Wednesday, January 12, 2005

On the Streets, part 2

by Skald


Aaron was bitter, ìThose damn doctors donít care about poor people. You think they would have let him go if he was rich? Hell no, theyíd have shot him up with drugs and tubes and food and heíd still be in there, doing fine. Itís all about the money. I hate doctors.î Aaron had plenty of experience with doctors. Like Red, he was HIV-positive, though his health was otherwise fine. Aaron received social security disability checks, though not for HIV. He got them for depression. ìThose doctors are so stupid man. I go in there with a cane and act all depressed and down and they buy it every time. Every year they make me go for an exam, and I always do the same act.î

Aaron was a self-described hustler. He hustled the doctors, hustled his lawyer, hustled men, hustled for housing, and hustled his boss. He had a job at a fast food restaurant. Legally ìtoo disabled to workî, he liked the extra money and the social contacts of the job. Late in the evenings, he hustled men in the back room of the restaurant- for extra cash. ìIím doing well, I get a different guy every night and I get paid for itî he told me and smiled wide. Like Mike, he was always smiling... but Aaronís could be unsettling... a smile that made me nervous... the smile of a con man.

He was a good talker... full of insight and righteous indignation. Heíd come to Athens from South Carolina, where heíd been kicked out of a shelter for a failed drug test, ìThose racist social workers had it in for me. You canít trust those tests. They didnít like me because I spoke out and stood up to them. If you donít bow and scrape and yessir them, they say youíre in denial or some other bullshit. So they gave me a fake positive and kicked me out. Iíve got friends in Athens, so I came down here to stay with them.î

In a later conversation, Aaron let me know that he ìoccasionally used crackî, but was ìnot addictedî. When he told me that he ìcould quit at anytimeî I knew that he was, of course, an addict. But he was a resourceful one. Besides the shelter incident, his crack addiction never seemed to interfere with his disability scams, job, or part-time hustling work. He ate well and looked healthy.

Aaron occasionally resorted to shelters, but usually managed to con or hustle a couch or a room somewhere. He told me that heíd never slept on the street and never would. Most people liked Aaron. I didnít trust him, but I liked him too. He was also one of the most interesting and enterprising people I met. He was sharp-witted, gregarious, and persuasive. He did a marvellous job of faking interest in me and my life... and occasionally surprised me. He once, inexplicably, brought me a copy of ìThe Tao of Poohî. ìSeemed like your kind of bookî, he said. In other circumstances, in a different world, I could imagine him hustling stocks or bonds or real estate. He had the mindset. He had the greed and the love of the hustle. He had the confidence.

The Fiddler.

ìWould you like me to play you a tuneî, was The Fiddlerís stock invitation to passers-by. The Fiddler (I never learned his name) was a skinny guy with a sparse beard who stood on downtown street corners. One day, I gave in. ìSure, play me somethingî I said, and tossed a dollar into his case. He straightened, readied himself, and then squawked out the most horrid cat screech Iíd ever heard. On and on it went. He played with proud intensity while I stood stunned and bemused, eyes wide in amazement. ìThanksî, I said when he finished... and I was indeed thankful that he was finished. He gave a little bow.

By this time Iíd grown bolder and immediately set to questioning him about his life. ìSo, is this how you support yourself?î, I asked. ìOh yes, I live very well. I live in the back of my truck, in a camper that I built myself. Youíve probably seen it, I park downtown every nightî. I had seen it, it was an impressive looking camper, built from plywood... with a large propane tank strapped to the side. ìIím very comfortable. I have a soft bed and a stove and shelves inside. Itís quite a good little homeî.

ìAlso, you asked me if I support myself... I do much better than that. I am a world traveller. Every year I go to Sweden and live for half the year.î I was a bit surprised. The Fiddler explained that by living in his truck he could save most of the money he made from busking. He cooked his own food on a propane stove, and had almost no living expenses. Once heíd saved enough, he sould buy a ticket to Sweden, where he also busked for a living. I was impressed.... and curious about how he was treated by Athenians. ìMost people are very nice, they appreciate that Iím a musician, not a beggar.î The Fiddler did not consider himself a ìhomeless personî at all. He defined himself as a world travelling musician, a member of a long and ancient tradition. His musical skills were unexceptional, but his world view was not. He seemed better travelled, freer, happier, and more knowledgeable, than most of the Athenians who tossed him coins.

The Young Homeless Professional.

Matt, or the young homeless professional (as he called himself), was perhaps the most intriguing ìhomeless personî I met in my six month experiment. Matt was a computer programmer at UGA who chose to live in his Bronco. He dressed business casual, with emphasis on the casual. Technically he was homeless, but his homelessness showed no signs of deprivation. Matt was living the good life, and wanted me to know it. I met him at the Globe one night, sipping a Pilsner at the bar. I let slip that I was living in my car, and expected a sneer or worse. Instead, I got a sermon.

ìMan, thatís great. Iím living in my car too... actually, in a Bronco. One day I decided that I was sick of paying rent. I didnít want a mortgage either. So I moved into the truck. Iíve got it set up great... everything is organized in sealed, airtight bins. Iíve got a cell phone and a laptop. Iíve got an extra battery in the truck to power them... and fans that keep me cool at night. Iíve got screens in the windows to keep out bugs. Iíve got a comfortable bed. In the Winter I use a thick sleeping bag and am perfectly warm. In fact, Iím as comfortable as all those suckers in their $100,000 dollar McMansions. Theyíre wasting thousands of dollars a month on those ridiculous things- keeping up with the Joneses. What a huge waste.î He kept on going for some time. Matt let me know that while most ìprofessionalsî were saddled with debt, he was debt free. He was taking the money he saved by car living and putting it into investments. ìIíll be able to retire before Iím fortyî, he claimed, ìwhile those poor bastards will be slaving away for another twenty or thirty years.î

Matt was not just an advocate for a simpler life- he was an evangelist-- a true believer. He saw car-living as a radical tool for freedom and self-reliance. He said that he felt pity for people who slaved their lives away just to acquire and maintain ìuseless gadgetsî. Matt was opinionated, and held an obvious contempt for consumer culture. He expressed his points intelligently and forcefully, sometimes too forcefully. But it was hard to resist his energy and passion. I was taken in and embolden by his ideas. Yet for all he had accomplished, Matt wasnít satisfied. He had plans to start his own consulting business, running it from his Bronco with a laptop, cellphone, and PO Box. He was, of course, atypical-- but he helped to completely redefine my ideas of ìhomelessî and ìprofessionalî.

Many Others.
I met many other ìhomeless peopleî during that six month stint, and none of them were the same. None fit neatly into a stereotype. None met my expectations. I met runaway teens, abused women, anarchists, rednecks, academics, and downsized office workers. I met people who could not read,... and one with a Phd. Some seemed to adapt to homelessness fairly well. Some even seemed to thrive. Others suffered tremendously. Their lives, their will, and their hope were shattered. Many were hungry and ragged and desperate. Yet no matter how down and out, I never met a single person who did not retain a core of human dignity. These were not stereotypes, or statistics, or anonymous victims. They were human beings- diverse, resourceful, and worthy of respect. Most had suffered a debilitating injury or illness or tragedy. Car accidents, AIDS, domestic violence, schizophrenia, clinical depression, and bipolar disorders were the most common afflictions. Before these incidents, most had held jobs and lived ordinary lives. Afterwards, they found themselves unable to work and their lives quickly disintegrated. Some adapted and survived. Some got help and returned to their old lives. Many never did- and never will.

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