I woke up in the dark, cocooned by cardboard boxes. I sent signals to my toes to wiggle, as I breathed in deeply. My arms were across my chest, vampire-like, not for any effect, but out of need within the cramped space. My combat boots were by my feet, removed to prevent sweating and rot. I had propped my head up the night before with my duffel bag, full of clothes, and had fallen asleep with a knife in my hand, but it had since dropped by my left side. For warmth I had my leather jacket, and the garbage bags lining the cardboard boxes that I had fitted together, like a kid would connect straws, forcing one end inside of another.
I grabbed my knife before I crawled out of the boxes, slithering and jerking to free myself, seeing the gray light of morning and feeling the fresh, crisp air on my nostrils and in my lungs. I stood slowly, stretching out the stiffness, a by product of sleeping on the hard surface, and then grabbed the boxes, shaking my boots loose and onto the rooftop.
I had a very simple philosophy when it came to homelessness; disappear. Rooftops, storm drains, abandoned buildings. Any place where people tend not to rest their gaze, or even consider. I stayed away from the shelters because of the thieves and violence. I kept clear of the tent cities, as I liked my privacy. I had been squatting with a couple of other people in an abandoned building, but everyone had moved on, so the solo methods kicked in. Not that I minded. I needed some alone time to clear my head, to revert to a more natural, animalistic state, where the only concern was survive. Any other thoughts were subsumed by a primal directive-be invisible as much as possible.
I put on my jacket and the boots, then broke the boxes down. I had the boxes the night before, from the Subway sandwich shop on P Street. They kept them behind a gate in the alley that I had to climb over to get to, but I was fairly agile, and light. I had scaled more than one rooftop, shimmying up pipes and ladders. After I had thrown the boxes over the gate, I raided the trash cans, looking for fairly clean garbage bags. The garbage bags kept the heat in, and the rain out. I had used a dumpster to climb onto the roof with the boxes and bags, then assembled my makeshift hotel. Now I had to reverse the process. Leave no trace. Become the Nowhere Man.
After I had surveyed the ground around the roof I jumped down to the dumpster, then the hard concrete of the alley. I was not a great jumper, and always felt the jarring impact. I threw the boxes back over the gate, and shoved the garbage bags into the dumpster. I was ready to start the day now.
I walked out of the alleyway, looking for signs from the traffic to tell the time of day. The sun was creeping slowly, illuminating the top floors of the buildings more than the streets, and the traffic was intermittent. I knew the flood of the morning commute would come quickly, bringing the attendant foot traffic. I had successfully grown in tune with the environment, waking in time to get what I needed. I had a couple of minutes to get across Dupont Circle and start panhandling.
Dupont was slowly coming to life, with a few cars making their way and a couple of walkers, spread out and moving in different directions. I stepped across the circle in a matter of moments, heading to my favorite corner in front of Vesuvio’s Pizza.
The foot traffic was becoming fuller, so I waited. A commuter bought a paper and I asked him if I could grab one before the door locked shut on the box. He said sure, and as he walked off, I grabbed all of the papers, intending to sell them for less.
As the street filled, I began to panhandle. “Spare change? I’m tryin’ ta get somethin’ to eat.” If they said no, or ignored me, I’d offer, “Newspaper! 10 cents!” A couple of the working stiffs laughed at that, but only a couple bought them. I had tested the market and found it lacking, so decided never to do that again.
After the streets had quieted again, outside of the steady motor traffic, I had made about 15 bucks. Not bad for 45 minutes of work, but not as lucrative as the day before. I was happy to disengage, to end interaction with a different world than my own. To them, I was an anomaly, a misplaced piece of gravel, rough and broken, on a pristine walkway. To me, they were a horde, in pressed shirts, with the alcohol smell of mouthwash covering their base nature. I didn’t hate them. I didn’t like them. They were one of several currents in the flowing river of the city, useful for fishing out a few dollars in the morning.
I needed a shower. The heat of the day before, plus the natural oils my body produced in the evening had left me with that not so fresh feeling. My working friends who would let me shower and often crash, were out earning the money that gave them the ability to afford such things as showers, and shelter. I needed something more immediate. The hotel.
Getting in required waiting for the lobby to clear. There was a single bathroom behind the front desk, near the restaurant, that I had used before. The odds of getting caught were high, which I didn’t like, but I didn’t want to compound the stench I was developing throughout the day, plus I had to brush my teeth.
The lobby cleared, and I walked quickly through the glass door, and made a bee line for the bathroom. I opened the wooden door for the toilet, then closed and locked it behind me. I had to move quickly.
I ruffled through my bag to find my toothbrush, and a set of clean clothes. I stripped naked and shoved my dirty clothes into a plastic grocery bag before putting them into the duffel. I had to keep them separate so the odor would not transfer. They would be washed in a bath tub or a laundry mat later.
I ran the toothbrush under the water, then the soap dispenser, and shoved it into my mouth. I scrubbed my teeth vigorously. I put the toothbrush back into the ziploc, and tossed it into the duffel. My heart rate was elevated, so I took a deep breath. “Move precisely, but calmly.” I told myself, forcing my heart and mind to slow down.
I took a step toward the paper towel dispenser. It was full of the stiff, brown paper, in a single roll. I started hitting the lever over and over, creating a long trail of paper. I took the paper and ripped it into several pieces, which I balled up. I grabbed one of them and got it wet in the faucet, then put it under the soap dispenser. I rubbed the soap into the wad, then washed myself. I had to repeat the process several times to get everything, then had to do it again sans soap, to wash the soap off. The final step was cleanup. Leave no trace. The whole process probably took 10-15 minutes.
Before I could get dressed someone knocked on the door. “Who’s in there?”
“I’ll be done in a minute.” I said, as calmly as possible. I had almost made it, and didn’t like the intrusion. I started dressing quickly, happy to at least have gotten clean before being discovered.
“Open the door! You don’t belong in there!”
“Hold on.” I said as I put my boots on. I knew I had to open the door, and didn’t know who I was going to face. I laced my boots up, listening to the voice on the other side of the door become more angry and demanding.
I stood up, took a breath, let it out, and opened the door.
The man on the other side stared awkwardly. I stood there, in my boots and leather jacket, with my bag over my shoulder, staring back at him, every sense alive.
He was blocking the doorway.
“You don’t belong in here!”
I walked toward him, silently, without hesitation. He stepped back, not sure what to do, which created the space I needed to walk past him. I could feel his presence as I brushed by, and it was inconsequential. He wasn’t going to do anything. I headed for the door, my momentum carrying me into another moment devoid of the encounter.
The man screamed at my back, but his words had no meaning.
I hit the bright street, full of sunshine, and made my way to Habib’s. I can’t remember if the store was actually called Habib’s, but Habib ran it, and he never carded any of us. He also sold the cheapest vodka in town. I bought a pint for later, and hid it in my leather jacket, the inside pocket. I had some vodka at Johnny’s, but I needed a pint bottle, and 2 bucks was nothing.
Next was breakfast. I walked over to the McDonald’s and grabbed a couple of biscuits, and water. The spot in front of the grocery store across the street was a good panhandling spot, if you didn’t get booted. I could make 30-40 bucks in a couple of the afternoon hours, but I had what I needed.
I wandered the city for a few hours, making my way down to the record shop. I flipped through the CD’s, records, and books, staring at the things I would never buy. Back on the street, I stared at faces that had their own stories, or non-stories. Vacant eyes and lives. I couldn’t fathom being them.
I headed downtown, hoping to hit the food truck. I was now in full public territory. None of my friends were close by. This wasn’t my neighborhood. The bums and assorted crazies were out in force, so I knew I had to watch my back.
Years ago, I felt more at home on this side of town. I had been running with a crowd of around ten homeless kids. I say “around” because people would come and go. As a pack, we were unstoppable. The other homeless weren’t organized, so weren’t a threat. The crazies were always a threat, but ten beats one. Tourists were harmless, and we would either find ways to amuse ourselves by tormenting them, ignore them, or we would panhandle. One of our favorite methods for getting money from them was to charge them for pictures. If we caught one taking our picture we would turn our backs to them. If they persisted in trying to photograph us we would surround them and tell them they didn’t have our permission to take our pictures. This was a lie. They didn’t legally need our permission, but they were usually compliant when we told them it would cost them a dollar. One nice guy actually bought us lunch, and we sat eating with his family.
Now, here I was alone, surveying the congregation, waiting for the food truck to deliver the life sustaining Eucharist. The disheveled masses, dirty and unwashed. A veritable Babylon of humanity, muttering to each other and themselves, all hoping for more than the normal sandwich. If we scored a cup of soup we were lucky. The sandwiches were anemic at best, and tasted better dipped in the soup. The problem with the soup was if they ran out. The guy in line when that would happen would inevitably raise hell. I didn’t give a shit. It wasn’t like I was paying.
I got in line. A dirty rasta guy got in behind me. He started talking shit almost immediately, and my hackles raised. I turned my head to him, only to discover that his vitriol was directed at my jacket. He was having a conversation with the words on my coat. “BLITZ. THE FINAL SOLUTION. RAZORS IN THE NIGHT.” Blitz was an Oi! band from England. The other words were titles of songs. I decided to ignore him, but stayed on the alert in case he decided my coat was shit talking his mother.
I finally got my food. It consisted of a flimsy peanut butter sandwich, and the treasured cup of soup. I walked away from the group, wanting to distance myself, not just from the potential issues, but the smell. I wanted to eat without gagging on the air around me, so I chose an isolated spot in the grass. It wasn’t isolated for long. A native American guy sat down to the right of me, which piqued my interest, as I’d always been fascinated by American Indian cultures. He was shirtless, long hair, mid 20’s, from what I could tell. He had a tattoo that read, “DOG SOLDIER.” I knew the Dog Soldiers were a warrior band, but I didn’t know which nation they belonged to, so I asked.
“Cheyenne.” he answered, focused on eating.
He was soon followed by a black man, who sat to his right. Things looked like they might get interesting. I was looking forward to whatever conversation followed.
It didn’t happen. We were interrupted by a large black man screaming. “You ain’t homeless, cracka! You just takin’ from us!”
We all looked at him, as he stared at me. Shit.
“Why you muthafuckas sittin’ wit’ that white boy?”
The black man who had sat with us told him to shut the fuck the up.
I started to devour my food.
“Lookit him eatin’ our food!”
The black man near us got up. “I told you to shut the fuck up!”
As they started fighting, the Cheyenne and I got up, and left in different directions, with me shoveling food into my face.
I watched the fight as I left. It wasn’t too serious. The interloper was afraid of the man who had sat near us, and kept backing up, out of distance. Either way, I didn’t want police attention, so just kept walking back toward Dupont Circle. I appreciated the man standing up, but it seemed that they knew each other, and a lot of it had to do with him being tired of hearing his shit. I didn’t need the complications or chaos.
Once back, I lazily panhandled, more to occupy my time until John came home. When he did, I walked over to his apartment. I drank some of the vodka and orange juice I had left there, until I felt loose and warm.
Our evening plans were simple, a regular routine. Hit the club two blocks away and drink the night away. This meant listening to shitty industrial music all night, probably played by DJ Mohawk Adam. There was a dirth of punk clubs in the early 90’s, and very few punks living in the city. Most of the clubs played industrial. The goth and industrial folks were nice enough, and some of them were cool, including Adam, but I hated that fucking music. I had watched a live video of Ministry’s, and liked it well enough. It was a good show. My problem was the problem all people have with the music that follows theirs, it seems like it all sounds the same. Either way, open bar was open bar, and people usually bought me drinks afterward. The bartender would throw some free ones my way, plus I had my pint of vodka in my pocket. I had no fear of being searched by the bouncers, and usually got in on the guest list. I was going to drink my mind away.
We spent the night glued to the bar. When open bar ended I ordered some water, chugged it, then went into the bathroom and filled the glass with my vodka. When that was depleted, I had some drinks sent my way from various people, and finished the night earlier than usual, tired of the noise, and physically drained from walking all day, and a poor diet.
On my way out, someone told me about the Rodney King verdict. Rodney King was a criminal, and had led the police on a chase, before being apprehended and thoroughly beaten on the street by them. The police were acquitted, which set off rioting in L.A., and apparently there were roving bands of blacks causing mayhem all over D.C.
“Be careful.” Red Steve said as I left.
I was only going a block over to my rooftop, so wasn’t too concerned.
I hit the street and breathed in the night air. It wasn’t fresh. The smell of smoke lingered, and a helicopter was flying low nearby. My senses came alive. I was instantly sober.
I passed one alley and saw a group of about 5 black males on the other side of the block. One of them yelled, “We gonna fuck up some white folks tonight!” The proclamation was met with shouts of approval.
I hurried past the alley before they could see me, and ran down the street to the alley where I slept, where I accessed the roof. I jumped the cage and gathered my boxes, stopping periodically to listen for trouble. The helicopter was closer. I knew I couldn’t get trapped in the cage and had to get to the roof. I climbed back out, grabbed some garbage bags, without the care for cleanliness that I normally used. I threw everything on top of the dumpster, climbed up, then threw it all on the roof. I assembled everything quickly.
My bag was at John’s, so I used my jacket for my pillow. For added warmth, I tucked my arms into my shirt. I listened to the noise of city; the traffic, the shouting. I closed my eyes, and let the sound of the helicopters rotors sing me into a fitful sleep.
I woke the next morning, hung over, and in need of water. I was exhausted from not sleeping well. I crawled out from the boxes, and sat there for a moment, restoring needed oxygen to my body.
I stared at the gray light, slowly brightening, looked at the sky, and wondered what was waiting for me today.