H / U
[ note: This post is not quite complete. I’ve been working on it for a few weeks now. The opportunity to work inside has made it slightly more accessible, conceptually. In its original form, this was meant to be an experiment in minimalist expression, quite strictly. The final section in this post is not where the piece ends. There’re some additional sections which I may not bother completing. Time cost for me is quite high in every part of my life. As a post, it needs work and polishing, but doesn’t everything…? ]
Homelessness, if it can be described as being about anything, is about resources. The absence, the corruption, waste, and destruction of resources. Failure and degradation, loss, and stagnation. Humanity and society. Collective and individual. Human and financial resources, intangibles, and, especially, time. Mediated in this way, as an existence, this imposes a kind of thought-loop on a person. For the purposes of this post, that loop can be summarized with four phrases:
Here’s How It Looks
Here’s How It Is
Here’s How I’m Handling It
Here’s Why It Doesn’t Matter
Modern homelessness can look a lot like a normal person’s life. Technology facilitates all the virtues of today’s global citizen — connectivity, awareness of the culture of celebrity (welcome back Paris!), up-to-date-on-funny-memes, who’s in, who’s out, all the great stuff for a discerning 21st century person.
We have a lot of downtime, the homeless. More accurately, we lead a passive existence. It’s lonely, dull, and goes nowhere. It’s a lifestyle that needs coping with. Some find a biting drug habit useful. Others find a bit of institutionalization a solution to disconnectedness. Some stir the pot, making drama as a way to feel alive. All of us wait to die.
Another way to cope, the approach I’ve taken, is to consume media. TV, movies, music, books, radio, podcasts. I couldn’t begin to account for the cumulative years spent watching, listening to, or reading something. There’ve been a lot of Great Courses lectures, non-fiction audio books, Old Time Radio programs, news, documentaries, and other plainly educational hours spent. I’ve used my time as best I could. (Debatable, but I wanted a little note here.) How much have I retained? Who can say?
More importantly, what is knowledge without power to make use of it? Like in one of those trope-y scenes from a post-apocalyptic story, you know, where the characters come across a big pile of money? Absolutely useless, in context. Some versions of that story feature a character collecting up bundled packets of that useless scrip, failing to acknowledge the fundamental change of circumstance. I could spend all day learning about lab technique. How would I possibly apply that knowledge?
Lucky for me we’re living in a second golden age of narrative entertainment. It’s been very enjoyable. A good television series, film, or audioplay is immersive. It’ll draw you into the emotional reality of its world and take you on a journey. The just-right combination of writing, performance, and narrative experience can be very much like actually participating. It’s life-by-proxy.
Certainly, any experience depends on factors. We can all relate to human stories, even when they exist outside our own experience and knowledge. ‘Ozark,’ is a TV series I’ve really liked. Life in the Ozarks isn’t something I closely relate to, but I’m drawn to the show. It’s story casts light on the miserable knife’s edge of contemporary life at the dirty end of the First World. It’s moody and cinematic. Also, it features an actor I like, Jason Bateman. The rest of the cast is exceptional, though I’ve a particular fondness for Bateman. He featured in my favourite shows as a boy. Like so many other celebrities, he’s got a podcast.
‘Smartless,’ is hosted by Jason Bateman, Will Arnett, and Sean Hayes. It’s worth mentioning as a podcast for many reasons. These guys have absolutely nailed the genre. By genre I’m referring to the ‘Celebrity-Hosted Interviews’ podcast genre. They successfully (and quite consciously) avoid every pitfall and trap of the celebrity podcast. They’re funny, they’re personable. They’re self-deprecating while also being arrogant about what humility they profess. Every story is told either for comic effect, or contextualizes the interview. They deliver their famous guests to the audience in ways that stretch beyond the brand-building you’ll typically find in a celebrity-centric interview piece. Funny and informative, reliably so. I look forward to every new episode. It’s an achievement.
Podcasts have featured prominently in my media diet these past fourteen years. The pandemic has brought the medium to many more people, for better or worse. Uncertainty and a lot of empty hours were the universal experience early in the pandemic. I relied on comedy to get through. I’d spend hours laughing and laughing, cold, hungry, and dehydrated in my pile of cardboard. Publicly accessible resources were scarce. My expenses tripled. People were panicky. No one knew yet just how bad things might get. The street was completely empty before long, and the people who did come around were not coming to make friends.
This tactic, using comedy to get through a hard time, is one I’ve used throughout my homelessness. I’ve not always had a phone, a laptop, or media player. In those times, I’d spend hours on public computers, in the library or the Apple store, locked into place, chasing a laugh. To anyone who did know I was homeless, I’d look a lot like a normal consumer. The difference being by the end of the day I was looking forward only to doing the same again tomorrow. And then again. And again. Not so much has changed. It’s a fundamentally passive mode of life.
My tastes are fairly international. Most countries have produced terrific stories accessible to international audiences. Fortunately, I’ve had the opportunity to burn time up enjoyably watching film and TV. As I’ve developed more and better options for consuming media, the available content has improved in quality and diversity. As I said, I’m lucky. Mostly, I’ve taken a lot of pleasure from decoding British stories, British history and British culture. I am, by now, an unapologetic Britophile.
At various times this past decade and a half, I’ve dedicated myself to learning. I became conversant in Arabic. Got in some tech education, minor advances on my existing knowledge and experience. I took on a few other small projects, had success, but could do nothing with the outcome. Many of my projects focused on history. Some were focused on the function of the modern world, how it came to be, and where’s it’s going. Early in my homelessness I spent a lot of time thinking about my own early life and history.
Growing up in Canada, I was exposed to American history and culture to the exclusion of that of my own country. It remains a problem, and one not much helped by Canada’s colonial history. Half the people who shaped our official history did so as their duty, eventually heading back home across the Atlantic. Sure, the Underground Railroad and all that. But do I know anything, really, about our history? ‘I cannot tell a lie,’ is a phrase deeply embedded in my memory, along with any number of other heroic figures and Americanisms transmitted to my young, saturated brain. Seriously, ‘School House Rock’ has fuck all to do with our system of government, yet still resonates, somehow.
In my neighbourhood, as a young teen, the “chung-chung” of ‘Law and Order,’ was ubiquitous most evenings after mealtime. We’d had a new set of US cable channels added to our standard service and high quality procedurals were definitely the thing. Watching these stories unfold, I learned about some of the broad inner workings of the American system of law. It’s significantly different from ours in Canada, and varies further from the legal system of the UK. Still, many touchstones of American legal drama live in my memory, based on fictional and real stories.
The legal system in Canada is closely linked to homelessness. Not in the sense you’d expect. To be sure, we are more likely than most to have contact with police. That’s not what I mean. Homeless shelters operate very much as minimum security prisons do. Shelter culture is prison culture. There are codes of behaviour which include social norms. There are do’s, don’ts, and red lines, just like prison. And, as with ex-convicts, the homeless face a serious stigma. As with the prisoner experience, we have been subjected to extreme behavioural limitations and controls.
Stigma has power. It has power over some of the most important elements of a person’s life. A life can easily be defined by stigma. For someone like me, homeless, impoverished, and with very few paths forward, we are placed quietly, politely, within a set of boundaries which we’ll never break out of. It’s a stain that doesn’t come out.
Growing up when I did, where I did, I was fairly lucky. Suburban, not too far from woods and a river, a good library and decent playgrounds. School was within walking distance. Most of the kids on my street were within a year or two of my age. We all had parents who could afford to provide bicycles for us, new clothes every season, toboggans, and birthday parties bowling, or at McDonald’s. We had it pretty good. We never questioned any of it.