Sunday, May 13, 2018

On The Road With Al & Ivy: A Literary Homeless Chronicle 5/11/18



"So she sat on, with closed eyes, and half believed herself in Wonderland, though she knew she had but to open them again, and all would change to dull reality —"

- Lewis Carroll (Alice's Adventures in Wonderland)

The caged bird dreams of clouds. 

- Japanese Proverb

To believe in one’s dreams is to spend all of one’s life asleep. 

- Chinese Proverb

I began work on the final draft of the book last week. I had planned to do maybe three or four more revision passes, but realized over the past few weeks that it was ready to be finished.

There were several issues with the earlier versions, the most serious was figuring out what the basic "story" was. The original structure was chronological, and that was the best way to get it all down. What made the revision passes difficult was that it wasn't how I wanted to tell the story, but was stuck in a linear structure.

The original conception, which dated back to the 80s, as related in a past post, was to create it like a piece of music, which sounded fine on paper. 

One famous model is Finnigan's Wake (by James Joyce), a brilliant "musically" worded novel that no normal human being can read without a translator. Which is too arcane even for a bookworm like me.

There is that age old form called poetry, and it's been around for centuries. It's basically very tight and expressive prose (in most cases) that has a "metre," or rhythm, and in some forms, a lot of rhyming but the problem was that the second anything is called poetry, most people tune it out.

We hear do hear poetry all time, in song lyrics, opening phrases in TV shows and movies, etc, but there's a problem with writing that sounds best when read aloud...which is, it won't always be read aloud and if it was, people would think you can't read without moving your lips. Actually, I would imagine a melodious, if obscure book like Finnigan's Wake would be an ideal audio book.

Most of us can feel a sense of music in our heads, though, triggered by metre and word choice, so I've spent a lot of time reading a lot of the old classics, (which I do anyway) and looked for phrases and passages that triggered an internal rhythm, that gave a sense of ebb and flow, but the final inspiration came from an unlikely place, ice skating.

...Hanyu and ice skating...

I had been reading about this skater named Hanyu, who's been described by the New York Times as the Michael Jackson of figure skating, and who won an unprecedented second gold medal in the Winter Olympics in Seoul.

Ice skating, particularly the men's competition, had become boring to me. It seemed like it was going from one jump to another. Spectacular moments to be sure, but you kind of find yourself just waiting for the next jump. That and the seemingly endless controversy and trolling, but that's true for most sports talk actually.

Watching Hanyu on video seemed different for a number of reasons. There were skaters who could do more quad jumps but few could match how complete he was. If you took away the big jumps, his routine was still mesmerizing.

His choreography wasn't the only thing that caught my eye, it was the joyful energy. I'm sure they all love what they're doing, but this guy really made it look like it was only thing he wanted to do in life. Perhaps it goes further than that, in that he's found the thing that transforms the boyish self into something transcendent, beyond just the craft, or technique.

I think most writers know that feeling. Trying to get beyond the "craft" and write something transcendent.

Understanding the concept of craft is important. I remember Marlon Brando in his famous Playboy magazine interview talk about that; how so many settle for craft, and why that's seductive. For one thing, you can often make a living with craft, and that isn't always the case with art. 

Yet the road does go through craft, as a gate or departure point.

One thing that struck me about the way the commentators talked about Hanyu was they admired how he kept pressing himself, risking failure and easy victories to keep changing and become better. That's a quality many artists don't have. If you can get to a point where the money rolls in playing a particular sound, or acting in genre movies, it's tough to give that up to grow, to risk failure and struggle again.

The list of major artists who've taken such a true risk is pretty small. Miles Davis, for example, did several times. At one point giving up ballads, which were a fan (and his) favorite, and a form he loved doing. He gave it up and moved into rock fusion (or created it to be more accurate) to keep growing, and he said later in interviews that giving up ballads was one of the hardest things he ever had to do.

If Hanyu hadn't changed with the times, he'd have maybe won one gold medal, he was that good, and then retired or skated till younger skaters started beating him with newer and more athletic routines. He managed to translate his artistic style into the newer athletic jump oriented era, and won a second gold. Given his love for the sport, he's a good bet to be the type who'd work four more grueling years to get to the next Olympics, and compete against a young generation of skaters who are already winning on any day he was less than 100%.

To us, it seems like intense pressure, but to him, it's like a dream life, with rewards worth the effort. Even if he loses in the next Olympics, he wouldn't consider it a wasted life.

He's clearly worked very hard to become a great skater, and persevered through some big setbacks. The dream he reached for was a real goal that encompassed a life, and not just wishing for stardom or riches. If he'd never reached such heights, I get the feeling that he'd still be skating in some rink and that joy so obvious in the videos would still be there.

...more about dreams...

I can't say writing the book has always given me joy, and I'm sure Hanyu has hated skating at times, but there's been moments when a passage came out perfectly or a chapter came together in a way that made me read it again with pleasure.

I try to remember that the real dream isn't the book being published, but that in writing it, I'm in it in the now and to enjoy it.

What I saw in Hanyu's skating routines was the look on his face, the aura of a guy who's totally in this world he created and lives in, and the rest is just, at best, icing on the cake. He doesn't just skate from one jump to the next, what happens in between is just as important, which means he's really in the moment, as connected as a person can be to life.

If I can get that feeling while writing this book, then it'll have succeeded beyond my expectations. I know it'll be a lot of work, but I can see when Hanyu skates, it's all worth it to him.

I want that feeling too.

...the edge of darkness...

I know that parts of my book will have to be dark. Ivy and I weren't in a pretty place. The later drafts of the book became darker in parts because over time the distance from past events developed where I could (but not always comfortably) visit times and places that were fearsome back then, seeing lives that were so crushed in spirit (or heading there) that it was a wonder that more people didn't die out there.

The book could have become a Grapes of Wrath trip, or a lurid description of the low life, but that would just be craft. I had to find what was trancendent about what happened, what was human and universal, so that the average reader could see and relate to what was going on. 

By transcendent, I mean, what could make the reader feel like the book was as much about him or her as it was about the people out there. I had to go back there in my mind and really look around, and step out of the detached observer viewpoint of the earlier drafts and see what I was doing too. 

For example, I had to admit to myself that at certain points I was a wreck, making all sorts of mistakes, and living in various dream worlds. I've talked about that in earlier posts, that it's a complex subject underneath that single word.

There were some dreams that saved my life, protected my self esteem and most importantly kept me ready to leave that life when the opportunity arose.

There were also dreams and images that we hear throughout our lives in movies and media that are lies, that will cripple you or make you susceptible to a con. 

...life is survival of the fittest...

One of the worst ideas seen in movies and media is that "the streets" are a tough Darwinian environment that can be survived with toughness and "street smarts." 

The idea that street life is Darwinian is true, but the idea that life is a food chain" where there's alpha predators on top who rule the scene is a human conception, and a male one at that. Movies generally show the streets as ruled by bad dudes who can kick butt and live like sharks among the sardines, but those types don't last long and are easy to avoid, and it's a good idea to do so. The main danger isn't from the alphas, it's getting caught up in any trouble they seem to attract from the police and competitors.

Even the biggest shark in the ocean doesn't have the power to make another species extinct. Tuna and Dolphins can eat all the sardines they can find, but there's too many to wipe out (unless mankind is involved).

If those animals could actually wipe out other species, they would only accomplish their own destruction, as they're as dependent on food as the lowliest ant or clam. An antelope in good condition has a better than equal chance to survive an environment with big cats in it, and a predator in a place where there's no food has no ability to create or grow it and will starve.

Plus those big teeth or claws are only a relative danger to most species. An earthworm has very little to fear from a lion or rattlesnake. Those who are what we call prey have developed all manner of survival strategies from speed to stealth, and most of it works.

Writers often describe this or that person's "street cred" and it has some basis in this or that circumstance or scene, but it's never a universal language or skill set. A "street wise person" from Detroit probably wouldn't last long in Chicago.

Don't get me wrong, I never underestimated the ability of a pusher or pimp to cause me serious pain or trouble, but I was more wary of their lower rent customers needing quick cash via crime for the services. Most of those alphas tended to treat people well, and didn't kick ass all over the place like in the movies. Because to most, you were either a potential customer or not worth the effort to even bully if you minded your own business. 

Sure, some were flamboyant, but the police were generally right on top of their heads all the time, and if you could see them, they were small fry. The real money stays hidden and low key.

For a homeless person, the rules were a bit different.

As a homeless person, I couldn't just call the cops on a dealer unless I was willing to (or was able to) leave the area, and I didn't have that option. There weren't many areas I could live in, and that meant if the word got around that I was an informer, it was easy to find me.

If I spotted a dealer, I'd just quietly go elsewhere. I wasn't generally scared of them...like I said, most didn't care about some guy living in his car but when they hit an area, and the customers started flocking around, the police in that small town were almost certainly watching or had informants around. I was deathly afraid of being seen in the wrong company or being questioned (and being seen talking to police).

The scariest time was that six weeks stuck in a meth zone in an inoperative car. That's when a lot of the druggie scene went on all around me and I couldn't leave. It's the main center of the book, the summer chapters, and I kept a lot of the passages as true to what I was writing at the time on my gofundme updates and blog. 

For example, one incident described in detail was when a guy in a van that I figured was a dealer parked in front of me to meet his couriers. He knew I was a regular there, and I'd put up the window period shades up when he came, a signal indicating that I had no interest in seeing anything, but still, he didn't know for sure and his couriers played the intimidation game with me with racist shouts and other bullying gestures to keep me in line. 

I had to learn to see past that stuff, and realize that they were the scared ones and if I kept that in mind, I'd come out ok. It was a crime zone and contrary to popular belief, crime zones are crawling with cops all over and the fear I felt was shared by everyone, though we had different bogeymen in our nightmares.

It was the most fearful and paranoid period I've ever experienced and it couldn't be fully written about at the time as it was known to some that I was a blog writer, and I couldn't take the chance that some bust or trouble could be traced back to, or blamed on my writing. 

Not that I had that kind of power, but people out there can have this inflated idea about any kind of media out there. When you read those chapters about that time, you'll see many interesting things written that go against the normal ideas about street life.

Much of what became the first draft of the chapters about that summer were typed out on an iPhone. I had a laptop, but frankly didn't dare show it in a car. In fact, I rarely showed the iPhone for that matter. I discreetly treated it like a notepad, jotting down passages intended later for the blog if I ever got out of there (hadn't really decided to write the book yet), but was best kept off the internet at that time.

As the drafts have evolved, a lot of perspective came in, plus the safety of being thousands of miles away freed me up to describe things and events that would have been a bad idea to publish if there was even a slim chance it would be seen by any who knew me out there.

...the only thing you have to fear is...

One of the things I marveled at was how paranoid and fearful I had become, perhaps with cause, but still, it was a mindset that in some ways was similar to the druggies and hard core homeless out there. My prose at the time reflected a tough, detached and dispassionate sensibility. It was disjointed at times, often running off on long spurts of jacked up descriptions of situations that blended reality into inner perceptions and dreams. I may not have taken any meth, but the atmosphere did affect me.

I would patch dreamy images into the scenery to make sense of things; one finds that a lot of what is going on out there is really partly playing out in your mind and influences what you see. Even the meth or bath salt users weren't just numbing out, but were really trying to adjust their inner TV sets, so to speak, to get a better picture. Reality isn't a purely objective state.

I made it a point to refine but not change the passages written at the time. Paranoia and fear intensify certain details, as does dispair or pity, and I had thoughts and attitudes that differed from my previously settled life. I saw the people's fates trend upwards or downwards, and frankly, for many reasons, couldn't have changed any of those trajectories if I tried. It was a helpless feeling.

Part of my detachment was because I was distracted by the effort to save myself. But seeing such things now, it became clear there were life arcs and progressions, with many of the lives redeemable.

Being homeless profoundly changed me, and while I won't spell out how, the perceptive reader will see in the events described in the summer chapters. Whether it was change, catharsis or revelation is something I guess will take more time to unfold. But the person I was that summer was the only one who could have written some of the passages preserved in the book.

The alphas out there weren't on top of any sort of food chain. It was only apparent power, and as fragile as any business run out of a car trunk. The ones who really taught me how to survive out there were the supposed prey, the gazelles and supposed small fry who had better skills like stealth and common sense.

The book doesn't talk about the alphas much, it's the ordinary souls out there that had grandeur.

...the Puritan Ethic, and shame, shame, shame...

One of the main concepts of life is the Puritan Ethic, both in the homeless and the people who lived around that world. It wasn't just the external stuff seen in movies, the prudishness which is really more Victorian Age stuff. It's about the concepts of work and commerce being Godly, and that sin is always punished.

There is a lot of contempt out there for the homeless. Not because they're homeless, most with common sense know that such things can happen to anyone, but because these people appear to be lazy and just do drugs all day. Most get that idea from the media who tend to prefer the dissolute images of the ones who've fallen pretty far down the chain. The media stories seem definitive, but are a narrow view (which has been discussed in detail in earlier blog entries).

The Puritan Ethic isn't really about being prudish. The Puritans weren't any different from the rest of England and Europe about it at the time.

The key concept is that sin deserves punishment. That's a concept that continues to this day, even with enlightened or liberal minds (if given political cover).

A young woman who becomes pregnant out of wedlock generally has to carry a big burden of guilt, and being poor or on welfare is often seen as the product of sloth or laziness.

That combined with the strong streak of individualism in American culture implies responsibility, that one's fate is due to choices made, which is certainly true, but failure has come to be seen as the sum of bad choices, or decisions mainstream society doesn't approve of.

Homelessness is more nuanced than that. Most of us will agree that drug abuse can cause a severe fall, and accept that it's a condition as well as a choice. In a real estate market like parts of California, where you often have to earn 250,000 a year to live under a roof, a young woman who wants to leave a bad relationship often will end up homeless. It may be anecdotal, but I saw it out there. The supposed increase in homeless in Southern California isn't because a bunch of people exerted the druggie life but many were probably burned out of their homes by the huge wildfires last year and simply have nowhere to go. 

Many of the women I saw out there began that life as runaways, or were escaping abusive relationships and didn't have the economic means to stay independent as most men. That often put their fates into the hands of predators or men similar to the ones they escaped, and thus the downward cycle continued. Judged from outside, their lives seemed dissolute and, well, sinful.

I focus on some of those women in the book. There's a tendency to look at the homeless like some sort of herd, as I've said in earlier posts, and that's simply not true. If you see how some of these women had to live, for example, more than a few women would recognize that much of the experience was familiar, and simply on a lower economic rung.

...the village...

The homeless are a lot more connected to society than it appears. 

Virtually all of the drugs they use comes from the non-homeless (as long as we're generalizing) and those women who end up as prostitutes serve a market mainly made up of the so called respectable men of society. There's a lot of overlap in the various scenes, so I also talk about the truckers at the truck stop, who in more than a few cases patronize the same meth dealers, and the weekend warrior partiers who mingled with the young homeless were a key source of that scene's drugs.

I lost a lot of friends and even family after becoming homeless, most of whom felt that I had chosen that life. Once out there it turned out to be a commonality, that many that I ran into were black sheep or were considered losers by their families. So in a sense, it was "a choice" because to get help they were asked to go back and beg, or accept getting familial buttons pushed or shoved in their faces. 

I'm sure it's more complex than that, but again, there's elements of that issue that more than a few people could relate to, to be shunned, misunderstood, or punished. It wasn't important if it was true or a reality, but that it was a perception held by many and it created a reluctance to ask for substantive help. Begging on the street isn't as hard as it involves asking strangers, but it was still painful particularly for the older homeless, and there was a myriad of defense mechanisms that were developed to avoid the shame reflex.

Drug use was a key cause for many of the homeless, but as the book will show, that's mainly the visible part, the scene that I and many others stayed away from as much possible. 

...choices...gypsies, tramps and thieves...

Getting back to the concept of choice, there certainly were people out there who were gypsies, going back to their 60s hippie days, and due to unaffordable rents in areas like the San Francisco Bay Area, made up a sizable population of nomads of all ages, some of which, like the elderly, have already been documented in other media. They chose (willingly or not) homelessness as an economic choice. You'll rarely see them around as they avoid the hard core aggregations that get media coverage.

These groups stay under the radar and avoid making trouble, pretty much like regular people do, and also do so to avoid the automatic lazy ass label that comes with being identified as homeless. Many people are quite kind and understanding about the homeless, but many aren't, and that conflict tends to run along economic lines with solutions to the problem geared towards protecting property and sources of wealth. 

As a rule, the poor don't get worked up about the homeless. Many know or are related to one or more, and realize it's a level they could drop into very easily. I avoided the class war stereotype in the book, as most of the attacks on the homeless came from individuals who happened to be well off, and not from a "class." 

Virtually all of the homeless I talked to out there didn't relate the situation to anything resembling class consciousness or politics.

...back to shame...

The concept of punishment for sin was present. It's close cousin, shame, well, that's another thing. 

There were varying degrees of shame out there, and it colored behavior in a veritable rainbow of shades. It affected how people approached getting out of that life and forced others into hasty decisions that trapped them. It was accentuated by the need for survival, and some did steal, beg, or lapse into apathy. 

There were some very cool individuals who managed to find a center, and while they chose to be nomadic, did their best to help others. Their greatest gift was acceptance, and it helped more than a few out there.

I remember one asking me why I was homeless, that I seemed too smart.

My reply was that I wasn't as smart as I looked. We had a good laugh over that, and one thing I remember about him and others was that they never judged me, and constantly told me that I was someone who was going to get out.

Such people helped make things bearable, and their sense of acceptance gave the book an important center; that the concept of self esteem coming from within was very true, and that things like shame and punishment for sin is a self-inflicted wound. 

That terrible summer of 2016 ended when I quit punishing myself. The 90 degree heat, I'm afraid, lasted a little while longer for my good friend Ivy and me.

...a note about my good friend Ivy...

The anniversary of Ivy's passing was in February, but I decided not to commemorate it in my social network accounts. The reason was that I've kept her presence in such places, where I use her picture as an icon or profile picture. In a sense, she's still around.

I figured to say a remark or two in the next blog entry, where it'd be a little more permanent.

The anniversary passed a bit painfully, as I honestly still miss her. Until this book is finished, I imagine many parts of our life out there will be revisited over and over.

Her role in the book gradually expanded, or should I say, come to reflect what she really was out there. Most pet owners come to see their little friends as family, and I viewed Ivy like that. One of the things that came out of the drafts was that she did her best to be a good member of the pack. Not just being extra cute for survival, but evolving a role. 

The trick was how to write about her, to avoid having her becoming simply a cute waggy tail character, or a atavistic spirit like in Jack London's Call Of The Wild. I deleted earlier passages that simply described cute behavior and looked at the various incidents we were involved in, and after a lot of rough draft passages, evolved her role and responses that did in fact vary with each event.

There was one incident where we got charged by a large dog, and it was coming at us fast. I instinctively picked Ivy up, as she normally would bolt, yet this time, she stayed very calm, and I followed her lead and didn't go into a defensive mode.

It didn't stop charging, and it began to lunge at me, yet it didn't finish the attack...at that point I knew it wasn't trained to fight, it was just unruly. After a few seconds, it calmed down and just stared at Ivy, and I realized that it was a case of a male dog encountering a female, where they tend to lose aggression. Seconds later, the owner arrived and tackled the dog, thinking it was still attacking. He asked if I or my dog was hurt. He looked at Ivy and said that it was a good thing she was a female, and led his dog off without waiting for my answer.

We ran into other strays and loose dogs out there, and I developed a habit of checking Ivy's response in the enounters and found that her instincts were quite good. There was one dog she wouldn't warm up to, so we avoided it even though it seemed friendly. I later heard from other homeless that it had in the past suddenly attacked people and animals if the owner, a woman, didn't constantly repeat the word "friend" to it.

I didn't judge that too harshly, as that dog was the owner's only protection. Nonetheless, that was one pair we stayed clear of. Ivy's verdict on that dog was good enough for me. 

She was highly sensitive to angry voices due to her past before adoption. Which was why I had to avoid getting mad at the car or things like that, because it made her nervous.

There were arguments, or people getting angry at whatever, particularly at night. Once Ivy realized that when such things happened that I would leave the area immediately, she began to pull away and try to leave without waiting for me to see why. More than a few times when she did that a loud disturbance would start up shortly after. She could hear the rising voices that often preceded a full dust up.

That extra warning was valuable. People may ignore arguments coming from another house, but out in the open, an argument will bring the police so it's a good idea to get clear of the scee. They come even faster if a homeless fight is reported. The officers generally know who all the regular transients are, but it was a good idea to not be a regular part of such scenery. A minute of warning time meant we could be out of the area well before any trouble got serious.

Ivy and I walked around at night, and with a dog you have to. If I let her define the strolling area, then the route was virtually always safe. When I read about how soldiers get attached to their bomb sniffing dogs, I know why. If the little buddy understands what you're looking for, they will work at getting good at the job.

Ivy made the connection that certain sounds (and smells, like with needles) needed to be called out or avoided, and so she became a veritable sonar for trouble. In one scene in the book, I describe how she helped me map out a safe zone where we stayed for a week. She developed signals for sirens, arguments, people approaching fast or slow at night from blind spots, and if the requested walk was urgent (otherwise, she merely indicated that it would be nice if it happened soon, which was helpful if I preferred we walk outside at night in a different place).

A car parked on a street at night is a glass house that isn't as safe as it might seem. When you sit in one at night and know that once asleep you're defenseless, it can create a constant state of fear and dread.

However, a good dog makes you feel that there's another sentient being there. When you can trust that friend to look out for you, it moves up from merely having a cute pet that can make you laugh to having a partner who can take on a part of the load. That's a fancy way of saying you no longer feel alone, but as a pack, we navigated life out there as well as possible and it felt safer.

Once she was gone, I not only lost a good friend, but will say that without her help the night became darker, more mysterious, and scary. 

- 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:

There are earlier entries on the Delta Snake Review section of this blog site that aren't on the On The Road page:
http://deltasnake.blogspot.com












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.

...recycling...

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.
http://deltasnake.blogspot.com













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.
http://deltasnake.blogspot.com













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.
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