Saturday, June 24, 2017

On The Road With Al & Ivy: A Literary Homeless Journal - June 25th, 2017

"...and you are out of the old life and into the new! Then some day, some day long hence, jog home here if you will, when the cup has been drained and the play has been played, and sit down by your quiet river with a store of goodly memories for company."

- 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. 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 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...

...the origins of my upcoming book...

I'm finding that writing a book about my experience is about preserving two snapshots in time. The first, the poetic part that runs through the main narrative was composed in the late 80s, while working a grave job. The second, my homeless life instead of a "Pilgrim's Progress" type story.

I took an vintage 1920s portable to work and found that it was a fun instrument to write on, but not for anything that required speed, like large bodies of text. It was perfect for poetry, at least the way I composed it, which was to type out a phrase and then to slowly add lines. It became a pretech era notepad.

I didn't worry about correction with whiteout or tape, mistakes were simply crossed out and after a draft was completed, a new page started and the next iteration typed out. I didn't try to "complete" pieces so much as to record every phrase or poem that crossed my mind.

The project at the time was to create a long epic poem about a young blues musician migrating up to prewar Chicago and envisioned as a sort of beat poem set to music. It was to be a simple story with most of the action conveyed in songs, and eventually became a private project done for personal satisfaction.

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 kept all of the original typed notes, and images and ideas would surface from time to time and added to the manuscript. One time I pulled it out and added just one line on a sheet of paper. I had no idea where that phrase was supposed to go, only that it belonged with the work.

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.

- Al Handa 

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

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

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

-Al Handa

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

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

The Al & Ivy Homeless Literary Journal Archive:

Here's the blurb for Boogie Underground Media:

Boogie Underground Media promotion.

Email for list of services and prices starting from only $5.00!

Friday, June 2, 2017

On The Road With Al & Ivy: A Literary Homeless Chronicle - 6/1/17


"Day after day, day after day, We stuck, nor breath nor motion; As idle as a painted ship Upon a painted ocean."

- Samuel Taylor Coleridge (The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner)

Note: I'm trying to tighten up the rate of entries. I'll do another post in about a week with the parts I didn't get done in time for this one.

One of the concepts that came up in conversations with other homeless was that we were always the same person, and when circumstances get better, it's just a matter of getting back into the swing of things.

That's not entirely true, it depends on how long you're out there and what life is like during that time. You'll generally have to find yourself again.

If I had spent 14 months out there carrying everything I owned in the world in a backpack and sleeping in a makeshift shelter, I'd have have come out a different person than someone who spent that same amount of time in an old Cadillac.

Our basic nature would probably be intact, and but our lives are more than this simple essence or kernel...we manage our lives, making decisions that resolve immediate situations and others that have long term consequences. Many of the responses will run on automatic until consciously changed.

The guy (me) who took off with his dog in February of 2016 was different than the guy who later that summer gave a shirt to a young man who'd been robbed of his clothes...the earlier me would have done it out of pity and compassion, the summer me did it knowing that while I was getting the shirt out of the trunk, the kid had gotten a good look at what was inside and probably would pass that info on to his druggie pals. Sure enough, I later watched from a distance as a young woman from his crowd tried to break into my trunk. 

An earlier me might have confronted her or called the cops, the smarter me who had to live there decided that she was clearly too incompetent a burglar to get into the trunk and let it go, also knowing anyone calling the cops would labeled a squealer with maybe a dozen or more of her friends who'd be pissed about it and having nothing better to do in life than retaliate...the tough take no crap attitude is replaced by a philosophical time-space outlook that sees that anything that could happen would take place well inside the police response time or in a remote place while hiking that unlike the movies would really be like an animal brought down by a pack.

The outside world would call it living in fear, and that'd be true, but it's also seeing reality and making intelligent choices stripped of the often unrealistic truisms of law and order. Having seen such situations and acted accordingly in the short and long term, what happens when you are out of that life and safer? 

...a new life...

On my flight to the Midwest, I began to tear up and break down as the airliner taxied down the runway. As we climbed, I quietly cried and it wasn't from happiness or excitement. It was from a profound sense of relief, like I'd escaped all the constant fears that wore on me. Happiness has a different meaning in the life I was leaving.

It wasn't apparent for maybe a few days that there was something not quite right with me. The assumption was that entering into the normal world would be like riding a bike again...maybe a little rust, but you're off and running.

I'd say that in most things it was like riding a bike. What wasn't so obvious was that 14 months in the homeless world had affected my emotions, or more specifically emotional responses. People don't always understand that normalcy isn't a switch that turns on and off.

Certain situations would trigger fear, like when someone was being sarcastic or irritated. Out there on the street, I avoided trouble and confrontation at all costs. Even the most minor conflicts had the potential to escalate into a police and often did. 

There's a small segment of the population that will call the police for the smallest real and imagined transgressions by homeless. I cover this in detail in a couple of chapters in my upcoming book.

I've had the police called on me twice, for example, on complaints that were cleared up after an interview after 1AM. In one of those cases i was approached unawares with my window shades up. 

That created a tense situation where the officer had to approach slowly as it wasn't clear who was in the car, and I was startled when the flashlight beam blinded me, though I instinctively avoided any sudden movements and kept my hands visible.

The officer was polite, and once it was clear that I was harmless (and I acted both harmless and slightly stupid) then we both relaxed and it became a pleasant conversation. I did have to be aware that while we talked, my car was being visually searched. Which isn't a minor thing. I've seen more than a few casual conversations escalate into a search. Having a little white friendly dog does help in such cases.

...the sounds of silence...

You learn to clam up, look harmless, and answer all question clearly but simply...talking too much or too fast makes you look nervous, and in that weird state of nervousness and fear, it's easy to say something wrong. That's why I tended to act slightly dumb in front of authority...being dumb makes you look more harmless, and keeps you from babbling.

The problem is that in real life, it's not always wise or socially acceptable to clam up, or act dumb. Such responses are interpreted differently by people who are used to speaking fearlessly and not worried that it can escalate into a fight. This contrast is apparent in a lot of encounters between the homeless and regular people. 

There's an incident described in my book where a CHP officer is chewing me out in public, and while standing there like a dumbass with a blank expression, my mind is racing and fighting every impulse to react. I still have involuntary responses that kick in when someone gets irritated with me, for example, that wasn't apparent till the situation came up.

It's easy to just act smarter and talk more, but when someone gets short, impatient or irritated with me, it still can trigger an involuntary fear response like going dumb or withdrawing. You have to be careful out there, not just avoiding conflict but inadvertently giving out personal information, or showing cash to a stranger. Out there it's smart, in the real world, it can come off as paranoid or anti-social.

I found my conversational skills had deteriorated. I could write well, but having deep conversations still requires a conscious effort and still feels awkward. I didn't talk to many people out there.

...hurry up and buy...

I still often just sit there in a room, and it took weeks to realize that it was my car behavior. Sitting like a rock can look like laziness or depression (and sometimes it is), but in my car, there was a reason I sat still. Doing nothing doesn't cost money.

Sitting in the car doing nothing wasn't just a case of suppressing impulses to buy, it was also avoiding the stimuli that surrounds people utilizing every scientific trick in the book to make them spend money.

I don't underrate modern advertising and display. It's not much different than military psych ops and propaganda. It's an active attempt to create demand even if you really don't need the product and will use every manipulative trick from false self esteem to shame...and much if it works.

Out there, I'm saving money. In the real world, I'm sitting there like a lump in a room and subject to any number of labels people attach to apparent slugs, though in most cases, I'm just thinking.

If I wasn't talking to Ivy then there was no conversation and luckily, after over a year of solitude, i didn't start talking with inanimate objects.

There's this relief but with all the things you did to survive, has it all been switched off yet?

That's a question that's still being answered, and I'll know more next week, and the week after, and the week after...

- Al Handa 

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

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

-Al Handa

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

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

The Al & Ivy Homeless Literary Journal Archive:

Here's the blurb for Boogie Underground Media:

Boogie Underground Media promotion.

Email for list of services and prices starting from only $5.00!