Bigger and Better than the Streets

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

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

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

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

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

Related image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Gratitude List 834

1. I really enjoy the early morning hours. I get most of my work done then, and it’s nice to see the sun come up and hear the birds chirp.

2. I was on the streets for a lot of years, and now I have a place to live. It’s been almost two years now that I’ve paid my rent on time every month, first at a studio room, and then at a one bedroom apartment.

3. Jan and I are here together in the apartment now, and we get along really well these days.

4. Although it is sad that things didn’t work out for my daughter Echo here, I somehow sense that her going back to California is what’s right for her.

5. I’ll be back at my shift at the Recovery Center this morning. I’ll also start going to church again regularly this Sunday. I won’t let recent events gyp me out of the benefits of my support groups here. I didn’t make the transition from street life to affirmative indoor living without help, and help is needed now more than ever.

6. This. It was a good use of a weekend, and now I’m moving forward. Better than wallowing, that’s for sure.

7. Perfect running weather.

8. Echo is a brilliant singer-songwriter, you know. She’s not just some slouch. I remember how, in times of trouble, my music saw me through.

9. On that note, it sure is nice to have been in Moscow these past two years, where not one person has ever told me that I thought “my music was more important than God” or any of that other rot. I’m thankful to be living in a supportive creative community full of like-minded Artists and Activists. Who would have thought, two or three years ago, that life could ever be so good?

10. Prayer works. It really does. The best person I can be for me and my family is the person whose energy brought them back to begin with. If people don’t believe the way I do, let them. The way that I believe is what has worked for me. I believe I will begin to believe this way again, and yet again and again.

Please donate to Eden in Babylon.
Anything Helps – God Bless!

 

Writer’s Guild

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve been feeling the need to find a writer’s support group in order to help motivate me to finish the musical script I’m writing.  A couple people suggested I contact the professor who teaches the undergraduate playwriting class.  He replied very cordially to the email I sent him, but told me that the class was filled up to capacity this semester, and that he also did not think he could help much with the “musical form.”  

Although his suggestion that I contact the School of Music was a logical one, I really am not in need of support on the musical level.  The music and lyrics to this show are essentially complete, and I’m pretty happy with the score.   It’s the script that continues to concern me.  

I last reported I had made it up to p.53, then reached an impasse.  Since then, I’ve made it up to p.58, which is almost to the end of Scene Four.   I could probably write a couple more pages this morning and wrap up the Scene, more-or-less sloppily.  But at this rate, without a support group to sustain my motivation, I probably won’t finish the script before the Second Coming of Christ.

guildIt occurred to me that there might be a Meet-Up writer’s group in the area.   With very little online research, I located one that happens to meet this very morning at ten.  They call themselves a Guild, and this morning’s meeting will take place exactly one block from my apartment!  So I’ll be there at ten this morning, either with the first four scenes completed, or ready to wrap them up on site.

The facilitator of the group also informed me of another writer’s group that meets at a bookstore also located fairly near my place of residence.  That group includes another playwright who prints out his scenes so that other members of the group can read the different characters.  In addition, there is another meeting of the Guild taking place at a restaurant this Tuesday evening.  While the meeting this morning is “write only,” the Tuesday night group will provide, according to the facilitator, “valuable feedback on plot and story line.”  All three of these resources could prove invaluable.

So – I think I’m on the right track if I can only relax about this thing a little bit.  The process of writing music is much more enjoyable for me.   The process of playwriting is arduous and annoying, but it will be worth it in the end if I will have produced something of value to offer to the world.

Time to Come Out

People in general have no idea how insecure I am about this whole playwriting process.   I could gloat about how it seems as though I’m gradually developing a positive support group in the community here — and I must admit the guys at the bagel shop downstairs have been remarkably supportive.  But what is that, really?  So there’s this guy who lives upstairs who likes to come down for a bagel and has a halfway interesting project going on.  So what?

To their credit, the “guys” to whom I refer are Paul, the night manager who has a degree in Psychology; and Josh, the swing shift worker who has a degree in Acting.  That’s a good blend, considering the subject matter.  There’s also Mary, the choir director at my church who played Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, and this fellow David who is the Artistic Director of the local community theater, who got his MFA in Playwriting and Directing from the University here.  I’ve discussed my work with a handful of other people, but the obvious course of action is to find some kind of writer’s  workshop.

writers-workshop-returns-1862When I ran into David the other day, I asked him if he thought it would be possible to audit a playwriting seminar at the University.   He seemed to think it would work if were to email the professor who teaches the class; and then, if I didn’t hear from him for a few days, just to walk into the building and announce my desire.  When I mentioned this to Josh last night, Josh also said they would almost certainly let me do that.  He then directed me to the building – so at this point it’s only a matter of working up the fortitude.

It might be a good idea for me to print out the script first, what I’ve got anyway.  Basically, since whenever my last “progress report” was, I’ve written up to p.53, or about midway through Scene Four.  There’s a good chance that if I start now, I can finish Scene Four this morning.  Then maybe I can print the pages out at the library.  It would be nice to show up with hard copy in hand, willing to let somebody look at it if they like, before they decide what to do with me.

Yes – this is the obvious solution to my woes.  The writer’s block that I occasionally encounter may not be as severe as the one earlier blogged, the one that kept me at a standstill for three years.   But the impasses are painful.  They slow me down, and they need to be addressed.   It’s time for me to get off my rump as far as presenting myself to the Performing Arts community here.   It’s not that I’m not thankful for the support I’ve thus far gleaned – it sure beats wandering the streets of Berkeley trying to maintain my sanity by composing music out loud after gang bangers hit me on the head with guns and stole my laptops.

But it’s time I did things according to reasonable protocol.  It’s time to break out of my shell.  It’s time to come out.