How I Got Inside

Attached is a verbatim transcript of the first story I had published in my new column in the new Street Spirit.  My column is called “Homeless No More,” and my story is entitled “How I Got Inside.”  This is based on a blog post called Bigger and Better than the Streets, also written on request of Alastair Boone, the new editor-in-chief of Street Spirit.    However, this version involves signature edits and additions.  As such, it stands on its own.

Note also the illustration provided.  The caption reads: “A drawing of Andy getting on a bus and leaving the Bay Area, soon to be housed elsewhere.”  Outside of being an outstanding illustration in its own rite, the work of one Inti Gonzalez, portions of it are charmingly telling.  Note how the homeless Andy is haggard, with a more unkempt beard, wearing a helmet, carrying a sack on a stick, eagerly boarding the bus for greener pastures.

And then, on his arrival!  Suddenly his beard is trim, his hair short and styled – he’s even wearing a Hawaiian shirt – as he bounds into his pristine new place of residence with a shit-eating grin on his face.  I see “white male privilege” reflected all over, which makes  sense in the context of my having moved to a largely all-White State.  But the white male couldn’t have felt too privileged a few weeks back, flying a sign on a Berkeley city sidewalk all those years.

In any event, here’s the text.  You can see for yourself what I wrote on the subject.

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

One of the reasons why I delayed the decision to leave the Bay Area for so long was because I was attached to my support group. I felt that my old friends and family members were just about the only people who knew that I was a competent guy who had landed on the streets as the result of a costly medical misdiagnosis. They were the ones who knew that a mistreated health condition had led to a mental breakdown, as my inability to properly manage a health condition threw me into first-time homelessness at the age of 51. They were the ones who watched in horror, as one by one I lost all my accounts, and could no longer keep up with the high cost of living on the S.F. Bay Area Peninsula. But still, they believed in me, and they did what they could to help me get back on my feet. Of course I needed their support!

The only thing they didn’t do was to let me stay with them. Ironically, to have offered me housing, even temporarily, would have been the only thing that could possibly have helped me to get back on my feet.

But they could not do this. They had their own concerns. Meanwhile, I watched while the sordid conditions of homelessness gradually transformed me from a naïve, overweight singing teacher to a scrawny fraction of my former self. Gradually, I got to be half-crazed from protracted sleep deprivation. Often, I became fully crazed from feeling that I was treated like a sub-human mutant, rather than an equal. Passersby sneered at me in disgust.

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

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

For a month I wandered the other side of the Bay in search of a permanent answer. But nothing seemed to work. In a shelter, I caught a flu, and was kicked out for that reason. The hospital wouldn’t let me in, because if they let me in, they’d have to let all of us in. I got kicked off of the all-night bus for fear of contaminating the other homeless people, who relied on the all-night bus as a shelter.

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

Then I took action. I began googling keywords until I found a place in the Pacific Northwest that rented for only $275/month—something that would easily have gone for $900/month in the Bay Area. It was a tiny room in a converted hotel—but it would do the job. I called an old associate, someone whom I’d worked with long ago when he was a music teacher at a middle school. Hearing my story, he agreed to front me $200 for a one-way Greyhound ticket to a new life. After that, I told my story to the prospective landlord, whom I called while still in San Francisco. To my amazement, he agreed to hold the place for me until I got there.

Forty-eight hours later, I was sleeping in my new room. It had a window, two power outlets, and three locks on the door. Four days after that, I signed a one-year lease. Three weeks later, after years of being considered unemployable in the San Francisco Bay Area, I landed a part-time job as a piano player at a small-town church.

A part of me wishes I had made the decision earlier. It would have spared me the last three years of psychic hell. But had I made the decision earlier, I would have abandoned the bulk of my support group. For me, leaving my support system and moving out of town was what it took to lead me to housing. However, it is a common misconception that the homeless crisis would be solved if homeless people just picked themselves up and moved out of town. This is not always the case, nor is it always readily possible.

I was lucky to have found a sympathetic person who would front me the money for a one-way-ticket to another state and help me with an apartment deposit and a few other odds and ends. Not everybody can find such a benefactor. Also, we cannot deny the obvious fact that I am a white male brimming with the semblance of “white privilege”even while living on the street—if only for the ability to decide to move to a state largely composed of other white people. While I obviously did not possess a whole lot of privilege per se, I looked as though I could conceivably be, or become, a privileged person. Let’s face it: Had I been Black or Hispanic, to show up in a largely white neighborhood would not have worked to my advantage.

So in a way, I had it easy. At the same time, however, I believe that there is a way out for everyone. Though the sheltered world does not know it, homelessness is not the same thing as alcoholism, drug addiction, or incompetence. It’s not the kind of thing where one needs to “change their ways” in order to overcome it. In order to overcome homelessness, what one needs is dignity. We are all created equal; we are all endowed by our Creator with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We are all bigger and better than the streets.

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Tuesday Tuneup Thirteen

Trigger warning – portions of this Tuesday’s tuneup are not for the faint of heart.  If your stomach is strong, read on.  If not, it’s a long one, and you might as well pass it by.

Q. Do you know who I am?

A. I don’t know, man. Some kind of gadfly I can’t swat.

Q. Why have you summoned me?

A. Because I’m a hypocrite.

Q. You? A hypocrite?

A. You heard me.

Q. Whatever makes you think a thing like that?

hypA. Revelation. Revelation of my own hypocrisy. You might say, my hypocrisy has been revealed to me.

Q. Why are you repeating yourself, in so many words?

A. Because it will probably take a lot of words to drum the Revelation of Hypocrisy into my own thick head.

Q. As though you don’t quite believe it yourself?

A. Exactly. I mean, look at it! Who wants to be thought of as a hypocrite? Let alone, by one’s own self?

Q. Do you expect me to answer that?

A. No – but I can. The only person who wants to think of their own self as a hypocrite is a person who doesn’t care. A game player. A sociopath. Someone who puts forth one face in front of one fellow, and another face in front of another.

Q. And you do not do that?

A. I didn’t say I don’t. I actually do. Especially when I’m — loose. In a good space. On a roll. Enjoying the sunshine. Having fun. You ought to hear the kind of b.s. that comes out of my mouth when I’m feeling good.

Q. Do you mean that you have to feel bad in order not to be a hypocrite?

A. That’s a good question. I would guess that ultimately, the answer will be no. I will eventually be able to accede to a place of Zero Hypocrisy without losing my ability to have fun in life. But in the meantime, I might have to go through some hell.

Q. What kind of hell?

A. This kind. The very kind in which you and I engage. The hell of ruthless self-examination, with an eye toward facing the bitter truth.

Q. Why is the truth bitter?

A. Because of what it tells me about myself. For example, consider the theme of social stigma. It’s all over my blog, and practically everything I’ve written throughout the past two years. I hate being stigmatized. I hate to be thought of, for example, as some kind of low life tweaker scum bag, just because I was homeless in the Bay Area for all those years. And I hate it when my fellow homeless or formerly homeless brothers and sisters are thought of that way. I will defend my family to the hilt.

Q. Doesn’t that sound rather noble of you? As though you have integrity? And courage? And not hypocrisy?

A. It might sound that way. But things are not always what they sound like. For one thing, as much as I abhor being stigmatized, I myself stigmatize whole huge groups of people. Not homeless people, of course. But other social groups.

Q. Like whom?

A. Like doctors, for example. I have this insane idea that all doctors are money-making control freaks who act as though they hold the keys to my Divine Human Body. The nerve of those damn doctors acting like they own me!

Q. Has a doctor recently acted like he owned you?

A. Maybe. Maybe not. The point is, I *think* that he has. And why do I think that? Because I stigmatize all doctors. I lump them all into one bag. They’re all a bunch of fat cats driving Cadillacs, for all the slack I give them. But the point of fact is that there’s a doctor in this very town who has performed the one good thing that a doctor has ever done for me, in all of my 65 years of wandering the surface of this mysterious planet.

Q. And what did that doctor do?

A. He yanked out my toenail.

Q. And this was a good thing??

A. Yes. Because he did it the right way, so that it wouldn’t grow back the wrong way.

Q. Had somebody else done it the wrong way?

A. Yes. I myself. I yanked it out myself one day. Didn’t feel a thing, by the way (thanks to the local anesthetic of choice.) Felt fine the next day too. But it grew back the wrong way.

Q. So this one doctor did something the right way?

A. Yes. There is therefore at least one good doctor on the face of the globe. Or at least, he’s good on a good day.

Q. And on a bad day?

A. Prescribed me an antidepressant which you’re not supposed to prescribe to people who have Bipolar One disorder. Almost lost my job on it the next time I tried to play piano at the church.

Q. You play piano at a church?

A. Not any more I don’t. I eventually lost the job anyway. Or quit, or something like that. I think it was mutual.  But that’s besides the point.

Q. And what, may I ask, is the point?

A. The point is that not all doctors are insensitive fat cats driving Beemers treating my Divine Human Body like a set of nuts and bolts. And not all homeless people are worthless low life scum bags. In fact none of them are. Yet homeless people are stigmatized by the society. And doctors are stigmatized by me. Doctors – and whole other groups of people.

Q. Like whom?

A. Technocrats. Rich kids. Trump Supporters. Juggaloes. All kinds of people. Even gang bangers.

Q. Um – how can you *not* stigmatize a gang banger?

A. What do you mean?

Q. Aren’t gang bangers by definition a bunch of mindless thugs?

A. Not necessarily. Let’s take Arthur for example. (Not his name.) Brought up on the streets of Oakland California, gang affiliations, twenty year old kid who followed me from my spot on Shattuck near the Berkeley BART station one day, him and his buddy, knocked me on the head with a gun, threatened to kill me, and barreled me over the head (him and his buddy) about ten or twelve times while shouting: “I’m gonna kill you, White Motherfucker! I’m gonna kill your fucked up white ass, bitch!”

Q. And you survived?

A. Obviously I survived.  All they wanted was my Chromebook.   I gave it to them and they ran off, looking back at me.   They didn’t really want to kill me.

Q. But still, how can you not stigmatize people like that as heartless scum bags?

A. Oh don’t get me wrong.  I could.  Sure I could.  But not after a couple years had rolled by, and I’d had quite a few serious conversations with the deluded young chap.

Q. What did these conversations entail?

A. Lots of things. Ideas how he could better his life. How he was happier when he was with his girlfriend. How he was actually a pretty intelligent guy. And on his end, how he wished he could help me get inside – because he was inside –

Q. Inside?

A. Means, living indoors, like a non-homeless person.

Q. But wasn’t he brought up on the streets of Oakland?

A. Yes, but eventually fell in love, met a gal, moved in with her. I’m pretty sure that’s what happened. In any case, he came up one day to tell me he was “in house” and that because he knew I was an Old Guy and I still had to live outside, he wanted to help me in any way he could.

Q. And you believed him?

A. Yes and no. I didn’t believe he could help me. But I believed that was what was in his heart.

Q. But couldn’t he just have felt guilty?

A. Sure! But that in itself is a good thing. It’s the thugs who never feel guilty that you have to worry about.

Q. Why did you keep hanging around this guy?

A. (laughing) Oh brother, you do not know the streets! Down there, you have no choice but to keep hanging around with everybody. It’s not as though there’s any escape from anyone else out there. People stalk you, they approach you in the dead of night, they wake you up to ask you for cigarettes, and they don’t believe you when you tell them you do not smoke. They are always engaging with you, one way or the other. Best you can do is try to be on as good terms with everybody, and be ready for anything.

Q. How did you put up with it for as long as you did!?

A. That’s an easy one. I didn’t believe I had a choice.

Q. Seriously?

A. Seriously. The message I kept getting, from all sides, was that I had no choice. I was homeless, I was therefore a mere mutation of a true human, with defects so severe that I was consigned to permanent, everlasting homelessness — in this world and the next.  Not only would I not ever be anything other than homeless, *could* not be anything other than homeless, and should not be anything other than homeless. I was regarded this way with such unanimous agreement, I figured they must all be right. How could they all be wrong?

Q. But how could they all think such a thing?

A. Ha – you drive a hard bargain.  Let me correct myself.   They did not all think these things. Some of them even thought the opposite. They thought I had as much choice, as much privilege, as they did. They thought that the easiest thing in the world should be to pick myself up by my bootstraps and pull myself out of the damn mess. Yet it wasn’t nearly as easy as some of them thought.

Q. But who were they? I mean, who were the ones who thought you had no choice?And who were the ones who thought you had all the choice in the world?

A. In general, the homeless social workers were the ones who figured I didn’t have a choice, and my old friends who still lived inside were the ones who thought I had all the choice in the world. But you ask me to stigmatize, which is the very thing it has been revealed I must avoid. So I won’t. I will instead generalize – as I just did.

Q, Generalize?

A. Generalize.

Q. How is that different than stigmatize?

A. Big difference. Stigmatize is when you judge an individual based on general characteristics of a social group to which it is perceived they belong. That individual may in reality have none of those characteristics whatsoever. Generalize is when you correctly assess the overall characteristics of a social group, and describe the group according to that generalization.

Q. Do you have a degree in Sociology?

A. Don’t hit my sore spot!  You know I can’t read worth beans. I tried a music degree but couldn’t get through the Music History reading load, though I tried four times. And my philosophy major? You can only imagine how poorly that one went! But don’t press my buttons, please.

Q. Consider them unpressed, or depressed — or something like that — and I promise not to repress them — but really, if you have no trained educational certificate, however did you come up with this distinction? And what gives you the hutzpah? The daring? The audacity to presume that your perceptions are valid?

A. Look, dude. When you sit down on a street corner flying a sign on a sidewalk for five years, you have a lot of time to think things over. You also have a lot of time to watch people. I thought things over. And I watched.

Q. What did you see?

A. People. All kinds of people. And you know what I noticed about them all?

Q. What?

A. Every damn one of them was an individual, with unique characteristics unseen in any other. Sure they belonged to groups and factions. Sure there was stratification. But one thing I knew for sure, is that they were all unique, and distinguished by bonds of flesh from one another.

Q. Even the gang bangers? Even the thugs?

A. Hey – a couple of gang bangers were walking up one time looking tough when I was sitting with a bunch of Street Kids on a sidewalk playing a guitar. As soon as they heard me, they both broke into dance. So they had something in common other than the fact that they used drugs, dealt drugs, and occasionally engaged in violence to get what they wanted.  They had a natural feel for the rhythm of Music.  They all had it.  What a beautiful thing!  So how can I stigmatize them?

Q. But even in your saying that, doesn’t one still get the feeling that they have more in common as a social group than they have separately as individuals?  How can you answer that?

A. By going back to the example of Arthur. (Not his name.) Have I ever told you the story about running into him at the Au Coquelet cafe at around 1:30 in the morning?

Q. I don’t know – have you?

A. Probably not. So here goes.

coq

A. I walked into Au Coquelet late at night one night and Arthur was sitting alone at one of the tables, looking glum. As he noticed me, he motioned me to sit with him. Reluctantly, I complied.

Q. Reluctantly?

A. Well let’s face it. The Kid had knocked me over the head with a gun about three years before and threatened my life. I didn’t exactly love running into him.

Q. But you sat with him anyway?

A. Didn’t want to offend him. But that’s all beside the point. It’s what he said at the table that got to my heart.

Q. What did he say?

A. He said:

Arthur: Andy, I think I have brain damage.

Andy (gulps): Why do you think that, Arthur?

Arthur: I’ve been hit on the head too many times with too many guns.

Andy: Uh, er, yeah. Well, uh, I myself have been hit on the head with a gun or two in my day.

Arthur: (warmly) I know you have, Andy.

Andy: And I don’t worry about me having brain damage. I just figure — the wounds heal.

Arthur: Your wounds maybe. Mine are way too deep.

Andy: What do you mean?

Arthur: All my life, my whole fanily, whenever they needed to get a point across, they hit me on the head with a gun.

Andy: Damn man, that sucks!

Arthur: It gave me some deep wounds. Too deep. It’s hard to find where the actual hurt is, but I know it’s damaged my brain.

Andy: Maybe. But I can tell you what part of you it hasn’t damaged.

Arthur: What part is that?

Andy: Your heart.

The Questioner is silent.

Before you leave this page, please say a prayer for Arthur. God put a burden on my heart for him this morning. And no, it’s not his name, but God will know who you mean. After all, people have called God all kinds of names over the centuries, not all of them very kind.  And God took that hurt, and loved them anyway. And so did Arthur. Pray for him, please, in God’s Good Name.

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