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One of the great buried treasures I’ve been able to dig up since having lived indoors these past two and a half years is a folder full of pasted timeline posts preserved from a long-deleted Facebook. All of them display the cavalier attitude of a homeless Artist given to brutal sarcasm as a coping mechanism.
I just finished reading three consecutive entries about harsh treatment by the local officers of the peace, shortly after I had vacated the Berkeley homeless scene in favor of a low crime district in an all White, sheltered upper-crust community. The name of the city is not actually Mayfield — but if you ever watched “Leave it to Beaver,” you’ll get my drift.
Well — I’ve humbled my head full of hubris just enough to figure out where the food is on Friday. As a result, I’ll be attending my first feed since having found myself home-free in this fine town of wealth and promise (whose name is being with-held until further notice.) It will be taking place at 6:30, and I’m looking forward to what fashion of food will be fed at the commons to the commoners.
Moreover, in the passage of time, I’ve realized that the tone of desperation in my universal Facebook appeal for “shelter with dignity” could conceivably have been off-putting. It’s well-known that I am not permitted into friends’ and family’s homes during the holiday season because I have a reputation of being “manic.” No one wants their walls bounced off by a belligerent birdbrain of such ill repute. And of course, the penalty for such a hyper-active mind is — you guessed it: homelessness.
All sarcasm aside, I recognize that in the absence of mariijuana, my overall energy level is off the charts. Therefore I amend my earlier proposal. Just kick down the good weed, guys. Who cares about “vibrancy?” It only got me to complete a rough draft of a long-desired libretto to a musical that, unlike the last two I wrote (and promptly shelved), I actually believe in for once. No doubt I should have stopped smoking pot — among other things — much earlier in life. My apologies for such reprobate tardiness.
Now – to figure out where and how to sleep tonight, being as a certain red-hot hot-shot hog of a cop saw fit to do a sweep of my only Spot thus far evoked, as he poked his blaring brights my way, thus scaring the daylights out of the would-be dirt-bag he had wished would have been me.
So bright was that light at its closest, grossest height – that long into night I could still scarcely see. There but for God’s grace goes Me.
© A. Pope 2014
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I found this story in a folder containing old timeline posts from around 2015, when I was still homeless. I submitted it to Alastair Boone, the editor of Street Spirit, for consideration in the January issue. I hope you gain from these words.
To say that there are not criminals roaming the streets at all hours of the day and night would do a severe disservice to the truth. But to assume from that observation that every homeless person is a criminal seems a bit pejorative, if you ask me.
Of all the people whom I regularly see at events like the Sunday morning community breakfast, I’m trying to think of who do I know who has not been to jail. Well, let me see here — I haven’t been, and my best African American 50-something friend hasn’t been. That’s about all. Even my best female friend, whom I shall call Lillian, was recently in the Berkeley City Jail for four days.
Which is sick. The woman has had two serious strokes. As a result, she doesn’t speak normally. She has to speak at a louder volume than most, and it takes her a long time to find the words. During the period of time when she is looking to find words, her face makes unusual contortions. But I can guarantee you that her highly intelligent mind knows exactly what she is intending to say. Her neuro-physiological condition only makes her speaking very difficult and uncomfortable.
This woman has never used drugs other than marijuana, nor does she drink alcohol. People think she is “retarded” because of her stroke. I have even heard people say: “She needs to get off the meth.” I know this person, and others who know her will affirm that she has never used methamphetamine. I am one of the few people who has bothered to get to know her well enough to realize that not only is she not “retarded” — she is actually quite brilliant.
So she’s sleeping in a parking lot on Bancroft, near Peet’s Coffee and Tea, where she meets her Payee in the morning. Three Berkeley City Police cars pull up, tell her she is charged with Trespassing, and hand-cuff her. She tries to explain, in her odd way of forming words: “I was only trying to sleep.” She is then charged with Resisting Arrest.
Two days ago, she comes to my Spot to say she had been in jail for four days. She’s laughing, because she thinks it’s hilarious that someone like her would be sent to jail for something she does every single night; that is to say, sleep. She couldn’t wait to tell me, because, as she says: “I knew you would be sensitive enough to be outraged on my behalf; and insensitive enough to think it was hilarious.”
People who are “retarded” do not come up with such statements. But it’s not hilarious, really. These idiot cops couldn’t tell the difference between a 50-something woman with a serious physical disability, and an irresponsible crook or drug addict invading U.C. campus property. That is just plain sick.
What is the world coming to? It’s getting to where, if you see someone approaching in a wheelchair with a missing leg, you don’t think: “Oh, that’s awful. I wonder how he lost his leg?” You either think: “There’s another hustler, and what does he want from me?” Or else you think: “Look at that screwed up degenerate scum bag.” I swear to God, on a stack of Holy Bibles — this is not the America that I was brought up in.
I am not even asking America to open up her eyes to the plight of her own people. Her eyes are well wide open enough. I ask America to open up her heart – because I am old enough to remember when America was a compassionate nation.
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Q. Where would you like to be?
A. Good question.
Q. Is that all you’re going to say?
Q. Then what else are you going to say?
A. I don’t know.
Q. Why don’t you know?
A. Because I’m not sure where I would like to be.
Q. Why not?
A. I’m not sure. I just feel kinda drained.
Q. Why do you think that is?
A. Pushing myself too hard lately.
Q. How so?
A. I got triggered a few nights ago. Stuff kept me up, couldn’t sleep. And to tell the truth, I haven’t been sleeping well lately much at all. When I lose sleep, I get overamped. Nervous energy. Nowadays, they say “manic” — but I don’t like to toss that word around idly. Still, I’ve been sleeping less, eating less, working more, exercising more, overreacting to stuff — I don’t know. It just burns me out. The body/mind can only take so much of it, and I eventually crash.
Q. You say you’re burned out?
A. Yes. Burned out.
Q. Then why don’t you take a nap? Do you have time?
A. Yes, I have time. And I ought to take a nap. I really ought to. It’s raining, I went to the grocery store, I brought the groceries in, my pastor was nice enough to give me a ride . . . and I’ve been so bummed about certain things lately, I’ve been escaping into all this work, as though to justify or vindicate myself — to make myself strong during a personal storm.
But you know what? When I walked through that door with those groceries, and I heard the rain outside, something just came over me. Like tears. I actually have my own apartment. I actually can buy groceries. There’s actually somebody in my life who would drive me to the grocery story in the rain, who would wait for me in the car.
I am human now. I am a human being. I am not a piece of shit. I never was a piece of shit. I thought I was a piece of shit — because I had become homeless. And because a lot of people think that homeless people are pieces of shit. I believed it so much, I internalized it. And then I felt I had to prove myself all the harder.
But I’m beginning to realize something. I don’t have to prove myself at all. I’m who I am. I’m a human being. I am loved.
So if I don’t know where I would like to be right now, then maybe I’m missing the point. Why should I like to be anywhere else than in this nice quiet apartment, listening to the rain outside? Three years ago that rain would be raining right on me.
Why should I be anything but thankful I was able to make my own sandwich and cook my own pasta? What more do I need on a day like this? It was hell down there. And it’s heaven right now. Does anybody have to prove themselves in heaven? Why should I be anywhere other than where I am right now? And why would I need anything other than this?
The Questioner is silent.
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For those who have been anticipating a Friday piano offering, I want you all to know that I have not forgotten. I wasn’t able to get to the church piano earlier than this morning. So right now I’m in the process of uploading. I should have the piece posted later on tonight.
Meanwhile, I’m trying to call attention to an earlier post of which I am proud. I earlier received the following comment on A Homily for the Homeless at Heart from Lauren Sapala, a San Francisco-based writing coach who has authored several fine books, including Firefly Magic, The INFJ Writer, and Between the Shadow and Lo:
I found it interesting that I was about to trash the post before I received this comment. Believe it or not, I had actually thought it was the worst piece I had ever written about homelessness in America! Thanks to Ms. Sapala, I had a change of heart. I then edited it four times to polish it until I was able to feel proud of it. As I started the fifth edit, my friend Danielle sent me an email reading: “Please don’t make many more changes.”
So I didn’t. Here it is, in finished form:
Hopefully this will give you something to chew on while you’re waiting for my somewhat chaotic version of “Billy’s Blues” by the late Laura Nyro. I hope you enjoy both the blog and the blues.
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It’s Sunday morning, and time for a sermon. But far be it for me to preach. These words may be read by anyone who happens upon this page. But they are directed to those who are, or who have been, homeless — who know the fullness of what that word entails. These words are meant primarily for those who, despite perhaps having escaped its horrors, have a place in their heart for the homeless, who revere Homelessness as a heavenly gift. This homily is for the Homeless at Heart.
This homily is for those who realize that here on this Earth, we have no true home that will not be outlasted. Our home is in spiritual places, in the heavens, eternal. In that sense, we are all in fact homeless. In another sense, knowing what is everlasting, and distinguishing it from that which will vanish at the grave, we rejoice in being Homeless No More.
It’s been two years and three months now that I have been living indoors, in dignified dwelling spaces of my own design and desire. I have either lived alone, in a studio room or this present one bedroom apartment; or I have lived in this apartment with a like-minded person; a significant other, if you will. I have not had to “live” in shelters, rehabs, psychiatric facilities, or board and care homes. Note the quotation marks around the word “live.”
Twenty-seven months have passed, and I have never failed to pay my rent on time. For me, this is a milestone. It negates and transcends every other concern that anyone could possibly have about my mode of existence. Since people in general do not like to look at the ugliness of homelessness, the people who were in my life before all this happened have not wanted to look at the actual reality that was behind my sordid conditions. So they looked at other things that they suspected might be at the heart of it all. When they alighted upon something that satisfied their need to know why a man like me should ever have permitted himself to land in such miserable conditions, they contented themselves to wash their hands of my suffering, and of the suffering of those of my kind. They were content to classify me as a lazy bum, a loser, a deadbeat, a drug addict, perhaps an alcoholic, or a nut case, a lunatic, a wannabe — or better yet, a has-been. In so doing, they echoed the sentiments of the Pharisee who in the 18th chapter of the Gospel according to Luke, praised God that he was not like other, more miserable men. They looked at me with condescension and scorn, saying: “There but for the grace of God go I.”
Don’t get me wrong. I fully understand why people would think I am insane. People are often threatened by those whom they can’t quite classify or codify. It doesn’t matter whether they lean to the Left, to the Right, or neither. What matters is that, in some way or another, they are bound by what I call mainstream values — the very values condemned in the first two verses of the 12th chapter of the Epistle to the Romans. Anybody locked into any kind of box is going to think I’m crazy. They’ll also think that anyone like me is crazy. Be that as it may.
It is remarkable how well I get along with formerly homeless people, even though their life practices and spiritualities may be far disparate from mine. Their experiences and practices have led them to different conclusions than mine. But we’ve all been through the same life-changing experience: the Experience of Homelessness. This alone is such a powerful grounds for identification, it practically overwhelms all else.
I may not identify with New Age spirituality. I may not identify with the Ascension Movement. I don’t identify with NeoPaganism — not much anyway. There were those of us who, though Christian, identified as Castaneda Warriors in order to manage the conditions of homelessness with some semblance of thanksgiving and peace. Some of us needed the Boy Scout Handbook to get by outdoors. Whatever we did, it was a concerted effort to make a valid life-practice out of abominable conditions — not the least of which was that while we struggled day after day to survive, people looked down upon us in scorn.
This commonality is so strong it overwhelms religous and philosophical differences. It overwhelms political differences. It consumes the entirety of Who We Are. That I should emerge from such a life-changing experience and even pretend to go back to old ways of being that never worked for me is such an assault to my own inner integrity, it baffles me that I should even endeavor to keep up the pretense.
The milestone of having manifested a respectable place of dwelling, tailored and customized to meet the needs of my specific, individual personality is the greatest thing that I have achieved since having escaped twelve years of homelessness and borderline-homelesness in the San Francisco Bay Area. It also paved the way for other milestones. I successfully scored all the music I had written “in my head” while wandering the streets of Berkeley like a madman, playing drums on my pants legs, keyboards and guitars in the air, and singing “bop, bop, bop” to the ridicule of all passersby. I doubt seriously that more than 10% of the people who saw me doing so were able to perceive that I was actually composing music, and not just being crazy. When I got inside, I was able to score all this music with notation software on my laptop, and put it on the Berkeley Page of this site.
After that, I was able to complete an entire musical — book, music and lyrics – about homelessness in America. I also became a regular contributor to the Street Spirit newspaper, though I had no background in journalism, as well as a regular blogger for the Classism Exposed publication in Boston. I joined a Writers Guild, and had a piece of mine published in an anthology. I made five speeches on the Homeless Experience. I created a youtube channel of my piano work, and three CD’s of my piano playing, two of which you may find on my SoundCloud. And many other things did I do — not that I wish to boast about these accomplishments, but only to illustrate two key points:
(1) That these things could only have been accomplished under the protective umbrella of the dignified, customized living situation that I had crafted, with God’s help, for the manifestation of my true and unique self.
(2) That the motivation to accomplish these things is a direct result of the inspiration received during those twelve years of living outdoors.
So it’s not just the case that I couldn’t have done any of these things if I had remained homeless. It’s also the case that I wouldn’t have done any of these things had I not have been homeless.
And of all these things that I so pride myself in having been able to accomplish, I honestly feel that the finest thing of all is this recent piano album called Exile. I pride myself on this album even more than I have prided myself on my finally having completed a full musical play that I had belabored in my mind so fruitlessly for more than five years. Somehow, without words, without singing, without drums, bass, or other instruments, the music of Exile reflects the person whom my homeless experience has permitted me to become. And it’s called Exile for a reason.
Others who are or were homeless have heard these strains, and they hear in it the uniqueness and authenticity that marks the way of those who have embraced the fullness of outdoor living. We are the unsheltered ones, the ones who have placed ourselves naked and vulnerable before all the vicissitudes of a totally predictable and often hostile Universe, with no box to hide in, whether that box be the physical box of an ill-fitting abode, or the spiritual box that binds our true selves, and prevents us from accessing Who We Are.
We are those who spent years in exile. And now, we are in exile no more.
Strange feelings overwhelm me as I listen to this music. I hear myself playing as I have never played before. People thought I was a good piano player before this huge life transformation took place, and informed the transformation of my Music and my Art. And do you think that I was able to actually practice the piano in all the years when I was homeless? Not at all. Of course not! If I wanted to play the piano in an empty church sanctuary, they would have been denied me access “for insurance reasons,” on the supposition that I was likely a thief or a vandal. It took a dramatic resurrection from the gigantic grave of homelessness for me to get to the point where I am now trusted with the keys to a church building that includes a Baldwin grand piano.
How strange it feels to realize that the same people who offered adulation and praise for my music, before it became so authentic, will no longer hear one note of it, nor admit it into the realms of that which they are willing to appreciate as Art. But I hear my true heart in the notes that I have played. And while I feel great satisfaction in what I have been able to produce, I also feel outrage that during all the years when I was homeless, people flat-out refused to recognize my musical gifts. The only people who acknowledged my musical talent were other homeless people!
What is up with that? People who lived indoors were so maddeningly focused on my various visible personal flaws and foibles, it awakened my indignation, and prompted me in protest to channel the composing of my music in the appearance of a maniac, visibly homeless, visibly composing music on the streets, and marveling in how many people saw me as a “nut case,” and how few even realized that I was writing these strains.
This has not happened here. Everything I did when I was homeless was visible. Everybody saw me do it. But because of their preconceptions, what I was actually doing was invisible. Nobody saw what I was really doing. They only saw their stigma and prejudice, manifested according to their own inner lies. So naturally, my insistence on pursuing my music in any form, let alone insisting that others pay attention to it, was off-putting. “First things first,” they chided, pointing their fingers, as they all adjured me to get out of homelessness first, and then perchance they would listen to my music.
But they didn’t! I got out of homelessness, and they still would not listen to my music! Instead, they continued to bombard me with mockery over whatever was wrong with me, despite the fact that the obvious point of their intial objections no longer existed. This proved that their condescending treatment of me was not sheerly on the basis of my having been homeless, but in a larger sense, a product of their own need to exercise one-upsmanship. It’s really that simple. They didn’t treat me with normal human respect. I was always lower than them. Worse than them! Inferior to them! Why?
I’ll tell you why. It’s because these are the kinds of people who have no real sense of self, so they measure themselves against those to whom they can claim to be superior. My being homeless made me an easy mark for finger-pointing, so they pointed their ever-pointing fingers at me. Instead of having compassion, they looked down on me and judged me. Their condescending attitudes toward me made an already difficult life all the more difficult. If they did anything at all to help me, which was rarely, they then expected me to kiss their royal behinds as though I owed them, for the rest of their hellbound lives. All the while they never gave me what they owed me, which is what I was certainly trying to give them, what we all owe each other, which is love and respect. Isn’t it?
But how can you respect people who are treating you so disrespectfully? That’s the issue. And we might say, well this is my issue — my “stuff,” so to speak. But if that’s the case, does every person who has ever been homeless have the same exact, hidden, deep-seated psychological issue? Is that what made us homeless? Because we all happened to be these weird over-sensitive freaks who didn’t take very well to being treated with disrespect, and so our logical, mutual life-destination was Homelessness? That is, unless we all toughened up and acted like insensitive, inhuman, competitive assholes?
Yes, many of us were sensitive. Many of us did not have any feel for the play of the game; we did not relish the ruthlessness of the realm where we were expected to climb up the corporate latter and screw people left and right, while receiving raises and perks from our higher-ups for doing so, as they encouraged all of us who had succeeded in being so clever and cunning and callous and crafty to do the very same. These are the ones who are encouraged to “succeed” in our sick society.
I shudder to think about it, but it wasn’t much different in the realms of Education or of the Performing Arts, even though people in those spheres routinely express opposition to the competitive or capitalistic mores of the corporate world. They were just as damned cut-throat. That’s why at least one man I know in the Performing Arts has made it as far as he has — and I sincerely doubt he’s a happy man. His ways of achieving things, in order that he himself might “get his way,” are outright immoral and sometimes even unethical. He intimidates people into his getting what he wants. He’s good at it, and he does it craftily as well as, at times, blatantly. He almost always gets away with it. Look where that man is now in Theatre Arts: reputable, respected, and feared. Well, I fear him not!
I fear him not. Nor do I fear those like him. For one thing, that miserable man, despite his ill-gotten notoriety, is not all that talented. Had he been more talented, he would not have felt the need to gain fame and fortune through nefarious means. He’d have felt that his talent alone would have sufficed to get him there. And then — if he were like me (which he would not have been) — he would not have achieved notoriety, for he’d have discovered (like I did) that talent alone did not suffice.
Do you think I’m jealous? If I am, it’s to my fault. Why would I want to be jealous of the depressed, desperate kinds of people whom he exemplifies? What reason would I have to be envious of those who, having reaped what they have sown from a lifelong facile at getting their own ways, to the detriment of others in their paths, had brought them nationwide recognition and success, but not happiness?
I am reminded of another man I once knew who also enjoyed great worldly success, in the field of Education. He resembled the other bloke in that he saw people as objects, but he went a step further in deciding that certain people (myself at one time included) were actually projects of his. Passive vehicles for his own self-expression, for him to paint and sculpt and mold, as though we were easels and statues and pieces of pottery, and he was the great cunning craftsman known as God. All of this was done under the guise of “teaching,” and he did it very well. But is it the role of an educator to seek out the gullible, and fashion them into facsimiles of one’s own godless self? Did not the Pharisess whom Jesus decried in the 23rd chapter of the Gospel According to Matthew do the same?
Woe to you,
teachers of the law and Pharisees,
You travel over land and sea
to win a single convert,
and when you have succeeded,
you make them twice as fit for hell
as you are yourselves.
Both of these men would refer to God, to prayer, and in the most nauseous of hypocritical ways. Who the hell are they praying to anyway? They have no gods but their own bellies.
All of that competitive focus on achieving “success” in the sense that our society holds we be successful, is a total distraction from receiving the kind of success and satisfaction that can only come from desiring God. As I desire God, it is revealed to me that they are the ones who are really in need of enlightenment, salvation, and healing; because the realm they roam like lions that roar is the form of a former world that is passing. But the truth will endure forever.
It’s absurd for me to have even thought that, in getting inside finally, I could readily or easily return to old systems of values that not only were the very same systems that, when I tried unsuccessfully to adopt them in my pre-homeless past, only had the effect of leading me back into further and deeper Homelessness. It’s absurd that I thought that, just as soon as I finally got inside again, I could regain the friendship of friends who had not only failed me and betrayed me once I became homeless, but proved in so doing that they were never my true friends to begin with. It’s absurd that I should go back and try to engage in anything left over from my pre-homeless existence, if all those things did was join together with each other to form a bunch of things that, when working in concert, had the power to cast me out from society and put me on the streets.
After having learned how to be real in a world of fakery, it is absurd that I should do anything other than my best to be real. Learning to be real got me out of homelessness and into a dignified living situation that works for me, that represents and reflects the person whom I truly am. Busting my guts to try and be fake in a world of fakes not only failed all the fakes who had mastered such fakery, but also it failed myself. Why should I go back to being a fake after learning how to be real? Rather, I should work my butt off trying to maintain being real, in a world where my being real is what’s working.
Many who hear these words will echo the sentiments of the reality now being brought to light. For it is we who were forced by abominable life conditions to struggle day after day, enduring relentless persecutions and assaults against our persons and our dignity, and in many cases, our bodies as well as our minds, hearts, souls, and spirits, while we were already struggling with all our might to survive the indescribable conditions of continuous outdoor living, feeling trapped as though sub-human animals on the cold-hearted city streets.
It was more than many could bear. But not all. Let our voices be heard and understood. Were these words to be sent to homeless and formerly homeless people everywhere, many would lift their hearts and their voices in accord. Many did indeed falter, collapse, and eventually be put to death by the overall horror that is Homelessness. But many endured, survived, and prevailed – for the purpose that now unfolds.
Lift up your hearts, whoever you are who hears these words and understands them! We were spared the fate of the bulk of our fellows. We were not destined to die in vain, alone and friendless, without hope, without purpose.
Instead we were destined to rise above all that mire, put our lives back together, and emerge from the cages in which we were kept, on a mission to even the score. For where once we were submerged in the world as though destined to drown in the depths of dark water, we now have emerged with a story to tell, and our story is driven by fire. For once we were all but forgotten, and death was at every door. Once we were all of us homeless. Now, we are Homeless No More.
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