Homeless. Vagabond. Vagrant. Hobo. Bum. <etc> These are all terms that are associated with “no fixed address”, itself a term with connotations that don’t exactly fit the aspirations of most middle class families and it was within a middle class family that I was raised (and as the twig was bent, so I grew). All my family is middle class of moderate and various success. They hold jobs (or are married to someone who does), they plant roots, they acquire and own homes, they raise families in those homes, they pay taxes, all that stuff. This is the way of my siblings and this is the way of most of my relatives and virtually everyone one of my friends over the years. This was my way until this summer. As of this writing, however, in a month I’ll be of no fixed address which means I won’t have a home (we’ll spare the story of the path to this for another day). Oh, woe as me, the shame of it all. And trust me, it does bring shame. Whether or not you choose to wear that shame is another matter. But we’ll get to that.
Does this mean I’ll be homeless? I’m not sure but I don’t think so. I’ve researched and am empathetic enough about true homeless and street people to not disrespect their situations with my middle class notions of homelessness. I still have the means – meager as they are – of possibly providing a roof over my head and a lifestyle that doesn’t quite put me on the streets (or tents in urban and suburban forests) so no, I’d not say homeless in the sense of someone who doesn’t even have basic shelter but I definitely won’t have an address in any sense of the word as I’ve had for all of my previous fifty-four years. I’ll have a post office box but you can’t sleep, cook, shower, urinate and defecate, do laundry and surf the Internet at a post office box. A post office box is not a home.
But all is not lost. If all goes according to plan I will have an RV of some sort and condition to call home. It won’t be fancy and I won’t have a place to put it but I’m not particularly concerned about that, not for the time being at least. I’ll have a roof over my head with four walls to keep out the elements, a source of heat, a dry bed to sleep in, a place to keep food and cook, a table to eat at, a place to sit at and read my precious books (and more importantly, a place to keep them) and hopefully a laptop on which to noodle away at my writing. It won’t be the kind of conventional home in which I’ve spent a lifetime but it’ll be a vast step up from what I know as true homelessness. For that I’ll be grateful.
Humans have evolved over the years all kinds of ways of formulating images in their minds of the realities of their situations. When the situation is at the lower and less ideal end of what we’d hoped for and worked for in life, the trick is to do a little PR spin in our minds. This is how, if we do it right, we keep the dogs of despair on the other side of the door and which allows us to carry on without spiraling downwards into madness (sometimes madness is from having lost this ability, sometimes madness is from having taken this ability to extremes … keeping one’s wits about them is a kind of a key thing then). Some might call this wearing rose coloured glasses when we’re chest deep in cow shit, some might call it making lemonade out of lemons but hey, if it works it works. So my PR spin is to think of it not as homelessness but as a camping trip. A real long camping trip. And not just a long camping trip, but a “spiritual journey” to “find myself”. Yeah, that’s the ticket. Once we trick ourselves, the next thing is to trick society.
Aaahh, now how to trick an omnipresent society that tends towards being snobbishly judgmental? You start by defining your societies, the ones you live in and shape you, and then move on to your relationship with them. First, there’s greater society; that of, in my case, the developed western world at large (as opposed, say, to that of India or China or Africa), there’s your local society; in my case the Greater Vancouver, Canada area, then there’s your personal society; where and with whom you grew up, your social and work circles, your circles of daily needs and habits (supermarkets, coffee shops, banks, all the places where people know you to some degree and with whom you exchange smiles and daily pleasantries). I’ve long had a bit of a fuck you attitude towards society, never having been fond of allowing it to define who I am. However, you can believe you’ve been telling society to fuck off all your life yet when you look back on it, you find that society has been shaping you to some degree or another all along; it’s inescapable unless you’re living the hermit life in a cave somewhere. I may have tended myself somewhat away from what society might have had in store for a poorly educated (in the formal academic sense) logger such as myself, but as I see myself today I am very much a product of the three different levels of society in which I’ve spent most of my life (and I should throw in the upper middle class Asian society in which I made my living teaching English at home and abroad for nearly fifteen years). I am, for better or worse then, thoroughly middle class and about to take a big step down in class (we’re not supposed to acknowledge, let alone talk about class structure here in the socialist fantasy world of Canada but exist it does). So it is within this framework that one (I) must spin an internal and external PR or, in other words, spin a more attractive formulation of my current reality (the concept of “reality” really is a fascinating one… when you twist the facts around in your own mind to form a certain image and then project that to the minds of others, one can easily and quickly see how the notion of the “reality” of reality has been the subject of polemics among philosophers and science for thousands of years).
I may have held a fuck you attitude towards the various levels of society over the years but I’ve never been a complete fool nor as “ruggedly independent” as I may have wanted to imagine myself. With rare exception we humans are tribal creatures at heart and I instinctively knew I was no different. I may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer but I’ve known all along that I depended on society to house, feed and clothe myself and so had to get along with it – and its standards – as well as I could in order to create a lifestyle in keeping with my middle class image of myself. We may rebel as teens against our parents but even teens are generally smart enough to know to stay under their parents’ roofs and accept their bread and it is thusly that we form our relation with society at large. As such even though I may dance at a bit of a distance with her, I’ve always carefully had my finger on the pulse and my ear to the rail of what society was thinking at any one point (a bit of a hobby of mine as well, I’ll admit) so it’s not hard for me to know what society thinks of those who through birth or misfortune find themselves on the lower tiers and this brings us back to the vocabulary, and its connotations, that I listed at the start of the opening paragraph. Society does not shine a positive light on those who were born into or have fallen into poverty and homelessness. Oh, we may (can I say “we” any longer?) say all the right Canadian liberal things while drinking four dollar cappuccinos and lattes in upscale coffee shops but, as I am fond of saying, watch what people do, not what they say (or watch what they say privately or under their breath). Or look at what people say when they’re protected by the anonymity of the Internet in online comment sections. It’s very sobering when you see what people really think when it comes to the less fortunate members of society (and I happen to think that comments sections are a better indication of what people think than what they’ll say in polite company). When one can keep a respectable distance it’s easy to say the right progressively liberal thing. When push comes to shove though (when one is confronted by a homeless person asking for change who might, that day, be on less than stellar behaviour, for example or if a “vagrant” is accused of a crime for another example) you’ll see their true colours rallied up their flag poles in a heartbeat. All of this is to say that I am acutely aware of and do care what society says and thinks (the passage of time and aging tend to wear down and smooth out all the rough edges of the youthful rebel as well). I also care about retaining some sort of tether to the society in which I grew up as I am hoping to return some day (so I don’t feel like I simply can tell society to take a flying leap either). So this necessitates not only tricking myself into optimizing the image of my new reality but to trick society as well. In other words, I care enough to not want people to think that I’m a bum. Or a vagrant. Or a hobo (I’m sure there are still those that know and use that term, at least in their own minds).
I was greatly struggling with all this as the reality of my coming situation began to sink in. You see how society has formed me? Even as empathetic and liberal and progressive thinking as I am, I still tended to think of the people I see making their living on the streets in these terms. I wouldn’t use them to others – oh no, I’d never do that – but somewhere down in my heart of hearts, the darker depths of our subconscious where society has formed us more than we ever want to admit, this is how I thought. I just didn’t know it until I was staring the real possibility of me being there straight in the face. The dark depths of depression, something with which I have a lifetime of intimate familiarity, can stir up all kinds of things you’d rather not have ever thought about yourself, especially when a fall from former grace is involved.
You can wallow in the pits of despair or you can vow to fight on. The pits of despair entail, for me, what I euphemistically refer to as “will to live issues” (for which I’ve thrice been hospitalized) and there are things still worth fighting for so to start with I had to spin my reality in a different image in my own mind just for the sake of my sanity and survival. Now I just have to spin that image outwards to society.
Fortunately, society is more malleable than you’d think. Again, think PR (sometimes I think I’m “the man who knows too much” – ignorance can indeed be bliss at times and being too aware can at times be a psychological disadvantage – sometimes I’m grateful for being well rounded and well read. Right now, being pretty aware of how PR and marketing works may just pay off). To make PR work, simply make up a story and repeat it often. As the old saw goes, repeat something wide enough and often enough and people will believe it. So I start with the story I tell myself. I’m not a vagrant, I’m a vagabond. Similar in meaning but different nuances; a vagabond has a slightly romantic sound to it. It calls to mind one of a free and unchained spirit. Yeah, that cut of suit will adorn my body well. And I’m not an unemployed bum sucking at the public tit, I’m an artist. Hey, don’t laugh, people unable to find an honourable vocation have been playing that card for thousands of years. Play it well and society will buy it. Society loves the image of the starving artist as long as they think you’re producing something. So I will write, self-publish and call myself an artist. Hell, maybe I’ll even take up crudely pushing water colours around on paper and call it “impressionism”. I won’t be of “no fixed address”, I’ll be on a spiritual journey traveling to find myself. Again, society laps stuff like this up. Just look at all the sappy movies and books based on this theme.
So you see? It’s not all that bad. Nothing ever has to be that bad. It’s all in the story you create for yourself and how you spin it (you’d be amazed at how well the human mind has evolved to do this). And when you know enough about society and the people within it, they’re all spin doctors. Look around you and ask yourself how real your neighbour’s life is; it’s likely more of an image they’ve spun for themselves to show society how “well” they’re doing. I did that all my life and then one day the image fell apart. Now I’m just learning a different spin for a different time.