The Homeless Experience
Let the cruel world be my guru. Unfortunately these past five years I have developed a masochistic streak that caused me to enjoy the cruelty and sometimes forget the goal.
Perhaps this is not completely true. To seek detachment and still live immersed in life is a balancing act. The trick being to neither live so detached that life is passionless, or to live so immersed in the moment that the spirit drowns in passion.
For years I lived slightly more on the detached side of life. Existing quietly. Working steadily to gain material status. Years were passing by and I was not living or growing. To counteract this I took a conscious leap to the other side and immersed myself in experience. That was five years ago and the effects of this have played a major role in bringing me to my current station. And where is that station? Right now I am writing with one hand as I drive 70 mph on RT 322 West. I feel I have reached bottom. Only desperate measures cold create a miracle and save me. Nadine is right in her criticism. I cannot turn to anyone else unless I resurrect myself first. Although my plight frightens me, somehow my emotional distress is real, yet limited. Deep inside it no longer touches me. As I enter the Lewistown narrows the sun comes out. The mountains are topped with wisps of blue haze. The green mounds appear like sensuous beds of broccoli. The panorama looks like a painted canvas. I imagine that I could stop the car and throw a stone that would tear through it and leave a gaping hole into another dimension.
As I enter the locale of my youth time recedes. Although my earlier experiences with poverty were not as dramatic as this one, they still had a profound effect on me. My parents were peasants. Both were forced to drop out of high school during the eighth grade to help support their families. When they married and had children they lived from paycheck to paycheck. They had neither the education nor foresight to escape their lot. It was always my hope to one day provide them with comfort. When I completed high school attending college was not even an option to be considered.
Not long after my eighteenth birthday I spent an evening tripping with my girlfriend. Many people say that using drugs such as LSD makes them lose touch with reality. I found that LSD often made me painfully aware of reality's harsh truths. At the time I was living with my parents in their rented apartment. As always they were struggling financially. I remember being overtaken by an overwhelming sense of guilt for being a burden on them. I took what little money I had in my wallet and insisted that my mother put it towards one of their many outstanding bills. I was so distressed by my guilt that I stayed out all night so I wouldn't have to face them. Nine days later Janet and I moved into our first apartment.
In 1980 when Reagen took office the economy was sinking fast. For nearly two years I could not find a job, regardless of how hard I searched, or how many potential employers I tried to impress with my enthusiasm. With no job I was quickly swallowed into a spiral of downward mobility. One of Reagen's first actions was to end welfare assistance for all able bodied males.
There is one moment from that period in my life that has remained clear in my memory. I was in a local grocery store and I had five dollars with which to feed Janet and I for four days. It was as I stood in front of the neatly stacked boxes of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese that my feelings of hopelessness and desperation first began to change to bitterness and resentment. I watched the happy shoppers piling their carts high, enjoying abundance which far exceeds any human need, suddenly the entire structure of our civilization's moral codes began to fall into absurdity. My mind raced with covetous impunity; 'every society, whether democratic or communist, is based on the ideal that each individual is part of the whole. It is expected by the whole that the individual will obey laws and follow social norms for the good of the whole. In exchange for this the individual will share in the bounty which the whole creates and enjoys. The problem is, if an individual has fallen out of the whole, and is excluded from the bounty which the whole enjoys, even to the point where not only the individual's dignity but his entire existence is in peril, does the society still have the right to expect the individual to obey the laws which benefit the whole?'.
A minute later I lifted an eight pound package of ground beef off the shelf and stuffed it into my pants. I had never stolen anything before. Poverty had reduced me to thievery. My self-image would never be the same. During that time I viewed society as my nemesis. When you are poor many people who earn large incomes deride you for any meager help that the government might offer. In my ire I reasoned that if these people's well paying jobs were reduced to four instead of five days a week there would be enough work for everyone and they would not have to worry about their tax dollars going to feed those who could not find work. But such 'pink' suggestions would never be considered by such people.
Poverty made me an insolent example of the proverbial 'angry young man'. Age may have tempered my disposition, but I hold fast to the memories of my struggles. I look to them to help me appreciate any blessing which life bestows. I look to them so I am never blind to the injustice that is an inextricable part of our world. Every nation in every age had its forgotten poor. And while I condemn the rich for their lack of charity, I feel guilt because compared to so many in the world I live in unimaginable plenteousness. America's homeless are a class unto themselves.
One of my best experiences in college was the making of a documentary film on homelessness. To make the film we traveled across the East Coast, from New York to New Orleans, observing and speaking with the beggars, prostitutes, and con men who live in the crevices of urban affluence. I was a co-director on the film which was financed and directed by Nadine. Our now de-funked relationship was in its early stages. We left State College to begin the journey on August 16, 1992.
On our first morning we went to a shelter called The Samaritan Inn in Raonoke, Virginia. At first we were intimidated by the people and environment. After walking by the building a few times we gathered our courage and began interviewing the people who were streaming in for free plates of hot dogs and beans. In the next hour we interviewed fourteen people. Among them a young man who tried to commit suicide on his first night in the streets, a red faced wino who cursed George Bush for sending aid to the Russians, and an elderly veteran who after fighting for his country in two wars cannot afford to maintain a home. As tears rolled down his cheeks he stated simply "this ain't no life, this ain't no life."
During the following days we traveled to Cherokee, North Carolina, Atlanta, Georgia, and on to New Orleans. Our first day in New Orleans was spent talking to street beggars and filming under bridges where the cardboard box communities tend to thrive.
That night, because our budget was getting increasingly slim we rented a room at a $20 dive. Once inside we found it to be far worse than we could have imagined. Besides general dilapidation, we found stained and dirty sheets, unbearable stench, and a polluted bathroom. Our complaints to the manager turned into a heated argument and we ended up without a room and no money refunded. With nothing left in our budget for another room we drove for hours wondering what we could do. At the time the irony of the situation never crossed my mind. Of course we would never consider joining our subjects in their shelters or cardboard boxes, so we broke into a campground, pitched tent and slept, then left before the owners found us out.
After a second day of shooting in a New Orleans shelter we returned to Atlanta to film fifteen hundred people standing in the rain waiting for a free meal. Inside the kitchen we watched as a Catholic nun spoke to the crowd over an antiquated P.A. system. As she spoke they ignored her and went about eating their food and talking among themselves. To my surprise I heard the sister speak my name as she placed the microphone into my hand. Almost instantly the room went silent. As the faces of hundreds of downtrodden human beings gazed at me questioningly I found myself searching for a way to explain our intentions and account for our motives in this project. As filmmakers we would like to believe that our work would help these people, but the more likely truth is that as individuals they would never see a noticeable benefit. On the other hand with every story of poverty and degradation we captured on tape we would personally gain. I stammered through a declaration of our altruism and the potential film subjects abruptly turned away and resumed their conversations.
Assuming we had struck out we waited outside the kitchen exit with our camera. After about an hour of waiting they began to pour out of the building, many eager to speak their peace. It was as if we had unstopped the gap for an endless flow of bottled up emotions. People stood in line and we couldn't move the camera fast enough. I felt overwhelmed by a flood of pathos, wrath, and resigned consternation. We heard stories of every kind. From rich college kids who threw their lives away to drugs, to middle class workers whose plants closed down leaving them without a future. We heard street corner preachers who warned of Armageddion times. We heard of an old woman turned away at a church gate in freezing cold. One man told us of his method of robbing at knive-point those who would ignore his request for donations. We heard from the mentally ill, cast out by families and shunned by psychiatric hospitals. Of men and women who gave up, too discouraged to care or try Of a man who claimed he had equal opportunity but drank it away. And one particularly eloquent black man who described the homeless situation in terms of social/economic exploitation. The stories went on and on. We no longer had to ask questions. The voices went on of their own impetus. And all this from one shelter in one city with eight other shelters. And there were more stories in every city in the United States. And beyond that we may only imagine what horrors exist elsewhere in the world.
As the voices continued I felt numb. My eyes began to wander from the unending parade of faces up to the horizon of the Atlanta skyline. Up to the top of the skyscrapers where men of power went about the business of making the decisions that define our society and create our economy. My eyes were filled with the images of humanity's power and success, and my ears were filled with the stories of humanity's sorrow and disgrace.
Previous to this experience homeless people were an abstraction. A theoretical 'they' without name or face. Now that is not the case. The strongest image I hold from the journey is of a woman who said, "We're people too. We just don't have the things you all do." Speaking with these people, seeing their faces, looking into their eyes, has effected me in ways I may never come to terms with. When I watch the evening news, when I think of our economic structure, even when I sit down to eat my breakfast, my entire view of the world has been altered by these experiences. Many in this country can claim ignorance when it comes to the conditions of the downtrodden. I cannot.
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