This chapter is about is about working a summer job in Wyoming. In a town that was saturated with wealth, few employees could afford housing in minimum wage. Therefore, I lived in a bunkhouse while saving money. In this environment, I seriously thought about attending university and accepted the risk of student loans.
I migrated to Wyoming in early spring. My menial job at a glass factory soon passed into memory. I found a new job as a pearl diver (dishwasher) at a small resort in Moose, Wyoming. It was my initiation into rural culture. The small town had a wintertime population of about 500 people, mostly park rangers, naturalists, and mountain climbers who enjoyed the views of both Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks. I was hired as short term summer help because a few miles away stood Jackson, a small ski town that explodes each year with tourism.
Every winter and summer a flock of millionaires vacation in the town, sending property rates so high that few locals or seasonal workers can afford to live there. The crunch in affordable housing caused a labor shortage because low-income servant sector employees couldn’t afford rent. In the town nearby, Kelly, some residents erected tepees at one point. In Moose this crisis was solved by constructing co-educational wooden bunkhouses where employees lived together. Nearly all my colleagues attended university during the school year. I was one of the few uneducated workers on site. It was beneficial to listen to the other employees speak about literature they read for their classes. This strange erudite world they spoke about peaked my curiosity.
I never saw homeless people in Wyoming despite the housing crunch. However, shopping cart welding transients were becoming commonplace even in Salt Lake, Utah. I had no clue where they were all coming from and didn’t even care. However, I was aware of recent controversies relating to the federal Housing and Urban Development department (HUD).
James Watt used HUD connections to award lucrative contracts and federal funds for housing projects, and his favored clients returned nearly $500,000 to him in kickbacks between 1984-1986. James Watt was later indicted on 41 felony charges. While he was still under trial, James Watt often visited Jackson, Wyoming, to reward himself with a luxurious vacation. I am proud of the accomplishment of having once spit in his food. I watched him greedily gulp down the tainted meal within the shadow of a tacky tepee for tourists. Let this be a lesson to always treat kitchen staff with respect.
While living in Utah I content myself on the beautiful mountains and sandstone deserts. I read books and imagined foreign places. It was my escape. However, these university students had actually traveled overseas on vacation and experienced a different quality of life. My family placed a stronger value on work than education. No family member had ever attended a college class. My father could barely write let alone spell. My parents math skills ended at a level below pre-Algebra so they could not help their children with homework. Physics, chemistry, and biology were as commonly spoken in our home as ancient dialects of Minoan or Visigoth.
However, both my parents were hard workers with strong ethics. They rarely arrived late or called in sick to work. They acquired the level of education that they needed for their working class jobs. Of course, they encouraged their children to do well in school, but it was silently understood that after high school we would find jobs, start a family, and settle down.
Utah state has never placed a high priority on education. Utah has a lower expenditure rate per pupil than any other state. Utah faculty members teach more students in each classroom and teaching salaries are among the lowest in the nation. Utah ranks dead last in these areas in almost every World Almanac released. The stereotype dictates that southern states are the least educated, however, imagine the pride in knowing that you are ranked lowest out of fifty states. Oddly, Utah schools are often placed on Mormon-owned property so that a church is located nearby. Students are encouraged and pressured to take a religious seminary course during the same hours as state schools. This substandard educational system makes it difficult to learn how to learn.
To make matters worse, my family had no money for tuition so college was never an option. I had a working class destiny, so why bother to study hard in high school? My high school grades were a low “C” average, because I had little incentive to study. Therefore, the employees at Moose, Wyoming, were an endless source of new information for me. They provoked me to visualize a higher level of education than what Utah offered.
Wyoming symbolized freedom. It was a place where non-Mormons could buy fireworks for celebrations, or pornography without obstructive black bars censoring the sweet parts. I could buy alcohol at age 19 when the legal age was 21 in Utah. Beer was stronger and came in better varieties. People could wager bets on ponies if they wanted, although the Nevada border was the preferred crossing for an evening of gambling. If non-Mormons wanted freedom they left Utah for the borders. If you want booze and mirth go east to Wyoming; if you want gambling and debauchery go west to Nevada. If your content to watch television all day and eat ice cream just stay put in Utah. It isn’t going anywhere. Wyoming was a delicious exotic fruit in contrast to the margarine and oat gruel world of Utah. Wyoming had spice; Utah only its salt and pepper. After all, Wyoming was part of the wild west. Wyoming had its outlaws and cowboys; Utah its polygamist pioneers who wore beards without moustaches and were mistaken for the Amish. In Wyoming you could roam like a buffalo and piss on the prairie. Wyoming was like buying freedom frozen, only to have it melt immediately after crossing the Utah border. After a life at the Utah glass factory even employment as a humble Wyoming dishwasher hinted of new opportunities.
My bosses in Moose, Wyoming, treated me with respect and hospitality. They asked me to return the following three summers. The ice had been broken. I couldn’t return to Utah which seemed stuck in its past. When my job ended I traveled. In fact, I never stopped moving. I traveled for the next three years, loyally returning to Moose each summer.
It struck me that a minimum wage employer was as expendable as its low paid employees. It was easy to find a job as a cook or construction worker in about any city. When I was treated poorly at one job I could easily find a replacement by moving to the next town. Once a job no longer produced new challenges, it was time to explore the next destination. It was a free and easy lifestyle. The catch was that I had to remain in low income types of vocation. I traveled across the United States. I lived in Wyoming, Colorado, Oregon, California, and Montana. I would road trip to any other state on a moments notice. Road trips were like having a snack between meals. I traveled by car, hitchhiking, train hopping, and the Greyhound bus. I never spent more than six months in any spot. I had no debt, telephone, credit card, or television. I was a free spirit. Basically, I was becoming a rubber tramp as I worked my way across the United States. I was getting educated in the school of life.
During this time I craved knowledge. I cultivated wisdom. It was a fire that I yearned to steal in hopes of illuminating a meaningless life. I danced around the fringes of education testing the water. At one point, I even audited classes at the University of Wyoming because I couldn’t afford tuition. Finally, it was my third and last summer at Moose, Wyoming. Klaus from the glass factory finally quit his factory job to work with me at the family-operated resort. The burger-flipping, Da-ru, found a job as a greenhorn cowboy at a nearby ranch. He took to wearing Stetson hats, walking artificially bow-legged, and greeting strangers by saying “howdy”. Klaus and I wagered $10 that he would even buy chaps and spurs. They worked the summer to save money for the following school year. I watched them prepare for school in envy.
I had a steady girlfriend during these traveling years that could still tolerate me. She was a strong woman with high grades at a prestigious university in California. Her background was wealthy and secure, which seemed like a foreign world to me. Our relationship was ending due to the strains of long distance communication. We wrote letters and called every month, but missed the intimacy of physical proximity. One day she was in a confrontational mood. Like a seductive Siren she enticed me with a song about why I never advanced my life to a higher level. I was content with simple jobs, but she felt I should advance to something more profitable.
She: “Why don’t you do something more with your life. You seem content to circle around one low end job to another. Don’t you want a secure future?”
Me: “In high school I had low grades, but I know that I am a hard worker. I am a laborer. It is who I am. I am not ashamed of my working class life.”
She: “You are smarter than that. You love reading and learning about the world.”
Me: “I can’t afford an education even if I could get accepted into university.”
She: “You can easily apply for student loans. Credit cards are as simple to get as signing an application form. The banks want to loan you this money. It is a business investment.”
Me: “Now, I am free from all debt. I am independent. If I try and fail then I will lose all that. I will owe something and have a burden to lift. There are other types of education, some learning I don’t even have to pay for.”
She: “You should have more hope and confidence. You can do it. You a smart enough to succeed. You can have impact on others. I believe in you.”
To this day, depending on my mood, I alternate between cursing and praising her for this information. The truth was that I doubted my ability to earn a college degree. I had poor grades. I also had a speech impediment that required special education classes (I barely have any trace of lips to speak with). I was nearly voiceless since I was too self-conscious to talk. Deeper down I remembered taunts that I was white trash: dirty, ignorant, immoral, lazy, and even inbred. I had never saved more than $1,000 at any time, so school was not a valid option. I was living from paycheck to paycheck. Poverty was ingrained. I couldn’t visualize stepping out of this role. At the end of our long argument my girlfriend instilled me with confidence. She made me believe that I could lift myself out of my economic condition with an advanced education. Her argument was an edifying lesson. She sweetly inspired me to enroll that summer. However, I was about to learn that all knowledge, in whatever form education is delivered, always comes at a price.
That autumn I was accepted into Utah State University. It took knowledge about student loans to motivate me to register. I entered into the dark world of borrowing money. I attempted to lift myself to a higher level by submerging myself into debt. Student loans could be paid off later, I reasoned, once I found a higher paying job after graduation. School was an investment. I moved back to Utah since tuition was cheaper, but I didn’t mind because I thrived on education. Klaus became my roommate and we had enough stability to invest in our hobby of fish aquarium enthusiasts. Fish were like children with training wheels. I developed a sense of responsibility by investing in another being. I amused myself watching the fish swim frantically up and down, trying to escape to the world that existed outside the aquarium.
I was introduced to international students and saturated myself in learning about global affairs. I was quenching my thirst for intellect. I had little sense of direction. I just wanted to make up for lost time. I raced through the course catalogue each school term to find new topics that intrigued me. I jumped at the chance to school myself in sociology, history, journalism, anthropology, and international development. After about four years this added up to a Liberal Arts degree and I was booted off campus with my BA in hand. I had advanced to a point that my parents never dreamed of. I was the first person in my family to ever earn a college degree. I was ready to start a career and maybe settle down. The American Dream was in my sight. My hope as the oldest son was to take responsibility and help out my family. I decided to move to Seattle to find employment in a large city. Seattle had a thriving computer industry and the richest man in the world, while Utah offered few jobs that could keep me bound inside the state. My strategy was to work hard at a career so I could send money home. The moving process began by selling anything of value to finance relocation: books, music, plants, aquariums, and camping equipment. I migrated with less than $500 in my pocket. It was the best that I could do.
The year was 1992. The United States was in a major recession under President George Bush and the unemployment rate averaged 7.5%. The federal government had been growing increasingly reckless with spending while I studied over the past four years. The U.S. public debt had increased to over $4 trillion dollars and the deregulated banking system was in crisis. The Savings and Loan banking industry was rescued by government bailout in 1989, a measure that would cost taxpayers an estimated $600 billion dollars. These banks had issued loans under highly questionable circumstances, and CEO’s had been accused of corruption and criminal behavior – including Ned Bush, the son of the U.S. president. In 1991, the U.S. House Bank was ordered closed after Congress bounced a total of 8,331 bad checks. I still hadn’t even started a checking account yet. Despite these problems, the United States found enough money to use its military against newly dubbed enemies in Panama and Iraq. Students, friends, and roommates were forced to interrupt studies to fight battles in countries they never even heard about. They enrolled for military service only because they needed college funds. By 1992, the Gulf War was declared over and U.S. public debt continued to soar beyond $4 trillion. Meanwhile, I was unemployed and couch surfing from one friend’s house to another.
The recession and high employment rate hit me like a hidden bomb. I could not find work anywhere in Seattle. Even temp agencies declined to hire me because I lacked a car to get to job sites. My $500 was whittled down to nearly nothing. Credit card companies demanded payments and fined me when I couldn’t come up with cash. I started to borrow money from one credit card to pay off another. Student loan agencies hovered above. I was juggling them, too. Then the vicious cycle hit: health problems arrived that prevented finding work. My health deteriorated with colds, fatigue, and hints of bronchitis. I twisted my ankle jumping from a parked truck. I gashed my forehead in a boating accident. I could not afford medical treatment for any of these calamity. Therefore, I limped and sneezed from interview to interview looking like a wrestler who lost. My physical presentation prevented finding work; my lack of employment blocked any chance of improving my health. The dominos started to fall and my decision making process became sporadic. I spent meager savings on alcohol to drink away depression. It is hard for people to understand that when you are down to your last $20 a bottle of whisky is a more logical investment than food. Before long I knew I had to leave Seattle. I didn’t want any of my friends to see me hit rock bottom. Soon I become homeless. It was the beginning of a decade long process.
I moved to Port Townsend, Washington, due to a rumor about an employment opportunity unloading boats. I was able to hitchhike all the way there in only two rides. On arrival I drank two pints of microbrew and ate a pasteurized cheese sandwich. I tipped the bartender with my last dollar. I was absolutely penniless in a strange town. I walked out of the bar with no idea where to go. I followed the marina until I found a tree to sleep under. This was my new home. I had no tent since it was sold to fund coming to Seattle, so the ground was where I lay. Ants and flies pestered me as I slept. The location that I selected was a jungle of homeless visitors. I migrated to a boatyard where many people lived in the hulls of abandoned ships or make-shift beach shanties. There was a homeless community that survived by working together or competing against each other for scraps. The friction between the two created its own micro-economy.
There must have been nearly a hundred of us homeless at the boatyards in Port Townsend. At night we would climb out of our nooks and crannies like maggots. We would infest all the dumpsters and the social service agencies that were still open. Panhandlers counted spare change. Drug dealers hawked their merchandise. Money and supplies exchanged hands. We would light fires and bay at the moon. There was competition for limited jobs and food, so the homeless community divided into smaller cliques. The more experienced homeless didn’t supply me with trade secrets because they protected their own. We pretended to share food but we never really trusted each other. Food was distributed among various sub-communities. Around the campfire people fed their mates first. Strangers like myself had to prove our worth to them by contributing food or alcohol to the evening’s festivities. As a novice it was difficult to survive alone. They sometimes gave me scraps anyway. I was transformed into a jungle buzzard who eyed their leftovers.
Even the homeless have their hierarchies. On the beach I stumbled onto a group of old men. They were passing around a bottle of wine. One partially blind man referred to himself as a hobo that retired to the boatyards. This old-timer had been traveling for decades, drifting across the United States and abroad, never getting married or settling down. His gray hair was wild, matted, and uncombed. He strived to remain free; fearing only the burden of domestication. He supplied me with sips from a bottle of sweet port wine. In his belief a hobo worked, a bum begged, and a wino drank. They were different types of people in his eyes. If you are willing to work, then you are a cut above the rest of the homeless. Lowest on the scale were the “jack rollers” who preyed on the homeless or stole their welfare checks. The jack rollers were parasites that fed on the wounded and less fortunate. This hierarchy was subjective. The tendency is to designate somebody as lower than yourself, and find any means to place your own status higher. A wino may look down on a bum who begs, and a panhandler may judge the wino that drinks too much. Racial background also leads to divisions. My own status as a novice was low, since I was considered useless and unpredictable.
The old hobo was in a helpful and talkative mood. He was the alpha wolf for the evening. He told me about public showers that cost fifty cents and gave me $2 if I promised to look for work. He guzzled from a bottle of port wine, while a red glaze glistened around his lips. Balancing the bottle between his thumb and index finger, he told me, “You don’t want to turn into a worthless bum or wino,” he told me, “this journey that you are about to embark on will lead to suffering and hardship. You will make strange friendships and struggle with wicked demons. And this freedom comes at great price. It is better for you to settle down right now”.
The next morning I hid my backpack under a bush to prevent its theft while hunting for work. I went to the boat yards to unload boats for under the table cash. However, none came in that day. I tried again the next afternoon, but it wasn’t the season for it. Three days later, without food, I felt real hunger. It actually causes pain. The stomach turns inward and devours itself. If hunger goes too long the stomach will puff up with air. The lack of vitamins leads to exhaustion and disease. I no longer had energy to work even if I found employment. I gave up on the job hunt and looked for food instead. I dug up a half dozen clams on a beach and was about to toss them into a fire when a homeless bystander warned me that a paper mill nearby poisoned them with toxic chemicals. I could neither garden or gather my own food as an option. My last resort was to humble myself by dumpster diving. I had a BA degree and I was lowering myself into a garbage can for food. I was dirty due to the lack of shower. After a meal of discarded moldy bread I gathered the strength to look for work once again.
Later that week I snuck into the backdoor of a restaurant so that I could bathe in the bathroom sink and brush my teeth. On a whim I talked with the restaurant owner to see if he had any work available. There were no jobs at the moment, but the man offered to call me if something came up. However, I had no phone number to supply him with. My stomach ached with the lack of food as I struggled to conceal the toothbrush stashed in my pocket. I considered asking him to allow me to scrub the kitchen floor in trade of breakfast. During this conversation I saw a yuppie couple having a romantic crab dinner. They were so enraptured with each other that they forgot to eat. I salivated at the sight of fresh Dungeness crab. Something within me snapped and I felt a moment of pure rage. The focus wasn’t placed on myself, my parents, or an unjust social system. The target of my anger was the couple wasting tasty seafood. I wanted retribution. Without thinking, after leaving the restaurant, I threw a rock at its window. It cracked but didn’t shatter. The startled couple smiled at me and waved. I meandered back to the beach feeling foolish as ever.
I chased away a few stray dogs that were sleeping under my tree. They had detected some food stashed in my backpack. A sense of ownership had taken over. This tree belonged to me. I was attached to it as my home. This tree unfolded above my head to protect me from rain. Under my tree I would pout, talk to myself, and plan revenge. I tempted myself with thoughts of women that I could never have. I did not accept my homelessness yet. At age 29 I expected more from life. Buddha was enlightened at the same age after meditating and fasting underneath a Bodhi tree. Buddha was an intelligent human being who elevated his education to ease suffering. However, I was feeling quite the opposite effect. I was so full of various desires that I couldn’t concentrate, let alone meditate or sleep. I was in full knowledge that this would be the lowest point that I would ever reach. The suffering made me feel more human, but I wanted food instead of nirvana. Why would a former prince seek an experience like mine? How could he abandon his wealth for a life of poverty? Under the tree I thought about killing myself, I contemplated male prostitution, I seriously pondered shoplifting. I was gaining misdirected wisdom.
Despite my horrid condition there was a will to create a personal hierarchy. I still had to perceive myself better than others in some way. I created a set of ethics with this goal in mind. The two things I refused to do were accept government welfare and humble myself by begging. These were lines that I would not cross. I avoided homeless shelters and social service agencies because I did not want to leave public records of my poverty. It would have been easier for me to kill than to beg. In my mind I momentarily elevated myself above others. I wouldn’t panhandle. The real homeless begged for coin, but I was merely an educated man with bad luck. In this way I mentally separated myself from other itinerants. I created a subjective hierarchy that served to benefit my self image. I was not the alpha wolf, but I didn’t roll over in total submission either.
I woke one morning hating both myself and my vagabond lifestyle. I was haunted by the ghost of my traveling past. Maybe homelessness was a ripple from a rock that I threw in the lake of freedom. I shouted in passion at the moonlight of yesteryear and now my poverty was that echo. I was stepping into my own footprints, but this time, rather then being alive and free, I felt trapped and alone. I naïvely believed that my education entitled me to employment. I thought that school would make me something higher than the sum of myself. I forgot that my proper place was in a factory or at a low wage job. I had made mistakes along the way. I was dirty white trash after all. My time in Port Townsend was a failure. I listened closely to the inner rumblings that told me to migrate once again. By instinct I spent my last coins to pay for a nice shower then went searching for food in garbage cans. To my surprise, two college friends, a young couple, explored the same dumpster. They had also became homeless due to the 1992 recession. It was quite an embarrassing moment for all of us. Their situation was better than mine, however because they supported each other. They were learning to survive their economic condition. They found resources for food and supplies, taking advantage of social service agencies. They had a van to sleep in, although they held no insurance or titles on the vehicle that served as a temporarily home. Slowly some form of stability was developing for them. They shared stale bread with me, tearing their own loaf in half between the palms of their hands, and gave me a little money to get back on my feet. They had nothing, but they still had the hearts to help me out. The random meeting was an occasion that none of us ever mentioned to each other again. There was too much shame in it.
I remained near my tree for a few more days. Unpacking, repacking, and throwing less valuable items away. I would do my daily prowl along the boat docks to find work. It was the wrong season. My personal hygiene was going sour, but I was learning to live within this context. My hair became matted and uncombed. This was becoming a way of life, full of patterns and routine. But, before any deep transformation could take place I was hit by a rock. I was preparing instant noodles one night when a stone came out of nowhere and struck me in the back. “Ouch!” I wondered, “Where did that come from?”. It was time to move on. Soon I was on the road again, hitchhiking to Seattle. I needed to return to a familiar city, where I could tap into my instinct of urban survival. But, something had been broken. I was altered.
My friends are gone when I return to Seattle. It’s Saturday and the night burns like a slow stale cigarette. I pulse along the traffic lights searching for something to do. I pump from one mirth to another. It might be coffee, it might be booze. The night is hot, but my body feels so cold that I avoid the inevitable slumber. I find a tavern. A Native American woman next to me stabs the air when she speaks like she is struggling with some totem beast. She is angry and bloats with hate. Maybe I could sleep with her, I think, but the night air seems more inviting. Outside a piss-drunk man smashes his girl in the face. He spits on her as she lays spread eagle on the oil stained sidewalk. I know the story. He is a former quarterback that didn’t make the university cut. What else is he trained to do? He drinks in transition to his next drunk. Maybe he works part time to feed himself during his next hangover. She is drenched in humiliation. Bystanders watch the spectacle, clicking their tongues in judgment and doing nothing.
I, homeless, have nothing to lose. This is as good a chance for release as any. I stalk this pain like the weaker animal that it is. The bystanders tell me to stop, but it is too late. I found meaning and purpose. The predator grabs his prey and flees. I follow. The bystanders join in, but not for support. They want to be entertained. The parking lot is a dark burrow. The couple fights again and the air stings with the sound of a man slapping a woman. I can tell they are lovers. She lets out a primal scream. He threatens to drive off without her. I offer to pay her cab fare. He offers to kick my ass. I lunge forth, but hesitate at the last second. I am bewildered that my hands have involuntarily curled into a fist. She climbs into his car and they spin out of the parking lot before the police arrive. The Seattle police track them down, but she won’t press charges against her boyfriend. They drive off in a drunken honeymoon of pain. The bystanders are so busy intellectualizing about the event that they forget to help her out. Meanwhile, my jacket was stolen as I tried to stop the woman’s beating. I am angry at myself for hesitating and confused about this violent streak within. Where did this violence inside me come from? Am I still a pacifist?
The bars soon close, the coffee shops fold, and I am back on the streets looking for a place to crash. Construction sites, trees, alleyways – whatever is most obscured from a cop’s view. I try rattling on the doors of churches. I tried four different denominations. Too bad that they always lock their doors at night, “Sorry, you will have to take your pregnant wife to someone else’s manger”. Damn, even God operates on a 9-5 work schedule in America these days. On the Seattle streets I feel like the last man on earth, except for occasional traffic. I find a place to sleep in a stranger’s backyard. In the morning I leave before they wake up. I am like some urban pigeon flying out of view. My friends are home Sunday morning. They ask how I liked Port Townsend. I tell them I had a great time. I don’t want to talk about it. I am like a soldier who refuses to talk about his experiences with war. If you weren’t there you could never understand.
On my friend’s coffee table there was a small mound of mail for me. My student loans were due and I was expected to make monthly payments to multiple banking agencies. My credit card bills were pumped up with the steroids of a 19% interest fee, a service charge, and non-payment penalties. The debt buried me alive. Eventually, I finagled an one-way bus ticket back to Utah. Exactly one hour before my bus departed I received a phone call. It was a manager of a Starbutts® coffee franchise who offered me a part time job as a bean roaster. My timing is cursed. If he had called 49 days earlier I would have avoided the scar of the streets. As if it was a cosmic joke, this work invitation came just sixty minutes before I was scheduled to depart. It was too late. My bags were packed. I smoked a joint from a roommate’s private stash and caught the next greyhound bus. To this day I wonder about my fate if I accepted the job and cancelled my ticket.
In Utah I found a job planting sagebrush and sweet grass. A graduate student needed me to do this for her thesis research. It was very peaceful and the plants smelled wonderful. It was healing to watch something that I planted grow. Gardening was one lesson that I am thankful to have learned in college. Friends picked me up early in the morning for work. I wished to live in the fields of sagebrush and sweet grass, away from people and traffic, but it was against the rules to live on the worksite. I found a spot in someone’s garage instead. A friend let me live in his camper which rested inside his garage on cinder blocks and wooden stilts. It had a bed and a propane stove. Soon another friend in Seattle had the grace to mail me boxes of clothing and paperwork. This is the first time that I lived in a motor vehicle. However, it was only the detached shell. It was awkward to ask if I could live in the camper. After a long silence I inquired if I could stake a tent in my friend’s backyard, although I didn’t actually own a tent. I just needed a place to stay. My friend never hesitated to invite me to use his garage. That is how I passed my autumn living in his small camper. It was immobile and I was stagnant. All that my friend asked in return was for me to walk his dogs every now and then. My friend was an expert microbrewer. After walking his dogs I would have a pint. I was still shell shocked and full of shame. It was a blessing to be allowed to live in a garage and pay no rent. I felt thankful. I also experienced disappointment that I could never return such a favor. My friendships remained unbalanced and one-sided because I took more than I returned. How could I repay them? I was reluctant to look up school chums. My friends never pushed me to communicate and I recovered one day at a time, one paycheck after another. I started to educate myself about homelessness by borrowing library books. The material was a didactic tool to place my crisis into context, to trace the roots of my problem.
When I had saved about $100 I decided to get a series of tattoos. I wanted to own something that could never be taken away. I had lost nearly everything to homelessness and craved something permanent in my life. On one shoulder I have an ocean wave which represents freedom and movement, and on the opposite shoulder I have barbed wire which represents control and restriction. My life always seemed like a struggle between the two. On my right ankle I have an Egyptian ankh representing life and my left ankle is imprinted with a tribal symbol for death. These two forces continue to propel me forward. I never added any more tattoos. The four that I had etched into my skin were enough to give myself meaning once again. They were talismans that I could carry even as a slept at night in a garage.
The camper saved me from more wandering. My vehicle was motionless, like a winter coat hanging in a closet. Tires never touched pavement. My noxious voyage was becoming inert. Myself: a fragment sentence without a verb. I had a stable mailing address at least. My energy was spent on politics. It was an election year. I wanted to prevent George Bush from winning a second term. I paid the price of his recession and I deserved retribution. From the camper I rebuilt my life. Soon the cold season arrived. The winter chill frosted the windows of the camper. My morning breath visibly snaked upward inside the camper. Soon the leaves would fall off the trees and expose me to the neighbors. The traces of living in a garage would become more visible. I could no longer hide in my dark place. Winter cold is the ultimate fear of the homeless. It makes one vulnerable and there lurks the very real possibility of freezing to death at night. When it snowed in mid-November I knew I had to migrate once again.