15 February, 2019

from Record of a Pair of Well-Worn Traveling Boots: Be Safe Out There [a brief ethnography]


The middle-aged black man was wearing a blue suit coat that was too big for him, worn around the cuffs, and missing a couple of buttons. It was October, and after dark, which meant it was a little chilly. His clothes under the blue coat were rattier than the coat. Tired flipflops left his feet exposed. In his hands, he held an empty baby bottle. He approached me after I finished pumping gas. Debit cards weren't a thing in those days, and neither were card readers on gas pumps. But in that part of the city, near the university and Short Vine -- another area I ended up spending a lot of time -- you walked in and paid before you pumped. And I've always preferred cash transactions, anyway --chalk that up to my small towniness. 

The town where I'm from isn't remote or isolated in a geographic sense, but I learned early there are other kinds of distance, other types of geography that are difficult to cross -- especially when it's crossed under duress. And truthfully, crossing the distance between where I'm from and where I have ended up wasn't so much a problem for me. But it took me a long time to figure out that there's no going back. Not really.

Cincinnati was the first place I escaped to when I got my driver's license. It was the closest city, and the nearest place of any size. And though I didn't mean to end up there, necessarily, I ended up in a part of town that I would, and do, return to: Over the Rhine. In those days, Vine Street was still an open market for pretty much any illicit thing you could want. Not that tried any of it; I still had a healthy dose of small town naivete that, for good or bad, managed to save me. But I did witness my first drug deal and accidentally walk up on a sex trade transaction. All the parties involved were amused by my small town whiteness -- amused and too busy to punish me for it. Because while Cincinnati was a dangerous place, and while OTR was probably the place furthest from where I lived -- for a whole host of reasons -- it never once occurred to me that I might have been in danger. I explored it with an anthropologist's curiosity -- and detachment -- that has served me well over the years, no matter how deep I dived or how close to the bottom I got.

He started in by telling me he wasn't just panhandling. He was passing through, he said, pointing directionlessly towards the interstate. His car broke down and his wife and baby daughter stayed with the car because it was chilly out. He waved the baby bottle at me as proof that his story was true. In the moment it didn't occur to me that he might just be hustling for drug money; it did occur to me that he sounded too practiced to be in moment. Growing up as I did around a few truly ineffective liars, I had started to pick up an ear for that sort of thing.  But also, in that moment, I didn't care. I don't know if it was the dedication to his story, or the flip flops. But I gave him a few dollars, wished him luck.

- Be safe out there, I said. And then I got in my car and left, traversing the various geographies back to my hometown, where panhandlers were prime time television extras, where the poverty was just as palpable, but somehow different. A place I would not be able to look at in the same way, or ever really be able to stay -- though at the time I wasn't aware that anything in me had shifted.
I think about him often and wonder whatever happened to him. I see him in every face I've met doing outreach. I've revisited that moment hundreds, maybe thousands of times over the years. And while I don't know if that was when it all changed or when it first occured to me that something had, I'm forever grateful that he crossed my path.


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11 February, 2019

From Field Notes: I don't like Mondays (Tell me why)

Tim Wetherell's Clockwork Universe 
The Telex machine is kept so clean /As it types to a waiting world - Bob Geldof

There isn't an American alive who doesn't contend with clocks. They organize our lives: tell us when to wake up, when to eat lunch, what time we need to start our workouts, what time we have to make that meeting that would suffice as a well written email. My wife sets no fewer than 3 alarms to wake up in the morning. In addition to giving her  a sense of very much needed control over what is essentially beyond our control --she has to wake up, get moving, and be out the door to her place of work by 6:30 -- it also imbues the whole thing with a sense of ceremony. When she is on vacation and is  able to shut all three of them off, we do so with revelry and relief. When it's time to turn them back on, we do so solemnly and with as much stoicism as we can dig out of our unwilling amygdalas. 

I have a wind up alarm clock by my side of the bed that  I keep mainly for the sound. There's something in the tick tock of a clock that makes me feel like I'm closer to the mystical machinations of the universe -- a notion born out of the thoroughly Newtonian core of my brain that sometimes allows me to see the connections and tendrils and crystalline cogs that keep everything going. 

One of the blessings of my life is that I've been able to excise myself from the gravitational center of the time clock. I work project to project, which has deadlines. But those are more or less self-prescribed, or at least agreed upon. I'm bound to a clock when I travel, but that's really only dipping in to a world that is far more interested in schedules than I am. I tend to think of my life more in terms of rhythm than time. Time moves in whatever fashion it does and there's very little I can do about that, other than acknowledge it, imbue it with a certain amount of ceremony, and keep onward. But rhythm... that's something different all together. 

I like to think I live my life in Common Time. For those of you out there who don't catch the musical reference, Common Time is 4/4 or four beats per measure of music. (A measure is a marking of musical phrasing... but let's not get bound up here.) Most music you hear is in 4/4. It's the easiest and most commonly used... hence why it is called Common Time. You can play it fast (allegro). You can play it slow (andante).  All that matters is that the music goes on. 

Mondays are like time clocks. They tend to monopolize our lives because we've allowed them to. We obsess over Mondays ( and Fridays) like alcoholics obsess over booze and we've decided it normal because that's the song we were handed to play. We obsess over time to the point that our entire civilization has become a tug-of-war between trying to turn back time and trying to figure out how to spend it meaningfully -- or at least, giving ourselves plenty of time to binge Netflix. We're never really alone thanks to social media, but somehow people still manage to feel more lonely. We obsess. We mark time. We dread Monday. We pray for Friday... or maybe more specifically payday. We live for the weekends. Instead of rapture as the untenable and impossible to gauge end, we have retirement, which is just as untenable. But then Monday. And then Friday. And again. Tick Tock. Tick Tock.

Maybe it's time to smash the clock and get a new one. Maybe it's time to find rhythm and put away our Mondays and Fridays and all our somedays and retirement fantasies. 

But like anyone in the program will tell you, the first step is admitting you have a problem.



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01 February, 2019

Your Eight Cups Runneth Over - The Annual Count


It is this - that everyone in the world is Christ and they are all crucified. That's what I want to say. Don't you forget that. Whatever happens, don't you dare let yourself forget. ~ Sherwood Anderson

Eight of Cups
In my 20's and through most of my 30's the tarot card I associated myself with the most was the Eight of Cups. It cropped up a lot in readings, though in different contexts, which -- if you put any credence in that sort of thing -- can change the meaning. It's a card full of disappointments, abandonments, desertions, and disappointments. Cups, as a suit, are associated with water, and, being a Pisces (the most waterful of all the water signs), this appealed to me on multiple levels. Not that I ascribe any particular magic to the cards; if nothing else, I think they tend to reflect the energy of the person that uses them and can sometimes provide murky, if not downright fortune cookie-like guidance to wrangling questions that are probably better answered by detachment rather than focus.

Lately, though, The Hanged Man is more in my thoughts. And while I haven't indulged in tarot in more than 20 years, I still find the metaphors meaningful in a sort meta-psychological way. Like many literature majors in recovery, I am a symbol junkie. and because I'm a symbol junkie I know symbolism can be found anywhere, and nowhere -- other than literature, tarot decks, and The Freemasons -- can more symbolism be found than in government. The same is true of the annual count.

The annual count is an exercise in futility; for any number of reasons the count is always inaccurate, and generally used as a PR device by the city to trumpet their "responsible" stewardship of city resources. But like most forms of futility, it must be carried out anyway. Local media often frames it as a huge undertaking done by the Coalition to better assess and provide resources to the homeless community. The Coalition doesn't necessarily discourage this view, though it doesn't endorse it, either. At the Wednesday night training, for example, the facilitator stated that the reason for the count was so that the Coalition could have up-to-date numbers for it's annual grant application. This annual grant is worth $10 million.

So, basically, as a volunteer for the count, I was there basically as an unpaid census worker.  Unpaid... but they WERE going to provide breakfast after it was finished.

I went out on a team of 4 with Amanda and two other very nice ladies, one of whom is a regular volunteer with the outreach organization I also volunteer with -- an organization that DOES NOT see any of that $10 million.  Our route was a short one, maybe a little over a mile of Bardstown Road. This was an advantage. We would be able o scour a relatively small area pretty thoroughly. This was also an advantage, because it's a route Amanda and I went out on often on weekly outreach... so it's one we already knew. This would help not only because of time -- we pretty much had from 4am to 6am -- but because the overnight/early morning temperature was -5.

Amanda and I decided it was best to leapfrog the area. Park, walk a few blocks and look for people, then circle back to the car and drive up to the furthest point we walked. This would keep up near the car, and allow us to keep warm. Our partners appreciated our plan, though initially thought we were being a little silly since our route was  "only about mile."

We made our way up and back, up and back, and up and back. Walking in the cold reminded me of my time on the street in Chicago -- which makes me both love and fear that city with a symbolic and mystical equity. Other than the 4am staff at Cafe 360 and one guy who was couch surfing (so, by definition of the grant, not technically homeless) we didn't run into anyone. I was glad, too. And so was Amanda. It was too cold and that stretch of Bardstown Road is too far from resources to be there in that weather. But we also knew that if anyone was on Bardstown Road, it was not going to be in that area, which is all business and residential. Our section from Bonnycastle to Winter Ave was a high traffic area during the day and prime panhandling real estate; but even the homeless don't always live where they work.

We are, after all, a nation of commuters.

After we finished and went back to the hotel, we checked in and left our partners to the provided breakfast -- which, we had already heard, included some very suspect eggs.  Before Amanda took me home and went to work, we had time to grab breakfast at Waffle House where the eggs were not at all questionable and the hash browns were smothered and peppered.

And here I come back to The Hanged Man. Often portrayed as a willing sacrifice, occasionally
portrayed as Judas, The Hanged Man is also associated with Christ and with Odin, both of whom, according to the stories, hung themselves on trees -- one as a sacrifice for all mankind and the other to gain all knowledge and wisdom. I think of The Hanged Man as maybe the most overlooked, most misunderstood card in the tarot deck that, along with the Death Card, have been woefully abused by movie and television scribblers for years. I think of The Hanged Man and I wonder, as the numbers are compiled and fed into the Public Relations machine with the same efficiency that they'll be plugged into the Coalition's annual grant application, who is being betrayed, who is being sacrificed and what wisdom is being gained.





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