Auditions Tonight

Auditions for Eden in Babylon begin tonight at 7pm at the Lionel Hampton School of Music.   There will be further auditions Monday at 7pm, with callbacks Tuesday at 7pm, at Moscow First Presbyterian Church.

I have waited seven years for this moment.  If you know what it means (or even if you don’t), please feel free to comment with the words “Break a Leg.”

Please donate to Eden in Babylon.
A little bit goes a long, long way.

 

Bigger and Better than the Streets

I wrote this, like the one last Thursday, on request from Alastair Boone, the editor-in-chief of Street Spirit.  There might be a similar entry next Thursday.  

When I was homeless in the San Francisco Bay Area, I relied to a large degree on the moral support of lifelong friends and family who were not. For one reason or another, it was not feasible for any of them to let me stay in their homes for any substantial length of time. Still, they frequently provided me with encouragement, and on occasion sent me money. While I was often upset that nobody was “letting me in,” I nonetheless was dependent on their emotional and financial support in order to endure the ongoing conditions of homelessness.

One of the reasons why I delayed the decision to leave the Bay Area for so long was because I was attached to my support group. I felt that my old friends and family members were just about the only people who knew that I was a competent guy who had landed on the streets as the result of a costly medical misdiagnosis. They were the ones who knew that a mistreated health condition had led to a mental breakdown, as my inability to properly manage a health condition threw me into first-time homelessness at the age of 51.

They were the ones who watched in horror, as one by one I lost all my accounts, and could no longer keep up with the high cost of living on the S.F. Bay Area Peninsula. But still, they believed in me, and they did what they could to help me get back on my feet. The only thing they didn’t do was to let me stay with them. Ironically, to have offered me housing, even temporarily, would probably have been the only thing that could have possibly helped me to get back on my feet. The depth of the gutter where the homeless are consigned to dwell is really that deep. For me, at the time, it seemed inescapable.

So I continued to live outdoors, where I found myself gathering with other homeless people at “feeds” and at places like the Multi-Agency Service Center (MASC) in Berkeley. Though I and my fellow homeless people had arrived at homelessness by a variety of different paths, we had one thing in common: we were homeless. To the social workers who tried to help us, there was no distinction between a man who had been an elementary school music teacher, and a man who had been brought up on the streets, taught by his parents to steal laptops from an early age. Graphic artist and con artist were one and the same. We were all in this boat together.

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We were all homeless – and we indeed bonded together. After all, the laptop thief was my equal, no more or less endowed by the Creator with inalienable human rights like my own. But the only people who still saw me as a competent, employable human being were the ones who had known me prior to my “fall.” My fellow homeless people saw me as a homeless person — as one of them, an equal. Social workers and police officers saw me as a homeless person, though by and large they did not see me as equal, but as someone who was somehow below them in the hierarchy of human rights. My old friends and family members saw me as Andy, the guy they’d known and loved all their lives, whether homeless or not. Of course I needed their support!

But were they helping me with the one thing I needed? That is, to “get inside?” No – they were not. They had their own concerns. Meanwhile, I watched while the sordid conditions of homelessness gradually transformed me from a naive, overweight singing teacher to a scrawny fraction of my former self. Gradually, I got to be half-crazed from protracted sleep deprivation. Often, I became fully crazed from feeling that I was treated like a sub-human mutant, rather than an equal. Passersby sneered at me in disgust. They viewed my visible poverty as an unsightly blot on society, a piece of garbage to be swept off the streets, along with the rest of my fellow eyesores. Were it not for the bonding with my fellow homeless citizens, I’d have lost all shreds of human dignity.

In order to cope with this massive sense of ever-increasing dehumanization, I turned at first to marijuana, though I’d smoked no more than twice since the 80’s — certainly less than most of my friends who still lived indoors. Then, during the last three years of my homeless sojourn, I turned to a harder drug. I used speed to desensitize me from the cold – both the physical coldness of temperature, and the spiritual coldness of the condescending mockers in my midst. One by one, my old friends and family members, with rare exception, abandoned me. One of them recently told me: “We were all just waiting to read your obituary.”

Finally, in June of 2016, I picked up my check and walked out of the city of Berkeley without saying a word. “If the drugs won’t kill me,” I told myself, “the thugs who dispense them will.”

For a month I wandered the other side of the Bay in search of a permanent answer. But nothing seemed to work. In a shelter, I caught a flu, and was kicked out for that reason. The hospital wouldn’t let me in, because if they let me in, they’d have to let all of us in. They gave me some pills and told me to rest in bed for ten days. But I had no bed! I got kicked off of the all night bus for fear of contaminating the other homeless people, who relied on the all-night bus as a shelter.

Finally, in desperation, I got down on my knees. I told the Universe that all I wanted was “a lock on a door, a window, and a power outlet.”

Then I took action. I began googling keywords until I found a place in the Pacific Northwest that rented for only $275/mo. – something that would easily have gone for $900/mo. in the Bay Area. It was a tiny room in a converted hotel — but it would do the job. I called an old associate, someone whom I’d worked with long ago when he was a music teacher at a middle school. Hearing my story, he agreed to front me $200 for a one way Greyhound ticket to a new life. After that, I told my story to the prospective landlord, whom I called while still in San Francisco. To my amazement, he agreed to hold the place for me until I got there! Forty-eight hours later, I was sleeping in my new room — and it had a window, two power outlets, and three locks on the door. Four days after that, I signed a one year lease. Three weeks later, after years of being considered unemployable in the San Francisco Bay Area, I landed a part-time job as a piano player at a small town church.

A part of me still wishes I had made the decision earlier. It would have spared me the last three years of psychic hell, as the pain of my homelessness was doused with street drugs, and the combination threatened to plummet me toward an untimely death. But had I made the decision earlier, I would have abandoned the bulk of my support group. How thankful I am to have lost their support all the same! For at the moment when I finally decided to leave the Bay Area for a low rent district in a distant State, I had no one left to lose – and everything to gain.

Though the sheltered world does not know it, homelessness is not the same thing as alcoholism, drug addiction, or incompetence. It’s not the kind of thing where one needs to “change their ways” in order to overcome it. In order to overcome homelessness, what one needs is dignity. It doesn’t matter whether we were music teachers or laptop thieves. We are all created equal; we are all endowed by our Creator with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We are all bigger and better than the streets.

Please donate to Eden in Babylon.
A little bit goes a long, long way.

 

A Light for the Nations

Here is My Servant, whom I uphold,
My Chosen One, in whom My soul delights.
I will put My Spirit on Him,
and He will bring justice to the nations.
He will not cry out or raise His voice,
nor make His voice heard in the streets.
A bruised reed He will not break
and a smoldering wick He will not extinguish;
He will faithfully bring forth justice.

He will not grow weak or discouraged
until He has established justice on the earth.
In His law the islands will put their hope.”
Thus says God the LORD—
He who created the heavens
and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and its offspring,
who gives breath to the people on it
and life to those who walk in it—
“I, the LORD, have called you
for a righteous purpose,
and I will take hold of your hand.
I will keep you and appoint you
to be a covenant for the people
and a light to the nations,
to open the eyes of the blind,
to bring prisoners out of the dungeon,
and those sitting in darkness
out from the prison house.”

–Isaiah 42:1-7

Please donate to Eden in Babylon.
A little bit goes a long, long way.

 

A Light to the Nations

Here is My Servant, whom I uphold,
My Chosen One, in whom My soul delights.
I will put My Spirit on Him,
and He will bring justice to the nations.
He will not cry out or raise His voice,
nor make His voice heard in the streets.
A bruised reed He will not break
and a smoldering wick He will not extinguish;
He will faithfully bring forth justice.

He will not grow weak or discouraged
until He has established justice on the earth.
In His law the islands will put their hope.”
Thus says God the LORD—
He who created the heavens
and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and its offspring,
who gives breath to the people on it
and life to those who walk in it—
“I, the LORD, have called you
for a righteous purpose,
and I will take hold of your hand.
I will keep you and appoint you
to be a covenant for the people
and a light to the nations,
to open the eyes of the blind,
to bring prisoners out of the dungeon,
and those sitting in darkness
out from the prison house.”

–Isaiah 42:1-7

Tuesday Tuneup 41

Q. Where would you like to be?

A. In a place of greater efficacy.

Q. What do you mean by that?

A. I would like to be more effective.

Q. In what way?

A. In many ways.

Q. Such as?

The Answerer takes a breath.  

A. Such as in my ability to help people.  To make a difference in their lives.   I mean, a positive difference — not a negative one.   Sometimes I just feel like my influence, try as I may to be helpful, winds up being hurtful.  I stick my foot in my mouth at some juncture along the way, and I wind up feeling — I don’t know.   Like a failure, I guess.

Q. Are you a failure?  I mean, objectively speaking?

A. I suppose that depends on what it means to succeed.

Q. What does it mean to succeed?

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A. Very good questions, these.  I think that success must mean different things for different people.   And our notions of success must be somehow wrapped up in our ideas as to life-purpose.   We have this American idea of success here — seems to be dwindling a bit — but it’s the notion that success is related to some kind of worldly advance in monetary gain, accumulation of property, or perhaps a surge in prestige, clout, power, or influence over others.   I don’t know.  A bunch of things that I never really think about.

Q. Then why are you thinking about them?

A. I lied.  Who am I trying to fool?   I think ahout them all the time.  But usually, it’s with  aghast exasperation.

Q. Aghast exasperation?

A. Yeah.  I drop my jaw, and stand aghast at what they all seem to expect of me.  I become exasperated —  not because I don’t have those things (money, property, clout, etc.) — but because people seem to think I’m supposed to have those things in order to be “happy.”  Drives me up the wall!   How would you like it if a bunch of people were always telling you how “unhappy” you are, just because you don’t have all the things they have, even though you don’t want them anyway?  (Not to mention, you’re probably happier than they are.)

Q. Why do you care what they think?

A. I don’t know.   Seems I get asked that a lot these days.   

Q. Do they care what you think?

A. Evidently not.

Q. Then why should you care what they think?

A. Again, I don’t know.   Golden Rule, maybe?   I mean, what is this modern-day hogwash about how we should all be completely indifferent to what other people are thinking?  I get so tired of everybody telling me I care too much about what other people think.   What am I supposed to do?  Stop caring?   That seems — unloving.   Did Jesus stop caring when He went to the Cross?

Q. But isn’t there a difference between caring about them, and caring about what they think of you?

A. No!  They ARE what they’re thinking!!  Whether they think it about me, or anybody else, or the fencepost!!

Q. But do you KNOW what they are thinking?

A. Yes!  It’s obvious what they’re thinking!   They even tell me what they’re thinking!  They do that all the time.   How can I not know what they’re thinking?   They’re always telling me that I’m this worthless, no good, lazy impoverished bum who made “poor choices” throughout this poor life, otherwise with his talents and abilities he’d be living in the frickin’ Taj Mahal, or in some big mansion like that one place where I lived a long time ago.   As if I care to live in a mansion.   I’m just grateful I’m not flying a sign and sleeping under an overpass with a boatload of tweakers.   

Q. You once lived in a mansion?

A. Yes.

Q. What was it like living in a mansion?

A. Freaky is all get-out.  My landlord had more money than he knew what to do with.  He gave me this huge upstairs flat with a private bathroom and a marble floor on the shower.  The guy had two Steinway grand pianos, recording equipment  . . .

Q. Why was that freaky?   Why not beautiful?

A. I don’t know.  I just didn’t belong there somehow.  The guy had a Jaguar, a Cadillac – expensive Belgian furniture you weren’t even supposed to sit on — I just felt like it was out of my league.

Q. And what, pray tell, is your league?

A. Wrong side of the tracks, man.   Poor but thrifty parents.  Neither of them left a will.  Neither of them had anything to leave.  I’ve gravitated toward poor people all my life.  I feel a kinship with people who are impoverished, and I feel out of place among people of greater means and privilege.

Q. But why is that side of the tracks the wrong side?   Why not just — another side?

A. Because of the very thing I said at the top of this whole page.  

Q. Refresh my memory?

A. I said, I wish I could be more effective.   And it just seems like, in this society, if you don’t have at least some means, at least some privilege, you’re not effective at all.

Q. But can’t you be effective in other ways?   Like say helping a friend of yours with a personal issue?   It doesn’t cost money to do that, does it?

A. But that’s my whole frustration!   I don’t help people right.  I say the wrong things.  I get the feeling they should be talking to a professional, and yet — every time somebody’s told me that they couldn’t help me, and I needed a professional, I took it as personal rejection.

Q. Do you feel like a hypocrite?

A. Yes.  If I feel rejected because a friend is telling me that my issues are “too much of them” and that I need “professional help,” then what right do I have to suggest that some friend of mine needs professional help, rather than to talk to me?

Q. But if they talk to you, won’t you just stick your foot in your mouth again?

A. Yes.   And that very well could be the reason all those other people told me that I should see a professional.   They meant well, but they didn’t have the facile or expertise to help me.

Q. Would you consider seeing a professional?

A. I already do.  And I got a stack of bills higher than the ceiling.

Q. Andy – what is the bottom line?

A. You keep asking me that.

Q. Andy – what is the bottom line?

A. See what I mean?

Q. Andy – what is the bottom line?

Andy takes a breath.  

A. The bottom line is that, for a variety of reasons ranging from my being a social imbecile, a dork, a clutz, an unemployable space case, disabled, scraping my nuts off trying to keep up with the rising cost of living, not being able to get around, not having a car, and just generally being a weirdo,  I just don’t consider myself to be very effective.  And I would like to be more effective.

A. So with all that working against you, how can you be effective?

Q. By doing one great thing before I die.  By doing one great thing that will reach people — and that will make a positive difference in their lives.

A. Wow — do you have any idea what that thing might be?

Q. I know exactly what that thing might be!  And by the way, so do you.   Daylight’s burning.  Time’s wasting.  Money doesn’t grow on trees.  LET’S GET THIS SHOW ON THE ROAD. 

The Questioner is silent.

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A little bit goes a long, long way.

The Challenge of the Wealthy

Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”

“Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”

“Which ones?” he inquired.

Jesus replied, “‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”

Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.

–Matthew 19:16-24

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A little bit goes a long, long way.

 

Shedding the Streets

“Shedding the Streets” is a 21 minute impromptu talk in which the speaker expresses the necessity and difficulty of abandoning tired old values acquired from years of living on the urban streets. If you like my work, please feel free to share it.  

Please donate to Eden in Babylon.
A little bit goes a long, long way.