Saturday, June 30, 2007

A Bothered Mind

R.L. Burnside, born in 1926, died in 2005 after a long decline in heath that ended almost all public performances several years earlier. While not as famous as, say Howlin' Wolf or Muddy Waters, Burnside had a prolific career and his records speak for themselves. His astonishing final recording, A Bothered Mind (2004), released on the Fat Possum label, is a signpost to what the always evolving blues can become. Fat Possum also recorded Cedell Davis, a similarly amazing contemporary delta bluesman who makes his Epiphone hollowbody scream by using a butterknife for a slide.

Burnside's life is the stuff of blues legend. My favorite bit from the wikipedia biography is this:
In around 1959 he left Chicago and went back to Mississippi to work the farms and raise a family. Burnside claimed to have been convicted for murder and sentenced to six months' incarceration for the crime. Burnside's boss at the time reputedly pulled strings to keep the murder sentence short, due to having need of Burnside's skills as a tractor driver. "I didn't mean to kill nobody," Burnside later said. "I just meant to shoot the sonofabitch in the head. Him dying was between him and the Lord."
I just came across Burnside's delta blues meets the Funkadelics and the Beastie Boys final recording a few days ago, and I've been telling everyone I know to drop whatever they're doing and buy the damn record. Burnside died an old man, but he did this in his late-seventies. I just wish he'd had ten more years to take us where he was headed.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Two People of No Consequence

I was telling someone at a Poverty Action fundraiser last night that I've been losing it lately. One measure is that I've taken to offering anyone going to the upcoming NAEH conference $500 to pie Phil Mangano. The bounty's on the table, but no one's taken me up on it yet.

It's probably just as well. Splattering banana cream all over Mangano's impeccable tailoring and distinguished mane of silver hair would probably get one sent to Guantanamo these days, which is why I don't just do it myself. Even if someone else did it, they'd probably arrest me for conspiracy to assault a presidential appointee or something.

I don't know about you, but my last angry period was like twenty years ago, and coincided with my college years. I was reading Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States for one class and Todd Gitlin's The Whole World is Watching for another, and then Reagan invaded Grenada. I just sort of lost it for the next decade or so.

Eventually, I got used to the world being a corrupt shit hole and became sort of blasé about it all. I'd see some new outrage and think, "Well, that's how it is, isn't it?" This, I think, is basically the definition of middle age. But lately, it's like all the sores have been reopened.

And there's always some asshole standing around with a box of salt.

Last Friday, for example, I wrote about how one of our vendors literally got his head caved in, and the cops don't really seem all that interested in catching his homeless assailant. They went through the motions of doing a report at the scene, and, when our vendor was released from the hospital a month later and knew who his assailant was and where to find him, they couldn't be bothered to come take a report.

Today we tried again. Our vendor, who wears a helmet to protect his misshapen head and has brain damage from the assault, once again called the police. His assailant has told other street people that if he sees our guy again he's going to kill him. We're pretty sure that the assailant is in police custody right now for a different assault charge.

So we called 911, and this time, at least, they told us out right that they couldn't be bothered. They did say, however, that they would call back later to get a statement over the phone. An hour later, our guy had to go. Six hours later, we were still waiting for the call. Our staff called back to ask what happened.

The operator reported that they called back, but got the front desk recording and didn't know which extension to push, so they gave up.

The third sentence of the message, said our staff, is "press 0 for the front desk."

Well, they didn't stay on the line long enough to hear that, so they closed out the complaint. Normally, two attempts are required before this occurs, but they felt they'd exhausted their options.

They perked up a little at hearing that our guy was getting death threats, and said we should try again tomorrow. For the third time.

It's hard for me to believe that the police would be this disinterested if anyone with a credit card and a house key had gotten his head bashed in. In fact, if even the assailant had been middle class, there would be more interest. We haven't yet reached the point where it's open season on the homeless.

But when a homeless guy tries to kill another homeless guy, it's just two people of no consequence. They don't even give us a quarter to call someone who cares.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

CNN's Larry King Interviews Snake

LOS ANGELES – Being locked in a cell was “like, totally traumatic” and something he never expected after driving his '68 Firebird with a suspended license, a subdued Bobby Jailbird, aka "Snake," told CNN's Larry King on Wednesday.

Letters from dozens of Springfield residents, including his lawyer Troy McClure and fellow felon Sideshow Bob, helped him get through the 23 days in lockup, Snake told King in his first broadcast interview since leaving jail on Tuesday.

“I've, like, totally been through a groty deal,” said Snake, drawing a greasy pocket comb through his trademark pompadour. “And, fer shur. it was, like, sooo traumatic! But, you know, I have so totally grown from this.”

He added that going to jail was the last thing he expected when Superior Court Judge Michael T. Sauer ordered him to his court in May for violating probation in an alcohol-related reckless-driving case.

“I was totally walking in there assuming I was, like, just going to get community service fer shur, you know?” Snake said. “So when he like sentenced me to that much time in jail, man, it was like totally bogus.

Asked if he thought she got a “raw deal,” he said "totally."

At the same time, Snake told King he thought the experience had changed him for the better.

“I feel like, you know, God totally makes everything happen for a reason,” he said. “And it gave me, you know, a time-out in life ... And even though it was, like, reeelly reeely hard, I, like, took that time to totally get to know myself.”

Snake said he is looking at getting involved in a number of charitable causes, including those helping children.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

A Plumber's Nightmare

What's it take to find housing in this town? That's what the owner of one Seattle plumbing company wants to know.

One of his guys — I'll call him Bob — needed a place to live. "He's a good plumber," says this business owner who asked to not be identified. His new hire is an apprentice who's about six months away from being certified as a journeyman.

When Bob was hired, he'd recently left a bad situation with relatives and was living in his car with a wife and infant. He has a job. Now all he needs is housing.

His new boss thought, "how hard can it be?"

Given Seattle's tight rental market, the growing prejudice against anyone with a criminal history, and the apparent absence of resources for people who don't fit anyone's definition of someone who needs help, the answer is, "plenty hard."

"Nobody will rent to him. Everyone I talk to just does referral. No one does housing. He makes too much money for most programs to look at. The baby is a turn away for a lot of rentals. He has no credit history and a twelve year old felony."

Bob's past includes a twelve-year-old hit and run for which he did some jail time.

After spending several weeks looking for housing, Bob is still spending $1,700 of the $2,500 he makes each month on a weekly hotel rental out on Aurora. He tried a cheaper hotel, but it wasn't exactly family friendly.

We talked about how sometimes a criminal history is a matter of luck and class; how most of us, at some point, have done something that could have destroyed our lives.

"People get in trouble and then decide that they want to be a plumber," said Bob's boss. "I try to teach people to be a responsible member of a trade. You sort through looking for aptitude and commitment, and you stick with the people who rise to the top."

Bob's boss is on this like a bull dog. It's become his personal mission to find his guy a place to live. But he's amazed at how hard this is to do. If anyone has any tips, please send me an email. I'll pass it on.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Paris Hilton and the Limits of Compassion

Sunday night was my classics reading group. We've been getting together at my house every month or so for about seven years now. A bookseller, a lawyer, a languages professor, a scientist, and a zoo keeper. The girls call them "daddy's five people."

This time it was Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy. It doesn't matter what we read all that much anymore, because whatever it is, we'll spend about fifteen minutes talking about that and then turn to whatever else is on our minds. This sort of disregard for the text, I've come to appreciate, is the mark of a truly great book group.

Anna set the tone. "I'm sixty-two and I don't need to impress anyone: Nietzsche is OVERRATED!"

We all agreed that while the man is a twisted genius, his notion that Euripides killed tragedy, that his nineteenth century world was, at best, a decayed remnant of the Alexandrian Age, and that the best hope for civilization at that point was German culture in general and Wagner in particular, was kind of hard to take seriously. Trevor might have stood up for him, but he had a cold and wasn't there.

Wes and Anitra told me a story once about a Seattle haiku contest in which another friend named Reneene Robertson nearly got herself killed.

"Kurt Cobain," she began, "had two blue eyes." The audience, they said, was in the palm of her hand. She could have said almost anything after that, and they'd have thrown roses.

"One blew left, one blew right."

The room collectively growled. Reneene was off the stage in a flash and looking for the door.

To insult the blessed memory of Euripides, the edgy champion of the outsider, within our group is similarly risky. If Friedrich were to have the misfortune of standing there before us, we'd have gone all maenad on his overwrought German ass and ripped him limb from limb.

Except for Mary. She's a Buddhist.

Which brought us to the subject of Paris Hilton. Stephan was struggling to grasp the meaning of her cultural ascendancy. Her fame, he said, was based entirely on her status as a beautiful rich heiress who hangs out with other beautiful rich famous people. The nothingness of her celebrity was more than he could handle.

Paris Hilton apparently carries a chihuahua around with her, and insecure young women have taken to emulating this. If ever you see a teen-aged girl in six inch heels carrying a chihuahua, he said, you have Hilton to thank.

Mary offered that this was the perfect opportunity for us all to practice wise mind. This is the Buddhist idea that the ego-laden distinctions that separate us are illusory. Even Paris Hilton, she said, was united with us in the oneness of the universe, and our judgments interfered with our ability to grasp the true essence of Paris Hilton.

Stephan and I agreed that we could live with this. The chihuahua thing, so far as we were concerned, relegates her to complete Otherness, no matter what the fucking Buddha says.

Later that night, having calmed down, I found this meditation on wise mind in a book by Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun.
Being compassionate is a pretty tall order. All of us are in relationships every day of our lives, but particularly if we are people who want to help others—people with cancer, people with AIDS, abused women or children, abused animals, anyone who's hurting—something we soon notice is the persons we set out to help may trigger unresolved issues in us. Even though we want to help, and maybe we do help for a few days or a month or two, sooner or later someone walks through that door and pushes all our buttons. We find ourselves hating those people or scared of them or feeling like we just can't handle them. This is true always, if we are sincere about wanting to help others. Sooner or later, all our own unresolved issues will come up; we'll be confronted with ourselves.

Roshi Bernard Glassman is a Zen teacher who runs a project for the homeless in Yonkers, New York. Last time I heard him speak, he said something that struck me: he said he doesn't really do this work to help others; he does it because he feels that moving into the areas of society that he had rejected is the same as working with the parts of himself that he had rejected. ...

That, in a nutshell, is how it works. If we find ourselves unworkable and give up on ourselves, then we'll find others unworkable and give up on them. What we hate in ourselves we'll hate in others. To the degree that we have compassion for ourselves, we'll have compassion for others. Having compassion starts and ends with having compassion for all those unwanted parts of ourselves, all those imperfections that we don't even want to look at. Compassion isn't some kind of self-improvement project or ideal we're trying to live up to.
Pema Chodron,
When Things Fall Apart

Monday, June 25, 2007

Wounded World



I've been crazy busy the past few days and have spent like half my weekend getting the last post to the point where I feel like it's done, so I'm going to cheat for today and just put up this YouTube video of Roger Miller from 1991. This song wound up on the On/Off CD that the reunited Mission of Burma put out last year.

Mission of Burma were together during 79-83, which happened to be the same years I was in the Air Force. I was stationed near Boston and saw them 4-5 times. Other than their farewell show at the Hotel Bradford, which had maybe 300-400 people there, I don't think I ever saw them play to a crowd of more than 100. They were ahead of their time, and an amazing live show.

After they broke up, I became obsessed with Miller's next project, the completely different but also remarkable Birdsongs of the Mesozoic. Now Burma's credited with being the seminal post-punk band that inspired acts like Gang of Four and Sonic Youth and paved the way for the Pixies and Nirvana. There were a number of more recent videos online from after the reunion, but I chose this one because Miller looks so young and is so intense. He was even younger in 83.

WOUNDED WORLD
(Roger Miller)

I'm a puppet, you're a puppet too
A dancing fool, jiggle me at my joints
Once you were on my side
But I will make you wish that I had died.
I had died.

Thanks for all of your help and perfection, oh yeah
The machines we have built for the end.

Another year, another friend or foe
Burn their cities, scorch the earth below
The times have changed and so too have our needs
This time it's you on which the fire feeds.
Fire feeds.

If you laugh at my jokes you will pay for it, oh yeah
When your friends are enemies, you'll be sold....

Thanks for all of your help and perfection, oh yeah
The machines we have built for the end

Wounded. World. Wounded.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Air Force Years: Part Four

By the time I was trying to get myself kicked out of the Air Force for drug use, I had moved to a house in nearby Waltham that was shared with three of my Airman buddies. We dealt enough pot to keep ourselves in supply. There was Mark the D&D guy, a trombone player from Florida named George, and an underground music junkie named Ron who turned me on to Captain Beefheart and Eugene Chadbourne. I'd ride my bike the four miles to Hanscom Field. Sometimes I'd walk.

Ron and I rode our ten speeds up to his hometown of Manchester, New Hampshire, where we partied with his acid casualty brother who still lived with his mom. We hardly saw her. She was either working or sleeping. We dropped windowpane for the ride back and did Manchester to Waltham in less than four hours. One of my peak experiences that summer was playing Frisbee on acid throughout an afternoon thunderstorm.

That was when I started playing guitar. I auditioned for and got the part of Judas Iscariot in a community theater production of Jesus Christ Superstar, but rehearsals ended once the promoters ran out of money and decided the drummer was an asshole. That was also the summer that I flirted with Scientology. The Church decided I was an immature and emotionally unstable genius, and convinced me for awhile that spilling my guts while hooked up to an e-meter was a fun way to pass the time.

In the fall I moved back to the dorms and fell in love with Cindy in Military Pay. She was cute, more than a little wild, and going through an ugly divorce. Though just 5'1, Cindy could out drink any of us. She was the kind of drunk who could be in a blackout and, to most people, appear more or less sober.

My drinking circle started to call itself the Ten Percent Club, and a friend who worked in the public relations office made us all framed certificates for our walls. The name came from a speech that the new Squadron Commander, Captain Tony Stankovich, made while we were standing in formation outside the dorms. He said that ninety percent of the squadron was doing a great job.

I started getting into regular trouble for doing stupid, impulsive things. I got into a screaming argument with a mechanic at the base auto garage, and rode a rolling chair down the sloping paved sidewalk by the dormitories and broke the thing. I received several reprimands.

My friends and I rented a Cape Cod vacation cabin owned by the Air Force and I got into a drunken fight with Cindy that involved smashing handfuls of spaghetti and meatballs into each other's faces. Later, when we tried scrubbing the tomato sauce from the walls, the paint came off as well. The Master Sargent in charge of rentals was not pleased.

The most serious incident involved assaulting a server at Patriot Dining Hall with a tossed salad.

We arrived back from the Cape in time for a basketball game between travel and military pay. I decided to play the mascot, and pulled together my Captain Cosmic outfit, which featured a plastic space helmet with prominent antennae, aviator sunglasses, skin tight red sweat pants, army boots, and a purple satin cape. I'd steal the ball, heckle the players, and occasionally retreat beneath the bleachers to neck with Cindy. After an hour or so, I rushed to lunch before the dining hall closed.

As I proceeded to the serving line, I was feeling very much in character. I surveyed the various offerings on the steam table and placed my order.

"Give me the plutonium buds and the some of that Venusian fried rat." I meant by this that I desired the mashed potatoes and chicken.

The server, an Airman Bickford, was unamused. Some heated back and forth ensued and he told me to get out. I screamed fuck you at the guy and hurled my little plastic bowl of iceberg lettuce and cherry tomatoes over the glass. He dodged, and the bowl clattered harmlessly across the tile floor.

The following Monday, I was called in to see the Squadron Commander and given my first Article 15. For several months I arose early to pull weeds and such before going to work.

While I've somehow lost the paperwork, I can still remember part of Bickford's written complaint word for word. "His behavior was bizarre and unnormal, and if this is what the Air Force represents, then it gives me no pride in being here."

Cindy and I, who had taken to calling in sick together so we could drink, moved to an apartment in Waltham and made plans for marriage. Our relationship became increasingly stormy, and I started having gruesome dreams about being buried alive. One weekend, we hosted a keg and listened to Patti Smith's Radio Ethiopia over and over. One of my friends put me on the spot about announcing our marriage, and I couldn't bring myself to say the words.

Things dragged on for awhile, but that was really the moment the relationship died. Shortly after, Cindy was ordered into detox. Our break up was part of the cure, and she immediately rebounded to some guy she met in AA. The news threw me into a highly-agitated state of depression that felt like it would never end.

I was taking classes at night at Boston's Northeastern University and reading Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh. The play revolves around a group of drunks who basically live in a bar and have an unspoken agreement to pretend that their pathetic and useless lives are going somewhere.

As I sat alone on the floor of my dorm room deconstructing the play onto index cards, Harry Hope's bar came to life as a metaphor for my own situation. I used to tell myself I wouldn't live to see thirty, but at twenty-one, I already felt old and tired. I decided I was done. The decision was like flipping a switch.

See also:
The Beginnings
Young, Gifted, and Miserable
Everybody Must Get Stoned
Life Begins at Seventeen
The Year of Living Dangerously
The Air Force Years: Part One
The Air Force Years: Part Two
The Air Force Years: Part Three
The Air Force Years: Part Four
The Air Force Years: Part Five
Working Poor In Waltham: Part One
Working Poor In Waltham: Part Two
Birth of a Student Radical
Harvest of Shame
The Owl of Minerva Flies at Midnight
The Road to Street
The Street Years: Part One
The Street Years: Part Two

Saturday, June 23, 2007

The Canadians Have Caught On

I've found a new hero in Canadian "street nurse" Cathy Crowe. This longtime health professional and homeless advocate worries that Philip Mangano has been spending too much time in Canada spreading the gospel of Housing First for the "chronic homeless" and public/private partnerships such as Project Connect.

Crowe totally has Mangano's number. Which doesn't mean Canadian politicians and human service bureaucrats won't be just as enamored of the corporate-friendly Ten Year Plan strategy to end homelessness as their technocratic brethren to the South. It just means that Canada still has homeless advocates who are willing to question the government.

And if our government isn't questionable, I don't know whose is.

Crowe describes Mangano's Canadian Ten Year Plan road show as promoting a punitive approach to homelessness that is hostile to emergency services and focused on victim-blaming approaches that offer cosmetic change while doing nothing to address root causes of homelessness.

Michael Shapcott and I had a chance to hear Mr Mangano in Calgary earlier in May. He really is a remarkable speaker — you could almost say evangelical — preaching the issues of health, economics and the social evils of homelessness. The trouble is that the American approach is obviously not working. It's a game of smoke and mirrors. So why on earth are our municipal and national leaders looking to the United States for solutions on homelessness?

As Michael Shapcott explains: "So, what's wrong with this picture? While Mangano has been piling up frequent flier points visiting every part of the US to convince state and local governments that they need to take up the responsibility for a "housing first" policy for the homeless, his political boss — President Bush — has been gutting the US federal government's funding for housing. This year alone, there are massive cuts to seniors' supportive housing and disabled housing funding. The US federal housing program for people with AIDS will help about 67,000 people this year — yet an estimated 500,000 people living with HIV / AIDS desperately need housing help.

The problem is so bad that even the rather staid Joint Centre for Housing Studies at Harvard University has proclaimed in its latest annual State of the Nation's Housing that affordable housing and homelessness have reached their worst levels ever, and funding cuts by the federal government are the chief culprit.

Crowe points out that homeless people in cities across America are under attack from law enforcement approaches that target sitting and sleeping in public, feeding people, using parks, panhandling, and other public activities to create an urban environment that is hostile to the visible poor, and says that Canada is beginning to catch America's cold.

In Canada it's the same thing. We are witnessing an almost fetishized emphasis on research, including street counts and investigations into panhandlers' needs, new by-laws against panhandling and by-laws restricting where homeless people can sleep, reduction of funding to programs that do outreach to people who are homeless, and a withdrawal of funding for emergency day and night shelters. Toronto alone has lost over 300 shelter beds just this past winter and it continues to rely on its Streets to Homes program as an answer to visible street homelessness. There are many reports that people who are housed through this program suffer greatly from hunger and isolation and remain at great risk of becoming or do become homeless again.

As we struggle to come to grips with homeless policy in America and break the USICH's growing hegemony over the issue of homelessness, maybe we need to keep a better eye on Canada. They're certainly looking out for us.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Cops Are For The Big People

A few months ago I made a post where I asked the question, "If a homeless guy breaks another homeless guy's arm in the woods, does anyone give a shit?"

In case you weren't aware, the answer is "no."

One of our former vendors, a developmentally delayed man with an anger management problem, busted another guy's arm in a dispute over turf. We fired him but it wasn't a happy moment. Imagine a homeless eight year-old who is prone to violent temper tantrums and lives in a 40-year-old man's body and you have a pretty good picture of our guy. Most of the time, he's like a sweet little kid who just wants to be loved. But when he's mad, he can do some real damage.

In this case, he bashed another homeless guy with a trash can and busted up his arm and shoulder. It hasn't healed well. Mark, we'll call him, will probably have chronic pain for the rest of his life. On top of his homelessness, he now has a disability.

Mark told the police exactly where to find the man who did this, and they did nothing. We had them come to the Real Change office and take a report, but as soon as they learned that the accused lives at Union Gospel Mission, they folded up their notepads and lost interest.

Homeless on homeless crime doesn't count, because the homeless aren't really even people. They exist is a parallel universe where, so long as they stay the fuck away from the rest of us, they're on their own.

Today brought another example.

Last week we fired another vendor after numerous complaints of threats and rudeness to other vendors. We probably should have done it long ago. This guy, unlike our dangerously overgrown eight-year-old, has no redeeming characteristics whatsoever. He's a straight-up thug who doesn't seem to give a crap about anyone.

So today, a vendor we hadn't seen for awhile — a frail, late-stage alcoholic who wasn't in great shape to begin with — showed up for papers wearing a helmet. He'd been hospitalized for a month. After a bit of questioning, we learned that the guy we just fired had bashed his head in with a two by four over a turf dispute.

His skull, from which the doctors removed a good deal of crushed bone, is now deformed, and has a huge indentation from the injury. As one of our vendor staff put it, "I don't understand where his brain is."

Staff asked what we should do, and I said, "I want that fucker behind bars."

Well, it's not so easy. I mean, forget that police were summoned to the scene and reports were made, and that our thuggish former vendor isn't exactly some sort of master criminal who has somehow managed to skillfully evade capture.

Police just didn't care enough to investigate and make an arrest.

So, today, we called the West Precinct and said, "We know who did this and where you can find him."

And they said, "We can't do anything if the victim doesn't call himself." We explained that the victim is a frighted and confused late-stage alcoholic who now has brain damage to boot, and isn't a real effective self-advocate these days, but it didn't matter. He had to call himself.

So we talked with him and talked with him and finally convinced him it would be OK. He made the call. He dropped the phone out of sheer fright several times but was coaxed to pick it back up, and he followed through to the end.

Police said they were "on the way."

An hour later, he was still waiting. We called them again. They said it was a busy morning. Another hour and several more phone calls went by and they were still busy. After two hours of waiting, our man in the helmet with the caved in head had to go to an appointment. He said he'd come back and try again next week.

I called an attorney who has experience in these sorts of things and he said, "It's about big people and little people and who the law protects."

That pretty much says it all.

Our guy in the helmet says he's not giving up. Neither are we.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Time is Running Out

When people ask how the Real Change summer fund drive is going, I usually say “great!” Not because it’s especially true, but because the real answer is more complicated than what anyone wants to hear. Since the drive began last May, our readers have responded with a whopping $54,984 in donations. This is almost $1,000 bucks a day.

By street newspaper standards, or for any small press community newspaper for that matter, this is a wonderful show of community support.

Our circulation, which has increased by 18% this year and at 12-13,000 copies per week, is at its highest ever. Last month we had 279 active vendors. Again, a new record. We’re having a great year.

But here’s the thing. Our goal is $140,000. This is to stabilize news team funding, accomplish our ambitious organizing goals, and fund the staffing we need to end our chronic overextension.

To hit that goal, we need to raise about $8,500 a day through the end of the month. We do that one donation at a time. Every last bit of support matters.

Lots of people think that Real Change will continue to produce quality journalism and effective poor people’s advocacy whether they help or not.

Think again. If we miss the goal, something’s going to have to give. Real Change makes a real difference in hundreds of lives every day. We are an essential resource for the progressive community. We are a unique and powerful advocacy organization with a track record of success. Our broad base of community support makes our work possible. Here's what you can do.
We have ten days left to the Summer Drive. If everyone does what they can, we can still make that goal. Let’s break some speed limits and see what this baby can do! Please see realchangenews.org for more information.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Toothless Yappy Dog Press Conference

Next month is the Twentieth Anniversary of McKinney and the Inside the Beltway Gang is planning to mark the occasion with a press conference and a lobbying stunt that features bittersweet chunks of chocolate and a list of ten things legislators could do this year to end homelessness.

Clever. This call to arms will probably last about a minute for each point on the list. Hopefully I'm wrong about that.

McKinney-Vento is the federal legislation that funds shelter and various homeless services, and is the most significant "win" that homeless advocates can claim. WRAP released a report earlier this year that draws the surprisingly obvious conclusion that you can't replace the loss of $52 billion in federal housing dollars and mitigate the breathtaking hostility to the poor that is shown each year by federal budget priorities with less than $2 billion in McKinney-Vento funding and call that progress.

It never ceases to amaze me how the feds can wave little scraps of money around at "advocates" and service providers and immediately have them running around like yappy little dogs in heat.

Make that dogs in heat who have forgotten how to bark, or bite.

To me, the high point of advocacy was October 1989, when the Housing Now! march brought around 300,000 people to Washington, homeless and advocate alike. I'm less interested in commemorating McKinney-Vento in 2007 than in reinventing the spirit of Housing Now! by 2009. Since then, lobbyists for the homeless in DC haven't brought much of anyone along with them. That needs to change.

The beltway driven, non-confrontational, accommodationist, technocratic, homeless-fearing, ten-year-plan-worshipping politics of the present haven't won us much of anything, other than a broad consensus that the feds are officially off the hook for poverty and homelessness.

Chunks of bittersweet chocolate. Pathetic. It would be more to the point to give them something that smells like dead people.

McKinney-Vento keeps us divided against ourselves and isolated from our allies in the broader labor and anti-poverty movements. Each year, homeless advocates gear up to defend the various pieces of our ridiculously teeny pie against the encroachment of the other subpopulations. Lately it's been the chronically homeless against the families. Soon, we'll be defending homeless kids in schools. Or arguing over whether McKinney should be used to fund housing.

We are right where they want us. Divided, isolated, and largely following the lead of the US Interagency Council of Homelessness to focus on individual dysfunction, and not the systemic inequality that has resulted from decades of disastrous federal policy.

Clever lobbyist gags aren't going to fix this. Homeless advocates should take the occasion of McKinney's twentieth anniversary to ask ourselves "How did we all get to be such salivating dogs as to allow Phillip-fucking-Mangano to pass himself off as the second coming of Mitch Snyder?"

That, I think, would be much more appropriate to the moment.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

It's All Under Control

This morning I spent twenty minutes talking to a new board member of the Belltown Business Association who said he was interested in getting to know his neighborhood. The man spent thirteen years as a yo-yo pro turned-youth-motivational-speaker before he bought the temp agency that he now owns. He said he was asked to do his shtick at the White House three times.

I googled him, hoping to learn more of his fascinating past, but found just one mention in a 2005 newsletter from an Australian girls prep school. He exhorted the girls of Kilvington to "do their best and never give up."

Nice guy, in an upbeat Dale Carnegie kind of way. He had no idea of what Real Change was, and didn't really seem all that interested. His stylish summer suit coat contrasted dramatically to my frayed sweatshirt, which is a rag even by my standards.

Anyway, as our meeting drew to a close, he mentioned how, being new to town and having a three and a half minute walk to work, he just loved the diversity of Belltown. I said he should have seen it a decade ago, before most of the mom and pops were forced out by rising rents. I said it would only get worse over the next few years as the tall and skinny condo towers that are on the way are filled with people who look and talk a lot like him.

Actually, I left the "a lot like him" part out. I had no call to be mean. He spent his "gap year" after college working with poor people in LA, so he can't be all bad.

This brings me, sort of, to the main subject of this post, which is Dr. Wes' news that the Single Adults Subcommittee of the CEHKC is discussing the use of carrels for short and long term use. These would be partitioned living spaces that would be a step above rows of mats and a step below a room of one's own.

There's actually good precedent for this sort of thing. Through the forties, before the war created full employment and then an expanded middle class, there used to be a number of options for the army of transient poor who sought work on whatever terms were available.

These ranged from the boarding house, which was for respectable men and women and had shades of in loco parentis, to the flea-bag missions that demanded prayers for shelter. The most popular option was always the cage hotel.

These were cubicles big enough to contain a bed and a locker that had a door that locked. The tops were open but covered with chickenwire, as were the bottom six inches or so. This offered ventilation, but kept thieves out. The cage hotel was cheaper than a rooming house and offered more autonomy and privacy than shelters.

This option was eliminated by building and fire codes, as were many cheap housing options. We've come to this odd place where our concern for the safety and dignity of the poor has made it nearly impossible for the market to house them. Seattle's Department of Planning and Development, however, has been known to occasionally grant permission for this sort of housing.

This seems like a good thing. It's exactly the sort of alternative to shelter that might emerge if we were to actually listen to what homeless people want. I have a sinking feeling, however, that the sort of autonomy that once made cage hotels so popular isn't coming back.

The difference between now and the forties is that no one really needs the poor anymore, so having no money, more and more, means being under someone else's control. Otherwise, anything could happen.

Monday, June 18, 2007

My Kids' First Political Discussion

Yesterday I'm driving home from Costco with the girls in the back seat and Twin B says, "Who's the President of the United States." And I say, "I dunno baby, who is the President of the United States?" And she says, very proudly, "George Bush!"

"Is he a good man, or is he a bad man," I ask?

In unison: "He's a good man!"

"Hmmm. I think he might be a bad man. He kills people, and he cheats, and he lies. That means he's a bad man"

They're at that stage where when they think they know something, they really hate to be contradicted. I can totally relate to this, since this is also the stage that I'm in.

"Nooooo," they both wail, "He's a good man! He's a goooood maaan!!"

"Who told you that?"

"Ms. Deepika, our teacher!"

"Well, some people think he's good, and others think he's bad. Every four years, people get to raise their hand and pick who gets to be President. Mommy and daddy never picked George Bush. We always pick somebody else."

"You picked that man!"

There's a bus next to our car, and the ad on the side has a huge headshot of some crazy looking guy who sells roofing or something. Twin A is pointing at him.

"Well, that man might make a better President than George Bush."

"Wriggly should be President," says Twin B. Wriggly is our neighbors dog. Twin A starts shouting, "Wriggly is President! Wriggly is President!"

"Wriggly might make a better President too," I say.

"Our teacher says George Bush is a good man," says Twin A. "But mommy and daddy say he's a bad man."

And so it begins.

Below is a picture from our vacation. Here I've settled in for the second of four consecutive episodes of Law and Order.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Air Force Years: Part Three

In November of 1979, I arrived at my assignment at Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford, Massachusetts. I had just spent three months at Sheppard AFB in Wichita Falls, Texas, a place that gets my vote for town most likely to have your ass kicked in a bar for no reason at all.

Sheppard, while restrictive, was a big improvement over Lackland. We were two to a dorm room and the drinking age was 18. The Base liquor store, or "packie," as I learned to call it, was happy to sell us whatever we wanted. I could get pot too.

We'd fall into formation while it was still dark outside and march to our classes as the freezing Texas wind whipped across the open plains. I would work in Travel Pay, which meant mastering three thick volumes of regulations that were subject to regular changes and updates. Technical school was a mind-numbing bore in a repressive locale, but at least there was drinking.

I passed the vocational tests without studying. Daily life on a military base was sterile and dull, and I retreated into a different kind of numbness. There were a few minor brushes with authority, and an incident file began to accumulate.

My arrival at Hanscom, I hoped, would start a new chapter in my military career where I would finally just get to be a person again. Instead, I initially found few friends, roomed with a dopey kid who ate Fig Newtons by the box, and thought I was going to die from boredom. I shuttled back and forth between my dorm, the dining hall, and work without incident or enthusiasm.

Hanscom AFB is a small research and development center located in the triangle between Bedford, Concord, and Lexington. Geared largely toward the civilian scientists who worked at nearby facilities like MIT, Draper Labs, and Raytheon, there was little emphasis on military customs and courtesies. You were expected to salute officers and wear a crisp uniform, but formations were rare and marching was almost nonexistent. The dormitories were like those on any college campus, and the mess hall was first rate.

In all actuality, I had little to complain about.

I worked in a a small office of around eight people, and calculated payments to those, both military and civilian, who had traveled under order of the Air Force. I would receive DD-1351 travel vouchers over the counter, and process the simpler ones on the spot. I punched at a calculator all day and chain smoked Kools at my desk.

By the time 1980 rolled around, I was starting to find people like me. Bored, alienated, potheads who had work that was technically challenging but otherwise dull. We came together to drink and get high more or less nightly. We all worked office jobs and wore our formal "blues" to work. Several were computer operators. I would visit them on their night shifts as they worked alone, occasionally changing tape reels on the huge mainframes that filled the room. We'd duck into stairwells to get high.

We were a pot-smoking counterculture of the bright and bored. When Pink Floyd's The Wall came out in April, 1980, Comfortably Numb became our anthem. Much of our world revolved around music. The punk revolution was underway, and I gravitated toward the artsy pop of Roxy Music and Bauhaus and the rougher sounds of Iggy Pop, the Ramones, and The Velvet Underground. I got out to see Flipper and Mission of Burma whenever they played. Boston radio was then in a golden age. I found the leftward spectrum of the dial and abandoned the alt-rock of Boston's WBCN for the amazing underground radio on Boston College's WZBC and the folk scene at Emerson's WERS.

We spent hours at Dungeons and Dragons in worlds that a programmer named Mark made himself on his Mac plus, which at that time was an expensive hotrod of a personal computer. Mark, with his custom maps and probability charts, would always be the Dungeon Master. He was obsessed with sex. One night he sent his girlfriend in to sleep with me as a gesture of friendship. I was sex starved and deeply grateful to both.

One of the members of our group got lucky in Atlantic City and celebrated by buying a keg and a jar of mescaline. Me and another kid had a competition to see who could eat the most. At six hits, I was the champion. We moved a state of the art stereo system into an upstairs rec room and held an acid party right there in the dorm. I remember standing in the hallway and watching the colors melt as I traced my finger along a fall landscape.

The next day we all got called in for urinalysis. For reasons I'll never understand, mine came up negative.

By then, I'd decided that the Air Force was intolerable and was working toward a discharge. I began by simply asking Squadron Commander Major James Kephart if he'd let me out. He said no. The fall-back strategy was to fail my competency exams. This was unsatisfactory as well. My bosses were onto me, and while my antics annoyed them a bit, they were not about to let me go.

Then I heard about the Limited Privilege Communication Program. The idea behind LPCP was that an Airman with a drug problem could seek help without fear of negative consequences. One could go into treatment, and if this failed, receive an honorable discharge. This, I decided, was my way out. I ate a couple hits of acid, stayed up all night, and walked into the base substance abuse counselor's office to discuss my "problem."

I was a chronic drug abuser, I said. I didn't regard this, really, as a problem for me, but it may well be a problem for them. The best thing for all involved, I explained, was to just get me out of there. I thus began my series of weekly chats with the pleasant counselor, who was probably more than a little amused at my transparent act of chutzpa.

My new status as a known drug abuser meant a transfer out of customer service across the hall to data entry, where I worked with a number of nice civil service ladies and keyed computer cards into a terminal.

At this point in my life, I was staying stoned pretty much 24/7. I didn't really need to amp up my usual drug abuse much to take it over the top. I did my level best to come off as incurable.

Not surprisingly, my data entry was less than accurate. My boss was exasperated. "Airman Harris," he said, "You're making an awful lot of mistakes."

"I keep telling you," I shot back, "I'M ON DRUGS!!"

Time hazily passed. Eventually, an evaluation meeting was set with my Supervisor Paul Bouchard, who was really taking all of this very well, a Base Doctor, and Major Kephart.

I was asked to describe how my efforts at getting clean had progressed, and I relayed that they had not. In fact, I said, I really had no interest in stopping at all.

This was when Kephart spoke. "Airman Harris," he said. "Where's your hat and cane."

"Hat and cane sir?"

"To go along with your song and dance!"

I'm not sure that there's an acceptable answer to a question like that, and whatever it was, I didn't find it. The meeting concluded without resolution.

Later, I'd find that the Air Force does indeed have a sense of humor. I was determined to have successfully completed my program of rehabilitation and returned to my old job. It was as if the whole thing had never happened.

There would be no discharge for me.

At this point, I was nearly two years into the four, and reconciled myself to finishing out the full term. Within the next year, my life would change again.

See also:
The Beginnings
Young, Gifted, and Miserable
Everybody Must Get Stoned
Life Begins at Seventeen
The Year of Living Dangerously
The Air Force Years: Part One
The Air Force Years: Part Two
The Air Force Years: Part Three
The Air Force Years: Part Four
The Air Force Years: Part Five
Working Poor In Waltham: Part One
Working Poor In Waltham: Part Two
Birth of a Student Radical
Harvest of Shame
The Owl of Minerva Flies at Midnight
The Road to Street
The Street Years: Part One
The Street Years: Part Two

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Protesters

I'll be traveling all day today, making my way back to Seattle from Orlando, and won't have time to make much of a posting, so I'll just share this cute kid story instead.

As I was getting the girls into their pajamas last night, for some reason I decided to teach them a chant. It went "Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Snotty sister's gotta go!" They marched around the living room for awhile and then out onto the lanai and around the pool where mom sat with grandma and grandpa.

Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Snotty sister's gotta go!
Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Snotty sister's gotta go!
Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Snotty sister's gotta go!

And so forth, for about ten minutes, with their little fists in the air.

Let's hear it for the next generation of dissent! It's never too early.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Waiting for God

For most of my life, I’ve been a religious agnostic looking to be convinced. My God is Awe. I look up at the sky, and there it is. An ant crawls by and there it is again. And so forth. Love and compassion round out the deal and that’s pretty much it. Everything else is speculation.

While I have a deep appreciation for the religious impulse, I have no use for spiritual certainty. We’ve seen where that goes and it’s almost never good.

I'm far from alone in this. Former nun Karen Armstrong, whose History of God documents the political history of monotheism, describes our current state of Godlessness as “a sorbet.” The last course is over, she says, and the next has yet to arrive, and in the meanwhile we’re all cleansing our palates with a nice lime sherbet.

Armstrong writes about the Axial Age, in which Buddhism, Confucianism, and the various shoots of the Tree of Abraham all came together. There was a time, apparently, when the old religious paradigms broke down in the face of a changing world, and the search for something new took religious thought to a higher level of understanding. A new axial age, says Armstrong, is upon us.

In between trips to Disney World, visits with grandparents, and other vacation-related Florida activities, I’ve been reading Leon Golden’s In Praise of Prometheus, a scholarly attempt at resolving the contradictions in Aeschylean thought that was published in 1962. The phenomenon of fifth century Athens occurs well within the parameters of Armstrong’s Axial Age.

I’m not enough of a classics geek to really know whether Golden succeeds or not, but his parsing out of the divergent notions of Zeus in Aeschylus’ work reminds me a bit of our own situation. The Zeus of Prometheus, he says, is a rigid, harsh, unforgiving god, who reflects some of the brutality and arbitrariness of primitive religion. The Zeus of The Suppliants, on the other hand, is an upholder of morality and justice who intervenes in the world on the behalf of strangers and those who need help. These can be reconciled, he says, by the idea that both can and do exist at once. That, culturally speaking, spiritual progress is tenuous.

Thucydides illustrates the contradiction as well by placing his hair-raising account of the plague that destroyed Athens, and the collapse of civilization that occurred in its wake, right after Pericles’ stirring funeral oration that celebrates the achievements of classical Greece. The paroxysms of violence that accompanied the Reign of the Thirty Tyrants shortly before Socrates was executed might be offered as another example. The veneer of civilization, Aeschylus seems to say, is paper thin, and a return to barbarism is always more near than we’d like to believe.

The God of Aeschylus was big enough to express the contradictions of the age. There was an emergence from the darkness of superstition, but there was also a nod to the fragility of the social contract. We struggle toward rationality and compassion, but our progress is never complete.

We have yet to forge a God whose identity is equal to the demands of our age.

The God of the televangelists and the mega-churches is an excuse for the consumerism backed by militarism that is the background of our lives. This is a God that is allied with a morally bankrupt State. Were we to slide once more into barbarism, this comfortable and cowardly God would be of little help.

Our God should lead us toward community and joy. Ours must be an authentically counter-cultural God that leads us into knowing who we are and what we must become. A God for our times should offer us more than the comforts of conformity and consumerism, and call us toward our highest selves.

Maybe our new God doesn’t look like “God” at all. Perhaps our spiritual needs are better met by a different sort of symbolism altogether.

The last Axial Age stretched on for more than 500 years. I’m not sure we have that kind of time. We need to get a move on.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Problem Of Being Me

If you haven't had to think through the issue of who you are lately, I recommend you do. It can be very clarifying. You may find, as I have, that you're not for everyone. Yesterday, I opened my email to find this:
Please send me no more e-mails. Although I am no longer homeless, I find them very offensive. I had no idea your organization was like this. The regular e-mails I was receiving from Real Change, I never had seen anything like this content in them. I am sorry, but I am no longer supporting this homeless venue, but will continue to support others. Thank you for removing me from this list.

I suspect it was The Air Force Years: Part One that sent her over the edge. Or maybe it was Lick My Decals Off Baby. Being a bit of a freak, it's hard for me to tell sometimes what others might find offensive.

Several weeks ago, I started sending out weekly emails inviting people in my address book to read my blog. Since we're talking about maybe 2,500 people here, many of whom have no interest in getting weekly emails about my musings on homeless advocacy, advanced post-industrial capitalism, my personal history, Captain Beefheart, my kids, or whatever the hell else I might choose to write about everyday, I always include some sort of a "please tell me to fuck off" statement in each email.

A number of people, but not so many as one might expect, have taken me up on the offer. And who could possibly blame them?

When I first started this blog, I found myself confronted with a number of decisions that I hadn't anticipated. There was the obvious "what do I write about," but there was also the thornier, "how do I present myself." I write differently in Real Change's Director's Corner, for instance, that I would here. When addressing large groups of people, I tone myself down a bit. I don't want to scare people.

Little did I realize that within just a few months, my blog would be addressing large groups of people. In the last few weeks, I've had about 1,500 unique visitors, and about 300 of them have been coming back. That's twice the readership I had just a few weeks before. Blog readership, if you're worth reading at all, seems to be sort of an exponential kind of thing.

So, here's the deal. I'll keep on being who I am, and if you're just not interested, or even offended, that would group you with at least 99.99999% of the universe. I won't be offended.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Magical Fucking Kingdom

We did Disney World today, and it wasn't as horrible as I thought it would be. If you've never been to Orlando, it's hard to appreciate just how huge Disney is here. You drive down Highway 525, and Disney basically owns it. There are numerous parks, each with their own entry fees of about $71.00 a day, per person. There's the Magic Kingdom, the Animal Kingdom, the Disney-MGM Studios, Epcot Center, the Water Park, Downtown Disney, and Disney's Wide World of Sports.

As we attempted to buy our tickets, two different sales people did their best to give us a half-price deal in exchange for sitting through a hour and a half timeshare sales pitch. Life is way too short. We decided on the Magic Kingdom, got the conference discount and the after 2 pm discount, and paid $236 for two adults and two four year-olds.

We had some time to kill before 2 p.m., so we went off in search of lunch. Everything south of our hotel is owned by Disney, so we tried north. It was a corporate wasteland, and the best we could do was an Applebees. We paid $31.32 for a shitty light lunch. It was a reminder of how much our quality of life suffers when corporate Goliaths choke the life out of everything else. It took them 20 minutes to even notice we were there, and then, when the food finally comes a half hour later, they bring two four year-olds mac and cheese that's been warmed in a broiler and say, "Be careful. Hot plates!"

Fucking brilliant.

On the way to Disney, we stopped to pay a toll (there are toll booths every few miles in this part of Florida), and there are two booths and a sign. The sign says that if you run the toll, a photo will be taken and you will be fined. One booth is for those with a pass. The other booth is for fifty cents in change, and if you don't have the change, you're out of luck, because the machine doesn't accept bills and there is no bill changer.

I walked to the car behind us with a dollar bill in my hand and the driver was already digging around in his ashtray for dimes. He wanted to wave my bill away, but I insisted he take it in exchange for redeeming my faith in humanity.

By this time, I'm starting to dislike Florida rather intensely.

When you get to The Magic Kingdom, you pay $10 to park in one of their ginormous lots, get on a shuttle that takes you to a monorail, and then come through a security checkpoint where they look through your bags to make sure you're not bringing in food that they'd prefer you purchase inside.

Then, as you present your tickets, they instruct you to place your finger on a scanning pad. "Why are you taking a fingerprint," I ask. The woman looks at me blankly. "It's not taking a print. It's just measuring your finger."

Measuring my finger?

"Why," I ask. "Do the scans go into a database?"

"No," she says. "It's just so that if you lose your ticket we know who you are." Just as I'm thinking that this makes no sense at all and am working up my next question, I notice that Carolyn is giving me that "Don't be such an asshole" look, and I decide to let it drop. I have my finger scanned, walk through the turnstile, and look at the panel that the operator sees. The LED display reads, "Ask for biometric data."

In ten years, I think, these fucking things will be everywhere.

So, by the time we get to Main Street, which is filled with places to buy shit and has this incredible sound system that's like the voice of God coming out of the sky and every minute or so says that this is where dreams come true and anything is possible, I'm thinking I've pretty much arrived at the heart of darkness.

But within the first few minutes we see a saxaphone quintet on a sidewalk that knocks out a tight as hell version of Sweet Georgia Brown that had me dancing with Mica on my shoulders. Then a band went by doing Deep Purple's Smoke on the Water, which is a marching band standard but in this context made me laugh. And then the parade came by with all sorts of dancers, and two-thirds of the guys looked totally gay, which made me remember how Disney stood up to a Christian-right boycott a few years ago. And I conceded to myself that Disney isn't all bad, even if they are ruthless capitalism in Mickey Mouse drag.

The "It's a Small World" ride, which was the subject of a dead-on parody in the Simpsons Episode where Lisa is tripping at Duff Gardens, was pretty much worth the dough in and of itself. We went twice. Unbelievably surreal. I held Twin B up so she could have a good view of the 10 pm fireworks display, and I've never seen her so transfixed. They met Cinderella, and to the girls it was like seeing God. By the time we walked out at 11:30, they'd clearly had the biggest day of their lives, and I was feeling like it was worth the money.

But we didn't buy one single piece of crap while we were there. We felt pretty good about that too.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Kip Tiernan's River Babies

One of the very first people I ever heard challenge homeless advocates to go beyond services to structural solutions was Kip Tiernan, a Boston activist out of the Catholic Worker mold. Kip is still around and at 77 continues to direct Boston's Poor People's United Fund with her longtime associate Fran Froelich.

She and Fran have recently published Urban Meditations, a work they describe as "outcast political theology" that is a reflection on forty years of urban ministry. I've been thinking of her lately because voices such as hers are so rare yet so badly needed. I first became acquainted with Kip's work in the late-80s, when she was a fellow at Radcliffe's Bunting Institute, and was working out a structural analysis of homelessness.

Kip was the first person I ever heard ask the question "Qui Bono," or who benefits? Having seen Good Will Hunting, I can't hear this phrase anymore without thinking of Matt Damon's retort, "Qui gives a shit?" In a time when more people seem to care about the next American Idol than the problem of increasing inequality, that's not a bad question to pose either.

I'll always be grateful to Kip for starting me down this path and for turning me on to radical theologian Walter Bruggeman, who in The Prophetic Imagination said "Situations of cultural acceptance breed accommodating complacency." There's a lot in there to unpack.

Today someone asked me what I thought about Project Homeless Connect in San Fransisco. Apparently the US Interagency Council on Homelessness has adopted this program as one of their best practice models, which means that it is likely to spread. In fact, their website says it has already been duplicated in 106 cities.

On the surface, it looks like a good thing. Huge amounts of corporate support are linked up with government and non-profit resources to offer volunteer driven assistance fairs that link homeless people up with services. Longtime San Fransisco homeless activist Paul Boden says that while the both the volunteers and the homeless people who line up the night before care about the problem and want to see solutions, it's a bit of a media show that creates the mistaken impression that if only homeless people would just ask, they'd get the help they need. They ARE asking, says Paul, every day. And typically, the help isn't really there.

The question reminded me of Kip's signature story, which I've embellished and taken to telling as well.

Imagine a village where life is good. People have what they need and more. In some cases, much more. This village, where life is good, is filled with good people.

One day, someone notices a basket floating down river. There is a wailing sound. A girl wades out and finds a baby that needs to be rescued. A temporary home is quickly found and arrangements for care are made.

The next day, several more baskets arrive, and the day after that, the flow increases even more. After a few weeks of this, a crisis is declared. Meetings are held, resources are appropriated, and the Coalition for the Survival of Basket Babies is formed.

Over time, the trickle of baskets floating down river turns into a deluge. The village gets really, really good at dealing with the problem. There are rescue teams that can pull baskets out of the river in any weather and hardly ever miss one. This matters, since further down river there is a huge waterfall. There are teams of volunteers who spend all day mashing bananas and apples for the babies to eat. A dairy farm is dedicated to the purpose of providing milk. Churches erect baby dormitories where volunteers tend to their needs and seek to place them with loving families. A basket recycling center is created to mitigate the environmental impact. The pulp is mixed with cotton fiber to create cloth for diapers.

This is adopted as a best practice in hundreds of other villages that are experiencing similar problems.

About ten perent of the village resources are now dedicated to mitigating the baby crisis. People feel really good about it and are imbued with a strong sense of purpose. But despite the enormous infrastructure that now exists, and despite the great skill, caring, and generosity that has gone into its creation, the babies are still coming down river in great numbers. And oddly, no one ever goes up river to see if the flow can be stopped at its source.

When someone finally does, no one listens to what she says. The up river solution might mean that some of the people who have way more than they need might have to do with less. This is a controversial idea, and the villagers don't want to make the wealthy town fathers angry. They're the biggest financial supporters of the rescue operation.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Love Is All There Is

Last night as I was writing the post below Twin B woke up and came out to sit on the couch with me in the dark. She pointed to the donations badge at the top right of my blog and asked "Who's that." "That's Margaret," I whispered, "She's nice."

"Is she a boy or a girl?"

"She's a girl."

"I love her," said Twin B.

A moment of silence as she settled in next to me. "I love everybody."

Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Air Force Years: Part Two

The scene at Lackland AFB the night I arrived was exactly as you'd imagine. It was near midnight and a humid 80 degrees or so in San Antonio, Texas. The bus from the airport passed through the arched gate and drove along the silent streets. Our voices grew subdued with anticipation. As we arrived at a small brightly lit administration building, the bus came to a stop and the Training Instructors (TIs) in the Mountie hats started in.

We were "maggoty little pukes" now, and they would be "our mamas, our girlfriends, our world." We stood next to our bags on the tarmac hoping to avoid notice. They herded us through processing and we were marched to the barracks of Flight 52.

Sargent Matson — the saner of our two TIs — put his nose to mine and drawled "I, don't, like, fuckin', hippies." I had the sense to say nothing, and he was kind enough to let me get away it.

Once everyone's head was shaved, he seemed to forget who I was.

Our other TI, Sargent Anderson, was a bigger concern. Either this man was the best actor in the world, or he was just half a step from losing it entirely and committing some act of unspeakable mayhem. Anderson was just plain fucking scary.

The second floor barracks was split into two long bays of around two dozen metal frame beds that were paired in facing rows. The walls were lined with lockers that contained a precise set of items. Much of our work revolved around keeping these things "clean, dry, and serviceable" and arranged just so.

I spent the next six weeks in the constant company of around fifty guys. There was an intense silent type named Martinez who would fling sweat as he performed martial arts in front of a mirror, and an overweight kid named Raymond who seemed too dumb to be for real. He was from Maine. A couple of guys came through high school ROTC, and with their Airman First Class stripes already outranked us all. There were a handful of true believers who were dying to be squad leaders so they could start giving orders.

The Airman in the bunk next to me was a Black guy from New York named — to the great amusement of all — Tim Harris. Up to that point, I'd never known an African-American. Blacks in Sioux Falls were extremely scarce. His hospital corners were always tighter than mine and his shoes more shined. He liked Earth, Wind, and Fire and I liked Journey, but we got along OK.

There were maybe a four or five Blacks in our Flight. One was a former school teacher from the Virgin Islands. He was older and kept to himself. The others formed an unofficial squad of their own.

One night, they decided to have a few blanket parties. One or two of them would hold someone down with a blanket while the others pounded him with bars of soap wrapped in towels. I was on the list. The blanket had barely come down over my head before I was upright yelling "What the Fuck!"

They scattered, but I saw that Tim was involved. We never spoke of it. I wasn't exactly popular.

Only two people in our Flight would earn the coveted Honor Graduate ribbon. Weirdly, I was one of them. I was the last guy, besides maybe Raymond, who seemed destined to this achievement. I was regarded by my peers as a stoner with an attitude problem. I bounced when I marched, had problems telling left from right, and, by Basic Trainee standards, was a bit on the rumpled side.

Little of this really mattered. Getting the award was a matter of performing a few graded drills without error, passing the inspections, and acing several written tests. But luck played a role as well. There was one inspection that everyone failed except for the two of us who weren't there. We became the Honor Grads. Everyone else was eliminated by Sergeant Anderson's bed-flipping, drawer-throwing, temper tantrum.

I was out that day on the business of blowing my security clearance.

When I enlisted
, it was with visions of leaving the world of sweaty low-wage toil behind and entering a desk-bound, air-conditioned existence of comparative leisure. One's actual job placement, however, was never guaranteed. The needs of the Air Force, the phrase went, "were paramount."

After scoring highly on several aptitude tests, I was being tracked toward work as a translator or working with code, neither of which excited me. I envisioned long hours wearing headphones in some godforsaken place like Thule, Greenland. To qualify, I needed a Top Secret clearance. I took the obvious course of action, and told them the opposite of everything they wanted to hear.

I had taken drugs repeatedly and enthusiastically. I got myself through bad patches by kiting checks. My parents and I weren't really speaking. It all went down on their forms.

The day everyone else's lockers were being destroyed, I was in a small room with some Major who had been assigned to figure out the problem Airman. "It seems to me," she said after some conversation, "that there are other people who want this assignment more than you." I agreed, and the issue was dropped.

Ironically, I wound up assigned as a Travel Disbursement Specialist. Since this involved routinely seeing people's orders, some of which were classified, I technically needed a Top Secret clearance. This was granted with little apparent investigation or fanfare.

The graduation ceremony was a proud occasion. I was to stand up as my name was called, march to the front, salute, receive the Honor Graduate ribbon, execute a flawless about face and march back to my seat. I was terrified. As I stood in front of the presenter he said in a low voice, "Don't blow it now Airman." I didn't. The ribbon was mine.

From the beginning, I had a keen sense of being judged by those who lived neat, contained, half-witted existences of obedience and order. I thought they were self-righteous idiots and wanted to show them all up, so I did. At least one felt he deserved the ribbon far more than I and said so to my face. I'm sure he was right, but it didn't bother me. In the end, I was just luckier.

Life's like that sometimes.

Everyone expects Basic Training to suck, so when it did, I wasn't too surprised. I put on about twenty pounds and kept it. This always happens to me. My thin periods are always a by-product of extreme poverty. When food becomes available, I eat.

There was only one kid in my Flight who didn't make it. He was a streetwise punk from somewhere in Ohio who'd been in some trouble back home. He told the TIs he was gay and the next day he was gone.

Within a year, I'd was resorting to some fairly desperate strategies of my own, but could never bring myself to employ the one more or less sure-fire means that I had available. If I'd been less of a homophobe, I probably could have saved myself a lot of trouble.

See also:
The Beginnings
Young, Gifted, and Miserable
Everybody Must Get Stoned
Life Begins at Seventeen
The Year of Living Dangerously
The Air Force Years: Part One
The Air Force Years: Part Two
The Air Force Years: Part Three
The Air Force Years: Part Four
The Air Force Years: Part Five
Working Poor In Waltham: Part One
Working Poor In Waltham: Part Two
Birth of a Student Radical
Harvest of Shame
The Owl of Minerva Flies at Midnight
The Road to Street
The Street Years: Part One
The Street Years: Part Two

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Greetings from Orlando

It's 4 a.m. in Florida and the hell day is done. We left the house a little after 8 this morning and got in an hour ago. There were problems in Dallas, a long wait for the rental car, and two four year olds who went insane at around 10 their time. Fortunately, they both went down for the count about two seconds after the car hit 417 South. It's hot and humid, and there are palm trees everywhere.

I killed my cat the night before we left. My friends have seen this coming for awhile.

We were going to have our neighbors feed Oz while we were gone, and had a friend dropping in for a more extensive visit or two, but on Thursday night Carolyn and I both looked at him and had to ask ourselves whether he'd be alive when we got back. Our cat of eighteen years was near the end, and neither of us really wanted to deal with it.

I called the emergency pet clinic on Lake City Way to see if we could have him put down, and they said yes. It would have been a lot harder for Carolyn, so she stayed with the girls and worked on packing while I did the deed. I drove him over at around 9 pm.

Oz has always been a howler when he's scared, but he barely made a sound. It was a measure of how little was left. He weighed maybe two pounds.

I've never liked this cat all that much. He's sweet, but basically a really annoying animal. One of those cats who was removed from his mother too early and never recovered.

So I was kind of surprised to find myself getting all emotional. I drove to the clinic with his carrier in the passengers' seat and said inane things in cooing tones the whole way.

The clinic had the drill down. I could either just drop him off or stay and be with him to the end. Disposal options included mass cremation, single cremation with ashes returned, or home burial. I opted to stay and and to have him incinerated with the others. A perfect mix of sentiment and practicality. They asked for their $102 up front.

They took him away to put an IV catheter in his leg, and returned him to me in a room where he and I could sit as long as I liked. I asked for three minutes. He was wrapped in a blanket and seemed to enjoy his final moments.

The vet came in and explained that the blanket would keep things from getting messy once the drug was injected. They were basically giving him a powerful anesthetic. He'd be gone in about 45 seconds. There might be some body reactions. There were three syringes. The first with water, to clear the tube. The second with viscous pink stuff that looked like Pepto-Bismol, and the third another clear liquid. Maybe water again. I didn't ask. There was a shudder and a smell. I held him throughout. She listened with a stethoscope. "Just gut sounds," she murmured. "He's gone," I asked? It came out choked. She nodded. I handed her the bundle, said thanks again, and left.

As I shut the car door it hit me that I felt more for this cat than I knew. I started to sob, and to laugh at the same time, because I couldn't believe that I was crying over this cat. Me. The guy who can maybe get a little misty over a poem or a piece of music, but who basically hasn't cried for more than 30 years. Some guys are criers. I'm not.

But there I was, in a dark parking lot, alone in my car, drowning in snot and tears over a cat I didn't even think I liked. "Fucking cat," I laughed and sobbed. And after a couple of minutes, I dried my face on my shirt, turned the ignition and drove away. And that was that.

Friday, June 8, 2007

The Turnip Gets His Say (Sort Of)

My sock puppet post seems to have hit a nerve. Wes was telling me recently that he's never seen Bill Block get mad. Well, I have. I think the secret is to compare him to a turnip. Bill emailed to say I'm more interested in having a colorful blog than in checking my facts.

I do hate to be dull.

There are a few corrections to be made. The handout and PowerPoint were created by Leadership Tomorrow for anyone who intends to speak on behalf of CEHKC, and not for the benefit of the Consumer Advisory Council (CAC) alone. It's in beta stage. SHARE/WHEEL didn't hear it that way, but as Anitra so delicately put it, "When you're getting fucked all the time, you develop a habit of expecting to be fucked." So maybe Bill should clarify with them as well, so they can stop holding strategy meetings about how they're going to metaphorically kick his ass.

I'm also informed that there are two CAC reps on the Interagency Council, which turns out to be true. Out of 38 seats. Filled mostly by high level government bureaucrats and senior staff from the largest human services and housing agencies in King County.

Bill says the CAC is being empowered.

He has offered, for example, to get some board training for them. I'm not really sure that this addresses the issue.

SHARE/WHEEL, I'm informed, is the only organization that has actually been allowed to have organizational representation on the CAC, and they fought for that tooth and nail. All other homeless and formerly homeless people are instructed to leave their affiliations at the door. They are on the CAC as individuals.

I wonder if that's true also for, say, Paul Lambros, the ED of Plymouth Housing, or Adrienne Quinn from the Office of Housing. Or City Attorney Tom Carr. I sort of doubt it. I mean, how would that work?

Anitra says it's pretty easy to be intimidated if "you don't know that you have 300 people standing behind you." I'm sure that's true. I mean, the other people at the table come from more privileged classes, make about ten times as much money as you do, and can talk insider jargon that you don't really understand without even knowing they're doing it. And there you are. You're outnumbered about twelve to one, and you've been informed that you don't represent anyone but yourself.

Here's the other thing. When I asked Bill about the Governing Board handpicking their representative from the Consumer Advisory Committee, his response was that no one else gets to choose their representation. That very "powerful" organizations wanted on and were refused. To me, this misunderstands the point.

The person Real Change nominated to the CAC, for example, is a recovering addict and a felon with limited formal education. He is staying clean, dealing with major health issues, and working toward his dream of one day holding a job in the field of waste management. Everyday life for him borders on the heroic.

He sells Real Change for a living. To pretend for a moment that this guy is on an even playing field with people like Greg Nickels or Paul Lambros or Tom Carr is just fucking sick.

It seems to me that there are two ways one could go about building "consumer" representation into the coalition. One would be to understand the vastly different relationships that people have to power, and attempt to compensate by encouraging genuine empowerment along the lines that SHARE/WHEEL has achieved in their representation. The other is to tokenize and to call that empowerment.

Rachael and I met with Bill shortly after he took this job to talk about homeless representation. If you want homeless people's ideas to really inform this process, we advised, forget about putting individuals in the position of representing "the homeless." Hold forums. Do surveys. Get real feedback about how the issue is viewed from a broad spectrum of those most affected and analyze those results for meaning.

But that's not the route they chose to go. I wonder why?

I don't think Bill Block is the issue here. There aren't many people who could hold together a coalition of county and city officials, high level career human service administrators, housing developers, business people, faith community advocates, and foundation heavyweights.

Let's face it. Most of these people aren't all that interested in what homeless people think. They already have their own ideas, and these have to do with their own self-interest. Lets remember our Niebuhr here. Individuals behave morally. Institutions act upon their self-interest. This is a coalition of institutions. This homeless inclusion stuff is ten percent reality and ninety percent useful fiction.

Are we such children that we don't understand this?

I don't believe for a moment that homeless people are an authentic part of CEHKC. Power sets the agenda and dictates the terms of inclusion. SHARE/WHEEL has some ability to push back, and those who have power don't like that a bit. It hasn't been that long since the city basically went to the mat in a failed attempt to defund the opposition.

Or have we forgotten that already? Somehow, I doubt that SHARE/WHEEL has.