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Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Patriot Act and the Department of Motor Vehicles

For a long time, the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) has wanted a national system connecting all the States in a compact to make it easier to find persons who have committed vehicular crimes. The new Office of Homeland Security, through its legislation known as the Patriot Act, created just such a structure, though its purpose was framed in the language of chasing international terrorists with cells in the United States.

The Problem Driver Pointer System (PDPS) is a list of names of all American citizens who have ever had a traffic violation for which the fine is unpaid, and my name is on it. Little is known about the PDPS, so there may be other reasons why there are names on a list; and, indeed, there may be other lists; but it all seems to have little to do with terrorists. The PDPS is operated by the DMV, but it is part of the command structure of Homeland Security, making it impossible to find anyone who has authority and who is ultimately responsible. I do mean impossible.

I know this because I spent six months researching ways to retrieve my California driver's license without paying that 20-year-old traffic fine, for which reason, purportedly, my name is on the PDPS. I never did manage to speak to anyone where PDPS decisions are made, wherever that is.

Six months earlier, having finally resolved a mound of debt with the DMV, I went in to the local office to pick up my driver's license which had been confiscated. (More on that later). After an hour, my number came up on the big board, and I skipped to the appropriate window, holding back a "Yippee!" I had just been released from driver/debtor prison and was about to be restored to legal-driver status.

"Uh . . . let me see . . . you have an unpaid ticket on your record," the clerk remarked as she scrolled slowly through several screens on her computer. "We are going to have to keep your license until it is cleared."

"Wha-a-a-t? That can't be. My record was just cleared," I said in disbelief. A wave of gloom and hopelessness swept over me. I had been struggling for months to clear my DMV record, and I thought I was at the finish line.

"This ticket is in Iowa, and you will have to call Illinois about it. I'll get you the information." The clerk handed me a print-out of a suspension notice. Until this moment, I had completely forgotten about the incident, though the memory is vague. I remember being ticketed, but all the details escape me.

I was a campaign worker in the winter of 1988, a visitor from Illinois in Iowa, and I was driving two-lane highways in rural counties in a rental car. I am guessing that when I passed through the little town of Montezuma, I failed to reduce my speed. Maybe I did not even see that little town. (The 2000 census puts Montezuma's population at 1400.) In any case, I am sure I didn't kill anyone. There was no hit-and-run, though that patrol officer could be dead by now. The Illinois Senator for whom I worked is no longer with us. Twenty years ago, mind you.

"That was twenty years ago!" I was exasperated by this turn of luck. "Isn't there a statute of limitations?"

"Not with the new system there isn't. You're not the only one. Everybody is getting these old tickets, and the best thing to do is pay it." The clerk looked like she knew what she was talking about, but I still didn't like the answer. Sure, I probably was speeding and, with the hectic life of a campaign, just never got home to pick up the mail. From Iowa, I had gone on to several other States.

But it was not the ticket that bothered me: it was the lack of forgiveness, which is unamerican.

My quest for pardon began with a call to the Illinois Secretary of State Traffic Violations Section. They said they would look up my suspension and send me the requisite information, which turned out to be a form letter stating that once I satisfied the ticket in Iowa, I would then need to pay Illinois a reinstatement fee of $70. I called that office back to ask if there were any mercy for homeless people. Mercifully, I suppose, I was told that if Iowa dismissed the ticket, then I would not have to pay the Illinois fee.

So, next, I phoned the Poweshiek County Clerk's office in Montezuma, Iowa. I explained my situation, that I was homeless, and wondered if there were any pardon for the 20-year-old traffic fine on the basis of hardship. I should write a letter to the magistrate, I was told, and he would render a decision by mail.

Several weeks passed before I received an answer to my letter. It was a few words scribbled on an official form to this effect: the Court had no authority to set aside my ticket or the fine. Surprised and upset, I called the Poweshiek County Clerk's office immediately. I wanted to speak to the magistrate, I told the clerk; but he is only in on Thursdays, she said, and I would have to call before 9 a.m. Central Time, before Court began.

Nearly a week later, on the following Thursday, I was up at 5:30 a.m., Pacific Time. Anxious and wanting to be alert for the phone call, I tossed down breakfast and had my first morning cup. There was no answer on the first call, presumably because the clerk was not in yet. On the second call, the clerk's office was open, but the magistrate was not in. It took another call, and another, but I reached the magistrate.

Too self-conscious to repeat what I had written in my letter, I got right to the point: how could a judge not have jurisdiction in his own court? That was hard to believe. After all, it was only a speeding ticket, and it was a very old one, at that. The magistrate was apologetic, but, indeed, there was nothing in the law that gave him authority to dismiss the ticket.

"Well, who does have the authority?"

"Maybe the Governor?" I thought he was joking for a moment, but he seemed genuinely not to know for sure. Good enough for me. I was back on the trail and calling Governor Chet Culver's office within minutes. I was promptly sent to one of the Governor's assistants who took my information and gave me the phone number of the point person on driver's issues. I was handled expertly by this woman who even emailed me with updates. I did not want a pardon from the Governor, she explained, because that would take, at least, two years. Rather, she found someone to help me in the Iowa Department of Transportation (IDOT).

It was all downhill from there.

Plenty of emails and phone calls passed; but, in the end, there was nothing IDOT could do for me. Their suggestion? Go back to the magistrate of Poweshiek County.

"You're kidding." It made no sense, but clearly this IDOT employee had no idea where to send me. The setback dampened my enthusiasm for the quest, but there was more to come. It was only the first circle of going around in circles.

For want of a better idea, I phoned the Poweshiek County Clerk's office again. I told the clerk, flat out, that I had been sent back to her office. She said I could try speaking to the magistrate again, but, suddenly, I had a better idea. I phoned the county legal service and asked for help with my old ticket. I wondered if someone there could represent me, at a distance, in the magistrate court in Poweshiek. That office sent me to the County Attorney who was brusque and lunged irascibly at everything I said. He thought I was out of my mind and hung up on me.

But I remembered the County Attorney saying I should be speaking to the motor vehicle people in California, since that is where I currently held a license. I latched onto that piece of wreckage, like a floating spar, as I now found myself desperate for help from some quarter. I called the California DMV. They sent me back to Iowa.

"Do you have any other ideas, other than Iowa?" I was tired and disheartened, but not yet demoralized: that would have to wait for the go-round with staffers to California elected officials, which was the DMV employee's next suggestion.

I called my State senator and representative, neither of whom had anyone in their office familiar with the PDPS. I explained, seemingly, over and over, about the PDPS and what I found offensive about it. Everyone to whom I spoke sounded young, too young and too poorly educated to be working for a California political player who represented, primarily, Baby Boomers.

One of those whippersnappers told me just to pay the fine: "Well, you did break the law, didn't you?"

See what I mean? What would he know about creeping fascism, which has been creeping for decades, at least, since Richard Nixon was in office? What would he know about taking it to the streets or any other form of civil disobedience to which Americans have a right? I wanted to reach out and slap somebody. Instead, I gave the young man a listen-to-me-Sonny piece of my mind. Not that it did any good. He hung up on me.

Another such staffer accused me of expecting his office to commit an ethical breach, what he called "influence," when I merely wanted someone there in that elected official's office to do something, make a phone call or two on behalf of a constituent, as it was my assumption that they worked for me, for the public, and should be able to unravel tangles like the one I was in.

Again, I got nowhere at all, but the more resistance, the more emboldened I had become. I struggled on and phoned my U.S. Congressperson and a U.S. Senator whose offices, I was told, did not handle DMV matters and somehow also seemed unaware of the linkage between the DMV and Homeland Security. I was not in America any more, not the one for which I used to protest, but the new America of the after-school daycare cohort.

With no one left with whom to speak, with no help forthcoming, I called the PDPS office myself. I had nothing to lose, but I was not ready to admit that we now have a whole new set of laws with limitless reach that place all Americans under suspicion.

Phil answered the phone. For the first time in my search, I seemed to be talking to someone who understood my point of view. He was candid about the purpose of the PDPS, which was not to fight terrorism. He asked how I learned of the old traffic violation. I explained about my visit to the local DMV. Phil said he thought he might be able to get me off on a technicality since PDPS notices were usually sent by mail. I was not sure what kind of difference that might make, but Phil felt I had a slight chance. In any case, he would bump my case upstairs, that is, to the people in Homeland Security. I was to phone him back in a month.

Visions of a final victory over the evil of the twenty-year-old traffic ticket carried me through the next month. I was ready to feel vindicated and to have a reason to call those public officials' offices back and that madman attorney in Iowa. I would harangue them from my high horse.

All to no avail.

When I called Phil again at the PDPS office, there had been no response from on high, which meant nothing had happened, nor would anything likely happen in the future, to change the disposition of the old traffic ticket. It did not matter that I had been a good driver in California for twenty years; that counted for nothing. I was a problem driver now, unless and until I paid the penalties in both States of Iowa and Illinois.

Defeated, I retreated across the Rappahannock again, this time never to return to the matter. I spent a few days binding my wounds, then did the gracious thing of phoning the Poweshiek County Clerk. I would be sending a money order for the old traffic fine, I told her, and would she please send back a letter of release for the State of Illinois. She seemed please to hear from me, as though I had been through a spell of prodigality and waywardness, sure to return to the fold.

Her sort of old-fashioned faith was very American, no matter what else has happened to our country.

Monday, March 23, 2009


At 19, on a fine spring day after a long midwestern winter, I wondered why I was in such a hurry to finish my undergraduate degree, which I was taking at breakneck speed. And now I was hurdling toward an accident of thinking too much about everything. I left university with only a semester to go, but I stopped smoking pot indefinitely.

I pored over every trajectory, the options made available to persons my age in our culture. The usual things. For example, I could marry my boyfriend. When I stretched this prospect out over ten years, the marriage looked so uninteresting that I saw myself traveling alone, on a plane headed for Paris, never to return. That relationship, as I wended through the nuances, would not bear up under ordinary, daily wear. Except for midterms and finals, campus life was carefree and love, untested.

The idea of marriage turned everything sepia, tinged with the tired sunlight of mid-afternoon. It would mean the suburbs. I imagined trying to live with the heft and burden of a china hutch, which one fills slowly over time; and an undistinguishable, largely unused, for-display-only front yard; and a generally mind-numbing conformity. I would need a place to scream.

Or, I could go to work. I had little experience with anything other than housework or homework. I had no idea what it was like to have a job, and I was not keen on finding out. I was already leaning left in my socio-political views, and I knew that business people were usually conservative. I was puzzled by work being a primary tenet of the women's movement, at the same time these ladies were throwing off their bras. It doesn't take long to figure out that the lack of foundation garments will get you sent to Human Resources, the work-world equivalent to the principal's office. These days, with no HR departments, one is simply fired.

Of course, if I was not in school, I would have to work; and work is where I learned that democracy ends at the office door. I could not eat when I was hungry; I had to wait my turn in a lunch rotation. Personal phone calls had to come out of my lunch time, and I could never look too comfortable at my desk. The office manager would take that opportunity to fill my inbox with paperwork she didn't want to do. Life at the office (and an eight-hour day is a lot of one's life) was trivial, at best, and barefaced fascism most of the time. I could not understand how democratic principles did not apply, though the reason was absurdly simply: I didn't own the place.

I returned to university several times just to get a break from the workplace, but I finally completed my undergraduate degree, though it did not help one jot in determining a future course of action. Not even a master's degree was able to put me in a solid career direction. After wandering for years in a kind of private diaspora, my true homeland unknown, I decided what I would always need were regular breaks from the world.

I have taken several such breaks, some radical.

Not long after leaving university for the first time, I became enamored of a spiritual community I visited in Berkeley that also had a farm up north in Mendocino County. I spent one entire summer hoeing and picking vegetables, meditating, walking the hills, and playing volleyball. Some things we did as a group were hokey, but so in earnest, I was deeply impressed. By the time I learned I had joined the Moonies, I didn't care. I had made good friends.

That relationship lasted several years through all the weird newspaper reports about kidnappings and brainwashing, which I read with disappointment because it was patently untrue. I knew this because I was thrown out of the Moonies twice; and when I decided to leave because I was ready to move on, I simply called a cab.

Not to sound nonchalant, I agonized over that decision as the difference between what I wanted for my life and what that organization offered began to widen. The Moonies were good, decent people, to the one, and theirs has been a worthy experiment. What I always found enjoyable was the communality. It was not just a value, but the reality, what impressed me about the group in the first place. Sadly, we have to go far afield of our current society to find that kind of peace and security.

What the American Dream does not offer.

It is my personal belief that people need sanctuary, not necessarily more money or a better job. We need to stop the world once in a while and get off, that is, drop out. What I imagine is a campus/facility that costs nothing at all, where there is complete rest and a reality free of the usual pressures and competitiveness, a place where it is possible to meet people whom we might never meet from another culture, race, or occupation and where it is possible to learn a new skill or art form. Then, satisfied, refreshed, and renewed, we would return to the world we inherited, perhaps, to make a real difference.

Money, despite so much cultural importance attached to it, despite its centrality to the American Dream, does not seem to make anyone happy for very long. Add that fact to all the stress of earning it or finding ways to steal it and hide it from the government. Happiness of the permanent sort, not the temporary ersatz, is far more of a shared endeavor than an individual pursuit.

If happiness and money were compatible, both would be shared; and there are very few people who have the capacity to share money, even within one's own family --- perhaps the reason why Marxist revolutions are the bloodiest and why, if anyone escapes, they empty the national treasury on their way out.

Even education has come to reflect the pursuit of money: universities are geared as much toward financial careers as they are toward providing a fine education. Not that they are necessarily mutually exclusive, but MBA programs have been touted for decades as the prerequisite for workplace mobility and a decent income and have trumped the pursuit of educations in other fields.

And the discourse of political campaigns has a tendency to devolve narrowly around jobs. Few people have bothered to ask why we cannot talk about satisfying occupations, right livelihood, and modifying the American Dream to include the quality of life, all life, including the environment and other species. Fortunately, the way we have been doing business has come sharply into focus recently, which may give us a chance to see how our obsession with money-making is destroying our world and creating an indifference to the very things that could make us well and happy.

Breaking free of our attachment to the narrow world we have created will not be easy, but it is certain to involve doing business in new ways. It will certainly -- and it must for our survival --include new modes of living, with less dominant, xenophobic, disjointed views toward each other and nature.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Myth

I have heard it more often than my conscience can bear, and I repeat it here with regret: many of the homeless are on the street because they want to be.

The last time I heard this mistaken notion was yesterday from a young woman with whom I work and of whom I am fond. Laurie is having a fairy-tale wedding in a few months and continues on to graduate school next year. We had planned some social time, and Laurie suggested we meet at my place. In a rare moment of candor, I told her I didn't have one.

"Oh, oh. I understand, " Laurie said, measuring her words. "I understand completely." Laurie has a soft voice. Indeed, she has a soft appearance. She is small-built, bird-like, with alabaster skin and the kind of dark eyes and light hair that the Spanish once regarded as the mark of great beauty. I was more accustomed, though, to hearing her speak rapid-fire in the style of urban cool.

I wanted to explain, but she interrupted me. "Say no more. It's OK. I understand. Really I do."

It was Laurie who did the talking: her mother had been a drug addict. The sketch of her past told of constant moves, confrontations with fear and dark forces, and a resignation to an eternity of mistrust and abhorrence of her mother. That Laurie knows firsthand about homeless life is without question, but she also mentioned casually that numerous people she had met on the street wanted to be there. They had money, she said, but, for some reason, chose the street over a place to live. I listened without remarking.

After all, this had been Laurie's childhood experience. As a child, she would not have had a knowledge of the larger context in which adults conduct their lives. Unfortunately, it seemed, the underlying rejection of her mother, including her homelessness, took the form of an oversimplification. There had been too much hurt, and Laurie was not about to think too much about her past in an effort to extend unqualified compassion.

While I am a child of the nineteen-sixties, the country had already undergone the Reagan revolution by the time Laurie could walk. Homelessness was everywhere and growing, as it still is. It was not long before homelessness was a fixture of the American urban landscape, and America joined the world. The Third World.

What bothers me the most about homelessness is how it is taken for granted.

Try to find someone who remembers a time when there were no homeless in America. Most people have accepted it, and Republicans deny it. An articulate, intelligent Republican spoke to me about homelessness recently. We had been talking about the new Obama Administration and our hopes for the future of the United States. I told him I was most ashamed of homelessness and that I hoped we would make corrective efforts to eradicate it. This man made what I thought was a shocking, blatantly false statement: he claimed that homelessness, on the order we see it today, has always existed, but it was just not as visible.

Visibility is the operative concept here. I countered that homelessness was not visible because there wasn't any, certainly nothing on the scale of what we are seeing today. Of course, there have been pockets of homelessness, often due to natural disasters, the Dust Bowl, the Great Floods of the Mississippi River, and Hurricane Katrina, to cite a few. There were drunks on park benches when I was growing up, but they were not homeless. There were people in flophouses, halfway houses, and numerous other forms of transitional facilities for which there was once funding that dried up with the Reagan years.

The idea was that volunteers and churches in the local community would take care of the people who would no longer have a place to live, that is, after they were made homeless. But federal funds to municipalities were also cut and entities such as public broadcasting had to go begging. Taxes went up, too, for working people.

And Ronald Reagan seemed to hate the working class. As the story goes, a waiter somewhere was discovered to be making a substantial living, mostly in tips, which, of course, he could only be making because tips were, once upon a time, non-taxable. Somehow, Reagan was incensed by the idea that any working person should make good money tax-free. Never mind that few people want to make a career of waiting tables. Never mind that college kids need jobs like waiting tables in order to pay college expenses. Life just got tougher for most of us.

What I see on the street are broken dreams, lives beyond repair, and the abandonment of hope. Sometimes, it is just a case of bad luck that makes a person homeless. Even if homelessness were the outcome of many poor decisions, we are still only human. I am reminded of the movie, Slingblade, when the harmless, open-hearted Karl, now in prison, is asked by another inmate about being out in the world and what it was like. He replies, "It was too big."

It is a big world, and it is not always possible to know enough to do a good job of living in it.

Bad luck and broken dreams have a cumulative effect. We come to think there is no way possible to repair the mistakes, even if our judgment, in hindsight, has improved. We come to live without a past, as that past and everything in it --- the people, places, and memories --- are too painful. One begins a kind of homeless identity and a sense of difference from everyone who still has a home, in the communal sense of the word. Family. Friends. Reasons to get up in the morning.

If ever there were ones in a position to recognize the spiritual and emotional value of home, it is the homeless. It is not that anyone homeless would not like to have a home: what it takes to make a home is beyond reach. With few loved ones, broken relationships, and substance abuse problems to numb the emotional pain, it is little wonder that the homeless who are receiving disability or social security monies are living in the bushes behind trash bins.

Sometimes, what has been broken cannot be repaired. That goes for people and relationships. One would have to start over, but perhaps there is little confidence that a new beginning is possible. Hope may not reach beyond finding a good meal in a dumpster. One may no longer identify with the housed, not because the housed have an actual place to live --- for the bushes for Steve, or my truck, or Bob's truck are also places to live --- but because the housed have the spiritual and emotional components that give life to that dwelling, without which there is nothing particularly compelling about a house. Home has an absolute value.

And, of this I am certain: there is no human being on earth who does not want a home.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Discoveries and Decisions

In key respects, I was unprepared for the tasks of homelessness.

Homelessness requires constant adjustment, adaptation, and resourcefulness. Most people use these skills in small and various ways all the time, but the goal is routinization so that the details of daily life are on autopilot. With the establishment of routines, there is certainty, predictability, and more than a modicum of comfort.

Because of the extremity of homelessness, one never reaches that stage of autopilot for very long because daily life has to be built around other people's activities. For example, most Saturday afternoons there is no one around the Yacht Club, so I can get a shower at the washroom in the day rather than at night. However, on some Saturdays, if there are rowing competitions, the college kids have already filled up the parking lot.

Another example, after 9:00 a.m. on weekdays, the fire department shows up for exercises at the other parking lot I like to use. The idea of attempting my toilette with so many men around is paralyzing: I couldn't get out of my truck if it were on fire, though I would be in the right place. An alternate plan for where I go, what I do, and when is ineluctable.

In short, I have never made so many decisions in my life. I have never had to be so self-conscious and so thoughtful about everything I do every single day. Moreover, I made the personal discovery that I have avoided decision-making most of my life.

It may be a gender thing, if there is any excuse. I can say my father made most of the important decisions in the household in which I grew up. Consequently, there was some tacit understanding I absorbed to the effect that I was not going to be making major decisions. I would defer to someone else, presumably a male and presumably my husband. (Humph. That walk down the aisle never happened. I could sooner die in a plane crash, which is statistically next to impossible.)

Nonetheless, I am learning to make decisions; but I must tell you how difficult it is. Prior to homelessness, without knowing it, I was floating through this world, buffeted here and there as things happened, out of my control. I did not have control of my life because I did not take control as one does each and every time he decides. I did not recognize those critical moments in which one must decide or else become victim to circumstance. As I am very new at it, in the moment of deciding, a chasm opens up in front of me, my toes suddenly poised over the edge. The anxiety is that the ground beneath me may start to crumble, causing me to fall, no matter how I decide.

What scares me is the uncertainty: my conscious decision could turn out to be a very poor one. The consequences could be worse than had I just gone with the flow, entertained my old habit of letting the universe decide for me. I can barely stomach not knowing. I will let the need for a decision go for many days, sometimes weeks, even months if possible.

Let me make a relevant digression.

There was a time when I looked down upon men for the decisions they made. It seemed they, as a class, made poor decisions, utterly thoughtless, often immoral, certainly socially abhorrent ones. And, they often had company. They called upon the experts, held meetings with their peers, and leaned upon think tanks. They snubbed anyone else's input.

Now I know why.

Decisions are scary: absolutely no one can predict the outcome. It is a brave thing, I think now, to dare to stand up and decide. Men are accustomed to this, though not all of them are lucky with outcomes; and I have come to believe there is luck or fate involved. And it may make people feel a little better about making that decision to get as much information as possible, to have friends come forward and endorse it, to share the burden of proof, which, as the old proverb goes, is in the pudding, that is, in the outcome itself. Ugh.

To help me make difficult decisions, at times, I use the old tactic of the coin toss; and, no, this is not exactly the same thing as going with the flow. The difference is that I commit myself to abide by either way the coin falls and, furthermore, to any consequence. It helps to reduce a decision to simple steps that can be answered by a Yes or No. But this is only one strategy.

I call my friends. I also ask strangers for their opinion. It helps. At least, it helps me to better define myself and my circumstance, those parameters within which I live, by taking the issue outside myself to see how it looks on someone else. It is a way of getting perspective, perhaps old hat to those more accustomed to decision-making, but so new to me.

There is, of course, another fear associated with decision-making with which men have handily dealt --- the guilt and remorse over poor outcomes. I remember wondering why a court-martialed man, condemned to death by shooting, would require a firing squad. Sometimes the firing line was in front of the man, but often he would be surrounded. It was explained to me by a male friend; the need to distribute guilt was not obvious to me.

Perhaps that is what is so dreadful about personal decisions: there is no one with whom to share the blame when a decision, by its consequences, turns out to have been poor, indeed. For the lack of someone else with whom to share decisions, I am having to find ways to handle the feelings evoked by poor outcomes. Neutralizing judgments around consequences is yet another learning that has been imposed upon me by homelessness.

I am a long way from accepting decision-making as part of the human condition. I am even further away from enjoying it, if that is even possible.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Little to Do with Homelessness

At the same time that homelessness is exaggeratedly real, it is just as often sublime. There is a sense that anything can happen, from an unexpected show of police shining their bright-white spot lamps into your vehicle at 2 a.m. --- for who knows what reason --- to full-color dreams of being overtaken by a slowly-rising ocean, gently swallowed up in my truck and carried off by waves. So comfortable and no way to fight it, even assuming I would.

The sound of the ocean grows to one continuous roar as the night deepens. It is the cumulative sound of waves falling up and down the coastline for miles and miles. One cannot hear it by day, for all the competing noises, so the roar is startling at first. It often awakens me, and I drift easily back to sleep, listening, following the water along the dark coast.

We do not often think about the intelligence of the ocean itself, though we like to study the underwater societies within it: whales, sharks, dolphins, porpoises. I imagine these creatures once to have been human beings who grew tired of the captivities of land, who yearned for freedom of movement and freedom from structure. And, adaptation to water would be a way for sensitives to remove themselves from the planet's most dangerous predator.

Life of the highest order gets simpler, not more complex.

My friend Jeff Hedin, an anthropogist, believes water is an angel. He believes the basic elements of life are the angels of the directions (we think of four, but there may be twelve) and that life is timeless and holographic because it takes place in many dimensions. These ideas are vaporized by thought, so just listen and see.

Recently, I have begun a walking meditation in which I take notice of all the water in my body, to the fact that I am a walking body of water, that it is not my bones or muscles that give me form, but the density of so much water inside, and my skin, a mere membrane formed by gravity's pressure. It is a novel way of seeing the world, and it connects me with other people and the nearby ocean in unique ways.

What this has to do with homelessness and other issues of the day is nothing. Nothing at all. That is the point of it.

We are too much immersed in the tiny, joyless, troublesome world someone else passed on to us. There are more problems than we can bear, and none of it is our fault. We can get neurotic over it and do destructive things to ourselves, or we can go unconscious and do destructive things to others, all the usual state of everyday life here on earth. There is no other recourse than to elevate the discourse, find levity, and make fun of everything.

It's not all funny yet, but the odd thing about tragedy is how a certain angle of light can make it comedic. I have to admit that Steve, who lives next to the Yacht Club, is a curious case in point. He is the most carefree of the homeless I have met. He is not disturbed or distracted by what anyone else may think or do. In fact, he makes most people look ridiculous for all their needless thought and worry. He is a fish on dry land.

Steve takes care of himself, too. He has a serious hobby. He zipped by on his bicycle last night, on his way home to the bushes, with another golf bag slung over his shoulder.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Inside Out, Upside Down

Lincoln was worried about me. He would park his truck right next to mine.

"Are you all alone out here?"

I was annoyed at being bothered while having my tea and a crossword puzzle. Some guy. Still sipping, I locked the door and rolled the window up without moving my eyes from the page.

"Just wondered if you're OK," Lincoln would say as he backed his vehicle out.

It took weeks for me to realize that this man was the same one I saw in the evenings at the Yacht Club. The night security man was playful and friendly: he would say hello and shine his flashlight into my truck when he saw it parked at the public restroom nearby. Finally, one evening, he walked out to my truck with flashlight in hand. He waved it as he walked, perhaps, to give me fair warning of his arrival.

We struck up a simple conversation, and Lincoln, the night security man, invited me to tour the Yacht Club some evening. He would show me around.

I don't know why places like yacht clubs look the same everywhere, the way Sheraton Hotels do. One would expect, with a higher class of clientele, that there would be more, much more, more of an elusive something. But the truth is people with a class-consciousness are quite boring and really only want to be safe.

As a student in Mexico City years ago (many years ago when it was unpolluted), I would take a long weekend off with friends and travel to Acapulco. By bus. Later, we would jokingly talk about the "Mexican bus" because there was nothing like it: we rode with goats, chickens, screaming infants, and people hanging off the sides, which was stupefying when the bus was skirting the edge of a sheer cliff. Anyone in his right mind would have worn a parachute.

When we got to Acapulco, having little money, we would walk the narrow streets to find the cheapest place to stay. We found a hostel: a large, open room with ceiling fans to keep the air cool and single beds, like a barracks. We gave the bare accommodations no other thought, as we spent most of the day and evening out on the beach or visiting the beautiful restaurants, pools, and bars at the luxury hotels. La Princesa was the favorite. It is probably still exceptional.

But the years pass, and, by and large, if you have seen one resort hotel, you have seen them all. What struck me after a while was how much more fun and interesting a place was when you stopped looking for monuments and artwork and noticed how people lived, and where. Acapulco was a strip of huge hotels at the water's edge and, everywhere else, a lot of teeny-tiny, green, yellow, orange, and pink houses built very closely together, all a little shabby.

Not that I have anything against real luxury, but there seemed to be a growing sameness in the hotels across the world and a penchant for serving American food, badly. I always wondered who would want a hamburger in Acapulco; but, for the class-conscious who were not there for the native experience, there was perhaps too much to fear. Myself, I caught a few bugs and was all but carried off once by flying monkey-sized mosquitoes while camping in the mountains.

But back to the Yacht Club. Lincoln was a perfect tour guide, and he is always kind. He wanted to know if I might enjoy watching television in the empty bar on the nights he was on duty. I declined the offer since what I enjoy most is his company. Lincoln has worked at the Yacht club for almost forty years and earned trust enough to have the run of the place. We chat about the weather, why the parking lot is empty, or full, and a time he remembers when kids set fire to the palm trees, making them look like huge birthday candles.

We talked about the upcoming election and the excitement around Senator Obama. Lincoln was obviously proud, but restrained, perhaps for fear that the election might be lost. I had asked him several times if his name really was "Lincoln," since it seemed like too much of a coincidence that Illinois is my home State, and we had met in a watershed, historical election year. For those of you who are not from Illinois, Lincoln is God there. Illinoisans know we are Yankees from the time we can walk, that we won the War, and that probably even peanut butter would not exist if not for Abraham Lincoln.

My local Lincoln, while clearly a namesake, does not really get my zeal; but that does not trouble me. I am proud of my heritage and the solid sense of democracy I learned growing up in the Midwest. I am sure Lincoln knows, in the most intimate way, the distance between the ideal of America and the reality. I have shared with him my amazement, even though it seems naive, that one should need money to buy everything, that even sleep is not free where prohibited. And what a rarefied form of slavery it is to work and earn money, but not enough to keep a roof over one's head. Or, should one have that roof, one foregoes food, medicine, or gas.

One wonders what kind of people would create such a society, if the scheme is intentional, as in a conspiracy, or if mere ignorance is to blame. The poor are living inside out, and the rich are upside down, exalted, but without the virtue or excellence of high rank. Lucky for me, my friend, Lincoln, is a respecter of persons. He never minds my truck or my homelessness, and he teases me to no end about turning into a solid block of ice from all the cold showers.