The Privileged Bum

We’re doing something a little different today. You’ve got your choice of mediums! Below is a blog post you can read, but if you’d rather listen, you can listen to me read it from the embedded media below, SoundCloud, or iTunes (Ep8 from either of those locations).

As I’ve been traveling around the country, I’ve struggled with what to call myself. I often say I’m a traveler. But that’s so vague. It doesn’t really capture that I’m road tripping a giant loop around the country. Nor does it capture my primary objective of experiencing people. Sometimes I jokingly call myself homeless. To some I talk about my project of seeking out stories from people as I travel and make that the focus. To others I just note the ideas that capture what I’m doing, that I’m following my bliss, I’m sticking it to the man, I’m doing a passion project, I’m learning about people and myself. But what I’ve kinda been settling on calling myself is a privileged bum.

Privileged bum. That just so perfectly encapsulates how I feel. And I’m not trying to cast a negative light on myself, I just feel like I occupy a unique position and exploring that has been worthwhile. Yes, I’m technically homeless. I drift around the country with only a vague plan for what I’m doing day to day. I’ve camped. I’ve slept in my car. I’ve wondered on many nights where I was going to sleep.

Despite some of the characteristics of a homeless wanderer, a moment early in my travels perfectly illustrated that I am not that. While I was chatting with a homeless guy in California, we were sitting outside with each other and passers-by spoke to us as though we were the same. We appeared to be homeless, traveling nomads, sitting together. My long-ish beard, beanie, flannel and my sitting with a homeless man gave the impression I was like him. It was a strange experience for me, because I had never been assigned that label by someone else. I contemplated that label as this homeless man and I chatted.

As we were making an end to our conversation, this man asked me what my sleeping plans were for the night. I noted that I had some people a town over that my cousin had arranged to host me. I had a choice of a couch or air mattress to sleep on. This man had the prospect that he may not be warm, dry or comfortable that night. Reality hit me with all its force. I could look homeless, I could play like I’m homeless, and I could wander like someone that is homeless. But I will always be someone that most homeless people have no access to being. I have a network of people that will always make sure I have a place to sleep or live, and a bachelor’s degree and a good resume to ensure employment.

His network is more homeless people, drug addicts, and drug dealers, laced with a smattering of interactions with law enforcement and kindly strangers that offer him the likes of a can of mango juice from their grocery bags. He wanders out of necessity and simply because that’s all he can do. He’ll wander until he stumbles into the next thing that sustains him for the day or that numbs him until the next sustaining or numbing boon comes. I wander because I chose to for a season. He hops freight trains, hitches rides and walks. I drive my car and stop to soak in scenery and play disc golf. He’ll keep wandering. And when I choose to, I’ll go find a comfortable job, a comfortable home and all the sense of security and stability that my privilege can buy. I’ll never know this homeless man’s lot in life, because I am a privileged bum.

The characteristics of the privileged bum don’t stop at education and employability though. A friend of mine is currently traveling around Europe. She and I talk frequently, because in many ways our travels mirror each other’s. There are the complications of finding places to stay, the loneliness of extended travel, the changes of life that force one to face their inner self. So we talk about these experiences. She often expresses frustration at having her travel choices questioned. Whether it be the fact that she’s so unrooted and traveling with no particular plan, or the places she wants to go, or the way she chooses to spend her time. Another female friend who has been in Europe following a passion of hers in working with refugees wrote me upon my departure and excitedly gave me her support. She noted that I should be careful not to heed the nay-sayers who would question my choice to leave behind a stable job and home to do what I’m doing.

Here’s the odd thing: I have never been questioned to my face. There have certainly been expressions of hoping that I’d be safe and with that the questions about what precautions I’m taking. And there are those that are uncomfortable with imagining themselves doing what I’m doing and conclude they wouldn’t do it. I’m sure some actually do doubt the wisdom of what I’ve chosen to do. Maybe this is too harsh a judgment, but I’m inclined to believe that these wonderful women I know have been questioned, while I have not, because I am a man. They lack this gendered characteristic of the privileged bum, and thus cannot be one as I am.

I would stop at the education/resume status and gendered characteristics of the privileged bum, but I do believe that there is one more important aspect to this classification. I’m white. I can go virtually anywhere without question. I got a few unusual looks when I walked into a fancy Indian restaurant in Chicago looking as I often do: bearded, beanie, zipper hoodie, and backpack. But with the removal of my hat, a smile, and a statement laced with the confidence that I belong, “Table for one, please,” the hostess instantly smiled back. Her tense posture relaxed, she grabbed a menu and drink menu and guided me to a table as if there was never any question about whether I belonged. And maybe race had nothing to do with that situation. But I couldn’t help but feel like it helped. It was one less thing about me to question.

This is actually me with the Detroit skyline, but I wanted to give you a visual of my look when I went into that Chicago restaurant.

Our white washed society is built for me. While I was in Chicago, I had the chance to couch surf with a wonderful man of Sicilian descent. His education and interests have led him to deeply assess the racial and identity dynamics of various places. He noted that the United States for extended periods of time only allowed immigrants from white, western European countries. The government literally tried to design this society for people like me. And though the US is becoming much more diverse, that legacy of white privilege is still present. I can sense that there are places that I am welcome. It is astounding when you look at a racial dot map of the US. We segregate and divide to this day.

The old song goes “This land is your land, this land is my land.” But there seems to be fine print to that statement. This—as in this less desirable, boxed in piece of—land is your land, this—as in everything and anything that I want to deem as my—land is my land. Race has always been a touchy dynamic in the US and in most of the world. And while I don’t know all the problems or the answers, it is clear to me that my being white affords me some measure of privilege, making me the complete privileged bum.

As I mentioned to start, I don’t really want to self-deprecate here. But I do want to acknowledge what I’m witnessing in my experience and what is facilitating a lot of my experience. I don’t have to deal with the same problems as a truly homeless person, a woman, or a person of non-Anglo-European descent. I certainly have my own problems—and trust me, there are a multitude of them—but there are also privileges I have that allow more ease in a variety of situations. I love what I’m doing. I love that I am seeing the country in a non-traditional way. I love sleeping on couches in strangers’ homes, or with family in different places, or friends, or just in my car. I love driving every day and seeing beautiful, dynamic scenery. I love being alone with my thoughts regularly. I love chatting with people I wouldn’t normally have the courage or circumstances to talk to. I love solving problems that weren’t a consideration just a couple months ago. I love finding myself in non-tourist and tourist locations alike. I love how eye opening all of this is. Truly I am a privileged bum.

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