"I wasn't scared, I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost..."
- Jack Kerouac (On The Road - The Original Scroll)
...of eternal vigilance...
One of the themes that runs through my upcoming book is that being homeless wasn't just some change in lifestyle. It was a profound psychological journey that evolved through several stages starting with denial, but there wasn't an even symmetry or pattern of emotions.
I briefly described in the last blog entry that the early 80s poetry manuscript evolved into a story about a fall from grace and redemption and that is my book in a nutshell. It's probably how I'd explain it in an interview to make sure it fit into a neat soundbite or quote, but it's certainly not how it all felt at the time.
There were a series of emotional stages or phases, but it came on in a chaotic sequence, and there was no linear narrative. The opening stage was certainly denial, or at least sugar coating a temporary situation centering on an artistic trip, a very thin rope to hang a life on. The opening stages of homelessness was complex. It was a mix of shock, embarrassment, and deep down, a classic intense hope of rescue.
It's like being escorted out of a building after being laid off, but there's no place to go hide and process it all. It's a time when even if you're not religious, you hope for a miracle. Not because there's a spirituality to connect to, but because in America, becoming homeless is intimately tied in with failure, which in the old days, was resolved by taking off and making a new start out on the frontier.
In the modern day, there is no frontier...even the forests are property and when cut loose from your home, become a trespasser with no place to legally sleep, and a social outcast and losing many friends and even a lot of family in some cases.
I was luckier than many out there...I found out who my friends were, kept a few, and was found by many others from around the world. I treat it as a miracle in the book, and still do even after four drafts of the book.
When I say that it all came on in a chaotic sequence, that's how it felt, and that mood permeates a lot of the narrative. It was something that can be understood later on with some distance. Looking back, I was in a weird sort of way as alive and in the moment as I ever was in my entire life. At least part of the time anyway.
New Age disciplines treat being in the moment as a bliss trip or deep calm, but that's just endorphin addiction in most cases. Being alive is really about seeing what the situation really is. A truly sane person will feel fear if there's danger, or will be able to focus on a critical detail.
Some of the people I talked to out there felt that I was obsessed with my car. I was, no doubt about it. I constantly wrote about it in my blogs and gofundme updates, equating a running car with survival.
The thing is, the car became home for Ivy and me, and if it couldn't move, it would have been taken at some point. Without a running car, my chances of getting out of homelessness became dangerously close to zero, and I saw what happened to those who lost their vehicles out there. The downward spiral got tighter.
So on one hand, I kept my head, and never lost sight of what was needed to survive. On the other hand, thanks to irregular sleep, stress, and bad diet, the awareness of what was needed to survive out there often lapsed into wired out vigilance, paranoia, and fear.
One thing I did see out there, and emulated, were survivors who found a center, persona, or outlook that channeled the best of their personality to their circumstances. RV owners who became expert chewing gum mechanics and gypsies, others as pro level buskers or panhandlers, and others tragically retreating into a dream world or simplified life view via drugs (that ended up not being so simple).
I'm not an extrovert, or an alpha. I'm a guy who was a bookworm in my youth, a geek who managed to pick everything to be geeky about that wouldn't make you rich, and never really found who I was in the modern world. The one thing I could do well was to become at least functional in any subject I put my mind to learning.
After making a ton of mistakes early on, it finally hit me that I'd better get at least competent at being homeless and so my center, my persona became the detatched observer, or loner. That turned out to be trap. In my book, I described a couple of early personalities that seemed to have mastered the art of living under the radar in the transient lifestyle. They taught me some important things about the life, but emulating them led to a disasterous summer in Gilroy.
I learned that it was just as important to know what your goal was, why a person did this or that out there to survive. My early mentors had no desire to get out of homelessness. That influenced many of the choices they made, choices that shouldn't be made if the goal is to get out.
Although my book covers many events over a 14 month period, that summer in Gilroy was probably the decisive period. It was as low I ever felt emotionally, and out of that crucible evolved the person who survived the many ups and downs that followed. It's not a person I want to be now, and though I'd like to think it was just a phase, it's obvious that the circumstances brought out a side of me that had always been there since childhood.
I remember being called a Jap as a small child, being bullied, or in a desire to be accepted, for example, would often agree to be the enemy when playing army with the other kids. I was taught to walk away from insults, to ignore the taunts, and was able to do that, not because it was just the smart thing to do, it was also the easiest. I wasn't a good fighter. At times it meant taking different routes home to avoid bullies after school, or being willing to keep talking with kids who hated my guts until they realized I was a good guy after all.
Somewhere along the line, taking the high road and walking away takes it's toll. But as I got older, I was glad that the pain of being hated for my ethnicity didn't turn into confrontation and anger. It hurt, but staying away from anger and instead communicating let me see that most of the kids around were accepting and even protective.
There was a cost, it turned me an introvert but not a blind one, which is what anger will turn you into.
Becoming homeless was very much the same experience. I had become a thing, a term, something that a lot of people think of in terms of negative stereotypes. It turned me back into a detached introvert, often secretive and anxious to blend in with the scenery to hide. More than a few of the homeless druggies out there are not hedonistic, but hiding from public perception and themselves.
My early experiences taught me to be patient and to trust that others would see past the stereotypes, which was important, as it enabled me to overcome the shame reflex and ask for help. It's not just about communicating with people, it's also about trying to stay connected with life and not choosing the path towards oblivion or even death.
Although it's not considered a good idea to discuss a book in detail, and most of what I've written here is at best, background, I will say the what I became during the summer of 2016 was important enough that the book opens during that period (and then cuts back to the beginning later).
We all go through crisis, and do what needs to be done to survive it. It's often described as growth, but it's just as much a process of self discovery. In my case, it's the old phrase, "the child is father to the man," or how a little kid got through a rough patch turned out to be instinct growing into wisdom.
I'll get over all the pain from my life in a car, it's just a matter of time. I just hope that I stay as smart as I was at the age of six.
...listen to the music...
One of my key identities out there was as a music lover and musician. Press releases throughout the ages rhapsodize about how music can save the soul, and so on, but it was always a mixed bag. It kept a feeling of beauty in life, but when watching a guy eating out of a garbage can, the things that run through your mind isn't the blues, or kickass electric guitar, but the fervent hope that it wouldn't be me doing that in a month. For every artist who wins the lottery and gets rich clinging to a dream there's thousands mired in the daily struggle of life and labeled with the kinds of terms society gives it's failures.
Kind of like the Mott The Hoople song, All The Way From Memphis, where the line goes "you look like a star but you're still on the dole." In modern society, all paths are considered going up or down, and not necessarily a journey. Who knows what the truth is there?
That doesn't mean music isn't important, or that it can't make life feel a little better now and then. But my treasured instrument collection went through a series of stages, from being the tools to create a new life to liquid assets to keep Ivy and me in food and gas. That's not a homeless thing, though, many musicians will recognize that it's just life in the lower tier of artistic life. Even classic literature like Tropic Of Cancer is more about surviving than the act of creation, and thus is probably closer to the truth.
The writer Tom Wolfe (the one who wrote Electric Kool Aid Acid Test) once said in an interview that we had entered into an age of aesthetics, or where artists were the stars. Like other concepts like the food chain or capitalism, it gets downright religious as time passes, with an assumption of evolved superiority. Musicians are depicted in the past as being mere servants of the rich and now command the same power.
That's sort of true, but only because of the power of money. In this day and age, money gives you the sheen of power, desirability, and success, even if that often translates into being able to get away with a lot of crap and getting lots of no strings sex.
Music didn't evolve from a servant class. It started in villages and gatherings, where those who had the talent would express their art in a communal setting. In other words, when the harvest was in, the people celebrated, and those who could play music did so while the rest danced. Many dances evolved, and that was about as connected to life as it ever got.
The wealthy class got into the swing of things of course, but had the money to let some of the more talented artists become specialized. That was the start of the patron system, and frankly, was neither better or worse than what came before. The early dances became bourees, minuets, and so on, and that became "classical" music. I'm oversimplifying a bit, but that's essentially the history of music in a nutshell, other than changes brought about by technology, and even more money.
There was a time when musicians were special, but not in the red carpet sense. Their talent was seen as special, but no more so than farmers, carpenters, and so on. It was entertainment, and only more so due to the power of money.
Being able to play instruments was important to me out there in the street, but living in a car, I didn't want everybody to know. My ever shrinking collection was too valuable and liquid as a salable asset to risk out there on a street corner. It wasn't smart to even flash an iphone out there, much less a 1933 Gibson acoustic guitar. Most of the transcendent moments were in private, late at night, and away from the crowd.
I did it that way partly because it was important to keep a purity about it. There were no illusions that .50 a week in streaming royalties was going to lift me out of that life in a car, but a steady flow of money did mean people were listening, and that means something to anyone who loves to play. The few times the word got out that I had instruments meant being stalked or cased by people looking for quick cash, and that fear was something to be kept out of moments of fun and beauty.
My love of music ended up being expressed in other ways. I spent a lot of time in coffee houses in the evening (I spent the days with Ivy for both safety and companionship reasons) and songs began to enter the consciousness and into my iphone. The only expense by this point was a monthly subscription to Spotify, which I couldn't afford every month, but some months I could have it because they would give me a free month now and then once it was known that I was homeless. A rare act of kindness by a big business for sure.
Certain songs did resonate at times, when the mood and lyrics matched the circumstances. In some of the darkest periods, a song would come along and not so much express what I was feeling, but more importantly, how I wanted to feel.
I remember one song, Willie Nile's Vagabond Moon, a love song but he saw simple beauty in seeing the moon. The moon over Gilroy during the summer was pretty much like any other, and the scenery below was often desolate, and even tragic, but it made me look up instead of around me. It was escape, not inspiration, but on a night when I was eating a can of beans and rationing slices of french bread to last the week, a song that could take my mind off things for even a couple of minutes was magic.
That's the nice thing about music. It's not always the same thing, and in our world it can mean anything from a success story to a gift, but it's always around, and that makes it a true friend.
- Al Handa
Note: I've mentioned an upcoming thank you section, and that's in rough draft form. I want to put that out in the context of my current job search and settling in a permanent situation. I entered the job market in Wisconsin a couple of weeks ago, my goal being to get some part CAD drafting work for a couple months until my book is finished. It's going better than expected, and I'll try to make that part of the next blog entry.
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