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Wednesday, May 6, 2009

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

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

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

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

My homeless story starts almost two years ago.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That episode wove the beginning of a new cloth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That single appointment ended the crazy driving.

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

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

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

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

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

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


"Oh, I thought you were being cynical."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tow ball. Sure.

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

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

Strange, I know.

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

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

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

Homeless Court.

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