“Great people, while being very wise, appear to be ignorant;
while being very skillful, they appear inept. Random thoughts
do not occur to them…and they are not concerned with externals.”
It is cold.
I’ve no way of knowing how cold, no radio or television, no thermometer. I cannot count the chirps of crickets and add 37, for all the crickets are long dead. It is windy.
This wind is a real crafty bitch. Never drops below a certain threshold—hard enough to sound steady in the ears, nearly hard enough to lean into—and then she’ll switch directions on you, gust hard, and knock you over. Or slowly blow harder so you do start to lean without knowing it, and then stop for just a second, leave you on your face. This is a mean and crafty wind. She is in league with the ice. They work together to distract me, tire me out, steal my heat. They have a lot of history together. None of that matters right now.
Right now I’m underdressed, and too far from my car. Right now there’s a mean ice an inch thick on all the sidewalks and a cunning wind. Right now I’m in trouble.
“Homeless.” So many things associated with that word. Filth, poverty, begging, cardboard boxes and shopping carts and addictions of all stripe. Laziness, madness, an overall lack of social graces.
The nerve of some people, fucking up our utopian United States.
Social graces we may lack, but we consider that no fault of character. We don’t know from fish knives, true—but then you’d be surprised at our depth of knowledge concerning knives in general. Or any sharp pointy thing, come to that. In fact, the depth of knowledge there might qualify as disturbing.
We make no apologies.
Besides, you’re not to blame for being uncomfortable with such things. You are protected by bright lights and sturdy locks. Police would notice if you were wandering around sick or hurt. Some one would notice. So fish knives and life insurance become very important. We understand. You can’t be blamed.
Nor can we.
How to be Homeless I
We are two things always and above all else.
We are Targets because nobody would ever miss us. Some people hate us on principle. Some others just want some ass to kick, and we’re always handy.
Being a Target means: We must always be alert, and we must know more about knives (though I carry a little collapsible spring-billy) and how to survive getting kicked around for a while when there’s no other way out. We must avoid eye contact while being aware of our respective perimeters. We must arm ourselves. We must be always prepared to stab, to smash. We must be equally prepared to run.
We are always hungry because the next meal is uncertain. We are hungry on principle.
Eat what there is when it’s there and keep eating till it’s gone or they kick you out. Often meals are few and far between.
For hunger we will steal, beg, and scavenge. Some of us will rob. It‘s not an issue of morality, you understand, but simple biology.
I tuck my hands inside my pockets, each containing a sock. Pockets are made warmer by such things. I cannot really feel them anymore, but I look to make sure they are both inside, and I pull my arms close to my chest. My body itself cannot produce much warmth. I’ve not fed it properly in a week or more. It’s a damn long walk over ice-covered ground on numb feet to my car and its heater.
I begin to move.
I also begin to wonder if I could be in trouble here. Soon I cannot feel my ears or nose, my face generally goes numb. I feel my nose and ears constantly, trying to ascertain how cold they really are, in the process allowing all the heat to be stolen from my hands.
It feels that way. Like the heat is sucked out of you. I remember reading somewhere that the opposite is true, that what I am feeling is not the heat leaving my body, but the cold of the Earth penetrating it. Trying to snuff it out.
My feet are next to get too close to the ambient temperature, and suddenly walking becomes a problem. I am breaking a number of rules here.
The deep, constant cold of the new year has taught me new lessons.
How to be Homeless II
Frostbite will get you before you think to check; cover everything you can.
Cotton will kill you. It breathes, wonderful in the summer heat, not at all desirable in 5-15 weather.
Wool is the way to go. Cheap if it’s old enough, warm even when wet, and works best when layered. Synthetics can be better, but good luck getting it.
Stay out of the wind as much as possible. Alleys can funnel wind, and some are best avoided during cold seasons.
I’m dressed in a canvas coat and two cotton T-shirt layers, with denim jeans and sneakers. No hood, gloves, or hat.
This is inept on every level. Only a real idiot would be caught like this. The old guys call it lazy hoboing. We have our standards.
Not being a bad hobo is one of them.
Society at large has a code of behavior called “manners.” The purpose of these manners, as handed down from the ancestors, is to establish a method of judging with some measure of precision, the quality of an individual. Quality is a slippery word. Nobody can tell me what it is, exactly. It has no precise and accurate opposite. Generally when people say a guy is a “man of quality” they mean he’s a good fellow, you can count on this guy. He’s got quality.
We have our own methods of judging. Our own code of behavior. Guidelines really. Difference is our code is based on a completely different idea of quality. A quality guy keeps his mouth shut. He’s got his own stuff. Don’t ask you for more than a drink here, a puff there. He’s self-sufficient in the ways that our people are. Most importantly, he follows the rules.
How to be Homeless III
Never get too close to another of our kind without permission. Permission may be unspoken. Show your hands plainly as you approach, but not so obviously as to hint at a sneak attack. Walk slowly.
Approach no one directly, this is hostile behavior, sidle up, taking your time. Remember, they may be a threat as well.
We are not all well people. Be aware of possible madness.
Speak carefully among strangers, and softly among friends.
Whenever possible, keep yourself to yourself. I don’t mean stay away from groups. A crowd of us provides safety; we are to some extent herd animals. Remain cautious; remember we are all of us Targets, and that the herd is always culled somehow.
Eat as opportunity arises (a finicky stomach is cured by repeated doses of garbage).
Don’t risk a sure thing trying to help some one else. If you’ve a car, or a steady meal hooked up, leave it alone.
Never prey upon one of our own, nor allow our own to be preyed upon.
Now a guy who follows the rules, he’s quality.
That’s the slippery nature of the word. “Quality” means different things to us, but we mean the same thing by it. This is a good guy. This guy you can count on.
But right now it is cold. Right now it is winter. Vigilance can be relaxed a bit, thugs aren’t dedicated enough to come out in this. I’m beginning to become acclimated, though walking remains a challenge.
It is beautiful out here.
Clear skies. There is a huge puddle with a skin of ice on top, the ice breaks and I sink slowly into six inches of water. This part of town is sparsely lit for blocks and even in the city I can see a thousand stars. I look down and there they are again. I laugh as I splash through the stars at my feet. I am a great gravitational disturbance, judging by the ripples.
Galaxies will perish from my walking through the stars.
My feet are wet.
The trick to walking with no feeling in the feet is to forget that there was ever feeling there in the first place. A feat easiest to accomplish when thoroughly hammered, as any number of drunks will attest. I am tired, sleepy, and it takes precious little effort to forget that I felt my feet. Walking becomes a jouncing adventure, with one unexpected turn after the next, like the first time I saw “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” as a kid. Also, I am beginning to grow fond of the ground. It’s always there to stop me from falling too far, and it’s gotten more comfortable after we made friends. I sang it a little song to apologize for hitting it so much, and to thank it for holding me up. It’s grown more supportive since, if I’m not mistaken.
When somebody breaks the rules in either of our respective worlds, there are certain repercussions. These repercussions run on a sliding scale. That is, for a slight breach there is a slight punishment of some kind, and for larger breaches more severe punishments, and so on. Interesting thing is both of our worlds end up at the same place.
What other ultimate punishment can there be?
When practicality overcomes ethics, death becomes an obvious possibility.
How to be Homeless IV
The Nature of Rules
Now some of our rules are animistic. That is to say, you can’t go up to them and say, “Hey, could you cut me a break just this one time?” These are the rules like securing shelter, food. If these rules are broken, the punishment fits exactly. If you fail to eat until you can no longer search out food, you’ll probably die. There’s no excuse for breaking these rules.
Other rules can be bent. We can approach someone more casually in a crowded, brightly lit area. We can let our guards down occasionally, when all is seen to and there are enough of our people about.
The only time we really have to worry about the rules is when some one decides it’s okay to beat one of us. Decides that they’ll just take out a little aggression on some bum instead of shelling out the money for therapy.
Sad to say, they usually get away with it two or three times. They’ll go down under the bridge or watch a likely liquor store. It isn’t hard to figure out where they’re going to hunt, but it is very hard to coordinate any cohesive response.
Organizational skills are in short supply among our rank and file.
When we do catch them, or some like enough to them to frighten, we strike back. From the looks on the faces of the college boys I’d say it’s overwhelming, being attacking by six or eight screaming, filthy madmen armed with sticks and knives and—in at least a couple of cases—a spring-billy.
They broke our biggest rule. The penalty should be as severe as we can muster.
We show mercy, we do not kill them. I correct myself: We do not set out to kill them. People have died. Both ours and theirs. It is sad, but we must maintain some sort of defense.
We must uphold our rules.
As for them and their suffering, their pain: It is done in hospitals, under the ministrations of caring staff and the dull bliss of morphine. They wake up when the healing is over. Their legs and arms are set and braced, casts are applied. Crutches are provided. Your world draws a thick curtain between itself and all pain.
We heal on the street. We visit a clinic and get stitched up maybe, but no painkillers for us, we’d only sell them. (Which is not true, we’d take them real fast till they were gone.) That’s the maximum care unless you’re far gone enough to die if they let you go. Then they have to keep you. Some legal thing.
Doctors take care of your folk—milk your insurance a little.
They patch us up and move us out.
Nobody wants to waste their time.
Time is an animistic god. There is no dealing with time. It passes, inexorably.
Nonetheless I pray for just a little more as I shamble down the street toward my car. At some point I gave up the sidewalk for the street, and should’ve done it sooner. The slush is easier to walk on than that crazed, bumpy ice. My hands have stopped listening entirely now, they flop mindlessly about as I progress. One has two fingers stuck in its pocket, from which dangles a sock. I can see my car now. It isn’t much farther. Lurching down the street, arms of an unstrung marionette, legs approximating the motions of salmon leaping upstream, I progress.
I beat my hand on my chest until I cannot breathe trying to get the blood to flow. It takes three hundred years to get the car key into my hand, and facing the right way. I push it into the lock. It won’t move.
“The lock is frozen.” I think to myself. I begin to worry.
I jam the key rapidly into the lock, back and forth several times to try and crack the ice holding the pins in place. My hand slips several times and my knuckles are bruised and bloodied. I push the key all the way in, and slowly apply pressure. Again my hand slips and this time the ice is not patient with me, stabbing deep into my palm. I turn the lock the other way with my hand dripping blood, and it opens easily.
Take the key out of the door. The door is only slightly difficult to open, considering the rim of ice connecting it to the body of the car. In the middle of this task I decide to have a nice chat with my old friend the ground. This time there is no singing. I fall against the door, and the last of the ice falls away. I open the door from the ground and pull myself into the driver’s seat.
Inside, it smells of cigarette smoke and two years’ accumulation of grime. There is a blanket (wool), a backpack containing clothes and a toothbrush. A larger duffel containing books, sheet music, and more clothing. Between the two are distributed my entire summer, spring, winter, and fall wardrobes. None of it is clean. Add dirty laundry to the list of smells. I am lucky to have such a home.
I turn the key, nothing happens.
Reaching for wool, out of the wind, I am lucky indeed.
Photo by Raging Wire on flickr
Oh my! I have been so close to this; partially there. My heart goes out to my brothers and sisters. May God bless each and everyone of you!
Thank you M. McFarland for this piece of writing!
Great piece. I love having such talented friends!
I see homeless people everyday on my drive in to work. I intentionally take the route to work everyday that drives me by the largest pockets of wanderers in my hood. It helps me stay grounded. It keeps me humble. Helps me to see how blessed I am for the life I have created and that I have not had to dig through trash cans for a meal. I’ve even friended a couple of the regular pan-handlers in my hood. One inparticular created a soft spot in my heart the first time I met him digging through the trash for a partial soda so he could have something to drink with the slice of pizza he’d been given by someone else. I offered to buy him a fresh soda and he told me I was the prettiest girl in Dallas. I gave him a few dollars or some ciggerettes everytime I saw him after that. For years… then one day he disappeared. I often wonder about the man and what has become of him. I hope he is ok. Well even.
Thanx for this. Much love.