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Thorsten Veblen hits the streets

I’m not really going anywhere in particular with this, just some things I’ve been thinking about.

I didn’t have a camera when I was living on the beach in Honolulu, which I regret because I knew some seriously photogenic roofless folk, but I’ve had one for a while now and I still don’t have many photos of my colleagues from my time in the parking lots of Santa Monica.

This is in part because I’ve always resented housed people who take photos of homeless people without offering some sort of compensation. Pretty much the only thing most homeless people own is their own self, and that not so much on a lot of days for many of them. So people who photograph them may not be stealing their souls, but it’s still theft. Conversely, I think the upstanding citizens I shoot (with a camera!) should pay me for thinking they’re interesting enough to pursue. But mostly they don’t know I’m taking their picture, so I guess it’s a wash.

My minimum payment is five bucks. I never have much money so I can’t afford to shell out very often. I wish I could, because some of my most evocative shots are of homeless men.

Lately I’ve been wanting to document the distinctions between various classes of homeless people. I think people who aren’t homeless tend to take a monolithic view of those who are, if they think about it at all. Maybe they’ll note individuals—the rare, genuinely scary panhandler, the completely impenetrable screamer or stream of consciousness mutterer, the obvious drunk or druggie (who tend to get swept off the Santa Monica streets post-haste)—but they haven’t internalized a taxonomy.

Once you’re down the rabbit hole, things change. Women who walk around conducting their internal dialogues externally, loudly, are less likely to be accosted than ones who don’t, and ones who don’t and don’t have partners. I think all of the women I met on the street in Santa Monica, and on the beach in Honolulu, have been raped at least once. So there’s a utility to off-putting behavior that most people miss even as they’re being off-put.

By which I mean to make the point that there are different sorts of crazy, and different competencies or lack thereof associated with different crazy people, just as there are variously competent and driven sorts of drunks and druggies.

And also the point that life on the streets for women is orders of magnitude more terrible than for men. There oughtn’t to be any homeless women. Put them all in mansions large enough to seem like the outside.

I wanted to take a picture of one of the solo conversationalists a few days ago but when I tried to give her money she just turned up the volume and accelerated away. Basically I scared the shit out of her. Not my brightest move ever. And I think I triggered the paranoia of one of the men I paid for his picture because I haven’t seen him since. So there are hazards even when I like to think I’m acting ethically.

Unemployment among college-educated people is way lower than for ones without college degrees; I’m deprived of the schadenfreude I might derive from seeing one of the tourists on the other side of the lens. Instead I see people who often were already struggling, and now are struggling in a different arena. Not so many, really, because Santa Monica doesn’t offer much in the way of work that isn’t the province of the day laborers—illegal aliens! stealing the jobs out from under homeless Americans!—and other than Venice, I don’t really go anyplace else where homeless people congregate because when it comes down to it, I’m sort of a zip code snob with respect to the street life.

But the ones I have seen, or think I have, seem isolated. Absent happening across an outreach worker from one of the seriously understaffed local social service agencies, the only way to learn about places to get food and a fair chance of spending the night undisturbed by police or predators is through making the acquaintance of people who already know those things. Mostly those are other homeless people.

Food is pretty easy but nobody really wants to share their spot because that’s home, and anyway once that happens the spot isn’t long for this world. When more than a very few people congregate at night in one place, sooner or later somebody does something stupid and the police come, or the golf-cart mounted property management cowboys pretending to be police by shining their semi-pro electric torches in one’s eyes.

When I see someone who looks particularly bewildered, I try to refer him or her to one of the homeless person clearing houses in Santa Monica and Venice. I’ve met two stranded construction workers who aren’t comfortable doing social business with the regulars. This is understandable; a 2007 study of homeless Santa Monicans found an unusually high percentage of them suffer from psychiatric issues or addictions or both, with the latter category much higher than the national average. Friendly or not, they can be a little much to deal with on short acquaintance.

People react in different ways to the same afflictions; one person can be paranoid and rebuff your attentions, and another may attach himself to your person like a limpet.

And people react in different ways to my attentions and those of the people who are paid to try to help them. And the paid people react in different ways to the people they’re supposed to help. I was helped into a near-suicidal state of desperation by one of them, who proved herself to be a genuinely malicious asshole as well as an incompetent and irresponsible one. I’m sure I’m not her only victim, and I’m sure many of the others were considerably less well-equipped to survive her than I was, which wasn’t very.

It’s a difficult world to navigate under the best of circumstances, and no one is ever in the best of circumstances.

I was in a shelter a while back with a man named Richard. He was from somewhere thoroughly east of here, I think New Jersey. I brokered a deal for him to sell his food stamps so he could buy a bus ticket home, and then I didn’t see him again for almost two years. About two months ago I saw him at the coffee shop I frequent in Santa Monica, and then I saw him there several more times after that. I gave him five dollars. He didn’t recognize me, which was fine, I wasn’t trying to buy a reunion. Then later he did seem to recognize me; he gave me an excruciatingly long once-over, and now I haven’t seen him since. I don’t know what the correlation is.

I didn’t like him much because he was one of the limpets, and he kept pestering me to go with him to Labor Ready, I guess because he needed the incentive of a companion. I wouldn’t go, and I don’t think he ever went on his own. Also, I was still smoking cigarettes at the time and he presumed we were cigarette buddies because we bunked across from one another. But he never had any cigarettes except mine. In the abstract, that’s the reason I quit smoking. It wasn’t relaxing anymore because every time I lit one, I got swarmed by colleagues in need of some nicotine. Many of them were willing to pay, but even so the experience was just too stressful. So I quit.

That will have been two years ago in October. October will also be the seventh anniversary of the blog.

Smoking was stressful, and negotiating the streets was somewhat stressful, although less so than trying to avoid landing there. Surviving the social services system was sometimes a complete nightmare, as with that secret assassin of a shrink that I had. The system asks a lot of people who are obviously not all that well equipped to deal with it.

Simplify, simplify … Thoreau had a point. The first night I was homeless was one of the great euphoric experiences of my life, not that there’s been a lot of competition. If I had been just a little bit more off kilter, I’m pretty sure I would have believed myself to be levitating. It’s a character flaw; I can’t give up gravity.

People wonder how someone can live like that. The answer is that someone can’t not live like that, whether from incapacity or incompatibility.

Anyway. There are strata, and they’re relatively fixed. People move around within them more than between them.

It was just a thing. I don’t want to do it anymore, and it wasn’t without its hazards and opportunities for despair, but as with many experiences, the fear of it and the struggle to avoid it were worse than the thing itself. Something else was always going to kill me.

Thorsten Veblen wouldn’t have had a single kind word to say about me and my friends, but he would’ve probably constructed an entertaining scaffold around us.

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2 comments to Thorsten Veblen hits the streets

  • I thought he had something else in mind when it came to the leisure class. Inconspicuous non-consumption?

    It’s interesting reading, although I feel like a voyeur doing so. I always figured there was a big difference in, say, being able to live out of your car, if you have one. (The temporary homeless? Where do they send the registration forms to?) Also being homeless in the more or less urban setting.

    • Hey, Keifus. Yeah, I don’t think he had homeless people in mind either. Judging by the dislike he seems to have had for blue collar workers, he wouldn’t have been enamored of the idle destitute.

      One of the actual good friends I made during the parking lot days has a SUV, although it’s an actual utility vehicle, nothing sporty about it. He’s on Social Security so he had a means of keeping gas in it and paying the insurance, which is where most unemployed homeless people with cars struggle. Hard to come up with thousands of dollars every year when one is living either on the County dole ($221/month and falling) or nothing.

      I feel like a voyeur writing about it, too.