"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.
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