Hello There, Minnesota!

Many of you found Man of Many Words today through a link associated with an article I wrote for Minnesota Artists Online about street artists in my current home base of New Haven, Connecticut. To my fellow Minnesotans I say Welcome and Long Time No See. I lived in the Twin Cities from age 1 to age 24 (with breaks for world travel and a drive out to see the very exciting twine ball in Darwin, Minnesota.) I have occasional nostalgia pangs after three years of absence. I will return one day.

To those of you who did not find Many of Many Words via that article, I invite you to go over there and check out mnartists.org. The weekly arts magazine is funded through the world-class Walker Art Center and the McKnight Foundation. Their editorial staff are deeply involved with the arts scene at all levels, from creation to organization to criticism and more. The magazine has become the epicenter of all things artistic in Minnesota. So get on over there and see what Minnesota artists, poets, musicians, spoken word artists, filmmakers, and arts movers and shakers are doing.

After that, come on back to Man of Many Words and get some more daily news embedded in personal narrative embedded in magic. While you’re at it, please allow me to pimp the donation buttons located in the left sidebar. There they are. See them? Click, click. Your help is appreciated.

Bellissa and Faith

The following originally appeared on another blog on April 7th of this year.

*****

I walked out of the shelter and hefted my suitcase into the back seat of Bellissa’s truck. Together we rode towards Rudy’s.

“I have to ask you this,” Bellissa was saying. “Are you on any drugs?”

“Nicotine,” I replied.

“OK. So, nothing? Because if you need any kind of counseling, any kind of treatment, I’ve got hookups in that department too. I just want to make sure you’re taken care of in that regard too, if that’s the case.”

“No drugs, no nothing. Just me and my karma.”

“OK.”

We ordered our burgers and fish sandwiches (me the former, vegetarian-esque she the latter) and one Schaffer beer each. Bellissa paid. I was grateful. The Wednesday night Rudy’s crowd was a decent size. We talked about moving me into her spare room for awhile, and about what I can do for her in exchange and for how long it should go on. I would move a gigantic pile of sticks and branches from one part of her backyard to another. I would crush and destroy the bamboo-like weeds that had taken over one corner of the yard. I would put together her new entertainment center, install “grippy tape” on the front steps to reduce the chance of someone slipping, and help to unpack a room full of boxes and distribute their contents around the house where they belong. The latter is the only one I never got around to, because it turned out I was out of there and into my own place in a week.

Meanwhile, Bellissa drove me around, bought me lunches and dinners, introduced me to her friends and brothers and her basement roommate, talked with and counseled me about my options for the immediate and near future, and took my thousand thanks gracefully, eventually asking me to stop thanking her. I couldn’t help it. Although I was helping her out around the house, I still felt that yanking me out of the shelter and putting me up for a week was a true gift. She was, and continues to be, a true friend. We laughed, we hung out, we even drank and made merry one night around a bonfire in her backyard. The fire burned an invisible igloo of warmth in the still, cool air of the opening days of April as we sipped on Bud and nipped at a small bottle of Southern Comfort. I felt completely at ease in her presence, yet also oddly responsible and productive.

I continued the blog from her place and considered my plans. Ultimately the blog drew forth a number of Good Samaritans (much like paramedics to a crash site) who offered all measure of things helpful: money, jobs, housing, food and coffee outings for discussing life and its vicissitudes, kind sentiments and powerful words of encouragement. The blog also drew forth a some chastisement from old friends who I had wronged at one point and with whom I had not yet made amends. Even that was OK, as it just felt good to be reaching out and talking to everybody.

Two people expressed doubt that I had ever been homeless. I felt immensely complimented and encouraged to hear that I was just “a professional writer riding a trend” of homelessness and poverty in the literary and pop culture arenas.

Perhaps I never made myself sound desperate enough. Maybe my positive attitude in the face of hardship wasn’t typical. Certainly I was not living in the shelter for very long, but now wait just one minute, fellas. I have known poverty all my life. I grew up on Section 8 housing and welfare checks and grossly early Social Security benefits. When I was little, my mother and I usually had enough money left over for a Friday night donut date at the kitchen table. Silently, gratefully, and full of mischievous giggling, we slurped our half a donut each by candlelight. Dunked into milk sopping wet dripping. This was our treat for the week. I’m grateful for the donut memories.

Welcome to the story of my life: not having much, being resourceful, trying not to think like a poor person, being a chronic spendthrift when you get a few extra bucks in your pocket, only to find yourself broke in a few days and having to pawn something or ration the milk. Fine. Not so bad. Have you ever heard me complain?

Bellissa related the story of how she once asked a poor old man, Rawls, a jazz saxophone player, why he would spend $200 out of his $300 monthly government cheese on a handheld DVD player.

“When you’ve been poor your entire life,” explained Rawls, “you really are not interested in counting your pennies. If you get a little extra cash, you want to get something nice for yourself. You just want to feel normal, like other people.” And then you’re broke for days or weeks and you have to beg people for food. That’s thinking like a poor person. Again: welcome to my world.

One of the Good Samaritans who responded to my blog, Faith is her name, offered to put me up in an efficiency apartment in her house in exchange for 20-30 hours a week of work around the house. I could choose the jobs as I find things that need doing – raking, picking up trash, doing dishes, general cleaning, painting the unfinished woodwork around the window sills – what-have-you. It would also include feeding the stray cat, Squeak is his name, “because I want you to learn how to take care of something other than yourself,” Faith intoned in all seriousness. That sounded great, so I took the efficiency.

And that’s where I am now. I have a cozy little room – not too little, but little – enough room for walking loose figure eights, a writerly pace of pondering – with my own bathroom and kitchen. This is more than I could have ever hoped for, especially on a work exchange basis. The house is situated right off the New Haven Harbor, which is an inlet off the Long Island Sound, which is an inlet off the Atlantic Ocean. I can open my side door and see saltwater. It comes in violently in big tumultuous waves when it rains all day, like it did three days ago, but when the weather is stiller sits patiently in the cold early April breeze, lapping the shore like a stray tabby cat to its stairway water dish.

Is this the place where I can write my Great American novel about how I am not Great at all, hardly even consider myself an American in the popular sense of the word? There is seclusion and solitude here; Faith, ever faithful, assures me the place is well protected by His divine love. I can write my life and my memories and my nows and forevers, and I can take a bus or walk an hour into town for a little social healing, a healing I need so badly.

But it’s the solitude I love. No sirens can be heard. No nighttime ambulances in a steady procession towards the Yale New Haven Medical Center, almost on top of which I lived when I was over at George and Howe, before I was evicted on sincere threat of violence.

No. This place is peace, here in my “kingdom by the sea”. So I’m grateful, I’m not homeless, and I’m ready to move forward in life. Tell me, please: Is that so boring?

Note: Some names were changed to avoid drama.

My Cat is a Dog

My cat is a dog. It’s a tabby cat. Lives outdoors. So it’s not my cat, really. Just a stray I inherited by dint of moving into the efficiency at Faith’s house on Water Street here in New Haven. Whoever lives in this efficiency is charged with feeding Squeak. That’s his name. He squeaks. For real. Holds his mouth open and squeaks like a squeaky toy when he’s begging. The squeaking erupts most squeakily when I’m bringing out the bowl of cat food. I use Purina Cat Chow Complete Formula, an all-ages cat food, $5 at the local convenience store on Howard Avenue. I set the bowl down by my outside steps and Squeak wolfs down its contents like there was no tomorrow.

Squeak was most vociferous and sad during the Nor’easter that tore through here last week. He didn’t seem to mind the rain itself. More just the dismal atmosphere. He plodded sadly up to me whenever I would step outside. He couldn’t sit down because the ground was wet. Instead, he would climb up into my lap or my arms or sit on my shoulders like some furry landlubbing parrot. Now that it’s beautiful outside (70s, slight breeze, plenty of sunshine) Squeak lounges and waits for me when I am indoors or away from the neighborhood.

Often when I take walks, such as to the end of the pier, Squeak follows me all the way out. His heads will turn this way and that, spotting unseen fauna, picking up on the scents of other strays, but otherwise he is completely domesticated. Like a dog, he will come when I call, and he always walks back home with me.

I made the mistake of feeding him three times a day for the first few days I was in my new efficiency. Faith then informed me that I’m only supposed to feed him once a day, or I’d have a beggar on my hands. Besides, other houses feed him too, so it’s not like he’s starving. I took the advice, but still Squeak has made me his new best friend.

He greeted me this morning and sat in my lap as the sun beat down its gorgeous rays. We both earned this nice weather.

The Urban Pedestrian

If I had a blog called The Urban Pedestrian, it would be a daily account of my walks through downtown New Haven and surrounding areas. I would talk about the buildings, the streets, the people in the streets, construction projects that are underway, and so on. I would report on what it’s like to be a pedestrian in the attempt to “raise awareness” about the “issue” of being a pedestrian. I would complain a lot about the traffic signals and how they are awkwardly timed so that it is actually safer to jaywalk than to cross at the intersection. I would bitch and moan about motorists who never use their turn signals, and relate tales of how I yelled, “Nice turn signal!” as the car swerved blithely on by. Uplifting stories of Good Samaritanism would be included, as would sardonic tales of the street people asking for money.

Today, for example, I ran into a street lady with whom I am quite familiar. I don’t know her name. It was a beautiful day out, in the 70s I believe, and she said, “Do you know me?” I said I did, and asked how she was doing. “I’m depressed. I’ve been walking around all day, crying like an asshole.” I could see the tears in her eyes. I don’t know nor do I care whether she was just running for Best Actress or what. I just said, “I’m sorry, sweetheart, I would give you some money, but I am fresh out.” I gave her a hug instead. She kept on walking and panhandling in the gorgeous weather.

Now that’s kind of sardonic, yes? Sad, but nice weather. Good combination. Then I would move onto how I ran into my buddy Gary from the old soup kitchens I used to attend, and how I spotted him today wearing a suit at a bus stop. He was coming back from a job interview at a temp agency to (hopefully) replace his job as a stock “boy” in a grocery store. His explosion of sandy white hair and handlebar goatee, juxtaposed with the old pinstriped suit, made him look a lot like Samuel Clemens, or Mark Twain depending on who you ask. Gary was reading a fantasy novel. He’s always reading a fantasy novel. He opened the one he was holding and read me a passage from the introduction, which was basically a how-to guide to writing fantasy. Moral of the passage: you have to have a theology (pagan or Christian, pagans are better because “they have more fun”), a Hero, a Quest, and a “Magic Thingamajiggy” (Holy Grail, the One Ring, the Special Jewel). That’s as far as we got. Gary’s bus arrived.

That’s The Urban Pedestrian. Lowbrow and blue collar and street. Then there’s The Upscale Pedestrian.

The Upscale Pedestrian would be a blog about how to live the good life without having to buy a car or even a bicycle. It would include information about how to use the transit system in an efficient manner, reviews of nice restaurants and museums you can walk to, a guide to planning your days around a pedestrian-oriented way of life, and other material. It would break down the cost of being a pedestrian and weigh it against the cost of owning a car, and then compare the intrinsic benefits of each way of life. I would attempt to prove that you can muster any type of non-motorist lifestyle you want, whether you are young or old, rich or humble, single or married, with kids or without.

So why don’t I start those blogs? Because I have too many ideas. That’s why I have this multi-purpose blog, this trash compactor. I realize there is little to connect this blog to itself. There seems to be no pattern, other than the fact that it is written by myself. So I’ll just stick to this one for now. My goal is to tell self-contained stories that do not require you to follow a thread or series. On the other hand, a lot of my life does connect; a lot of the stories do find relationships with each other. So if you are a reader of this blog, please just read as much or as little as you like. If you start to see a pattern, then you have your larger narrative. Reading and writing are therefore a symbiotic relationship. As a reader, you have just as many choices to make as does the writer. So we’re kind of exactly alike. You’re confused, I’m confused, let’s all share our lives with each other.

The Shakespeare Lady

The Shakespeare Lady is performing a passage from a play I do not recognize. I am the only patron in attendance. The admission price for the show is two dollars. The venue is a sidewalk.
“What feeble night bird overcome by misfortunes beats at my door?”
It’s a passage from the Robinson Jeffers version of Medea by Euripides – one of the Shakespeare Lady’s signature acts. We are standing outside an overpriced health food store. Customers are going in and out. Nobody stops to listen tonight.
“Can this be that great adventurer, the famous lord of the seas and delight of women, the heir of rich Corinth, this crying drunkard on the dark doorstep?”
The training she received at Bennington College in Vermont and the Yale School of Drama shines through. Her voice is strong and singsong, her physical gestures measured and effective yet sweeping. The lines from the passage seem to be directed at both herself and at the invisible character she is supposed to be addressing. At times, it feels as though she is addressing me. I feel included, somehow.
“Yet you’ve not had enough.”
No, I have not had enough. I am the feeble night bird. I am the boastful adventurer, the privileged middle class citizen, cut down to size. I hang on her every word. I know where this woman has been. I learned about her from first hand experience, word on the street, talking to the locals, and reading the news. She has a rare form of schizophrenia, an ailment she and someone at UCLA have described as “tactile demons”. She hears voices. They have been tormenting her since her days as a Yale student. Her Master’s Thesis was entitled “A Theatre of Hunger”.
In the early 1980s, she got into a physical argument with the voices and destroyed her apartment. She has been living on the streets and in mental hospitals, women’s shelters, and rooming houses ever since. The business owners around this neighborhood, which just so ironically happens to be the designated “arts district”, don’t like her much. She can get overly assertive. Sometimes she performs so close to the storefronts that the customers have to walk right by her, both coming and going. Apparently, people have complained, because the neighborhood business community is trying to put the kibosh on her performances. She has been arrested, thrown in jail, and tried for trespassing and disturbing the peace numerous times each.
Luckily, she is not all alone in the system. She has won allies through her performances. Many have advocated in the press for leniency for her minor “offenses”. Filmmakers and musicians have created documentaries and music videos in tribute to her. She even has a lawyer friend who defends her pro bono every time she goes to court. Even the mayor of New Haven likes her, and has been quoted as saying he admires the dignity she maintains despite her difficult lifestyle. Still, she continues living her own Theatre of Hunger.
“You have come to drink the last bitter drops. I’ll pour them for you.”
The rats took over her rooming house last June. The city condemned the place and kicked out all the tenants. I once saw what the place looked like when I myself was looking for a cheap place to live. It was frighteningly filthy. In an abandoned room I saw an open refrigerator, unplugged, with food still inside. The refrigerator was tilting, sadly, on broken feet. I didn’t dare look at the shared shower rooms.
The Shakespeare Lady still performs on the streets. Some say she smokes crack. I don’t judge it. Does your boss ask you what you’re going to spend your money on when he cuts your paychecks? The Shakespeare Lady’s performances are the best deal in town. Her eyes bulge from their sockets when performing, but rest easy and hooded when just walking. Her voice is natural and conversational as she again trots up the street towards me again:
“Hey baby, my name is the Shakespeare Lady,” goes the usual introductory line. “Mind if I read you a poem for a couple of dollars so I can get into a shelter?” By “poem” she means “theatrical performance”. She probably says “poem” because it’s quicker to say when you’re trying to hustle up a rush hour audience.
“Sure, Margaret, I remember you,” I reply, reaching into my pocket.
She readies herself by closing her eyes for a moment. She seems to be crouching internally, as if a cat before the pounce. She launches into the “To be or not to be” monolog from Hamlet. The cat has pounced, and she is clawing. A few lines go by before she is suddenly doing the “I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. Suddenly the speech has morphed to become the Emancipation Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln. I can’t tell where she made the switches. Is she twisting her lines on purpose, or is this some manifestation of the schizophrenia? Is she confused? And does it even matter? The “mash-up”, if you will, is seamless. A DJ or collage artist should be so proficient at blending the arts of completely many different epochs of human history into one cohesive narrative. The result is a timeless wailing of the soul. A longing, a yearning, a sadness and a strength. For my two bucks, the Shakespeare Lady ain’t holding back.
I, for one, appreciate her performances.
“Thank you, Shakespeare Lady, for throwing a wrench into my day,” I should say. “For making me stop and look somewhere besides straight forward. For making me look up at the sky, where you are looking, Shakespeare Lady. Thank you for speaking loudly, for not being ashamed of yourself, and for being a human being and an actor and alive. Thank you for reminding ‘sane’ people of the raw underbelly of their own psyche. Thank you for all the debts you’ve paid so that I can have this moment with you.”
I never say all that. Instead, it’s just, “Thank you, Margaret.” I look her in the eye, clasp her hand in my two hands when I give her the money, and figure she understands.
“Thanks, baby, you have a good night now.”