Tuesday, August 12, 2008

This Used to be My Beach (part 3)

Before I begin to wind down my story of the beach, I should probably tell you a little more about what it was like to be homeless.

It's something that not many people experience, and when they think about it, they call to mind the mentally ill man under the bridge, the crazy lady with the shopping cart, or the panhandlers at intersections, the ones we are never sure about. It doesn't happen to people like us, right?

Being homeless is something I never thought much about, because I never knew anyone who had ever been homeless. Sure, I knew some ex-cons, deadbeats, slackers, and hillbillies, but they were all relatives and were living with their parents in run-down farmhouses in south Georgia. My childhood, violent as it was, was secure in that there was money for rent, money for food (though Mom sometimes got it on credit), and money for yards of cloth for Mom to make our clothes. Though my dad had been an alcoholic when I was little, leaving us pretty much penniless, I have no memories of those days. We weren't flush with cash when I was older, but we did alright.

Becoming homeless doesn't happen suddenly. There are usually small steps toward that inevitable end that gain momentum as you go. For me, it was a slow process that started when Dad got cancer, sold off his business, and moved us away from everything I'd ever known and loved. Soon, the cash was all gone from his savings and the sale of the business (no insurance), and we were living on Social Security, food stamps, and sheer resourcefulness. Even with all of that, my parents never ended up homeless, but I left when things got crazy, opting to go live with my older sister in Texas, back where I belonged. It was there that I met "Pete"* and eventually moved in with his family after I graduated, and then ended up in 1982 in a van with them all when they couldn't make rent.

That's right. The 6 of them, plus me, plus 2 dogs. In a van. Down by the river. I shit you not. This ought to clue you in as to why we were joyful at the prospect of sleeping in a car by the sea, one of us in the front (bench) seat, one in the back.

His father was in the driver's seat. His mom was in the passenger's seat. The rest of us squeezed in where we could with the things they had kept with us. Most of their things were in a storage shed. That first night was pure hell.

The rooftop vent was open, as were the rear windows. His dad smoked a cigarette now and then to drive the bugs away, but then he took off his shoes. Never in my life have I ever smelled anything quite as putrid as the scent of his dad's feet. The moist, oily odor permeated the entire van within seconds, unrelentingly so. It wasn't an odor that dissipated; it simply hung there, pervasive. I tried to breathe through my mouth.

And then his father fell asleep, but not until his wife had thoroughly chewed his ass for everything he had done and failed to do to land them in this situation. When she fell asleep from exhaustion, sometime around two in the morning, he fell asleep, too, and then the windows began to literally vibrate from the force of his choking, gasping snores. About an hour into it, I tapped him on the shoulder and said, "Could you --? I don't know. You're snoring so loudly."

He looked at me as though he could have killed me with his bare hands.

"You'd better just shut the f-ck up," he said, turning forward again and lighting a cigarette.

What did I know? I was a kid. I didn't realize that they did not want me there. I was stranded. My sister had divorced her husband and moved across town. I didn't yet have a car, and she had had her fill of me, anyway. I had turned 18 and needed to be on my own, whatever that meant. I couldn't go home, though I considered it. It would have meant leaving Pete behind and starting over again back in that dead-end town. Stubbornly, I stayed and lived in the van.

After a few days, we thought we might be able to get away with sleeping inside the fence of the storage facility. Pete's brother John* had been working on the engine of a Mustang, and it was parked in the storage area. Pete and I slept in the Mustang during the only night we managed to stay in that vicinity. That early fall night was chilly, and I remember having to pee. I had to sit on the running board (or whatever the equivalent is on a Mustang) and hang off over the concrete. My body was stiff with cold and from being cramped into a bucket back-seat that was never meant for sleeping in. I remember feeling those first muscle spasms and deep aches that would later become a near-daily sensation, as though they were imprinted early on.

You can't take anything for granted when you're homeless. Where you get away with sleeping today might not work tomorrow. Someone will rat you out. Where you find an open bathroom today might be a locked door tomorrow. Sometimes there was no soap in the bathrooms, or the paper towel dispenser was empty. Ever try to wash your face or hair with no soap, no shower, no towels? Doing laundry was a luxury. Chances are good that the person you pass on the street who smells like pee had to decide between eating or washing clothes.

You also can't count on anyone's help. Everyone gets angry at you for being homeless. They think it's all your fault and that if you'd just get a job, everything would be fine! Yeah. Hire the homeless. There ya go. Don't mind the smell of unwashed clothing.

Food? It was whatever we could get. John managed to get a job at Steak & Ale as a busboy. He would bring "home" sacks of unused baked potatoes and bread. They were heavenly. No fruit. No green vegetables. No water bottles back then. We filled up on water at whatever fountain we could find, and we would fill up empty milk jugs.

I could have died for a place to bathe or a place to just sit and be comfortable. I slept little and was ever watchful. Terror was my constant companion.

Eventually, I gave in and called my sister. She relented to let Pete and I come out there, but we had to get a job right away! (As if I would argue with that). We were grateful and did everything we could to help her, but it was a tense time. She really didn't want or need us there, so we had many fights. She was a newly divorced mom of a five-year-old and had enough on her plate. I get that. But I was terrified of being homeless again.

As Eddie Vedder sang in Crazy Mary, "That what you fear the most / could meet you halfway..."

Yeah. Eventually it happened again, but this time we were in a much larger, more comfortable car. A big blue 70 Ford LTD with blue and white interior and a white vinyl roof. That didn't make it any better.

Maybe you can understand why I don't go camping. It's too rife with reminders of the hardship I once endured.

Peace - D
*Names changed.


MamaGeek said...

WOW. This was fascinating. All of it. You are an eloquent writer with a powerful message.

Not Afraid to Use It said...

This post makes me ever so grateful that I never ratted out the guy living in his van in our garage that I posted about way back when. Thanks for putting such a human face on such a secretive issue.

david mcmahon said...

You have The Power. The Power of prose.

Jay said...

It's enlightening, for sure. I've never been homeless, for which I'm thankful. I've seen people living in a variety of less-than good situations, and when I was young I was very judgemental about it, but I've learned as I've got older. It's not always a choice, and it's no picnic. You're stuck in that situation and it must feel as if there is no way out. Ever. I'm glad you managed to survive both physically, and emotionally. You've actually used this period to grow spiritually too.

Did you know Johnny Depp lived in a car with a friend at one time? Maybe that's why he's the non-judgemental, compassionate soul that he is today.

Jay said...

By the way, I added you in to my 'tagged' list. ;)

the walking man said...

Interesting twists on a path not well traveled.

Akelamalu said...

Oh you really had it rough m'dear. I can understand why camping is a no-no for you :(

Daryl said...

Even without this I can understand not liking camping but this puts a whole extra layer of 'not liking' on it .. D, you are an amazing writer .. love your poems but this .. this is masterful stuff.


Coal Miner's Granddaughter said...

Darlin'. I wish I could go back, knowing you, and get you out of that situation. Blech. And I can get why you're not into camping.

Thanks for this story and for giving it a face.

Fat, frumpy and fifty... said...

Thank you for writing such a poignant and powerful post.

I always say (in conversation) that most people are only two pay packets away from the street. Most people look at me in disbelief like l don't know what I'm talkin about....

but its true.

www.ayewonder.com said...

I feel like I was just in a world that I knew nothing about. Very powerful story.

RiverPoet said...

Mamageek - Thank you for such kind words. I never knew this story would move so many people.

NATUI - As I wrote in my email to you, the reason I didn't comment on your post about the guy in the van was because I wasn't ready to share the story of why I didn't want you to rat him out. I'm glad you did the kinder thing.

David - Coming from you, that is an amazing comment. Thank you!

Jay - Thanks! I'll get back over and pick up the meme for when this series is over. You're right. This period in my life resulted in amazing compassion in my heart for people who are in unfortunate situations. I never heard that Johnny Depp had been in that situation! I'm sure that's why he exudes compassion.

Walking Man - Oh, but it resulted in so much growth!

Akela - Absolutely! I have no desire to "rough it!"

Daryl - You're going to make me cry! Thank you!

CMGD - Ah, but would I have turned out to be the same person if I had lived differently? Who knows.

FFF - Thanks for stopping by my blog, and I'm glad you enjoyed my story. Stay tuned for the next installment. May you never have to find out what it's like to be where I was.

Ayewonder - Thanks for stopping by my blog and for your kind words. I have enjoyed writing this.

Peace - D

Akelamalu said...

PS Congratulations on your 'Post of the Day' at Authorblog. :)

Merisi said...

Nobody should be homeless. Ever.
I wish you all the best.
Congratualtions on David's "Post of the Day" award!

Sarah said...

powerful post-kudos to you for sharing it. (over from davids, btw)

Employee No. 3699 said...

Wow. I just read your last three posts. I can't imagine being homeless. I agree with what fat, frumpy and fifty said. Most people are indeed only about two paychecks away from being homeless.

I'm looking forward to coming back and reading the rest.

Thanks for sharing and I hope you have an absolutely lovely day.


Crystal Jigsaw said...

That was a really interesting post. I kind of sat through it, gobsmacked and being totally naive as to the thought of being homeless. Thanks for sharing it.

Crystal Jigsaw

imbeingheldhostage said...

what an amazing story-- and life. Wow.
I came over through David and mean to read more when I get my wound-up giggling kids to bed.

RiverPoet said...

Akela - Thanks!

Merisi - I agree, completely. It was one of the hardest times of my life. Thanks for popping over from David's place.

Sarah - Thank you and thanks for stopping by.

E. 3699 - I'm glad you enjoyed the posts. I'll be done with it in a couple of days, but it's cathartic to get all of this out.

CJ - That's about how I felt while living it. Gobsmacked....

Hostage - Can't wait to hear your response to the rest of the story. Not all couples start out like we did, but even fewer last this long.

Peace - D

cheshire wife said...

Congratulations on 'Post of the Day'. Very moving post. I can understand why you don't like camping. I don't like it either

Hilary said...

Wow.. what an existence. You write so eloquently about a topic most of us know so little about. Thank you for such enlightenment. I'm quite in awe.