Lost in America: Reflections on homelessness and societal marginalization

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Humanity often exists as a bell curve which cuts off and marginalizes its own tail. We judge individuals at the end of a spectrum rather than recognizing them as products of deeply rooted systemic failures within a society. In all cultures, both ancient and modern, humans have created scapegoats — individuals designated to “take on the sins” of a people, to represent and be held responsible for the shortcomings of a society (a term originating from the Hebrew text of Leviticus). Rather than face their own internal demons, humans purge themselves and project the shame outwardly onto someone else, to vilify and condemn. This is exactly what typifies societal attitudes toward the homeless. One stanza from a song recorded in the late ’90s aptly describes the current cultural perspective:

We’ve all seen a man at the liquor store beggin’ for your change,

The hair on his face is dirty, dreadlocked, and full of mange,

He asks a man for what he could spare, with shame in his eyes,

“Get a job you fucking slob, ” is all he replies.

God forbid you ever had to walk a mile in his shoes,

Cause then you really might know what it’s like to sing the blues.

The real reason most people experience such visceral disgust toward the homeless is not because of unfair stereotypes — being lazy, dirty, psychotic, cantankerous, strung-out on drugs, et cetera — it is because, on a subconscious level, we realize that they are not truly different from us; that forces in the universe, mostly out of our control, could easily put us in the same situation.

One of the biggest lies people often believe is that the good in their lives is earned and deserved through autonomous effort, rather than recognizing it as a fortuitous happenstance, a gift for which to be thankful. At least two things are true of humans: 1) that everyone lives within their own separate and respective realities, each one shaped by unique histories, and 2) that any person would end up exactly like someone else if they had the exact same biology and environment as that person. Call it fate, call it psychic determinism, call it whatever you want. But whatever it is, that realization should lead us to cultivate empathy, one of the greatest capacities we have gained over the course of our evolution — the ability to understand the world from another’s perspective.

Below is an essay written by a homeless man named Carlos Downell. He died on July 18th, 2012 at the age of 58, never having lived to see his work published. In fact, he compiled a number of writings, collectively entitled “Lost in America: Essays on Homelessness.” Many of them were written while he was locked up in jail, usually on scrap pieces of paper towel or napkins. This is a man who lived a hard life. And the pain he writes about is not too dissimilar from many of the other hundreds of thousands of people sleeping on the streets every night in this country. My hope in sharing this essay is that his words can reverberate and spread within the hearts and minds of those who read them so that, with a little luck, they can help make the world a bit more of a compassionate place to be.

Drylongso

There’s a sound. It’s the sound of modern music. You hear it everywhere you go. It’s the sound of an overdriven guitar note, rising and decaying at the same time, so that it sustains and, in so doing, takes on almost a life of its own. Then it, the note, is pushed, bent, until it assumes a vocal quality by its being smeared. Right then, right there, that’s where it occurs, the blue note. That’s when the real fun begins. Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen made much of this. The blue note is where rock came from. Before that, jazz and the blues. And prior to all that, gospel music. Because that’s what the blue note is, the God-note. It expresses the inexpressible, to the degree that it can be expressed. I think that’s why people never get tired of hearing that note, and the music built upon it.
There’s a feeling. It’s akin to the blue note but it’s not the note itself. I’ll try to put it this way …

Sometimes I have to cry. So what I’ll do is go get under a blanket, wrap myself up, close my eyes and cry, silently, to myself. I learned, as a child how to cry without making a sound. I did this because when I was a young boy if my mama heard me crying in my room, she’d call out, “Shut up or I’ll come in there and really give you something to cry about.” I wasn’t allowed to cry. So I learned, as I learned to do so many things, to cry silently, to myself. If nobody heard it, no one would know.

There’s a word, “drylongso.” I don’t know where I heard it. I must have read it somewhere. It must be the name of a book. I never read any book by that name but the word is evocative to me of both a feeling and a need. It feels like an arid, rain-starved land that’s suffered drought for so long that it’s forgotten what it feels like to feel the weight of raindrops on its soil. It feels like someone, a woman, waiting for a man who’ll never come, who’s either dead or who’s forgotten her, but, for whatever reason, will never return. Still she waits, anyway. It feels like, as Langston Hughes once said, “a dream deferred.” Something so near you can smell, almost taste, it but which will never be attained and that, once past, will never come again. The feeling of bereftness. The feeling of isolation. The feeling of alone. Drylongso.

There’s a feeling when you cry. It’s as though your soul were tearing and the tearing feels good and bad both at the same time. Bad because it hurts and good because it feels so good once you’re done. There’s a cleansing that takes place when you cry. The tears wash out the feelings that you’ve held hidden, down deep, for so long. Drylongso.

Then the rains come, in the form of tears, and wash the pain, the loneliness, away and just for a moment, right after you’ve cried, you’re whole again. God gave us tears to get along. So that we could readjust our hearts and sanctify our souls. The modern world says a man, a real man, doesn’t need to cry and therefore never does. I say, the hell you say. One long look at the modern world and that’s all the reason anyone would need to cry, at all. I say, let the tears fall down like rain. It’s long overdue. Maybe if more people cried, especially men, there’d be less violence, especially the violence we do to ourselves. The needles we drive into our arms. The isolation we impose on ourselves. The little deaths we die, day by day. Drylongso. Bring the rain.

I was a boy. A peculiar kind of boy. I could keep my own company. They thought I was autistic or otherwise “afflicted” with some psychological or spiritual dysfunction. As it turns out, I was merely me, with all that that entails. I could show you better than I could tell you. But good things take time and bad things, sometimes, just as long.

A lot of effort and energy was put into ‘bringing me around,” of breaking me out of my shell and making me just the same as everyone else in thought, word and deed. When I was a boy they used to tell me, “You ought to be ashamed.” And I’d ask, “Why? Why ought I be ashamed?” They never told me satisfactorily, why I ought to be ashamed, so I never was.

My grandmother, plainly put, was a virago, a veritable hurricane of a woman. Squat, black and fat, she tore a swath through everyone’s life she was exposed to, leaving tears and scars to mark her passing. She plainly terrified me. She had a voice like a whip. I’ll never forget seeing her call another child’s name and seeing that child physically recoil, as though struck. I’d thought she only had that effect on me. She would beat you up with the Bible, scourge your psyche with Scripture. I figured, judging by her example, that God must be a hell of a dude, one you wouldn’t want to meet. My grandmother was a terrorist.

She left me with this young man, one time, whose name was K. K was a reform school graduate. My grandma, “Bama,” was a church lady, a pillar of the “colored” community and therefore all up in everybody’s business. She took it upon herself to take K in. His girlfriend’s name was L. She lived with Bama, too.

When I was about ten, they left me with K, ostensibly, to watch over or “babysit” me. I don’t know why they did this because, at ten, I was perfectly capable of watching over myself (and frequently did). But, in my world, whatever Bama said, was what went down so I went along to get along. Bama gave the word, matriarchal, a whole new spin.

K told me that he had a “robut.” I didn’t understand what he was saying. He kept saying he wanted to give me a “robut.” I asked him, “What? What is a ‘robut’?” That’s when he hit me. He hit me so hard I literally saw stars. That old cliché has its basis in actual fact. You do see stars.

Years later, in retrospect, I realize that K was offering me a robot, in exchange for what, I did not know. But I found out when, after hitting me in the head and knocking me senseless he took down my pants and put his penis in my ass. I remember this as though observing it at a remove. It was as if I were up in the air looking down on events as they transpired. I felt only a dull pressure in the region of my hind parts. I wondered why this was going on. Why he was doing this.

I’ve since found out, that this sensation of remotely viewing a traumatic event, is not uncommon in the experience of rape, incest and other victims of violence or trauma. It’s a defense, the mind’s protection of itself, from itself. Sometimes we sense more than we’re meant to know. Then, we choose not to know it. It works, after a fashion and in a sense, but deep down, we know that we’ve been hurt and we’re afraid to live, too scared to die. And so it goes. And so do we.

That afternoon was repeated many more times in my youth, against my will. I say against my will because K told me that he’d tell them, that it’d been my idea, if I told, and that he’d hurt my mom and sisters if I told. So I never told. Not ‘til now.

Eventually, K turned his attention elsewhere. I guess him and L made up. Or hit it off better or something.

I buried the incident in my mind, along with a lot of other persons and things I encountered in my growing up. The incident(s) only reared its head when I saw or heard certain things and then it was easily ignored or re-repressed. It was almost as if it had happened to someone else. It was like the crying. If no one knew about it, it was as if it never happened.

There’s a picture in a family photo album of me the year before it happened, a school photo. In it, I look pinkish-brown smiling a fat smile, fat, dumb and happy. The next year’s photo is a startling contrast. I look saddened, downcast and in my eyes is a certain knowledge of things a kid isn’t supposed to know about. But what’s more important is not what happened outside of me but what happened inside. I learned it’s not safe to trust people and that what counts is not your dignity or personal sovereignty. What counts is who’s bigger and stronger and can impose their will upon you; no matter what. I learned something about what this world’s about. In a sense, I traded my innocence for a terrible wisdom and nothing the world has shown me in the years hence has served to prove any different. The things I’ve learned and gained have been gained despite the world’s direction.

When I got big, I got angry. But I think I’d been angry all along. Once, at boarding school, I badly beat another boy for torturing a frog. I stood for the underdog.

My feelings became something to be avoided. I used to walk miles down country back roads in Virginia to shoplift quarts of cheap, fortified wine that I drank all alone in my room. I abused cough syrup then moved up to marijuana, acid and speed. I thought I was “turning on” but what I was really trying to do was turn my feelings off. I sort of succeeded.

The first time I heard the blues, that blue note jumped out at me like a snarling wildcat springing out of a wood pile. That lonesome, keening sound was the sound of my soul, howling its pain to God, baby Jesus and all the saints. It was a sonic representation of what I felt, inside. Whoever made that sound knew what it was like to feel hurt; knew what it was like to feel alone. The blues aren’t the sound of a good woman done wrong or the sound of a good man gone bad. The blues is just the sound of someone’s pain and the sale to that pain at the same time because in its expression is its release and its relief. I don’t really understand how it works but it’s so. Ten thousand bluesmen can’t be wrong. The blues is God’s gift to the underdog.

Sometimes I cry and don’t understand why. Sometimes I do. Sometimes I just play my guitar. It’s my hotline to God, my atomic telephone. I’ve been in the desert too long. I’ve been in the desert all my life. Bring the rain.

David Zacharias is a psychiatrist.

Image credit: David Zacharias

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