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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.