Tonight, I walked out of work into a fog.
That sounds poetic, but it’s true. There was a mist as thick as Mike-Myers-Playing-Linda-Richmond-Buttah blanketing the city. Driving through town, my headlights painted the air, hanging there like bad air freshener or equally uncalled-for commentary.
It was weird.
This past weekend, I sacrificed a Saturday night of drinking alone to sleep in a cardboard box in Caldwell Park. (Yes, those two activities can be equally sad.) It was the annual “homeless encampment” sponsored by our local shelter, Aid for Friends, and let me just say, for all of you who have never spent the night in a box—I highly recommend it.
The day began with me rushing to get coffee with a new lawyer friend I met in town. This ended up all too fortuitously, because he just happened to have a bunch of ground pads in his electric blue house (paint not power supply) that I borrowed and used to keep myself from turning into a cardboard popsicle later that day.
When I showed up at Caldwell, tarps were draped between trees, a canteen trailer was serving candied popcorn and an elaborate shantytown of cellular cardboard cities had been neatly arranged. When I announced that I would be participating, I was ushered to a private box to call my very own.
Soon enough, I wandered inside a nearby church, where a bluegrass band of nice old men was playing songs like “Hobo’s Lullabye” and tappin’ their toes. I interviewed a man who showed up to the encampment to thank Aid for Friends; he was formerly homeless and now has a place of his own (private home not private box). He told me that people should just give the homeless the time of day, even if they can’t spare some change. It’s a lesson I remembered learning at a soup kitchen in Baltimore four years ago. Apparently a basic human need is dignity—go figure.
And then ushered again, this time out the cantina (yeah, whatever, it’s a better word in Spanish) for free cabbage beef soup so hot it burned my mouth, thick bread and peach cobbler. Standing around a roaring fire, I prattled the night away with recovering substance abusers and 11-year-old boys.
“This is the LIFE,” I thought. I felt so Olde Tyme-y; people were playing cards and wearing old coats, forced to talk to one another even though they didn’t really want to. There’s no World Wide Web to hide behind in homeless world! It’s full of social capital and reciprocity!
At one point, I even managed to sound my car’s alarm for an ear-shattering 30 seconds. Which was great because I never feel like I make a real mark on a place without entirely embarrassing myself.
I spent the rest of the time trying desperately to harass the local paper reporter, a man in his late-30s, early-40s who seems a little aloof and I think he thinks I’m a ditz or a dolt or a dimbo. Little did he know, he’s mah favorite type.
So I tried really hard to be really fun but ALSO, seem smart and witty. Did I come across as trying too hard? Definitely. Did I get in a few good ZINGS? OHYOUKNOWIT. In my humble opinion, that’s all that matters. To clarify, this was not an exercise in flirting, but merely a way to dispel the preconceived notions that I think someone else thinks. Rational, right?
I slept through the night bundled up in a man’s Carhartt jacket under several blankets and woke up feeling like a piece of toast. Yep, dry and golden brown. I put together my package on the experience and felt pretty proud.
And then: my phone rang. It was the homeless man I’d interviewed, and he said that I offended him in the story (Me: “Huh???”). Then later, he left me a voicemail saying he wanted to sue. I didn’t call him back, mostly because I didn’t have anything to say besides, “You really won’t be able to do that.” But I couldn’t help feeling sloppy, self-righteous and slimy about it all. Had I really just buzzed around Homeless 101 like a pest, eating what I wanted and spitting out the rest? I know you never stop, but do I really still have that much to learn? Am I really that much of a dimbo?
Today, he called again. He told me he was sorry and that he just thought it was going to come out differently. I said I was sorry that there was confusion about TV. He said he hoped I had a blessed day. I put down the phone and felt just a little less rotten.
Apparently a basic human need is dignity—go figure.