Looking out of my window into the ‘Loin rarely makes me smile, doesn’t often make me feel happy or hopeful, let alone any other positive emotions. Fear, sadness, disgust, horror are all far more likely to be triggered by those streets down there below. I won’t pretend that I don’t often look up to the skies and the hills in the distance, that I don’t watch the clouds that fly past, or lazily hang in midair, or the birds that fly, or the leaves of the trees playing in the San Franciscan breezes. Sometimes I allow the screams and the shouts, the sirens and the suffering to pass me by. Someone yells as if they have been stabbed. They probably have.
Out there last night there was a party on the streets. Someone had got hold of a killer P.A. system, the bass was so loud it was rattling my bed and shaking my walls. The night air pierced by a strange collection of music: Lizzo was getting down and goddess-dirty, Miley Cyrus was partying in the USA. When Taylor Swift came through the night air, at huge volume with yelps of love and appreciation, I had to laugh out loud and look out of my window. This was no heavy rap jam session, no r and b hustle and shuck and jive, this sounded like an angry woman, jilted and in her tent and somehow coming up with volume and shock and awe. The songs blared out on rotation, until they were punctuated by some lonesome sound, something from south of the border, something plaintive and longing for heat and deserts and the sounds of a home far away from here. It was beautiful. It was real. It was heartfelt. The yelps of the crack aficionados punctuated the darkness and bit through the soundwaves. There is nothing like that yowlp of pure adrenaline satisfaction from benjamins being burnt in the glass pipes of the loin, the discarded paper flowers littering the floor- an offering to the little deities of the south, the altars and the coca fields. It is both fear and threat, joy and terror, and once it gone, momma, you gonna need some more…and some more…and some more…Yes! Followed by….what now?
No, there is rarely anything to be overjoyed with in the streets below. Not even Taylor Swift being played from some P.A. hooked up to a parking meter on ___St, and rocked out at decibels usually reserved for stadium shows. I am not a Swift fan, but it was so clear what she meant to the person playing the song, that this was her comfort, her jam, her blanket to shield her from the harshness of the street and the brutality of love gone astray. I understand. I feel the same way about Joni Mitchell. If I had my heart broken there was only ever one cure: The Last Time I Saw Richard.
So sitting there today, after all the harshness of another day gone astray, of the upsets and the indignities, the minor irritations and major obfuscations of the Truth and Reality, looking down onto the street, and seeing the best of humanity, I almost felt as if I might be saved. I nearly felt as if we might all be saved.
Down under a street lamp a homeless woman dressed in the many layers of a person trying to protect themselves with cloth armor, went through a large bag of clothes that she had clearly been given by someone trying to help. She bent over carefully, pulling out pairs of jeans, checking the means, pulling at the material, seeing how much give was in the seams and how much space was in the waist. Each rejected pair she put back into the bag, folded carefully. Another woman hauling a makeshift cart full of recyclable cans and bottles approached her. The woman with the bag, started to pass the other, more slightly built woman the smaller pairs of pants. They found a small betty boop purse in the bottom of the bag. The older lady passed it to the younger. The young woman clasped the treasure to her chest. I could see her smile from up here. Once they had taken everything that fit, and that was useful, scavenged what could be resued and recycled and repurposed, they put the rest of the clothes back into the large bag, and left it where someone else might find it. Someone else who might find something of use in that which had been discarded and rejected. These are the true environmental warriors. They take little. They walk lightly upon the earth. They collect the plastic which might be recycled for a few bucks here and there. They don’t have nearly enough, but find deep joy in what others leave behind. The younger woman pulled a mason jar out of the trash. The happiness on her face made me turn away. The joy at so little: I know this joy. The satisfaction at not very much at all.
In a way having so little is a superpower: once the adjustment has been made, contentment becomes cheaper. There have been days when a discounted potato at the grocery store has made me jump for joy. There were days when someone gave us free propane made the difference between feeding a hot meal or no meal to the children. There are days in the past when a free eightball in Reno was a lifesaving gift, rarely is anything free in that world. You pay somehow in the end.
I am not romanticizing poverty and desperation. I am not trying to paint my homeless peers as saints or blessed ascetics who reject excess. There are some who fit the portrait of the holy hobo, but it is not so easy. There is real need and real suffering. Yet it is all too easy to paint the growing legions of America’s homeless as useless wasters. Nature needs resourceful scavengers. Nature loves a survivor. Humanity is nature’s bitch. We might all do well to remember that.
Bron-Y-Aur Stomp plays through my headphones as I thank my lucky stars I am inside today. I am inside away from fires. I am inside away from cops. I am inside away from danger. “Always smiling, never sad” sings Planty, as the band work up that stomp. I can’t pretend I am happy all the time. I rarely feel as if I have tomorrow, let alone that love will go “on and on and on”. Tomorrow’s tomorrow is not assured. I could use some security now. I have done “mother nature, just you and me”, I have walked those streets, I’ve almost died in the gutters and flown on the wings of other people’s songs. I have dug through bags in the Missions of America’s small towns, and come up with used treasure, then left to sleep outside because there was no room inside for me. I can’t do it for much longer. I am too tired, too old, too used up. I don’t have much more I can lose and survive.