During the months I have been out here, I’ve met people who had been construction workers, teachers, production managers, accountants, day care helpers, entrepreneurs and factory hands – among others. Not so long ago, they were solidly middle class folks who worked, paid taxes, enjoyed a stabile home life, planned for their future. Each contributed to the abstract “Gross National Product” that generates America’s wealth.
Instead, we are out on the streets, looking for a way to get inside. For us, something Juan Cole published from his new translation of Omar Khayyam’s Rubiyat strikes much too close to home:
“Now nothing is left of good times but the name”
“A year ago I had a job and a future,” noted Bill Rindell, who’d worked in a furniture factory until the company was bought by a Wall Street vulture fund which moved all of the jobs to Indonesia. He was fired in 2011 with only a two week severance check after 10 years of steady employment at the company.
“It’s like I am just marking time,” he said one morning as we ate breakfast together at a social service agency that provides free meals to people who are homeless or too poor to feed themselves. He’s moved from city to city looking for work and a home, so far unsuccessfully.
Not being – or feeling – productive is awful.
Like many kids of my era, I was taught a strong work ethic from an early age. When my parents said, “Make something of your life,” what they really meant was have a job.
I started working when I was 15, selling shoes on Saturdays and school breaks. By age 17, I’d saved enough money to get my first apartment, a squalid little squat on campus but it was my own. I worked 30 hours a week in the newsroom of a local TV station while attending university. When I was 19, I graduated and nailed my first full-time job.
I didn’t stop working until an illness and then being run down by a car brought my career to a shuddering halt.
Writers don’t work 9-to-5 – some days it’s six in the morning until noon, others noon to midnight – but it’s still work that someone paid me to do. Yet when I had little or no access to a computer, e-mail and the web, I felt aimless, shiftless and adrift.
“You’ll end up a bum!” was my dad’s warning when I hadn’t done something the way I was supposed to do it. When I walked – OK, was shoved – out the door of my house for the last time, his words echoed in my ears.
Sure enough, I became the bum I was told I’d end up: No home, scrounging food, wandering the streets by day and crashing at somebody’s house or at a shelter at night. Filling time, when I wasn’t standing in line for a handout of some sort, reading newspapers in libraries, snatching time on a university computer, chatting with fellow homeless guys as we waited outside a food bank, eating from garbage bins.
Alright, that last point is a bit exaggerated. I didn’t actually eat someone else’s refuse that’s been rotting in the hot sun. But when I was still in my house but had no money and knew my days were numbered, I discovered that a local butcher tossed out meat that the city wouldn’t let him sell any longer, not because it’d rotted but because it was past the “use by” date.
He’d seal it in plastic bags which went into bins to discourage the urban wildlife that forages through everybody’s garbage at night, and then rolled the bins to the curb for overnight collection.
I would wait until his car pulled out from behind the store, then grab bags of chicken, ground beef or, on a good night, a steak or roast. At home, I would re-wrap the haul and put it in my freezer for two or three days before preparing it.
That’s the definition of bumhood: Somebody who consumes other people’s garbage. Dad, I am the bum you told me I’d end up, wasting my life.
Alright, I don’t walk around with Dad’s caution echoing in my head. It’s not an issue that I haven’t dealt with, and I have more pressing concerns than in taking another jaunt through my dysfunctional childhood.
But I can see in myself the huge number of lives that are being wasted because of poverty, hunger and homelessness. I am luckier than most: Once a friend in Ohio shipped an unused WiFi laptop to me, I can work anywhere: In a borrowed bedroom, sitting in a park, even the dayroom of a shelter. I can hang out Mr. Google’s neighborhood to research and do reporting for articles, e-mail lets me file them, the laptop lets me work on the book version of this series of reports. I can even look for freelance gigs.
For nearly everyone else living rough, there’s nothing productive for them to do.
Craig speaks slowly, measuring his words. In his late 20s, he drove a concrete mixer since he was 19. Craig was laid off when the housing bubble exploded in the Ought’s and new construction came to a screeching halt, went back to work for more than a year after Presidenet Obama’s stimulus plan kicked in, but has been out of work again since last fall when the money ran out.
“There are always ups and downs in construction,” Craig admitted, “but nothing like this. So every time I get laid off, I lose my apartment and end up back out here.”
He said it takes a toll on his confidence. “I’m , like, wondering if this is what my life will always be like. It’s bad not having steady work or a place to live.”
I know how he feels.
It is a constant struggle to keep focused, to keep writing because it is my work, and to look for a sustainable way of getting back a bit of the life I lost. It is especially difficult to keep fighting when I am hungry or wondering where I will be sleeping next week when my current invitation runs out.
At least I have something to do; sometimes, I just feel as if I’m on the brink of wasting my life.
Author and journalist Charley James’ next book is about his experience becoming homeless. When published, Charley will donate a percentage of his advance and royalties to homeless organizations.
Follow Charley on Twitter @SuddenlyHomeles.