Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Material Values

Every week I work the Real Change vendor desk for 6 hours. Usually it's elementary, if not easy, work. Vendors pay 35 cents for each paper. If I can't work out in my head that at that rate 83 papers is $25.05, no problem, a computer does the math for me. Occasionally a vendor comes in a plunks down $25, and says, "I want what that will get me," and the computer isn't set up to do it that way, and I have to think very hard to figure out that they should get 82.857 papers. But even that's just memorizing your basic times sevenths table.

Then there are times it's neither elementary nor easy, like the other week when a vendor came in with a swollen jaw who'd just been robbed of all his belongings. He said he gave everything up freely to the creeps who jumped him, but they roughed him up anyway.

The police are reportedly stepping up their presence downtown and working harder to stop violent crime, but the issue I see coming up over and over again is that there is no recourse for homeless victims of theft. The injuries are treated in emergency rooms. But if a homeless person has everything he owns taken away, there is nothing done about it.

Amazingly, people think there's nothing that needs to be done. They didn't have anything to begin with. Now they still have nothing, right? They're homeless! That's the way they're supposed to be, right?

No, they didn't have nothing to begin with. They had little. There's a huge difference between having little and having nothing. Let me give some examples, based on my own experiences.

When I was homeless I had little. One of the little things I had was a Radio Shack knockoff of a Walkman, and six cassette tapes. I remember distinctly that for many months there were precisely six tapes. I counted them often to make sure they were all there. I won't bore you with the titles. The important thing is that with those 6 tapes I had a home entertainment system. That's pretty good for someone without a home.

During one bout of homelessness I had a freak Bic pen. It somehow lasted an entire 8 months. It was like the Loaves and Fishes that fed the multitudes. It was like the oil in the lamps that wouldn't burn up. It had the added quality that if you touched it to paper and pulled it away, it released a long filament of ink that could be laid down anywhere. It was priceless.

Another little thing I had was a family album. There were pictures in it from before I was born, going back to 1917, of parents and other family. Honestly, I'm not too fond of my family, but I'm fond of having had one. Having a family, and having evidence of it, enables me to prove to strangers that I am as human as they are. I was born of a woman just like them. I was once very small and am now larger, just like them. This sort of thing is invaluable especially to someone who has no home.

When I was homeless I had more than my memory of who I am, I had documents to prove it. I had Washington State ID, a birth certificate, even a military dependent's card left over from childhood, and a slew of old school IDs I've never tossed.

It turns out that all wage-earning employment and most assisted housing in this country require, by law, proof of identity. Heaven forbid that the poor homeless person you're lifting out of poverty isn't the poor homeless person he says he is.

If I had lost everything, I would have been left without music, magic, proof of humanity, and a way out.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Unreal Estate

As I've said repeatedly, most homeless people don't want to be.

It turns out, though, that some do. The fact that I don't come right out and say so annoys some of my very favorite friends, so I want to make up for that and talk about the tradition of being homeless on purpose, saying where it comes from, and why it needs to be celebrated. Let's begin with a real life situation.

Last June a man died near Medford, in southern Oregon. Authorities have accused another man of manslaughter. There were three homeless witnesses, including a married couple. For the past 11 weeks all three innocent witnesses have been held in jail with miserly compensations of $7.50 per day, and the married couple separated, not because they are flight risks, but, in the words of the judge who ordered the jailing, "When they weren't incarcerated, they weren't easy to find."

I guess to appear to save a little trouble and expense it's OK to treat people like animals, in Medford, Oregon, notwithstanding the fact that these days hotel rooms cost less than properly staffed jail space.

The story touches on one reason why people prefer to be homeless. If you have a permanent home, your next door neighbor could be anybody. You could end up being stuck next door to an sickeningly inhumane judge for example. There would be no way out but to move.

Now, if you move away from idiots or monsters once every three years, you're an American. But if you're moving away from idiots and monsters every two or three days, you're a nomad.

Nomad is the technical scientific term for "person who chooses to be homeless." There are three kinds of nomad, the Hunter-Gatherer, the Pastoral, and the Peripatetic.

Fellow Real Change editor Artis has been a Peripatetic Nomad, and a good one. The term refers to people who travel about to sell their skills from place to place. You can only be a Peripatetic Nomad if you are really good at something, enough to be paid for it.

[Above: Nomadic Kazakhs on the Steppe.]

The Hunter-Gatherer Nomads were also called "humans" at one time. That one time lasted, oh, a few million years. Winter in the Levant, Summer in Greece. Good times.

Human beings evolved to be Hunter-Gatherers. Hunter-Gatherers were the first-born number-one sons-of-righteousness for eons and eons. How dare anyone say that it isn't a proper lifestyle? It's like saying sex was meant to happen in a test tube. No, it was meant to happen the other way, the way it's been happening. When it comes to lifestyles Hunter-Gatherer is the way it's been, longer and before any other.

The Pastoral Nomads are the guys herding the sheep and the horses and the goats and the chickens and the roosters all around the country-side. The Bible records the exact moment that these people got the upper hand over the Hunter-Gatherers, when pastoral Jacob cheated hunter-gatherer twin brother Esau out of his heritage. To this day, Pastoral Nomads are considered tricksy, but are in reality no tricksier than the people who stole their heritage from them.

[Above: Vincent van Gogh: The Caravans - Gypsy Camp near Arles (1888, Oil on canvas).]

Those who stole the heritage of the Pastoral Nomads were, of course, the biggest thieves in all human history, the thieves known as Settlers. Everyone knows that Settlers stole America from the Hunter-Gatherer and Pastoral Natives, but did you know that the word Settler is just another word for someone who chooses a housed lifestyle?

Settlers claim land that used to belong to everyone. That amounts to stealing from all the rest of humanity. For each parcel of land in the world, the first deed ever written up for that parcel marked its initial theft. All real estate is stolen property.

Whereas, being a nomad means not participating in that kind of thievery. That's respectable.

[Above: Jeune fille nomade (16 ans) devant la tente familiale à Matamoulane, dans la région du Trarza (Mauritanie)]

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Retreat Writing

Sometimes I read stories in the mainstream papers that call into question this whole enterprise. An example of that occurred this week. After the coal mine collapse in Utah we found out that the plan at that mine was to conduct an activity called "retreat mining," which involves, among other things, a practice of miners "pulling" mine pillars to deliberately collapse part of the mine. So they can get more coal from the rubble before doing it again! You can't make this stuff up!

I've been reading background stories about this, trying to wrap my head around this. Maybe I have it wrong, I thought. Surely, that's it, I have it wrong! Nobody would do anything this crazy, just to make money! Ha, that's it, I'm not a good reader, I read it wrong. So when the Salt Lake Tribune story referred to the retreating and the mining of rubble as "cut-and-gut" I failed to notice that the subject had changed from coal mining to off-shore fish processing. When I thought they said that the shaking of the earth that accompanies the collapses is routinely called the "bounce," I neglected to notice they were now talking about good and bad mattresses.

[Above: An actual CDC photo of post-pillar-pull debris in a retreat mining operation. Look at all that valuable mine rubble!]

But no, I appear to have read correctly. When the operator of the Utah mine protested as news media suggested that retreat mining caused the miners to be buried or trapped, he didn't say they weren't retreat mining at the time. He said, indeed they were, but it wasn't the retreat mining's fault. It was an earthquake's fault. Like, "Yes, I was punching Jimmy repeatedly in the jaw, but that wasn't what broke his tooth. Another tooth maliciously hit it. I am not culpable."

Besides, it's not fair to blame retreat mining for coal mining deaths because it's been used successfully for over 70 years and statistics show it only causes three times the rate of fatalities per work hour as any other method used. "Yes, I was punching Jimmy repeatedly in the jaw, but that was only three times more likely to cause a tooth to break as giving him a noogy, so I am not culpable."

Besides, retreat mining is only used to obtain 10 per cent of all the coal mined so it's not like it's done all the time. "Yes, I was punching Jimmy repeatedly in the jaw, at that time, but you never talk about the 90 per cent of the time I trip him and give him wedgies. That could break a tooth, too, you know. I am not culpable."

You know I have to relate this all back to homelessness, don't you? I could point out that in the United States roughly 50 coal miners die each year in mining accidents out of a total of about 80,000 coal miners. Meanwhile, out of any 80,000 homeless people in the country roughly 400-500 die on the streets each year.

But homeless people don't get the respect that coal miners do, because people say homelessness is due to bad life choices.

Now I'm told coal miners stick with a job that entails retreat mining, and nobody but me is going to be the jack-ass who says, "bad life choice?"

I was discussing the public response to coal miners who die versus the mostly non-response to the ten times as many deaths among homeless people with activist Brigid "Just Because It Rhymes Doesn't Mean I Am" Hagan, and I suggested it's because coal miners get paid. People respect that as a clear indicator of good intention. I said prostitutes who get $3 a blow-job get more respect when they die on the street than homeless people do, because they're clearly putting effort into getting on their feet.

It was Brigid, not I, who then said, "Well, on their knees, anyway." I am not culpable.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

No More Free Rides

In July George Bush issued an order that basically said, if you so much as sell a candy bar to anyone who happens to obstruct the illegal Iraq War in any manner, the government can block your property (from use) without warning. The order doesn't say you have to know who you are dealing with. The Bush administration claims the right to overrule your constitutional right to property on the basis of guilt by accidental association. An order was later issued that extended the provisions of the first to acts that impede the current government of Lebanon.

Both orders have a provision, labeled Sec 1(b) in each, which states in effect that if any one person's property is blocked for any reason as a result of that order, than anyone having any dealings with that person shall also be subject to having their property blocked without a warning.

It isn't necessary to sell the candy bar to be dragged into the net. You can just give the candy bar to someone who has had their property blocked (you don't have to have known that their property has been blocked) or they can give you a candy bar! They can pick your address out at random and mail you a 3 Musketeers, or an Almond Joy, or a Butterfinger, or a Baby Ruth, or a Big Hunk, or a Bit-O-Honey... a Bit-O-Honey! You could lose the use of all your property just by getting a Bit-O-Honey bar in the mail from somebody's Uncle Tonoose! How rude!

What if you want your property blocked? According to some people most homeless people are that way because they wanted to be on the street and destitute. Let's say you're one of those thousands of wanna-be homeless people, who isn't homeless now, but can't wait. Maybe you're a CEO pulling in 7 figures annually and you think, "Hey, why am I busting my butt every day slaving for the Man, paying rent and taxes from my hard-earned money, when I could be living out of a cardboard box and sharing refried dumpster-beans with my new friend Chucky the Alley Rat?" How can you achieve the destitution you so achingly yearn for, without someone pointing you at your house and kicking you in?

In the New George Bush Post-Constitutional America it's easy! Commit any act of nonviolent civil disobedience that in any way, no matter how trivially, interferes with the government's war-making routine, and the administration can block all your property. They can lock you out of your own house! You'll be in homeless heaven!

For example, you can jaywalk in front of a convoy rolling out of Fort Lewis. If you hold them up a second, your property can be confiscated. Or you can block military recruiters from entering your kid's high school for five minutes, while you read them the Declaration of Independence. That's five minutes the war effort was obstructed. Your ass belongs to George! It's that easy!

Well, it's just too easy, says a lot of liberal activists. Rich Lang for one. Rich Lang is the minister of Trinity United Methodist in Ballard and he clearly thinks George Bush is making it too easy for rich people to become poor and live on our "easy streets" off the backs of hard-working Americans.

Rich says let's obstruct the obstructors and put an end to this unfair option. He wants every hard-working American to call in sick from work on Tuesday, September 11, 2007, and go out and perform nonviolent "acts of democracy."

I think that's a great idea. Let's not let Bush make it too easy for people to impoverish themselves! People should have to work for poverty, not have it handed to them on a silver platter!

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Float My Raft

As of this issue, it's 12 years to the minute since our first column ever. Time's passing -- incidentally generating even numbers of random measures -- is so meaningless, I am moved to wax upon the meaningless.

Meaning is important. It's the raft we float on. A precious thing we make. But the meaningless is important, also. The meaningless is the ocean that floats our raft of meaning.

Because there is so much meaningless, we seek to put it to use. It's what drives people to find an engine that runs on air. You want to be surrounded by treasure without having to dig any up.

Last week, we went to the 2007 North American Street Newspaper Association (NASNA) conference. "We" means two vendors, an intern, a director, a consultant, a reporter, Anitra "ID-Free" Freeman, and I. Some of us were graciously driven to Portland by staff reporter Cydney Gillis. Anitra and I took turns loudly pronouncing Washington State town names as if they were bird cries, like this: PuuuuuuyALLup! EENumCLAW! Walla WALLa! Totally meaningless fun! [Above left: Cydney stopped in Kalama to take care of the car, while bikers watched with interest.]

Advice: wait until you're halfway to be so annoying. You want to set up what I call a "moral dilemma". Don't let the driver think, "I can kick them out here. It would only take them a fortnight to walk back. I would feel only slight guilt."

So there I was, at the NASNA conference in Portland, with my sweetheart, BBQ chips, old friends, new friends, and... no beer!

Paul Boden, of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, was there also, physically, and existentially. No beer! "Let's go get beer!" "Where?" We asked natives. They said, "Go that way, turn left, go that far, there's a store." Paul, Anitra, and I set off.

We get to the store, which is a Tartan Pantry, a Plaid Cupboard, or something. We pick out the beer. Paul steps up to buy his. He's carded!

Let's clarify this picture. Paul is younger than I am, but has a kind of flinty look to him, reminiscent of David Carradine in Kill Bill, or Richard Widmark post-50. He ain't no spring chicken. I'm beside Paul while he shows his ID, laughing. I lied and said, "Ha, ha, you're older than I am!" I look like Willie Nelson put on weight.

[Above left: Richard Widmark in his Jesus Year playing Noir Tough Guy Tommy Udo, where he pushes an old woman in a wheelchair down stairs. Above right: Paul Boden, or Richard Widmark again?]

So then it was my turn. There was a funky beer on the counter. I said, "Hey! This isn't one of mine!" Anitra claimed it, but said I had to buy it. So I said, "RIGHT. I love you, too." I showed the nice cashier my ID.

The next day I remembered where I'd seen that cashier before. He was behind the counter in the cantina at Mos Eisley. The "no droids allowed in here" bartender, Star Wars IV.

He looked at my ID as though I weren't 58 and it mattered it might be fake. He handed it back. I took out money and he said, "Not so fast, I have to see hers," pointing to Anitra, who is a whole 8 days younger.

"Ha, ha, whip out your ID, baby face," I said to her. But she didn't have her ID with her!

So the cashier/Mos Eisley bartender took her beer away. I said, "OK then, how much for MY beer here." And he took THAT away, too! HEY! NOT FUNNY!

"No, no, no, no, NOOOO," I said, "MY beer! You can sell me MY beer! I have ID! Anitra won't drink MY beer."

But the guy says "I'm not selling you anything."

As we walked away to find a supermarket, we discussed what the deal with the convenience store guy was. Paul pointed to the badges we were all wearing, that showed the words North American Street Newspaper Assn., proof that we belonged to an organization that cares about the homeless.

Maybe the cashier created a meaning from those badges he didn't like.