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Anything will work if you let it.


I ran into Lowell a couple of days ago down at the HIVE where he was helping out with the BikeMe! open hours. Lowell knows bikes; when he came to Greensboro three years ago he brought with him the bicycle he had bought in Artesia, New Mexico in 1983—he would still be riding that bike today if it hadn’t been demolished when a car ran into him last year. He came to Greensboro in the spring of 2005 with the bike, some clothes, and a guy who skipped town shortly after he dropped Lowell off in a patch of woods near the Coliseum. That’s where Lowell lived for the first summer and winter, in a makeshift shelter of plywood and shingles. After the police started coming around too often, he moved further out—“further out” is the only address I have for him, and the only address I want to have—and that’s where he’s been ever since.

I was glad to see Lowell. Homelessness almost by definition makes people hard to track down, and Lowell is more difficult than some because he refuses to use email. “How do you communicate with people then?” I asked him once. He answered the question with patience. “I talk to them.”

I had asked Lowell a couple of months ago if I could interview him for this blog, and he had told me to go ahead and tell him when I was ready. With all that’s happening at the HIVE and Food Not Bombs—Lowell is deeply involved in both—and with all the talk in Greensboro about the need for a day center, this seemed like a good time to write some more about homelessness. I told Lowell I wanted to share some of his ingenious survival tactics.

“Not survival,” he corrected me. “I do a lot more than survive.”

“How about thrival tactics,” I said.

“That’s better,” Lowell said. “I thrive.”

We made an arrangement to meet early at Food Not Bombs to talk. The weather on Tuesday was lovely. There must be a term in poetics or in physics for the feeling it gave me, for the strange way certain kinds of light can rearrange chronology. The clear, warm afternoon sunlight that filled the high-ceilinged room at St. Mary’s House belonged to a sequence of early summer afternoons that stretch all the way back to those first breathless days of summer vacation. It could have been 1958 or 1978 or last year; it could have been New Hampshire or Massachusetts or North Carolina. It had a floating, expansive quality that disengaged the day from Monday and Wednesday and strung it on a longer and more tender string.

“I’m not really homeless, you know,” Lowell said as we settled into the little nest of sofas by the front door, “I’m just houseless. I like the spot where I am.”

I asked him what he did about the necessities—drinking water, for instance. “You always boil the water—that’s not hard,” he said. You can’t burn wood or they’ll find you. You use a candle.”

“A candle? That’s hot enough?”

“Sure—all you need is a candle and a pot from Goodwill or the dumpster. You can use any kind of candle, anything but natural beeswax; paraffin burns the hottest. Then you make a grid out of green sticks to hold the pan and you shelter the candle from the wind. Long butane lighters, the kind people use on gas grills, are best. Matches are hard to keep dry—even if you seal them in a plastic bag, the bag has a tendency to sweat on the inside. The only exception is waxed matches designed for camping.”

“Then what?” I said.

“Oh, once you have boiling water there’s a lot you can make—ramen noodles, instant oatmeal, soup. Or you can heat food right in a can.”

Danny came over with a plastic bag full of peppers and tomatoes from the kitchen—we encourage people to come into the kitchen and take whatever food isn’t going into that night’s meal. “You know what that means,” he said, hoisting the bag. “A pot of beans.” Danny is one of the people participating in the new Housing First program—he’s living in his own apartment again for the first time in a couple of years. He sat down on the other sofa.

“Where does the canned food come from?” I asked Lowell.

“Sometimes the dumpster, sometimes a food pantry,” he said.

Urban Ministry is hard,” Danny said. “They won’t give you a bag of food unless you arrive in a car.”

“A car?” I said.

Mike sat down next to Danny. “They’re afraid you’ll sell it,” he said.

“If you’re homeless Urban Ministry will give you an overnight bag, something like a packet of crackers, a can of tuna—a dinky little can, not even one of the regular ones,” Danny said. “I had a couple of overnight bags, and then when I got my own place I got a ride over there and tried to sign up but they said I couldn’t because I’d already had four overnight bags this year.”

“There’s not a limit on overnight bags,” Mike said.

“Apparently there was for me. They wanted my ID and my social. When they looked me up they told me I couldn’t get a full bag because I’d been there before. They told me and they told my caseworker.”

Mike shook his head. “They do what they want to do.”

“That,” said Danny “about sums it up,”

Lowell doesn’t have an ID or a social security card, and he doesn’t have the paperwork to get them. He lost them back in New Mexico. “You did better than I did,” he said. “All I got from them is ‘I don’t know what to tell you’ and ‘I don’t care’.”

“How do you open the can?” I said.

“P38,” Lowell and Danny said at the same time.

“What’s a P38?”

Danny reached into his pocket and pulled out a small flat piece of metal about the size of a razor blade. “Army can opener,” he said.

“That and a plastic spoon out of the dumpster and you’re set,” Lowell said. “The first thing I did after I’d made that shelter in the woods was start collecting stuff out of the dumpster—candles, food, LED lights from behind the drugstore. I slept on couch cushions. I found a tarp and put it over the opening of the shelter. I spent one winter in that little shelter—with the tarp down I could light a candle inside and not even see my breath.”

“So what are the basics that somebody needs?”

Lowell stood up and reached into his pockets: bike key, small Swiss Army knife, a neat packet of folded papers—Lowell calls them his “memory papers”, folded notes and flyers that are the equivalent of a daytimer—an LED flashlight from the dollar store. “I prefer the LED,” Lowell said. ”Much brighter than a regular flashlight and it runs on AAA batteries, which are cheaper.”

“It’s best to keep only the bare necessities,” Danny said. “When I was homeless I carried a military backpack. If it didn’t fit into the backpack I didn’t keep it.”

“Is there something you wish you had but didn’t? Something like, I don’t know, like an axe or something?”

Lowell shrugged. “A woodsman’s machete would be nice,” he l said. “It would make it easier to clean raccoons.” Mike made a face and shifted on the sofa. He’s from Brooklyn. “It’s hard to clean a raccoon with something this size,” Lowell went on, holding the diminutive Swiss Army knife on the flat of his palm.

“Why do you carry such a small knife?” I asked.

“You can’t bring anything bigger into Urban Ministry.”

“But how do you sneak up on a raccoon?”

“You don’t need to—they come to you,” Lowell said, and Danny nodded. “You hit them right behind the head with a big stick and break their neck.”

“You use your light,” Danny said. “Everything freezes when you shine your light on them.”

“That’s usually just long enough,” Lowell said.

“Then what?”

“The first thing after that is to cut both ends off and throw them out as far as you can. That’s to keep the other raccoons away. They’ll eat the head and the tail and leave you alone. Then you just skin it and clean it and cook it.”

“Do you do anything with the skin?” I had a brief internal picture of Lowell sitting cross-legged in the woods stitching himself a raccoon-skin comforter.

“Throw it out same as the tail and the head.”

“You don’t make anything out of it?”

“Not if I don’t want the fleas. And I’m careful about the raccoons I eat—I don’t eat the raccoons that eat out of people’s garbage cans, or the ones that come out of the sewer.”

“I eat out of people’s garbage cans,” I said.

“Not the kind of garbage cans I’m talking about,” Lowell said.

When the raccoon is cleaned and skinned Lowell fries the meat over a candle, or adds it to a can of stew. “It’s the same with snakes, squirrels, rabbits–even the occasional chicken will wander in down there.”

“Possum,” Danny said.

“The only thing I’ve had any problem catching is the frogs.”

Mike said “You eat snakes?’

“If they’re two inches in diameter I do. Black bull snakes. Then there’s the wild fruit. In town there’s people’s fruit trees all over the place hanging out over the sidewalk. And in the woods strawberries, blackberries, mulberries. All you have to do is watch what the animals eat. If they don’t eat it I don’t eat it, if they don’t drink it I don’t drink it. The only difference is I boil the water.”

The smells coming out of the kitchen were growing richer and deeper, filling the space with sonorous tones of garlic and onion. We had been given a couple of bags of potatoes and Morris was deep frying them—big meaty wedges dusted with chili powder and sea salt. He brought out some of the first batch and passed them around; crisp and hot to the touch on the outside, cool and yielding on the inside.

“To me it’s like being in the army on bivouac,” Danny said, brushing the salt off his hands. “The only difference is that in the army you don’t know who the enemy is. When you’re homeless you know who the enemy is. It’s the guy next to you.”

Lowell nodded. “I have more peace now than I did when I had a home. I know where my enemies are, and they’re not where I am.”

“What do you mean by enemies?” I said. Like all homeless people Lowell gets stopped a lot by the police when he’s walking or riding his bike or even just sitting; it infuriates him. “Do you mean the government? The police?

“Oh no, they’re everyone’s enemies,” Lowell said. “I mean the people who have decided they are my enemy, the ones who would rather hurt me than help me. It could be the agencies, the churches, it could be other homeless. I didn’t choose to be their enemy, they chose to be mine. What I’ve learned is that you should always do the opposite of what they tell you. Whatever they tell you to do, you go in the opposite direction instantly or you’re going to wind up in that pit with them.”

I still wasn’t sure I entirely understood, but Danny was speaking. “There are people who make the rest of the homeless look bad.”

Mike nodded. “One person can ruin it for everyone else. Because of those selected few things happen to all of us.”

Stan had been standing a little outside the circle. He came in and sat down. “They’ll use any reason to stop you. Any reason.”

“You know, though, when you’re homeless there are a lot of headaches you don’t have,” Danny said. “How you’re going to pay the electric bill, how you’re going to hold onto your job, all that. With homelessness, once you get used to it, it’s actually better.”

“It’s like Will Rogers said: anything will work if you’ll let it,” Lowell said. “But a lot of people just don’t know. They don’t know that you’re set up to fail. They don’t know that there’s no way you can succeed under this system.”

“You want to know something?” Danny said “All those people in the middle class, upper middle class, all the people that look down on us, if we don’t get somebody worthwhile up there–I don’t care if it’s Hillary or Obama, anybody that’s not what we’ve got right now–there are going to be a lot more of them out here with us. And when that happens I think you’re going to start seeing the suicide rate go up. They’re not going to be able to take it.”

Stan shook his head. “It’s too late. It doesn’t matter any more who’s up there. Four years isn’t enough, forty years isn’t enough, to undo what’s been done. Basically the way it is now, we either live together or we’re going to die together.”

But it was six o’clock. There was a rustling at the other end of the room as people lined up next to the tables that had been set up with stir-fried vegetables and fruit and bread and Morris’s deep-fried potatoes. The sun was level now through the windows, glinting off the water pitcher and the forks and the stack of china plates. I wasn’t staying that night to eat, but I did take another one of Morris’s potatoes. People were eating, sitting and talking and eating, as I closed the door behind me.

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This is not easy watching

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The Blues

Remember that scene in Annie Hall where the young Alvy Singer is sitting in a doctor’s office with his mother? The doctor asks him why he’s depressed, why he won’t do his homework and he says “The universe is expanding.”

That’s the way I’ve been feeling lately. Maybe it’s just February—which is itself expanding this year–or maybe it’s the several hours I spent on the living room sofa last Saturday evening watching The Corporation, or maybe it’s the headlines that land on our front steps every morning (yesterday morning it was health care costs headed into the trillions, gas going up to $3.40 a gallon, and what’s being called a “Doomsday” seed vault in Norway), or maybe it’s just that everything seems to be falling apart a lot faster than anyone expected or can respond to.

Usually I feel pretty hopeful about the world. Maybe not about the way the world is going right now, but about the resilience of the human spirit, about our innate capacity to make pleasure and happiness out of whatever materials we find at hand. But this week…I don’t know, I keep thinking about Chang and Eng, the conjoined twins exhibited by P.T. Barnum back in the 1830s. After they retired they moved to North Carolina, married a pair of sisters, bought farms and raised families. But Chang was a heavy drinker; in January of 1874 he contracted pneumonia and on the night of January 17 he died. His brother Eng, healthy up until then, died two and a half hours later. On days like this I feel like Eng, sharing vital organs and a circulatory system with a profligate twin whose habits are going to bring us both down in the end.

So let’s just go with it. Be forewarned: this is the jeremiad edition of my blog, a round up of some of the things that are making me feel bleak and hopeless and scared this week. Enjoy.

Here in the Southeastern U.S. we’re in the middle of a drought; by late last summer the lawns were parched, the fountains in the park downtown were silent, and the farmers at the farmer’s market were closing their tables early because they didn’t have enough to sell. The middle part of the drought map—the part where I live—is marked in dark red indicating “exceptional and widespread crop/pasture losses; shortages of water in reservoirs, streams, and wells creating water emergencies.”

“We didn’t expect climate change, we didn’t pay attention,” Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin said in October as that city looked at two to four se-drought-12908.jpgmonths of water left in its reservoirs. On the other side of the country Lake Mead is drying up—mighty Lake Mead, whose waters are essential to Phoenix, Las Vegas and Southern California. “We were stunned at the magnitude of the problem and how fast it was coming at us,” said Tim Barnett, one of the scientists studying the lake’s future. “Make no mistake, this water problem is not a scientific abstraction, but rather one that will impact each and every one of us that live in the Southwest.” On the other side of the world the glaciers in the Himalayas are melting because of climate change; the UN predicts that by 2030—2030!–they’ll be mostly gone. The glaciers act as a giant reservoir for the Ganges, the Yangtze, the Mekong and many of the other great rivers of India and Southeast Asia. When the glaciers go so does the water that sustains the two billion people who live along those rivers.

It’s everywhere. The U.N. estimates that by 2025 fresh drinking water will be a scarcity for two-thirds of the world’s population. Is there anything in our recent history to suggest that the remaining one third of the world—a lot of which is us–will gladly share? My guess is that not only will we not share, but that we’ll see the scarcity as another opportunity to leverage our own power. In 2000 the people of Bolivia rose up when the government sold water rights in the city of Cochabamba to a subsidiary of Bechtel and water prices increased by 35 percent. After massive protests during which several people were killed, the contract was canceled and the water operation became public again, but the problem isn’t solved: people in the poor sections of Cochabamba still pay ten times as much for their water as households in wealthy neighborhoods.

People are killing each other in Ethiopia over access to water and pastureland; in Kenya Kikuyu and Maasai are fighting over a river diversion project, and throughout northern Africa the desert is creeping southward. The bloodletting in the Darfur region of Sudan was set off by drought and water scarcity caused by climate change. Closer to home Tennessee and Georgia are squaring off over water, and feelings are running high in the upper Midwest as other parts of the country begin drought-driven legal maneuverings to get hold of the Great Lakes water.

It’s like some horrible metaphor: 72 percent of the planet is covered in water, over half of our own bodies is made up of water. Hunger is bad, but thirst is a thousand times worse. The French philosopher of gastronomy Brillat-Savarin wrote in 1825: “The sensation of thirst is so intense, that in all tongues it is synonymous with excessive desire, and irrepressible longing: thus we thirst for gold, wealth, power, science, &c., expressions which never would have become common had men not have been athirst and aware of their vengeance. Appetite is pleasant when it does not reach the point of hunger. Thirst is not so, and as soon as we feel it we are uncomfortable and anxious. When there is no possibility of appeasing it, the state of mind is terrible.”

This isn’t oil we’re talking about. This isn’t the raw materials to make cell phones or Krugerrands or shampoo bottles. This is the essential ingredient of all life on this planet. When we use access to water to coerce or punish or harm other people, when we use access to water to enrich ourselves or to increase our own power without any regard to the effect of our actions, when we foul and disregard and dishonor water, we commit a crime against our own humanness. That’s where we’re headed. And we did it to ourselves.

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