Of Breadcrumbs Lost (a Thanksgiving tale, of sorts)

What caused me to speak to the man, I cannot rightly say, for I do not make it my business to chat with homeless people. They are a dime a dozen in the city in which I live and work and if I regularly engaged with them, I would never make any of my appointments on time. But there was something about this man with the sun-faded, barely legible cardboard sign, something in the deep well of his eyes that beckoned me.

He told me his name was Horace as I patted my pockets to add validation to my claim that I had no money to drop into his dingy paper coffee cup, a statement I made before he even asked. In truth, he never asked. I simply went into automatic defensive mode, not wanting to seem heartless, but not offering any charity, either.

“We all drop breadcrumbs in life,” Horace said.

“Do we?” I asked, struggling to mark his intention.

Horace nodded. “Even the most carefree among us, and we do this because normalcy comes well-equipped with comfort zones. You may take exception to the word normalcy but it has nothing to do with the definition society places on the word normal. Here it applies to the recurrent patterns in your life, the things you’ve grown accustomed to.”

“I don’t follow you.”

“The breadcrumbs are used to lead us back to the path of familiarity when the detours we take spiral beyond our ability to control and/or accept.  I stray from the path constantly chiefly because my path is an uneventful one, which many people would kill for, but I find boring. I ought to be a baker with the number of breadcrumbs I’ve dropped over the years.”

“Um, I’d love to chat, but it’s Thanksgiving and I really must be on my way.”

“Since I’ve always been able to find my way home I never had a problem tearing my life apart,” Horace continued as if he hadn’t heard me. “Going on concrete jungle pilgrimages, and returning to my path at some later date to rebuild things from scratch. But this time is different. This time the demolition wasn’t of my choosing and there’s something about the way events have been playing out over the past six months that have clued me in on the fact I am near the end of the race.”

“You’re dying?”

“Homeless yet again, despite my best efforts to avoid it, I have this sinking feeling deep in my marrow that this will be the final time. There’s no way out and no way back. All the breadcrumbs I dropped to lead me back to the main road of rebuilding my life are gone. Most likely eaten by the crows of a fate long overdue. I guess you can only hit the reset button so many times in life.

“And I can’t honestly say I didn’t see it coming. Life stopped making sense about three years ago, though not all at once. Little by little, all the rules I had ever learned, all the tricks I added to my arsenal, no longer applied. Now, life, the daily routine that the majority of the population manages to perform without a second thought or breaking a sweat, is a game I no longer know how to play. Existence no longer makes sense to me.

“Needless to say, it doesn’t help matters that I have always possessed a nihilistic bug in the back of my brain that constantly questions the logic of struggling to achieve anything when all roads lead to death.

“As you can probably work out, I do not believe in the afterlife. So that we’re clear, this is not an invitation for proselytizers to dust off their soapboxes. I am an aspiritual entity and I’ve made my peace with the fact that I shall not receive salvation. If religion works for you, good on you, I wish you nothing but the best.”

I stood there in silence, wanting to walk away, but also wanting to make sense of this interaction. As if reading my mind, Horace said,

“The purpose of my stopping you from your events of the day and rambling on about things which bear no significance to you is to pass on as many of my thoughts and impressions before I lose my sanity to the streets and become one of the wandering bagmen screaming at invisible antagonists.”

And it finally dawned on me. “You want to be remembered,” I said.

“Who among us doesn’t want to be remembered?”

“You wouldn’t happen to be hungry, would you?” I asked.

“It was not my intention to solicit charity from you, sir, at least not of the monetary kind.”

“I didn’t say anything about giving you money. I need to put something in my stomach before I go on the search and I don’t like eating alone.”

“What are you searching for?”

“Breadcrumbs,” I answered. “You said you’ve been dropping them all your life. I’m sure there are enough lingering around somewhere to get you safely back on your path.”

HAPPY THANKSGIVING! Wishing all who celebrate the holiday (and even those who don’t) good food that fills your belly, good health as you strive for your unique brand of success, and good times with family and friends. May you have all the best delights in a life filled with moments that are as sweet as pumpkin pie!

A Meal And A Hot Shower

A number of years ago, I volunteered to man the telephones during a pledge drive for WBAI, a New York-based non-commercial, listener-supported radio station, whose programming featured political news, talk and opinion from a left-leaning, liberal or progressive viewpoint, and eclectic music.

During popular programs that offered nice gift incentives for pledges, the phones never stopped ringing. When a less popular show was on the air, the phones experienced plenty of downtime. This was when you got to meet your fellow volunteers. Most were friendly, chatty folks, happy to make connections with people who shared their political interests, some were dyed in the wool anti-establishment protestors whose roots were still firmly planted in the hippie movement, and then there was Dave. And he sat next to me. Because I am a magnet for the unusual.

It was the middle of summer, and a brutal one, if memory serves, and Dave was wearing a wool hat, and thick cable knit sweater, with a woolen scarf beneath his puffer coat. But that wasn’t the first thing I noticed about Dave. Not to be cruel, but Dave hadn’t quite gotten his body odor under control. But he was friendly, so we got to talking and in the course of the conversation, Dave admitted that he was a homesteader.

Now, to me, a homesteader was a person who lived and grew crops on land given by the government, so I bombarded him with homesteading questions because I was genuinely curious about the arrangement. He had to stop me in order to explain the modern usage of the term. Dave would break into abandoned buildings, run extension cords to the street lamps for electricity, and arrange to receive mail at the address for at least a month to prove residency in order to avoid being tossed out onto the street without undergoing a proper eviction process.

Squatting wasn’t anything new, and in New York there used to be a law that if squatters were able to restore a derelict building with everything (electrical, plumbing, etc.) up to code, then they could petition as a group to form a business entity and place a bid to purchase the property, using the cost of repairs as a down payment.

Dave wasn’t a part of any such coalition. He was a one-man army and he claimed that he was facing ongoing battles with the owners of the abandoned properties—throwing his possessions out on the street, re-padlocking the property, sending “muscle” to physically evict him, etc.—but this is not the true issue of the post.

Dave (whose name wasn’t “Dave” because I wouldn’t out him like that) had no income and he lacked the skill set to rig the pipes in the abandoned buildings to run water, so he cased houses, and when he was sure that the owners were either away at work or on vacation, he broke into their homes, took showers, and made meals for himself before he left. He claimed he never took anything besides food, always cleaned up after himself, and effected minor repairs if he saw something that needed fixing.

So, the real issue of this post (a bit of a departure from normal) is to ask you a question:

“Besides the obvious breaking and entering charges, how severe a crime do you think the use of the shower and the fixing of a meal is, assuming Dave entered your home without your knowledge or permission?”

Please let me know in the comments below.

©2021 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

Sleep-Shaming the Homeless

Image © 2011 by Patrick G. Ryan www.snarkinfested.com

There’s nothing good about being homeless, not one solitary thing, though I’ve run into more than a few people who claim they’ve been living on the streets between ten and forty years and they wear it like a bizarre badge of pride. If, however, you cannot avoid being without a home, New York isn’t the worst place to be for the simple fact you will never go hungry unless that is your aim. You can’t swing a dead cat in the city so nice they named it twice without hitting a soup kitchen. Plenty of places to throw some food down your gullet. Not always the tastiest morsels but enough to help you survive another day. Sleep, however, is a whole other kettle of fish.

If you are unable to secure a place to sleep in the overcrowded shelter system or a three-quarter house and you make your bed on the street, you quickly learn just how important a good night’s rest is and just how little of that you actually get. Veterans of the lifestyle have secured their hidey-holes and guard the location like it’s gold, others will lay out cardboard mattresses wherever they please, in doorways of closed businesses, on church steps, park benches, subway lines or even in the center of the sidewalk. But no matter how much sleep you manage to eke out at night, during the day, your body will crave the sleep it needs and it will eventually shut you down.

While there are some working homeless, a vast majority are unemployed, on benefits, disability, or supplemental security income and have to find places to spend their time in order to kill the day. No matter how strong-willed you are or how desperately you try to stay awake, eventually you will sit down somewhere and nod out, which is a big no-no in the Big Apple.

This needs to change.

Instead of having overzealous security guards make a public scene out of waking a person who closed their eyes for a moment, there should be places for people to grab a quick nap. I understand that most of the older security guards used to be in law enforcement in one aspect or another and intimidation tactics are part of their arsenal but is closing your eyes in a public place that severe a crime that a person should be forced to wear a scarlet letter?

Why must these mini-dictators get such a thrill out of sleep-shaming the homeless?

Don’t they understand the effects a lack of sleep has on the human psyche? And how that lack might affect the way they behave towards authority, the public at large, or even fellow homeless persons? Does no one understand that sometimes letting a person grab a power nap can make all the difference in how they cope with society and the day?

I know this is child’s logic. There’s no simple solution to sleep-shaming and the bigger issue is that of homelessness. I think it’s time for the thought process to turn from simply getting the homeless off the streets which means pushing the homeless from one neighborhood to another (that’s right upper east side I’m looking at you) or worst yet, processing people through Bellevue, which is almost as bad as being sent to prison due to a lack of health and safety. The adjusted goal should be to provide employment opportunities and safe, affordable housing to those who haven’t given up, who want to rejoin society as productive members, even if it requires services rendered to be bartered for room and board.

 

In the meantime, should you come across me sitting peacefully with my eyes closed, please give me a few moments rest before you disturb my peace. And by all means, try to be respectful should you need to wake me.

I may be homeless, but I’m still human. I still matter.

My Humanity Falls Piece By Piece

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Recently I was asked to write a testimonial for one of the soup kitchens I frequent and because today has been one of those tough days when I just keep rubbing up against the wrong people though I do my best to avoid them, I figured I’d post it here for easy access when I’m online seeking a distraction from the realities of the day.

Through a series of unfortunate events, I became homeless in the back half of 2012. No relatives or friends to use as a temporary support system, I hit the streets of Manhattan without a clue as to where to go, what to do, or what life held in store for me. I struggled for months to survive, spending what little pocket money I had on dollar pizzas, a slice of which I ate every other day in order to stretch out my dwindling funds.

Then one day while I was waiting in the cold for the public library to open, I met two women, sisters, who turned out were homeless like me. They were kind enough to take me to a few locations where I could get some food, which came at a most opportune time as I was down to my last dollar, and that’s no exaggeration. One of the first places they brought me to was a special soup kitchen that changed my entire experience.

Different from other soup kitchens (please understand that the words soup kitchen and ministry are interchangeable here, just as the homeless are referred to as guests), this particular ministry is a great place for guests to start the day. Both the in-house staff and volunteers who help prepare coffee and serve hot meals to the guests are both polite and friendly, which may seem like a given, but it is really a precious and special thing considering most of them make the effort to wake up that extra bit earlier and make themselves available to serve guests of varying temperament before going about their workaday worlds, when most of us find it hard enough just to simply get up and deal with the daily grind.

On my darkest days, when the world doesn’t make sense and I can’t quite seem to catch a glint of the light at the end of this expansive tunnel I’m traveling through, it’s a great comfort for me to have a place where I can be, even for a short while, where I can almost feel human again. That’s the thing people rarely consider when they think about or discuss homelessness. Not being considered a productive part of society, being ignored, avoided, shunned and ridiculed… it chips away at the soul. Bit by bit, by living on the streets, even the strongest person will start to lose confidence, humanity, and even sanity. In my experience, this ministry has helped me hold on to these vital bits of myself, while clinging on to hope as well.

I realize I probably should be pointing out specific instances but truth to tell there are so many, you’d be reading this testimonial for days. Suffice it to say, I have always been greeted with kindness and positive attitudes, even when my attitude was less than civil, and wound up meeting a lot of kind and caring people, some of whom I actually consider friends.

And not to sound unappreciative of other soup kitchens, but the several I have attended cannot hold a candle to this ministry. Compared to some of the larger soup kitchens, this one tiny building is filled with more people who make a concerted effort to help guests out with more than just the serving of a meal. People who place a great deal of importance into what they serve to guests, be it a meal, the Word, or just plain fellowship. I can’t imagine what my experience out here on the streets would be like after all this time without their existence and shamefully, I don’t think I have ever conveyed to them just how much I appreciate what they have done and continue to do for me.

Perhaps this will help them understand.

As I mentioned earlier, today has been one of those chip away days. It seems I’m surrounded by people with either anger or mental health issues and they’re all looking to pay that pain forward.

When you inhabit the same public spaces as other homeless people, a bizarre thing begins to happen. Even if you keep yourself to yourself, you will acquire enemies. You may not even know their names or faces. Grievances will be plucked from thin air and thrust upon you. You will be challenged daily. Yours must be the cooler head. The one gifted with enough foresight to see the consequences and choose the best course of action for your continued safety and freedom.

It is far from an easy thing to do.

At night, when you finally find a spot to rest, you replay the accounts of the day, wondering just how much of your humanity you’ve lost in each one of these abrasive encounters? How much of you will be left when there’s nothing left to give?

I can only pray tomorrow will be a slightly easier day.

Countdown to Bummed Out

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bummed out

/bəmd out/

adjective
a state of mental abandon that leaves you in poor physical condition through lack of desire and care.

origin
New York, circa 2014, attributed to the Pendant Sisters

I was first introduced to the term bummed out by the Pendant Sisters — not their actual name and though I’m sure they’ll never read this blog, it’s not my desire to put their information on blast — while I was still new to the streets.

The sisters, we’ll call them Sally and Susan, were step-siblings, same mother, different fathers, separated at an early age, who were miraculously reunited on the streets after each had become homeless under different circumstances. I can’t remember how the ice was broken between us but they were the first people who showed me any real kindness, as homeless people tend to either isolate themselves or pair off into cliques within the displaced peoples caste system. It’s not hard to understand why they’re not an arms open wide type of community.

Sally and Susan hipped me to the best soup kitchens in which to get a decent meal on each particular day as well as the prime spots for things like clean public restrooms, free wifi, and places to charge your phone without making a purchase.

They’re what I call arm’s length friendly and I totally understand their caution and apprehension. They are two women having to survive in a city full of sadistic and insane people and I, despite seeming nice, am a still man and a relative stranger to them. As tough as it is simply being homeless, I can only imagine it’s ten times harder to be a homeless woman.

Anyway, one day I was palling around with them as they patiently showed me various no hassle locations (places where cops tend not to roust you for loitering, or being vagrant without a license), their faces dropped when their eyes fell on a man splayed out across a sidewalk bench. Nearly unrecognizable as human under all the layers of caked on filth, you couldn’t come close to calling what he wore clothes. They were tattered bits of ratty cloth held together in places by safety pins. His shoes were little more than cut up sections of newspaper secured around his feet by a series of rubberbands. When they tried to speak to him to see if he was okay, he responded with gibberish.

They were bummed out to see him bummed out.

As we walked away, they told me his back story. He was once an engineer who earned his degree at MIT and owned a successful business for a number of years. Then he stumbled upon a bit of hard luck when he lost several important contracts that bankrupted his business and his marriage of over twenty years ended in a divorce that wiped him clean.

When they first met him, he was a good natured and intelligent man, optimistic about getting back on his feet. They were truly shocked to see him in his current state, which got me to thinking about how homelessness can get inside your brain and make you abandon all hope and allow you to slide further and further away from being a functional member of society.

A truly frightening thought and I wonder just how far away I am from my breaking point, and what will be the final straw that collapses my resolve and causes me to bum out?

Until next time, I sincerely hope I don’t see you on the breadline.

No Rest For The Homeless

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Never aspire to be homeless, no matter how tough your living situation may be at the moment or how tough you think you are or how you imagine roughing it to be some sort of grand adventure. It’s a lousy way to exist. That’s right, I said exist, because when you have no place to live and cannot feed yourself what you want to eat when you want to it, or wash when you feel dirty, you’re not living, you’re existing.

Having said that, should you ever find yourself societally displaced — with no income or shelter — there are a few cities in The States where being homeless is preferable. New York is one of those places.

If you’re willing to put in the legwork and travel throughout the Big Apple, you won’t go hungry. There are several soup kitchens scattered throughout the city that offer either breakfast, lunch or dinner, and most places offer seconds, containers to take food away, and a bag meal that usually consists of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, a juice box and a piece of fruit. Not fine dining by any stretch of the imgaination, but it’s food.

What you won’t get enough of is sleep. Sure, during the summer you can stretch out in the park during the day, but at night when there’s a chill in the air, a chill that settles in your bones, or when it rains or snows? That’s when you find out what being homeless is all about.

Sleeping in parks is a thing of the past. Most parks close between 10pm to 1am. Church steps because it’s sanctuary? Not in this town, brother. You might have heard stories in the news or seen in the movies the homeless people who build cardboard shelters on street gratings or up against the sides of buildings and while that does happen, depending on your location, cops will roust you.

Since New York truly is a city that doesn’t sleep, public transportation runs 24 hours and most homeless men and women find their preferred subway line and ride it end to end throughout the night. This is usually good for a couple of hours at a pop, but trains tend to go out of service after a couple of trips and cops are present at the last stops to push folks along. Plus, you need money for the fare for this sleeping option. $2.50 may not seem like much to you, but when you’re flat broke, the fare might as well be $25.00. Sure, you can hop the turnstile, but if you get caught, there’s a hefty fine to pay, or if you run up against the wrong cop, you could be looking at an arrest.

But what about a homeless shelter? You may have heard how dangerous they can be and some are filled with ex-convicts and the mentally challenged who may or may not be off their meds, but for the ones that aren’t, there are either waiting lists or lottery systems that you have to compete for on a daily basis, and many of these are only accessible through a referral from public assistance, battered women’s organizations, rescue centers, etc.

Speaking from personal experience, there are nights when the weather won’t allow me to sleep and I become a street shark, always on the move to keep warm, in hopes of finding some unoccupied nook to hunker down in and rest my eyes and my mind, if only for a few moments. It rarely happens and spend most nights winding my way through city streets until the sun comes up. That can wear on your soul quick fast and in a hurry, trust me on this.

So, hold on to your homes, if you’re at all able to. Living on the streets is no kind of life for any reasonably sane person.

Until next time, hope I don’t see you on the breadline.

Drop Ye Breadcrumbs, While Ye May

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We all drop breadcrumbs in life, even the most carefree among us, and we do this because normalcy comes well-equipped with comfort zones. Some of you may take exception to the word normalcy but it has nothing to do with the definition society places on the word normal. Here it applies to the recurrent patterns in your life, the things you’ve grown accustomed to.

The breadcrumbs are used to lead us back to the path of familiarity, when the detours we take spiral beyond our ability to control and/or accept.  I stray from the path constantly chiefly because my path is an uneventful one, which many people would kill for, but I find boring. I ought to be a baker with the amount of breadcrumbs I’ve dropped over the years.

Since I’ve always been able to find my way home I never had a problem tearing my life apart, going on concrete jungle pilgrimages, and returning to my path at some later date to rebuild things from scratch. But this time is different. This time the demolition wasn’t of my choosing and there’s something about the way events have been playing out over the past six months that have clued me in on the fact I am near the end of the race.

Homeless yet again, despite my best efforts to avoid it, I have this sinking feeling deep in my marrow that this will be the final time. There’s no way out and no way back. All the breadcrumbs I dropped to lead me back to the main road of rebuilding my life are gone. Most likely eaten by the crows of a fate long overdue. I guess you can only hit the reset button so many times in life.

And I can’t honestly say I didn’t see it coming. Life stopped making sense about three years ago, though not all at once. Little by little, all the rules I had ever learned, all the tricks I added to my arsenal, no longer applied. Now, life, the daily routine that the majority of the population manages to perform without a second thought or breaking a sweat, is a game I no longer know how to play. Existence no longer makes sense to me.

Needless to say, it doesn’t help matters that I have always possessed a nihilistic bug in the back of my brain that constantly questions the logic of struggling to achieve anything when all roads lead to death.

As you can probably work out, I do not believe in the afterlife. So that we’re clear, this is not an invitation for proselytizers to dust off their soapboxes. I am an aspiritual entity and I’ve made my peace with the fact that I shall not receive salvation. If religion works for you, good on you, I wish you nothing but the best.

The purpose of this blog, more for my sake than yours, I’m afraid, is to capture as many of my thoughts and impressions before I lose my sanity to the streets and become one of the wandering bagmen screaming at invisible antagonists.

Wish me luck… and drop some change in my cup should you pass me on the streets.

To completely bastardize the Robert Herrick poem, I urge you to drop ye breadcrumbs, while ye may, however make sure you keep enough on your person to get you safely back to your path.

Until next time, I hope I don’t see you on the breadline.