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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Homeless by Choice - Another Perspective

The Art of Surviving Homelessness

By Kerry Echo
On the other side of expensive vacation rentals, the ocean is an edge of darkness dotted with lights from invisible boats in the distance. Parked at the end of the continent, I am feeling the terrible weight of my stark life. No one can know, really, in all truth, how I got here. It has been worth pondering in therapy, but no answer to the problem is permanent even if I can make it through another week. Week to week. Day to day.

One foot in front of the other, I struggle to endure the daily routines that circumscribe my life; and, to be honest, I am tired and bored of the radius of financial confinement to which I am presently condemned. I seem to be married to it. I am heartsick at the way money has grown to a staggering importance for me, overtaking everything else, but mostly and rudely the things I love. I have lost my focus for poetry, for long afternoons at the beach, for planning anything beyond the next few hours.

Yet, oddly, and to my own amazement, I would not trade my present circumstance for any other reality. I am not even tempted to find a shortcut or detour. For one thing, I'd be suspicious if things got too much easier too fast. For another, I am proud and competitive and want to see this weird life-warp out to the end: I want the victory over the odds as much as I want a ward against this kind of warp ever happening again.

Yet, I admit I wonder if I have not found a modus vivendi, a make-peace, passive compliance, with the warp rather than the path to defeating it. For all my more-than-occasional desire to run --- run anywhere to get out of here (and one could well ask where here is exactly) --- I cannot seem to find any reasonable alternative to the daily dance of seemingly going nowhere. And run? Run backward into a past that no longer exists?

I do enjoy imagining a prize at the end, if there should ever be an end; but I often doubt these feeble attempts at hope. Hope is tricky. Hope, even a little of it, can plunge one into deeper despair. Like salt or sugar, it is best to go light on it, walk gingerly, but just keep going. I hope, but I am not bragging I have any. I'm not running like a child with scissors. I'm keeping my head down.

I imagine a lot of things. My imagination, though, is much richer than what the world seems to have available. I wanted some good gypsy company out here and hoped for it ---- a gal friend with whom to chat over a beach fire, roast marshmallows, share some silence. I have wanted to record her life --- their lives, for my imagination gave me several women friends with whom to share the coming cold evenings. I thought I might write about these women, hoot about their courage. their intelligence, their strength in pulling themselves through difficult times. They probably don't exist. At least, not the way I imagine them.

For instance, there is a curious gal who lives in a truck about as ugly as mine. She spends most of the day on the Bay in one particular spot, though I could not say where she goes to park and sleep in the evening. I see her very early in the morning as I am washing and dressing for work and if I visit the outdoor washroom in her area before dark.

She seemed friendly at first. I often saw her chatting with people who brought their dogs out for a walk or with someone from the Parks and Recreation crew. However, when I tried to chat with her some time ago, I was politely rebuffed. I was offering food. She said she was on a special diet.

I was unsure how to extent myself to her, and I made a patent mistake. The truth is (and I knew this) the homeless are individuals with a keen sense of dignity: no one wants her state of homelessness pointed out to her, not even obliquely through the offer of food. We hide homelessness from ourselves so that we can do that impossible dance every day. We settle for a lack of definition, a myopic haze that takes some of the sharp edges off, and just plain guessing as to who or what someone once was or did. That is certainly more fun, and that, of course, is the wrong word.

No one talks much to each other out here, which should not come as a surprise. There is too much of a chance of tripping over a live wire of dense feelings that have not been examined or were given up on as yielding nothing but pain if unraveled. We are careful, in other words. There are land mines, you see.

The other homeless, truck-driving lady and I tend to meet coming and going from the public washroom. One day a week ago, she asked if I knew who was taking all the toilet paper off the rolls, a daunting feat, really, when you consider how long it must take to swipe the paper from 12 rolls without leaving a trace, save the cardboard shells they came on. I know we both wonder how the thief is going unnoticed, by what means the toilet paper is being displaced, and how it is being transported from the washroom.

It's the aggravation of being surprised, the grim idea of having to trot back to one's vehicle for tissue or paper napkins to fill the lack, and the curse-laden relief of finding that the thief conscientiously left one roll with enough paper on it in the last stall. It is an ill-timed, five-second emotional roller coaster that no one would enjoy in the early morning, least of all the homeless who have to trek the great outdoors to get to the nearest toilet. It is one of those relatively-small things, like the housed who drop trash in the park or play their radios too loudly, that unite the homeless.

A few days ago in the washroom, this same woman wanted to know if she could ask a personal question. I should have said, "No." I am not that clear headed in the morning, and I was caught off guard. After all, I was dressing, and I will probably never get used to having company in my outdoor boudoir.

"Do you actually shower out here? I mean, do you take cold showers?"

It was all downward from there. I was only half-dressed and felt defensive about something that is really no one else's business. But I am polite by nature and tend to deal honestly with others. I answered the questions: Yes. Didn't I know I could use the Y for only $30 a month? And, oh, she hates being cold. She could never take cold showers. I must run warm. I must have a high metabolism. Blah blah blah. Blah blah blah.

All that at around 6 a.m. My first draught of tea would be a half-hour and two miles away.

Her ignorance was deeply frustrating, even hurtful, as it bumped noisily against my fantasized gypsy girlfriends who would have known the secrets of the open-air shower: the exquisite sensation of cold water warming one's insides; the canopy of pines and palms filled with the sweet susurrus of birds; the high, star-studded, velvet sky overhead; and a privacy otherwise denied the homeless and about which the housed know nothing.

I cannot explain her--- the other truck-driving, homeless lady --- except to guess that she wanted to pretend she had choices and perks of which I might not have been aware. We might as well have been talking over our coffee cups at the fence between our backyards replete with laundry waving in the breeze, immaculate green lawns husbanded by men, and swing sets empty of children in school. There was always a standard histrionic quality to the middle-class housewife and her ability to spend, albeit wisely. That image of the other truck lady and myself persisted through the day, and it was a comfort of sorts, though another kind of fantasy that is far out of reach, existing as it does in another era.

Perhaps her fall from the grace of the middle class had been much harder than mine. It takes considerable time to embrace the notion that one has become part of that class against which the armies of the world protect the wealthy.

In any case, in my position, one can only do what comes to hand. I have a job. I have a vehicle. I amuse myself with crossword puzzles and New Yorker magazines I lift from the YMCA after yoga class. I write. I run in expensive shoes that were worth every hard-earned dollar I paid for them. I make friends.

Friends. They are of considerably more value than money alone. I am sitting now with my laptop aboard a sailboat that sways gently in its slip, lulling me as I pursue the educated idleness to which I am accustomed. The sound of a grand harp makes me curious enough to go topside to view well-dressed people gathering for a wedding about to take place on the grounds next to the marina. I return to the cabin on loan to me, the jazz music playing on the radio, and the appurtenances of the temporary world I have managed to eke out for myself, an accomplishment of the bare truth.

My truck stopped running in the middle of the freeway a few days ago, which means my world had come to an end once again. I had just received my new Triple-A card and had not yet paid the renewal fee, but I phoned anyway. The Highway Patrol pushed me off to the side of the road, and Triple A's truck showed up within the half-hour to tow me to the middle-eastern garage. That slow, sinking feeling of doom around not having a place to sleep for a night, a few days, a week, or worse began to swallow me. And what if the truck were, this time, beyond repair?

Despite having working solidly for six months at a new job, I had only a ten-dollar bill to get me to the end of week when I would get the first decent paycheck of my career there. That workplace deserves a few pages of its own, but suffice it to say that a vehicle breakdown at this time, while inevitable with an old truck, was nothing but bad luck after bad.

The cell phone, the necessity of which I have exhorted many times, was the one piece of good luck I had in hand. I phoned everyone in the area whom I thought might be able to help. I happened to reach a friendly couple whom I had met in yoga class who lived near my YMCA. I humbly stated my need, and they were more than willing to open their door to me.

Within the hour, I had a ride from the middle-eastern garage to the home of the most upbeat, offbeat, intellectual, and artistic couple I have had the pleasure of knowing in a very long time. Their simple, tastefully-remodeled beach house was filled with exotic sculpture Pattie had created and was a delight to my eyes. Bill, a former university professor and a keen, sensitive observer of human beings, had himself experienced homelessness. He seemed to know intuitively what I felt and what was needed. I was offered dinner, of course, but I was also offered a place to sleep and Bill would take me to work the next day. I could stay there at the house. Or on the boat.

The idea of sleeping on a boat was just too outre to pass up. So we packed me up and took me off to the marina where I boarded an old sailboat with the few possessions I could manage to carry away from the truck. Bill took me to and from work the next day, but, as though his kindnesses so far were not enough, Bill offered me the use of his vehicle so that I could drive myself wherever I need to go.

So it is now Saturday. I have barely left the boat all day, preferring the soft, back-and-forth motion on the water to going anywhere my legs could carry me. I sleep soundly in the prow of this little boat and feel rested in a way I have not in a long, long time. It is no wonder the history of modern man began in a boat. I am prayerful today, thankful for the blessing of new friends. I verge on feeling hopeful, but I know, too, that I dare every day, win or fail, to keep going, to keep doing the daily dance I think is going nowhere.

For more essays by Kerry Echo, visit

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