Getting By With A Dog, A Car And The River
(originally published in Flagpole Magazine)
For six months I lived homeless in Athens. Actually, "homeless" is not an accurate term, as I did have a home - a 1986 Nissan Sentra, which I shared with my dog Athena. Inside, I built a bunk bed - a two-foot wide plywood platform that stretched from the rear dash to the front dash. This makeshift bunk allowed me to stretch out fully when I slept, though it was far from comfortable. It gave me only three inches of room between my nose and the roof of the car. I slept directly on the plywood. Athena slept on the back seat, below the bunk on a thick dog bed.
Still, I was reasonably comfortable and certainly better off than most who are thrust into homelessness involuntarily. I chose to be homeless, and could thus prepare for the experience. The Nissan sheltered me from rain, gave me a small degree of privacy and provided a secure place to keep my possessions.
I had only a simple and extremely practical wardrobe, chosen for its utility more than its fashion. I had an umbrella and a windbreaker. I had a sheet, a pillow and a fleece blanket for cold spring nights. For cooking I used a propane stove, a set of backpackers' pots, one fork and one spoon. I had a few books and pencils and pens for sketching. I also had a small bag with basic toiletries: toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, razor, toilet paper and biodegradable liquid soap. I had one towel. In a pinch, most of my possessions could be stuffed into a large book bag, and yet I had far more than most who live on the street.
The two most common questions I was asked, when someone learned of my living situation, were: "How do you bathe?" and "How do you use the bathroom?" Bathing was simple: in the spring, when the weather was cold, I made do with sponge baths. Typically I'd find a lockable public bathroom and bring my towel and toiletries in a book bag. Once inside, I unpacked and washed one body part at a time, using a small sponge and the bathroom sink. I moved quickly and could clean my entire body in less than five minutes. Once clean, I toweled off, then cleaned the bathroom to leave no evidence of what I'd been doing. I needed those bathrooms and did not want to arouse suspicion or resentment from the owners. I tried to practice a "low impact" form of homelessness.
When the weather warmed in summer, my options became more pleasant: I bathed in the Oconee River in a secluded cove at sunset. This was a sublime experience: river flowing quietly, sun painting the sky pink and purple, trees swaying to a gentle breeze, and in the distance a heron gliding from one rock to the next. The river water was brisk and invigorating and seemed to provide a deeper cleaning than the chlorinated showers most of us use. Birds sang to me, the river whispered, and the trees danced. I left the river each night not only cleaner, but calmer and happier as well. Bathing outdoors under the open sky was my favorite experience of being homeless.
The bathroom situation was not nearly so sublime. Mostly I managed with public bathrooms: restaurants, stores and libraries took care of my needs. When necessary, I ducked behind a tree or into an alley. Again, I was more fortunate than many of Athens' homeless population. Generally, I had a clean-cut appearance and never had trouble using public bathrooms. Many homeless people, especially those who have been living in hard conditions for a long time, have become ragged in appearance and suffer a great deal more discrimination than I did. They are refused access to bathrooms in restaurants or businesses and must often resort to the outdoors. Using the outdoors carries risk, as it is illegal. So a homeless person faces police harassment and a ticket for satisfying a basic bodily function.
Most homeless people will tell you that sleep, more than food or clothing or elimination, is their most difficult challenge. They are chronically sleep-deprived, subject to terrible conditions at night: biting insects, harassment from drunks, police checks, rain, noise and extremely uncomfortable "beds." I fared better than most, but rarely got a good night's sleep. My bunk was narrow and the plywood was hard (though certainly an improvement over the cement sidewalks that some use).
At night I covered the windows of the Nissan with burlap curtains for privacy. Mosquitoes plagued me relentlessly. I'd lie awake in the windless heat and listen to them buzzing in my ears. I rolled and turned and swatted at my arms and legs, unsure if I was feeling bites or imagining them. At times I sealed myself under a blanket to avoid the bugs, but this cut off air circulation and I was soon sweating and panting and miserable and still could not sleep. Every night this was my choice, between unbearable heat or biting bugs.
When I finally drifted off to sleep I was often wakened by drunks - usually around 2 a.m. when the bars emptied. They never noticed or bothered me directly, but their shouts and fights and broken bottles jarred me from sleep, and I had great difficulty drifting off again. For the first few months, my own paranoia made it worse. I was terrified of being "discovered," of being harassed or assaulted by violent drunken hordes. Such were my fears, but they never materialized. My threats were more domestic: sleep deprivation was by far my worst enemy. In six months, I did not have a single good night's sleep.
Often I'd curse my car, the heat, the bugs and the drunks, yet I was grateful, too. My cramped home was far better than what many homeless people have. Many lack any sort of roof and must try to survive on benches or sidewalks. The sidewalk is a killer. The cement sucks the heat from your body even on the hottest of nights. You find yourself simultaneously chilled (from below) and heated (from the air above). You awake from the sidewalk aching and sore, as if you'd suffered a light beating.
In the car I had privacy. I was never directly harassed or disturbed. But on sidewalks and benches there is none. Passing drunks yell at you or throw things at you. Police wake you and tell you to move on. Store owners insult you. Rarely can you get more than a couple hours of rest - fitful and wary. More than they are hungry or sad or cold, most homeless people are bone-tired.
Despite deep fatigue, every day I woke up soon after sunrise; the sun turned my car into a solar oven. Groggy and sore, I rolled out of the bunk, took down the curtains, and drove to a park. Athena and I would walk for an hour or so, to stretch our bodies and work out the aches... and then I'd find a soft spot under a tree and take a nap. These naps helped a great deal. They were far more restful than my bug-infested nights.
Somewhat rested, I'd feed Athena and cook my breakfast in the parking lot (a package of instant oats). I'd then make my way to the library to check email and work on my blog (www.hobopoet.blogspot.com). There is, in fact, a large community of homeless bloggers who use free access to library computers to record their experiences on the streets of America. The most famous of these is "The Homeless Guy," a man who has been chronically homeless for 20 years. The Homeless Guy suffers from severe clinical depression. He has, at times, had jobs and housing, but loses them when the worst of the depression kicks in. Most of the time he lives in shelters or on the street. He uses his blog to tell his story, and to advocate for dignified treatment of all homeless people (www.thehomelessguy.blogspot.com). The diversity, and the quality, of these "homeless blogs" is astounding and certainly challenges the stereotype of lazy and inarticulate beggars.
After a few hours at the library I would return downtown. For the price of coffee I rented a seat outside Blue Sky, where I'd sit for long hours. I watched the businessmen hustle and the students scurry off to class. There I'd sit, reading, scribbling, sketching. And it was there that I gained a bigger window into Athens' homeless life, for I was often joined by others who'd scrounge a cup of coffee and join me. This is how I met Mike.
Mike has two artificial arms which end in steel hooks that he can open and close by shifting his shoulders and stumps. He was a downtown regular. Technically homeless, he tended to "couch surf," crashing here and there with friends or strangers for as long as he could. But these arrangements never lasted long, and he often found himself on the street, hustling for money. He approached my table one day. "Mind if I sit down?" he said. He sat and leaned towards me with hound-dog eyes. I tensed, ready for the plea for money.
"So, you an artist?" he asked, looking at my sketchbook.
"I'm trying,", I said, and relaxed a bit.
"So am I. I'll draw you something, and if you like it maybe you can give me a little something, just to get some coffee or something?"
"Why not," I said and passed him a pencil and the sketchbook. He took the pencil in his mouth, and maneuvered the sketchbook with the hook of his left arm. He clenched the pencil tight with his teeth, bent over the paper and began a few tentative strokes. Rapidly he built up speed and was soon moving his head purposely and confidently, pausing at times to pull back and check his work, then hunching over the paper to continue. It took him five minutes or so, and when he finished he nudged the book back to me with the hook of his left arm. There was a perfect drawing of a Georgia bulldog. I laughed and he flashed me a big grin.
"So, do you like it?"
I nodded and gave him two dollars. He never stopped grinning, teeth flashing.
We bumped into each other several times after that. Sometimes he remembered me and sometimes not, which both puzzled and annoyed me. But he was always friendly and each time he'd leave me with a drawing and that huge toothy grin. I'd give him two bucks and we'd chat. Slowly, I learned more about him. "I'm an alcoholic and an addict: that's why I'm homeless," he told me one day. "I could be a real artist but I always relapse. I've been in and out of rehab so many times - I'm a regular at Athens Regional; they should name a room for me." He smiled as he told me this; he was always smiling. Some days he was depressed and complained about his treatment from "regular folks."
"Most people they don't see me: they just see a crippled homeless man. They're afraid. I don't care if they give me money, but they should show some respect."
Several times I watched as Mike approached people on College Square. Mostly they seemed scared or annoyed. It made me angry. It bothered Mike too, but he kept grinning regardless. Most folks saw Mike as a bum who could draw with his mouth. He saw himself first as an artist - an artist with an addiction.
This attitude - this stereotyping of "the homeless" - was the norm. Again and again I saw the same scene: a beggar would approach a well-scrubbed couple with a sad story and an outstretched palm. And the reaction was always the same: fearful expressions, a quickening of their pace, recoiling in disgust, fear, annoyance, judgment. Sitting downtown, I occasionally overheard complaints from people sitting at nearby tables: "Fucking beggars." "Why don't they get a job?" "They're all drug addicts." "I refuse to give them anything; they just use it for alcohol." - Always variations on these themesÖ
Red moved very slowly, as if carrying a heavy weight. He was shuffling by on College Square one day when he noticed Freya tied to my chair. He turned and shuffled over.
"Your dog bite?" he asked.
"Not usually" I said, which was enough for Red. He bent down (with knees popping) and extended a tentative hand towards Athena, who gave him a glance then went back to napping. Red rubbed the back of her neck and seemed pleased, "Most black folks are scared of dogs," he said, "but not me. This is a fine dog you got: looks like a little Shepherd."
"She's part shepherd and part Chow," I said, while he continued to rub her neck and head. He squatted there for several minutes, then thanked me and shuffled off.
I saw him often after that, and he always stopped to see Athena. She quickly warmed to him and would roll over on her back as he approached. Always Red moved with the same slow deliberation. He was extremely gentle with Athena and stayed longer and longer to be with her. As he petted her, he'd talk to me about his life. He'd had a hard one. "I got AIDS," he told me one day. "My family don't want nothin to do with me, but I can't blame ëem. I was a crack addict for a long time. I stole from them, lied, treated them bad. I don't blame ëem for not wanting me around."
Red was homeless. He slept in a small camp near the Oconee. In winter he sometimes went to the shelter, but generally preferred to avoid it: "Those people are always tryin' to tell you what to do, how to live your life. They preach to you about God and jobs and drugs and never leave you alone." So Red preferred to sleep outdoors. He got his food from kitchens, churches, and through begging. "Some people are real nice to me; some of the restaurant people they give me leftovers at the end of the day."
As the summer moved on, I noticed that Red's health was deteriorating. He moved more slowly and his skin took on a yellowish tint. "You should see a doctor," I told him, but he shook his head. "Ain't nothin they can do. I've got AIDS and hep C; my liver's givin out." He paused and rubbed Athena: "I'm gonna die soon, and I don't want to die in a hospital.
"Maybe they could keep you alive longer," I said, but he shook his head, and I said nothing more.
I saw him a few more times after that, and each time he looked worse: his skin more yellow, his movements slower. And then he stopped coming downtown. I got news from Aaron, another downtown regular, that Red had died. He'd fallen into a ditch one night and was rushed to the ER. Jaundiced, extremely weak and suffering from full-blown AIDS, he was released that same night. He died in his sleep.
(To be concluded.)