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Thursday, February 26, 2009

Part 2: Love Calls Us to the Things of This World

Love is a terrible thing, terrible in its obligations, terrible in its joys.

Most of the mistakes I have ever made --- and I mean the really big ones --- were on account of love. That is not easy to admit since it is our tendency to find someone else to blame, and it is truly bitter, and not a little annoying, to discover there is no one else to hold responsible.

But mistakes are really only outcomes we do not like and probably did not expect, but the possibility was always there. And that really hurts. It hurts to betray oneself, even when, especially when, it is inadvertent; and so unadmitted mistakes become the seed of discord with someone else --- the usual suspect --- for years and years to come.

Your mother, brother, sister, or lover just happened to be around at the time and was a firsthand witness to your own stupidity. It really wasn't their fault, even if they set the trap into which you waltzed. Anyway, how could they know it was your particular trap? Think about it, and do not say "karma."

Indeed, with a little perspective, it is possible to see the usual suspect's role in your high drama as an ultimate act of love. Somebody had to do it. Betrayal is a deep lesson in life, and not everyone has the special qualifies needed to play the foil. Think of the sacrifice the other person had to make: you come off as the hero, and they are the villain of the piece. What a dreadful price to pay to be your friend (or mother, brother, sister, lover).

One of my tasks on the lonely bay in my old truck is to remember whose mistakes they really were and get all the knots and threads untangled. I want to become familiar with my mistakes. I want to love them so that I no longer cower at their memory. I no longer want to be enslaved by regrets, resentment, estrangements, and the strictures of my own heart that are so near and hard to see. In short, I am working on my blind spots.

Being homeless, I am relatively free to pursue such contemplations. I am not sure I could jump into the crevasse under different circumstances, and I am afraid not to explore the chasms of my psyche, lest I make another big mistake. Mind you, I am still recovering from the last one, which really brought the curtain down, a Hamletesque, complete disaster.

My truck is safer.

My truck is not real life. It is a sanctuary, and I want to keep it that way for a while.

Love Calls Us to the Things of This World

OK. It's what I deserve for having well-educated friends and one who is a professor of English and a fine poet, too.

If you did not catch the glaring reference to (or theft from, as someone might say) Richard Wilbur, then I will fill you in right now. Richard Wilbur, the 1987-88 Poet Laureate of the United States, wrote one of my favorite poems that describes a unique contemplation on the human condition in the form of that everyday routine of getting up in the morning.

In my last blog entry, the paragraph in question is the penultimate, in which I describe my "astounded" soul's reentry into the "waking body." Yes, words I lifted, on purpose, from Richard Wilbur. The comparison between my own experience and Wilbur's elegant, beautiful poem was all too clear to me and, hence, seductive. And we all know that "bitter love."

For the benefit of my readers, I include the poem here. But, stay alert --- I know someone will --- to other barely-concealed, or should I say, bald borrowings:

Love Calls Us to the Things of This World

The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
and spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
hangs for a moment bodiless and simple
as false dawn.
Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.
Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,
some are in smocks: but truly there they are.
Now they are rising together in calm swells
of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear
with the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;

Now they are flying in place, conveying
the terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving
and staying like white water; and now of a sudden
they swoon down in so rapt a quiet
that nobody seems to be there.
The soul shrinks

from all that it is about to remember,
from the punctual rape of every blessed day,
and cries,
"Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,
nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
and clear dances done in the sight of heaven."

Yet, as the sun acknowledges
with a warm look the world's hunks and colors,
the soul descends once more in bitter love
to accept the waking body, saying now
in a changed voice as the man yawns and rises,

"Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;
let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;
let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,
and the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating
of dark habits,
keeping their difficult balance."

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


Biologists consider privacy to be a psychological necessity for humans. As much as we need other people, they say, we also need time away. Privacy is essential for peace of mind, establishing a sense of control, and maintaining personal identity. I cannot say I understand all this, but, clearly, it is my experience that I want privacy, even in small ways, and feel the need for it at times when it is impossible to have.

Often, I will go out of my way to avoid people, especially in the morning. Once in a while, I will meet someone who is not homeless in the ladies' room. This morning, it was an elderly woman who was bicycling with a friend and needed to make a stop. She was confused at first by the shower room and then figured out that the toilets were through the next doorway. She spoke as she went, rather loudly, the way old women do when they are nervous and have led sheltered, married lives. She was congenial, but I was busy, the way she probably was earlier that same morning at home in her pajamas. Few of us are disposed to conversation while we are doing our toilette.

I have learned to forgive myself for what I would otherwise consider rude behavior, and I do regret that I cannot, at all times, hold up my end. I said nothing at all to the elderly lady. I just went on doing what I had to do. She did not know it, but she was on my private time.

"Putting on your face" is the term my Great Aunt Posie would have used, and the phrase was pure poetry to me for all it implied. It carries several meanings --- the application of make-up, the psychological preparation for the day ahead, an awareness of one's role or image, and a consideration of how one intends to present oneself, the persona or mask. There is also a sense of privacy inherent in the term, as one may remain unrevealed behind the mask. What a curious phrase it is and, like the fan, an artifact of a bygone era for women.

But maybe not.

The use of make-up is enjoyable to me. It is one of the ways I care for myself, but it is still a mask; and that mask is intended to cover (and this is not easy to admit) the signs of age. I want certain spots and wrinkles to remain unseen, hidden to all but a few people whose preserve it is to know my soul. Make-up gives me a modicum of privacy. Make-up may be even more important now that I am homeless. There is a certain anonymity with it, too, since I appear to be of that class of women with which I most identify. And they are not homeless.

Oddly, I am anonymous when I eat out, shop, see a movie, and go to work. Anonymity is its own strange kind of privacy in that I am among other people, doing things not so differently from the next person. It is a way of hiding without having to hide. It is often relaxing, in fact.

Curiously, and it amuses me, I see the crabby old man when I am eating out. He frequents the same little neighborhood cafe. I see him walking. I see him passing by in his car, and the last time I waved, he waved back, which made me believe he might some day be inclined to a decent conversation. After all, he is an insider.

But in the mornings, the most difficult time of day, when there is no place to be anonymous, my astounded soul must take the most gradual descend into the waking body, having been spirited from a sleep in which my dreaming is far, far away from the earthly realm. If there is a time when one must wrest control and lay hold of one's identity, it is certainly then as we begin, again, the strange navigation of everyday reality.

There is a moment, too, when I am about to leave work, that I wonder where I am going. It is as though work were a coherent dream in a peaceful sleep and I am about to enter another waking state. I am disoriented for a few seconds as I grapple with my homelessness and make peace with it all over again. Once back at the truck, having made a myriad of small decisions on my way there, since there is very little that is automatic or routine about homelessness, I am again willing to make the adventure.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Thoughts on Homelessness

Let me make clear right now that I am not suggesting that people forsake their houses for living out of vehicles. There are just too many things wrong with homelessness: in the first place, it is not socially acceptable, on the main, and the lack of personal privacy is objectionable, even if one works very hard at the logistics to make it tolerable.

Not a day goes by that does not include some form of dread around using public facilities. For instance, as I am driving over to the public restroom in the morning, I am wondering if there will be many people around --- joggers, fishermen, picnickers, kayakers, and so on. More specifically, it is the idea of being seen taking my duffle out of the truck and putting it back, actions that could give away my status as homeless. Of course, the reality is that few people would regard it as their business, assuming they were even able to identify whether or not someone were homeless.

But, there is that sense of vulnerability which never goes away. Though I am aware that the presence of other people makes no difference whatsoever in what I must do for myself, and I will certainly not be late for work because other people can view my trip to the washroom, I cannot seem to kick that feeling.

One of my theories about feeling vulnerable in my circumstance is that I have something with which to compare it. I was not always homeless and once lived in a large, beautiful house. In the morning, I awoke in a roomy bed and could get up and move around without changing out of my pajamas, from the bed to the bathroom, from the bathroom to the kitchen, and so on, even traipsing outdoors with the dog. My belongings were everywhere, in every room of the house, which amazes me now when I think on it. My environment was aesthetically pleasing, which means I had more than I ever needed; I bought items just to match a color in the floor.

The space of my truck is a fraction of the size of that house. I can only use what area is not taken up by the engine compartment, which is about two-thirds of the truck, and I cannot stand up straight anywhere. Maybe I have 65 square feet.

I am not bewailing my present circumstance, but discomfort at times leads my mind to visions of a sunlit kitchen with views through French doors to the garden and the smell of citrus fruit in a bowl and of bread toasting, details of a clean and pampered life. Understandably, there is nothing I have now to match that, but it has helped to keep some remnants, a down blanket, a letter opener, silk scarves.

Yet, without the comparison, is there really a reason to feel vulnerable? And perhaps it is not vulnerability, but shame. No one likes poor people, unless it is for pity's sake which makes one feel better for having more and being able to adopt an attitude of noblesse oblige. The signs of poverty, for the most part, make us cringe; but, again, it is the comparison to comfort, which, were it unknown to us, would perhaps lead to a different response, though I am hard pressed to think what that would be.

But we are not in the Stone Age, and I am completely conditioned to cleanliness. I am certain that I could not survive any worsening of my circumstance because going dirty is my limit. I cannot do it, and I would probably sell my soul for a bath.

I think of my yacht-club compatriot, Steve, who is ashen in that homeless way and dirty. He is so dirty that being near him makes me itch, as I am allergic to mites. Even though Steve is intelligent, has a pleasant manner, and keeps to himself, I loathe him for the mites and the smell.

Steve has a bicycle, so he is able to get around. I see him at the library often, and he enjoys playing golf, though he complains that someone took his golf clubs, stole them from his little home in the bushes behind the trash bins (where I assume he picked up mites), too near the yacht club's private parking lot where patrons are able to see his possessions through the fence and wonder at what appears to be garbage strewn about. (I feel certain the Mexican gardeners took Steve's golf bag, and I have asked my friend, Lincoln, the night security man, to find out what happened. More on that later.)

I met Steve one evening when I found him sleeping in the women's shower room. I was not nice to him, not the least bit, as I was tired and wanted to prepare for bed. Steve picked himself up and his belongings and left with an equanimity that put me to shame. I felt guilty over that incident, but I was able to exonerate myself when he showed up again on a really cold night, reason enough to seek enclosure. This time, I suggested Steve use the toilet room that has a large stall in the back where he could shut the door and manage to be out of the way and unseen.

Steve took my suggestion. One rainy evening, I entered the restroom and noticed right away that the air felt tight and clingy. There was a slight foul odor, and I began to feel that creeping itch. I looked over to the back stall and could see a bicycle and part of a sleeping bag under the door. At least, he was out of view, and I was out of view of him, though washing up for bed in the same room where a strange, smelly man was sleeping --- well, I'd rather not talk about it.

But back to the idea of shame at being homeless, I believe it is a conditioned response, both cultural and personal. Homelessness is far removed from our expectations around lifestyle, and it does little good to pose "what if" scenarios when there is just little known to be attractive about homelessness. The fact is there is a lot to which one can compare it, and even camping sounds better off. We are culturally indisposed to it, by thousands of years.

I am reminded, though, of my visit to Central America years ago: I stayed with a family that was living in a house with a dirt floor, which was swept just like any other floor. Though these people were peasants, they seemed to have all they needed. And, by the way, they were never dirty or smelly. After dinner, they and friends would stay up till dark and tell stories and laugh. The children would chase hens around the yard and find other silly things to do. The food was simple, but wholesome, and I slept peacefully out in the barn, the only spare room. If this sounds too idyllic, it does not change the fact that it was.

When I returned home to the United States, I was confronted with what appeared to be mass insanity. I was deafened for weeks as I readjusted to all the forms of noise to which we are accustomed, a constant bombardment of sounds from motor vehicles, radios, televisions, construction sites, and people talking. I had never noticed before how much Americans talk and how loudly they do it. I suppose we have to talk over all the other noises to be heard. Perhaps we also need all the noise to keep from listening to our deepest heart's desires.

I missed the quiet people of Central America. I missed the simple, wordless, emotional tie I seemed to have with them. I missed their clarity. Their lives were relaxed and emotionally satisfying. They were not sublimated in the least. They were not bogged down in a constant, noisy bustle that would suck their life out and make them insane.

Yet, to be sure, these Central American peasants, like peasants the world over, are considered poor and, thereby, needful of development, that is, all forms of our civilization, from education to finance. But these peasants were not starving or hungry or unhappy. Indeed, emotionally, they lived an enviable life no longer available to most of us in the United States. Nonetheless, they are too poor by our standards, even if it is a faulty comparison.

Sadly, though, homelessness is a different kind of poverty. It constitutes a wholesale rejection of everything we hold dear, from bathing to spending time with significant others. It is a strange kind of impoverishment that leads to subhuman conditions for those who are homeless and subhuman responses from those who are housed. It has polarized our society and become symbolic of our cultural decline.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Finding Home

The homeless are aware of their environment. They tend to be cautious about their movements, noting who is around them and if there are any police in the vicinity. The homeless tend to keep to themselves, too, given that relationships are not sustainable in the ways they are when one is housed. There is only so much room in my truck, for instance. One also learns quickly that bothering someone else can have unwanted consequences.

Tom got into a bad habit. He would open his car door, as though this lent a screen to his activity, and urinate in the other direction. Of course, out on the Bay, the college girls in their rowing shells could see him. This incident prompted a phone call from an irate parent who implicated Bob, along with Tom, in having some indecent intentions toward the nubile. The fact that Bob tends to stare didn't help.

So, there began the roundup. There were police vehicles cruising the parking lot for days. Tom was told he definitely had to leave the area. Since the police know Bob, they explained to him that parents with girls at the rowing club were concerned about idle, older men hanging around.

"But you're safe," Bob told me.

He meant safe from being run off by the police, and I am certainly not a menace to other women. However, I do have an expectation of civility, even if I do live in my truck.

By far the loudest and most annoying people are the housed. They do anything they want in public spaces, especially parking lots where the housed think they are alone. Through the warmer months, there was a couple who would drive in late at night, very late, late enough to wake anyone up who was sleeping. There is something about being surrounded by water that amplifies sound, so the woman's moans of pleasure pierced the air and echoed off buildings on the Point and houses along the bayside walk.

People get out of there cars and have lengthy conversations in the open on cell phones as though no one else could possibly hear them, even though it is broad daylight and people are sitting in nearby vehicles. Blaring radios and stereos are frequent disturbances, and, unfortunately, there is no shield from the high-decibel intensity of subwoofers. It is all too common for people to drive out to nowhere, which is where I live, and argue with their children or have a private conversation that can be heard all over the Bay. Too many people are doing their private life in public.

Why don't they go home?

My own answer to this question, which I pose with some indignation since I am subject to the vagaries of life in a parking lot, is that they do not have a home. It is true they live someplace. They are housed. However, as we all know, a house is not always a home.

There are metaphysical properties to a home: it must be a refuge, first of all. It must take one aside from the world and one's everyday doings in it. In this sense, it provides a boundary in space from everything that would irritate or trouble. Home is the ultimate source of nurturance, which is clearly not just about food and survival. Home is the place to experience the ground of one's existence. Home is intimate without necessarily being sexual.

However, many people cannot fathom such a place. They are not familiar with home; rather, they escape, even what they call home, through vacations, music, video games, alcohol, sex. They want to go unconscious for a while. Just think how many people are unconscious at any given time and what the consequences must be for the planet. Multiply the noise in public, in a parking lot, where people feel free to let go of constraint, by thousands and millions.

This is a loud planet.

It makes me wonder if birds are going deaf.

Boundaries are critical, and not just corraling people. I am not talking about more laws, rules, or restraints, but, rather, learning to find satisfaction within oneself, a sense of wholeness, a feeling that one is naturally self-contained and, as such, safe. This means more people are going to have to lift their eyes above the seething, unconscious mass. I am certainly doing my part by asking the lumpen who parks next to me to turn down his radio and roll up the window so that I do not have to breathe his cigarette smoke.

Truly, there is no reason why a public space should not have a feeling of home or should not be respected in the same way. Telescoping this idea, there is no reason why the planet should not be respected as home to every living thing on it. But we must all find a way to think privately about public space if we are going to live peacefully, indeed, if we are going to survive on this planet together.

By the way, there are homeless people who feel like home, who are home, because they have been away from the bustle for a long while. They have gone without comforts, conveniences, and personal escapes and discovered, instead, their own soul. Therein lies the great possibility in homelessness.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

A Tenuous Life

On a more serious note, it often occurs to me that I am not really homeless because I have a vehicle. My circumstance may be pathetic, but it is not desperate. And then I have a vehicle because I also have a job, and I have made use of every possible social service for which I qualify. Besides that, I am not exhausted or hungry, so I am able to think.

Not everyone is so fortunate.

There are numerous social services agencies and programs, but, sadly, many of the homeless do not use them. Fatigue and hunger make it difficult to think about what one needs to do from one day to the next, as survival itself is the priority. Without a vehicle or money for a bus, the nearest shelter or county office might as well be on the moon. Then there is the interview with an agency representative, the paperwork and pointed questions.

The need for advocates and for mobile services that meet the homeless where they live is clear; and there are, indeed, some notable outreach programs, including one run by the police department, that do just this kind of work. However, the demand exceeds supply.

Still, there is a more elusive problem at work: a homeless life is tenuous, and a homeless person does not have the mental acuteness that generally attends persons who are housed. The homeless do not spend a lot of time thinking about the future, for example. Thinking is necessarily short-term, as resources that would make planning ahead sensible and easy, such as a phone or automobile, are lacking.

Homelessness is very much about being here now, an inconsonant twist on the new age mantra. The wandering mendicant of India who walks the country with rice bowl in hand did not slide into poverty by an accident of fate, however; and even if begging has an honorable history, homelessness in our modern society gets none of the respect. Still, someone like me might more accurately be described as a sanyassi or bhikkhuni, except, outside of a willing participation in social service programs, I do not beg.

Rather, I make a point of giving, usually money, to anyone who asks. It seems only decent, and I want to set an example for other people in vehicles behind me at a busy intersection or for those who are parked alongside me in front of the 7-11, in those open, public spots where one finds beggars. After all, we have become a niggardly people, inculcated by years of exposure to religious extremists and Darwinian survivalists to believe that poverty is some kind of isolated incident that occurs in a vacuum to persons who deserve it, rather than an indication of something systemically wrong with our culture.

It takes energy to think and plan, and some homeless never really sleep, at least, not well. My friend, Robin, and her partner, John, are always worried about being rousted by the police. They have been homeless for five years and have had troubling and wearisome experiences, even though they have not yet had to sleep out in the open.

Robin and John had a newer model Volvo, which I had grown accustomed to seeing. They also had two small dogs whose barking in the morning gave me a homey, comfortable feeling; but Robin, John, and the dogs went missing for several weeks. When they reappeared, they were driving a small Toyota pickup with a camper shell that did not exactly fit the dimensions of the back of the truck. The camper shell hung off the rear by a couple of feet.

Cause for worry.

Robin and John told me they had been stopped by a policeman and ordered out of their Volvo. The officer wanted to know if Robin had leashes for the dogs because he was having the car towed away. The couple was left on the street with two dogs and all their worldly possessions.

This is where the stories of the homeless get complicated and tiring because of the frustration of having heard similar accounts and not knowing what, if anything, can be done. Nonetheless, somewhere, this couple had another vehicle, the old Toyota truck. It took a while, apparently, to get to the storage site, and then the truck needed repair. They were back at the yacht club, but Robin awoke at night every time she heard a car in the parking lot, afraid that the Toyota, perhaps not street-legal because of the camper shell, might also be towed.

It is not clear why the Volvo was towed in the first place: it is not uncommon, and no surprise, that the homeless often drive vehicles with lapsed insurance or registration, or both. While the police tend to ignore the homeless if they can, their job, after all, is to enforce the law; but Robin claims the policeman stole her car because he is involved in racketeering in vehicles, and the newer Volvo, confiscated at no cost to the police department, has good resale value.

Maybe she's right.

After all, Bob is still in his run-down truck, even if the police do rout him repeatedly from one place to another. And, I, too, am still in my road warrior, though I had a close call. I was stopped by a policeman one evening because, he said, the tow ball on the back of my truck was obscuring the license plate. That tow ball had been there for 35 years, so the officer's reason for stopping me seemed like a pretense to hassle someone homeless, though, really, I cannot be sure.

Certainly, the tow ball gave the policeman the excuse he needed to check my license and registration, both of which were suspended. Though it is a very long story, I was in the midst of a communication by mail with the judge who levied the suspension on my driver's license. I had failed to pay a traffic fine because I could not afford it, and I was due to hear back from the judge in a matter of days on a reduced bail. I begged the officer not to ticket me because I was taking care of the problem and could prove it. Besides, I was clearly already struggling to pay a fine to the DMV.

The officer was not sympathetic and wrote up the ticket, anyway, as he recited the sacred chant of the highway patrol, "Driving is a privilege, not a right," after which a driver is supposed to shut up and look like she agrees. He said I was lucky that he was not going to tow my truck even though he could, in a tone that meant he had done me a favor.

But, let me add here, other police officers have been very kind to me. On two previous occasions, I was approached by policemen who wanted to know what I was doing, since it appeared to them I was living in my truck. I was honest about my situation, and these officers were kind to me in return. One officer, concerned for my safety, even told me what places I should avoid at night.

Nonetheless, there are vagrancy laws and City Council members who want them enforced, which is understandable from the perspective of the housed. It is unlawful to sleep in your vehicle in San Diego, and many parks close inconveniently on purpose between the hours of 2:00 and 4:00 a.m. Robin told me there is less enforcement of vagrancy laws now.

Once, not long ago, after a homeless person with a vehicle had been rousted often enough for sleeping, the police would tow the vehicle, having inevitably discovered a lapsed registration or driver license. That homeless person was then ticketed for sleeping outdoors. After a while, with tickets piled up, unpaid, the police had cause to arrest the homeless person and send him to jail for up to six months. The cost to the County became significant and could not easily be justified.

According to Robin, who tracks these occurrences and has seen innumerable homeless people disappeared, the Mayor and City Council came to an agreement that the homeless were not to be bothered between 9:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m. Unless there is some flagrant public act, like hanging laundry out on your vehicle or assuming no one will notice if you urinate, the homeless are off limits. Still, there is reason to be vigilant, as public complaints about the homeless are taken seriously, and the police can stop anyone.

As I mentioned earlier, homelessness makes living tenuous and short-term. Something may happen, or it may not. The need to survive can get in the way, and it might rain. I offered to rub Robin's feet, give her a pedicure, and paint her nails. Robin is very thin and ashen, that gray color that homeless people have from exposure to the elements and not bathing regularly.

We had a girlie date, but she must have forgotten it, or maybe it was just too much of an overwhelming prospect after so many years without pampering. Maybe she woke up one morning and thought she had dreamed it.

But that is not the worst thing that could happen between homeless friends: Robin and John have gone missing again, and I have no way of knowing where they are, if they are safe or even alive.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

My Truck, My Home

My truck is exceptional, not only because my entire life is in it and everything I own, but because it just keeps running. Of course, I do my best to take care of it; but it takes far better care of me. I admit that my mind still runs along gender lines when it comes to things automotive, which means there are little things I forget to do. I came close to running the truck completely out of oil once, but it survived; and I am far, far safer in this vehicle, having been in a few accidents with it, than in anything I have ever previously driven, mostly sports models and sub-compacts.

In a recent parking-lot incident, a young woman backed into my truck, and, just for fun, I thought I might go on a rant about how she was going to have to fix the whole thing, including a paint job, starting with an emphatic, exasperated, "Just look what you did to my truck!" But she already looked nervous, and I didn't think she would get the joke. So, as she got out of her car and approached me, I told her not to worry, that she couldn't possibly hurt my truck, which is true: it showed no sign at all of being hit. She was relieved, but her poor car had a ragged-looking spot near the left tail light.

Except that the original orange paint and the yellow racing stripe are badly faded and cracked everywhere and rust has set in, and the white, fiberglass camper shell on the back is deteriorated, the appearance of my truck is fairly normal. Things appear to be intact on the driver's side. However, the passenger side of my vehicle tells the story of someone who seems never to have learned to drive, at least, nothing as big as the Ford F-150. Though, now, after nearly a year with my truck, I could drive an elephant in New Delhi.

Near the right-side front, where the metal logo, F-150 is displayed, the letter F and the hyphen are broken off and the number, 150, sags between the 5 and the 0, giving the impression that it was, once, a great truck. There are several long dents that run along the right door all the way back to various end points just ahead of the rear wheel. Some sport the color of the object I hit, though, of course, I have no idea what that thing was, nor where.

There is no mirror on the passenger side of my truck: it was shaved off clean, bolts and all, passing a City bus. I was trying to maneuver through traffic between a line of cars and a bus picking up passengers on my right. I had plenty of room and came up alongside the bus, seeming to pass with ease. But, then, there was a horrific, metallic screech.

Like most big trucks, the Ford F-150's side mirrors are mounted on a metal arm that sticks out about a foot on each the side of the truck. That is a full two feet, and I had forgotten to account for it. At first, I just could not figure out what the matter was. I was looking at the bus driver, and he was looking at me, because something was getting badly crushed.

I turned the corner and found the nearest place to stop. The bus moved on. I got out and checked my truck, but I saw nothing unusual. It was not until later when I reflexively looked to my right to use the passenger-side mirror that I realized I did not have one. I got out again to take a look: the mirror had been sheered off, leaving only holes in the metal door, which I thought was a testament to a great American-made vehicle.

My truck once lived at the San Francisco Marina, and it shows the wear of constant exposure to fog and salt water. Where there was once paint, there are now rust blisters, and holes where the rust blisters popped. On the hood, there are as many holes as there are blisters. Often, while I am driving, pieces of rust will fly off. It is part of the charm.

Men take notice of my old truck, too. I have even been accused of using my truck to bait serious, big-toy, dog-owner types. But nothing could be further from the truth.

For safety and reliability, I could not have a better truck, and that is the point for a woman who is homeless. It is also roomy and has a bench seat, which makes it possible for one to stretch out and get a good night's rest. Furthermore, I own it outright, having paid only $700 for it. The problem, really, is age. My truck is 35 years old, and some parts eventually wear out.

The F-150 has needed a few repairs, and, in truth, the "Middle Eastern" garage owns a 90% interest in it by now. The bills for the brake job and new tires were hefty, and I am still paying them down; but the real story here is how I managed to find a place to have my truck repaired that would not demand immediate payment and would allow me to run a tab.

I was driving around doing my usual chores when the brakes went out last summer. Luckily, there was room to pull over and allow the truck to roll until it stopped. I was in a real pickle: I was going to need an expensive repair, which was obvious; I did not have the money for an expensive repair; and I was going to be without a place to sleep overnight. In such a circumstance, I become prayerful. I set my mind on being in the moment and letting go. I take a deep breath and relax my muscles. I thank the universe for my cell phone and an AAA membership.

Triple A sent out a tow truck driven by a young, heavy-set, pierced black man whose friendliness was relieving. Once John had winched up my truck, he wanted to know where I wanted it taken. Well, I didn't know, I explained and, moreover, though I worked, I had no money to pay for a major repair, at least, not in full at the time of service. Oh, he knew just where to take my truck, and that was to his own mechanic at the shop that takes care of people like me, or us. And that is how I ended up at the Middle Eastern garage where I do all my automotive business.

John introduced me to everyone: Sal, the manager, a Palestinian; Gus, the cashier, an Iraqi picked up during Desert Storm; Ken, one of the mechanics, a Jordanian; and Eric, the other mechanic, a Mexican-American, who fits right in and seems to understand the Arabic dialect spoken around him. Gus told me they would take care of me, and they have.

My brakes were fixed in less than twenty-four hours, and I paid what I had, according to the arrangement Gus made for me. He showed me where my paperwork would be kept, in the wooden file box that hangs on Sal's office door, in the "poor" section. Gus delighted in my poverty, as it seemed to give us something in common. In fact, he thinks in terms of the worldwide poor versus the worldwide rich. Gus spent many years between evading arrest and being jailed by the Saddam Hussein regime, but somehow wound up in the Iraqi army and the invasion of Kuwait.

He is now the property of the U.S. Army.

Gus is quite humorous and has an incredible facility for languages, traits which did not go unnoticed by the Americans who have used him ever since. He was called up just a few weeks ago and is going home, that is, to Iraq, but he says he will be undercover. Sal and friends are not sure what the story really is. They figure he is a dead man. Someone of one faction or another will not think he is funny.

One day, I pulled into the station and up to a pump for gas while Sal and Gus just stared and shook their heads at me.


"We are your family. We take care of you."

Gus was speaking in a low tone of voice, reproaching me with an index finger. Sal's face was hard and unmoving. He did not look directly at me. Because I must have looked puzzled, Gus spoke up to explain that Sal had seen me pumping gas at the Valero. Then Sal, obviously offended, asked why I bought gas there. I explained that the Valero was sometimes closer, especially on days when I visited the post office to pick up mail or stopped by the bank.

"Oh," Sal said, seeming to understand.

"I'm sorry."

"You're forgiven," Sal stated in a tone that assumed the authority to ascribe sins and take them away. "Anyway, I do not make money selling gasoline, and my gas and Valero's are about the same."

"Just don't let it happen again," Gus added.

Once I finished pumping gas and got back in the truck, I realized how serious these men were in their insistence on being family to me. I was touched, even though it is tempting to regard such sentiments as pure schmaltz, or worse, deceit; but there is nothing about their cultures that would provide a motive for anything disingenuous. Fine, I thought, I will let them take care of me.

Since then, it is my habit to do all my automotive business at the Middle Eastern garage.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

From New York City to Everywhere

In the late 1970’s, I lived in Manhattan. I had moved from the West Coast with a group of friends who thought they wanted to live in New York City. The experiment largely failed, as no one lasted there more than five years. We scattered again all over the United States, but we never forgot New York City --- nor forgave it. It was not America, and so not-America that we often thought the best thing that could happen would be for someone to drop a bomb on it. We always spoke this way about Manhattan, as a matter of course, until 9/11, when it became incorrect and maybe even dangerous to talk that way.

Still, New York City is a dramatic, 24-hour place to live. I was sipping bortsch one day in the Russian Tea Room when Woody Allen and Diane Keaton sat down for lunch just one table over. They were engaged in a hushed, passionate conversation; but so was I, with the same gentleman who took me to singer Paul Simon’s birthday party at the top of the Empire State Building. I was introduced to Simon, who was extremely soft-spoken and very short. Simon was standing next to a tall man, perhaps so people could find him. The famous are commonplace and rather unpretentious in this larger-than-life City.

New York’s virtues were large, though few; and cleanliness and humanity were not among them. I prepared a picnic lunch to eat in Central Park, as it was a warm spring day. I found a grassy area with old trees, picked a boulder, and climbed up to sit. As I prepared my spot, I noticed out the corner of my eye that I had a visitor: a rat the length of my forearm was sitting up on his hide legs, on the same rock, staring at me. I was sickened. Afraid and unsure what to do, I started to pack up, very slowly, in case a quick move would provoke the rat to lunge and bite. Then I jumped and ran.

I began to notice rats after that.

Continuous garbage strikes characterized Manhattan, too, in the 70's. There was a pervasive smell of garbage most of the time, and trash blew around in the streets. People dropped their trash wherever they happened to be, having given up on putting trash in the overfull cans which were located on every corner of every block. Really, I had never seen a city with such good intentions. Chicago is probably one of the cleanest cities in the United States, and one must walk out of the way a few blocks to get to a trash can.

One expects cockroaches, though. The west-side apartment I shared was probably built in the 1940’s. It was spacious and charming with interior French doors and dark-wood moldings. It was quite a lovely space, by day, and while we were all up in the evening, enjoying dinner and coffee. We would clean the kitchen before bedtime, too, making sure there were no dishes left in the sink.

It was my habit, sometime in the night, to go to the kitchen for water. It was the oddest thing: just as I switched on the light, I would hear the sound of clicking, a rush of clicking, and then it was over; and there was nothing I could discern that made such a noise.

Curious, one evening I decided to enter the kitchen without turning on the light. I could just see enough to discern little dark bodies all over the plates in the dish rack, all over the counter tops, and everywhere in the glass-front cabinets, in fact, anywhere I looked and on top of everything. I made the slightest sound, and shiny wings moved in unison. I turned on the faucet, and the little bodies scattered, making that clicking noise with which I had become familiar.

On occasion, a cockroach would skitter across my face in the middle of the night, waking me in my bed. I would open my purse, and a cockroach would crawl out, having traveled across town with me on the subway.

While rats and cockroaches were disgusting, by far the worst, most unimaginable sight I had ever seen were the homeless. New York City has an elaborate subway system, and the underground tunnels through which the trains run are aerated by openings to the ground above. By convection, the heat from the trains comes up through these passageways, which are grated at street level. These subway grates are all along the sidewalks in Manhattan, and there is enough breeze coming up to catch your clothing in the style of Marilyn Monroe's flying skirt.

On the coldest, snowiest evenings in winter, there were people heaped on top of each other on the subway grates in every direction I looked. Stacks of people, maybe three or four people to a layer and five or six layers deep. I had never seen anything like this, as homelessness was not yet commonplace in America.

On Central Park South, in a fashionable part of town, I stepped over a large woman whose feces had run in rivelets across the sidewalk to the curb. She wore a quart of ice cream on her head. It was a hot day.

New York City was the filthiest, most disgusting, hellish place I had ever seen, and I swore never to go back. It was deeply troubling to me that New Yorkers seemed to accept the idea of people living in the street, and it was hard to understand why there seemed to be no effort made to help. Though my stay there provided years' worth of astoundingly dark stories to tell, there were things I wish I had never seen.

People say New York City has really cleaned up in recent times, but I find it hard to believe there are no more rats or cockroaches. And, I doubt that New York has done anything about their homeless, except perhaps shuttle them off to another part of town and out of sight of tourists. Besides, Americans now take homelessness for granted, the way Third World nations do.

In 1980, utterly finished with all things New York, I moved a clean and safe distance to Chicago. I was living in Lincoln Park and Ronald Reagan had just taken office. He intended to reshape America with "trickle down" economics and our place in the world with the Strategic Defense Initiative, or "star wars" program; but he would also "roll back" social services in our country.

The lady on our corner was elderly, probably around 70. She seemed clean and well-dressed, but it was winter and nightfall and she should not have been outdoors standing in front of the the corner store with a grocery cart. She was there every day and every night, and the residents of my apartment building would buy her coffee and sandwiches. No one knew who she was, where she came from, or why she was on our corner. I asked her about herself once, but her words were unintelligible. I assumed she had some form of dementia. The first "bag lady" in our neighborhood had arrived and the first homeless person I had ever seen outside of Manhattan.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Part 3: It's OK to Be Homeless!

Civilization, as we know it, for better or worse, is near impossible without a vehicle. A vehicle gives one control of time. We all tend to take the convenience of the control of time for granted until our vehicle ends up in the shop. Matching up bus and train schedules and finding friends who happen to be going somewhere you want to go is easy enough, but you lose, say, at a minimum, two to three hours out of your day, and maybe more.

This time factor gets critical when you are homeless.

The logistics of getting to the bathroom, eating, and staying clean are already a challenge, but, then, not having wheels makes these routines all but utterly impracticable; and we have not yet begun to address having a job and getting to that job in order to earn some money. After all, a working person is expected to be clean, wear fresh clothing, smell right, and look rested. I would imagine it takes supernatural stamina, discipline, and determination to be prepared for work after a night sleeping in the bushes behind the trash bins.

You are wondering about shelters. There are shelters for emergency situations, overnight shelters, day centers, and various goal-oriented programs for getting homeless men and women back on their feet. I am on a waiting list. I have been on a waiting list for almost a year. I would be surprised if someone called me; and, anyway, I have given up on the idea of being housed, which is radical, I know, but maybe I can explain it.

Rest assured, though, there are good people around who are helping; and, I believe, the worst cases of homelessness are getting care most of the time. While I doubt there is any shelter suited to my sensibilities and tendency to get claustrophobic, take those women I met (in a manner of speaking) at Father Joe's Village. Clearly, most of these women have suffered a trauma and are off the street because a facility like Father Joe's exists.

For some time now, I have thought about housing and becoming housed. At first, scared of my decision to live in my vehicle, I thought only of getting enough money together to share a house or apartment; but then it occurred to me how much I dislike having roommates. Rarely, in the past, did I ever know those people well enough with whom I lived out of financial convenience (aka, the roommates); and there is nothing worse than spending money on a place where you no longer want to live, usually sticking it out because to find another place is just as uncomfortable. Consequently, I ended up moving only when I had to, that is, short of the place burning down.

Sometimes, tucked down comfortably in my truck and watching the stars out the windshield, I find it hard to imagine being housed again. I can understand Willie Nelson's restlessness and why the cowboys wrote those solitary songs. An eremetic way is not necessarily unsocial. I would love to share a campfire and would choose that over television; but I digress.

Homelessness has made it easier to save money, that very money I would begrudge spending every month on some portion of rent. I find I am living within my means, which had not occurred to me until a disagreeable old man pointed it out. It was early morning at the Yacht Club. I had parked next to the public washrooms near the boat house where I would do my toilette and was unloading my duffle from the back of the truck, when I spotted a man whom I often see in the area.

The man was walking toward me, only a few feet away. Given his proximity and that I recognized him, I thought it only decent to say "good morning" as he passed. He gave me a hard, unapproving look and kept walking. A little ways past me, he threw back a comment that I must be saving a lot of money living out of my truck. It is hard to know what to say to a complete stranger who presumes to know my motivation and attaches a value to it from a perspective I probably do not share.

All I could think was Republican, which, besides being a political party, is a point of view I do not understand, at least, not right away. I have to take my mind to the dark side where I can access character traits I eschew --- cynicism, mistrust, selfishness, stinginess, and small-mindedness ---and view this man's words from there. It took days of study to understand that this strange man resented me because I was not paying rent, to him, or someone like him. All he sees are dollar signs, and my moral obligation to society is in question because I cannot help him with his obsession. Money is his value. He had no concern at all that I might be hungry, or cold at night, or lonely, or scared. It never occurred to him to inquire.

Republican is a dirty word.

All thinking, sensitive people know how that came to pass; and my politics have suffered, hardening solidly to the left in this new century. I certainly would not make a good Bolshevik since I find nothing wrong with money; but money is not a value. Money is a thing, like any other thing. One can have a lot or a little, but it has nothing to do with values. Our country has taken a convoluted path to get where we are today. Somewhere along the trajectory, we followed the lead of people who thought it was OK to put people in the street; and that was not so long after we made it OK to bomb people living in huts.

What I seek is a whole new way to live together.

In the meanwhile, if the cost of rents ever goes down significantly, I may consider becoming one of the housed. Then, again, I may decide to stay in my truck. I might make a protest of it. I might stay in my truck, like an urban Gandhi, until every last homeless person has a place to live.