Powered by WebRing®.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

That Which Cannot Be Taken

"Only that which cannot be taken away by death is real. Everything else is unreal, it is made of the same stuff dreams are made of." -- Osho

A friend asked me to elucidate this statement as it pertains to my life. As my readers know, I have fallen a considerable distance from faith (also hope and love). I have been grasping at straws, and that is just how elusive my efforts have seemed at saving myself from being awakened every morning with a dark heaviness in my chest, a near inability to breathe, and a mind clogged of any vision beyond my nose. It is only with forcing myself to get up, dress, roll up my bedding, and start the engine that I come out of the bog.

That morning slough happens every day now, and it is a painful reminder that I no longer want the life I am constrained to live. Belief that tomorrow could be different requires a leap of faith for which I am no longer equipped. That kind of faith is a pole vault or a climb up Mt. Everest. What I have had to do, at least, to make myself more comfortable physically is dial down the sensation and shut off my mind, meditational skills I learned long ago.

What remains is me being, me in my beingness and nothing else. I am not relating temporally where there is so much energetic investment and anxiety, nor am I connected spacially where I experience confinement. I am existing outside time and space: I am here but unattached, here but free of judgments. I am bound only to the moment and the barest of daily routines.

I am not talking about the be-here-now mantra I never understood unless, in fact, I now understand it as I never before could. That mantra seemed to imply a spurious break with the past and future in exchange for a romp in an irresponsible moment. One's past and future, like a prison term, are still there the next day. No wonder so many hippies turned out to be investment bankers.

What I am referring to here is shutting out the suppositions, assumptions, theories, what-ifs, as-ifs, and the futurism and nostalgia that perpetuate these states of mind. I am getting empty so that I can see again, if there is any path at all to follow. I am just here, and I do not pretend to know why. Maybe answers will come. Maybe not. I suspect there is no reason to be here, though I would still like to be more comfortable, that is, not living in my truck any longer.

So far so good with these new practices. I really have no choice given the deadly, suffocating heaviness I experience every day. At least, the emotional pain subsides; and I keep it that way, rejecting any thoughts that lead to uncomfortable feelings. I am not ignoring my feelings, but being discriminate as I have walked the way of those difficult feelings before and know those well-worn paths to be unnecessary and unprofitable. I am staying open to new experiences.

All that is left is the living soul experiencing.

One question I am beginning to ask is, "What am I not seeing?" I ask this question particularly in response to running out of money, which, as I reported in a previous post, causes me tremendous fear, even if I do recognize the damage it has done to our society. Nothing changes the need for it, but I am beginning to look for ways around it. Most recently, I cannot pay the cell phone and internet broadband bill. I panicked. I phoned a friend to see if he could pay the bill this month for me, but he is also hard up and goes without broadband.

So, I figure I, too, can go without broadband, though it means driving to places where there is a wi-fi presence that allows me to connect from the street while online in the truck. Of course, there are also cafes and coffee houses where I can plug in as well. Anyway, that was how I used to do it, and I got spoiled. Any convenience is very welcome and usually saves gasoline.

Minus broadband internet, I may be able to keep the phone on, and my best friends are going to appreciate that. Nonetheless, there is someone who would be willing to take calls for me in the interim if I cannot find at least $50 today. And so it goes.

Allowing myself comforts, however small, is becoming a new habit. Yesterday, I had ice cream sandwiches, raspberry with small chocolate bits between two chocolate cookies. Four in all. (I still have Food Stamps!) As a concession, I did not eat lunch or dinner. I was quite full, anyway. I am also sleeping more as a way of worrying less. Worry is tiresome, and I can feel those fine lines around my mouth sagging with every sorrowful thought. I am afraid my mouth will fix in a permanent frown. Hence, I remember to smile, sometimes at nothing. I seem to have created, magically, more time in a day by not worrying. The day seems to race to a close with an excess of concerns and fears in the mind, and my vanity just will not allow me to consider aging in any serious, graceful way quite yet.

Remarkably, despite my mother, despite the life-long agony of feeling motherless, I want to go home and fantasize about being in the house and surroundings of my childhood. I allow it. No good fighting the sense of joy I have sitting for breakfast at the antique table in Mother's light-filled kitchen as the sun tops the huge oaks in the backyard: 10:00 a.m. From now in summer, the heat will pour on thick as a down blanket and all but smother every living thing. Bathing is futile, for as soon as one dries off, the sweat is on again.

There is no use doing much of anything. The old people used to sit on their porches and shell peas or shuck corn in this weather. The slightest breeze would knock together the delicate glass pieces of the Chinese wind chime hung in the corner, the sound wondrously like the tinkling of water. It seems anyone with a porch had one of those once-cheap wind chimes comprising two or three tiers of glass inscribed with Chinese characters held together with paper glued to red string and gathered at the top by a ring. The chimes were available for sale at the dime store for two bucks fifty. Some years later, I bought one in Chinatown and had to spend $35.

If one can only get through the muggy afternoons, the early evenings bring the sweet smell of grasses and wild honeysuckle. Ground fog rises up and sits gently over the neighboring fields like a dewy cloth to relieve the brow of fever. The air is humid, misty, fragrant. The oppression is lifting as night falls and the tender winking lights of the fireflies fill the trees and shrubs as if to rival the display of stars overhead.

There is only one healthful time to eat in the midwestern summer, and that is in early morning, though one is tempted to eat, and hungry, when the sun goes down. But one is also tired at the end of the day, enervated, sapped by any human effort. If there were ever a place to drink a lot of water, it is here. The cool evening air is delicious, stirring musings on life and love and their inevitabilities as one begins to drift to sleep.

But my mind wanders, relaxed in these peaceful thoughts.

That which cannot be taken away by death is what has remained in the heart long after the passing of people, places, and things, which can be evoked again and again and which are met once more in lifetime after lifetime. The heart, connected to the permanent atom of myself, is what transform all experience into light.

Still, I do wish I could go home again.

Friday, July 2, 2010

A Letter to a Friend

Hi Leslie,

I am writing to apologize for my reaction to your comment yesterday.

Perhaps your friend is right. Perhaps, no matter what, I should call on my mother and siblings. Maybe your friend's comment was a nudge at a distance.

Nonetheless, I want to repeat here for the record that I did take umbrage at your friend's comment, to paraphrase, that were she in my position and homeless, she would go to her family to live. You told me your friend is in her 50's, and I thought that comment was rather glib, uninformed, and maybe unrealistic given her age.

I cannot rule out that her relations with her family may be much better than mine; but it is no secret that family are often the hardest people with whom to maintain relations, just karmic fact for most of us. Family always have higher expectations for us than for anyone else, so my apparent failure being homeless would sting them. I would be surprised if this were not the case with her family as well. I wondered how much thought your friend had given this matter.

Personally, I also have my pride and have not given up on making it on my own despite the odds. Of course, given my circumstance, I have had to think of everything. When I have thought I did not, I phoned friends to ask for their ideas. So it did seem patronizing that your friend would think a homeless person who was formerly middle-class and educated would not think about every avenue of escape.

Please bear in mind that I am attempting to raise your awareness and your friend's. That is the purpose of my blog, to help dispel all the assumptions we tend to make about a situation that we do not share with another human being. There are, of course, middle-class assumptions that simply do not hold in a homeless setting. Where you would typically shun an alcoholic person, for example, I now tend to overlook the addiction. I told you how one alcoholic was the first person to greet me when I first started living in my truck. He made me laugh, and I dearly needed laughter at that time as I was laden with grief.

I also tend to ignore addiction among the homeless for another reason. Addiction may be the reason why some people become homeless, but it is not exactly the reason why they stay homeless. Among the wealthy, there are plenty of alcoholics and drug abusers. The difference is that they can hide what they do because they can afford it. It is a class issue, not a drug issue. Lack of money is what separates a poor user from a rich one.

Here in the United States, we think we are an exception to the rest of the world. It is known as American exceptionalism ---- the reason we do not protest all that much or start riots over money like they do in Europe. The Europeans have not forgotten that there is an ongoing class war, no matter how large their middle class. They know that if the European elites decide to fart in their direction, there goes the middle class; their goes funding for education, health care, worker safety nets, jobs --- the whole enchilada. We would do well here in the United States to remember that there are very powerful people who can shut down the entire game if they want to. And, those elites need to know that we will do ugly things to keep them in check as well, like rioting and other things that scare the Bejesus out of them.

Surely you remember the Kent State shootings. It was appalling to see footage of the National Guard shooting live ammunition at students, not unlike Tiananmen Square some decades later. It was quite surreal to me given the high-flown rhetoric of the greatness of our country with which I had grown up. It just did not seem possible, yet it happened, and someone gave the order and that order came from higher up. (As a note here, restitution has still not been made to the families whose children died at Kent State 50 years ago. Here is a recent report: http://origin.wkyc.com/news/local/news_article.aspx?storyid=135890&catid=45 ).

I recall thinking that the elites were real tired of the bratty children of the veterans of WWII skipping college classes to protest the Vietnam War. We were not grateful enough and did not appreciate the virtually universal education they had acceded to give to the generations of the World War II vets; and it was not long before it was taken away. Subsequent cohorts have had to go into debt for a mere undergraduate degree or forgo a higher education altogether.

So, yes, I spend considerable time thinking about my situation and that of others.

I only wish I could have listened more patiently to you yesterday.

Thank you for your help, always.

Kerry Echo

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

All About Money

It is harder than you think to stand around all day and ask people for money.

I tried it recently.

Having considerable experience in sales and fundraising, I thought I could do a more creative job of panhandling than the homeless folk out at the intersections. I did not want to look homeless or sad. I did not want to appeal to pity. No, I wanted to fundraise, so I took my cause to the Embarcadero and stood amid the seaside restaurants, ships at dock, the jewelry and tie-dye vendors, and pedi-cabs.

It was a wonderful idea: I would give away free hugs and offer people the opportunity to give money to someone less fortunate, meaning me. My sign read, "Free Hugs & Donations to the Homeless." I was dressed well, but casually. I wore makeup and made sure my nail polish was fresh. I smiled and asked passers-by in a friendly tone if they needed a hug. I even got into a rhythm I could ride for a while.

Frankly, I had to stay "up" and to do whatever it took to get there. While I know the impact sugar has on my body and keep its consumption to a minimum, on that day, before driving downtown to start a new occupation as panhandler, I ate a few cookies. I even thought the "sugar high" would empower me, and maybe it did, at least, for the time it took to get to the Embarcadero.

Once there, I just could not get out of the truck. I would inch a little toward the door, but then clutch the steering wheel and pray. Finally, I phoned a friend: I asked him to help me get out of the truck so that I could do this thing. He coached me out of the vehicle and along the promenade until I found an amicable young vendor whom I asked about sharing her piece of the sidewalk. I felt better now. I had made a friend.

So that was my start. I spoke to as many people as I could, and there was still a little sugar in my blood. My sales spiels went like this: "Do you need a hug today?!", "Hi, hugs are free!", or "Would you like a hug?" I collected $14 for my efforts in close to three hours, but it was a Thursday. That money equaled the time and kindness of nine people and paid for my gas and the parking meters. I made $3.

Not much, you think, but any money will spend.

Nonetheless, it took a lot of energy to keep from crashing, from giving in to a sense of vulnerability that made me anxious, best described as feeling as though my brain were seeping out of my skull and making me slightly light-headed. I suppose it is also known as fear, but I could not understand why, with so much fundraising experience, I would react so severely to doing something so benign.

After all, I was deflecting the harshest judgments that might come from the public by posing, not as homeless, but as an agent on behalf. I was even giving something in exchange for a donation. Moreover, I am not intimated by rejection, being ignored, or what other people think, at least, not usually; but, for some reason, I was not in top form, and I was scared.

On my way home, that is, back to my spot on the Bay, it occurred to me that I was asking a lot of people. If a person heard me at all as opposed to ignoring me, there were numerous little calculations that went on in his mind, just as there are in my head when someone makes a request of money from me. Even family is funny about money.

When my father was alive, he would give me money at times because he figured I could use it. However, if I asked for money, he seemed to need to think about it. One day on a visit to my parents' house, I expressed the need for a vehicle and wondered if they could help with a down payment. Of course, my father would think about it. As soon as he left the room, however, my mother launched into a surprising, scalding lecture I will call, "Your Father/My Husband."

In it, my mother outlined her concerns for my father as a wife. I could understand what she said, but she was also pulling rank, and her position, of course, was more important than mine. While family relations certainly intersect, I never imagined any of them to run at cross purposes or to invalidate another. Naively, I suppose, I thought they coexisted. However, in so many words, my requests for money were working my father to death; and he needed to retire. My father (and his money) belonged to her, and I needed to . . . well, get lost. I never felt more motherless. Worse than that, the ground of my existence fell away, and I was as far from earth as a lost kite. I seemed to float, disembodied, for days.

I was killed, but I wasn't dead.

Many years ago, I read a book by a man named Norman O. Brown called, "Love's Body." These days, I would tend to agree with detractors that his analysis is too extreme and so reductionistic as to lack substance, but much of his understanding of culture and neuroses, like Freud's, is undeniable. Money, for example, is a stand-in for love and carries a hefty, symbolic load. Money, like love, gets twisted, its exchanges and relationships tortuous; but there is more to it.

My mother's diatribe might have been a simple equation, as much about her need for love and security as it was about money. However, apart from the emotional complexities, the fact of the matter is that we cannot spend love. Love has no economic power. Love will not pay the rent, buy food, or put gas in the truck. As romantic as I tend to be, I am forced to acknowledge the overwhelming power of money; and I don't like it.

Money has come to have an obscene, inordinate importance in my life. It gets more attention than anything or anyone else. I am absorbed in joh hunting in order to get money. I am preoccupied daily with husbanding what little I have left of it, which determines where I go and what I can do. My life is completely circumscribed by money, and there is not one problem I have that could not be cured by having more of it, sad to say.

Money is the life blood of our culture. We need it. We have to have it. When I ask those people on the promenade at the Embarcadero for money, I am asking them to give up what they also need. I could easier ask for oxygen from their lungs or for them to open a vein because money is dearer, more volatile, and more critical to our daily lives. I am asking them to give up some of their means of survival to me.

How did we come to this?

We are in a shameful place. We must admit that money is more important than love and far more real than God. We have to admit that we are neurotic about money, even if we hate what it does to us and feel that we cannot change it. We have to admit to a sickness around money that destroys our relationships to other people. We have given to money the place that God, love, and other people should have in our lives.

We each also need to admit our basic poverty. Nearly all of us has to work or find a government program to support us. I don't know anyone who is a scion of one of the wealthy, powerful, and controlling families on the planet --- and neither do you. The gist here is that you are potentially as poor as I am, and you can as easily lose your footing. It only takes one wrong step, but you will not know it is a misstep until the money starts to run out;that is how it goes.

Let us start, at least, with being honest, and then let's talk about what else we might do besides basing most everything of any importance on the exchange of money. To prove to yourself the necessity of such an examination, do an exercise of listing the accidents and tragedies in your life that might have been avoided with more money and think of what kind of alternative might have been prophylactic. For example, had you been living in closer proximity to dear friends, say, or in a communal setting where there are more occasions for fellow-feeling than what living as an isolated monad in an urban high-rise apartment (or as a nuclear family in a suburb) can provide, you might still have _____.

We can dream a little and imagine the doctor or veterinarian living next door who would accept a few dozen eggs for a house call. Perhaps you would enjoy living like the Amish (except you are not Amish, but you get the idea) among people with whom you could entrust your life and whose friendship and deeds not only help you along, but inform your character. You become a better person by association.

Finally, if this little drill does not convince you that you want and need an alternative to the money culture, take a drive to a spot where the homeless panhandle and remember that these people were not always where you see them today. Take a moment to notice your thoughts about them --- and the fear.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Social Services Maze

It is easy to ignore the homeless people at the traffic intersections; or maybe you find the homeless cause compelling, but wonder why these people are not using the myriad social services that are purportedly set up to aid them. The short answer is there aren't any.

I know you were not prepared for that answer. You were led to believe there would be something known as "rapid re-housing" under the new Obama Administration. Those monies were apparently only given to those who were losing their houses, to urban development companies buying up more (to be used as) low-income properties, or to other non-profits in the housing game to pay salaries. All in all, I call this feeding at the public trough. This is not a kind assessment, and there may be good people involved all around. Still, these new monies are getting to the homeless very indirectly or not at all.

And the homeless are not all alike.

Homelessness has a new face: besides the families with children who could not stay in their homes, there are people who lost jobs and the unemployment benefits have run out; and there are many women, young and old, who have failed to make enough money in their lives or to marry well. The old face of homelessness is more like that of my friend, Bob, who is an alcoholic.

Nonetheless, even for the most targeted homeless, those families with children who lost their homes in recent years, rapid re-housing requires some money. The federal government through various local agencies will pay a portion of rent or mortgage, but not all. Someone has to have a job, and jobs are in short supply. For the ever-growing numbers of homeless people, there will be no place to live but in their vehicles. They will learn what it is like to be run off from one parking lot to the next because even as the police force dwindles in this poor economy, it still serves a public more frightened of homelessness than burglaries or murders.

Of course, there are the shelters.

The shelters in this town turn out to be just one, one big intake center. Perhaps long ago it was a model of social service efforts, but that had to be some time before the Reagan era with its mission to roll back socialism and to take away from the taxpaying public any of the benefits that could cushion a fall in case one lost his economic footing. Back in the money-mongering 80's, we didn't worry about that.

Now that anyone in the erstwhile middle or working class can slip into poverty, that big shelter is noticably inadequate for such a person, that is for the requirements of normative housing. Noticing my look of amazed shock as I stood in the lobby, a seeming-sane resident of this shelter called my attention to the fact that the windows and doors are not barred; but since all of the apartments in which I ever lived in the nicest neighborhoods of Chicago, Manhattan, and San Francisco had bars on windows and triple latches on the doors, that meant only one thing: the crazies were on the inside.

As one approaches the large central-city shelter, the numbers of people thicken. Street scenes can have their appeal; a mere weekend can feel like a holiday among people who obviously have nothing to do but loll, chat, and sip lattes. Yet, here on Market Street, the friendliness is too eager, and the ogling and flip remarks, to be expected, make me wish I were wearing a burka. There is a lot of chatter, but upon closer view, it is coming from individuals who are talking to themselves and just wandering about. What really begins to bother me, though, is the subtle degree of quirk, which is scary even if it is hard to describe. Perhaps it is just the look on someone's face or the way someone turned the straw in a cup. Then it hits me: I am in bedlam.

All the same, I go through the paces. Given that money is running out, I have to give this endeavor of seeking shelter my best effort. After all, the truck in which I live requires money for gas, a kind of rent it imposes, you might say; and the cell phone and internet bills have to be paid. We are already at $500 a month for these few basics. Anyway, I needed to find out what services now existed since I last looked (when George W. Bush was in office) as there seemed to be more promise with the new Administration, and I wanted to be sure I was not just holding my nose in the air.

At the reception desk, I ask about becoming a resident and am referred to a window outside and around the corner. The area is crowded with almost thirty people waiting to get inside for a few minutes in the shower. I am at the Day Center for non-resident homeless. Just as I step up to the window, an agitated, wild-eyed woman who cannot wait her turn flits from one side of me to the other. The worker asks me if I can wait a moment while she takes care of the woman whom she calls by name: she turns out to be a resident.

Despair and the impulse to vomit surge up. I can feel my nerve ends.

The worker invites me through the double doors and into her office. The interruptions by residents continue, but our business is simple and brief. She takes my photo, and I am given a number. They are both on an orange plastic card that I will wear, like the other residents, on a cord around my neck if I get in.

The next step is to see a case manager, and I am told to go to another, smaller center just up the street approximately three blocks away. The worker asks me if I think I would like someone to accompany me. She has an earnest, worried look, and I cannot imagine what that means. "Oh, no, I'm fine," I say and, confirming the location with her again, I set out walking.

Turning the corner from Market onto 17th Street, I step into another world. I might be in Haiti amid refugees. This is a one-way street, and there are people three and four deep lining the sidewalks with their grocery carts, bicycles, boxes, and stacks of stuff. People are crossing the road here and there, going back and forth from the Day Center. There are radios playing, ladies chatting as though they had just hung out their laundry, people sitting around on sofas and old chairs, some lying down or sleeping, and a group sitting around a card game. Despite what appear to be attempts to normalize an obviously inhuman situation, I am feeling the desperation just beneath my skin. Fear floats up just below consciousness, the kind that usually nauseates me.

The numbers of people grow greater the closer I get to the Day Center. In the courtyard and approaching the building itself, people lying in blankets or on mattresses are wall-to-wall. Maybe this is where the sick can rest. Inside the building, there are rows of connected plastic seats that look very much like any other government aid office. The seats are mostly filled with men, but they do not seem to be waiting for anything or anyone. Those numbered, government office windows are missing. Instead, there is a large reception area with several people behind the counter, and I am next in line.

It seems that people are just here because there is no other place to go. Having nothing in particular to do, most of them do nothing. I feel sick and scared. My nerve ends are burning, and I am very uncomfortable with this degree of fear; but I need to see the case worker.

Ms. Alma is a small-built, spirited, genial black woman. Her skin is deeply black, and her face has the kind of wrinkles that are earned. She has the aura of someone who marched in the South with Dr. King and committed her life to serving others as so many of her generation did. As I take a seat in her office, I notice the prayer plaques on the walls and angel figurines covering every available surface, rows and clusters of them on the window sill, on top of shelves, and on file cabinets. There are over a hundred, and they dominate the room. I am not surprised. The weird swamp of humanity that has washed up on her shore are her wards, and who could know what to do for them, save God and the heavenly host. Where I am concerned, anything that can keep the heebie-jeebies away is welcome.

However, Ms. Alma informs me that I must show up and check in at the Day Center every Monday morning at 6:00 a.m. for the next six weeks in order to be elegible for residency in the shelter; but there is an exception if I am working: in that case, Ms. Alma will check me in by phone when she gets to work at 7:30.

I admit I lied about working. I was not sure I could stay in my right mind ever seeing this place again. Somehow, though, I blew it, or they are just quick to knock people off the rolls. In the first two weeks, Ms. Alma took my calls, but then she said she was going to be out of the office; I would have to come down to the Day Center. At least, I think that is what she meant, but my mind fogged over and I persisted in calling. I explained to whoever answered that I was checking in by phone because I worked. Yet, by the fourth Monday, I was told they had no record of me and that I would have to come in and start all over again --- all that just to get a regular bed at night, one of the bunk beds in a cubicle in a room full of cubicles. Of course, I could still use the emergency shelter overnight and hang out by day on 17th Street, at the sad American version of our very own Third World.

No, I have not been back to the Day Center. I am concerned about the effect on my health and sanity; but just as critical, I wonder how I could manage working a full-time job and waking up and coming home to the shelter. They say one gets to graduate from the shelter after four to six weeks and is placed in the community. I am not sure I could last that long, and I am already out of time.

Over two years ago, I was told not to bother with the shelters, as they are exactly what was described to me then --- not a place for people who only want a hand up and who are not looking to join the permanently incarcerated. There were two or three special programs for women run independently of the shelter system which I phoned. There was one for women working (or seeking work) for which I qualified, but the waiting list to get in was three years. I figured I would be employed long before then and out of what I believed to be a temporary situation of living in my truck.

To see if anything had changed, I contacted this organization again and, this time, managed to get an interview with the Director which seemed to go well until she told me I needed to meet with a case worker: the appointment would be a month away. Well, I thought, let's not get in a hurry over homeless people. I did not feel encouraged to wait that long, but I did.

The case worker appeared to be right out of school, that is, close to 40 years younger than I, but she had been trained well to listen as though she understood or had had my experiences. It became fairly clear through the course of the interview that I was not a good match for this program, either. I balked at not being able to see the space in which I would be living. I resorted to questions: could she tell me if the room were about the size of her office? Could she approximate the square footage? Were there closets? But it was like a game of charades.

The case worker had no answers at all except to say that the room would be small, of course. Exasperated, finally, I asked her if she had any photos of the room. She looked at me as though I had sprouted another head. In a surprised tone, she said no one had ever asked her that question, perhaps a clue to the type of women with whom I would be living.

Sight unseen, I was supposed to determine what I could fit into a tiny shared space. As the room would be in a downtown five-story building, I was already trying to imagine the logistics of parking my truck and hauling my belongings out of it and onto a busy city street and the kind of time it would take to arrange those belongings (carefully, I presumed, given the roommate) in an unfamiliar place. Just thinking about it made me tired.

I was further stunned to learn that I might be rooming with a smoker, even if she were not allowed to smoke in the space we shared. I imagined the stale odor of cigarette smoke permeating everything in a space about the size of a large closet. I would have a bunk, and there would be a desk --- one desk. I wondered how much room was left to walk in and if I would be bumping into my roommate at every turn. I wondered if I would ever again be able to sort through my personal papers, as I had always used a desk as a place to think, as a way of laying out my life, externalizing it in order to see it and manage it better. A desk top was sacred space for a sacred act.

The coup de grace at the end of this interview was to learn that I would not be getting housed that day or that week. The case worker would refer my situation to her staff for consideration; and if they moved ahead, I would have housing in their program in 8 weeks. It would be September. I gasped. My heart shrank. I was supposed to phone the case worker in two days, though I was not sure why. It was probably a test, one of those nonsensical check-ins. Consequently, I forgot. I phoned the following day, though, and left a message. I have not heard back.

Giving up when there is little hope is a hallmark of homelessness. It is an honest response. One does not get blood from a turnip. Water does not spout from a rock, and only Arthur can remove the sword from the stone. The services that I need --- and that you would need, too ---do not exist. Social services is a maze of false starts and a convoluted means of wasting other people's time, good will, and life-force energy. It survives on antiquated Victorian notions of social work in which I am not a taxpaying equal, but a beggar. Rather than rely solely upon prayer and miracles, we should sooner consider an overhaul of a system badly in need of repair.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

How I Became Homeless, Part II

Some of my blog followers were displeased with my last post because it questioned a few of the usually unquestionable, foundational Judeo-Christian notions of our Western world. The pillars among them -- hope, faith, and love ---the objects of my philippic, begged for a response because of the obvious heresy; and I was inviting it, even though I admit I was also making an attempt at wry humor. Still, my anfractuous life and bouts of pessimism leave me no alternative but to question everything, including what we consider to be the most sacrosanct of our heritage.

We seem to be at the ultimate cultural nadir represented so utterly and graphically by the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. Our weak social, political, and economic underpinnings are showing and presenting us with the most critical challenge we have ever faced in Western history, which is to change the paradigm or die. Personally, I do not believe we will change, at least, not in time; and time is not only of the essence, but an unrecognized commodity of the first order that the cultural powers have chosen to ignore.

When we speak of paradigm shift, it involves much more than just getting into spiritual alignment. Changing Ages, as it were, that is moving out of the Christian Age and into an as-yet unnamed "new" Age, happens at the root, dislodging it or cutting it off. It is not too soon to grieve the loss, as it will be great and no doubt plummet us all into an abyss much deeper than the darkness that befell what remained of the Holy Roman Empire. I think how remote, for example, Greek history seems to us from our current place in time.

God was Zeus to the Greeks, and they had many, many sub-gods, not just a Jesus as the Christans have, but perhaps more on the order of the Hindu divinities. Of course, this is oversimplifying. My point here is just how hard it has always been for me to imagine the Greeks (or Romans) worshipping these silly and often cruel characters to whom they built temples, prayed, enacted rituals, and offered other forms of homage. But, then, their gods were not promising an afterlife, but mirroring the world as it was and still is. Perhaps their gods made living in the world more comprehensible. The Greeks were not trying to escape reality, but trying to get along with it; and it was made more bearable by gods that shared it.

We cannot believe that the Greeks did not also have hope, faith, and love which we like to credit to our culture and religion. We cannot believe --- even without internet, automobiles, and other accessories of our world (I hesitate to say modern) ---that the Greeks were not the same as all people of all times, having the same human needs. We cannot make the judgment that their religion was primitive and that Jesus is a better man-God, for it is getting harder by the day to see what progress humankind has made over the centuries.

At the distance of another 2000 years, Christianity and other religions of our time are going to look just as curious as the pantheon of Greece or Rome do today. Christmas will transmogrify or disappear. Perhaps some ritual event that was originially meant to save us from the great oil-bleeding hole in the Gulf will replace it, accompanied by a beautifully-obscure text about the end time that will mystify the next earth inhabitants.

Truly, we cannot keep this up.

Our present culture is not based in the earth realities of the connectedness of all life forms, but on creating merit for an afterlife, what the entire capitalist system really is and all the other life-eating, socio-economic, top-down structures, including communist regimes that themselves await the dawning of the perfect society. The similarities between cultural structures on this planet are more alike than not. All depend upon control of the masses through fear and enslavement, though self-enslavement in the service of fear in not uncommon. Nature as the ultimate display of freedom must be snuffed out; and all life forms, man or beast, that will not submit or cannot be used or made to fit are doomed to war, killed outright, consigned to museums, or shipped to zoos.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

How I Became Homeless

I cannot say this is going to be definitive. The whole truth is far too damning, and there is still a lot of blame and hurt and grief over losses. How I became homeless, exactly, has been too much for me to bear, so much of the story is probably best saved for the social workers and therapists.

However, I can tell you the driving forces behind the evils of poverty and homelessness --- faith, hope, and love. Yes, indeed, these were the very ingredients it took to end up in my situation. While you are picking up your jaw, let me say that by far the worst of these three is hope. One cannot have any at all without running enormous risks with one's very life.

Do not hope. You may wish it, but do not hope for anything. There is just no way to know what is going to happen in life without doing yourself the added damage of trying to make it happen, whatever it may be that you have idly constructed as the perfect life. No, you probably do not want it to happen. What will happen is bad enough. That it is a proverbial sleeping dog around which one should tiptoe.

Hope leads to despair of the pure and utter variety. Spare yourself of it. Whenever you find yourself hopeful, look around: it is probably just a sunny day and the temperature is just right. Leave it alone. Do not impart to this natural phenomenon any meaning of hope for your life. And the hope you are feeling is, upon examination, just a feeling based upon . . . nothing at all. There is no reason for it. You do not have what you want and are truly never closer to anything you want until you actually have it. Any feeling or impulse to which you might ascribe the word hope means only that you do not have that it you seek.

Let's review. You are no closer to getting what you want by hoping for it or feeling hope about it. Any feeling or impulse to which you might ascribe the word hope means only that you do not have that it you seek. Only the actual possession of that thing is real. Hope represents a state of unreality, and one should positively avoid it.

Faith is an even more nebulous state than hope. Try not to find yourself there, despite any early-childhood Christian education. Though I myself have always loved Hebrews 11:1, "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen," I have been tested and I live to tell you that if you cannot see it, then the chances of a reality with it are pretty slim. Like I said, it may just be the sunlight's effect on cold skin. You may also have a penchant, like I do, for obscure, confounding, convoluted thinking expressed in a simple elegant way.

And, finally, the greatest destroyer of that I Corinthians big three is Love. I am not disputing that one may be wrongheaded about love in the first place, and Love may be the big it you want and need, as it was for me a few years ago. I was not delusional: rather, I had hope and faith; then love followed. Love is what propels one to make the leap, to do the deed, to take the actions. Love is the binder if faith and hope have set your mind dancing.

Looking back at all the New Age spiritual claptrap I imbibed before leaping with everything I owned into a pact with a man I barely knew, it will not surprise you at all that I now firmly believe in arranged marriages. More than that, one should just move to one of those countries where marriages are arranged; and if you should still believe in reincarnation, then get yourself born there.

The thing with men and women boils down to the simple-minded, and it has very little meaning by the time one hits age 50 in any case. The male/female relationship hardly warrants the fuss of a wedding at age 20 or any other. Truly, to dignify yin and yang in any meaningful way, it has to be arranged from childbirth, or well before. It must be the union of two families all the way back to the beginning of time, and it must have the earthly consequence of producing genetically-sound children, peace in the home and community, and adding to the material comfort of each family. Other than that, what is the use?

It just so happens I was a single woman at or nearing 50 when it occurred to me that I could be happier and more complete somehow after an entire lifetime unmarried if I only had the right yang. I searched for a few years with increasing disappointment such that by the time I met what I thought was the right yang for the rest of my life, I was too addlepated to make any decision of the force and consequence this would have. The bases of my choice of that particular yang are now almost imperceivably shrouded by the magnitude of stupidity it took to end up where I am now. I must have had reasons, but the more I think about it, the more I think menopause is a dangerous hormonal state.

And then there were the other factors of having never married, being childless, being somewhat lost due to not having married and being childless, not being a career type despite a solid education, and so on. Furthermore, being married, having children, and keeping house were the unfulfilled dreams that became fodder for the spiritual gristmills of hope, faith, and love. Now let's throw my mother into the mix.

My mother's one great burden, her cross surely to the end of her life, is that she never forgave her father. She still has not forgiven him, and that has perhaps been the most salient feature of my relationship to my mother as I will explain. I believe my grandfather loved my grandmother. I prefer to start from that premise as there is no evidence to the contrary.

This much is known: my grandmother died of hemorrhaging, presumedly from an attempted back-alley abortion. My Aunt Donna, the eldest of my mother's siblings, recalls removing bloody sheets from her mother's bed. There is no mention of an attending doctor, just my grandmother taken to bed and bleeding. It has been expressly verboten to tell this story. My Great Aunt Alice, my maternal grandfather's sister, would never permit discussion of it and would, if not deny the story, actively suppress it with a stern, rhetorical, "Who told you that!"

My grandmother, Maxine, left five young children. My mother was in the middle and was age 9 at her mother's death. These children were subsequently shuttled back and forth, between and among, grandparents and aunts and uncles in no particular way of doing it, though considerable guilt and shame surrounding my grandmother's untimely death had to contribute to efforts to keep the little five out of the orphanage.

Knowing something about men at my late age, I imagine my grandfather ran. He ran in every way a man can run and as far as he could without utterly denying he had children and family. I believe he did the best he could even as he carried the burden of complicity in an act that killed his wife.

For one thing, my grandfather stayed in the Navy, not that there is much information from anyone about what this man did after my grandmother's death. The mortification over the way Maxine died had to have crippled any relationship with the remaining relatives who were reared, mind you, by Victorians. It is said that my maternal great-grandparents never spoke of their son-in-law because they were good Christians, so the reasoning goes. That may well have been, but the tragedy of the death of their only child might have stunned them into a silent, everlasting grief.

Thus, my grandfather stayed far away and out to sea apparently much of the time. It was, of course, his job or duty to do so, but I feel certain he could not meet the gaze of any family member ever again. There was nothing about which to talk or laugh, even less to do together lest the memory of his wife, their child and his children's mother, invaded the pleasure of what company can afford. He was rendered alone, an Ahab, a Cain, a marked man who no longer had a place or position --- at least, not on land.

As far as I know, my grandfather never spoke to anyone about my grandmother or the incident that led to her death, even in his senior years or upon his death bed. Furthermore, no one felt sorry for him. Indeed, he was disliked. My mother was among those who despised him, and this is understandable in the context of my grandfather's remarriages, each time to a woman as indisposed to taking care of someone else's five children as the last.

One can only imagine the havoc that five motherless children could bring to a household and how much love a second wife must have, not just for the man she married, but for children in general. In each case, the new wife had children of her own who were at the top of the pecking order and who remained the natural favorites. The idea of blended families, commonplace today, with its assumption of parity for all parties involved, was not yet in the cultural stream.

But things were much worse for these children than just being Cinderellas who got all the hand-me-downs. My grandfather took as his second wife a woman who was mentally disturbed, who acted upon these children in cruel and brutal ways. The stories told of this stepmother are lurid. They are simply too distressing for my purposes here, but suffice it to say, any one of these five children might have died at her hands.

How long the five children stayed with this stepmother, or any stepmother, has never been given in exact terms. No story has been told exactly, and one senses that much of the worst history has never been told. Information about the childhood of the five has always been spotty, indistinct, dreamlike, as though still rendered through children's eyes.

Indeed, difficult times are hard to talk about for anyone, and these five children -- my aunts, uncle, and mother -- had no one to tell about their nightmarish existence. For one thing, their father was never around, understandably; and the speculation on his remarriages was that he was keen to provide a house and a mother to his children, even if it were done rather haplessly. He seemed to have felt the need so pressing that he married the nearest, most available woman who also had children and a house of her own. Secondly, it was a different era, before the science of studying childhood for clues to adult behavior and social dysfunction was established. Unlike our current era, it was unheard of to cart kids off to their therapists, or soccer games or ballet classes, for that matter. Children, per se, did not receive special attention.

My mother, one of the those later much-researched middle children (already out of place, insecure, lacking direction, relationship-averse, and prone to aloneness), was also known to be the cleverest of the five. In an actual home where these traits might have be nurtured, my mother might have become an Erma Bombeck or a famous comedienne; but her natural talents and eccentricities along with a lack of motivation to peer too deeply into anything conspired to make her terribly fearful, reclusive as an adult, and a witch to her own children.

Let's just say she needed a good home much more than any of the other five to make her personality and place in the world work for her and others, especially for the children she bore. Her childhood trauma went deep underground, unexamined, to become part of a shadow self of which she was barely conscious. Consequently, she seemed at times to channel the worst of those evil stepmothers perhaps in some unconscious effort to purge herself of them.

That is not all, of course: it would be the case that the maternal grandmother who tended to the rearing of the five small children early on was considered to be odd. She was not unloving, they say, but she had a stern manner and lacked affection or, at least, failed to show it. However, to small children, failure to show affection is, indeed, unloving. It is this great grandmother whom my mother is said to be most like. Where personality formation is concerned, the cards seemed to be stacked against her.

As my mother's first-born, I venture to say she prayed for someone to save her. I think that was the intention behind my conception; I was to be her personal messiah and make the cosmos right whatever that may have looked like before her mother, my grandmother, died. One cannot know these things for sure this side of the veil, but it seems a great deal of unconscious material is imparted in the womb on many levels. Imagine. A fetus as part of the mother's body is probably able to hear every thought, whether spoken or not, as an impulse that runs electrically through the body tissues as well as creating various chemical changes. We come to identity with that material, as it is also part of our body, no matter that we eventually become separate.

But not entirely, it seems.

I have wondered about my life with its many mistakes. I have wondered if I derived my tendency toward disaster from my mother's childhood experiences. I have wondered, too, at how I never managed to find a man like my own father, but, rather, found men more like my mother's. Certainly, not all the men I have known fall into that category, but few relationships lasted very long and the one exception never fulfilled its potential.

I did not intend to make you sad. I just wanted to explore my homelessness from the less obvious angles of inheritance. Sometimes the facts of a matter are not enough to gain insight, and the deeper story needs review. However, it is also true that even having more of the puzzle pieces may not solve it. Maybe the story gets more interesting, but it can also become more tedious for all the effort to tease out the truth. I may have nothing here at all.

This evening, I have myself. I consider all the loneliness in this quiet place on a Sunday evening.

Friday, May 14, 2010

On Becoming Housed

Part of my endeavor while homeless has been to discern how it happens to seemingly different types of people and why they remain homeless. Of course, I know what happened to me, but what became problematic is how much I enjoy certain aspects of homelessness; and there seemed to be something to learn about myself here. Still, the desire to get out of this situation and never return to it has been cause enough for introspection and a deterrent to jumping at an easy fix, assuming there were such a thing.

A young, well-meaning Palestinian man, by the way, who hangs around the middle-eastern garage is always telling me to get a new vehicle. He practically shouts it every time he sees me. This fellow thinks I am really stupid to drive an old ugly, rusted-out, repair-prone vehicle. I laugh for lack of any easy way to explain my experience.

Certainly, the cost of housing is a chief constraint for those living in the rough, even while fewer and fewer people in general these days have choices about where and with whom they live. (A fair number of single adults at my workplace live with family, for example.) Even sharing an apartment here, unless one really does not care where one lives, starts at $500, though the $800-1000 range is more common. Cheaper arrangements are available as one gets further away from the coast, but then one has to account for a longer commute to work and the gradual debilitating effect of a constant sense of risk in living in run-down neighborhoods. Still, one might think being homeless is utterly out of the question and that one must be housed at any cost.

Housing at any cost usually means the shelter for those who are homeless. Perhaps I mentioned before that shelters are located in places where few people want to live, such as downtown, and are often too far away from the workplace. On several occasions, I have contemplated what shelter life might be like, just in case that were to become an unavoidable last resort. I tried to imagine walking to the train, catching the train to the bus, bussing to the general vicinity of work, and then walking the three or four blocks to get to the door. The entire circuit would take an hour or more each way.

There are other reasons why someone like myself would avoid the shelters, the lack of privacy, the threat of theft, and the strange assortment of denizens there to mention a few. There are just as good reasons to avoid being housed. I cannot stand a dark or ugly place to live. I cannot tolerate poorly-educated, ill-bred, or loud people for any length of time. That eliminates just about anyone with whom I might share a house at my income level.

Recently, a non-profit agency offered me a room in a house owned by a wheelchair-bound, disabled woman. She suffered brain injury and paralysis of the lower body from a plane crash that killed the pilot, her lover and fiance. That was thirty years ago. She was a family-practice physician, had two children, and might have remarried. I was to help this lady get organized and tend to her elderly mother who was losing her hearing and showing early signs of dementia. Her live-in caregiver and boyfriend was a high-functioning autistic person.

Let us call her Suzie. She drove that wheelchair like her house was the Autobahn. I had to jump out of the way more than a few times. She insisted that I eat soy products since these were staples in her household. As intelligent as she was, she could not seem to grasp my fear and aversion to genetically-modified foods of which soy is only one. The fact that I am a normal-functioning human being on two healthy, yoga-practicing, running legs who can really get things done in half the time it takes most anyone else earned me the regular comment that I am "hyper."

Of course, she was not a bad person, just very bossy and quite aggressive. I might have been able to manage her personality, except that my recent history of post-traumatic stress disorder, homelessness, and now being not-quite-housed, but somewhere in-between, just made me feel anxious after an eight-hour work day. I wanted to come home to . . . well, nothing. Maybe some classical music. Even though I had planned to be out of my truck by Easter, as that would mark two years, I was having second thoughts.

It was Easter Sunday. I had escaped for the day to the beach to hear the ocean, to find a point of peace inside, to rid myself of the anxiety that going home to Suzie evoked. The constriction in my chest that would start as soon as I got into the cab of my truck after work, or anytime I drove "home," had completely subsided by early evening; and I knew I would be homeless again, back in my truck, within days. It was not ideal, but keeping my sanity had become a priority. Anything I could do to stay in tune and out of anxiety was the route I would take, and that had become a habit with me.

And so it passed.

Now, interestingly, and parallel to the theme of eschewing anything that turned up the internal pressure, I realized there were just too many real advantages to being homeless over being housed. This is not the best news for me or anyone else. I had, as it were, gone native.

I had missed the cold outdoor showers, the privacy of my truck, the anonymity of parking lots, and the way I could wind down after work, even though at times the loneliness could be crushing. Yet, somehow, I needed that mental and emotional freedom. Puzzled by my new discovery and looking for a way to justify it, I decided to ask my homeless compatriots why they were homeless and whether or not they had that same urge to freedom.

You might guess the answers. Chris, for example, whom I met one unhappy night so lonely I was raining tears, told me flat out that he does not like being told what to do by anyone no matter who they are or what their business. Cynthia, on the other hand, can take people selectively and on her own terms. Her cat, though, does not like people at all (herself excepted, of course). This is not the widest cross-section of homeless humanity, but you get the point. Not being bothered is at a premium out here. Not having to explain or excuse oneself. Not having to fit into another person's version of reality.

The freedom we all deeply want and need.

The Denouement

This is it.

The entire episode, fantasy, dream, nightmare, interregnum, hiatus, crazy phase, and vacation in my truck is coming to an end. It is coming to an end because there is nothing else and nowhere else for this course to take. It will end. How badly we cannot yet know.

The truck is expensive. It eats an enormous dollar-amount of gasoline each day it is on the road while I seek food, a bathroom, or get to a job interview. Yes, I lost my last job. I asked for a day off every week to take care of personal business, but that is not all: I asked for a raise. The answer came a week later when the HR guy asked to speak to me in private and then handed me a notice of termination.

Of course, somehow I knew this employer was not paying me well enough to get out of the truck; but having a job to go to every day gave me a community and a social life in spite of the fact that I used up my meager savings and was not able again to save any money while there. I make too many mistakes trying to stay sane.

So, same day, with my walking papers in hand, I went down the corridor to another business I knew was hiring. Today was my third stab at an interview. Again, the owner/manager was too busy to see me. Not that he does not know who I am. I have seen this man and his employees on trips to the restroom and in the restroom enough times to know them all by name. I was invited innumerable times to come over and visit because they could use someone like me. They were making money --- good money. I could be part of it.

Why did I not go? Why did I not go before I was fired from my current job?

I got attached.

I came to love the very things about this job that I often hated: that funky, not-altogether-clean feeling of the place; the gangsta-rapper sales managers who made it a boiler room; the men and women who had been to jail and were now making good by working for someone who would hire them; the fact that my employer was a black man who had been to prison and whose mom and dad, step-mother, full and half-brothers, and a host of personal friends and neighbors worked for him; and that slightly out-of-place feeling engendered by it all. I fit, and I didn't fit.

There was a warmth there, though, that is hard to describe to another person unless, like me, they have had a fascination with black people and their derivative American culture. Sales meetings were more like coming to Jesus at a church revival. We would stop work regularly to sing. Stepmom, whom I called Reverend Mother, hummed praise songs all day, and she was amused and delighted by that title. I told her if the Hindus could have living female saints whom they revered, then there was no reason we could not have one in our very midst. The name stuck, and she returned the favor often by taking me aside in private, by the hand, and leading me in prayer. She even offered me a vial of her own brand of healing oil that had been blessed.

Mom, that is, Pop's first wife and mother of the boss also had her version of holy oil. Now Mom was about as far from Reverend Mother as another woman could get. She cracked colorful jokes most of the day and was on the phone selling with the rest of us. She was pure funk and very, very loud. She had been an alcoholic, needed and loved attention, and used her status and her son's position all the time to make sure she got what she wanted. She could be unpleasant. She could be funny. She was inspired one day by such a long round of lusty, rowdy jokes and laughter of which I was definitely a part to hand me sub rosa a vial of what she said was a very potent oil and motioned the place to dab it for best effect.

But that is all over.

I do not regret it. I was completely financially ripped off. Not that the place is an utter scam, but clearly the arcane pay structure left so much to the imagination one would be hard pressed to think of another way not to pay employees. Someone set their genius to it. It finally hit me, though, that I had run through my savings, borrowed money I could not repay, and borrowed yet more all because I was only making around $320 a week.

After paying for gas and food and paying down the repair bill on the truck, I could buy a little makeup, do the laundry, or purchase facial tissue and that was that until next week. I lived from one paycheck to the next even while I strove to meet the promise of making a $1000 per week. Like I said, it took a while for me to come to the conclusion that there were not enough hours in the week to reach income anywhere close to that $1000. Like I said, I make too many mistakes.

Still, having fallen too far from the solid middle class, I enjoyed this job and have to acknowledge the grimness of my starting point. It was part of what it took to get by. Even if regret is a waste of time, I have wasted so much time anyway, which brings me to how I do not know, most of the time, what I am doing. I wish I had better judgement, but I do not. I wish I had a handle on consequences, but I do not have that, either. Lastly, in this string of connected thoughts, I come to being so lost in this world that I might as well not be here for all the meaning I fail to contribute or impart. This is not a pretty truth, but I am aware that much of my truth is no longer attractive.

I can now come to Jesus with everybody else.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Notes at the Living End

As a way of cleaning house, I make some admissions.

First of all, surviving homelessness is not an art. That is simply and ridiculously untrue, even though I made that argument upon the vigorous belief in the benign, albeit false, premise that I am of special birth as a Midwesterner and that too much suffering has no reason to visit anyone from that part of the world.

I thought that I --- derived from the Land of Lincoln and well-educated --- I, among the millions and millions of other people across the globe who live in favelas, ghettos, squatter settlements, tent cities, non-profit shelters, and refugee camps, would be spared the ignominy, social isolation, and dire poverty engendered by homelessness.

Now thoroughly chastised by experience, I can report to you that there is nothing that can make homelessness anything other than it is: a nightmare existence. There is no loneliness like it. It is the dark of dark. One should rather be dead, and I cannot make this any nicer for you.

Poverty is not so painful in itself, though it eliminates most all opportunity to experience the kind of distraction I would most enjoy --- the opera, the symphony, gourmet dining. Getting dressed in public washrooms, reduced to listening to my tiny, battery-run radio, and eating smoked salmon and olives in the cab of my truck are nowhere close to the sublimity and elegance of being served by a wait staff in tuxedos in a room sparkling with silver, china, mirrors, and crystal, clear notes of glass and conversation muted by velvet drapes and thick carpet. Rather than ever being made to feel self-conscious, I always felt enlarged in such a setting, my sense of well-being tuned to the distinctive sounds of palatial eating.

Shame is unavoidable. Being without a home is irregular, however common it may become with the economy in full downward tilt. I have dared to tell a few people the details of my existence, but it is a very risky proposition generally. Sadly, while one hopes for the best, one must always expect the worst from people.

For example, there is nothing so humiliating as a police officer waiting for you to finish dressing before he approaches. In this case, most recently, it was a woman wearing the badge. Those Ford Crown Victorias driven by the police make no sound at all. Their tires, unlike the ones everyone else uses, do not seem to create friction on asphalt, concrete, or earthen surfaces and glide over twigs, plastic trash, and curbs. There is no hum or whirring of mechanical parts. You only know the police have arrived if you see them.

Of course, I am vigilant as I roll up my bedding and get dressed in the cab of my truck. I keep an eye out here and there, but then one might ask what a person would do seeing the police drive up if one is not, say, inclined to start a speed chase. There is nothing to do, even though I admit to getting situated behind the wheel. By then, however, the police officer was at my door and suggested that I was not going anywhere. She had already radioed her office and was in the process of checking my license plate.

I was not alone in this. I was part of a caravan of homeless vehicle owners who circled the wagons after dark in a quiet parking lot near one of the boat launches. My truck more than fit in and was even eclipsed in singularity by several clumsy, tired-looking RV's customized with duct tape and cardboard to replace missing glass in windows and bicycles and other objects tied on (not mounted) to the back. Add that to the squeaking, creaking, and rattling of every part and some unidentifiable, never-before-heard sounds. As usual, wheezing, coughing engines and the occasional backfire riddled the morning air, which alone might have been enough to set a cop off on a frenzy of ticket-writing, though that, as annoying as it may be, is not illegal.

"You know it's illegal to sleep in your truck?" The question had the inflection of the rhetorical, but I offered my best explanations. The officer asked for my driver's license. I handed it over, and she returned to her car. I got back in my truck and waited. Impatient to get on with my day and anxious about where I was now going to sleep, reviewing in my mind what place might be left, I walked back to the police car to collect my license.

"Did someone complain?"

"You mean, do people complain?! They complain all the time! You see these signs out here?" The officer pointed to the sign posted a few feet away in red letters, "No parking between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m," absurd and meaningless to anyone but the homeless.

"You know, I'd like to live out here in a car with my three kids instead of paying $1700 a month for a shit hole, with nothing left over," the officer's voice was dark with resentment. She paused. I said nothing. "If I see you out here, or on any city street again, I am going to arrest you and take your truck." The officer handed back my license. I returned to my vehicle, barely feeling my feet touch the pavement as I went. I was having that peculiar homeless experience of disembodiment, of being one of the undead, as the homeless truly are.

We do not usually think of the homeless as people whose human rights have been violated, but threatening to make matters worse for them by towing their vehicle and thereby forcing them out of that last vestige of civilized living so that they cannot get back and forth to work and must sleep on the ground or under a bridge is depraved. As a culture, we are collectively allowing people to be stripped of every possession, save their skin, for crimes as insignificant as sleeping.

Naturally, I have often felt sorry for the police who have to carry out the nasty deeds assigned to them by a fraction of the public, those who have time to attend City Council or neighborhood meetings and lobby for their own narrow interests. Of course, for example, vacation rental owners want the view of the Bay from their front windows to be unobstructed by homeless people and ugly vehicles, but their solutions to the problem take too great a toll upon an essentially harmless class of people.

We treat dogs better. In fact, I see Wild Animal Rescue trucks on a regular basis. I called Wild Animal Rescue myself one day when I noticed a seagull struggling with a broken wing. If the homeless look radioactive, unstable, and slightly necrotic, perhaps they are just not getting enough sleep; but be warned, there is no one to call.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

January 2010

Matt grabbed his cell phone from my hand.

"God, Kerry!"

I was supposed to have called Matt's work number and extension. He was testing his voice-over-internet phone to see if the pop-up box would appear on the computer screen as it should when he received an incoming call, the one I was supposed to have made.

"Matt," I spoke slowly, hoping to dilute his impatience, " I am not trying to aggravate you. You know, in the past couple of weeks, I have stopped to get gas, gone into the station to pay, come out, and driven away. A few miles later, I happen to look at the dashboard and notice I didn't pump any gas. I don't know how to explain that."

Matt pretended not to hear. He is not a man without sympathy, but it was not helping him to know I was a numbskull away from work, too. I had explained nothing. I was making him crazy, and he just wanted it to stop. I left his office without another word.

Working for Matt had been a joy up to a few weeks ago.

With the new year, several doors in my corridor of life slammed shut. Whether a result of winter's usual contraction and abbreviation, life reduced to the merest symbols of itself, or whether I and billions of other people on the planet, by whichever ancient design one may choose, are really facing the Apocalypse on personal and macrocosmic levels, I was left with a sense of foreboding of further damage to the delicate tendrils I was pushing out toward a possible spring. I am not sure now it will come, this year or any other.

There were hints of news that no one would like back in November, but I was keeping my chin up with Christmas ahead. We pretend during the Christmas season, which is unique in the way it stops time. We are all again in a wonderland of hope and promise that abides right up to the 25th, and then we are glad it is over and not sure what all the fuss was about as we continue to find pine needles, tinsel, and ornament hooks all over the house for weeks after. One day, almost suddenly, we realize the gloom and emptiness of January has entered the heart.

As I learned exactly the day after Christmas, my favorite web site where I communed with others who were, or had been, homeless, and what had been a consolation in weary evenings alone, was destroyed by a progress of incautious behavior and unseemly events in the lives of the moderator and his girlfriend. She was discovered by twists and turns to be the paramour in a drama that led her to Scotland and the very doorstep of the mother of his new child. Her personal tragedy, while it did not bring an empire down, meant we were all thrown from the hearth to the outer darkness once again, our stories of how homelessness happened to us and our attempt to communicate it, broken and scattered. Thankfully, a few friendships engendered by the web site had been preserved through private email. Otherwise, nothing was left.

Then my carburated truck, so unhappy in the rain as it sputters and chokes its way to a start as if it were drowning, gave out near the end of last week's deluge. It was towed to the middle-eastern garage and given a new battery. Raised from the dead once again, the truck wheezed and backfired to a complete stop on the freeway ramp a few days later. It was out of gas. The following day, it would not start at all when I returned to the parking garage laden with bags of grocery. Towed again, my poor truck would not be returned to me for an entire week. I had broken the gear box in the steering column, and every junk yard in the area had to be scoured for parts.

Obviously, part of the problem with the truck, besides its age, is me. The gas gauge is inaccurate, and I know I take a risk each time I allow it to fall below a quarter of a tank. I take my frustrations out on the truck regularly, too, by slamming it in and out of Park, hence, the most recent expensive repair. The other slice of the problem is just bad luck. Otherwise, how does one account for the tow-truck driver putting the key in the ignition and pulling it out with the entire starter cylinder attached? I wonder why the wheels, out of shame, do not just fall off and roll away.

The cost of the repair rocketed my running tab with the garage to a thousand dollars; and after a week in a hotel room, eating out every day, and taxi rides to work, I was in trouble again with Bank of America, a representative of which said I was fortunate to have received only four service fees for my overdrawn account as her bank had so generously decided not to charge anyone beyond that number. Of course, all those fees meant that my next automatically-deposited payroll check would be gone --- eaten up by bank rapine --- and that I would incur still more fees attempting to live on too little money. There was no end to the plunder in sight.

All the while, there were moments when the truck's repair seemed unlikely. They had found a steering column, but for a standard shift. Another search produced the proper one for an automatic transmission, but pieces had been broken off in the process of removing it from the wrecking yard. That part, for fear another one could not be located, was held back for repair. A close call. Real close.

I had not thought much about what I would do if the truck were ever discovered to be beyond repair. I have not afforded myself the luxury of such thinking, as being without both my vehicle and current home, as it were, would seem quite outside my capacity to cope. And it nearly was. I was distracted by thoughts of what I would do and where I would go, whether I could continue working if I had to bus, first, to all manner of social service agency to find a place to live. I have tried with difficulty to imagine living in a shelter and working a normal week. Typically, I would be downtown where most shelters are located and have to take both buses and trains and make as many as three changes one way to get to work and back.

Try as I might to amuse myself with television at the hotel, the vision of absolute final ruin never left me. It could be the end this time. I tried to pray, but that eluded me as I could not concentrate well enough to do it. I only slept part of the night, awoke with headaches, and had episodes of nausea throughout the day at work. I was in a sleepwalker's trance by the end of the week when Matt enlisted my help in his office.

In the week before the rainstorm, a woman who had become a friend at work left the company, followed by a young women whom I liked very much who quit in protest, and a manager who was fired for stealing credit card numbers. Being at work now was lonely and uncertain, and there were nasty rumors in the air. But I was bearing up; I had to. Holding a job gave me a paycheck and something to do besides dwell on the grief-stricken past. Fortunately, I doubt I could lose my job short of applying an Uzi to the place since I would have to trump the gangstas, ghetto girls, and welfare moms with their wide array of work habits so poor and glaring you would walk away convinced your dog could be Employee of the Month.

To be honest, though, things have cleaned up quite a bit from the time I first began employment with Matt, and I should admit I wanted this job knowing I would not be vexed by a strict dress code or stymied by an expectation of sociality with people of my own age and experience. After all, I was getting dressed in the morning without the aid of a mirror and doing make-up with a small mirror but not enough light. I could wear torn and ill-fitting clothes. I could wear the same thing every day. I could miss a hair washing. To wit, I could be poor among the poor, and no one would care what my truck looked like.

The best thing about January 2010 was it ended.