As most of you know, I am a person who became homeless at the age of 51 in the San Francisco Bay Area during a midlife crisis of enormous proportion, after working for many years as an elementary school music teacher and private teacher of Piano and Voice on the San Francisco Bay Area Peninsula. I struggled in and out of homelessness for the next twelve years, mostly on the streets of Berkeley, California. For the past fourteen months, I’ve successfully maintained an apartment in a completely different part of the country, and have been gainfully employed throughout most of that time. Still, however, I sometimes miss the allure of the streets. I find myself wanting to “hit the road” — to chuck it all, to flick it in, to flip the switch — and to become homeless once again. But when I read something like this short blurb I wrote in 2015, I remember why this might not be such a good idea.
An Incredibly Empty Place
Believe it or not, the streets used to inspire me. I used to feel free here. I wrote ten songs from the streets, arranged them, recorded them – here in Berkeley, in 2012, I wrote decent interesting music — while homeless. But now? They all recognize me. They see me on the streets.
Who’s “they?” Whoever it is who assumes — is they, and not we. Whoever stigmatizes is “they” — not we. We know who I really am — we who neither stigmatize nor assume. But they? They assume, because they see me on the streets, that I’m all about the hustle. Then, if they are not on the streets, they look down upon me, as though I am a dirt bag, here to rip them off. And if they are on the streets? Then they assume I am one of them. I’m supposed to have a hustle, supposed to have a game. When they find I have no hustle, when they find I have no game, then they assume I am their enemy. I then become a target. I must be a nark, a snitch, a rat. Why is Andy never in jail? It can’t possibly be that Andy isn’t about committing crimes, can it? It can’t possibly be that he wants nothing whatsoever to do with that game. It must be that he is a police informant. He’s going to turn us all in. We better get that guy Andy — before he gets us.
I’m either one of them — or I am their prey. And as for Music? What is Music? As for Art? What the hell is Art? Isn’t life all about the hustle? About taking from people who have even less than you have? And feeling good about it at the end of the day? As though it were an honest day’s work?
But to write music — what is that? Does it make me any money? No — not yet, anyway. Perhaps it never will. But why is that the prevailing question? Why is the question not whether I do another person harm? Does my writing music intrude on others at all? No. It does not. Then why am I not left alone, as I once was, in 2012? Because they think they know me now. They think they know me — because they see me. Whoever they are who assume, they judge the book by its cover. Whoever they are who stigmatize, they see me, and think they know me. In reality, they know me not.
Some of these hustlers don’t seem to think they can make any money in life without totally infringing upon the rights of others. Their means of earning money involves invading other people’s space. All day long I hear them: “Got fifty cents? Got a cigarette? A light? A cell phone? Can I sync my cell phone to your laptop? How much you want for that “top”? What do you mean, it’s not for sale? Who the hell do you think you are?”
I had a guy who calls himself my “friend” con me out of my last BART ticket. I paid for that BART ticket with my own earned money. It isn’t easy to sit there with back up against the brick wall of that BART station, flying a sign all day, and and keeping my mouth shut long enough for somebody to “get it.” I’ve had jobs that were way easier than that! But I’ve got my pride. You won’t hear the words “can you spare some change?” come out of me. I don’t want to be like those hustlers. I don’t want to intrude on people’s mind-sets, or invade their space while they’re rushing to get from one gig to another in the Mainstream. The sign says it all.
But I tell you – some of these people just get to me. They have no respect for other people. They don’t respect me. I have no value to them except for what they can con me out of. I don’t need their food stamps, their marijuana, their attitude. I don’t need them. I tell them I’m hungry, they tell me I should give them my last two dollars. I would so love to be able to eat regularly – to eat real food without having to wait for hours in a line every day, with fights breaking out, with security being involved and police being called — I’m tired of it all. Down here, it is either assumed that I am a criminal or, like I said, it’s assumed that I’m a mark. I’m either a potential perpetrator or a potential victim. There is no in between.
How did I ever get myself into this irreconcilable mess? I should be hanging around college professors, theatre directors, school principals, and parents of singing students and piano students! Like I used to be! I should be hanging around Actors and musicians and set designers! Like I used to! I should be hanging around playwrights and screen writers. Piano players, singers – composers like me. But I am exempt from hanging with people like myself. Somehow, it does not happen. Somehow, I cannot climb out of this hole. It’s too deep. My best hope is to communicate – and keep communicating – until someone feels me.
Does anyone feel me yet? Do you? I am constantly visible. Constantly seen – by whom? By everyone. And believe me – some people down here – that’s all they do is look. Look, lurk, watch, wait — and lay in wait. They cannot sleep at night — unless they have done somebody harm.
There are no walls around me. I have no roof over my head. I have no bed beneath me. I am vulnerable – through visibility. And I am associated with all those who are similarly vulnerable – through visibility. Many of whom are violent. To find identification, I look to pimps, hustlers, hookers, and drug dealers. Why? Because they live in the same world that I do. We have that in common. I smile and laugh and joke in the presence of people of whose lifestyles I disapprove. Why? Because it keeps me from getting the crap knocked out of me, day after day after day.
And yet, through all of those smiles and all of that laughter, through all of the identification, the unusual common ground, the ground that validates us, that separates us from those who live “inside,”– throughout the foundation of our amazing common dignity, the buck always stops when the fine print is read. And the fine print said:
I’m sorry, bro, but I really don’t want to distract that guy while you steal his bicycle. I mean, I’m sorry man, but I’m just not into it. I know you just turned me on to a bud of great medical weed. I know, I know, but still, but still . . .
How does one convey that just because one does not desire to partake in a criminal activity, this does not mean that one is the enemy of those who do? At least five times a week, I have to look into the shocked, threatened eyes of someone who has just realized that I simply have no desire to commit a crime. No desire to steal from anyone. No desire to do someone bodily harm or psychic damage in order to obtain what I want for myself.
At that point, our common dignity means nothing. I am only an easy mark. My personality means nothing, really. And so, nobody recognizes me for who I am. It’s an incredibly empty place to be.
June 15, 2015