Tuesday Tuneup Thirty

Q. Where would you like to be?

A.  In California.

california
California

Q. Why on earth would you ever want to be in a place like California?

A. I get tired of not being allowed to have a problem.

Q. What’s that supposed to mean?

A. My experience with the State of California, having lived in a number of different cities there, is that in California, I was permitted to have a problem.

Q. What do you mean, “permitted to have a problem?”

A. Down there it was okay for me to have a problem.

Q. And it’s not okay up here to have a problem?

A. Not really.  Nobody seems to have any problems up here.  Or, if they do, they certainly don’t show them.  Me?  I’ve got problems.  I’ve got issues.  And when they arise, they stick out like a sore thumb.

Q. So you’re saying you don’t feel like you fit in up here?

A. Not when I have this many problems, no.  Down in California, it seems like everybody’s got problems.  So I blend right in.

Q. But haven’t you solved a lot of your problems since you’ve been up here?

A. Some of them, yes.  I’m paying $450 for a one bedroom apartment that would have been $1800 down there, at least in the Bay Area.  I’m not on the streets anymore.  I’ve got a decent place to live, and privacy.   And being around happy people has boosted my morale.  Just today, the Personnel Director at my church said twice that he believes I was meant to be here.  That God had something to do with it.  And it was encouraging, but still — I kinda feel like I’m just about the unhappiest one in the bunch.

Q. Why do I find that hard to believe?

A. Probably because I have a reputation of being a happy-go-lucky guy who rises with the song of the lark and wants very little out of life except to write his writings, speak his speakings, and compose his composings in peace.

Q. And are you not precisely what your reputation suggests?

A. Usually I am.  But right now I’m not.   Not the past three months anyway.  Too many problems.

Q. Would going back to California solve these problems?

A. Of course not.  But it would put me in a place where everybody else had at least as many problems as I do.  I wouldn’t feel so alone.

Q. Could it possibly be that you are only having a bad day?

A. Maybe.  And just maybe it’s in a financial area.  Now I don’t personally mind being poor or encountering setbacks.  It’s a lot better to be poor, and to live inside and have food in the cupboard, than it is to be poor and have to live on the streets.  But what happens is that when setbacks are encountered, it aggravates my class issues.  

Q. Class issues?

A. Yes.  All the things that I get paid by people like Classism Exposed to write about.  And while these events may indeed bolster my writing eventually, I tend to have to wade through a wad of resentment against “rich people” in the meantime.

Q. You have resentment against rich people?

A. Well, I try not to.   And I eventually get over it.  But I gotta just tell you, some of these rich people — I don’t care about their money.  It’s the lectures.  They lecture me about things they’ve never been through and can’t possibly understand.  And they expect me to kiss their asses every time they do me the slightest favor, even though it’s totally no skin off their backs.  And they, they —

Q. They what, Andy?  And who are they?   Isn’t this supposed to be about you, and not about an abstract group of invisible “rich people” who are always lecturing you expecting you to kiss their asses?

A. Three questions at once?   Really, Questioner!  You seem almost as uptight as I am.

Q. Then why don’t we both slow down?

A. Sounds like a plan.   I’ll answer the first question.   They — whoever they are — expect me to be able to do the things that they can do.  This is because they, unlike me, either have either the money to do them, or the mental health to do them, or both.

Q. And who are they?

A. Just a bunch of phantoms from my past whom I never see anymore, never talk to, and yet still fly around like bats in my brain.

Q. Isn’t this supposed to be about you and not about them?

A. Yes, but I am just too upset right now.

Q. Why?

A. Financial.  It’s the end of the month.  I’m on a fixed income.   A couple unexpected charges came in, and it threw me into a state of insecurity.   When I was feeling kinda low about it, I made the mistake of mentioning it to somebody.  I went into some detail, and they only said: “that’s life!”  In California, they would have commiserated.   They would have all shared stories about similar insecurities, and how frustrated they all were.  And then, my depression would have been validated — not dismissed.

Q. But rather than seek validation for your depression, why not accept that this is a fact of life like the happy people do?

A. Well, that’s where my mental health comes in.  I’ve got some kind of problem that makes me over-react to stuff like this.  They say — bipolar.  I don’t know.  I get tired of it all.  Which is also a part of my mental health problem.

Q. Come on now — is it really your mental health?   Are you really that crazy?

A. No – I don’t like to think so anyway.  I mean, what are you driving at?

Q. Do you really want to sacrifice the things you do well in order to correct the things you do poorly?

A. Don’t make me laugh!  Have you listened to my piano playing lately?  There’s rage written all over it!  If I treated a human being the way I treat that piano, I’d be in jail for Assault and Battery.

Q. So these psych meds will make your music more placid?  Less threatening?

A. I wasn’t going to put it that way!

Q. Are you ready to play hard ball?

A. Probably not.   Do I have a choice in the matter?

Q. How many laptops were stolen from you in California during the last three years you lived there?

A. Five.  Four in Berkeley, and one in Oakland.

Q. How many laptops have been stolen from you in the past 2 1/2 years you have lived here?

A. Zero.

Q. How many cell phones and headphones were stolen from you in California?

A. Too many to count.

Beautiful Fall colors in Boise Idaho.  Beautiful Fall colors in Boise Idaho.
Idaho

Q. Has anything at all been stolen from you in Idaho?

A. No.  Not one thing.

Q. How many jobs did you get the last three years you were in California?

A. Zero.

Q. How many jobs have you had since you’ve been up here?

A. Two.

Q. When was the last time you signed a one year lease on an apartment in California?

A. Gosh, I don’t know.  Probably in the 70’s in college, when my dad cosigned.

Q. How many one year leases have you signed on apartments in Idaho?

A. Two.  Go on.

Q. How many people called you “crazy” when you were in California?

A. Just about everyone I know.  Close friends even.  I was like — a curiosity piece to them.  Always the odd man out, the weirdo.

Q. How many people have called you “crazy” in North Idaho?

A. Zero.  Go on.

Q. How many years were you out on the streets in California?

A. You know the answer to that.  Twelve years, barring scattered rentals here and there that never worked out.

Q. How many days have you spent on the streets since you’ve been in Idaho?

A. Zero.  Please continue.

Q. How many people whom you know from California think that you experienced a total psychic change on a 48-hour bus trip to Idaho?

A. Quite a few.  If one more Californian tells me that I “found God” on that bus trip, I think he’s going to find a right cross in his mug that came straight from the devil.  Go on.

Q. How many people in Idaho believe that you experienced a total psychic change on a 48 hour bus trip?

A. Zero.  Of course, they have no idea what I was like before the 48-hour bus trip.  But I can guarantee you that I did not change one bit during those 48 hours.

Q. How many drivers have flipped you off in Idaho?

A. Zero.

Q. How many grown men and women have you encountered in Idaho who blame all their problems on their parents?

A. Zero.

Q. Have you met anyone in Idaho who refuses to call their mother on Mother’s Day?

A. Not yet.  Go on.

Q. How many people accepted you for who you are in the State of California?

A. Not too many!  They were always trying to change me into something I was not.

Q. Are you accepted for who you are here in Idaho?

A. Totally.  Nobody tries to change anybody up here.  It’s refreshing.

Q. When your ex-wife came back to you after thirty years, what was the overall reaction among people whom you know here in Idaho?

A. People were thrilled!   They encouraged us.  They thought what we were doing was fantastic – we got nothing but positive from every single person here.

Q. And how did people in California react?

A. They thought I was crazy, as usual.  If they said anything at all, it was something along the lines of: “I’m gonna stay out of that one!”

Q. Are you ready for the Big One?

A. There’s a bigger one than that?  You gotta be kidding.

Q. How many people complimented you on your typing speed in California?

A. Not many.

Q. How many people in California told you that you were typing too loud?

A. Innumerable.  It happened three times a week.  Sometimes three times a day.

Q. How many people in Idaho have told you that you were typing too loud?

A. Zero.

Q. How many people have complimented you on your typing speed here in Idaho?

A. Shucks, I don’t know.  Twenty or thirty maybe.

Q. And what does all this say?

A. It says that, due to a variety of factors, some of them cultural, some of them socio-economic, people in Idaho seem to have a tendency to emphasize the positive.  People in California, unbeknownst to them, appear to have a tendency to emphasize the negative.

Q. Which do you prefer?

A. The positive, of course.

Q. Then why don’t you start emphasizing it?

A. That, sir, is the $64,000 question.

Q. May I be excused, then?

A. Not so fast, buddy.  You gotta feel my sarcasm first.  I’ve got issues.  And they’re a hell of a lot deeper than financial.  I’m as positive right now as I can possibly be, or as I even should be, in the eyes of an all-knowing God.

Q. Do tell – what are these deeper issues?

A. They’re none of your damned business.  Get outta here.

The Questioner is silent. 

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Classism in the Schools

I wrote this essay on request from Denise Moorehead, the blog editor of Classism Exposed, where some of my other work is featured.  

Students begin to experience the effects of classism in our education system as early as kindergarten, or perhaps even nursery school.  Elementary school playgrounds reveal the effects of classism on a child’s education.

A child from an impoverished family will find that her parents cannot readily afford the latest toy or gadget that might be all the rage on the playground.   When all the other kids are excitedly exploring the newest electronic recreational device, the kid who is without feels excluded and somehow “less than” the others.   Sadly, that child cannot possibly grasp that this awful feeling of inferiority is caused by something called classism – an archaic system of values that favors the wealthy and punishes the poor.

EducationalInequalityposter-thumb.jpgWhen I found the kids in my 11th grade class making fun of me, I myself did not know that classism was the culprit.   My dad was a Navy man — an enlisted man who had just been stationed in a new town after a tour overseas.   Because my parents wanted to assure their children of a “high quality education,” they bought a modest house in the richest of four unified school districts in that city.   I remember that we barely made the border between that district and the next one down.

The kids at that school basically didn’t talk to me for about six months.   I was mocked and ridiculed for the way I dressed, the way I carried myself, and the way I talked.   Interestingly, all of that changed overnight when they happened to hear me play piano at a party.   Because of my piano playing, I suddenly became a popular man on campus — so popular, that I was advised to pretend I had been born in that community, since it didn’t look right for me to have that much on the ball socially, and yet have actually been born in a small “hick town” up in Northern Idaho.

For the next several years, my world was an environment where the indicators of privilege tipped people off as to who was “cool” and who was not, and appearances were more important than reality.   It was then that I learned how to schmooze with the jet-setters, and appear to be one of them, even though I was not.

Because of my musical aptitude, I was encouraged to apply to a Conservatory of Music at a nearby high-tuition private college.   Because my dad was going to school there on the G.I. bill at the time, and both of my parents had jobs at the University, I was eligible for a 90% tuition discount.   I received a very high score on the music placement test, and was accepted as a junior after having completed two years at another school.

Of course, I was overjoyed.  But when I got there, I found once again that I somehow didn’t fit in. It turned out that all of the other music students were from wealthy families who could afford the full tuition.  Moreover, most of them had done fairly poorly in high school, otherwise they’d have attended a lower tuition school such as a State college that would only accept students with higher GPA’s.  To top it all off, the professors seemed to take a special liking to me right off the bat, due to my musical prowess.

While it seemed that the faculty was oblivious to matters having anything to do with class, the student body was another story.  I was considered to be a “home town boy,” and the obvious fact that both my parents had low-level positions in the language lab and the library revealed that I was not exactly of the upper crust.  While I tried to “talk the talk and walk the walk,” the contrast between my background and that of the other students overwhelmed my effort to feign the social cues of privilege.  Discouraged and feeling alone, I dropped out of school after the first semester.

Although I never received a degree in Music, I was asked years later to work as an independent contractor for a public school that needed an accompanist.   The school was on the “other side of the tracks,” and the majority of students were Hispanic.   When asked about their professional aspirations, I could not help but notice that very few of the kids had any thoughts of ever “climbing up the ladder.”  Most seemed content to continue in agricultural or blue collar jobs, following their parents’ footsteps and guidelines.  

As I continued to take my skill set to schools of all kinds, I eventually received a high-paying job as a music teacher at a high tuition private elementary school.  There, by contrast, it was generally assumed that the kids would be pursuing leadership positions involving creative problem-solving and other specialized skills.  Why is it assumed that those of privilege are to become the leaders of tomorrow, while those who lack are supposed to be the flunkies?  Shouldn’t our nation’s leaders be comprised of those who have vision and fortitude, not of those who have wealth?

Classism is a venom that seeps through every crevice of what some still dare to call a Christian nation.  People of privilege are shown favoritism at every level — or if they’re not, those who are have to hear about it — as was the case when I was at the Conservatory.   On the other hand, poor people are made to feel that there is something wrong with them — like the child whose parents are too poor to afford to buy her the latest toy.  

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Tuesday Tuneup 26

Q. Where would you like to be?

A. In a place of greater confidence.

Q. In what areas do you lack confidence?

A. In many areas.  But only  one area is important to me at this time.

Q. What area is that?

A. It has to do with integrity, as we discussed last week.  I lack confidence that I will be able to act according to my integrity, and not according to hypocrisy.

Q. Why should you ever prefer hypocrisy over integrity?

A. I don’t, in my heart.  But at certain moments, I find myself choosing a hypocritical course of action, only because I lack confidence that I can find a way to act according to my integrity at that same moment.

Q. Can you provide an example of that?

A. Sure.   Say I’m at an idle moment.  I’m bored at that moment, and I don’t quite know what to do.  I see before me a certain door.  I am compelled to open the door, because on the other side will be people who will alleviate my boredom.  But the only way that these people have ever been known to alleviate my boredom is that they provide me with an audience for the Entertainer in me.  I will proceed to entertain them.  They will laugh when I say  funny things, and do comic imitations of people, and put on humorous expressions and mannerisms.  And then, I will be gratified.

Q. Who are these people?

A. That’s a good question.  They could be just about anybody, I suppose.  In this case, they were a number of people I saw sitting behind the back door of the Recovery Center where I have been volunteering, that back door being made of glass.

Q. Did you then go inside and entertain them, in order to alleviate your boredom?

A. No, I did not.  I turned and went next door, to a cafe where it was quiet, and I would find a way to alleviate my boredom, without having to entertain anyone.

Q. How did you manage that?

A. By doing what I am doing right now.  I am sitting down at a quiet table in a quiet cafe, among many quiet students studying, and professors preparing their lectures.  To entertain these people would be to interrupt their work, which would be quite rude.  So instead I logged on my laptop to do my own work, and therefore blend perfectly into the atmosphere.

Q. But aren’t you still being an Entertainer?

A. How so?

Q. You’re entertaining me, aren’t you?

A. It’s not my intention.

Q. What about your readers?  Aren’t they being entertained?

A. I hope not!

Q. And aren’t you still a hypocrite?

A. No!

Q. But what you’re doing right now – sitting in this academic cafe the way you are — isn’t this just as hypocritical as ever?

A. I think not!  I’m not hypocritical at all right now.

Q. You’re not?

A. No I’m not! I mean – what makes you think I am?

Q. Well, you’re not a student are you?

A. No – not in the strictest academic sense, as in pay tuition, take classes, and all that.

Q. And you’re not a professor, are you?

A. I am neither student nor professor, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have work to do on my laptop.

Q. But by trying to blend in with all the academics. aren’t you trying to pretend to be one of them?

A. I see your point, but no I’m not.  Plenty of people come in here to work on their laptops who are not students or professors.

Q. But still, you’re trying to look like a student or a professor — and isn’t this hypocrisy?

A. I don’t believe so, no.  Even if I’m not an official student, I sort of feel like one.  I’m always studying, doing research of various sorts.  Especially, I research classism, and inequality, and poverty culture, and homelessness.  This is who I am right now; it’s not hypocrisy.

Q. But haven’ you been an entertainer for most of your life?  How is it hypocritical to keep being who you are?

A. Because I don’t think the Entertainer is the real me.  The real me actually is more of scholar than an entertainer.  Besides, a spiritual scholar is one who is seeking the truth.   That describes me to a tee.  But an entertainer?  An entertainer tries to take people’s minds off of their troubles.  In a way, the Entertainer keeps people from looking for the truth.

Q. But haven’t been there entertainers who also were spiritual truth-seekers.  What about Dick Gregory?

2012 Summer TCA Tour - Day 1
Dick Gregory

A. What about him?

Q. Wasn’t he a comedian?

A. That he was.

Q. And didn’t he going on numerous hunger strikes, frequently fasting for forty days and forty nights for the sake of social justice?

A. That he did.  But he was different.  His comedy was about social and racial inequality.  Observe:

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I understand there are a good many Southerners in the room tonight. I know the South very well. I spent twenty years there one night.

Last time I was down South I walked into this restaurant and this white waitress came up to me and said, “We don’t serve colored people here.” I said, “That’s all right. I don’t eat colored people. Bring me a whole fried chicken.”

Then these three white boys came up to me and said, “Boy, we’re giving you fair warning. Anything you do to that chicken, we’re gonna do to you.” So I put down my knife and fork, I picked up that chicken and I kissed it. Then I said, “Line up, boys!”

Q. Well then why don’t you do like Gregory did?

A. What do you mean?

Q. Why not use your social activism in your comedy routine?

A. I sort of do that already.  Among friends, that is.  But what I’m trying to say is that, I am not a comedian at heart.  I’m not an Entertainer at heart?  I’m a spiritual man, and an Artist — a man of integrity, at heart.  The Entertainer is just a facade.  It’s just that I lack confidence I can ever shed that facade.

Q. Why bother?

A. What do you mean, why bother?

Q. Just what I said – why bother?  Isn’t the Entertainer a part of who you are?

A. Maybe.  This is all becoming very confusing.  And a wee bit annoying, I might add.

Q. But aren’t I just asking logical questions, spinning off the things you’re saying?

A. I suppose you are, but it’s still kind of irritating.

Q. Should we adjourn till later?

A. Probably.  I really do tire of this.

Q. Well, at least you’re not bored anymore, are you?

A. Get out of here!

The Questioner is silent.

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The Prosperity of the Wicked

For I envied the arrogant
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

They have no struggles;
their bodies are healthy and strong.
They are free from common human burdens;
they are not plagued by human ills.
Therefore pride is their necklace;
they clothe themselves with violence.
From their callous hearts comes iniquity;
their evil imaginations have no limits.
They scoff, and speak with malice;
with arrogance they threaten oppression.
Their mouths lay claim to heaven,
and their tongues take possession of the earth.
Therefore their people turn to them
and drink up waters in abundance.
They say, “How would God know?
Does the Most High know anything?”

This is what the wicked are like—
always free of care, they go on amassing wealth.

–Psalm 73:3-12

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The Homeless Buzzwords

There were a number of words used predominantly by those who lived indoors that had a precarious ring in the ears of those of us who lived outside.   These words often had a way of revealing our homelessness in a situation where it would have been wiser to conceal it — for example, when one was seeking a place of residence among numerous applicants.   

homeless still humanEven if the situation were such that there was no reason why our homelessness couldn’t  remain  “out in the open” (so to speak), these words still had a way of making us feel that we were in some way distinctly set apart from the rest of the human race.  At times, the words suggested that possibly we were not even truly human.  After all, the humans who lived inside never used these words in reference to them. 

So let me list four of them.  Conveniently, the first two are what I will call the two “s-words.”  The last two will be the two “h-words.”  And I assure you — we who have been forced to live outdoors for prolonged periods of time could easily  come up with numerous similar “buzzwords,” possibly one for every letter of the alphabet.  But these four will suffice — for now.

1. SHELTER

Once on Facebook, a friend of mine announced on his timeline that “Andy was looking for shelter.”  Now, of all the friends on his timeline, how many of them would have known that I was homeless?  Probably only him, his wife maybe, and his kids.   Does a person who isn’t homeless ever look for “shelter?”  No, they don’t.  They look for a place to live.

I asked him to remove the post.  Although he was trying to help, he didn’t realize that the revelation of homelessness in this fashion would work against me in trying to secure residence.  I knew from experience that if there were ten applicants on a rental application, and one of them put down that he had been homeless, there would soon be only nine applicants on that application.

2. SERVICES

This one wasn’t nearly so bad as the other “s-word.”  But it still pointed to certain stigmata associated with poverty and disability culture that could conceivably work against us in many circumstances.  A person trying to find residence, for example, is generally reluctant to say that he or she has had to have access to “services.”  A prospective landlord would much rather hear about “gainful employment” than “services.”

Even in the context where no discrimination would be involved, there was still the inner sting of feeling that we somehow weren’t employable, able, or competent.  Nobody likes to think of themselves as incompetent.  We all want to think that we are at least capable of earning our own way in life, even if circumstances — personal, medical, or financial – are temporarily preventing us from doing so.

As I wrote in an earlier post, in all the years when I flew a sign on a Berkeley city sidewalk, only once did a person walk by and shout: “Get a job!”

It was just about the most refreshing thing I’d ever heard.   It was very common for passersby to point me to where all the services were — as if I didn’t know already — and the overall effect, after a number of years, was to drill deeper and deeper down into the depths of my psyche the disconcerting notion that I was somehow “less than” all the more worthy sorts of people — those who were capable of holding down jobs.

And I’m pretty sure that I speak, if not for all of the middle-aged homeless men and women in my position at the time, then certainly for a vast majority of them.

3. HOUSING

The first of the two “h-words” is akin to that of the two “s-words.”  Who needs to be “housed?”  A person who doesn’t already have a house, of course.   So when a social worker would refer to finding us “housing,” it only served to remind us of the essential difference between us and that other kind of human being, the one who was so privileged to be living indoors, who could conceivably delight in having moved to another place — a place of their choice, and more to their liking.

We could take no such delight.  The homeless person, even when told to move (which we very often were told to do), doesn’t really get to move to a new place.  Wherever we “moved” to, we were still homeless.  If a homeless person did find a place to live, it was because we had been “housed.”  It almost felt like we were animals being assigned to cages.  Compare that feeling to that of a person who had lived in a rental and who then succeeds in buying a house.   Possibly he moves out into the suburbs, or even into a gated community.  He gets to do what he wants to do, and take his pick of places of residence until he finds the one he likes.  That’s the sort of person who actually gets to move, and gets to move up in the world. 

Homeless people only need to be housed – and quickly.  It was a huge obsession of many of the indoor-dwellers in our midsts, especially of the ones who were trying to help us.  Something had to be done with us — hopefully as soon as possible  — and our own personal say-so in the matter was of limited importance in their minds.

And that says nothing of the kind of indoor dweller who didn’t even care if we were ever “housed.”  They only wanted us out of their neighborhood – and fast.  

4. HOMELESS  

Now for the big one.

I have probably used the word “homeless” ten times as much in the past two years indoors than for the past twelve years outdoors.  Even now, I prefer to use words like “outside” or “outdoors,” rather than “homeless,” whenever possible.  Partly this is because I feel called upon to emphasize that the main difference between those who are homeless and those who are not is that the homeless person lives outdoors — exposed and vulnerable to all kinds of external influences, human or inhuman, foul or fair.  Whoever is not homeless lives inside and is as such protected from the vast array of such external elements.

But the word “homeless” for some reason carries a number of unrelated connotations that obscure the real issues of those who live outdoors.   For this reason, many homeless people do everything they can to conceal their homelessness from those who live indoors.  The word “homeless” carries so much stigma, it drives the average homeless person into the realm of invisibility.

These kinds of homeless people, though far from the most conspicuous, are undoubtedly in the vast majority.  When I was homeless, any amount of money I was able to secure at in excess of my usual $17/day quota was considered to be license for me to take a bus or a BART train to someplace far away from places where I typically slept and attempted to earn my keep.  I did this so that I would not have to deal with the annoying barrage of repeated questions and irrelevant information that was sent my way as soon as someone figured out that I was “homeless,” or heard that word used in the context of my person.

Typical connotations on the word “homeless” include”drug addict,” “alcoholic,” “nut case,” “loser,” “lazy bum,” and a whole plethora of stigmatic labels that serve amazingly well to obscure the more essential information about the homeless condition.  As I said, these labels are unrelated to the real issues of those who live outdoors.  Plenty of people who live indoors could easily have any one of these labels attributed to them, and the homeless person may in fact have none of them attributable to his or her identity.  Even if these attributes are part of the homeless person’s experience, it serves no purpose to dwell upon them, other than to create a diversion from dealing with their true top-priority issue; that is, to find a place to live.  A dignified place to live.  A place to call their own, just as an indoor person buying a house can call their house their own. 

So to avoid having to cut through the quagmire of all this unrelated labeling, I had to start by avoiding the label of “homeless” in the first place.  For it would be from that label that all the other distracting labels would spring.  If instead I somehow managed to be seen only as a fellow human being, in as many situations as possible, and not as a “homeless” person, then my chances of attaining a place to call my own were greatly enhanced.  And in the end of my homeless sojourn, that was exactly how I found a place I could finally call my own — by leaving all trace of “homeless” out of my persona, and finding a landlord who had no reason to see me as anyone other than a fellow human being.

Perhaps you saw the episode of Northern Exposure in which the character Maurice approached a disadvantaged man on the street and asked: “Are you homeless?”

The man replied: “I prefer the term hobo.”

And before I had gained more savvy in the realm of outdoor living, I once asked a man if he were “homeless.”  He replied: “Homeless is just a word.”

Not to mention, when somebody asked me recently, after I’d been living inside for almost two years, “Are you homeless?” — my reply was published in the post that bears that name.  

So when I finally succeeded in achieving the dignified dwelling place I had long sought, how many times do you think I used any of those four words, the two s-words and the two h-words?   Of course, the answer is zero.  I avoided all four of these words completely.  I hope that by now, you understand why.  

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It Is What It Is

There was this sense, when I was homeless, that my personal achievements were not as important as the achievements of those who lived indoors.   On the other side of the coin, my misfortunes were not as worthy of sympathy as those of people who lived inside.  If I achieved something wonderful, it was dismissed as irrelevant.  If I suffered something horrible, it was shrugged off as unimportant.  Yet if the same wonderful thing had happened to someone who lived inside, people would have smiled and offered their congratulations.  And if the same horrible thing had happened to someone who lived indoors, they would have received due sympathy.

I’ll never forget how, when I was house-sitting for a friend of mine, I took a twenty-five mile bus trip to a homeless feed, and I left my wallet on the bus.  I was more than inconvenienced by this.  It threw me into a completely discouraged state.  The house-sitting had enabled me to replace my stolen photo I.D and a lost debit card, obtain a library card, and (last but not least) store needed cash in a single place.  In this case, the dollar I needed to get back to my friend’s place on the bus was a critical component of that cash.

Naively, I figured that that the social workers at the feed might have helped me with a dollar to get back to my friend’s house.  Instead, what followed was a demeaning event, in which one by one, every single person I asked for a dollar bill assumed I was a hustler working a sophisticated con.  Not one of them believed I had actually lost my wallet.  

When I told one of them how I had lost my wallet, my cards, and all my money, she replied by saying: 

“It is what it is.”

At that point, I finally exploded.  

“How would you like it if you had lost your keys, and couldn’t get into your car, and couldn’t get into your house, and were desperate for help and support, and somebody responded by saying: ‘It is what it is?'”

I guess I had raised my voice a little too loudly with that question, for it was then that the security guard approached me to inform me that I was no longer welcome at the feed.

A far worse assault is something I find myself reluctant to share, for fear I might relive the trauma.  It happened at about four in the morning, when I stopped to ask a buddy of mine for change to get onto the BART train from the Downtown Berkeley station.   While my friend and I were counting the change, I casually set my backpack down behind me.  My backpack, at the time, contained a Mac PowerBook, two years worth of CD’s of music I’d written, headphones, and various and sundry life-aids, survival devices, and creature comforts.  In other words, it contained everything I owned.

While I was not looking, a nearby kid poured lighter fluid all over my backpack and set it on fire.

My friends saw it first, and started to scream: “What the hell are you doing!?  This guy’s a friend of mine!”

But the kid, apparently having been up for five or six days on crystal methamphetamine, only laughed.  He thought it was funny and fun.

Badly shaken, I forgot all about my BART trip and began to seek the emotional support of friends.  First, I called my best female friend in Georgia.  When she heard what had happened, of course she gasped, and cried: “That’s horrible!”

But when I approached a certain fellowship in the vicinity, and I related the story to a member who was standing outside, she only said: 

“Aw, who cares?”

This triggered a chain reaction involving a number of the members dismissing my trauma as irrelevant.  The message I received was essentially: “Well, if you weren’t homeless, these kinds of things wouldn’t happen to you.”

I was upset enough that I later approached the president of the church council, only to hear:

“Well, how did you expect them to react?”

I wanted to tell him that I’d expected them to say something similar to what my friend in Georgia had said; i.e., “that’s horrible!”  I wanted to tell him that I had expected there to be some sympathy for the condition of a guy who had just watched all his possessions burnt down by arson before his eyes.  But instead, grasping the incredulity of the scenario, all I could say to the council president was: “That’s a good question.”

seeking_human_kindness-homeless-hub-york-uniA better question would have been: “Why didn’t they react with normal human sympathy for a person who had just been so violated and traumatized?

The answer is simple.  My friend in Georgia was treating me like a human being.  The people at the fellowship were treating me like a homeless person.   Apparently, in a lot of people’s minds, there’s a big difference.

This is to say nothing about the achievements I managed to accomplish when I was homeless.  When I lived outdoors in Berkeley between 2013 and 2016,  I composed all of the music on the Berkeley Page of this web site without the aid of a laptop or music notation software.  I walked about town like a madman, singing “bop bop bop” and playing drums on my pants legs.   And when I was able to get inside with a laptop in 2016, I scored and sequenced all of that music with Finale music notation software.

The total strangers in the cafe here in town where I scored all that music recognized it as an achievement.  But what kind of response did I get from the townspeople?

“Shut the f–k up, you wingnut!”

And from church people?


“So what?
You act as though your music is more important than your God.”

But do you know who did appreciate the songs I was writing?

The homeless people.  They clapped whenever I found a piano to play it on, or when a homeless friend and I sang harmonies, while he strummed on his guitar.

And you know why?

Because homeless people see each other as human beings.   People who live indoors, by and large, see homeless people as homeless people.

There’s a big difference, you see — and don’t you forget it.

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(Talks 2018) – Talk No. 5

In this talk, I try to show how the dynamics of outdoor living provoke the dehumanization of homeless people, consciously or unconsciously, by those who have always lived indoors, and how this phenomenon is a biproduct of a much larger spiritual malaise that, in one way or another, has affected us all.  

Homeless and Human 

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