Tuesday, February 20, 2018

On The Road With Al & Ivy: A Literary Homeless Chronicle - 2/20/2018

Johnson at last, of his own accord, allowed very great merit to the inventory of articles found in the pocket of the Man Mountain, particularly the description of his watch, which it was conjectured was his God; as he consulted it upon all occasions.

- James Boswell (Boswell's Life Of Johnson)

One of my favorite movies is "Jeramiah Johnson," a film that starred Robert Redford, about a civil war vet who became a famous mountain man.

The film has many of the elements that Americans love; the wily old sage and a varied cast of oddball characters whose paths cross throughout the film. Those meetings at various times in Jeremiah's new life become a barometer of his progress as a mountain man.

It also illustrates a concept that many Americans love, particularly in the Internet age; the notion that one can become a master with a few choice secrets from an expert that opens the door to mastery.

Americans love "experts," who are as exalted as priests were in the medieval age, able to dispense certainty and illumination with a few heavy duty words. Perfect in the timed segment environment of cable TV and click traps.

The concept of endless and boring toil to attain mastery is really more of an Eastern thing. Westerners like to have it all appear like magic after a little practice, or even better, as a result of a monetary purchase.

For example, Jeremiah is taught how to use the smoldering coals of a fire as a heating pad to sleep in the snow. Sure, he screws it up the first time, but sleeps like a baby the next night.

Some people will miss the fact that living out there was also an exercise in sheer endurance (and boredom), which is passed over and covered up by movie transition fade ins and outs of the seasons, which to the mountain men showed the passage of time.

In the era of instant gratification, people might not like to see that sort of aimless poking around because it involves time spent devoid of joys and grandeur, that dreaded dead time which so many expend a great deal of energy and resources to keep at arms length.

People will switch to a diversion to keep the mind occupied to avoid a nonproductive state of do nothingness due to ingrained go get 'em Puritanical attitudes. Even those who realize the benefits of down time often feel the need to dress it up as meditation or even better, something that involves spending money (which absolves all such indolent sin).

A salient sensation experienced out there in the homeless world is feeling like the world is spinning along without you. All those people going about their lives while I just stood there and watched. It wasn't quite like being off the merry go round of life, but that the normal measure of time, hours and minutes had become irrelevant.

...hitting the undo button...

One valuable lesson that Jeremiah learned was that it was more about unlearnng things more than picking up new tricks.

When looking at the homeless, there's a tendency to see it as a single image, or emotion. It's the media driven thing, that there's a single defining picture or truth to any issue which can be defined at soundbyte length. That's an efficient way to generate clicks or sell ads, but it's just another form of profiling that can unfairly type a person or group.

A man eating out of a garbage can is one such image and there's a variety of reactions one can feel to such a sight ranging from disgust to pity, but rarely an attempt to see the "story."

There's always a story.

In one instance the guy was in fact being fed by the other homeless around him. He wouldn't accept a direct handout, so they left food in the can. Once I realized that, I began to leave food in the can too.

You'd be surprised how often food, water, or even small amounts of cash was shared out there. Most importantly, help was always given without a lecture or comment.

An outsider could see that as enabling or even silly, but in that world, it's a form of tolerance and acceptance...respectable society will punish, pity, judge, or treat it as a matter as an illness requiring treatment (if they bother to) and those judgments are all valid on some level or another...but at that moment, there, the only help coming is from others like him, and given with an acceptance that can only be understood in that world. A parochial one for sure, but a real world for sure.


I cover the subject of scavengers in the book, which is a wider subculture than a single shock image of a starving man fishing for food. Scrounging out there was a complex subject and was as involved as nature's system of scavengers.

Dumpster diving, for example, was truly a desperate act in earlier eras when people didn't waste things, and garbage was really garbage. The modern era is different. Throwing out trash is very much about discarding anything that doesn't please in the moment or draw admiration. 

Clothes out of style? Donate or dump the stuff.

Feeling full? Throw the rest of the fries into the garbage can.

Part broken on a device? Cheaper to replace.

Our garbage piles have created a subculture as active as ant colonies. One of my earliest lessons out there was stay away from the dumpsters. Most were secured by locks, but regularly broken into, so that hanging around in those areas could get me in trouble with either the various urban recyclers (who could get territorial) or businesses calling the police to keep the areas clear.

Some dumpster areas were as busy as Walmarts on Black Friday.

I won't detail all the various scrounging subcultures here, that's all going to be in the book, but suffice to say that I found that more than a few of the various low rent recycling strategies were worth observing and tucking away in the brain for later use in case life went further south. It was an unlikely validation of the basic survival instinct, and how "life finds a way."

Jeremiah found that survival was all about learning as you go, and if you learn faster than nature punishes stupidity, then you might just get by.

“See, Winter comes, to rule the varied years, Sullen and sad, with all his rising train; Vapors, and clouds, and storms.”

—Thomson. From The Pioneers by James Fenimore Cooper

One of the first things that crossed my mind when seeing snow for the first time in twenty years was that homeless life would have been very different here in the Midwest. There's no way I could have lived in a car in below zero weather.

That doesn't mean it wasn't cold in California.

Midwesterners like to joke about the wimpy winters out west, but in a couple of areas that I slept in, the temp dropped into the high 20s. That's not a big deal if there's a warm home waiting for you at the end of the work day.

It is if a car is your bedroom.

Most people think of their cars as a temperature controlled environment that the heater makes nice and toasty, and that's how the early evening can feel. If the car's been running, the engine block will be hot and that keeps the temperature inside from dropping too quickly. Then the car cools down, and that mass of steel and plastic becomes as cold as the outside air. 

You'll notice it trying to sleep for the first time in a car, and waking up in the middle of the night as chilled as an ice cube. It's not easy making adjustments to get warm in darkness, even with a flashlight. A smart person will realize that it's best to treat it like camping, with everything needed at hand, and not like being in a bedroom with stuff scattered all about.

It was like camping, but only sort of...I had to balance safety with comfort.

The best way to stay warm is to use a sleeping bag and have bottom insulation like a yoga mat, but that's not a good idea in a high crime area. If you get car jacked, and I was in some areas where it was common, you won't be given a chance to get dressed, or much time to collect yourself if your car gets picked for redistribution.

You also want to be able to move on ASAP before the police arrive if some trouble erupts during the night. My SOP was to head off to another city if there was a ruckus. That might seem extreme, but if the police, who normally don't bother homeless go active, then it's best not to be around if what's going on is really part of a sweep or crackdown that started earlier in the week.

I always slept fully clothed. I preferred sandals, so that made things easier, at least in the summer. If it was a quiet area, I'd use a sleeping bag, but used it more like a throw or cover. Most nights it'd just be my trusty old down jacket and a travel pillow. Dressing in warm street clothes to sleep also made it more comfortable in the morning, when it was generally the coldest.

Some car homeless would try stuff like running the car as much as possible to keep the heater going, or drinking a lot of booze or coffee. One guy fell asleep while running the engine and almost burned the car up after idling for four hours. Also, it's no fun trying to walk to a bathroom at 2AM when it's a toasty (by midwestern standards) 40 degrees outside. Never mind if it's raining too.

In my book, I talk about the "cold," but not in terms of the temperature. It didn't matter if it was 30 or 40 degrees, it was more about how long the chill lasted.

I didn't think much in terms of night and day, but warm and cold.

The cold period started around ten at night, and it was going to be coldest around the time I had to be up, which was around seven in the morning. That was the latest I dared to sleep; any later and you could get caught in a sweep by police or store management (if in a parking lot). Most mornings I was well on my way by six.

People joke about how tough having to get up in the morning is, but not me. I looked forward to it. I could drive the car to an area where the sun was shining which continued the process of warming the car up that the heater started. If I could afford a cup of coffee, then it was a relatively pleasant hour or so wait for the sun to reach a good height. If not, I just bundled up a bit longer.

Cold that you can't get away from feels colder, but there was a bright side; in some of the areas I had to sleep, it was a good feeling waking up because it meant that you were still alive and hadn't been robbed or jacked.

Ivy rarely saw any of this morning routine, as she was a late riser and rarely up before nine. Which meant that I didn't have to take her outside till the sun had warmed the place up a bit...small mercies loom large when you can see your breath in a cloud in front of the steering wheel.

Ill on a journey 
All about the dreary fields 
Fly my broken dreams

- Haiku by Matsuo Bashō (1644–1694)

...it doesn't cost a dime to dream...part one of a series of ruminations about dreams...

One of the elements dealt with in detail in my book are dreams.

My concept of dreams evolved out there, and moved away from the usual image of a destination or attainment in the future to a more nuanced realization that one can accidentally confuse hopes, which are aspirations, with wishes, which can become a passive state of waiting for better luck or a rescue.

First off, living in a car means that the supreme hope, the American Dream, isn't happening and it's time to move on to the various lower level consolations reserved for losers in the Capitalist game.

In other words, the "better luck next time," "you can still do it," "nice try guy," and other opium of the masses stuff the 1% hope will keep the masses from turning their guns into tools for social equality, come to view soon after you begin waking up to a steering wheel in your face.

Dreaming about bigger things like stardom or riches are just parlor games for those who can afford one or a million big screen TVs...for me, it was about survival...maybe till opportunity knocked again, but certainly survival.

Yet at some point, in my case, after a few months out there, dreams did become part of the picture. It's important to have an image involving betterment there in place, and it isn't a trivial thing.

Without a dream, I could have been like some out there who thought that the predators were the only ones thriving out there, and joined them, or entered the comforting numbness of drugs. Both often looked like winners in that stark world.

One problem with the American dream is that it's becoming more about winning the lottery of life and becoming an alpha, above the concerns of the ordinary. You haven't become better, you've become better than others. Even worse is when it's tied in with the rescue fantasy, where a prince or some powerful person or organization delivers a wonderful (and wealthy) new life .

That's all OK of course. It's not illegal to aspire to become a jerk who thinks the people (or more specifically, customers) who made them a star are vermin to keep at arms length. In fact, it's not even unlawful to want to be a God with people laying at your feet giving you money and sex (many artists are guilty of this I imagine).

The problem is that such dreams aren't much help out there.

There's a saying I once heard, can't recall the source, that disillusionment precedes enlightenment, and it's very true. One of the main emotions one will feel out there is dispair, and it doesn't feel good.

I had to learn out there was that everything happening out there wasn't the same thing as failure, and everything didn't end just because my home was a car. Failure can feel like an emotion, but it's not.

What some consider a dream can really be a goal, or a wish. It can be about what a person thinks about their life, and reflect some unhappiness about it, or only be as realistic as a fairy tale.

A person who dreams of becoming a star can also be someone who not only hates being ordinary, but wants to be superior to others. That explains why some celebrities remain perfectly fine people, and others become overbearing swine. Success doesn't change people, it just makes some types of dreams possible, and that might include becoming a petty lord or duchess.

There'll be several smaller story lines in the book, threads tracing various dreams. Whether it was the drug dealer who thought he was just living a lowbrow version of the American Capitalist dream, or the young woman who didn't realize that she was desperately hoping for the Prince that her mom told her would come to rescue her, the subject of dreams was very much alive out there.

Alive, and helpful, and it could also brutally full of crap. If you could navigate through all the various dreams that we're taught growing up, and put it in true perspective, the way out of homelessness was there, clear as day.

My dream eventually became this picture I kept out there of myself that said none of what was going on around out there was me. I hadn't become a dealer, user, pimp, prostitute, useless this or that, gypsy, or whatever society said I was just because of membership in the homeless club.

One of my central dreams in the book is this image of me in the dark, under a light, and it shows me playing an instrument. Sometimes with a crowd, or a person, sometimes not. The music played varied in style, and rarely reflected my mood at the time. It was a mystery for quite a while.

I wrote a key passage in the "Autumn" chapter that describes that dream image and it was a picture that stayed more or less the same, but that my understanding of what it meant grew. At first it seemed like a vision of what the road out of homelessness was going to be.

As time passed, it really became a sort of mantra, a image of the self I protected, went back to when things seemed very dark and about how I thought I looked to others who were in the audience.

Some dreams are about becoming or getting something. Mine was about what I was, and that was worth a million dollars to me out there during a time when a fifty cent can of beans seemed like a feast. That simple meal didn't say anything more about me than a lobster tail dinner would have.

I knew that if I believed that, then time, my love or hate friend, was on my side.

- Al Handa
   Feb. 20, 2018

...cover reveal for Hide In Plain Sight...

This is the cover for the upcoming book, Hide In Plain Sight, hopefully out sometime in the summer of 2018.

-Al Handa
The Al & Ivy Homeless Literary Journal Archive:
The earliest entries were on the Delta Snake Review section of this blog site.

Friday, December 29, 2017

On The Road With Al & Ivy: A Literary Homeless Chronicle - 12/29/17

"After you have stepped the mast and spread your white sail, you can sit: the breath of Bórëas will guide your ship. But when you’ve crossed the Ocean, you will see the shore and forests of Perséphonë—the towering poplars and the willow trees whose fruits fall prematurely. Beach your ship on that flat shore which lies on the abyss of Ocean. Make your way on foot to Hades."

- Homer (The Odyssey - Alan Mandelbaum translation)

I once read that James Joyce decided to write a book about what went through a man's mind over a 24 hour period, and then spent the next few years writing it all down. If dictation software had existed back then, maybe it'd have been a faster process, but probably not. The reason is that Joyce spent those years writing a book, that happened to depict a day's worth of thoughts, but somewhere along the way, it became a "work," and not simple transcription.

One of the most famous attempts to capture a stream of conscious was Jack Kerouac's On The Road, which was typed out on a roll of butcher paper to capture a continuous narrative. Jack took it to the point of not correcting mistakes or grammar and not separating the text into chapters. Another example is Thomas Wolfe, who sort of did the same thing, creating a huge work that editor's later broke up into separate books.

This isn't unusual in other genres. Many of Miles Davis' late 60s and 70s rock-fusion albums were in fact long jams that producer Ted Macero went through and edited into separate albums.

However, this isn't an entry about editing and editors, but about the process of trying to capture what is in the writer's mind, and like musicians trying to find that perfect note, it's often more about trying to understand the self. There are many reasons that inspiration comes out imperfectly, and I'm sure those are detailed out in countless books about writing.

One of my good friends, writer Melodie Ramone, is coaching me on my book. It's been an interesting process, and though I've written professionally before, I've never taken on something of such length as my book in progress. She hasn't given me many technical points, but has focused on making me break through to that real tome inside my head.

There's many reasons that an author can filter their work, but in my case, it was all about honesty and fear. We were going over some of the 4th draft a couple of months ago and she pointed out that the work needed to be honest.

The first accounts of my homeless life came out in this blog. It was by necessity not 100% honest. It became known to others that I was writing a blog about that life, so I had to be careful to not be too detailed in descriptions about people out there.

There were dealers, pimps, meth heads and all the various subcultures that were part of that scene, and that's where I had to sleep every night. If I said something that got someone busted, I was easy to find if somebody wanted to kick my ass over it or worse.

I was able to keep a lid on all that by not discussing the blog, and moving around a lot, but it was starting to catch up with me in Salinas by the time the move to the midwest had come. People were watching me, walking up and greeting me by name with threatening looks, actively trying to get me to smoke dope with them and more.

It was understandable. In Salinas there had recently been some busts in the area I was in, and everyone was paranoid, and there was only one guy they knew who was writing about the homeless scene. I imagine if I had taken a few social hits of weed or meth then it would have reassured the ones that were nervous about me, but taking any drugs out there was out of the question. It wasn't a case of thinking I was better, but that most of the trouble a person can get into out there could be linked to drugs.

Most of those offers occurred in parking lots, where there's security cameras and undercover cops watching. My book won't have a lot about the in's and out's of the drug scene there, as I chose, like many of the street-wise homeless out there, to stay away from those scenes. In many ways, my depiction of the life out there will differ from what you see in the media.

The press doesn't have a great rep out there. Sure, they can always find someone who'll talk to a reporter (who may overstate how much good will come of the interview), but most homeless enclaves that get press coverage get broken up by the police shortly after the story runs. Anyone who read my blog would know that I was being very careful, but bringing in any press awareness generally brings in the cops.

If you look through my blog entries, there's rarely any reference to specific times and places...especially those areas that tacitly allow the homeless to sleep if they don't make any trouble. I didn't do that just from a sense of descretion...safe places to sleep are scarce, I wasn't interested in taking any such sanctuary away from my fellow transients, most of whom were quite peaceable, and often kind.

Any people I described were vague in appearance because though I wanted to tell their story, I didn't want them to become easy to recognize. The smartest homeless out there avoid any spotlight. They may sleep in a place at night, but will be gone by dawn.

Some will stick around and hang out until kicked out, but that wasn't the crowd I hung out with.

That's why many of my book passages are observations, and not interviews. For one thing, most interviews are not enlightening, as it's generally a case of "captive behavior" or like how a person talks when looking or a job or promoting a product.

Sure, you occasionally get the idiot who'll brag about doing drugs or something, and who can't spot that the reporter still gave enough information to clearly identify him or her on the street, but anyone who asked me questions got small talk or outright lies. Someone who was too curious about where I slept at night would get a location that was in another city.

It's like those old westerns where cowboys didn't ask each other's business. Being too curious was treated as suspicious behavior.

My goal was to get out alive, healthy and with a clean record. If it made for a less exciting book then so be it. Besides, when you think about it, how interesting would yet another book with a drug dealer in it be?

...listen to the music...

A famous musician, who I can't recall just right now, said in an interview, that art has a high rate of failure, and if that's the case, then it's just as easy to crash and burn doing an honest work as it is to spend a lot of energy trying to create what might sell. So if there is a clear vision of what my book was supposed to be, there's no point in changing it. If it's what I want to put out, then I can live with no one reading it.

After all, I've played music all my life...I know what it's like to put a ton of effort into something and only earn a steady fifty cents a week in streaming income from it. What makes it worthwhile, though, is that I eventually learned to create what I liked, and sure enough, if people like it, that's great, but if not, it's still a life spent creating from the soul and if you're creating art for the right reasons, the money is secondary.

That also goes back to my opening paragraphs, about capturing that inner self, stream of consciousness, or honesty. What's running through a person's head isn't necessarily art. In my case, it would be raw material. It'll be shaped as it goes on paper, so to speak, and I'm sure that's what James Joyce did as the events of a 24 hour period came spilling out of his head.

...books, books, and  quotes...

I was a book worm type who in the second grade got in trouble because I loved this dinosaur book that was in the upper grades library and would go read it during recess. One day I miscounted the number of doors from the corner of the building and walked into a classroom, and that ended my visits to the library.

Even in high school, lunch time meant book time in the library, and in the present day, I read like some people watch TV. Those quotes at the beginning of each blog aren't found by googling or perusing quote compilations.

Each comes from a book in my Kindle library. Before I write each blog entry, I go through a book that is on my mind at the time, and I pull a quote from it. It's always one that sort of relates to the things discussed, or in some cases, is the opening that I riff on for the entry. It tends to be about what was swirling about in my mind, so maybe it's like old style Bible divination where a phrase is found at random, and maybe not so random after all.

...the quote from Homer...

The opening quote is from the Alan Mandelbaum translation of Homer's Oddyssy, a book I've read countless times in many translations. I began to read it again as Odyseus' trip to Hades came to mind during a rewrite of a chapter that describes the coming of Autumn.

One of the themes that runs through my book is the seasons. The passage of time is a different thing when your life isn't being run by the clock. Days and weeks tend to blend into a single time period, night becomes as detailed as any work day, and seasons give the feeling that time is passing.

One of the aspects of Odysseus' journey was that he was moved this way and that by a seemingly endless procession of outside controls and wills, the most powerful being Poseiden who really screwed with him after his son, Cyclops got his eye poked out by the Greek wanderers.

That in itself would describe homeless life, but would make for a dull book. Besides, it's been done a lot of times, like with the movie O'Brother, Where Art Thou, and other such tales.

What was interesting, and made me come back to it was where our hero has to go to Hades to talk to a soul who'll give him the key to the next part of the journey. The description of Hades (not Hell) and the events that transpired there were surprisingly close to what I had written out as a chapter. Not in the sense of who and what, but the atmosphere, which was a combination of timelessness, and souls in various stages of regret, sadness, and acceptance.

Autumn is viewed as a beautiful time, where there's bright colors and a change in the weather. It's also the coming of winter, so it's very much like the proverbial light bulb that burns extra bright before extinguishing.

The first part of the book centers on the summer of 2016, and many of it's characters are very much alive, and perhaps a bit oblivious of the coming decay and harshness of winter. People see the bright colors and falling leaves of Fall, but my chapter will bring to view other details, like the young homeless enclaves that made the summer seem so carefree, but with the coming cold weather, break up into smaller groups or grim individual survivors, fodder for predators, become meth heads that move along as if there were no seasons, or if lucky, get sucked into the system.

Writing that chapter was a sad experience but after consulting with Homer, I hope I'm a good enough writer to find the underlying affirmation of life in the next draft. Homer wasn't writing a tragedy, and neither am I.

...dog consciousness...

One of the layers I'm exploring in the book is my relationship with Ivy. I still miss her terribly, and it's in her absence that her importance becomes more apparent.

In our early years, Ivy was a very normal dog and we just had fun. I had an idea of how her friendship could make hardship bearable in the 2008 recession, but it was in the last year of her life that really brought it home.

In the early drafts of the book, my description of life together was rather standard, the old Yeller faithful dog thing. I didn't understand how deep the connection was because it took a while to understand that life out in the car.

Ivy changed her behavior during that time. We'd always spent a lot of time together, as my later jobs were telecommutes and I was home all the time.

But it wasn't a time like 2016, where she was literally the main personality I interacted with the most. Before, there was always friends or family around, music to create and record, work to get done, and a busy life going on. She was busy too, with a routine that often took her away into other rooms and adventures with other dogs. etc.

By the summer of 2016, we were it.

Day and night, our routine was mainly each other. If I felt like crap, she was the one who cheered me. If she was unhappy, I knew it right away and did something about it (mainly extra food and attention).

The connection became very much in the moment, and older games like ignoring this or that habit, like begging for food became part of an ongoing conversation with responses between us. If she begged for food, she got it. We didn't get into "training" her to not beg or whatever out there. Once food came just for the asking, she waited till her meal times, and never took treats from strangers.

If I ate in front of her, all bets were off, she wanted a piece of the action...the the local gas station, there was a two hot dog for two dollar special, and I for into the habit of only putting condiments on 2/3rds of those, leaving plain sections to be pulled off for her. When a dog sees it's eating the same food as you, it reinforces the bond.

We became more and more a pack and not master and pet.

I quit giving her commands all the time. I would ask her, tell her, inform her, etc, and she began to develop a range of sounds that I began to recognize as a vocabulary. Instead of scratching at the door, she spoke a sound, and had a second sound if nagging was necessary to get me off my butt to get the leash out.

She also learned manners...if it was raining outside, she wait for a lull to request a bathroom break...conversely, if it was urgent, then she had a sound, or word if you will, and I never ignored it.

There was manipulation... Ivy had a routine where she'd putz around looking for the perfect place to pee to extend the break, which I saw through, but allowed as I wanted her to learn civilized strategy.

Most people who love animals know that their pets aren't just some animated stuffed toys, but sentient life.

One of the things that pets do is that they study you. You're the key to their survival, and are of intense interest to them. Early on, it was easy for Ivy and I to wander off and do our separate things. In the car, everything I did was of great interest, as we were both involved now in a life that required that I be very alert all of the time, and often had to react suddenly to situations. Ivy wanted to be kept in the loop.

At first it was a case of her having to be in tune with what I was doing. Later, it became obvious that she had instincts and abilities that were helpful to pack survival, and I needed to be in tune with her.

For example, we often arrived at a new place at night. That was often the safest time, when all the homeless life there was set in place. That also meant a lot of things were hidden by the dark, and I learned to watch Ivy and see how she reacted. If she was uneasy or nervous, I'd park away from the groups and watch, and sure enough, there would be trouble or a disturbance flaring up a short while later.

It wasn't some mystical ability...a dog can hear an argument starting up in some distant RV or car that's escalating, and more than once Ivy's keen hearing and distaste for loud arguments kept me from parking in a area where a disturbance would break out. I'd see the police lights flashing from a safe distance away, and make a mental note to add a little extra to Ivy's next meal as a thank you.

...lights, camera, action...

I eventually made us into partners in various projects like the social media promo venture, where she would be the star and me the manager. Our daily hikes became a time for video experiments and scouting for photo locations.

It wasn't real, but it was a reality. A game, so to speak, but designed to give us a purpose and keep energy from dissolving into despair, etc, and clearly had levels.

For example, the promo business involved using her as a dog model in ads. She may not have understood that, but would begin to get ready when I pulled out the iphone and set up the front seat with props for photos. Once the phone started clicking (I made sure the camera made a sound so she'd know something was happening), Ivy would begin to pose and would stay still till the pictures were all taken. She never did that before our homelessness life.

It wasn't until the third draft of the book that her personality came out in real detail. Again, the reason was that I had to understand what was going on in my head at the time. The tendency is to push it all away and just see the bland routine of living in a Cadillac, but it's still real life and it's all still there percolating in the brain.

So on one level, Ivy and I are having a long photo session, something that didn't happen years before. Back then, she would only sit still for a few seconds and then try to take off. Something changed in her and it involved how I had changed, what vibe was being put out.

The sessions were for paid ads, which made me very happy. It was money earned, and not donated, and that meant a great deal. Perhaps Ivy picked up on that, and the photo sessions became a shared joy, a time where we both felt engaged. The sessions involved an ending ritual of sharing a cheap 5.00 chicken from Walmart, and again, it seemed just like a happy time, but in retrospect, Ivy saw it as sharing the same meal as a pack, which is a sacred time for a pet.

Necessity put us together, and as the drafts evolved, one of the things that came out was that our increased activities became a time where the dreariness of that life was pushed aside and the mood became joyous. Life often becomes a waiting game for good things to happen, and good fortune judged in material terms like money or things.

I thought early on that it was just me having us do things to pass the time and keep apathy at bay. It was really about how Ivy and I responded to the life we found ourselves in, and it was really a team effort. We spent a lot of time waiting around for good things to happen, and then we quit doing that.

...and we may not have had any deep discussions about life out there, but we definitely talked.

- Al Handa 12/29/17

...cover reveal for Hide In Plain Sight...

This is the cover for the upcoming book, Hide In Plain Sight, designed by Jenna Brooks, supervised and edited by Mutiny Rising Media.

-Al Handa

Please consider a contribution to keep this blog going and support my activities:

My intent isn't to become a donor funded homeless blogger, I'd like to do much more...until then, a donation would help Ivy and I to survive and continue efforts (like seeking work, etc) that can bring us out of homelessness as opposed to dropping further down into a transient lifestyle.

The Al & Ivy Homeless Literary Journal Archive:
The earliest entries were on the Delta Snake Review section of this blog site.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

On The Road With Al & Ivy: A Literary Homeless Journal - Sept. 16th, 2017

"I saw as clearly as in a picture what an illusion my former personality had been...I had painted a picture of myself as a person who was in fact nothing more than a most refined and educated specialist in poetry, music and philosophy; and as such I had lived, leaving all the rest of me to be a chaos of potentialities, instincts and impulses which I found an encumbrance and gave the title of Steppenwolf."

- Herman Hesse (Steppenwolf 1929)

The homeless aren't generally thought of as a cerebral group. Media images often portray them as a drug taking herd of cows migrating to the areas that offer the most free services.

The images can range from sympathetic (down and out) to disgusting (drug user, etc), and the standard way to express the negatives is to quote a business or property owner who almost always says he or she was sympathetic at first, but came to Jesus on the issue and wishes that all those lazy asses would just go get a job or just go away, and that they're bad for business.

As far as bad for business, that can depend on your point of view. A large population of homeless can indicate that landlords are doing a bang up business with euphoric rent levels, and in some areas, it can indicate that the drug industry, both legal and illegal, has achieved maximum market penetration with so many wrecked lives.

Sky high rents indicate that the area is doing well. So well that it becomes desirable to squeeze out the lower tier workers to make room for those who can afford the higher cost of living.

The stark reality is that in society, certain people will benefit from the system, and some won't. There's no frontier or Foreign Legion to send the losers of the game to, and the cost of social services gets higher and higher.

Many of the negative stereotypes do have some basis in fact, but the basic image of a homeless person is shaped by a specific set of images, mainly the druggie/squatter and mentally ill types. Personally, I don't object to that, particularly if that'll get those groups some help.

The stereotyping was useful to my own homelessness, as it was for many of the homeless living in vehicles, as it makes it easier to stay off the radar. The focus tends to be on the more "newsworthy" transients on the streets and in camps, so the ones who can steer clear of those enclaves.

I wasn't some unique type, there were plenty like me. We tended to find each other, and had very similar characteristics that included being comfortable with solitude, a strong desire to avoid trouble, being an observer type who looked before acting, and most of all, a strong sense of self.

That sense of self is always there. It can be shrouded in layers, but it's there.

One of the things people will think when they read my book is that much of the former self was deconstructed out there. That's sort of true, my inner self had been shaped by 20 years of life in Silicon Valley, but what looked like a massive crash was also shedding layer upon layer of externals like lifestyle things, the trappings of an imagined life.

Like being an artist and musician type. That was how I saw myself before the fall. But a true musician, for example, might lament the loss of a favorite guitar (happens a lot around rent time, etc) but it'd never make him or her think they had lost their art. I had accumulated a wonderful instrument collection, but somewhere along the line it had become acquisition for it's own sake. As each treasure had to be sold to survive, it felt like my ability to make music was dissolving.

It wasn't any different when losing a loved house, or car, or any valued possession, and the cascading feeling of loss with each item was disheartening. It's not like in the movies where the most treasured one goes last. When you need cash, the most valuable ones go first, and early on, the feeling is not loss but relief that food, gas, or whatever is on the way.

The ones that hurt come later. There came a point when there was only a couple of cheap guitars left (the ones for backup, traveling with, etc), and those were the ones that really hit home. Most serious musicians use some "cheapies" that are expendable, but in my case (and others I imagine) those were as carefully picked as the vintage collectibles. It's like seeing the last of your water drip out of the canteen in the middle of a desert..

It's that continuous string of losses, not just of instruments, that would become part of the new life.

It can seem like a life is being destroyed, but it's not. I ran into people who were chronically homeless, and had come to terms with owning less. Sure, they loved their things, but it was no longer tied to status. The outside world might think that a beat up old RV was a sign of a fallen, nomadic life, but to the owner, it was home, and all the good feelings that can bring.

At some point those people stopped feeling sorry for themselves, and just got on with life. Some make it out, others make do, and in my case, I learned from both groups. The day that I stopped regretting things meant that time was on my side.

...a wonderful life...

The basic plot of my book is about an artist type who had a life of music and writing deconstructed into rootless wanderering.

In the 1800s, my life would have taken a different course. I could have taken the money saved for a job search and bought a rifle and camping equipment and headed west. The journey might have ended in my death due to one of many factors, or could have led to a new life, but it would be a free life.

In modern society, you can't do that. There's an immediate need to find shelter, as there's really no place to go except camping grounds and that sort of thing, and finding a job requires staying in a wifi environment. Going off to live like a mountain man isn't an option in most places, and even if I could, that's not the kind of life I want.

I was an unemployed homeless person with no place to go. I took off in my car and treated it as a road trip until a job came along, as it had always had in the past. In the book I describe it as entering a downward spiral, but not knowing it.

That beginning stage isn't well documented. There's plenty of media stories about what the down and out do, what they look like in camps and skid rows and how they act. How they got there tends to be a quick sentence or paragraph before getting to the juicy stuff like drug use or peeing in public.

That day I became homeless, how I handled it, and why it was a sure path into a life in a car was something I didn't understand until the second draft of the book. It seemed just like a temporary stage at the time, a period that one could just pass the time on a road trip till a new job came along, but there were elements of my prior life that was like an airliner that seems to be flying OK, but with a lot of little problems that just needed a final catalyst to become catastrophic.

I had a life full of good work, a rich musical hobby that was seen as a possible path to a dream life but was fun no matter how it went, and while I had a lot of sympathy for the homeless back then, it was still a case of thinking that it was a choice, or the result of choices that regular people wouldn't make.

That's why it's easy to go into denial, or swing the other way into panic when it happens. Most of us have an idea of what it's like, having been in transition at one time or another. When it becomes a state where there's no visible end game, where the present is all there is, the first feelings of denial or fear are due to a simple reason; it's not that common an experience after all. It's the unknown.

It's not good enough to know how to rough it for a couple or a few days.

Knowing what to do at first isn't taught in schools, and the media is more focused on the sexy stuff like shooting up in alleys. There isn't much to read to prepare you, even though there's a lot of collective wisdom that goes back to the pioneer and hobo days that's still in practice by a huge number that stay off the radar.

...let's talk about food again...

For example, the information about food in the United States has moved away from simple facts into the realm of religion, and away from survival and into psychological areas like self esteem and class based thinking.

It's perfectly OK to enjoy fine foods and exotic dishes. I love eating various ethnic foods, when I can afford it.

Out there in the car, my cuisine was what I could afford after gas and dog food (with almost all the homeless I ran into, children and dogs ate first). Luckily I ate simple most of the time before the homeless life, so there was no horror about eating a can of beans or anything like that.

In fact, my only horror was seeing how foodie trends had made many of the traditional staples like canned sardines seem like chewing dollar bills, turning the traditionally stuffed tins into oil filled aquariums with maybe four fillets floating about. Getting a tin stuffed with fish costs more than Kale chips.

Dinner was what I could afford that day, and it had to be what I could afford that week or even that month. People diet all the time in this country, but when you have to cut calories because there's no money to buy expensive stuff, then it becomes part of the misery, and it shouldn't.

I've said before, abject food misery disappears after seeing someone eat out of a garbage can. Then even spam starts to look like chicken.

...a word about budgeting on the road...

One piece of advice is to immediately cut common expenses like Netflix, four dollar lattes, and so on, and to not do it gradually. One common experience that people had out there was to gradually reduce expenses as the money ran out. Many told me that it was an extension of living check to check.

It's better to not even look at your expense sheet, and just make a very short list of what's needed to survive. Forget everything else, the comfort stuff, purchases to take the mind off troubles, and examine anything that costs over a dollar. The short list should be gas, food, and water (not as critical, there's plenty of clean free water out there).

In other words, don't just reduce expenses. Cut down to absolute basics, and examine each new expenditure as if it were your last dollar. Start from zero.

Imagine being broke. Picture any expense that seems necessary, like yoga class or Starbuck's lattes, and imagine how necessary it would feel if the only way to get money for it was to beg for it or steal. Meditate about having just twenty dollars, and what you'd buy with it if that's all you could count on for that week (or month).

Those aren't questions you'll learn in school or on a TV show. It goes against the American religion of winning, that a hard working individual can come out on top, and being optimistic. It can feel like it's giving in to the situation.

I believed all that stuff sitting in that car, and still do now, but until the good things happen, it's good to know what you'll do with that last twenty in your wallet or purse.

You might make a lot of mistakes at first. If you want to know how many are possible, read my book when it comes out, I made plenty.

...the fairer sex....

One interesting change in media coverage is that some of the more recent stories have put a picture of a younger attractive woman as the main picture. That isn't surprising as the homeless demographic is much wider in scope than most would think. In one of my earlier book chapters, there's descriptions of female Millennial homeless based in cars, and later on, in camps. Some were there because of drugs, for others it was the alternative to living with an abuser in an area where even software engineers can have trouble affording a place to live.

One could argue that using a picture of a young female is a better optic on an article, but it depends on the slant. In many cases, the image of a wild meth head fits the narrative better. If you go to any large gathering of transients, particularly in urban camps like in San Francisco, there'll be a diverse mix of races and sexes there in the tents.

Personally, I think it's good to have more normal looking faces in the stories, and it would generate more understanding if the media would simply make it a point to show the same sympathy they give to disaster and war victims.

In my book, I described a woman who was briefly Ivy's dog sitter's life, and saw her, like many others, treated with the same broad brush used on meth heads and criminals, and it had the effect of trapping her in the street life. She got used by some men who promised a Cinderella type road out, and she wasn't the only younger female that was. It's a brutal life out there, and more so for females, whose prince was more often a pimp, dealer, or predator.

I doubt she'll drop that far. She was lucky in that there was a sprawling but cohesive group in that area that watched out for each other, and they stayed within a defined area for mutual support. Wherever I went, there were communities. People who stay off the radar, yet keep track of one another and help if there seems to be a problem.

On hot days for example, many would check in on Ivy and me, and offer cold water or ice, and even small amounts of cash. It was common practice in those groups, and I did the same. The book's center is the summer of 2016, and that time was probably the closest I came to dropping down into the camps on the river bank, and there were two main reasons that didn't happen.

One was that so many on the internet donated for food and keep my car running, and the other was coming under the protection of some very good people who, even though homelessness was a permanent state for them, would tell me that I was too smart for that life, even when I was telling myself that living in a car it was all I deserved.

When I see a media story that shows a normal person in the pictures, those are the faces I see, the ones who are better than the parts of society that think they're good for nothing. Many are worth a million of the respectable trolls that despise them.

...a day at the doggie hair salon...

One of the challenges out there on the road was keeping Ivy's hair trimmed and styled. It was one of the conditions of adopting her.

I decided early on that her hair (shih tzus have hair, not fur) was my responsibility, partially due to the cost of dog grooming, and because I figured it was a bonding situation.

Ivy never treated it as a bonding process. In fact, she'd run and hide the second the tarp and trimmer came out. I had to make sure to do it in a closed room and to never let her out of my field of vision even for a moment, like when switching the trimmer head or getting the scissor, or else she'd run for the hills.

It eventually became obvious that it was noise from the electric trimmer that freaked her out. Which no longer became a problem once we started living in the Cadillac.

Out there, it was all scissors. The first attempts looked bad, and once she had to walk around for a month with uneven ears and half her face almost bare. She didn't complain, maybe after seeing me cut my own hair in front of a side view mirror. My huge bald spot took a lot longer to grow back than her's. Probably decided that she gotten off easy.

My haircut made me look like a nutcase, and one of the early chapters of my book describes how I decided to go ahead and use that look to make some of the more aggressive homeless give me a wide berth at one place where we stayed. Kind of like how Native Americans treated the mentally with a certain awe and forbearance.

I never quite got the hang of comb and scissor cutting, qnd the haircut would be in three stages over the course of so many days. First day, it would be her face and paws. Second, neck and sides, and finally the rest of the body. I couldn't block cut without an electric trimmer, so we'd sit out there in a windy area (so the hair would blow away and not pile up), and gradually snip away until the hair was about half an inch long.

The process was later sped up by the use of a battery operated face trimmer waved over her body like a magic wand, lower and lower until the desired hair thickness was achieved. This could take a while, as I limited the sessions to about a hour per day. Any longer and Ivy would just lay down for a nap.

The ironic thing was that it did become a bonding process. She stopped running away at the sight of a scissor, and her only disappointment was that there wasn't the customary bath after. To make sure that the hair was being cut evenly, I had to smooth it down a lot, and she treated it as petting, and it was an interactive activity, which she always enjoyed.

The last haircut was when she died. I know it made no difference, but I combed her out and groomed the ears and face. It wasn't about how she was going to look, but how I'd see her for the last time, and that her spirit would see that right up to the end, I was still trying to get it right.

We went out with a win.

- Al Handa 9/16/17

...cover reveal for Hide In Plain Sight...

This is the cover for the upcoming book, Hide In Plain Sight, designed by Jenna Brooks, supervised and edited by Mutiny Rising Media.

-Al Handa

Please consider a contribution to keep this blog going and support my activities:

My intent isn't to become a donor funded homeless blogger, I'd like to do much more...until then, a donation would help Ivy and I to survive and continue efforts (like seeking work, etc) that can bring us out of homelessness as opposed to dropping further down into a transient lifestyle.

The Al & Ivy Homeless Literary Journal Archive:
The earliest entries were on the Delta Snake Review section of this blog site.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

On The Road With Al & Ivy: A Homeless Literary Chronicle - August 19th, 2017

“I would that my soul were where I believe the soul of that woman to be.” 

- Anatole France (Life Of Joan Of Arc)

That thought, if I am right, is the possibility of establishing a sympathetic relation with an animal, a spirit, or other mighty being, with whom a man deposits for safe-keeping his soul or some part of it, and from whom he receives in return a gift of magical powers.

- James George Frazier (The Golden Bough, A Study Of Magic And Religion)

"...one of these days, when you hear a voice say 'come,' where you going to run to?"

- Lyric from Johnny Too Bad (The Slickers, Harder They Come soundtrack)

Spirituality and atheism require the same amount of faith out there. I got all butt hurt at God and his great plan that put me in a car on some hot muggy side street, and yet the prayers kept coming, begging for a happy ending.

In a Godless landscape, you have to believe that the god of money, and it's doctrine, capitalism, will reward faith in the Puritan Ethic that says work will get you out of that car, but sometimes getting that lucky break requires a miracle that only Jesus can deliver, as the priests of capitalism have the Darwinian belief that your misfortune is part of the overall plan that the best and strongest come out on top.

Either way, the idea is that you get what you deserve whether it's called reward, karma or market forces.

My belief in God permeates the book, though perhaps not in the way a Holy Roller would manifest it. Many true believers are confident that the Lord will provide. Others think that Jesus is in the business of delivering wins in the lottery or touchdowns in a football game.

I entered street life with a fairly conventional view of Christianity, or at least in the mystic sense like with the old Saints or Quakers, and it evolved like the latter group would see it...a matter of personal conscience and revelation. I saw God, or the deeper spiritual meanings differently as time passed. At times it felt like I had a guide, or a safe presence I could talk to, which given our judgement happy era, is no small thing.

The day that Ivy died, I experienced a wide range of faith...from a willingness to surrender everything for just one favor to bring her back, to bitter disappointment as she faded away in front of me.

I wrote that she had died in her sleep. That wasn't true. There was no intent to deceive, it's simply all I was capable of writing at the time. Her death is most of a whole chapter, as it happened while we were on a hike and almost a mile away from the car out on a farm road. It was extremely hot, and my pack, which as a precaution against towing and theft contained all my important papers and belongings so I couldn't drop it. So I ran with her and the pack as fast as I could, and lost the race.

It was a complex event, and it essentially put me out of action for a few days. One thing that happened was that as my race to get to the car began to look futile, I said and offered so many things to God in exchange for Ivy's life. I still can't look at the chapter without feeling intense grief, so it must have gotten a good part of what happened right.

The questions that still runs through my mind, and in the final run through of the manuscript will have to be answered is, who was I yelling at? What did I think God would or could do? Many older religions were about giving offerings for concrete favors, so was there something more basic and primal that came out in my desperation?

Or did I think it was also the death of dreams that clearly included her, and in my mind, as she left so went our dreams to get out?

In hindsight, that intensity of loss was partly because we had grown into a team. The 2008 recession put us in quite a bind, but we both handled the later homelessness period differently. Ivy became cooperative about being photographed, for example, and seemed to understand each one was for a different purpose.

I became more patient, and quit trying to train her...I treated her like a comrade in arms, and spent the year with us in sync on a lot of often Quixotic attempts to get back into the mainstream. Having her as a model in a promo agency that was run out of a car could only have been conceived by a guy who thought his dog was really a small person, yet it produced some money, and thus was a little magic created in those dreary parking lots and streets. It created hope, and with it, the ability to see a future, and without that, you go the other way towards apathy and death.

She had always been a joy to have as a pet, but was much more at the time of her death. I had made her a partner. At first it was just playful imagination, but as time passed we seemed like a sum greater than the parts. She stopped just being a pet out there. We spent 2008 as wanderers, but we spent 2016 as explorers that failed a lot, but kept going and constantly seeking.

Her light burned the brightest in our last year. She never gave in to the situation, and as a result, I never did.

I used to pray that I wouldn't die first, and leave her stranded and alone, as sad as the duty of survival would be. So perhaps my faith was rewarded. Not every miracle is going to be as big as winning the lottery. The smaller ones count too.

...a matter of life or death....

One difference between this blog and my book is that here I'll often go into a particular point at length as opposed to saying it with a single line or paragraph. That one line may have lots of meaning behind it, or it places all that came before it into context.

The concept of life being motion or movement defines both how those around me appeared and what guided most of my decisions in many of the chapters, that choices are constantly being made even when it seems there are no options. I make the point that this or that person is heading towards life or death, but it isn't a literal metaphor.

It can be, in the case of a suicide, or a drug habit involving risky behavior, but it's more nuanced in my book. There's one scene where I've emotionally hit bottom, and suicide enters the list of options, but is quickly brushed off.

The thought that runs through my mind is that my life at that moment may spiral down further, but I'll accept any setback because there's nothing going on worth my life and that my will still has plenty in reserve...my life may sink further down but as long as the decision is to choose life, and not death, there is hope and life is a fluid state.

Many religious and philosophical sensibilities define death as rebirth, and that's certainly one layer of the whole. In my story, death is also a trending towards stasis or apathy, which to me is a kind of pre-death condition that invites or predisposes extinction.

Some of the characters in the book look like they've got it all under control, and early on, I emulated them, but found that it was a disastrous lifestyle based on a common form of apathy that led to the key period in my homelessness, the summer of 2016, where Ivy and I came very close to becoming indigents living out of a backpack, but were able to correct course towards life.

My book is about all people who chose life or death, and not just the homeless. It's a choice we all make. Expressing that concept, as it appears to contradict the obvious, that continuing downwards is necessarily heading towards death, wasn't easy, but I think how it came out will be one of the most compelling passages in my book.

...the rain in Spain...

One of the things that surprised me was my reaction to bad weather. The idea of sitting in a car while it's cold and rainy might seem like sheer misery but it wasn't. In fact, the better the weather, the worse I felt.

Most people experience storms while looking at it from shelter, or in the process of getting to it, and of course, I was sitting there in the middle of it. Yet, that was when I was the most grateful.

Rain is a miserable time for the homeless who aren't lucky enough to have a car. It's not just the wet, but how cold it is while it's happening. Belongings get soaked and continue the process of becoming mildewed, and comfortable places become scarce. Forget trying to sleep.

I was lucky enough to have a car, and thanks to so many people who helped me, able to keep it.

I'd see all the water pouring down but we were dry, and could put on more clothes to stay warm. Outside, people would be scurrying about, trying to get themselves and their belongings to some shelter and soaked underneath any rain gear. None of that escaped my view, and the lesson was that homelessness wasn't some state that was black or white.

It was a life condition that had levels, or degrees. The homeless are a diverse group of people who are on the way up or down, and it can get better or worse. When I sat there watching the rain come down over the windows, it was a reminder that things could be a whole lot worse. Somewhere in that swelling tide of gratitude is hope if you look for it.

...tales for the millennium, or millennials...

I've noticed on social networks that it's popular (in some circles) to make fun of millennials, mainly by older types who used to rail at the establishment about not judging a man by the length of his hair, and who should know better.

One of the few pleasures I had out there was being able to hang out in a Starbucks in the evening. Most were manned by millennials who quickly figured out that I was homeless, and were quite kind. The young workers and managers there would often give me a free coffee, or even a snack or meal, and do it discreetly so no one noticed. More than a few were doing volunteer work with the homeless, and were sensitive enough to the problem that they'd never call attention to any kindness. It's a very good heart that doesn't need applause.

The trips to Starbucks were vital to me. It was when I recharged my backup batteries, and could work under a stable wi-fi signal. What freelance work I could get as a drafter was done in coffee houses, and the cheery youthful atmosphere was a real tonic.

When I think of music from that time, it's not blues, or jazz, but often millennial music. When I hear "Best Kept Secret," or "Just Do It," it pops me back to the open spaces of Gilroy or Salinas, though perhaps it's not always a pleasant memory, and of nights after Starbucks when I would take Ivy out for an extended walk, and of being able to find carefree moments.

Millennials are really a pretty happy bunch, and some of the jaded members of  the older generations should be careful to not try to wipe the smiles off their faces too soon in life.

...the first of many thank you's.....

One of the central themes to my book is the subject of help. The main thing was that getting out requires it. It's also, particularly in America, a gray area where the definition of help is interpreted in a lot of ways. It's too complicated to cover in a blog entry, but the generous acts of charity that helped me survive aren't ambiguous. I had mentioned that a piece of each blog would thank those who helped, and this is the first of many.

Back in December of 2016, I had just returned from a trip to the Fresno area that had very mixed results. I was looking at a pretty bleak Christmas season, and three authors, Lynn Lamb, Nicole Storey, and P.J. Webb organized a "Helping Handa" Facebook page, and solicited funds and food. The support helped, particularly in getting cold weather clothing which I was desperately short of, but also in food supplies for both Ivy and me.

It was also a huge psychological boost. Never underestimate what moral support brings to the table, the sense of acceptance counters the feeling of guilt/blame that surrounds being down and out. Once you've eaten a good meal, and life is sustained, it all has to go somewhere, so the mind is important too. The good people who created that site and contributed gave me help for both body and soul.

- Al Handa 

...cover reveal for Hide In Plain Sight...

This is the cover for the upcoming book, Hide In Plain Sight, designed by Jenna Brooks, supervised and edited by Mutiny Rising Media.

-Al Handa

Please consider a contribution to keep this blog going and support my activities:

My intent isn't to become a donor funded homeless blogger, I'd like to do much more...until then, a donation would help Ivy and I to survive and continue efforts (like seeking work, etc) that can bring us out of homelessness as opposed to dropping further down into a transient lifestyle.

The Al & Ivy Homeless Literary Journal Archive:
The earliest entries were on the Delta Snake Review section of this blog site.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

On The Road With Al & Ivy: A Homeless Literary Chronicle - August 5th, 2017

"When a man is asleep, he has in a circle round him the chain of the hours, the sequence of the years, the order of the heavenly host. Instinctively, when he awakes, he looks to these, and in an instant reads off his own position on the earth's surface and the amount of time that has elapsed during his slumbers; but this ordered procession is apt to grow confused, and to break its ranks."

- Marcel Proust (Swann's Way - Remembrance Of  Things Past, Vol 1 - C.K. Scott Moncrieff translation from the French 1922)

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. 
I do not think that they will sing to me. 
I have seen them riding seaward on the waves 
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back 
When the wind blows the water white and black. 
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea 
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

T.S. Eliot

In my upcoming book, a key point is that sleep time is the main part of life where homelessness is an issue. In my waking hours, as long as I didn't set up house somewhere, there was nothing illegal or noticably disreputable about my lifestyle. I was really like anybody else (sort of).

It was in the evening, when most of the world was going home that I truly felt homeless. It was at that point, when I chose a spot to sleep, that my activity broke the law and made me an outlier.

The reason is simple, there's no free land or territory in this country, it's all owned by somebody who doesn't want you to sleeping there. Society considers it trespassing and while prosecution is relatively rare, it's still illegal.

Illegal in the same sense as pot or sexual kinks...some people are OK with it and could care less about rousting the homeless, and others have to be restrained by other parts of the legal code from treating transients like wack a mole targets.

The book deals with, but doesn't delve too deeply into the legalities of the issue. The main reason is that the law isn't personally relevant to a homeless person unless they're looking for trouble, are plain stupid, or impaired by drugs or booze. The normal law enforcement response is to get you to go elsewhere.

Most of us move on if told to; it's sleep somewhere, wake up as early as possible, get into motion to join the real world and blend back into society where the law doesn't come looking for you.

There's always going to be the ones who bring out lawn chairs, pile junk and garbage around their vehicle (or on the roof in many cases), and test the patience of law enforcement, but lowbrow behavior is hardly unique to homeless people.

The legal aspect was the last thing I worried about. It was more about being safe while asleep, a time when out of touch with the surroundings in dreamland separated from the real world by a thin car window.

Like more than few homeless newbies, I tried alternatives like not sleeping, and found hallucinations from sleep deprivation too scary as a lifestyle. Using meth wasn't an option either. I could look around and see that meth was bad news.

I tried various methods to sleep, so many that some of the ways didn't make it into my book.

The outside environment determined how to sleep. If it didn't seem safe, I slept fully clothed and curled up in the front seat, covered by a down jacket and the car completely clear of clutter.

The idea was if a situation occurred, to be up and driving in just a moment or two. It was also important to not have wallet or keys visible to any person walking by. In an area where there's homeless, there will be onlookers while sleeping. You can never forget that the world still turns even on the quietest night, and the next moment can reveal a surprise. More than a few times I was greeted by both the morning sun and a face peering through the window.

Most media stories focus on a "typical" situation, and can create the impression that it's how all the homeless live out there, but in a area only a few hundred square yards, there'll be dozens of living situations and stories out there.

In the opening scenes in my book, I felt that diversity was the most striking element and worked the hardest on the opening chapters to capture that concentration of humanity, fear, tragedy, despair, desperation, dreams and hopes that played out every day like a play, never completely went to sleep, and started up again when the sun came up.

A peaceful nights sleep was elusive, because night time was when we all became homeless, and all the trouble started.

...the singing of angels...

There are certain sounds that will transport my consciousness back into the past to some place out there. Phone message and email notification tones still do that, as those portended a possible job lead, or a new donation coming in, often in the nick of time.

The sound of a phone starting up was part of the morning routine, as it had to be turned off at night to save power. That tone will sound and momentarily put me back into my car in Gilroy, or the Crystal Springs rest stop.

I'll feel the chill of a cold car, and look for Ivy to say "hi schmoo," which was the customary morning greeting. I'd quickly get the Cadillac moving, and go to a spot where we could be in the sun to warm up. Ivy was taken out for her walk at that point, that was never done where we'd slept. Never. I make a big deal of that in my book, the axiom to never hang out where you sleep.

It was advice from old timers, and later on, empirical wisdom as almost every time I violated that rule, it got me into some sort of trouble.

Another sound is generators or truck engines. That often makes me think about this street in Gilroy, where there were RVs and trucks about, and where I was stuck for six weeks in a dead car, and along with this particular parking lot in Salinas, was as close to home as a place could have been.

When I heard those sounds, it meant I was as safe as I was ever going to be at night. We all parked close to each other, minded our own business and made no trouble with the police, who checked in on us regularly. We went our separate ways during the day, and saw many of the same faces at night, and perhaps wondered about those who disappeared.

It wasn't like we missed them or something, but I know we all hoped that the "missing chair" meant that the person had caught a break. When a person made it out it felt like it lowered the odds for the rest of us, so our hopes for others was as a prayer for ourselves. It can feel so hopeless out there, and even imagining a success story is a powerful tonic when personal experience gives little evidence of a better future.

...beauty in the eyes of the beholder...

One of threads that runs through my book is the concept of aesthetics, or beauty. I mentioned in the last blog entry how Willie Nile's Vagabond Moon song found a sense of delight in the vision of a moon, and while such moments do occur, it isn't always a case of finding a pearl in an oyster.

For example, I enjoyed the beauty of the Crystal Springs rest stop with it's gorgeous view of the Santa Cruz mountains, but that ambiance quickly got old when the temperature dropped into the 40s or the druggies discovered the heated bathrooms and set up shop there.

There were hot, dreary nights in Gilroy, where I had to keep Ivy and myself cooped up because it wasn't safe to leave the windows open, and the air was filled with arguments, people talking to whatever, and that energy sapping fear permeating everything.

There were no hidden gems, flowers in the mud, or angels with flowing hair. Any long haired angel out late at night wasn't out to save you.

If there was beauty, or redemption out there, you had to put it there. I often imagine myself back in the car, looking around at the street we were parked and shake my head in wonder at how I got through so many nights in that hopeless soup of a world without retreating into booze or meth, buying comfort sex with drugs, or putting a bullet through my brain.

The interesting thing about adversity is that small details become important and a slim thread can become a lifeline. Life out there becomes all about things like the next meal, if there's enough gas, a few hours of good sleep, a nice nap, and yes, finding that pearl.

One such pearl was imagination. There were times Ivy needed to go out at night, and you can't go walking around at night in fear. Predators pick up on that, and the anxiety will slowly cripple you. So Ivy and I took our walks, and I'd look for a mood or sight to write about and become a detached observer.

The blog and the book became part of that mental construct, role playing that turned perception into a search for beauty, though in retrospect, it was probably more a search for truths and meaning...all the sights out there were taken in, and decorated with words, and my book in a sense will be that epic poem it was originally envisioned to be, if poetry is truth as they say.

That night when Willie Nile saw a beautiful moon that filled his "poor heart with delight," was probably a very ordinary sight that he painted into wonderful colors from a palette deep in his heart,. That's really where beauty comes from.

...speaking of beauty....

Here's a good example of created beauty. This is a favorite picture of Ivy. I see her cheerful spirit in it, and it's a treasured memory.

In retrospect, that is. The day the picture was taken, it was 90 degrees out, and the car had stopped running a week earlier and was stuck in the hot sun most of the day. That meant we had to stay out of the car until evening.

Ivy was sitting on the curb next to the car, and the photo was cropped to leave out all the trash that surrounded us. I had no choice but to clean up the rubbish left by customers to avoid attracting attention to our area. The photo didn't capture the strong odor of urine or half eaten food.

That was the world back then for us, but the picture captures what was good about the day. She was still alive back then during Independence Day weekend 2016, and like so many other days, her cheery smile and spirit made the moment a pleasant one.

We felt good, there was enough money to eat a decent dinner and at that moment, without fear or cares. A lot was going on then, but that beautiful photo is what remains, the best part of that day, and because she was still alive, one of the best times of my life.

- Al Handa 

...cover reveal for Hide In Plain Sight...

This is the cover for the upcoming book, Hide In Plain Sight, designed by Jenna Brooks, supervised and edited by Mutiny Rising Media.

-Al Handa

Please consider a contribution to keep this blog going and support my activities:

My intent isn't to become a donor funded homeless blogger, I'd like to do much more...until then, a donation would help Ivy and I to survive and continue efforts (like seeking work, etc) that can bring us out of homelessness as opposed to dropping further down into a transient lifestyle.

The Al & Ivy Homeless Literary Journal Archive:
The earliest entries were on the Delta Snake Review section of this blog site.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

On The Road With Al & Ivy: A Homeless Literary Chronicle - July 16th, 2017

"I wasn't scared, I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost..."

- Jack Kerouac (On The Road - The Original Scroll)

...of eternal vigilance...

One of the themes that runs through my upcoming book is that being homeless wasn't just some change in lifestyle. It was a profound psychological journey that evolved through several stages starting with denial, but there wasn't an even symmetry or pattern of emotions.

I briefly described in the last blog entry that the early 80s poetry manuscript evolved into a story about a fall from grace and redemption and that is my book in a nutshell. It's probably how I'd explain it in an interview to make sure it fit into a neat soundbite or quote, but it's certainly not how it all felt at the time.

There were a series of emotional stages or phases, but it came on in a chaotic sequence, and there was no linear narrative. The opening stage was certainly denial, or at least sugar coating a temporary situation centering on an artistic trip, a very thin rope to hang a life on. The opening stages of homelessness was complex. It was a mix of shock, embarrassment, and deep down, a classic intense hope of rescue.

It's like being escorted out of a building after being laid off, but there's no place to go hide and process it all. It's a time when even if you're not religious, you hope for a miracle. Not because there's a spirituality to connect to, but because in America, becoming homeless is intimately tied in with failure, which in the old days, was resolved by taking off and making a new start out on the frontier.

In the modern day, there is no frontier...even the forests are property and when cut loose from your home, become a trespasser with no place to legally sleep, and a social outcast and losing many friends and even a lot of family in some cases.

I was luckier than many out there...I found out who my friends were, kept a few, and was found by many others from around the world. I treat it as a miracle in the book, and still do even after four drafts of the book.

When I say that it all came on in a chaotic sequence, that's how it felt, and that mood permeates a lot of the narrative. It was something that can be understood later on with some distance. Looking back, I was in a weird sort of way as alive and in the moment as I ever was in my entire life. At least part of the time anyway.

New Age disciplines treat being in the moment as a bliss trip or deep calm, but that's just endorphin addiction in most cases. Being alive is really about seeing what the situation really is. A truly sane person will feel fear if there's danger, or will be able to focus on a critical detail.

Some of the people I talked to out there felt that I was obsessed with my car. I was, no doubt about it. I constantly wrote about it in my blogs and gofundme updates, equating a running car with survival.

The thing is, the car became home for Ivy and me, and if it couldn't move, it would have been taken at some point. Without a running car, my chances of getting out of homelessness became dangerously close to zero, and I saw what happened to those who lost their vehicles out there. The downward spiral got tighter.

So on one hand, I kept my head, and never lost sight of what was needed to survive. On the other hand, thanks to irregular sleep, stress, and bad diet, the awareness of what was needed to survive out there often lapsed into wired out vigilance, paranoia, and fear.

One thing I did see out there, and emulated, were survivors who found a center, persona, or outlook that channeled the best of their personality to their circumstances. RV owners who became expert chewing gum mechanics and gypsies, others as pro level buskers or panhandlers, and others tragically retreating into a dream world or simplified life view via drugs (that ended up not being so simple).

I'm not an extrovert, or an alpha. I'm a guy who was a bookworm in my youth, a geek who managed to pick everything to be geeky about that wouldn't make you rich, and never really found who I was in the modern world. The one thing I could do well was to become at least functional in any subject I put my mind to learning.

After making a ton of mistakes early on, it finally hit me that I'd better get at least competent at being homeless and so my center, my persona became the detatched observer, or loner. That turned out to be trap. In my book, I described a couple of early personalities that seemed to have mastered the art of living under the radar in the transient lifestyle. They taught me some important things about the life, but emulating them led to a disasterous summer in Gilroy.

I learned that it was just as important to know what your goal was, why a person did this or that out there to survive. My early mentors had no desire to get out of homelessness. That influenced many of the choices they made, choices that shouldn't be made if the goal is to get out.

Although my book covers many events over a 14 month period, that summer in Gilroy was probably the decisive period. It was as low I ever felt emotionally, and out of that crucible evolved the person who survived the many ups and downs that followed. It's not a person I want to be now, and though I'd like to think it was just a phase, it's obvious that the circumstances brought out a side of me that had always been there since childhood.

I remember being called a Jap as a small child, being bullied, or in a desire to be accepted, for example, would often agree to be the enemy when playing army with the other kids. I was taught to walk away from insults, to ignore the taunts, and was able to do that, not because it was just the smart thing to do, it was also the easiest. I wasn't a good fighter. At times it meant taking different routes home to avoid bullies after school, or being willing to keep talking with kids who hated my guts until they realized I was a good guy after all.

Somewhere along the line, taking the high road and walking away takes it's toll. But as I got older, I was glad that the pain of being hated for my ethnicity didn't turn into confrontation and anger. It hurt, but staying away from anger and instead communicating let me see that most of the kids around were accepting and even protective.

There was a cost, it turned me an introvert but not a blind one, which is what anger will turn you into.

Becoming homeless was very much the same experience. I had become a thing, a term, something that a lot of people think of in terms of negative stereotypes. It turned me back into a detached introvert, often secretive and anxious to blend in with the scenery to hide. More than a few of the homeless druggies out there are not hedonistic, but hiding from public perception and themselves.

My early experiences taught me to be patient and to trust that others would see past the stereotypes, which was important, as it enabled me to overcome the shame reflex and ask for help. It's not just about communicating with people, it's also about trying to stay connected with life and not choosing the path towards oblivion or even death.

Although it's not considered a good idea to discuss a book in detail, and most of what I've written here is at best, background, I will say the what I became during the summer of 2016 was important enough that the book opens during that period (and then cuts back to the beginning later).

We all go through crisis, and do what needs to be done to survive it. It's often described as growth, but it's just as much a process of self discovery. In my case, it's the old phrase, "the child is father to the man," or how a little kid got through a rough patch turned out to be instinct growing into wisdom.

I'll get over all the pain from my life in a car, it's just a matter of time. I just hope that I stay as smart as I was at the age of six.

...listen to the music...

One of my key identities out there was as a music lover and musician. Press releases throughout the ages rhapsodize about how music can save the soul, and so on, but it was always a mixed bag. It kept a feeling of beauty in life, but when watching a guy eating out of a garbage can, the things that run through your mind isn't the blues, or kickass electric guitar, but the fervent hope that it wouldn't be me doing that in a month. For every artist who wins the lottery and gets rich clinging to a dream there's thousands mired in the daily struggle of life and labeled with the kinds of terms society gives it's failures.

Kind of like the Mott The Hoople song, All The Way From Memphis, where the line goes "you look like a star but you're still on the dole." In modern society, all paths are considered going up or down, and not necessarily a journey. Who knows what the truth is there?

That doesn't mean music isn't important, or that it can't make life feel a little better now and then. But my treasured instrument collection went through a series of stages, from being the tools to create a new life to liquid assets to keep Ivy and me in food and gas. That's not a homeless thing, though, many musicians will recognize that it's just life in the lower tier of artistic life. Even classic literature like Tropic Of Cancer is more about surviving than the act of creation, and thus is probably closer to the truth.

The writer Tom Wolfe (the one who wrote Electric Kool Aid Acid Test) once said in an interview that we had entered into an age of aesthetics, or where artists were the stars. Like other concepts like the food chain or capitalism, it gets downright religious as time passes, with an assumption of evolved superiority. Musicians are depicted in the past as being mere servants of the rich and now command the same power.

That's sort of true, but only because of the power of money. In this day and age, money gives you the sheen of power, desirability, and success, even if that often translates into being able to get away with a lot of crap and getting lots of no strings sex.

Music didn't evolve from a servant class. It started in villages and gatherings, where those who had the talent would express their art in a communal setting. In other words, when the harvest was in, the people celebrated, and those who could play music did so while the rest danced. Many dances evolved, and that was about as connected to life as it ever got.

The wealthy class got into the swing of things of course, but had the money to let some of the more talented artists become specialized. That was the start of the patron system, and frankly, was neither better or worse than what came before. The early dances became bourees, minuets, and so on, and that became "classical" music. I'm oversimplifying a bit, but that's essentially the history of music in a nutshell, other than changes brought about by technology, and even more money.

There was a time when musicians were special, but not in the red carpet sense. Their talent was seen as special, but no more so than farmers, carpenters, and so on. It was entertainment, and only more so due to the power of money.

Being able to play instruments was important to me out there in the street, but living in a car, I didn't want everybody to know. My ever shrinking collection was too valuable and liquid as a salable asset to risk out there on a street corner. It wasn't smart to even flash an iphone out there, much less a 1933 Gibson acoustic guitar. Most of the transcendent moments were in private, late at night, and away from the crowd.

I did it that way partly because it was important to keep a purity about it. There were no illusions that .50 a week in streaming royalties was going to lift me out of that life in a car, but a steady flow of money did mean people were listening, and that means something to anyone who loves to play. The few times the word got out that I had instruments meant being stalked or cased by people looking for quick cash, and that fear was something to be kept out of moments of fun and beauty.

My love of music ended up being expressed in other ways. I spent a lot of time in coffee houses in the evening (I spent the days with Ivy for both safety and companionship reasons) and songs began to enter the consciousness and into my iphone. The only expense by this point was a monthly subscription to Spotify, which I couldn't afford every month, but some months I could have it because they would give me a free month now and then once it was known that I was homeless. A rare act of kindness by a big business for sure.

Certain songs did resonate at times, when the mood and lyrics matched the circumstances. In some of the darkest periods, a song would come along and not so much express what I was feeling, but more importantly, how I wanted to feel.

I remember one song, Willie Nile's Vagabond Moon, a love song but he saw simple beauty in seeing the moon. The moon over Gilroy during the summer was pretty much like any other, and the scenery below was often desolate, and even tragic, but it made me look up instead of around me. It was escape, not inspiration, but on a night when I was eating a can of beans and rationing slices of french bread to last the week, a song that could take my mind off things for even a couple of minutes was magic.

That's the nice thing about music. It's not always the same thing, and in our world it can mean anything from a success story to a gift, but it's always around, and that makes it a true friend.

- Al Handa 

Note: I've mentioned an upcoming thank you section, and that's in rough draft form. I want to put that out in the context of my current job search and settling in a permanent situation. I entered the job market in Wisconsin a couple of weeks ago, my goal being to get some part CAD drafting work for a couple months until my book is finished. It's going better than expected, and I'll try to make that part of the next blog entry.

Archive for older blog entries on the Delta Snake Review:


...cover reveal for Hide In Plain Sight...

This is the cover for the upcoming book, Hide In Plain Sight, designed by Jenna Brooks, supervised and edited by Mutiny Rising Media.

-Al Handa

Please consider a contribution to keep this blog going and support my activities:

My intent isn't to become a donor funded homeless blogger, I'd like to do much more...until then, a donation would help Ivy and I to survive and continue efforts (like seeking work, etc) that can bring us out of homelessness as opposed to dropping further down into a transient lifestyle.

The Al & Ivy Homeless Literary Journal Archive:

Here's the blurb for Boogie Underground Media:

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