More stuff I wrote IRT while I was going the worst time of my life... until I realized it could be much, much worse for me or anybody else....
AH-merica and the confluence of affluence and effluence; the land of plenty, pain or prosperity. You don’t get to pick.
Those were my thoughts from my vantage point at the bus stop as a young mother and her son, maybe three or four-years-old, raided a dumpster behind a convenience store. I was on my way to a halfway house, transitional living, whatever euphemism is used nowadays to indicate “homeless shelter.” The setting sun glared over the roof of the Circle-K, blinding me with late afternoon light, reducing mother and son to vague shadows moving through miasmic heat, car exhaust, the stench of ghetto streets. Specters really, they’d suddenly appeared from a vacant lot behind the store, the little boy in tow as mom moved with intention between piles of trash and rusting hunks of jagged steel. After looking briefly towards the store, peering to see if any employees were outside, mom opened the gates to the dumpster enclosure and disappeared inside, her son waiting impatiently like a fresh puppy. A box appeared in his hands and he held it with assurance, something he’d apparently done many times before, receiving items into the carton while glancing furtively over his shoulder toward the store. Within seconds, the box was stuffed with food that would have otherwise gone to the landfill: loaves of bread, microwaveable burritos and burgers, sandwiches, noodle cups, a jug of milk, juices in different shaped containers. With the box overflowing with corporate trash, the mom stepped from the enclosure with a few more items in her hands then traded loads with her son, closed the gate, and led him back to from where they came.
My bus roared to a stop, the hiss of pneumatics arriving milliseconds before a cloud of cold-smelling diesel exhaust, blocking my view of the dumpster raiders. As I swiped my pass at the pay box, I tried to look for them beyond the bus driver’s window but they’d disappeared as quickly as they’d emerged, ghosts dematerialized in a landscape consuming the refuse of society.
My problems suddenly felt pithy, petty, small, and I was embarrassed by the self-pity that had consumed me for the past 72 hours. I knew that the child was unaware of his mother’s struggle to keep him fed, sheltered and safe, that at the dawn of his life he saw only her light, felt only her love — and the occasional hunger that must have occurred when store employees guarded the dumpster gates. The mother’s own hunger for a better way, for her son’s wellbeing, for justice in a life that offers none, became all the more poignant to me as my stomach gurgled with complaint, no longer satisfied with the cheese sandwich I’d eaten hours earlier. Something inside her had tamped down the pride that prevents the rest of us from sifting through garbage in order to find a meal. What she had was a love so powerful that it had annihilated compunction and overwhelmed whatever belief she had that life had treated her unfairly — she had bigger fish to fry, in an unfortunately figurative sense. A love purer than most of us will ever know because Love as a noun is meaningless unless it is first used a verb.
Looking one last time, to see if I could catch a glimpse of them, I settled back into my seat and allowed them to devour my pain, to take away what thoughts remained of my uncertain future. As the bus moved up the line, past boarded up houses and by-the-week apartment buildings, the day’s light dimmed with colors of a Navajo blanket, long dark stripes cutting through colors and announcing today becoming yesterday. My mind beat wings against the dusk, sounding like shuffled cards or vomit splashing on a solemn cold marble floor. Seeking out memory of the boy and his mother but unable to escape the roost where a short tin chain killed full flight. Everything from that memory dissolved in the boy’s small hand held tight in his mother’s fingers, damp with the sweat from heat that lingered past the vermillion horizon, returning me to thoughts of my destination.
Chewing an old chestnut, “It’s not the destination but the journey,” left a bitterness in my mouth that no amount of spit would expel. A clichéd indulgence for those with the time and money to explore and who are provided with a safety net, a soft place to land, a feathered nest filled with support systems, bank books, and antique furniture. For those with assets enough to play-act vagabond or starving artist, the destination is a given, valueless whimsy, the journey a trifle packed in sponge cake and topped with whipped cream. There’s no such luxury for those travelling without coats or shoes or coin; a journey cannot be appreciated when eyes are diverted with the downturned gaze of a mendicant.
Likewise, “attitude is everything” is a platitude about nothing, spouted by self-important assholes who seek to shame those who have hit bottom. When abundance is ample and readily available, it’s an extremely facile (and cruel) act to attribute someone’s misery to a bad attitude rather than acknowledge that luck or circumstance or injustice or human cruelty had anything to do with them ending up on the streets. Mental health or substance abuse issues (or some of both) aside, there’s almost as many reasons for folks winding up on the streets as there are homeless people. However, I’m not aware of a single person who is homeless due to a “bad attitude” or general negativity. There’s no logical reason to believe that someone has said, “Fuck everyone, I’m going to go live on a bus bench and eat out of garbage cans,” and then made good on that statement (I’m not saying that it’s never happened but it’s certainly not logical). Attitude isn’t the reason people are homeless: lack of money is (surprise, surprise). Really, if the attitude canard had any merit, the homeless problem would be solved with truckloads of Xanax and endless Happy Hours.
Sure, bums and hobos have always been with us but I don’t count them among the homeless — they choose their plight, for whatever reason (usually addiction to some substance) and are happy with the vagabond life, their panhandling income and the freedom of answering to no one. I’ll address the “bums” in a later article; they are not included among the homeless I discuss here.
Everyone I know who is homeless — and at the moment almost everyone I know is homeless — is sick to death of the journey and yearn for the destination of decent wages and adequate shelter. Very few lack self-determination, almost all are ashamed that they’re in their current situation. Anyone relying on agencies for assistance will tell you that the resources available are far less than what even an $11-an-hour job would get them, all without waiting hours (or oftentimes, an entire day) in dirty lobbies, dealing with surly, cynical social workers. If there’s anything that characterizes a life of joblessness and homelessness, it’s boredom and shame: endlessly waiting to receive services, dealing with suspicion that they’re “not doing enough” to change their situation, knowing that (if possible) a job would be a much more productive and enjoyable use of time.
For the housed among us, most of our encounters with the homeless are the drug-addicted and the mentally-ill. The ones who hit us up for spare change, scream at the air, fight or fuck just about anywhere, get on the train and offend us with their smell. But those people do not represent the larger homeless population, the ones hidden throughout shelters (that don’t tolerate substance abuse of any kind), counting down the months for housing vouchers, spending hours and days waiting for available services, scrambling to keep kids fed and in school. Unfortunately, their invisibility is assured by their unwillingness to be the face of “respectable” homelessness, faces obscured by the ones we flee from, the ones we report to the clerk or the cop. Yet, those are the ones dropped between society’s numerous cracks and into hell holes.
Here are the cracks, the hell hole. I’m here to show you around, your docent, your guide.