, "It all starts in a large, mostly-empty parking lot where obviously there is no need for anyone to park next to anyone else . . . "

Of course, who that couple was and what their intentions were are nothing more than speculation. I will never know, but I do know this: there are outcomes I do not want and can prevent simply by not being there. I chose to place myself somewhere else. I overcame a morbid curiosity to remove all doubt which might have sealed my fate. The storyteller lived to tell.

And, yes, I am still happy to die when death comes, but that is a long way from being murdered. For all my worried existence, I do not want to be thrown at death. But what about the more vulnerable Bobs out here in the street? The homeless who are alcoholic, physically challenged, or mentally ill? What about those days when I am overwhelmed, feel crazy, and unsure of what I might do to relieve my desperation?

We are not living in a nation like Chile, which, like other third-world nations, tends to fall prey to military strong men and the machinations of dictators. To think that our homeless population faces harm just as frightening through reprehensible municipal policies and exposure to criminal elements is boggling. The magnitude of the problem of a lack of protection for the homeless is still dawning on me. It is difficult to grasp, and I feel shame, the kind one imagines as though standing before God when one must account for what one knows.

Saturday, August 15, 2009


I am running for my life.

I am running to save my life and running away from it.

I come along the straight of the oval where the breeze off the ocean feels as though it is under my feet and lifting me. I always have that sensation of riding this stretch, although one would think the wind would slow me down. I run backward on the track, or clockwise, just so that I can sail this stretch while everyone else, for no known obvious reason, runs the opposite way. I am not trying to be odd. I just like the feeling, and so far as I know, there are no rules about which direction to run a track.

Besides, running the track clockwise gives me the widest, longest view of the ocean. The other side of the track, which one suffers in counter-clockwise motion, abuts the baseball field, out-buildings, and the score board; and the breeze is at one's back when one rounds the end of the oval and enters the straight I enjoy so much.

One cannot just count the laps and expect to be happy and to want to do it again. No. My wide-hipped female body with slender ankles is in poor ratio for running, which best suits more slender women. So the rebellion in my body starts almost instantly. My hips complain loudly of being pinched and compressed on all sides from the jolts they are sustaining with every foot fall, but I move my attention to the pleasure in my feet and toes and the room they have to spread out in my shoes. I can feel the small muscles there and all throughout my calves.

I was told by a good runner a long time ago to remember that my heart is moving me when I run, not my legs. Indeed, that entire engine in my chest is the force behind the locomotion. Pumping my arms, he told me, moving them in a C shape between my chest and downward only to brush the sides of my hips, back and forth, would give me the momentum I need and remind my feet to keep up. To think I only run four laps.

My shoes help. They are the race car of running shoes, Ecco Bioms made in Denmark of yak-hide leather. It is a light-weight shoe that molds to the foot. There is very little sole in the usual sense and no bounce at all in these shoes as a consequence. They simply -- no frills -- carry your foot, much the way a sports car rides low to the ground and one can feel every bump in the road, a sacrifice of luxury for performance. At the same time, the Biom is a natural shoe, like Birkenstock, which, after a while, conforms so well to your foot you don't feel it.

These shoes take some getting used to, though, and people accustomed to the cushiness of other models will initially think it categorically impossible to run in the Bioms. The other models of running shoe give you a start, a bounce if you will, because of the wide thick heels and rounded up toes. But my feet would come to hurt, and the shoes would feel more like concrete boots after a mile around the track. I would sprout blisters on the bottom of my toes and between them, and that darn big toe would need massaging if I wanted to sleep at night.

To get started in Bioms, one has to start by creating some artificial bounce at first to be able to lift the feet and initiate a running motion; but the entire foot is engaged. I have heard, of course, how many muscles there are in the foot; but I can feel all of them with this shoe as I put myself into the rhythm of the run.

It is here on the track that I lose the demons and the overwhelming sense that my troubles are insurmountable. Throw in some nagging remorse and sorrow over whatever portion of this suffering I brought on myself, a longing for the way things used to be, and the pall of thinking maybe things won't come right, after all, and I am ready for Bellevue. Really, nothing says things will come right. The hard-stare face-down I give my reality --- my way of preventing myself from entertaining delusions, the kind that brought me to this parallel universe of homelessness in the first place --- is perhaps necessary, but painful.

Therefore, I run.

Bellevue, the longstanding, proverbial household term for nut house, is a real hospital in New York City, and it is the oldest public hospital in the United States. It was founded in 1793 and still serves people of all backgrounds, irrespective of ability to pay. However, contrary to popular myth, Bellevue has never been only a psychiatric facility. Bellevue Hospital Center had the first ambulance service and the first maternity ward, hosted Nobel Prize winners in medicine, and was the site of the development of the Polio vaccine. It has been affiliated for a long time with New York University School of Medicine and is considered to be a training ground for leaders in the field.

I needed this cool factual break, though I must add that Bellevue here is Mesa Vista, a facility I intend to visit before I ever spend another entire week crying and disabled by grief.

The secret to running is not to think about it. Even while the compression and ache around the hips is ever-present, I notice how the run feels in the buttocks, calves, thighs, and so on. The secret to living my life right now is, similarly, losing the fixation on what hurts. But what hurts in my life is . . . well, everything. My life is the remnant of a life, and I am impaired by it. I am crippled, and maybe it is this with which I must come to terms. Perhaps I must see myself differently, not as I used to be, but as infirm and afflicted. Perhaps this is where my new life and all my thinking about it must begin.

Running may be only compensatory, a way to clear my head, a means to being too tired to think and worry. Maybe the Bioms are just a toy, something to distract and ease the mind. It is so hard to tell these days in the absence of things familiar and with living irregularly. Can I live this new life without thinking about it? Like a day at the track above the ocean?

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Success and Defeat in Homeless Living

To tell the truth, I do not know who I am outside of writing this blog, doing yoga, swimming, running a mile a few times a week, and generally doing whatever comes to mind that might be useful in moving my life past this homeless episode. Sometimes I am simply overwhelmed, and I don't think I can take another minute: the destitution swells up in the back of my mouth as my mind floats over all the things I have ever loved as though I were dead. I feel slightly nauseated and as though I might pass out.

But I am now on top of a hill in Point Loma with the widest view of the Pacific in all of San Diego. The ocean spreads north and south and meets the sky in the same shade of blue, distinguishable only by the shimmering silken fabric of waves. There is a college here with an all-weather track where I will outrun my nasty goblins who can barely make it a quarter mile.

Maybe it's me. Maybe it's the situation. All I know is there are some awful days, days so blue and beautiful that sometimes the contrasts with my terrible interior are surreal. On those days, the overly-bright sunlight gives grass and leaves the translucence of a vision of the afterlife. On those days, I could not tell you with any certainty that being housed would make a difference, though we all want to think that.

Moving past grief is in fits and starts, and the fits are ugly. They down me for days at a time, and I crave rest, sugar, and the people I know, most of whom live elsewhere. I just want to be slouching around a big house in my PJs, but all I have is this truck. I curse homelessness and kick my own tires. It is at these times, too, that I do not have the energy to think or act on getting out of the situation.

Sure, I have some good recommendations for other people who face homelessness, but that only means I have had the experience: it does not mean I have conquered my demons and am on the way toward a life of better homes and gardens. Successes at homelessness are ephemeral, given the chances that something is going to change in the next hour. Not that the change would be a surprise. It is just that there is not much I am going to do about the possibility of outcomes I won't like. I live with that prospect and hope it is not today or tomorrow that I have to face the utter demise of my truck, for example.

And friendship is almost impossible out here. I am always hustling, always on the phone, always driving somewhere, always looking for a new place to park the truck: I'm on the hunt. Even if I meet someone whom I like, I am not at leisure, nor much inclined, to chit-chat. It is hard to tell what one has in common with another under the conditions of homelessness. We do not share a neighborhood, nor a workplace, nor do we have children enrolled in the same school. Life is impromptu and inconvenient out here, and I must stay sharp and more than a few feet ahead of probabilities.

Now, having given sufficient preface, having expanded upon what defeats me, I feel more comfortable in offering my list of ideas and suggestions for living a relatively successful homeless life. These are not hard, pat guidelines which would be truly impossible to create with the instabilities and uncertainties of homelessness; and not all of my suggestions will be relevant to another's circumstance. There are also gender differences in the way homelessness is approached, and I cannot speak to substance abuse since it is not part of my experience.

Therefore, my opening assumption is that something catastrophic and quite out of your control has happened to put you in the street, something that made you lunatic, frantic, stressed out, and unable to cope as you once did. You are disabled right now, though you are capable enough, with a little help, of being healthy once again.

Perhaps, the changes you are experiencing are scaring you. I used to wake up in the middle of the night unable to breathe. I was not getting oxygen, which made me wonder if I were really awake or in a dream. Whichever it was, I had to get some air. I got out of bed and went outdoors until the cool evening's freshness brought me out of emotional impairment and back to cognitive normalcy. These episodes were far too frequent.

By day, I was driving maniacally. I was getting stopped once a week by the highway patrol for speeding and running stop lights; and as I reported in a previous blog, the cost of tickets was mounting to a vast sum. I could not seem to put a brake, so to speak, on this driving behavior. I could not control it, and that was another reason therapy looked so good.

After all, I was becoming unrecognizable even to myself. I might have been crazy at other times in my life and didn't know it, and I would not have taken anyone else's word for it. This time, beyond any doubt, I needed help. Fortunately, I was aware of the newer therapies that are not just talk.

So, in the first place, hopefully, you recognize that you must have help. The first line of defense is the support of a good therapist whom you believe has the talent to work with you, who can handle someone outside the mainstream, and is not put off by your homelessness. The newer therapies that are working for me are called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprogramming (EMDR); Brainspotting, an advanced form of EMDR; and Advanced Integrative Therapy (AIT), also known as Seemorg Matrix work. Impressive, huh? They really are. These therapies have clearly defined and proven processes that work on both conscious and subconscious levels of the mind to clear away trauma.

Next, be kind to yourself, and you may come to find how very difficult that is to do. You may discover you have never been all that kind to yourself, and the eremitic nature of homelessness will teach you such things. My advice is to give yourself as much rest as needed, even though it may seem excessive, and eat whatever you want to eat. Do whatever it takes to elevate your mood. Dare to talk to people you do not know. Talk to animals and trees. Talk to yourself. Give yourself pep rallies. I admit I talked to myself in the beginning because I was frightened and I was all I had by way of company.

If it doesn't feel good, don't do it. This is your unique situation and your opportunity to stop the world and get off for a while, so take advantage of the freedom to do what you really want to do. If you are able to work for money, find a nice establishment run by nice people with whom to work. Do not waste your precious life force on anyone who has a lousy attitude toward employees. Do not accept employment from people who think employees are slaves who are there to do their bidding and that you ought to be grateful for the pittance they are paying you. Even if the job pays very little, but is something you think you would enjoy, take it. You can always quit if things do not go the way you expected.

Yes, I said quit. You are in no position to put up with any kind of insanity.

Be your own best friend. This maxim is the parent of all the others. I place it here because you will not know how to do this straight off. However, you are in a process of change that will teach you how to do it and get better at it as time goes by. You will make deep discoveries in therapy that will raise your consciousness, and you will be making small everyday efforts to take care of yourself by doing only what you want to do and what feels good. You will come to find yourself and then become hungry for your own self-realization.

Find good work. You will need the company of other people in order to see your progress and to find out who you really are. Of course, you must stick to the maxim of only doing what you want to do. Whether your work with other people pays or not, the point is that it will serve as a creative outlet for your self-expression. Having work to do also keeps the mind and the emotions engaged in something other than your own problems. Sure, you have them. But you do not need to talk to them each and every day and let them eat away time that could be better spent. Besides, as you already know, your problems are boring; it's the same old stuff.

But, you must allow yourself to feel whatever you are feeling, even if it seems like self-pity. Who cares? It's your soul, and you are the only one who walks your path. Get righteously in favor of taking your own side. It helps sometimes to imagine that there is someone who really loves you. So you ask yourself what that person would do for you or how they would think about you out of their great love and appreciation; and whatever that is, do it and think it. Finally, you will come to see your own true worth even if it started out as pretending.

Start exploring avenues that may have been cut off or to which you previously had no access. Maybe you would really like to go to school to study a topic that has fascinated you for a long time. Maybe you have always wanted to learn to swim, roller blade, surf, or rock-climb. Maybe you have always wanted to learn to sew, cook gourmet food, or write a novel. Find a place to start and stick with your new venture until you are satisfied with your progress or discover you do not like it as much as you thought you would. And that's OK. You are just experimenting with expanding your life along the lines of doing only what you want and like to do.

Get some exercise every day. This is one of the best remedies for poor sleep, over-eating, sluggishness, temptations to alcohol or drugs, and a myriad of bad habits that impede one's ability to think and act. Thinking and acting can be difficult enough under ordinary circumstances, but let's face it, your situation requires staying out of stupors.

Make friends as far as possible within the limits of homelessness, a state comprised of the most peripatetic people on earth. Still, it is nice to know you are not alone. I have actually slept better in a parking lot knowing someone else was out there sleeping in their vehicle, too. Homelessness does not always have to feel desperate.

What I am saying here is not about chasing the American Dream from the lowest rung of the socio-economic ladder. Not at all, and I doubt it is your life-goal in any case. Rather, it is about taking responsibility for yourself because few others will or can. The post-Reagan United States offers no way back up, but what one can hunt up or contrive on one's own. You are now a hunter/gatherer.

Stay as sharp as you possibly can, and I do not mean freshly-pressed, go-to-work uniforms and shiny resumes. No, I mean living with dignity and self-respect and in tune with your own needs. That includes money. If you know you need it, find it. I have infinite respect for the homeless people who panhandle at the major intersections in town. I always give them money if for no other reason than to set an example.

For one thing, I believe all Americans need to see homelessness with their own eyes for the object lesson it presents. To all intents and purposes, the increase and spread of homelessness in the United States was engineered, as it was a direct result of Reaganomics: trickle down, changes in the tax code that benefited only the wealthy, and corporate welfare.

econdly, I believe it is a moral good for drivers to be confronted with homelessness at every intersection and to feel its imposition on their daily routine. Eventually, they are going to want someone to do something about it; and whatever they are thinking, at least they are thinking. For truly, not since the Great Depression has this country had homelessness on this scale, though the homeless today may be worse off since their tent cities get removed regularly by police action. The "Hoovervilles" of the 1930s seem downright cozy, safe, and secure by comparison.

My soapbox preachments are a bonus, and I do not expect anyone else who is homeless to carry a banner and get out there and march. Your primary concern should be about you and the quality of your own life which you already know never has to be at the expense of another.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Musings from the Parking Lot

It is late evening, and I am sitting in my truck in a parking lot. It has been one of those days in which past aggravations nag at me and cling like a dense fog. The loneliness of homeless life lends itself to wrong-headed musings; and as the night deepens, the lack of the physical presence of companions is felt even more keenly.

There is a sweetness to saying "Good night" to people whom you love and with whom you live whenever one is lucky enough to have that situation. I look back with envy at those times in my life when, flushed from a long day and a wonderful meal together, I, friends, and beloved pets retreated to our separate rooms. The day's end together was a prayer that sent us off to soft sleep and gentle dreaming.

I have been challenged to renew my perspective, to believe there is more in the world than my immediate troubles, to believe that I can have a future once again and a home made up of dear friends. But there are swells of hope followed by deep troughs, and I must admit there are days when I wish it were over, which means I have not yet found the proper way to navigate and to enjoy my own kind of life on the Mississippi, as it were.

I feel quite certain that ending an incomplete life is failure. While it may alleviate present pain and the future possibility of more, I shrink in horror at the idea of having to take the same rotten lesson again. I want to go out with the victory. Otherwise, I am hard pressed to understand the point of being here and taking so much time at it.

What I want to believe in earnest is that I can only die when I have become happy. About everything. It would be the ultimate accomplishment to be at peace with my life, every part of it in every second, and to own it as my own unique work of art. I could die then and feel ready for something entirely new. But to die in frustration, despising my death because too much was left undone, is nightmarish. All feelings reverberate past us and into the channels and cracks of the future, here or there; and there is no percentage in dying the wrong way.

A great saint once said it is a sin to be unhappy, and I agree. Of course, the theological reasoning was that the Son of God shed His innocent blood for our redemption, our souls' salvation guaranteed through the sacrifice. Therefore with our souls saved, there is nothing to be unhappy about. But that always sounded too much like Mom nagging me about being ungrateful and how someone somewhere is starving in the world. You know what I mean.

My revisionist take on this notion of sin, minus all the theology, is that unhappiness is a waste of time and must be avoided as much as possible; and wherever God is, if that place is too far away from where I am, there is no hope anyway. So I conclude that God is a part of me (or the other way around) and nowhere else. In which case, learning to love oneself and everything in, about, and around one's life, inner and outer, is the only route to becoming whole, well, and happy, the way I wish to die.

The good news about homelessness is that it strips away most everything but what is essential so there is very little distraction. One's thoughts and feelings become rather stark against this backdrop, and there is an excess of time to think, write, walk, nap, or whatever else one is inclined to do. Homelessness, in other words, can be good for you.

It has been good to me.

Following the death of my beautiful dog, it were as though a curtain had been drawn across my mind. I had no inner light; it had been snuffed out. The morgue in my heart contrasted strangely against the typical cerulean days of southernmost California, light so bright and stimulating that it is rapturous. To be honest, I was afraid. I had never before been swallowed up so dramatically by grief, and it dwelt in every cell of my body. The darkness lived with me for weeks on end. It stayed so long it altered me.

That darkness over the death of beautiful Inde made any disturbance in my surroundings unbearable. The wearisome noise of television, the mindless antics of housemates, and the inane routines of making money were overwhelming me. There was no reason left to tolerate any of it.

I decided to go homeless.

My dog's death was the last domino in a long line of losses. I attribute my recovery, at least from deep gloom, to the smell of salt air, cool breezes off the ocean, sleep like death, and my innate determination to outlive it. Ben Stiller movies help. So do milkshakes. Never underestimate the need for distraction at such times, and the byword on that is "whatever it takes."

The climb back up is steep. It is steeper than it should be because the American Dream is not what we can or should continue to have, but the old structures are still with us. America has been a wasteland of people driven insane by the harried pace of making a living and the deep-down unspoken guilt and grief of killing off all other living things in the process; and that takes a lot more energy now than Coca Cola was giving us a generation ago: the new fix is Starbucks, Rockstar, or Red Bull, with caffeine and sugar levels so high they could rival a Class-B controlled substance.

Survival has just become too difficult, at the same time our deeply-ingrained notions of progress and modernity tell us that life should be easier. Perhaps, the new economic order of depression and chaos is an attempt by the collective unconscious to change the game. Maybe, at the ancient source and primordial depths of our existence, the system is suspending operations pending a restart along very different lines.

Despite the fact that most people would like to take the canoe down the river and pitch tent somewhere else, there is nowhere else. In lieu of a new frontier, we must get really creative, but not without humility and respect for limitations. We have to get beyond the Christian programming that leads us to martyr and crucify ourselves and other people daily and even further beyond that to a recognition, not only of universal human rights, but the universal rights of all living things.

Homelessness, from the point of view of critically-needed changes in the world, is a badge of courage. At the very least, the homeless have taken a step beyond the cultural routine and usual outcomes that are too narrow to be truly inclusive of all races, classes, creeds, religions, and species. Homelessness may be one of the few sanctuaries afforded a weary population of tired bourgeois capitalists. And we need sanctuary more than ever from the cruelty of the daily meat-grind of work as we know it and having to juggle the internal conflicts of conscience.

Homelessness can be that sanctuary that was once provided by the Sabbath and the church that would open its doors (literally, not figuratively) to people who needed rest. It is the least expensive retreat; and as good retreats do, it offers time for contemplation, exploring feelings and their meaning, and letting go.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

For Your Reading Pleasure

For your reading pleasure and greater literary edification, here is the poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay to which my last post refers:

Sonnet: Love is Not All
Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again;
Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
It well may be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Or nagged by want past resolution's power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It well may be. I do not think I would.

Love is Not All

Love is not meat or drink, but it can get very, very lonely being homeless without it.

Most homeless people have no roof whatsoever, and those of us who do are living out of a car, truck, or van, which barely provides enough room for one person. Assuming two people could get along under one small mobile roof, there is still the problem of lack of privacy with having to situate the "roof" on a side street or in a parking lot. Truly, I wish I had had a choice about listening to Sheila and Brian argue, break up, kiss, and make up every few days.

The homeless are up early and turn in early to avoid encounters with the housed and the police. There are just too many logistics to handle as it is, and the police can rattle your nerves even when they park next to you at Seven-Eleven. And I can live without the nervous, faux cheeriness of the housed when they have an unexpected encounter in a public washroom --- I only have my bra on so far and I'm brushing my teeth. Somehow, they want to chatter at such a time, perhaps to pretend that I am just like them. Except for the homeless part.

It is not that often, though, that I meet the middle- and upper-middle class housed. Most of the time the public restrooms are empty, and I can relax and enjoy the breeze coming through the open-roof structure and look out at the tree tops. One public washroom has dovecotes, whether by accident or design: instead of a single pitched roof, there are two pyramidal roofs separated by a breezeway, each with its own skylighted pavilion perched at the top. Doves can be heard flying around the empty, upper interior. They have taken over the roofs and nest on top of the walls separating the toilets, which places the humans doing their business on the first floor.

The birdsong of the mourning dove permeates my earliest memories, so having this particular, familiar bird attendant upon my toilette is a luxury and a joy. Even if the biggest problem with having birds in the attic looks nasty --- the excrement that has dripped down and dried on the upper walls --- it seems fitting.

One day while doing my toilette, I was surprised by two very well-dressed women, so well-dressed it was startling. They were in skirts and high heels, made-up, perfectly coiffed, and wearing expensive jewelry. There was a pleasant hint of perfume in the air that spread like an aura throughout the washroom. We exchanged greetings as they entered and each took a stall. I continued washing my face.

"You ladies are really dressed up for the public washroom this morning!"

"Oh," said one of the ladies as she left her stall, "We're Jehovah Witnesses."

There is usually an internal "uh-oh" response whenever I hear Jehovah Witnesses since they are generally so pesky, all but ramrodding their way through your front door and into your living room. But, of course, I do not have a front door or anything else resembling a house. I decided in that moment to be all the person I am, to be bigger than my reservations, and to stay open and honest.

By now I was brushing my teeth. It seemed a little awkward, but the ladies stayed a while to chat. Most of the chat was about their missionary work. I told them I respect their belief as I do all beliefs, which turned out to be an opening for one of them to ask what my belief was. I told them I am spiritual, that I have outgrown religion, that I love Jesus, but I want to be able to communicate with everyone on the planet regardless of their belief.

My answer elicited a pause; I think it impressed them because no one can honestly deny the need to relate to all people. They may also have been relieved not to have to defend their own belief, as I am sure they meet with plenty of diatribe against the JWs. At any rate, the two well-dressed women took their leave; and I have to say I liked them. My impressions of people include a disaster scenario and whether they could weather a storm with me. I do not want to hear, "I broke my nail!" when we all need to be bailing water. These women were tough on the inside. I could tell.

A few mornings earlier as I had just finished in the washroom, a car drove into the parking lot blaring the sound of the Beatles. So few radio stations play the Beatles anymore and, where I live, no one listens to them. It was unusual. Then my friend, Sheila, pops out of the car and runs over, as usual, lunging at me with an enormous embrace.

Unless by way of a well-honed internal guidance system, I never know how Sheila finds me. She behaved as though she expected to see me right there right then. Even uncannier is the fact that I am not staying out by the yacht club anymore where Sheila last saw me, but further south in Mission Bay.

Sheila's lover is still in jail, and she is pining away. She is pining so much she decided to go back to school to become a nurse, maybe to keep busy. But Sheila always sounds a little drunk, so I am hoping she succeeds despite her boyfriend and the addiction. Unfortunately, because she pops into my life unannounced, I usually have something else to do and must leave her company sooner than I would like. That was the case a few days ago. Sheila is no longer homeless, but she still retains some of the footloose habits that homelessness engenders; and I will see her again.

One of the subtle effects of homelessness over time is to make a person more truly herself. I have been given back to myself through this simple way of life, which has few distractions. I tend to be completely honest, even honest about dishonesty on the rare occasion that I must employ it. One of the most important features of this new integrity has been a progressive ability to be in the present moment much of the time and to make the best of my surroundings and everything in it.

I am no longer fixated.

It is remarkable when I review my life to see how often I denied my reality. I was always waiting for the perfect friend, lover, sister, brother, mother, job, apartment, exercise plan, vacation, and the list goes on. I was in the future and stuck in the past, unable to love what I had; and I am only beginning to enjoy imperfection as the capstone of things rare and extraordinary.

Letting go of fixations --- who can be my friends, who can be my lover or soul mate, who is interesting or not --- has allowed me to accept the things around me and experience them in greater depth and detail. The narrow romantic-love vision of the 1950's household of my childhood no longer applies under my present circumstances and may be, in fact, obsolete. Certainly, if one is looking to live life to the fullest and have the experience of joy, there is no other way but to leave oneself open to the excitement of possibilities and to a childlike fascination with what might happen next.

For example, bird visitations are a regular feature of the outdoor shower at public restrooms. One day, a silly gull perched on the shower wall was behaving just as my beloved, deceased dog would have and seemed to stand guard overhead while I washed. In fact, I came to believe my beloved dead dog was inhabiting a bird body. Fantasy? Magical thinking? Perhaps, but the experience was real and something I will never forget.

Then there are the elusive Bob, Steve "the Wonder," and my girlfriend, Sheila, exotic creatures in their own right. If I look for Bob or Steve or Sheila, I cannot find them. They just appear and our relationships continue, renewed and updated. These people have blessed my life with the richness of their personalities.

There is nurturance in relating to everything around oneself. There is a sense of belonging, a feeling of security, and love that comes with it. It is not just what one gives or what one gets, but the relationship itself, the in-betweenness, that brings joy to me. That third element is what I seek, that subtle energy of life between and among all living things, the gravitational pull that draws us into one strange, wonderful whole.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Near the End, Part II: Happy Court

I would never have believed it could happen.

It was a scene out of one of those perfect-world daydreams. A gentleman walked down the center aisle to ask if anyone were too warm because he would open the windows, a curious thing since the audience consisted of homeless people, not a theatre crowd. The officials of the Court sauntered in, milled around, smiling and relaxed as though they had all just stepped out of a hot bath after hitting the gym.

The two prosecutors were the only exceptions to the otherwise distinctly pleasant atmosphere --- business-like, lonely in their front corner of the room, and glued to the screens of their laptops --- whom, the Public Defender, Steve Binder, asked us all to thank on our way out for their kindness and cooperation. After all, with few if any exceptions, the cases before the judge were dismissed right and left; and that was the happiest judge I have ever seen. Steve believes that judges become judges to have a positive impact on society, and he has no difficulty recruiting them for Homeless Court. One judge is reported to have exclaimed, “This is the most fun I’ve had as a judge!"

It was a great day of victories over the very unimportant intrusions and slights that thrust themselves upon the lives of the homeless.

(Well, of course, I thanked the prosecutors, but neither acknowledged me, a clear invitation which I could not pass up: I thrust my hand out and kept it there. One of them, still looking at her computer screen, finally bothered to shake it since it must have seemed my hand would not go away otherwise. I left the Court amid a profusion of approving smiles, nods, and thumbs-up.)

However, by far the greatest boon to visiting Homeless Court was meeting Steve Binder.

I would like to think that all greatness were measured by Steve Binder's stature. While I believe there has been an increasing lack of concern for the poor and homeless over the past several decades and that there is an entire class of people who are quite conscious of their contempt and act on it, Mr. Binder believes everyone would like to help, but does not know how. And that is why I like him so much. He is good, and he sees the world through that lens.

I interviewed Mr. Binder some time after my Homeless Court date. He told me he liked to hang around the courthouse when he was growing up. He was fascinated by the attorneys, but became deeply impressed with the people who needed them. He observed these men and women, noting their appearance and expressions as they entered and exited the courtroom. It became clear that a day in court could make or break a person, or an entire family. Steve knew he would become a lawyer.

As a San Diego Public Defender, Mr. Binder was one of those who answered the call for legal professionals to participate in the first Stand Down in 1988, a grassroots, community-based event to which volunteers donate their time and expertise to caring for homeless Vietnam veterans. When those participating veterans were interviewed, it was found that the greatest need among them was help with outstanding bench warrants.

A bench warrant is issued by a judge for contempt of court, such as the failure to appear or the failure to pay, which often presents difficulties for the homeless, the underlying assumption being that one has money and means, which are not the usual situation for homeless persons. I have mentioned in other posts how the way back up and into society can be stymied by the status of homelessness itself and how something simple, like an unpaid citation, can exponentially explode over time into more fines, confiscation of one's vehicle, and even arrest. A bench warrant gives law enforcement the authority to arrest and take the subject to jail.

Homelessness can become a fugitive lifestyle.

Moreover, because the homeless are not a protected class, what happens after arrest and jail is anyone's guess. No one has been able to tell me how long a homeless person is incarcerated and where he goes after his release. Presumably, they are back living on the street again, facing the same challenges. However, my friend, Robin, of whom I spoke in previous posts, knew of many incidences of homeless who were "disappeared," that is, never seen again. The isolation of the homeless, their lack of strong family and community ties, may make them prey to criminal elements who operate with impunity for that very reason: no one knows, cares about, or misses the homeless, so they are fair game.

Mr. Binder's innovation was to extend and expand the legal services offered to homeless veterans at Stand Down to all homeless people, making the court system accessible, collaborative, and user-friendly. The Homeless Court Program, begun in 1989, consists of volunteer legal professionals in cooperation with various community-based services that can support the homeless individual's rehabilitation. The Municipal Court judge essentially erases the individual's record by imposing an alternative sentence, such as participation in a recovery program, attending computer classes, and so on. The location of the court, too, is far less imposing, being held in the community, usually in a homeless shelter.

It was a fateful day when I happened to phone the San Diego Municipal Court's Traffic Division and talk to a young clerk there whom I questioned about my options in regard to the most recent, very-pricey citation I had to pay or manage to clear. I summoned the nerve to say I was homeless and that there should be some different standard applied in such a case. She said quite casually, "Well, there's Homeless Court."

"Homeless Court?"


"OK. Where is Homeless Court?"

"Oh, you can't just go there. You have to call the Public Defender's office. You want to talk to Steve Binder."

I was on to the next phone call in an instant and left a message. I left a message the next day and the day after that. I even left a few bold snippy messages. It was a full two weeks before my call was answered.

In the meantime, I thought I would try going into Traffic Court before the set date in the hope of learning from the judge what I could do to lessen the financial burden of the ticket and if the judge could refer me to this thing called Homeless Court. Clearly, I was impatient for an answer, or I would not have tried sitting in the court room.

Picture it: the judge enters wearing the black robes of the legal priesthood, and she sits an entire story above the sinners seated in purgatory. One poor sinner after another comes up to the bench as his name is called and faces the judge. Everyone can hear what the judge and the defendant are saying. No matter what the outcomes, I am embarrassed at hearing about someone else's problems with the law.

After a half-hour of this, I start to cry and cannot stop. The idea of standing before the judge and begging for mercy because I am homeless in front of a hundred other people is mortifying. One of the court officials passes me a box of tissues, but it does nothing to alleviate the fear. All the same, I needed help; so I stand up and approach the bench when I hear my name. I am still crying and can barely remember what it was I intended to ask. The judge completely misreads my intentions and merely postpones my court date. What a relief it was to get a call back from the Public Defender.

The truth is no one benefits by homelessness, which should be treated as an affliction in a healthy society. The legal system suffers from a back log of minor cases and the opprobrium of being dehumanizing and punitive, and the community suffers from having a part of its population inactive and unable to contribute. No one can be happy seeing the homeless at every major intersection in every city of the United States begging for anything we can spare.

Fortunately, Homeless Courts are spreading all over the United States. The Homeless Court Program is transforming the lives of the homeless, as well as transforming the legal system through its working relationships to agencies and services in the community. The community at large is healthier and freer.

Steve Binder, as it turns out, is widely-known and respected and was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2005. Ashoka International recognizes and supports social entrepreneurs across the globe. Ashoka Fellows undergo a stringent selection process based on four criteria: the candidate possesses, first, a new solution to a social problem; secondly, creativity; third, leadership; and, lastly, ethical fiber. The final criterion is weighted more heavily than the others. If there is any doubt about the last quality, the candidate will not pass. So the last question asked in regard to any candidate to the Ashoka Fellowship is "Do you trust this person absolutely?"

I knew nothing of Mr. Binder's reputation when we first met by telephone and in the brief time he acted on my behalf as Public Defender. My own answer to the question above, unequivocally, was and still is "Yes!"

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Readers and fans of Vagabond, I apologize for the hiatus without warning. My computer underwent a major repair one week, and then I spent a week visiting a dear friend. Yes, I, too, was housed, but there is something claustrophic about it. I was happy to return home to life under the palm trees and views of the Bay. I am not sure what that means, to you or me. Perhaps I have gone native in some sense. In any case, I want to assure you that I will be back with a new posting very soon.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Near the End (of Life as We Know It), Part 1

Life, as we know it, that is, in the way most people have structured their reality, begins with a place to live, usually a house, which becomes central. Everything else depends on that: owning a lawn mower, having pets, insurance policies, the dining room set, even having children. And it is difficult to imagine any other circumstance and even harder to create one.

My friend, Bob, when speaking of his buddies, as though apposite to whatever he says, always mentions where they stay. "Tom, he has the white car," Bob starts off, or "John, he has the red van," and so on, just as another person might refer to a house on a certain street. Were we truly able to live outside the cultural stricture of expensive one- and two-story boxes lined up row after row, we would not be living out of our vehicles or, lacking a vehicle, anywhere a person can be left alone.

There would be free zones, commons, or town greens where people could squat and put up a tent or some other temporary structure. That would assume there were open spaces available, though, when every square foot of land, outside of what is owned by the State, is private property, which, by the way, used to be a liberal notion and one greatly appreciated by our peasant forbears. All the same, it would nice to have an alternative to one's vehicle or homeless shelters, which are usually located in paved-over, treeless downtown areas. But, here we are: one is housed or homeless; there is very little in between.

My homeless story starts almost two years ago.

I prefer the short version, in which I say, only, that I prevailed over an incident of domestic violence, ensuing money difficulties, living in an entirely new environment, and the loss of my beautiful dog. I lost much more than I could ever list. Real tragedy is of a high order and brings the curtain down.

Whatever life I had is over. I can now state that with great calm.

Then the crucible of rebuilding, that is, absolutely everything from the ground up, begins. I had to start with my identity. What remained of life for me was unfamiliar, and there was terrible grief over all that was lost, what had been the fabric of my existence. The future, and I mean the next hour, was a blank, as though my lot in life had been reduced to little more than a square centimeter of time and space.

I happened to come across a book in the library that described the strategies of people who had undergone deep losses, much greater than mine, people who had experienced dislocation and deaths of loved ones due to war or natural disaster. One strategy, while simple, turned out to be profound for me: work.

Having a job has been critical to my well-being, as, so often, it has been the only thing close to a normal reality. Working restored faith in my capacity to stay alive and take care of myself. I have treated my job with an unusual respect, though a respect it is clearly due: it has been a lifeline for me. My work affirmed my identity as a highly-social, universally-minded, generous person whom other people tend to like and want to get know.

Coming and going from work has been a movement between planets: that is just how big the gap is between having a job like everybody else and making a home out of my truck, which, try as I may to create routine, often defies it. I sometimes draw a blank just as I am ready to leave work. Of a sudden, I do not know where I am going or what I am doing. I step out into the proverbial void, making things up as I go along, at least, until the alarm goes off the next day and I show up at my job as expected.

My employer, Ellen, likes my strong work ethic and persistence, especially with her. She is known to be demanding and highly critical, but I have passed muster. The evidence of this was on the day I arrived to work on time, as usual, but had been set off by memories of my dog: I could not stop crying. All the loneliness of the world found its ways through my heart. The oceans might have risen an inch or so on that day.

Quite unexpectedly, Ellen took my shoulders. "I love you. I am so grateful you came into my life. You work so hard. You try so hard. I know there is something that bothers you, a burden you carry."

"Ellen, I can go home if you want. I don't want to scare the customers."

"No, it's OK. You go ahead and cry and just be yourself, as you usually do."

So I worked and cried and worked and the day went by.

That episode wove the beginning of a new cloth.

Though I had been employed before meeting Ellen, I had blown that job to bits with a post-traumatic stress outburst. At the same time, I was having difficulties living in the cheapest room I could find, what I could afford, in a house with Navy kids. However, I found I did not have the patience any more for housemates, especially given the work it entailed: clearing the kitchen counter of pizza boxes and beer cans every morning just to have a little room to make breakfast, while listening to the squeak of my shoes sticking to dried beer on the floor. Little wonder, really, that homelessness seemed, if not romantic, at least, redemptive.

Not that living with the American Navy was the only situation. I could, and did, find generous people willing to lend a couch. I might have gone from couch to couch, but I was not handling other people's environments very well. Many people need noise to feel comfortable --- usually the sound of the television in the background. I want to hear the wind, birds, watItalicer, almost anything but that.

Let's say I tried. I did have a place to live after my stint with the Navy kids, for as long as I needed it, in fact, until I knew I could not stand the sound of the box any longer. I decided my truck would provide the most peaceful, quiet, nurturing home for me for as long as it had an engine. There are inconveniences and drawbacks, as I have mentioned in earlier posts, but I get a good night's sleep; and I never feel that I am missing a thing by not having a television.

Now, the way Ellen's job works for me is that I am outdoors in an open-air courtyard. We are on a hillside that always gets a breeze by afternoon. The air is fresh. There are birds and the sweet smell of desert shrubs. The ambience has proven to be salutary for me and, except for the episode of grief described above, I have not had an other post-traumatic stress breakdown.

But, I had very little money when I went homeless, which meant that I could not buy insurance for the truck; and this is just where things can get very sticky if one is living out of one's vehicle. I managed to go quite a while without spending that money until, of course, I was stopped by the highway patrol for something else.

Let me back up, though. In the previous year, I had been stopped on Interstate 5 for speeding. I could not pay that ticket off all at once, so I contacted the Court and asked to make payments. As matters worsened for me, however, I just let it slide; and it came back to me with a vengeance.

Now, over a year later, I owed some terrific amount on that Interstate 5 ticket and had to contact the Judge to ask for some forbearance. In the meanwhile, I had racked up several tickets during a post-traumatic-stress speeding spree. I had tried to pay these citations off during my stay with the Navy, but I was getting overwhelmed. I lacked the money, I needed another job, and I was about to go homeless, a way of life about which I knew nothing, as yet.

That speeding spree was almost funny. I just couldn't seem to drive straight anymore. I had no idea that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) could do that to a person until, out of frustration, I brought the matter up with my therapist who assured me that a lot of quirky things can happen. She practices a weird, simple, and effective psychotherapy called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing or EMDR.

That single appointment ended the crazy driving.

It did not, however, end the world of pain I entered with all the speeding tickets. I wrote and phoned the Sonoma County Court about dropping that five or six citations on the basis that I was having PTSD episodes at the time and I had not incurred another ticket in over six months. Though it took a while to resolve, the Judge there granted my request. The same was not true of the Judge in Fresno who levied a suspension of my driver's license.

The Judge of Traffic Court for Fresno County was unswayed by any argument about stress or a therapist's note to confirm it. Deceased might have worked. All the same, this judge did waive the additional fees, which were substantial, a few hundred here, there, depending on how often he thought I had blown off the Court. $300 per incident.

Now, this may sound strange, but I grew to have some affection for the Fresno Judge. Maybe it's daft, but I think a person really likes me, maybe even loves me, when he can't let go. And it's downright platonic when two people have never even met. This judge was not satisfied until I had spent a significant amount of time calling and writing. In the end, he let me go for $40.

I was negotiating payment with the Fresno Judge by mail, which takes time, of course, when I was stopped by Officer Mink. I was at the stop sign and ready to make the turn off Mission Boulevard that takes me out to the Yacht Club. I was almost home, in other words. I pulled over and watched the officer approach my truck.

"Officer, I don't know why you stopped me."

"You're joking." He seemed genuinely surprised.


"Oh, I thought you were being cynical."

"No. I really don't know why you stopped me."

"The tow ball on the back of your truck is obscuring the license plate," Officer Mink stated, as though tow balls rate right up there with running stop signs and everyone knows that, but me.

"Officer, that tow ball has been there for almost 40 years."

"Well, we need to be able to see the license plate." Then the dreaded moment occurred: he asked to see my driver's license and proof of insurance. I handed Officer Mink my license, which had already been suspended, and an expired insurance card, knowing this was the end of my days as a Ford F-150 desperado and the beginning of a new era.

Officer Mink sat in his patrol car, working out my fate for the next six months or more. He came back to me with ticket pad and pen in hand and asked me to sign it.

"Officer, please don't write me up. You have no idea what kind of trouble this is going to create for me." I was begging. I had just managed to avoid paying close to a thousand dollars in tickets to Sonoma County, and I was not up for an encore.

"I am just days away from having the suspension on my license lifted." My frustration was beginning to turn to tears. "Here," I took out a stack of envelopes, "I can show you the correspondence with the Judge in Fresno." Of course, there was the little matter of driving without insurance, too, for which there was no remedy but to go out and buy some. I was feeling light headed over the imagined cost of that infraction. But Officer Mink was a nice guy. He wasn't going to have my truck towed, which he well could have.

So I signed and sealed my fate with Officer Mink that evening, and the world of pain expanded to a universe. Though I may never know for certain, Officer Mink may have intended to nab me as part of the homeless roundup, the one in which Tom was told to leave for peeing on the beach in plain view of people boating on the Bay.

Tow ball. Sure.

Whatever the case, when the Notice to Appear arrived, there might as well have been trumpets. That piece of paper was stunning, loud with money owed, and, no, I was not eligible for traffic school. I went into a PTSD downward spiral, becoming a nervous wreck, and, finally, had to allow myself to go unconscious by eating and sleeping it off.

Now I was ready to tackle the problem, though not without needing to stop regularly to let go and recharge. The anxiety part of PTSD can make you feel wound up as though you have been running, even in your sleep, even while standing still and doing nothing at all. An accomplishment under this kind of anxiety is having finished just one phone call. Then it may be time to take another nap.

Strange, I know.

Yet, my guess is that there are millions of people with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; how could there not be? And they make life hell for millions of other people. Stressed people are not very nice. I know about this. Add it all up, and there you have the total population of planet earth. It is a wonder there is not more dysfunction than there is, which makes me believe there is a God, and angels and saints in great numbers.

Another frantic day standing still, phoning around for some way out of the huge amount of money owed to the Department of Motor Vehicles, yielded one lead amid an excess of doomsday scenarios proclaimed by government naysayers on my probable fate. The fine would double or triple; I could have my vehicle impounded; and I had X-number of days. It went on like this. Threats.

Our culture is organized around threats, potent threats that are enforced. Most people yield, figuring they cannot afford the time it takes to defend themselves. In my case, I cannot afford to give in: I just don't have the money, and, like it or not, I have to sacrifice my time to stay on the phone, write letters, and research. I was lucky that one day to have been given a lead, a jewel, which might be of help; but I was going to have to track it down.

Homeless Court.

Thursday, April 16, 2009


The wind is blusterous and cold, blowing palm trees, my hair, everything, straight out like windsocks, all pointing east. It is spring, but it feels colder than winter, as spring often does. Wacky weather and strange things tend to happen this time of year.

Sheila visited me while I was doing my toilet yesterday. She bustled into the ladies room like she always does, throwing her arms around me. "There you are! I've been looking everywhere for you! Where've you been?"

"I've been here."

"No you haven't. I've been looking everywhere for you. Where've you been?"

"Sheila, I have been here. I am always here. I always sleep out here."

"No-o-o-o." Sheila drew out the o so that no sounded more like new. "Where were you?"

Sheila does not believe the truth, so I pondered telling a grand lie before choosing the best strategy: I stop responding to the questions. I had to brush my teeth and gargle, anyway, which gave her the chance to tell me she was high.

The occasion was that her boyfriend, Brian, went to jail. Brian is a big man, cheerful, funny, loving. Except when he is drunk, and then he hits people who are not showing him the love back. Sheila is a cute, small-built blonde who likes to have fun. Otherwise, she is depressed and gets angry for no apparent reason. She can make one up.

Sheila was feeling lonely. She mentioned the wedding she and Brian were planning. "Yeah," I said, "if he doesn't kill somebody and go to prison." Now that might have been a joke were it not Brian we were discussing. Sheila suggested I get in her car, and we could drive around, find something to do. I begged out. I had a long list of chores for my day off.

Why alcoholics imagine anyone wants to ride in a car with them puzzles me. Sheila and Brian would usually offer to take me somewhere with them while they were not only drunk, but arguing. But that was last summer, when I was new to homelessness. Still, I am not one to risk my life for friendship.

I grew fond of Sheila and Brian. They were close to normal, except for the drinking. She drove a new Audi and wore nice clothing. So did Brian. They were both used to working and having money. I drove into the parking lot next to the restroom one summer day and happened to take the parking space next to theirs. They had the windows down in the Audi, the better to enjoy the fresh air off the Bay.

They spoke to me and introduced themselves, finally getting around to asking if I were homeless. They had seen me around the washroom at the Yacht Club. It was my first close encounter with other homeless people, and it went a long way to easing the estrangement I felt. To this day, I am grateful for Sheila and Brian's presence in my life then. Sheila finally received a long-awaited settlement from a former employer and went on to find a house to rent.

"Why are you doing this to yourself?" Sheila's words encompassed the space we were standing in and were meant to ding every corner of my life, with which, fortunate for me, she had no familiarity. Still, I did not want to hear aspersions cast on my truck, my favorite washroom, the Yacht Club parking lot.

"Look at me . . . I have a place to live! If I can do it, you can do it!" Sheila meant well with the motivational, strong talk.

Finished gargling, I turned to speak to Sheila. I had planned to change the subject, but she wasn't there. I looked around, stepped out of the washroom. Her car was gone. That is the way of many people I have met who are, or have been, homeless. Here. Gone.

I can't say when I might see Sheila again. The same with Bob, for example. If I look for him, I can't find him. He finds me. The day before Sheila's appearance, I was just getting out of my truck to do my morning ritual when Bob showed up on his bicycle.

"Hey, Bob! Where's the truck?"

"Oh, they took my truck," he said slowly, resigned, with his usual composure. Having one's vehicle taken is quite serious for the homeless. It takes homelessness to a deeper, lower level. It means sleeping outdoors and makes the logistics for working and making money next to impossible. It spells the end of life as we know it.


"I got a DUI."

"Oh." I was let down. I was ready to defend Bob, but there is no defending anyone who is a serious risk to others. Still, it was odd because, while Bob certainly drinks, he does not drink and drive. He knows better.

"Where are you sleeping?"

Bob must have told me where he was sleeping, but I didn't quite hear it. The idea of Bob sleeping outdoors made me feel sad, and my mind was fogging over.

"How are you staying warm?"

"Oh, I'm warm enough. I have a blanket . . ." Bob's voice trailed off in my mind. I had stopped listening. I had nowhere to go with what Bob was telling me. Losing the truck would mean he was over the edge. No way up from there.

"Oh, I went to the doctor, too," Bob said in his offhand style. "I have cancer."

Bob went on, but we might as well have been under water. He pulled a paper out of his jacket and handed it to me --- a medical report with a short, intimidating list: leukemia, hepatitis, impaired immune system.

Bob also had a doctor's Rx that prescribed a daily bath and staying away from shelters to minimize exposure to cold or flu. Some half-buried part of me, now lying on the bottom of the Bay, wanted to scream with laughter about the daily bath. I wondered how this doctor imagined Bob would do that, and I wanted to tease Bob about it; but I could not resurrect my humor.

I felt very tired all of a sudden and turned the topic to lighten things up.

"It's a good thing you had your bike."

"Oh, you haven't seen this one. This one's new." Bob paused here. "I stole it."

Bob doesn't steal, either, so the bike was a matter of conscience for him. "I can't handle a bike now without a lot of gears. I get too tired. This is a $700 bike. I figure if the guy can afford this, he can afford another one."

I offered some forgiveness, which I knew Bob would appreciate.

"I'll send up a prayer for the person whose bike you took, Bob. Maybe he didn't even miss it. Maybe he forgot he had a bike like that."

"Yeah . . . well, I needed it."

The conversation dwindled to a chat, and I excused myself for work.

The wind was cold and carrying sand. There were high clouds skittering overhead. I sat back and started up the truck. Driving along South Shores, the view is a lonely desert, palms trees here and there. I thought, and quite a departure from the past few days, what a silly word, daffodil. Once upon a time, a girl might be named Lily, Iris, Rose, Daisy, but never Daffodil. The Elizabethans called the flower, daffodilly or daffodowndill. Sometimes primrose peereless.

I could imagine being a Primrose Peereless, a new companion to Avenger, Jonathan Steed, off to save the world from diabolical schemers.

A scene came to mind just then. As a child, I had often seen daffodils sprung up from the frosty ground, sometimes in snow. They were always in bloom at Easter, and along the trip to church, both sides of the road would be strewn with their bobbing, bright, yellow heads, the only sunshine amid a gray and white landscape.

The magical, numinous sight of the daffodils of my memory lifted my heart. That silly word alone was a relief. There are so many questions for which I have no answers. I am coming to think there are no questions: just things that happen. In place of answers, this time, I found wonder.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Hang the Bankers!

"Capitalism isn't working!" was only one of the cries that went up from crowds in the streets this morning in London where the G-20 nations are holding their world economic summit. I especially liked, "Hang the bankers!" I was amused, but it really isn't funny.

It is a marvel that so many of us managed to survive the past thirty years, that is, since the Reagan Revolution. Any pay raises at work were nullified by a raise in taxes on middle-to-lower income earners, as well as company decisions to drop medical benefits and even the smallest perk, such as a paid, hour lunchtime.

Hardly anyone remembers the good old days when work was a 9-to-5 and there was an entire hour for lunch. Now, work starts at 8:30 a.m. to offset a half-hour, unpaid lunchtime, and business still closes at 5 p.m. so that employees get in a full eight hours. To wit, we spent more time at work making less money.

Meanwhile, the cost of living never stopped going up; and the credit card industry was filling in the gaps. We were made poorer as we just could not keep up unless we used credit to pay, especially medical bills. And then the credit card companies began to raise fees and add fees, especially late fees; and there was nowhere to go with a complaint. By the time the credit card industry got competitive, most of us were already awash in debt. I remember paying off several credit card balances with other credit cards, paying off debt with another debt.

No, I did not know how that made sense, but I was not a business person. I remember one financial expert claiming years ago that our financial system was far sturdier and more resilient than it was before the Great Depression, that there were mechanisms, some sort of interdependence among financial institutions, that made it bust-proof. I had no idea what he meant, but it was also the era of the then-new, high-yield debt instruments, a.k.a junk bonds, created by financial wunderkind, Michael Milken.

Because of Reagan-era deregulation, banks could issue credit and operate as investment banking houses. Real estate firms, insurance, and title companies could behave like banks. Every and all sorts of companies could issue credit cards. Venerable companies like General Electric became better known for their financial services. Prudential Insurance became Pru-Bache. What monies the insurance companies did not want to pay in claims enriched their investment portfolios.

Many homeowners were making their mortgage payments to a different institution every three or four months, many removes from the institution that originally held the paper. Their mortgage had been swapped, that is, bundled up with other mortgages, some good, some not, and sold like a security to another banking firm. Except that someone made money off someone else's debt, no one knows what that really means, especially, now, with the trouble we are in.

The cost of insurance kept rising, too, but it came to seem more like protection money. There were always reasons why the insurance companies, behaving more like the Mob, did not want to pay out; and with each auto accident or trip to the hospital, rates went up. So despite insurance, one could not have an accident or get ill. It was simple usury and certainly racketeering, and where insurance was involved with the State, collusion.

Tuition went up for both public and private schools, at the same time there was less financial aid, unless one wanted to take out a loan. Then Congress got angry at those people who were not paying back their loans, whom they claimed were all doctors and lawyers. Now you could default on your student loan, but the debt would never go away: it would alway have a spot on your credit report. And it would die when you do, and that part is thanks to President Clinton. Otherwise, your children's children would have been reaping sour grapes from the U.S. Department of Education.

Still, I lived a prosperous life. I had a new car, a nice house, clothing, jewelry. And a mountain of debt, which did not seem to matter. It was the American way.

Of course, I could never stop working. Or juggling.

These days, I just have a lot less to juggle. While all that credit was floated over the past thirty years, social services of every kind were cut. Slashed, really. What that means for me now is that I get any public aid in piecemeal fashion. If I have food stamps, I get less of something else. If I have more unemployment or disability monies, I get less food stamps. The aid is not cumulative in a way that a person could reach financial stability and move on and up. One merely teeters.

But, I am resourceful and in good health. And I do not really want to hang the bankers. Honestly, if swapping nothing is considered to be capital, I don't know whether capitalism works or not. I'm not sure we were even practicing capitalism, as such. I do like what money buys and would be woefully unhappy in a Marxist state where there were no department stores where I could try on new dresses, shoes, and jewelry, no matter that I could not afford them, and no array of cosmetics and make-up counters.

That sounds like sheer frivolity, but we are going to need to commit simple acts of levity to keep our heads up and to feel like staying above ground.