- Kenneth Grahame (Wind In The Willows)
...ruminations on food...
One of the biggest adjustments in my return to the real world (or maybe I was in the real world and have returned to the Land of Illusions) was culinary. I could disregard all of the precautions taken over the 14 months and eat without fear of one of the greatest calamities that could befall a homeless person; to have an intestinal emergency with no bathroom in sight.
That's one reason 24 hour Walmarts and rest stops are so popular. Sure, it's a safe place to park or hang out, but both have bathrooms open at all hours. Contrary to the popular notion that homeless just love to pee and poop out in the open, the main reason is the lack of available bathrooms.
I learned early on that old habits like eating pizza every friday had dire consequences out in the car. Even if the place has a 24 hour bathroom, no one really wants to need the facility at 3AM or in the middle of a rain storm.
One prophylactic measure was taking Pepto Bismol in the evening or before a meal. It was something I used to do before going to a rock concert or some place where bathrooms would be scarce or worse and the food of questionable quality. It was effective against the runs and had the additional benefit of some protection against food poisoning. It wasn't a recommended practice as it could cause acid reflux or constipation, but if you've ever raced down a one lane road in pitch darkness for 30 minutes to try and reach a bathroom in time, a little irregularity was the lesser evil.
...fast food? Not so fast....
One of the more common sights out there is a panhandler in front of a store holding a bag of fast food and not eating it. That was almost always a case of a good samaritan following media advice to gift food instead of cash to prevent the purchase of drugs or alcohol. I occasionally overhear or read comments that same homelss guy was ungrateful or preferred drug money, but that isn't always the case.
If I was standing out there, and someone handed me a bag of fast food, it'd be accepted with gratitude, but would be thrown away later or given to someone else who wanted it. The reason was fast food would give me the trots, and it certainly would for anyone who was living on a poor diet or had a stomach that wouldn't tolerate grease or heavy salt.
I've described living on beans and bread, and that wasn't just about not being able to afford better. I'd have loved to have peanut butter with my bread, for example, but that stuff tended to work my guts over. Same with most cheeses and other tasty treats that were often cheap and could stretch a budget, but would later send me running to the men's room.
Any non homeless person who visited San Francisco in the 90s when public bathrooms seemed to have disappeared would understand about having to take access to lavatories into consideration. It's a basic convenience taken for granted by most that becomes a outsized problem when living in a car.
Sleeping under a roof didn't change my consumption of food at first. For one thing, everything was too rich. I certainly ate pizza at any opportunity, and tended to act like it was caviar, but it took a few weeks to be able to bite into a slice without mentally mapping out a route to the bathroom at the same time.
Another civilized vice is snack food. Before going on the road, I loved it all...doritos, chips, dips, cheese, crackers, pretzels (Ivy adored pretzels), you name it, I'd eat it. Out in the car, I virtually never ate that stuff. A bag of chips costs an average of 1.49, and that's equivalent to three cans of beans; a full days ration. Snack food doesn't make you feel nourished, and that sensation of feeling sustained is important when the diet is simple.
The psychological feeling of eating well (and clean) was the real reason pork and beans were a mainstay. I could envision earlier eras when soldiers and travelers ate beans and feel a sense of tradition. It kept them alive, and it kept me alive.
There was another reason I ate beans, spam, bread and similar stuff...to save money. I often saw other homeless binge on food when they came into some cash. One couple I knew once had a good day panhandling and grossed forty dollars, and immediately spent 25.00 of it at a restaurant. I understood why they did it, it was a huge psychological boost, but it was buying food on an empty stomach. After spending the rest on gas, they were back out begging the next day. My goal would have been to make that 40.00 last so Ivy and I could eat clean food for at least a week. Food consumption was measure in both quantity and time.
We did binge in a scaled down version. Our bi-weekly thanksgiving was a 5.00 rotisserie chicken that I split up into two parts. Ivy got the breast meat (I never liked that part) and I got the rest. We'd happily feast on chicken, eating every edible part. That would be the meal for the day. It was breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Some of the low cost food, like spam, might strike many as unpalatable. I understand that, as even steak isn't everyone's idea of fine dining. Appetite is psychological and influenced by circumstances. When I found my diet boring, I just skipped a meal or two. Whatever was on the menu then started to look pretty good. We do that to cats and dogs all the time when they get stubborn about eating dry food, and it works on humans.
The other day I saw that Frito Lay had come out with a new Biscuits and Gravy flavored potato chip. It looked awfully good, and that outlook tells me that my culinary recovery from street life is coming along nicely...
It evolved from a pastoral narrative complete with train trips and interesting characters to a darker story about a fall from grace, catharsis and redemption. I really didn't know what to make of it, and after a year of intense writing put the project away.
I took that pack of typed out sheets, filled tablets and scribbles on scraps of paper on the road. The original intent of the journey wasn't to be homeless of course, merely to travel about until a job came along. This epic poem became a project to work on in the various motels we stayed in.
There were old passages that seemed haunting and obscure at the time, that began as jazzy nonsense phrases intended to be musical in the James Joyce sense.
The story line of the work, which I called "Jook," a common 20s spelling of the term Juke, or Juke Joint, started off like our road trip. It was full of optimism, dreams, and music. As the sojourn continued, it became darker, as if the freedom that makes the road seem so open also unleashed a host of buried demons.
They talk a lot about freedom in the homeless community, but like the bluesmen who played their music with the conviction that they were damned to hell by the church community, there are a lot of choices made that bring out our worst instincts. Bad decisions shaped by the perception that the life only offers certain choices, with the rest being cut off or denied by a real or imagined society that judges us as worthless or lost.
We get lumped into a single mass or image by media or society, and thus find ourselves perceived in the company of the worst, the false prophets who subvert the illumination of sacrament into numbing hedonism or escape and the innocent judged by the actions of criminals whose only commonality is the lack of a roof.
Many people apply labels to the homeless that they'd never dare to use to describe minorities or women. The character I created in Jook was luckier in one respect, being homeless in 30s America wasn't so bad if you were at least headed somewhere like a hobo or pioneer. Now, there's nowhere a homeless person can go to escape judgement.
The original idea of the epic was to have two points of view; discrete poems, and a flowing narrative in 50s beat style prose. As the poetry was organized into story order, I saw that my current life fit the flow. The idea of doing some sort of Kerouac trip became less appealing when sitting in a car eating beans. It was more interesting to write about my life, which is probably what a real author should do anyway.
So the poems became chapter prologues. I eventually eliminated the traditional verse structure, and ran the words as a solid stream while still keeping the metre (rhythm). After each prologue, the following opening narrative paragraphs were put into the same basic metre to create pairs that seem different on the surface, but when carefully read are really the same opening.
One of the important things about my book is that the first two drafts were completed while still out there living in the car. I'd never be able to recreate that mood that was present when typing out the manuscript on an iphone in a dark street or parking lot, distracted by sleep deprivation, and never totally certain that Ivy and I were in a safe place.
There's been the temptation to rewrite certain passages in a more literary or poetic way. In some cases it was appropriate where some insight had come after being a safe distance from that life. In others, the passages were written as I felt and thought at that moment, and any revision would alter the mood.
There's a lot of individual stories floating out there and not heard because much of the the media and others have succeeded in making the homeless seem like a pitiful herd of cows. When people read my book, they'll see that it's only one of thousands of stories out there to be discovered. The book has plenty of details but the important point is that there's a real person telling the story living a real life that wasn't some inescapable destiny lived by someone who wanted it.
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