2006 04 18
By Michael Goodspeed
I have a story to tell. It’s not much of a story since it has no beginning or end, no clear moral, very little action, and no hero. But it does have a protagonist, and I am him.
Note carefully that I said protagonist and not hero. I do not stride through this saga like Luke Skywalker through the Dagobah System, overcoming vicissitudes on the pathway to Jedi-hood. I am more akin to the neurotic C3PO -- along for the ride but not happy about it, trying not to malfunction or get blown up by Storm Troopers, bitching all the while about the horror of it all. Like C3PO, my "character" may not be heroic or sympathetic, but that’s not important. What is important is that I tell you the truth.
The truth. That’s easy, but not often comfortable. I’ll start with this “uncomfortable” truth: I’m a bum. By this, I don’t mean that I sleep in doorways or neglect personal hygiene or guzzle rotgut wine from a decrepit poncho. Indeed, by outward appearances, I’ve little resemblance to a bum; I have close-cropped hair, an athletic body and the clean-cut, all-American features of Ron Howard in his Happy Days, before he fell on the downside of homely.
But as Yoda cautioned Skywalker, “Trust not your eyes. They deceive you.” Believe me, I’m a bum. A bum is a shiftless, aimless person who seeks to live off the support of others. That’s me, and always has been. Oh, also, I don’t have any front teeth; dentures replaced them years ago, before I was even twenty-five. Sorry ‘bout that, but don’t revile me just yet.
It’s not entirely my fault that I’m a bum. I blame TV, movies, and rock music...at least a little. Growing up, I was taught by the media that my life could only have meaning if I was “special”; not Special Olympics “special,” but more special (i.e. better looking, smarter, and more bad-ass) than everyone else on planet Earth. As a child I wanted FAME, not fifty years later after a lifetime of hard work, but RIGHT THEN. I wanted to slam dunk basketballs and karate kick terrorists in front of my adoring classmates. I wanted to beat the shit out of Andre the Giant all over the school gymnasium. Of course this could never happen in Newtonian reality, but it happened continuously in my imagination, which made it kind of hard for me to focus on my education.
My academic career came to its pathetic anticlimax in the tenth grade, when I was 16. For the next 14 years, I sat in my parents’ apartment and nothing much happened. Then one day, I woke up and realized I was 30. Holy fuck, I said to myself, where did my life go? I’ve been karate kicking terrorists and slam-dunking basketballs for the last 3 decades...or have I? It seems to me that those classmates who have been cheering me on in my head all these years have probably gone on to DO things -- like have careers and get married -- and they might not have the time any more to sit around and admire my imaginary athletic prowess.
Upon having this realization, my self-image became somewhat less flattering. I would look in the mirror and see the “B” word tattooed on my forehead. If I’m not a B-U-M, I asked myself, what am I? In trying to answer this question, I could only come up with variables of the bum label, such as drifter, starving artist, existentialist, Democrat.
My tendency toward self-delusion has always been balanced by a nihilistic willingness to face the abyss -- the pathway to Truth -- and the truth as I saw it was unmistakable: I am a fucking bum.
OK, I said to myself, you’re a bum. Bummer. But only the lowest of low down bums will accept that he’s a bum while sitting on his bum. But what could I do about it? I’m a bum. If making a “life” for oneself was easy for a bum, there wouldn’t be any bums -- believe me, I know. I’ve occasionally tried living, and found the whole business totally appalling.
It dawned on me that I would remain a bum for as long I lived with my parents. Please don’t assume from this statement that my parents are monstrous enablers. They did the best they could with an impossible situation. In the ninth grade, my dad hired a truant officer to ensure I attended school, to which I responded, “OK, but let’s see the bastard make me do any work!” And I sat in class with my arms crossed and my eyes on the floor for the next 6 months. What were they supposed to do, kill me? My folks’ only crime is that they’ve always preferred not to see me die in a gutter.
It is part of life’s theatrical design that synchronicity follows profound revelations. As I had these insights into my destructive life patterns, I became fascinated with the topic of homelessness. I was inspired to write an essay about homelessness in the United States, and shortly thereafter I noticed a flurry of news stories reporting widespread violence against the homeless. I began to feel as if the Universe was trying to tell me something. And the more I thought about it, the message seemed to be, “If you think you are better than the homeless, you are full of bullshit.”
After all, what differentiated me from any bum, hobo, derelict, or “street person”? Aside from my “clean living” and relatively good mental health, only one thing: I had parents on whom I could rely to provide food and shelter. Which made me a bum with a place of residence -- nothing more.
I decided that I was destined to explore homelessness from a first-hand perspective, but given my life-long obsession with fame, I could only approach this as a strategy for self-aggrandizement. In an internet essay, I outlined a project in which I would live homeless in Las Vegas for a period of two weeks, with no assistance from friends or family. I received encouragement from countless readers who praised my “courage” and altruistic motivations, but they weren’t seeing the whole picture. Unbeknownst to them, I had contacted members of the media in Vegas in an attempt to solicit coverage. And shockingly, I received responses from the NBC and Fox News affiliates, both of which expressed interest in doing a story on me.
I immediately headed for the Greyhound Bus station with my life savings of $200 in hand. But halfway to the depot, blind panic struck me. Yes, I desperately craved the attention that would come from being featured on a TV news story, but I realized that doing so would entail real pain and hardship -- so fuck that.
I headed home with my tail tucked between my legs, resolved to forget about homelessness and return to living in my head. But strangely, this no longer seemed an option. The old thoughts that once enchanted and energized me now just made me feel tired. Living in one’s head is only fun if one believes it, and I no longer did. Then a more profound revelation than the previous ones dawned on me. I realized all of my bad choices and pathetic behavior could be wiped clean from the slate if I, for a single moment, chose to be responsible for myself. It didn’t matter that I was a “nobody” and hadn’t lived up to my full potential, because that is not what constitutes real success or failure. As I wrote in a previous essay, “A human life can only be truly wasted through endless denial and avoidance.” And I don’t want to waste my life.
I told my parents I was taking a bus to Bellingham, Washington to visit a friend, and this was true. But I neglected to tell them that the ticket was one-way. I stayed with my buddy for a few days, and then I asked him to drive me to a homeless shelter downtown called The Lighthouse Mission. I was determined to live and work there until I saved enough money for a shitty apartment of my own.
The admission process at the Mission was pretty laid back. It’s not like I was enlisting in the Army. My “case manager” just asked me a few basic questions as to why I was homeless. My answers were, No I’m not a drug addict or an alcoholic. No, I’m not depressed. No, I’m not being treated for a mental disorder. No, I have no criminal record. Uh, why am I homeless? Good question. I’ll get back to you on that.
On my first night in the mission, I experienced surprisingly little anxiety or trauma. In fact, my mood was immediately more optimistic than had been the case when I was at “home.” On the surface this didn't make much sense. The accommodations were far from luxuriant -- the cramped dorm, smelly shower room, cruddy food, and semi-institutional guidelines were comparable to conditions in a minimum-security prison. Furthermore, many of the people around me seemed to fit the stereotypical image of the homeless -- recovering addicts, recently released convicts, and victims of mental and emotional disturbances. But we were all bound together by a single factor: none of us possessed all of his front teeth. In fact, a few days earlier, one of my “falsies” had broken off, leaving me with a gap-toothed grin even while wearing my dentures. I found that I didn’t care, and I rejoiced in this newly found social freedom.
Bright and early on my first morning at the Mission, I began my search for work. Across the street was a Labor Ready office where unskilled workers (like me) are given simple jobs that pay cash on the same day. I found that the abject terror I had always experienced when faced with work was strangely absent. Indeed, I looked forward to work with an attitude that felt totally alien to me. Complaining wasn’t even an option. I needed to work in order to live. Period.
My first job was helping to construct a “doggy day care” center. I worked for two days with four other guys moving around stacks of lumber and installing rubber mats -- mats that were strong enough to withstand a thousand dogs pissing, clawing, and chewing on them. The work was fun and I returned to the Mission each night with pleasantly sore muscles and a pocketful of cash, not to mention an unfamiliar feeling of gratification that (I presume) comes from an honest day’s work.
Meanwhile, my evenings at the Mission were OK, i.e. nothing to complain about. I sat in the “lounge” area and watched TV and bullshitted with the other guys, and it was all that I needed. I didn’t miss the “comforts” of home, and it occurred to me that my thoughts about “comfort” and “discomfort” have always been subjective and totally illusory. We tend to believe that we are made comfortable or uncomfortable based on the quality of our external things, but this is demonstrably untrue. Many people who have acquired every amenity one could ask for have found themselves imprisoned in Hell on Earth, because (in my opinion) they have not addressed the taproot of discomfort, which is the ego’s intrinsic sense of incompleteness. When one learns to accept what is without judgment or preference, true comfort -- or the far more profound experience of peace -- becomes possible.
Of course I was not really “comfortable” during my time in the mission; I caught (what I hoped was) a cold on my second night there, my sleep was broken and shitty, the food seemed generally tasteless and bereft of nutrition, and I had a bag full of clothes stolen out of a storage room. But none of that seemed to matter, because every moment of every day, I was doing my best to be responsible for myself. Not just for my physical self, but also for every thought and emotion I had in reaction to my situation. I didn’t CARE whether or not I was comfortable or uncomfortable at a given moment. In truth, I couldn’t remember a time since childhood when I’d felt more alive.
On my fourth or fifth day at the Mission, I encountered a powerful looking man named Dave in the stairwell. He seemed to eye me up and down with curiosity and invited me into his office. It turned out Dave is the executive director of the Lighthouse. He told me (not unkindly) that I “stuck out like a sore thumb” and inquired as to how I came to be homeless. I recited some of the details of my life that I’ve listed above. He refrained from passing judgment on me, but instead gave me this warning: “This place is not safe, particularly for someone who’s lived a sheltered life.” I almost protested that my “street smarts” were higher than my baby-faced countenance might imply, but chose silence instead.
In light of Dave’s warning, I reflected back on conversations I’d had with some of the rougher dudes at the Mission. Here is a fact about me that may or may not surprise you: I have a “low brow” side that comes out in full force when I bullshit with other guys. One ex-con nicknamed “Woody” seemed to particularly relish my loquacious brand of vulgarity.
He laughed at all my jokes, and I laughed at his, but something about our chats started to make me uncomfortable. It may have been his endless elaboration on the variety of ways I could be sodomized in the shower. He told me my ass was like “a couple of apples,” and he could easily fit both cheeks in one hand. I chuckled and shook my head the first three of four hundred times he made this type of statement, but then I began to wonder.
In fact, Dave’s admonition that I wasn’t safe actually seemed to create an unsafe situation for me, a case of perception creating reality.
Suddenly, the intensity and frequency of verbal joshing from “Woody” and a few of his pals got much worse. Simultaneous to this, my “bad cold” seemed to evolve into something really nasty, perhaps even strep throat. I did an inventory of all the “unfavorable” things I was facing in my situation -- the broken dentures, the stolen clothes, the sickness, the sleep deprivation, the poor nutrition, the verbal harassment -- and all of a sudden, my mind went back into complaining mode. I questioned whether or not it was worth it to continue.
If I were the “hero” of this story, I’d have confronted these challenges head-on and refused to deviate from my original course. But as I stated at the outset, I am not a hero, and this is not a moral tale. I convinced myself that it would not be safe for me to stay at the Mission, and I decided to return “home.” Interestingly, immediately after I made this decision, I had the absolute worst encounter with my antagonists. Walking up the stairwell to the dorm to retrieve my meager possessions, I ran into “Woody” and several other ex-cons. They pawed at my head, back, arms, and shoulders with their grubby hands. I made my way through the throng of potential pervs without further incident, but at the top of the stairwell, someone screamed up at me, “I know where your bed is! I guarantee you I have some Vaseline for your ass!”
This may or may not have been a joke, but I doubt that even Luke Skywalker would want to find out.
(I should note that I never informed the Lighthouse staff of this harassment, so I don’t blame them for not taking action to prevent it.)
When I boarded a bus to return home to Beaverton, OR -- my cozy but not comfortable “home” of the past 30 years -- I hoped that I had “turned a corner” and could apply to my previous life the principles I’d discovered while I was homeless. But this has been incredibly difficult. The expansion of consciousness I experienced while being responsible for myself seemed to dissolve as soon as I returned to a state of dependence. To be responsible or a victim -- it is the most fundamental choice affecting the course of a human life, and that is the choice I am facing now.
I no longer have interest in assigning blame for my life situation -- toward parents, bullies, society or whomever. What would be the point?
Parents, bullies, friends, teachers, idols, and the President of the United States have always succeeded in fucking everyone up. As did their predecessors -- and THEIR predecessors -- dating back to the first hairy-assed Cro-Magnon who converted a femur bone into a blunt weapon and bashed his neighbor’s brains in. Where does it ever stop? I am not an addict, but I grasp the wisdom of a popular truism among 12-step groups, “There are no justified resentments.”
I may be adrift at sea, immersed in a dense brume with no map or compass. But I also see light -- on again, off again, but mostly on these days, and I know that this light offers a pathway to freedom. I have a CHOICE, and this realization alone is my lighthouse in the storm.
Michael Goodspeed (AKA Stuart Andrew Talbott) and his buddy Winston will embark on an adventure across the southwestern U.S. beginning April 23rd, 2006. He does not plan to return to "home."
Article received from Michael Goodspeed
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