It had been my intent during the month of December to slowly put together an episode using clips from conversations with a few homeless men to address the issue of homelessness. However, the vision for that episode was quickly changed as I joined many of you in witnessing through media the events going on in Syria. Now, I know the video below has caused some partisan arguments, but when my sister and I were hanging out in December and came across this, the human element of it struck me to the core.
After seeing that and reflecting on the dark side of humanity a bit with my sister and with myself, I felt it was important to extend the subject of this episode to address the idea of remembering the downtrodden among us and in distant places.
As you listen to the podcast, I spend time quoting from news stories about the war in Syria and refugee camps. There are also a few thoughts from a first hand observer who spent time in Greece this last year, working with refugees. The latter part of the episode transitions to hearing from a few homeless men in the U.S. and hearing about how they got to where they are, what life looks like as a homeless person and what they want in life.
You can listen to the embedded media below for the podcast, or find it on iTunes or SoundCloud, just look for episode 12.
I truly hope that when ever we individually and collectively confront human tragedy in our own countries or through media that we spend time reflecting on why those people are in a position of being downtrodden. I hope that reflection brings compassion and in that compassion, I hope we find ourselves moved to action.
The letter written to the BBC about conditions in Aleppo that was read in the podcast can be found here.
The Nick Miller article in the Sydney Morning Herald, also read in the podcast can be found here.
The episode image includes an image taken from the below tweet in addition to photos I personally took.
In this episode we talk about what happened recently in Eastern Aleppo, Syria and the human effects of war. We also talk about refugees and contemplate the issue of remembering the downtrodden after their difficulties leave the headlines. We also bring the idea of remembering the downtrodden home to the United States as we hear clips of conversations with three homeless men.
Music from this episode included:
The song Fanfarl by Titus 12. Music by the artist can be found at the below site
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.
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.
A couple weeks ago I was hanging out in Eugene, Oregon. If I don’t have people lined up in a particular area to talk to about their lives I tend to get myself to places where there are a lot of people milling about, and I do some people watching. Usually some opportunity will present itself. As I sat in the cafe at the Eugene Library, I sat with a couple people at a little makeshift table and came into a conversation with Dominick.
Dominick talked casually about being a traveler. He sparked my interest with some thoughts he shared about religion and philosophy and how those things can illuminate our individual life paths. He started to talk about how as a wanderer he’s gotten to a point in life that he’s done just about everything and he has no shame about where to sleep, get food or take care of other needs. Admittedly, as I’ve had the audio from our conversation to edit, there’s this part of me that has wondered if it’s worthwhile to share audio from another guy that’s homeless or been homeless. In part I think I was trying to dismiss the poor quality of the audio that I got from talking with him, and avoid editing out his gratuitous swearing. Honestly, the audio wasn’t good for a quality product. However, I do believe everyone’s story is important. And in reality poor audio, or having similar characteristics to someone else I’ve talked to does not diminish the importance of his story.
The clip from our chat that we’re sharing today is Dominick talking about a rock bottom moment devolving into another rock bottom moment. Dominick starts off talking about getting probation for some charges brought up against him and then he goes into his descent into alcohol and drugs and living on the run, and finally being arrested and imprisoned. What is striking about Dominick is that prior to getting into his story, he shared his family background. His mom left when he was young and he found himself with an abusive step-mom. Physical, psychological, and emotional abuse became his life and by the time he was 15 he just wanted to get away. He became a drifter as a young teenager.
Dominick isn’t always articulate and at times the effects of his life with drugs and alcohol seem to come to the surface. Yet there are these moments where a clearly capable mind demonstrates his capacity. He spoke of devouring books while in prison and completing his GED. As he shared his rock bottom moments, he almost blazes past a moment that deeply changed his outlook on life. His story really focuses on the details of getting to those moments of rock bottom. But once there, in prison and isolated, he finds himself doing that devouring of books. “I read probably 5 books a day, dude. On self-help, the mind, religion, philosophy. Right as I needed it. Right as my mind understood one concept, on the book cart would be something pushing me along,” he said.
There was a small part of our conversation after he talked about his rock bottom that was extraordinarily potent. Dominick demonstrated a great deal of self-reflection and honesty that I think is rare. He talked about his ex-wife and love and noted that so much of the issues, the problems, the drugs, alcohol and violence was about love or the lack thereof. As much as his marriage was filled with difficulty, misunderstanding and an inability to satisfy each others’ needs, it did provide the opportunity for love, the hope for love. He noted that to this day, he’s searching for even just a moment of feeling that connection.
Maybe as I talk to people there’s a bit too much of a reflection of myself in my assessment of their stories. Maybe it’s just me that yearns to tell the story of needing to connect. But it does seem undeniable that love and connection is something so important to us generally as humans. While Dominick’s story of finding rock bottom may just be a series of wild episodes in the life of an unstable person, I can’t help but hope we understand that under it all is a hope for love.
In this clipisode we talk with Dominick. Dominick was spending time in Eugene, Oregon and shares some of the ups and downs he’s experienced in life. In particular, he tells about a couple rock bottom moments from taking a probation deal, to living on the run and having the “time of his life” in Florida, to getting caught and ending up in prison.
Today, I have no podcast audio to share and only one photo. So my words will have to be your eyes and ears. I just left Los Angeles this morning and I’m headed north towards the Bay Area. In a lot of ways it would be really easy to say that my time in LA was a disaster. But I’m a believer in letting life be what it is and not dwelling on expectations not getting met–because inevitably they don’t get met.
As I was coming to LA I didn’t have any firm interview opportunities set up. I had some leads and ideas, but nothing set. I couldn’t even find someone to host me as a couch surfer, which I’m finding is a great way to get an unplanned interview. Thus, there was this part of me that wondered what I was doing even spending any time in LA.
I found a hostel through Airbnb and headed there after a last afternoon in San Diego. The Airbnb didn’t make the place out to be something it wasn’t. I knew I was going to downtown LA and that it was essentially a warehouse with bunk beds in it. As I drove up to the location, I started to wonder if my car would be safe over night and that questioning thought came to the front of my mind: “What am I even doing here.” I sat in my car before going into the building for a few moments. The realization struck me that this is what I’m doing this trip for, to get out of my comfort zone. So I grabbed my pack and went in. I was greeted by friendly hosts and others staying in the hostel. I settled into my top bunk and let myself wind down from the day. As I drifted off to sleep, I decided to take this lone photo from my time in LA. The view from my bed.
It was a view I couldn’t have conjured. It was beautiful and unexpected. I truly hadn’t thought to find myself in that sort of a sleeping situation in LA. But thankfully, that’s where I was.
As I went out the next day, after tinkering with the website and reviewing audio from the interview I did in San Diego, I just tried to do a few things I would enjoy in the area and wait to hear on the interview possibilities. I went disc golfing at the La Mirada course. It was a beautiful day and the course was a sublime experience. Because I had never played it before, a local caught up to me and I offered to let him pass, because I had never played the course and would be slow. He offered to play with me and guide me through the course. As we wrapped up the round and parted ways, I couldn’t help but feel amazed.
I’m a low-key introverted guy. Talking to strangers takes effort. But here we were, spending an hour together, talking about this hobby we love, giving some background on our lives. We were brought together by a hobby. Perhaps that’s a mundane moment to find profound. But a man from Utah and a man from Southern California shared an afternoon and connected. That is the beauty of our humanity. We can find ways to connect.
As the day went on, dinner time was approaching and I had decided to head out to Long Beach to find some Cambodian food. I spent a couple years living in Cambodia, so any chance to be around significant population groupings of Cambodians must be taken advantage of. I found a well reviewed restaurant and greeted the woman at the register. I ordered my food in Cambodian. I sat down to wait for my order and as there was no one else in the restaurant, she sat down and chatted with me. She talked about coming to America, where in Cambodia she was from. She asked about my ability to speak Cambodian and my experience with that small Southeast Asian country. I shared my deep love for the nation and its people. It was another beautiful moment of connection with a complete stranger.
I got back to the hostel with my take out Cambodian and sat down at the dinner table with my food. Two Asian gentlemen were finishing up their meals. With my limited ability, I could tell they were speaking Mandarin. They proceeded to talk to me in English and we exchanged basic backgrounds with each other. They both were strangers, one from Canada and the other from China. The older man turned out to know about Salt Lake City when I mentioned that I am from the state of Utah. As luck would have it, Salt Lake is actually one of the cities that he planned to visit, as his brother teaches at the University of Utah. He inquired about Temple Square and what to see there. Here I sat, connecting to this engineer from Beijing.
As I continued to eat my dinner, I began speaking with one of the other men in the hostel. He lives in LA and had come from Virginia to work as a writer. He shared thoughts about his time at the University of Virginia as an athlete and the great education he received there. He talked about coming to LA, like so many others to follow a dream. We talked about the ways one can get sidetracked, but that the possibilities in dreams remain. I brought up one of my favorite books, The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. I noted my belief that the theme of the book is true: when you are trying to live your legend, the universe will conspire to aid you. Certainly, there are twists and turns, but life seems to lead you there. He talked of a chance moment recently where he needed someone with a particular expertise to help with a project he is doing and ran into someone looking to do the exact thing he needed. It was too perfect to not be what the universe willed.
I went to sleep feeling full at witnessing and experiencing so many beautiful moments of connection throughout the day, despite not getting the chance to interview the people I had expected to interview or even having the chance to interview some of the people I was staying with. The theme of connection played out beautifully. How different all these people were that I shared myself with and that shared themselves with me. And there was no reason to share other than we as humans are built to connect and long to connect.
As I left LA this morning, I thought I might drive around the warehouse district where I had slept the last couple night and take some pictures of the graffiti and life in the area. I’m no photographer. I don’t have any skill in taking photos. As I started to drive around though, an essay I read in college came to mind. It spoke of an unusual form of entertainment that arose in the U.S. during the industrial revolution. People from wealthy parts of town would take day trips to the slums of their cities to just watch people. Now I don’t want to imply that people watching is bad–I think it’s fun–or that capturing pictures of places different from where we live has some moral implication. I think it’s important we know what else is in the world. But the essay illuminated to me that sometimes there is this sort of voyeuristic mentality that creeps into our minds. We watch, take pictures of and display the lives of others without really knowing what we’re doing. For some reason, I felt like stopping to take pictures today would be overly voyeuristic, that I just need to watch and see for myself and feel.
I started to drive through town and work my way out of LA. The textiles, the bulk produce, the delivery trucks everywhere all filled my view. Industry and motion were happening all around me. Beautiful graffiti covered entire walls. Bright colors, filled the lettering that spoke to an individuals craft. I was seeing things I would never see anywhere else. The artist will never be known to me, but their moment of impact of me was undeniable. They captured my attention, turned my gaze and moved me.
Then I rounded a corner and realized that just a few blocks from where I was sleeping was the mission in downtown LA. The sidewalks were lined with tents and people. Homeless men and women milled about. I’ve spent time around the homeless shelter in Salt Lake City, and I lived in Cambodia where I witnessed poverty unlike any other place on a daily basis. Yet my heart was overwhelmed as I saw this scene in downtown LA. Tears started to well up in my eyes. Poverty never gets easy to see. And suddenly I realized why I felt like my taking pictures was a little voyeuristic: the outer walls of this area are the inner walls of these peoples’ home. They live here. This is their home. I was a guest. I was an outsider, coming from a charmed life in the racial monolith that is the place I’ve called home for the last several years.
I think it’s important that people do capture images of these scenes and share it. We all share a part in this universe where other people sleep in tents on the sidewalks of LA. I’m not the one to capture those images though. All I can do today is tell you that it’s so easy to isolate ourselves as humans. We have that capacity and we so often do it. When we do, we miss out on what is happening. We miss out on connection. We forget our brothers and sisters in life. Connection is powerful. It can move us and shape us. But isolation can move us to forget and falter.