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Friday, January 30, 2009

Part 2: It's OK to Be Homeless!

There are some particular items that are necessary to making homelessness feel comfortable and decent, even making it a lifestyle. As I mentioned earlier, one needs a cell phone; but a cell phone must be recharged. I had been recharging my cell phone on the City's dime whenever I found a public washroom with an outlet. However, one day I plugged in my phone and nothing happened. So, be aware that City workers know who you are and may not, on principle, agree with you siphoning off City electricity.

So, it was on to the cyber-cafes, coffee shops that offer customers free outlets, where I could recharge my cell phone and get online. But gasoline was going up and hovering at around four dollars a gallon, so travelling hither and yon to plug in was getting expensive and nearing out-of-reach. It occurred to me that Radio Shack might have a whatchamacallit, and I trusted the young man at the counter would not only be patient, but clairvoyant.

Indeed, the gizmo I wanted is known as an "inverter," which plugs into a vehicle's cigarette lighter and delivers electricity from the battery to your cell phone --- or lamp (so long as you use the new compact fluorescent, instead of the old-style light bulb). I mention this because my old vehicle lost its interior lighting a long time ago.

And, thus, the experience of homelessness evolves.

It took months to come to the idea of visiting Radio Shack, even though it would seem absurdly obvious. There is so much else on one's mind, though, and not all of it good. I suppose, too, at first, I was trying to use just whatever I had available: I was doing crossword puzzles by flashlight for a very long time, holding the crossword book and flashlight in one hand and pen in the other. Of course, doing crossword puzzles is a longstanding, comforting habit, which, as such, was important in itself. It takes a while emotionally to settle in and feel at ease with oneself under conditions regarded as culturally extreme.

A radio is handy, too. Of course, your vehicle probably already has one; mine doesn't, so I cannot adequately express my sense of accomplishment in finding a pocket-size, digital AM-FM for ten bucks at Long's Drug. Having a computer with portability, like a laptop, or maybe one of those new cell phones that connects to the internet is also recommended as the general idea here is to stay connected in as many ways as possible, in this case, to the nation's social and political discussion. After all, homelessness is a current issue, and the homeless are being discussed.

It gave me an odd feeling a few weeks ago hearing myself talked about, in a sense, in the third person while I was present and listening. I was tuned into a local public radio program on the homeless. It was all about what to do with us. The members of the panel, of course, were informed and the callers-in well-meaning, but they may as well have been talking about feral cats or stranded whales. It would be nice, somehow, to get across to the general public, but especially to policy-makers, that the homeless are a wide swath of sundry persons. I cannot stress this enough. My fear is that I/we could end up in internment camps or, even worse, high-rise projects. After all, it took a lot of well-meaning people to create Cabrini-Green.

My fear is not baseless. A few months ago, I attended Homeless Court (more on this later), which is hosted by St. Vincent de Paul Village. Now, no one in her right mind would pick a bone with Father Joe's Village, as it truly is a leader in providing services to many homeless people and probably the best care available for homeless families. But imagine this for a moment: here I am, dressed to the nines for a day in court --- skirt, heels, jewelry, make-up --- when, nervous about facing the judge, I needed to find a lady's room. I am directed down one hallway to another, where I pass a long folding table with rows of tiny, thimble-sized paper cups on top. There are labels taped to the table at the head of each row that read, "Soap," "Mouthwash," "Toothpaste," "Lotion," and so on. I am stunned.

My mind is a jumble for a few seconds as I take in the scene. When I can finally sort out one thought, it is an exclamation: wow, I use a whole lot more soap, shampoo, toothpaste, you-name-it, than what is in those little paper cups! Then I notice there are two women sitting behind the table who are not smiling and who seem to be guarding the tiny cups. They are not, apparently, there to greet people. So I am wondering what kind of reception I would get if I took two or, God help me, three of those tiny cups. I would probably need, at least, four of those cups with shampoo. In a few seconds, I have done the math and now wonder if toiletries are portioned due to shortage, wastage, or shrinkage, to borrow the business euphemism for theft, or all three.

Up ahead, in front of me, I see a cafeteria with tables for two and four and a few people eating. A glance to the right, and there is another table with tiny cups and men sitting behind it. I realize I am probably in the Day Center where the homeless can get a hot meal and a shower. Finally, at the end of the table and behind it to the left, I spot the lady's room. My relief to get away from the scene I have just walked through is quickly supplanted by a much weirder experience.

There are a number of women in the lady's room, which has a row of sinks, toilet stalls, and an open shower area. There is a woman showering and another getting dressed, both in full view, and I am feeling a bit embarrassed at my intrusion on their privacy. There is another woman seated, dressed, and staring out, but she does not seem to see me. There are two or three women using the sinks, but no one looks up. No one glances from the mirror. I wash my hands, then turn to the dispenser for paper towel --- empty. I make a comment, something brief and chatty, but no one responds. No one turns around.

I am in a deaf, mute world; and I am invisible.

I choose a stall and, as is my custom, I look first for the toilet-seat covers, but there are none; they are not provided. My fallback is to lay paper down on the seat, but the toilet paper comes off the roll one sheet at a time, not in a strip. So I squat and do my best not to make drops on the seat. I am working hard, at the same time, to collect enough single sheets to wipe dry. It occurs to me how much I love toilet paper, all paper, every kind, and that I use a lot of it. Then, I exit this corner of hell as quickly as I can without running.

I cannot seem to get enough oxygen until I am well past the tiny-cup tables; but those images, what they mean, what they imply, have haunted me ever since. I go over the particulars in my memory in an attempt to understand them and to allow the numbing fear to trickle in slowly; for I think they mean something I do not want to know: loss beyond sanity's threshold.

Safe beyond the prison-like atmosphere of the Day Center, back in my truck and in a reflective mood, I head home. I drive out to a spot where the San Diego River meets the Pacific and watch the sunny, late afternoon turn to early evening. The fog billows gently, slowly, in from sea, to cover everything like a blanket. The air cools, and the breeze strengthens. Yes, this is home.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

It's OK to Be Homeless!

Having just read one of the most tragic news reports --- a Los Angeles-area couple decided to kill themselves and their five children because of fears over job loss and homelessness --- I must tell you that homelessness, while certainly not everything a person could want, is wonderfully freeing.

One needs very little, outside of a cell phone, a vehicle, and some money to keep it rolling. A cell phone is absolutely necessary for staying safely on the road and in contact with friends and family. Family can sometimes be too far away, as in my case, so one of my best pieces of advice to anyone homeless is "Make friends." They do not need to fit the best-friend category, either. Just make a point of saying hello to others and being open to whomever approachs you. The idea here is to stay connected.

One of my dearest new friends is Bob. I was a newcomer to homelessness when Bob approached my truck. I rolled up the window and locked the door because Bob stares while he is walking toward you and appears not to blink. Ever. I was a little frightened, but Bob planted himself right next to the door and spoke through the glass like nothing was the matter.

"Well, what do you think? I shaved off my mustache."

Bob speaks in a western idiom, delivering slow, deliberate stress to key words, like John Wayne. He was obviously proud of his new look, and his question had the innocent appeal of a child. I got the impression, too, that Bob was not going to move until I responded. Having known Bob for almost a year now, I can say he would have stood there, in that same spot, talking to himself, answering his own questions, had I decided to back the truck out and leave.

"Yes, that looks nice."

"I see you out here. My name's Bob . . ."

And that is how our friendship started. I love Bob, though in a way quite unexpected. Living alone and homeless, one has countless hours to ponder life, how things happen, or don't, why things happen, or don't. I have had some very low days when all the weight of my losses in the past few years have visited and nagged me into deep sorrow. Then, somehow, Bob shows up and starts talking. Quite out of the blue. And Bob talks and talks and sometimes repeats himself in this John-Wayne voice. He can be struck funny all of a sudden and take me with him on a wave of laugher.

I have been endlessly amused by Bob, and I have come to believe he is a personal blessing upon my own little life. He has helped me make peace with God after so many losses that I was not sure who I was and suicide was always on the back of my mind as a possible option. I thought, were there Suicide Centers where one could volunteer as Malthusians propose, I would gladly turn myself in for lack of a reason to live and to make space for someone else. I am now able to see the virtue in persistence and riding out emotional and mental difficulty even when there is no end in sight, which, I believe, is otherwise known simply as faith.

However, I have not been without help from others. I sought help, and I urge anyone faced with tremendous losses to persist, do your best to find your way, and a way will open up. Please, do not take the first and most convenient idea that pops into your head. Allow yourself time to rest and sleep and eat whenever you need to do so. Dare to ask strangers for money if you need it. I give small amounts of money away all the time to people who ask. Do whatever it takes, but take it easy on yourself.

I am not going to tell you to think positively, which is, more than likely, impossible; but allow yourself to think magically for a while about this part of your life being only a part, not the whole and certainly not the sum. It is a very old, bumpy, dirt road, washed out in places, and it is still storming; but allow yourself to believe that this ancient road was taken by many people in the past throughout all human history. You are not alone, and, besides, someone has to do it. Someone has to walk this way and tell others about it.

Imagine, too, that this path is not for everybody because, truthfully, it isn't. Only those destined to deep understanding and compassion can walk this way. Perhaps you were chosen to walk here by the most benevolent force in the universe, picked as one of its very own. These are the kinds of thoughts I ask you to try out. They feel better than most of the thoughts you are going to have for a while, so let yourself go to sleep at night thinking about the Love that put you in this place, what that Love is, and how Love is possible. These are really the only thoughts worth spending any time with.

My friend, Bob, drinks and says he is never going to stop. He thinks about his three wives, unable to sleep at night, unless he drinks. Bob is a marginally-functional alcoholic: he works on his truck, listens to the radio, watches a tiny television, goes "canning" (the term used for picking up cans and bottles for recycling to get cash), and naps. He socializes and eats at a local church on Wednesday nights. The rest of the week he eats out of the garbage; and from what he has shown me, he eats rather well. Bob has no money unless he "cans," though he tells me he has applied for government money.

Bob has been homeless for a very long time and homeless in Mission Beach for five years. He has had trouble keeping his vehicle insured and registered and has been rousted out of parking spaces many times by the local police. Still, the police have also been kind to ignore Bob most of the time and not tow his truck when they legally could. As Bob says (in that voice), "You gotta sleep somewhere"; but the police have a set of rules to enforce and not everyone is so lucky. I will have more to say on this later.

So what should our attitude be toward Bob? Is Bob worthless because he does not work a regular job and has a limited ability to care for himself? Is Bob worthless, too, because he cannot take care of anyone else? He is worthless because he represents the wrong kind of statistic? I can tell you that Bob has great value to me, infinite and immense value, as a gift from the benevolent force of the universe; and there is no amount of money that can equal the value of this one soul --- or anyone else's. It is my hope that, as a nation and a culture, we can overcome our obsession with money and everything that it buys. I hope we can grow beyond the crudeness and obscenity of placing money over people because the truth is we are our brothers' keeper.

In the next installments, I will continue the discussion on the freedom provided by homelessness and what one needs to conduct a happy, homeless life.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Activities of the Homeless

Many of the homeless drink and smoke. I part company rather quickly with this category of person, homeless or not, because it makes for very sloppy living; and, to be honest, none of us is at liberty on this planet to destroy someone else's air, nor is one at leisure to be addlepated in tough times. Staying clear headed is hard enough with the logistics of homelessness. It takes practice to stay alert under trying conditions.

Let's take a typical morning for me.

First of all, cars doors are slamming in the parking lot . . . slam, slam, slam, slam (a car that was full front and back) . . . slam, slam, (a driver and a passenger) . . . slam, slam, slam, slam . . . and so on, at around 6:00 a.m. These are the college kids who have come out to the Bay for their rowing classes. Then, there are the herd sounds, the tromping of feet and a cacophony of voices as flocks of young males and females make their way to the boat house. I tuck myself a little deeper into the bench seat of my truck and wait for my cell-phone alarm.

When the cell phone plays, I know it is 7:00 a.m. and time to sit up, brush my hair, pack up the bed clothes and window covers, and fit them neatly stacked on the passenger-side of the vehicle. I slip my shoes on and start the engine. I used to drive over to the nearest public washroom, just a few yards away and nearer to the boat house. Now I drive 3 or 4 miles to get a quieter public washroom and parking lot. Too many people about, first thing, rattles my nerves.

Once parked at the other public washroom, I hop out and go to the rear of my vehicle for a duffle bag in which I keep toiletries, a towel, and the next day's clothing. I sometimes have to compete with City workers for the space, as this is their time of day for cleaning the public washrooms. They are usually accommodating, though; and if I wait for them to finish up, it is only a few minutes.

The public washrooms everywhere at the beach are the height of convenience and always clean. There are two rooms, the shower area and the toilets. I proceed to empty my chamber pot, wash up in the sink, brush teeth, and get out of my sleepwear and into day clothing, using the bench seating in the open-air shower room to hold my duffle. If it is raining, I am confined to the room where the toilets are and use the other sink (there are usually two) to hold my bag. Fortunately, most of the time, there are not other people using the public restrooms early in the morning, even in tourist season.

Still, even so --- and it does happen that company shows up, and I am there nude from the waist up and brushing my teeth --- one must overcome any sense that what one is doing is anything less than normal, for it is perfectly right, given the circumstance. It takes practice, however, to be truly humble before the facts: this is how I live, and these things are what I do to get along each and every day for right now. It takes more than an ounce of forgiveness, too, both of oneself and other people whose thoughts about how you may be inconveniencing them are palpable. Of course, it is also easy to impose these thoughts on others when, in fact, oftentimes, most people are too caught up in their own lives to care anything about me; and that is a good thing. I have not decided yet whether the need for privacy is innate or cultural, and it may well be both. It is certain, though, there is discomfort in doing in public what most people are accustomed to doing in private and expect everyone else to be doing in private, as well.

Be that as it may, I can get tired at times of the public-restroom routine. Some days, like everyone else, I want to sleep in and stay home. On occasion, I do sleep until 9:00 a.m. and, except for need of the toilet, I would stay in my truck even longer; but one does not want to tempt the neighbors who live in houses and who will call the police to roust the homeless from their living-room view of the Bay. I will address that topic in days to come.

On with my day, I either go to work as scheduled at the Old Town Market; or it is a day off for me. If I must work, my day clothing will be my Mexican-style, long skirt with matching blouse and a poncho. I get back in my vehicle and drive to the nearest spot where I can get hot water for my tea mug, in this case, the Middle-Eastern gas station. Now, mind you, all this and not yet a drop of hot liquid. Really, I have never before in my life spent so much time awake in the morning without the benefit of a cup of coffee or tea; but one adapts. I now think if the end of the world comes (of course, it is on its way), I will be perfectly awake for it and able to help others if the water does not rise too fast and swallow us all first or we are not all instantly atomized. I was so incapable once of even walking without wobbling if I had not first had a hot, caffeinated drink that I now think going without for over an hour is heroic, and I cherish my fantasy of saving people while others, addicted to immediately gratifying their habit, are still brain-dead.

Once I have picked up hot water for my tea bags, I visit the "breakfast nook," a quiet spot with a view of two bridges and both the south and east shores of Mission Bay. Here I prepare my food. I do not yet have a cooler and may not purchase one simply because the back of my truck is just too crowded already. One learns to haul as little as possible because things cannot be out, that is, neatly arranged on shelves or in closets. Belongings have to be boxed and labeled to travel easily. Still, what one needs most must be accessible, very much at hand, and near the very back of the truck. Of course, not everything can fit right at the very end of the truck near the tailgate, so one learns to be selective and practical. For instance, my portable beach chair, given that it is winter, is more toward the front; and I have to climb into the back of the truck to retrieve it. The same goes for the sewing kit; little-used bathroom items, like the hair dryer, heating pad, and water bottle; cookbooks (which I could not bring myself to give up); and clothing, shoes, and handbags that are out of season.

Breakfast consists of an Ezekiel bread sandwich: one side is slathered with a mixture of Vegannaise and stone-ground mustard, the other with crunchy peanut butter. In between, I stack finely-chopped vegetables and baby romaine. Wow. So good. Then a few, long sips of black tea with turbinado and soy creamer. I am sorry to say, however, that my vegetables come in bags, as I cannot imagine taking the time to clean, dry, and cut vegetables in a public restroom, any more than I can imagine washing my clothes in Mission Bay.

Now, once in a while, I take myself out for breakfast to eat eggs, which I truly miss and believe make the best breakfast on earth. I am also fond of New York-style bagels, that is, boiled, not baked; but I try to control my love of this type of carbohydrate. I also do not like spending too much money, as I need to pay for the cell phone, truck repairs, and make-up.

Yes, I said "make-up." I cannot believe it, either, that I love make-up so much that it is a priority, as are the occasional trips out to Macy's to the make-up counters of Lancome and Benefit. I brouse other cosmetics makers, but I have used Lancome for decades and have a love affair going with Benefit's line of fun, feel-good creams and lotions. Recently, I bought what looks like a pink tool box for all my cosmetics, as I was tired of pulling out one bag and another, trying to find where I stashed the lip liner. So part of the washroom stop in the morning, after I have cleaned up and dressed, involves switching the duffle for the tool box. The make-up process takes around ten to fifteen minutes, but it is a favorite thing that absorbs me utterly. I cannot imagine under what circumstances I would be willing to give up this part of civilized living.

As for work, I cannot stress how important it is for someone who is homeless. Not only does one need some amount of money, but one needs to stay connected to the rest of the world, if for no other reason than to continue to believe in the basic goodness of people and oneself, not the least. I am not paid a lot, but, for once, I do not care: it is the doing that is important. It is the giving of the best of myself to others, including my employer, that really matters. I will talk more on this at a later time. For now, let me explain that I spend no more than six hours on the job, as this is my practical, emotional limit. Beyond that, a job becomes hard to do, and most people get neurotic and must indulge some kind of addiction to bear it.

After work, I do the regular chores of grocery shopping, checking my post office box, reading and answering email, making phone calls, writing up lists of things to do, and preparing for the next day. I am able to manage my life with some ease and to stay in touch with friends and family, on the main, because I have a vehicle, for which I am eternally grateful; and I have more to say on this point later.

My evenings are spent, at least for now, in winter, in my truck, reading, doing a crossword puzzle, or listening to the news or music on my small, ten-dollar radio. Evenings on the Bay are quiet and relaxing. There is rarely anyone else around, so slipping into the public washroom near the boat house for an evening shower with the starry sky overhead and the sound of ocean birds is wondrous. I try to imagine what it would cost to buy a house that had an outdoor, open-to-the-sky shower room, and I count myself fortunate to have such a place available to me. As the cold water warms me inside, I look up to see palm trees wave in the breeze, gulls flying overhead, and the night of stars that will soon watch over me as I sleep.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Cold Water Won't Hurt You

My daily ablutions are done in very cold water in the public restrooms. I feel lucky to live in a clime where, though temperatures can be cold, freezing weather is unusual. Still, it is a brisk experience to wash up in the morning and take an evening shower in cold water. There are, though, some healthy benefits to it.

For instance, I have not had a cold or flu yet this winter. Having become somewhat inured to cold, I believe I have boosted my immune system by outdoor bathing. After all, germs enjoy warmth, and there is little of that in the public washrooms. There is also a wonderful internal sensation of warmth throughout the interior of my body after being in cold water for a while. This phenomenon has been noted by ascetics from around the world for centuries. There are also a number of health resorts that utilize both extremely cold water and area hot mineral springs to supply bathing pools for visitors who want an unusual, touted-as-healthy challenge during their stay. Harbin Hot Springs in Northern California is one such place. I have been there, and I did that.

Years ago, when I was a Moonie, the Japanese were taking cold showers regularly and chanting prayers. I was a bit scared in case anyone should suggest that I do the same, which, thankfully, no one did. I needed a form of penance, of course, as proving one's faith was a rule in this celibate community, but I stuck with fasting.

But, now, cold water every day?

I am wondering if I will ever return to the hot bath. Let's put it this way: I do not need a hot bath. I used to luxuriate in a regular bubble bath with scented oils. I did enjoy them, accompanied by symphonic music, a cool glass of water, and a good book. However, I did not like sweating and then feeling a chill afterwards. I did not like the water growing gradually tepid while I was in the tub, either, and having to empty and refill the tub at the same time. That was a lot of work. Languor had set in, and I was good for nothing but sleep.

After a cold shower in cold air, I could enjoy a walk, as I am alert, though I would not go so far as to say I would run a mile, which does not appeal to my temperament. Rather, I head back to my vehicle and prepare for bed. I feel gently awake, but relaxed and fall asleep easily.

Of course, I have a vehicle, which makes me wealthy among the homeless. I can get toasty warm in my truck after I have washed my hair, which is truly a luxury in the winter months. I am far better off because of owning a vehicle, and this is an entirely other topic.