Seven degrees and an empty stomach-- this was the bottom. My guts twisted and ached... head dizzy and buzzing..... Third straight day without food. Coffee in the gut, burning like acid. Ceramic cup shaking in unsteady hands-- stared through the window-- trees swaying. Seven degrees. The coldest day of the year.
I was broke. I was hungry. I was homeless. A caffeine cramp gripped my stomach and I grabbed my sides. I hunched over the table and shook my head. It wasnít supposed to be like this. This was meant to be a grand adventure. This was supposed to be the good life.
It started as a Thoreau-on-wheels experiment. In place of a cabin, I had a van. I began in luxury: ripped out the back seats and built a bed. Built another one, for my dog Athena. Used plastic bins to store clothes and food. Had a cell phone. Had warm clothes.
For privacy, I tinted all windows (in the back) solid black...then backed them with foam insulation. I also installed an extra Marine battery and wired it to the carís electrical system. In summer it powered two fans that kept me cool. I lived all summer in style and comfort.... even joined a 24 hour gym, which gave me hot showers, clean bathrooms, and an excuse to exercise. I had a cook stove but rarely used it. I was flush with money from a stint of teaching English in Japan. I was set. I ate out every meal.
For seven months I lived the good life. Basic expenses were low. I splurged on luxuries-- good food, live music, movies, books.... I wrote, ran in the woods with Freya, and lounged with friends. Life was unhurried and unregimented. Unemployed, living in a van, flush with cash.... I was free. I got up when I woke up. I ate when I was hungry. When tired, I rested. When energized, I ran or wrote or danced. If I craved solitude... I went to the mountains and camped alone. If I craved society.... I drank and talked with friends. I slept when sleep overtook me.
Drove to The Grit and had a gargantuan feast: Large Golden Bowl with Veggies, Broccoli with Peanut Sauce, Garlic-Parsley Mashed Potatoes, and a piece of ìLil Jimís Puddin Cakeî.... just to prove the good times.
I often congratulated myself, ìThis is what Thoreau had in mind--- life as a past-time... the zen ideal: eat when hungry, sleep when tired. For the first time in my life I was truly free. I thought of Thoreau in his cabin. I thought of Kerouac on his mountain. I thought of Basho strolling the road to the far north. I did not feel deprived- I felt fortunate. I felt blessed. I was blessed. For seven months I was a noble tramp. For seven months life was sublime. For seven months I was fat, happy, and free.
Then the money ran out.
The weather turned cold. Hunger set in. Iíd never been truly hungry in my life. But for the next two months hunger was chronic. While Athena continued to eat well, I scrounged from friends who worked in restaurants. Belly ached when I awoke in the morning and never stopped aching. With an empty stomach, the cold seemed to bite harder.
Determined to continue with the experiment, I made a deal with a coffee shop-- I recycled their paper and plastic in exchange for free coffee and stale snack food. The coffee warmed me; the pastries supplied calories, the caffeine held off fatigue. But my guts never stopped churning.
Boredom was another serious problem. Without money I could not eat at restaurants, nor go out with friends, nor see movies. I sometimes walked at the park, but chill winds often drove me indoors. I sat in the coffee shop. Mind grew fuzzy and distracted. Some days I sat and stared for hours.... sipping coffee... lost in daydreams. Friends stopped calling. Depression set in. The romance of the experiment quickly faded. I tasted impoverished homelessness for the first time. ìThis is what its likeî, I thought.
I wish Iíd been tougher. For many years I had worked with homeless people. I counselled them. I tried to find them homes. I tried to find them work. I tried to understand their experience but in truth I never did. I was, in the end, a spoiled middle class boy who had never, up to that point, suffered a day of deprivation in his life. When it came, I flinched.