It was hot. I was tired. I had enough money for a candy bar, and I thought the sugar might help me for the long walk ahead. I bought a Butterfinger at the Touchless Car Wash. I saw a step with a couple stairs about half a block away. Seemed to be a business, not a private residence. Didn’t look like they were open. It was Saturday. I sat down to eat the Butterfinger.
Suddenly, a hostile voice interrupted the pleasant onset of the desired sugar rush. The ensuing dialogue was most unfortunate.
“I don’t mind you guys sitting here, but I sure hate the mess you always make!”
“Us guys? What guys? There are guys who sit here? I’ve never sat here before! What mess? What the hell are you talking about?”
The man said nothing, but seemed to sneer at me before shutting the door between us. Guess he was the business owner, or property owner, or what-have-you. Jesus! I had just sat down! I’d been walking all day! All I wanted to do was eat my damned Butterfinger, get an energy lift, and move on. Did the guy have to pop me over nothing?
Not to mention, being identified as a member of some group of guys, rather than the individual whom I am, obviously pressed a pretty big button in the Berkeley Boy. Seriously, it was all I could do to bite my livid lip. Fortunately, the grumpy grouch who so grossly growled at me had shut his door on my brewing belligerence. Best for both of us, I thought.
I got up to walk away, then noticed that the top my Butterfinger wrapper was lying on the sidewalk, about four feet from the stairs. I must have dropped it there in my hot hungry haste. Gee whiz. Guess that was “the mess you guys always make.”
Next time, remind me to buy a Milky Way instead. Darker wrapper, better blend.
I thought about calling this post “I’ll Be Brief” in order to remind myself to do so. Yesterday I set out to write a “brief” post, and yet somehow it consumed five hours of the early morning, and wound up becoming eleven paragraphs in length.
In all that verbosity, it seems I inadvertently obfuscated the information that I have moved. Yes – I have finally left my 14-month tenure at the apartments euphemistically known as “Friendship Square.” The good news is that I am no longer surrounded by felons, cons, tweakers, thieves, and hustlers. The bad news is that it’s going to cost me an extra $175/mo. But the good news is that it’s worth it.
In the confusion, I have been composing compulsively. When I compose music, I am somehow completely focused. I enjoy the process very much, even if the product is lacking. When I write text, however, I am almost completely unfocused. Yet, yet, yet — everybody seems to like my verbal writings, and almost nobody appreciates my musical writings. It’s a sore spot for me. I didn’t go to a Conservatory of Music in order to spend all my time writing about Homelessness.
Then again, what is it that made me homeless to begin with? I mean — outside of socio-economic factors, what was it about me that caused me not only to become homeless, but actually to embrace Homelessness? (That is, before I literally got the sense knocked into me.)
Quite simply, life was not rendering me enough space to focus on writing my music. Ah – I remember it well – the last straw. In April 2011, I was living in a small house with the landlord, his four year old boy, and another roommate. I had been homeless before, off and on for seven years. So I knew that I could generally handle it. But could I handle the four year old boy bursting into my bedroom, right at the moment when I was making the final edits to The Crying of the Muse, shouting “Hiya!” and waving a large plastic spear over his head?
It seems the young fellow wanted to joust with me. And don’t get me wrong – I would gladly have taken up my spear, and jousted with him at another time. But he just happened to throw me off of my delicate musical balance at that moment — and enough was enough. I needed space.
So, in order to find the space I needed, I quite naturally headed to Berkeley, California, where I figured I would “blend” with approximately 1,000 other homeless blokes, and write my music invisibly, without such annoying intrusions.
It worked for a while, till the thrill was gone. And Friendship Square worked for a while, too. Here’s to a new and more productive chapter of my highly-driven, restless life. I’ve gotten as far with my current compulsive composing as meets the eyes and ears below. The eyes see a telling view of Friendship Square at night, illuminated as if with fireworks. The ears will hear a fraction of the piece tentatively entitled the New Royal Rhapsody. Please enjoy — if at all possible.
Art is Hard Work. They keep firing me because I’m absent-minded and too easily stressed. Art will never fire me, nor will I quit Art. Please pay me for it here. Thank you.
I just received a forward of a letter of appreciation that someone sent to Terry Messman, the publisher ofStreet Spirit, with regards to a previous article of mine he had published. I deduced that it must have been the August article, based on the context:
I just wanted to say that I was really moved by a recent piece by Andy Pope (unsure of which volume, but it was from several months ago). His writing really helped me understand what it’s like to be in his shoes, day by day. I also felt incredibly sad reading it. I wish that I could offer someone like Andy a place to stay.
I’m also curious about your fundraiser, and if . . . .
Upon reading those words, I felt a poignant surge of pathos. I did not need a place to stay at the time the article was published. I wrote that piece in June of 2016. It wasn’t published until August 2017 — long after I’d succeeded in getting myself indoors. So it felt somehow wrong that someone should be thinking of offering me one.
At the same time, however, this is the point of its having been published in the first place. When I wrote it, I was fortunate enough to have gained a seat for me and my laptop in a Starbucks on a rainy Sunday morning. I had been living outdoors for so many years that the idea of ever actually attaining to an indoor dwelling place again seemed inconceivable. It was that sense of resignation to the complete unpredictability of the homeless condition that gave the piece its purpose. It was written by a homeless person while homeless, and thus filtered out nothing of the very present feelings so painfully described therein.
This also served to remind me that my life has meaning. I had always fancied myself something of a Writer, even as I wrote frivolous bagatelles to pass the time away while bored. I wrote pieces of garbage that I knew to be garbage, only because my nervous need to engage myself in such intellectual thumb-twiddling was so pressing in my restless mind. But now I have been granted this great gift of experience, and not only of experience itself, but of the subsequent freedom to actually sit down and write about it. This is something I never dreamed I would gain. I, like almost everyone else I knew, had consigned myself to die a miserable, meaningless death on the streets.
Not two years have passed since I penned those words sitting in that Starbucks, grimly watching the sun make an effort to reveal itself from amid an early morning cloudburst. Thankful was I indeed, as I’d have been on any other rainy morning, to have gotten out of the homeless rain. But at the same time, how completely cynical I was that after all those years, I would ever manage to get myself into a decent, dignified living situation again!
I had been so happy to have landed the simple hole-in-the-wall that I found at Friendship Square, almost an entire year went by before I could even grasp the concept that there might be a better place in store for me. This adds to the pathos. For so many years, I prayed specifically that I would one day be given “a lock on a door, a window, and a power outlet. ” That wish having been granted so dramatically, I sincerely felt like an ingrate when I began to look for a more suitable living situation. After all, God had answered that prayer pretty much down to the letter. I received exactly one window, two power outlets, and three locks on my door. (God apparently knew which of the three priorities was most important to me!)
Eventually, however, it reached the unpleasant stage where not even three locks could do the trick. I would surface from fitful sleep in the wee hours, only to hear the ribald congregating of drug-addicted young men out in the hallway. Then, I would presume in my half-awake state that I still slept outdoors, and that these other fellows must have been outdoors, as well.
“Where am I? Who are these people? Are they coming to steal my stuff? Or did I steal their Spot by mistake? Or are these the security guards, or maybe even the property owners? Damn! I better get out of here!”
But then, a few seconds would pass, and slowly the details of reality would sink in. I was in no immediate danger. The voices I heard, though they seemed intrusive, were actually separated from me by the three locks on my very own door. And yet – why could I not sleep for the evidence of their presence? Could I honestly be that traumatized? Could I not separate the aggressive energy of my new neighbors from that of space invaders of times past? My pastor literally had to persuade me that the little hole-in-the-wall was not the be-all-and-end-all to my life’s experience. I did not need to live among practicing thieves and drug addicts if I did not want to.
It was hard to leave Friendship Square without feeling like an ingrate. But that is exactly what I have done. It’s costing me a bit more money than I can comfortably squeeze out at the moment, but the trade-off is well worth it. For the past two nights, I have slept soundly and peacefully in my new secluded apartment, far removed from the downtown denizens, and all the constant raucous activity that I so easily overlooked in my earlier elation over having landed any kind of indoor place of residence at all. And you know what? The moment I set my laptop down on that dining room table, I felt instantly more focused than I have felt for months. Surely now I have everything I need! I have my own bathtub even. And a dishwasher. A medicine cabinet in which to store hygienic needs. My own bedroom. A living room. My daughter can even comfortably come visit me now. Do I deserve this? Honestly – it is almost too good to be true.
Well – I suppose whether I “deserve” it or not is immaterial. At best, it would lead to pointless theological debate. For me, the purpose of the gift is to put it to use. I am going to set myself down in this seclusion, and write write Write Write WRITE — because now I have something to write about. And not only that – but a place to do it from. So do me a favor. Don’t ever let me forget how huge this is.
On the streets, I would have died a meaningless death. Here, far away from the streets — in distance, if not in memory — I have been granted a meaningful life.
Please help raise awareness as to the Homeless Phenomenon in America. Please donate to Eden in Babylon. Every Little Bit Helps God Bless!
I published another of your really well-written reflections in the October issue of Street Spirit. I’m sending you the pdf version now, and I’ll send a link to the online edition in a few days when I post it.
Thanks so much for your insightful, thoughtful writing.
I’ve uploaded the pdf on this linkif you want to check it out. I’m on p.3, the story entitled “I Remember Who I Am.”
He uses the illustration to the right, a lithograph by Rockwell Kent named “And Now Where?” in conjunction with my piece. The piece itself is taken almost word for word from The God Who Believes in Me, earlier posted on this site.
In the past three months, since I have been fortunate enough to have had some of my short pieces published in Street Spirit, I have come to admire Terry Messman, the publisher, and Sally Hindman, the Berkeley activist and Quaker minister who connected me to this unique opportunity. It’s interesting that I never knew either of them when I actually still lived in Berkeley. Maybe I was too busy dealing with the extenuating circumstances described in these articles. Rarely did I extend myself toward people with whom I might network, as though I had something distinctive to offer, and was interested in making a contribution to the community.
When I moved up here to Northern Idaho, all of that changed. I told the personnel director at my church that if I had to summarize the difference between my life today and my life back then, I would say that previously the idea around me was that I had some kind of huge problem, and so how can we possibly help Andy solve his problem? The idea in the here and now, on the other hand, is that Andy has something to offer. How can we help him to offer it?
I would think anyone in their right mind would prefer the latter of the two scenarios.
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A young Hispanic lady named Maria used to come sit across from my Spot about five or ten feet to my left. Repeatedly, she would accost passersby, shouting “Fifty cents for a soda? Fifty cents for a soda?” At first it annoyed me, because it’s what we call “spange-busting.” I was there first, and here she’s stealing my business with aggressive tactics. It was especially annoying, being as I was determined to remain silent throughout my entire sign-flying tenure — partly so that I would never come across like she and others did, constantly invading the space of innocent bystanders.
After a while, though, I developed something of a heart for the poor young woman. She obviously had some kind of mental health diagnosis of the more severe variety. Schizo-affective disorder maybe, or dissociative identity disorder, perhaps, or maybe paranoid schizoprenia. She would break into different accents and identify herself according to different names, some of which belonged to fictitious entities with extremely interesting personalities. It made me wonder if she had done a lot of musical theatre at some point in her past.
By and by, perhaps sensing my budding affinity for her eccentricity, she began to call me “Dad.” She would hop off the bus, see me sitting with my back to the wall, and smiling, shout out: “Hi, Dad!” How sweet, I thought. She certainly wasn’t a bad looking young lady, either. Perhaps having her “dad” nearby would afford her some measure of protection from the local wolves.
One day, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to fulfill that very role. A young man approached Maria flirtatiously, and proceeded to come at her with all kinds of odious pick-up lines. Maria turned her head toward me as though to convey that she was in trouble. We made eye contact, her fear meeting my concern. Finally, breaking the silence, Maria scooped all the money from the cup beneath her feet, saying:
“Hey Dad, I’m going to the grocery store. Do you need anything?”
“No, I’m good.”
“All right – see you in a half hour.”
“Okay — stay safe.”
At that, she scurried off, and the young lad turned to me with a look of shock on his face. Approaching me, he spoke sheepishly:
“Hey – I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t know she was your daughter.”
I glared at the fellow with a disapproving look in my paternal old eyes.
“Maria and I are not biologically related,” I explained. “We do what we can to take care of each other on these streets.”
“Oh, I see,” the young man replied, taking a few steps back from me. Then, turning his head from side to side as though to scan the neighborhood for possible friends of mine, he shrugged his shoulders and headed off up Allston toward the University.
I looked to the right. Maria was coming back from around the corner.
“Coast is clear,” I said.
She dropped a Hershey bar into my hat and took her seat. The sun was setting on another beautiful evening in the city where I belonged.
Please help raise awareness as to homeless rights issues. Please donate to Eden in Babylon. Every Little Bit Helps
This undated piece was written in Berkeley in early 2016. I hope it gives you a picture of what Homelessness was like — for me.
It’s driving me nuts having to be outdoors while almost everybody I can halfway relate to in life is indoors. If I relate to the people who live outdoors, it is because we all live outdoors. We share the values and mores of outdoor living in common, even if we share nothing else. But ninety percent of the time – damn right we share nothing else.
Approximately three times a week, someone who lives outside, someone whom I’ve never seen before, emerges out of someplace where I’ve probably never been and threatens to knock the crap out of me. Yet I am a man of peace. I only want to make my music. I want to sit down with my laptop, crank up my music notation software, and compose. But if I even dare get my hands on a laptop at these days, I’m an easy mark for every living thing that hides behind a bush. I’ve been hit on the head with guns down here. If I buy a laptop, they assume it’s for trade or sale. If I’m not willing to sell it, they might just take it by force. My musicianship means nothing to a predator.
Maybe five times a week, a person who lives inside (whom I’ve also never seen before) approaches me and asks: “Are you homeless?” How I have come to hate that question! I almost disdain telling the truth, because I am so tired of seeing so much blood come pouring out of their heart, you’d think they’d have expected me to slurp it up and drink it. Then, as they begin to promote whatever form of “help” they think best suits me, I find that in order to gain access to their assistance, I will be required to change my taste in food, my outlook on life, my political philosophy, and sometimes even my religion. I’m frickin’ sixty-three years old, for God’s sake!! I worked all my life!! And they’re asking me to change my faith? Now, of all times? My faith is exactly what has kept me alive throughout twelve years of indignity and insanity. Why should I abandon that which has helped me the most, in order to risk being hurt more than helped by the benign but misinformed intentions of a total stranger?
I know a very conservative homeless man who tells me he is expected to become a liberal because it is the liberals who are feeding him. But I have also seen many who identify as liberals become homeless, only to find themselves expected to become conservatives because, in their case, it’s the conservative Christians who feed them. Why is that, just because someone is down on their luck, they are expected to adopt the views of those who are not? Everyone is entitled to their own perspective, and it angers me that I should be expected to adopt the perspective of another person only because that person happens to have a roof over their head and more money than I do. Just because a person is in a higher socio-economic class doesn’t make them right. All it means is that they are in a better position to take advantage of another person’s weakness. And in my case, that weakness is H– H–H– My God, I don’t even want to speak the word anymore!
What word? The H-Word! Homeless! The word that, in one way, nobody ever hears — and in another way, it’s the only word they hear. It’s maddening. It’s exasperating. It’s more than frustrating – it’s infuriating.
Then there are the those who are not strangers. These are the ones to whom I once was close, perhaps even intimate — the well-meaning friends and family members who want to “help.” Oh, they’ll help all right! They’ll help in any way they can shy of actually putting a roof over my head. They’re always looking for the problem that “caused” me to become homeless, as if solving whatever that elusive problem might be could possibly solve the much more enormous problem that is Homelessness Itself. None of those band-aids can possibly heal the wound of Homelessness. That wound is way too deep for that.
There’s this huge division between the people who live outdoors and those who live indoors. It’s almost as though we’re an entirely different species. I can’t seem to do anything to bridge the gap, nor can I seem to do anything to get myself back inside. I’ve tried everything. All the suggestions everybody gives – they only lead me back to Homelessness. They never hit the core issue at its heart. So I get into this space where I start thinking: “Well, screw it. What’s the use of even trying?”
I shrug my shoulders. I head back to my Spot, lean my back against the brick wall of the BART station at the corner of Shattuck & Allston, take off my hat, and hold up a sign that reads:
BROKE AND HOMELESS OFTEN HUNGRY PLEASE HELP IF YOU CAN
I silently watch them all go by. I make eye contact. I look as many of them in the eye as possible. Then, slowly but surely, little bits of change find their way into my hat. Then a couple of dollars here and there, every now and then a five, a ten if I’m lucky, perhaps even a twenty. People ask if they can buy me a sandwich. Some people sneer, but they’re easy to overlook. By and by, I calm down. I forget my frustrations, my angst. I meditate. I pray. I look around me, and it is a beautiful day in the city that I love.
An hour goes by, and suddenly it doesn’t matter any longer what they all think. No longer am I driven nuts. Then another half hour or so goes by, and I remember something. I remember who I am. I know who I am. I even like who I am. So what’s that word I hear? The H-Word? Is that supposed to say something about me? Ah but no – perhaps we have forgotten. Nothing says anything about me but the Me who Knows Who Me Is. I Am the One I Am.
Three hours go by. I pick up my cash. The sun is setting. I weave my way off toward the spot where I sleep, where nobody knows where to find me. I look to the stars, and say my prayers to the God who believes in Me.
Please help raise public awareness as to the Homeless Phenomenon in America. Please peruse this site and make a contribution to Eden in Babylon. Anything Helps — God Bless.
I promised Terry Messman, the editor of Street Spirit, I would post three homeless-related pieces on this blog before Friday, just in case he sees fit to publish one or more of them. The first is my post An Incredibly Empty Place. This is the second: something I came up in Berkeley during the summer of 2014. I hope you like it.
My Secret Place
I used to feel really hassled when people would suggest various living situations for me. I usually cringed, as though such environments were completely out of the question — but I didn’t have the guts to explain why. Lately, however, there has been a turn for the better. When I simply state my truth, I find that more often than not, it is accepted. You cannot believe how good it feels to turn to these people and say: “I prefer sleeping outdoors.”
Less and less do I hear them reply: “You’re crazy!” Now maybe this is because I am speaking my truth to people who already know me somewhat — enough to know I’m not exactly bat crazy mad. Naturally, if somebody suspects that there’s still something rationally ticking between my ears, despite the past ten years of near total sleep deprivation, they’re more likely to respect my position. Still, the feeling of finally being able to stand up to somebody who insists I ought to be shooting for a slot in someplace like a long-term psychiatric facility is, in a word, liberating.
When I try to think of living situations that have worked for me better than my current one, the only thing I can think of is when I have had my own lockable space with plenty of ventilation and sufficient electrical power. Even then, if enough of the “wrong people” find out where I live, I will default to sleeping outdoors. Moreover, in any other situation, such as living with roommates, sharing a house or an apartment — or worse yet, living in a homeless shelter, board-and-care, halfway house, or anywhere else that has the ring of “institution” about it — I will eventually default to Homelessness again. Note the use of the word “default.” Over the years, I’ve become more comfortable sleeping alone outdoors, despite the alleged risks, than sleeping indoors and having to deal with there being other people too close to my personal living space.
I recently lasted six days in a “sober living environment,” sharing an attic with three other guys. One of the guys was a crack head who kept the other three of us awake all night, babbling incessantly about nothing. One of the other two men was constantly threatening the crack head to bodily harm. The third man snored at unbelievably high volume. Add to this the factor that my “overhead” in the attic was literally about two feet shorter than I am, six days was about all I could take. I’ll settle for an empty church stairwell any day, thank you.
Shortly after that, I survived four days at the Men’s Shelter. Just didn’t care for the conversation topics, didn’t like the assumption that I must have just gotten out of State Prison or at least be interested in collaborating on some criminal heist of some sort. Not that I’ve never broken a law – I do so every day. But that doesn’t mean that I identify with the criminal mind-set — and I’ll tell you why.
Smoking marijuana ought not to be a crime. But unfortunately, it can lead one to the company of those who commit other crimes if one is not careful. Further reason why marijuana should be legalized, immediately and totally decriminalized, and why personal drug-related issues should be treated as mental health or medical issues, not as criminal issues. Somebody must be making a lot of money filling up our jails with decent people who got popped for some piddly little pot deal. Disgusting, if you ask me.
So – knock on wood — but in my current living space, I sleep well just about every night, nobody ever hassles me, nobody approaches me, nobody wakes me up in the middle of the night to ask for a cigarette lighter — basically nobody knows I’m there. No one knows where I sleep – therefore my privacy is assured. If even one person finds out – word will get around, and I’m screwed.
Screwed — until I find another secret place. Which soon I will. I always do. And isn’t that a good thing? Look at what the Psalmist says: “He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.” Psalm 91:1. Doesn’t that say it all, right there? Where would you rather “dwell?” In the secret place of the Most High, resting in the shadow of the Almighty? Or in a four foot high attic with a crack head?
Granted, it’s pretty weird that this is what a person will do in order to achieve privacy. But it is exactly what I have done. And – it is okay that I have done so. It ‘s my choice. All I need to do is cast aside the social stigma, and make the most of it. Nothing’s perfect in this world anyway. We all have our different sensibilities. The best we can do is to honor the choices of ourselves and others, and to try to get along.
Besides, getting a lot of fresh air is good for you. They say that fresh air contains “negative ions,” which are oxygen atoms charged with an extra electron. They clear the air of dust and pollen, and significantly decrease airborne viruses and bacteria. Barring other factors, people who sleep outdoors are less likely to have respiratory issues, colds and flus, and even asthma. Seriously! The more you can soak in the negative ions, and the less you have to soak in the negative people, the healthier and happier you will be.
Andy Pope Berkeley, California June 6, 2014
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