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Posts Tagged ‘homeless chronicles’

I AM NOT A HAMMER! Not a hammer. He screamed inwardly, directing his intentions at the tall, rough-brick buildings, the foreboding, overlooking passersby, the ominous, taunting sky. Screamed on the inside and what good did it do, but translate to another twisted face of his. The fear and anger welling up once again. If only he’d learned in time to pipe up, if only his voice could back him, if only the right person had asked the right things, if only. If only. If only.

Ah, but that is the curse of the foster kid shuffle. Is it not? The souls it claims tumbling out in ruins, vacillating between the unstoppable, menacing dissonance in splatter-surround-sound, incessantly playing between ears of the touched, and coming out loud, disconcerting… Or the quiet ones; The ones still entangled in the monster-under-the-bed deluded illusion of the “if I can’t see them, they can’t see me” variety. Eyes averted. Lost beyond the depths. A despondency measured in dog years.

Herein is where our homeboy lay. He’d been pushed out into the sun under a bad star from the jump. Tunnels of NYC ain’t no place to form a baby, especially when a woman didn’t know what the fuck was wrong with her until the day she uncontrollably wet herself, and was stabbed by alien pains emanating from the depths of her belly when she was mostly used to being numb.

Cries and primal, animal sounds rung the dark maze beneath the streets that morning, about an eighth of a mile shy from the nearest shaft of dusted light. A baby was born onto a worn mattress full of unspeakable stains. Picked up reluctantly by filthy, unexpectant hands, and held, finally, to a tattered breast on a tired body with a rapid heartbeat, and the first. blossoming. of instant. surprise. love. a person can only know once they’ve been left to bleed and all else had failed.

And speaking of blood, holy mother was it a mess. Messy from day one. This woman! She had no idea. She was just walking in the shoes that she’d been given a generation or two ago. She couldn’t be sure. Family history was never rich on the roster. But she’d stayed on the same path as her own mother. Tending her habits above all else. Passing them on to her skinny, miracle child.

It was novelty at first. Because she’d never really known care. Never really known responsibility. Didn’t know the first thing about child rearing but hot-damn would she do her best. Her capabilities were few- let’s not glorify. I mean, an addict in deep is an addict in deep. But little can be done to stifle that innate knowledge that woman share. The one that is connected to ancestry. To source. The umbilical chord of the universe. She tended best she could, long as she could, until the mouth became too needy. Her own needs too greedy, to give proper attention to a babe.

So off with it on the kind of hot summer night where the nail-exposed overhangs drip with polluted condensation and people move molasses slow to keep the heat at bay. Off with it, this kid, this monkey, this needy thing she never wanted, couldn’t even remember how it happened in the first place. Off with this and onto some store’s front stoop where come morning a startled Asian grocer would find a itty-bitty-stinky-baby in a box and stare at in amazement for one shocked moment, wondering how people could be so cruel, before picking up the entire box that weighed all of 6 pounds and bringing it into NYPD’s 5th Precinct on Elizabeth and Canal, to be stared at suspiciously and questioned with intimidation, armed with about 30 specific, limited to shop-talk- English words. Oh poor secret Asian mang.

Fast forwarding our tale and on with it. Our poor guy. Our poor baby who would be sure to grow slight in height, and not far in the mental. Our poor guy who was to be pushed, dropped, dragged, and kicked through an unchecked system of house after house and on. Filled with predator and mouse. Loud television and louse. Lack of love, direction, or reliable constant. The irony of taxing the shit out of parents desperate to adopt, and adversely allowing the shittiest of the lot to be foster parents. And paying their asses. The horror. No criteria having mother-fuckers. Something to shake your head at.

Our boy never developed much of a taste for outward speak. Didn’t have much to say. Maybe he didn’t know how. Perhaps he lacked the overlooked tools of expressivity or composition. Teachers thought he a lost cause. Not much you can do with a lump that sits in the corner, refusing to engage. So in he went and out again. And at the glorious age of 18; the ripe age where we are fit and tied to greet the world; the age where we no longer need guidance or help at all, ever, and are ready- all of us- for complete and utter independence- our homeboy was let out.

He was like an instant street rat. Literally like a fucking rat. Where he learned from the rodents basic survival. Eat what you can find. Drink where you can find. Sleep in the little nooks where people are not apt to disturb you. He took to the streets with arguable natal instinct. The streets gave him selective shelter, opened up his fuzzy focus. Taught him the freedom to sit and stare. The freedom to bark or growl or yell at random- all of which he practiced, just to see. But it wasn’t him. He was the silent type. You know. On the city pulsed and he felt off-shook by the beat. Our boy never had the luxury of feeling steady, really. His only purpose was today, I suppose. The ability to reflect on purpose is paired with those on the elevated levels of the comparably modern day caste system. Paired with those where the concept of hedonism can ring. Where people can afford sarcasm. His pockets bore holes and his currency nil.

Our boy. Left to eat the dust. Left an empty shell of nobody. He never got to be. Some people never do. They run through depleted soil from dia numero uno. No chance. Bleek grim. A sad ending from the beginning. A side bar. An untended, deficient weed.

In a world of hard focused happy endings I embrace the grime. Tip a 40 oz., a pinot with your pinky in the air, your G & T, your whisky neat, rip the tip off your blunt if you gotta- for all the living ghosts out there. They’re out there right now, shuffling, rocking, hiding. Tip it and sip it and know you got it good, and if not good, better than a lot.

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There I was- flipping through a ragged, time-worn, cardboard box at my parent’s house. I gingerly sifted through yellowed and thinned pages, in my own time capsule, revisiting a fair amount of the two dimensional art of my youth. They kept so many of my creations. Occasionally I’ll wonder the purpose of keeping a diary other than to get the immediacy of pressures off my chest because I hardly think that there will be a day where I am driven to revisit all of my petty boy-riddled qualms of old. It seems, at least, that that’s the most of what my journal entries have seen over the years. But this- this was different. This was ART! Encapsulated. I understood the inability to dispose of it. Such richness. I totally had an eye for fashion and have apparently been designing clothes since I could pen myself a plausible idea. Lots of drawings were comprising sleep overs; quite likely an influence from every little girl’s treasured book Madeline. They were very big fun though. Yet another reason I’m glad to have the XX chromosome thing in place. Another common topic was of little girls puking. Yup- you read it right. Little girls puking. I was no stranger to belly aches- especially in the car (lo siento, padres) so I guess I just wanted to spread the love or at least normalize it so everyone got sick all the time too. Oh, yeah and kids are weird, sooo go figure.  BuT- the most common theme in my drawings? Homeless children.

I drew and drew and drew this topic in so very many capacities all throughout my growing up. Kids behind dumpsters, kids under bridges, under awnings, on corners, in the snow, with a dog, kids alone with signs, kids with parents, kids with questionable chaperone. Some of them were even throwing-up too…  A clear memory that I have is asking my mother why we couldn’t just take someone home with us. I thought if everyone in the city took somebody home the homelessness problem would be solved. Grown ups are so dense! Come on people, don’t you see?? And this of course was NYC circa 1980-1990’s, when the mental asylum Bellevue, was shut down and emptied onto the streets of Manhattan. I had vivid fantasies of setting up the extra room for our(?) homeless person and coming into the bathroom while they were obligingly in the shower, handing them a bag courteously,  and taking their smelly clothes in exchange for new, clean ones. Problems solved! Even as a 5 year old I guess I knew that one of the larger deterrents to my Adopt-A-Homeless-Person program was the stank factor. Needless to say this never manifested.

Many years later I would wind up tutoring homeless kids for a while. It was such a tremendous experience with so much variety that I couldn’t surmise it with one quick descriptive word. Ok- intense.  If I must. Bear with me- I’m building my “fretting for the homeless portfolio”.

I tried to tackle the problem from several different angles throughout the last ten years plus. At one point I worked diligently on an idea that I thought was rather brilliant. It stemmed from talking to people living on the streets that seemed unmotivated to find work. After all, it’s hard enough to find something when you’re clean and showered, let alone educated. My idea was to hook up seasonal farm work opportunities to homeless shelters, and have houses of worship do their good deeds by providing ride shares to the people. Flawlessish? I called so many freakin’ farms that did not appreciate the thought of a bunch of hobos smashing their berries or sleeping in their corn or whatever. Did everyone on the other end of the line read Grapes of Wrath? Sheesh. And to boot, I couldn’t find any churches, synagogues or mosques to do the driving. Foiled.

My fascination with homeless (housing disabled?) waxed and grew and on the side I kept a notebook full of years worth of spontaneous interviews with street dwelling folk. I wanted their stories. Badly. Occasionally I would set out with the intention of conducting the interviews, sometimes I would see someone too interesting pass up. (I told you- my curiosity might just be the death of me some day. Please play “Blaze of Glory” at my funeral. I’m not kidding. I’m working up to earning it but no, I’m not trying to die anytime soon.) I had a long list of questions and my spiel was to go up and ask if they were hungry and I could buy them some lunch or a cup of coffee in exchange for some question answering. The notebook, I regret to say, is sadly long gone, lost to the same sea that claims matching socks, sunglasses,  and bus transfers, but some of the questions that I had in there went something like this:

*Where did you grow up?  * What was your family like?  * When did you start living on the streets?  *Is it scary?  * Do you get assistance?  * Do you want to live in a house/ apt some day? * Drug related questions. * Saftey related questions * Adventure related inquiry * Favorite stories?…

This is a small sampling. The questions were very subject to change, depending on the person I was asking and their openness and willingness to divulge, naturally.

I’ll tell you though, boy have I heard some shit!

There is one that stands out above the rest though. I was interviewing this guy, a mid forty’s man originally from an upper-middle class home in the suburbs of NJ. Born to religious parents. Happy childhood. Good relationships with brothers and sisters. He liked partying a little too much and got turned on to heroin. He’d always been the rebel in the family; the black sheep. He’d been living on the streets of several states for well over two decades by the time I met him. He seemed happy to tell his story. He seemed so sound. Peaceful. I asked him if he wanted to be off of the streets and his response was, and I remember it so clearly: “Man, you people feel bad for us out here, but we feel bad for you! Most of us don’t want those responsibilities that you have. There’s too much to do. A house, a car, bills, paperwork. Responsibilities. They are overwhelming. Yeah, it can be dangerous, but we don’t want what you got. I believe in God. And out here- ain’t nothing between me and God.

Take that in.

The concept of the interviews originated not just to satisfy my own forever’s-worth of curiosity. It was to serve as a bridge. Long ago I recognized people’s limited abilities to care for something/ someone at a distance. We tend to favor what and who we know. Throw another sad sap’s face into the world and if the public at large doesn’t recognize it, it’s easier to walk on by. Walk by a face on the street of someone who was in your past, who you know in a more intimate way- perhaps a friend’s father, an old neighbor, a former student, and things change. There is a sense of ownership and most of us have a built in mechanism to care for those we know. I felt that if we had people’s stories and could actually personalize them, find them relatable, then people would have more compassion and vested interest in getting people help that wanted and needed it.

So I ran off to get a sharpie and some name tags. What’s she doing now? I had a new experiment in mind. If we bore name tags there would be a missing piece of the lacking reliability solved. Like “Oh! Your name is Joey? That was my grandpa’s, name and he was really influential in my life. I love guys named Joey.” Etc. So on the name tags went the name, because knowing someone’s name is personal and pretty undeniably humanizing. Then three random things. 1. Favorite band 2. A place I’ve traveled 3. What I love. Really, it could’ve been anything. The objective was to show the public the humanity of people, as it’s so easily dismissed or ignored in our world where people are so overstimulated and walled.

I resolved to wear a name tag for a week straight to see the effects and how people might approach me and how it would change dynamics. I had visions of grandeur!

Well, I’m embarrassed to say that I wound up getting irritated with the receptivity, especially considering that I was fresh out of a multi-year relationship and going out a lot and was on one, so having my name on blast was putting me out there to a general crowd that I didn’t want all up in my business. I tried to maintain it throughout the day time instead, but I was working in a school and it wasn’t the right place either. Eventually I lost interest because my life style at the time didn’t lend itself to the particular vision I had hoped for.

Do know that I have not given up on my idea of being a liaison/catalyst for bridging the worlds. I actually still quite fancy the idea of name tag personification. Perhaps I will conduct this experiment in more refined ways and pick my project back up again. Like only do it in certain areas of the city while doing specific activities. And get some new hobos on board…?

I will do it! I’ll do it for the people sitting under awnings tonight, getting splashed by the cold rain. And I’ll do it for that little, barfy, concerned drawer me inside.

Back on the grind, baby.

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There are two kinds of people in the United States who will sit down next to a perfect stranger on the same park bench when there are other ones in the nearby area that remain unoccupied:

1) A person that wants you, or has something that they hope you want

2) Drunks

It is not unusual for me to take my bike and point it towards the direction of an adventure I hope to come upon.Often times I will ride westward towards the esplanade of the city. The latter part of the ride itself is lovely; over the river, next to the train tracks suspended above the water on tremendous, whiny, old, wooden beams. For the many who are yet to be familiar with Portland town, the esplanade is a long stretch of sidewalk that is on both sides of our river, the Willamette, dividing the city respectively into east and west. As you can imagine, there is a good ebb and flow of foot traffic here at every hour. There are joggers, bike riders, people strolling, destitute folks, people recovering from another long night of drinking, drugging, or just plain ol’ being homeless and snoozing there. There are people taking photos, people reading or drawing, musicians playing together…

I came down to the river the particular day in question to wrap myself up in the gentler flow of the city. Equipped with sketchpad, writing book and an array of pens of different thicknesses, I sat. I looked into the river and at the passers bye, hoping that the words would begin to collect themselves for me. Gather anytime my fantastic friends. Inspiration? I’m here.

Stage left, in come this rather large fellow. He seated himself next to me on the bench. No invitation needed for public benches, true, but when there are other vacant benches, don’t most people know to take one of those? It’s one of those unspoken social cues that we all adhere to and accept. (Similar to the unspoken rule in the men’s rest room where when using the urinal you go to the one at the very end, and each next guy to get up to use the john goes as far as possible from the other user. Right? Yes, woman know these things (woman, did you know about this?!) (We are so lucky that we get to pee together!).) So there we are: me with my pen, dutifully sussing out a brilliant topic bound to dawn any minute, with a slight distraction due to my new bench mate who was fairly odorous (boozy stank); and he, a rather lumbering fellow with a large presence that had a slightly jumbled and wayward feel, along with a subtle allure that peaked my interest an itty bitty bit. Microscopicly so.

He began talking and asking me questions that were just fluff and I felt that he was hoping to find a friend in me. I was still absorbed in my hopes of creation, also hoping he would leave, albeit humoring him despite my disdain for superficial conversation for the sake of conversing. Well whaddaya know, he pretty much talked to me until I was hooked. It’s when you least expect it, kiddies. Hints of his story splintered through the fluff of simple monologue and he had my attention. He got me, like a slow drug would: Methodical and persistant administration.

And the verbal foreplay had reached a point where I wanted to know more. Impatiently awaiting. Maybe he would get it out and then I would have some fodder. That was when he became distant and when I realized I was, in fact, an asshole. He wasn’t going to just give it up. I had taken this man for granted because he sat down next to me,  and I had assumed that his routine was the same old song and dance number I had seen exacted so many times before: drunkard with loose lips, talking to who ever will listen. I didn’t feel special or “chosen” and I had taken him to be very open. I forgot, and was slapped with the reminder- there are still sacred tales behind eyes the of those souls who seem broken.

Finally, it came.

His story. True as sin.

Drunk Native American.

Big, lost man.

Ancient myth.

Vagabond.

This story unfolded in such a fashion, becoming absolutely one of the most beautiful and humbling tales that I have ever heard.

Somewhere in the Southwest a large man once lay. A sterile gown. A white bed. Eyes shut. A coma had claimed him from nights and days of exessive drinking. A coma that turned days into weeks and turned weeks into months. Doctors and attendees stood by, idly. Deep sleep of an undisturbable variety. Dreams showed no presence, playing on the lids of no eyes.

A small number of people were left in his life. Bridges had been burned and pain had struck chords, severing ties with too much weight to mend. The tiny amount of loved ones left came to visit. Trickling in slower than tales of tortoise. They whispered and they prayed. They cried. They talked to him. Different tactics eliciting nothing.

His uncle came one day to his bedside, this time bringing desert Sage. In the hospital room the bundle was lit, and the man in the starched gown was smudged. Did they treat him like a lost spirit? His body was brushed with sacramental smoke. His face washed clean with the scent. The big man’s nose… began to twitch.

This was seen.

A break through. A big deal. But the end of the road, as nothing else dented the difference between the standing and laying in the room again. Not even Sage. Not for weeks in spite of multiple tries.

Weeks later another family member came carrying family heirloom in tow; an instrument used in ceremony. A beautiful, simple rattler. A rattler that had guided this family in the hogan. A rattler that his ears knew. The sound of the desert. The sound of wheat tufts dancing in the breeze. A song of nature. Perhaps the sound of home.

The big man lay completely still. When the rattler was shaken- up rose his hand, mimicking the movement. As if to shake the tools, as if it was he, making the noise.

Weeks lapsed once again, and intermittently his responses shortened the amount of days between the stretches of stillness.

It was these visits, featuring different family members, presenting an instrument, a scent, a song, that brought him to, eventually.

Finally one day he awoke, and slowly reoriented himself with the world. Reacquainted himself with his family. Embraced the ways with which he was raised. Got back on his feet. This is not to say that his base was solid, or suddenly he was resilient to his demons and the challenges that awaited. He was still a weak man who’s best friend and worst enemy were combined to be found at the bottom of the bottle, with a call that over powered the rest. But his sense of self, his sense of spirituality, his understanding of connectivity and family… all these things were bestowed upon him. Refreshed. Now, if he were to die, he knew where and how he would go, and that it would be his time, and his journey would be safe.

Thank you for reading. Aho. 

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