|This Is Not The Life I Ordered|
By Michael Goodspeed
|Every man with the smallest inklings of humility and courage is forever discovering new things about himself. The self-images we cultivate through arrogance and ignorance are easily exposed in the harsh light of life experience. One may think himself a hero or genius or saint, but all too often, these grandiose self-analyses are born of egoic delusion rather than objective reality. |
When one's false pride has fallen and his ego stands defenseless and trembling, therein lies the greatest opportunity for self- discovery. One can either wait for the ego to re-inflate and again retreat to its comforting shelter, or one can leap head-first into the cavernous abyss that the ego once filled. The latter is the action advised by some of history's great spiritual teachers, but the former is the one preferred by almost all of humankind.
We only do the really serious introspection when we have no choice, when we're at life's bottom. Stripped of every flattering self- concept, one is given an unobstructed glimpse of his own soul. The key is to not flinch when this mirror is held to your face. It is even more advisable that you not shatter it and cut your own throat with the broken shards.
I recently had an opportunity to both engage in and witness in others some brutally honest soul analysis. Whether it's ugly or beautiful, cowardly or courageous, loving or hateful, all the soul can do is tell the truth of itself. Mine, like everyone's, wants desperately to know love and joy and peace, but it is badly stunned by trauma, heartache, and loneliness. Mostly, it is barely aware of its own existence, let alone its inherent greatness. This also describes the soul of Chuck, a homeless man I met a few weeks ago on the streets of Las Vegas.
I went to Las Vegas with the intention of investigating the city's homelessness crisis from a first-hand perspective.
I was going to live on the streets for two weeks, with no money in my pocket and only utilizing the resources available to the homeless. I arrived on May 6th, 2007, after a 30 hour Greyhound bus ride. The first evening was frightening and disorienting. I was exhausted, and for hours, I asked anyone who might be helpful -- mostly security guards and police officers -- where I could find a shelter for a night's sleep. But each gave contradictory directions, and most admitted that they didn't know the location of a single shelter.
I had not slept for two days, and my brain felt mutilated. I decided that my best bet for an evening of rest would be the outdoors. I caught a bus to nearby Henderson and slept in an open field in an industrial area. I worried that this trip just outside of Vegas' city limits might constitute a violation of the experiment's terms and integrity. But then I reminded myself that I was sleeping in a field and things were bad enough as they were.
After a few hours of fitful sleep, I caught a bus back to downtown Vegas and restarted my search for homeless services. A few blocks from the Fremont district, a hooker approached me and asked if I wanted a "date." I told her I was broke and asked her for directions. She did so and proceeded to give me the 101 on being homeless in Vegas:
"Don't ever walk around without money in your pocket. The police will arrest you for vagrancy. And don't sit at a bus stop without taking a bus. Don't stand in one place for too long, and don't ever try to sleep in a park or in front of a building. And always have your ID on you, or they'll put you in jail."
I was concerned about these possibilities going into the project, particularly since the Las Vegas police were already interested in me. I had announced my project in an essay a week prior, and two days before I took the trip, police in Beaverton, Oregon visited my home at the behest of the LVMPD. I was a bit horrified at the prospect of being jailed and would do my absolute best to avoid it.
Following the hooker's directions, I took a right down Main St. and headed toward a cluster of homeless services and shelters. On the way, I passed a badly disheveled elderly man lying sprawled and unconscious in the dirt. Held in his right hand was a pristine Holy Bible, a "gift" freely given to homeless men and women all across the United States. Upon seeing this tragic and poignant sight, my first thought was, I wish I had my camera -- the image would have made great "art," and I might have been able to sell it to a newspaper or magazine.
Self-discovery number one on my homeless journey: I am not nearly as compassionate or empathetic as I had imagined.
I spotted what l thought was a group of good samaritans erecting a mini-campsite for the homeless off of a sidewalk, and I approached them and asked for directions. They informed me that they were homeless, and invited me into their "camp." There were four men in total, 3 of whom were Hawaiian -- an elderly man named "Uncle Dave," his nephew Mark, and a diminutive man whose name I've already forgotten. And there was Chuck, a 49 year-old bespectacled white man who immediately began offering me helpful guidance. He offered to show me the various shelters that offered meals and beds, and I accepted.
Chuck looked a great deal older than this years -- I would have guessed him to be in his early to mid 60's. He explained this by describing himself as "a straight up alkie" (alcoholic). Indeed, Chuck placed no blame for his unhappy circumstances on anyone but himself. He told me, "Mike, if I won a million dollars, within 5 minutes I would have a meth pipe in one hand, a beer in the other, and my (bleep) in a hooker's mouth." As we walked, he gave me a brief overview of his past. He said that he had earned a decent living as a casino dealer in Reno, but that drug and alcohol addictions had drained all his money and destroyed his ability to work. He had been homeless in Vegas for the previous three months, and it was the lowest he had ever been in his life. Twice, he had been badly beaten and nearly killed by street gangs. He said that he didn't believe he would be alive if he was still homeless at the end of the year.
Our first meal of the day was an early lunch at a shelter whose name I have either forgotten or never caught. (Lesson number two on my homeless journey: I am a writer and not a journalist -- I am far more concerned with the existential wanderings of my own psyche than I am with gathering objective data.) The food was plentiful, and, not surprisingly, not very good. It was bland soup and cheese pasta and all the white bread and rolls you could eat. I found that I was extremely thirsty and tried to load up on water, but it tasted the way tap water always tastes in hot desert towns -- murky and gritty. Since I didn't have money to buy bottled water, I hoped that the dirty tap water would sufficiently hydrate me for the next two weeks.
As the hour approached noon, I noticed with some alarm that the sun was already having an effect on me. The heat in the desert southwest has a different quality than what I am used to in Oregon. Even when it's not terribly hot, the solar radiation seems to act like a microwave, cooking your organs from the outside in. I asked Chuck how he had managed to live for the past three months under such an intense sun, and he claimed that his body had simply grown accustomed to it.
We headed back to the makeshift "camp," which was essentially a big tarp and blankets held aloft by shopping carts. I had enjoyed perhaps ten minutes of shade when a police unit drove by and instructed us to remove the cover. I was dumbfounded and asked Chuck for an explanation. He said that the police always insisted that the tarp remain down until at least 4:30 in the afternoon. Whether they were worried about some nefarious activities occurring under the tarp or they were trying to kill us, I don't know.
Since the sun had already become unbearable, we needed to find shelter elsewhere. Chuck told me that the only place where we could legally take refuge was a shaded outdoor area offered at the Salvation Army. This, I was told, was by far the most dangerous of all the shelters, and I was advised to never attempt to go there by myself. Chuck claimed that in just the previous two weeks, there had been a total of 6 stabbings (including three murders) and one rape.
One of the many crappy things about homelessness is the lines -- you have to stand in them for long, long periods of time to get whatever you need. The line outside the Salvation Army was exceptionally long, and I passed the time by visually scanning the many countenances in the crowd. I immediately noticed someone who seemed profoundly out of place. She was a beautiful young blonde girl, surely no more than 19 or 20, with the clean-cut features of a prom queen or cheerleader. She seemed to be alone and stared straight down at the ground with a peculiar, slanted smile on her face. Given the shelter's reputation, it seemed like an awfully dangerous environment for an attractive young woman to be on her own. I pointed the girl out to Chuck and asked if he knew her story.
"That's Kimberly. Don't ever try to talk to her or look her directly in the eye. She's a 'spitter.' One time, I asked her if she was OK, and she spit in my face and tried to kick me in the balls."
Chuck went on to explain the girl's generally accepted back-story. Supposedly, her husband was a crack dealer who had a falling out with a competitor, and repaid his "debt" by offering his wife as currency. For several hellish nights, the girl was tied up, raped and defiled in unimaginable ways by a horde of gangsters and druggies. The brutalization so traumatized her that her mind shut down and just vacated reality. Now she was alone and psychotic, living in the shelter's "psychiatric" unit, receiving medication but surely not getting any better. True or not, I have no idea.
But that's the way it is with every homeless person -- they are not automatons or ghosts or ghouls or shadows. They're human beings and each has a story.
When we finally made it to the outdoor sanctuary, Chuck and I sat down and he began ascribing a brief biography to each individual. There was Kathy, a rowdy and perpetually drunk ex-Marine who purportedly still did some kind of nebulous "freelance" work out at Nellis Air Force Base (when I asked her for a description of this work, she told me to go f*** myself.) There was an elderly and functionally nameless man who had supposedly not changed a single item of clothing for the last three years. There was a gangster named either "Blue" or "Boo" with the most terrifying countenance I had ever seen -- every one of his front "teeth" had been transformed into a four-inch metal shank. According to Chuck, the man had spent upwards of ten grand on this bizarre dental procedure, the purpose of which was known only to him.
I would have liked to have remained in the shade until the sun went down, but Uncle Dave joined us drunk and out of his mind. He immediately wore out his welcome when he screamed at the top of his lungs, "De la Hoya lost! F*ck all the Mexicans!" Since perhaps four dozen Mexican men were within earshot, Chuck and I decided to leave the sanctuary post haste.
We headed back to the "camp," and I was happy to see that the tarp had been reinstated, hopefully for the remainder of the day. A bottle of "Night Train," which along with Thunderbird ranks as the top "bum wine," was being passed around. For "politeness" sake, I took a sip, and as a lifelong non-drinker I was surprised that it didn't taste too terrible. But it didn't help my emerging headache and nausea, and I was growing more thirsty by the minute.
I told Chuck about my dehydration, and he offered to fetch me a jug of water from the tap at the Salvation Army. I laid down under the tarp and stared for a while at the cars passing by. I noticed a number of drivers smiling, laughing, and pointing at the camp in apparent contempt. It occurred to me that these monkeys were so disconnected from reality it was almost unbelievable. To take pleasure in another person's misfortune is always an indication of mental illness, and these folks didn't seem to realize how close they themselves might be to homelessness. They could lose hold of an addiction, get laid off, miss a couple of paychecks, maybe get the boot from a domestic partner. And without a loved one to help them in their time of need...what would happen? They would be in the exact same mess as the people they were mocking.
Chuck returned with the water as promised, but most of it disappeared into the Hawaiians before I got my hands on it. Uncle Dave received the lion's share, since he was sporting a bloody nose as the result of his impolitic comments at the Salvation Army. I again wondered how I was going to stay hydrated for two weeks in the desert environment and resolved to earn some money through day labor to keep water in ready supply.
Around 2 PM, Chuck told me it was time for another meal. It dawned on me that staying fed and hydrated while homeless in Vegas was itself going to be a full-time job. The meals served at the shelters were offered during normal working hours -- in other words, anyone who works is going to have to go without eating until he or she gets paid. To make matters worse, without a car or even money for bus fare, the only mode of transport is walking. And I was quickly learning that this entails a very serious physical price in the desert heat.
After another long wait in a long line under the hot burning sun, I ate another crappy meal of starch and cheese and gritty tap water. Afterwards, Chuck took me to a day labor office and I signed up with them. I also signed a paper stating my availability for landscaping work. Unsurprisingly, not everyone is eager to work outdoors for eight straight hours in 105 degree heat, but hard, physical, outdoor drudgery is the kind of work one gets through day labor outfits. I wondered what it would be like to be 65 years old and homeless in Vegas -- the outrageous heat, the lack of shelter, the necessity of earning money through physical exertion. Since I was beginning to feel 65, it didn't take much wondering at all.
We made our way back to camp at around 4:30, and incredibly, Chuck told me it was almost time for yet another meal -- my third in less than 6 hours. According to Chuck, most of the shelters only served one meal a day, so the only way to get three squares was to visit each of them. I wasn't looking forward to any more time under the sun, but I knew I needed to eat and drink. Chuck then offered me the alternative of going to a makeshift "picnic" under a bridge. He said that a local church offered this service once a week and provided such meals as Chinese food, pizza, and various "take-out." I seriously doubted my tolerance for any more of the shelters' cheese pasta or mystery meat, so I happily agreed.
Shortly into our walk, we came across a towering homeless man who was having a very animated conversation with himself. I thought he looked a bit like Christopher Lloyd in his Back to the Future role. Ordinarily, I steer a bit clear of the overtly insane, but I noticed that his T-shirt was emblazoned with an interesting phrase. It read, "This Is Not the Life I Ordered!" The sentiment seemed more jovial than embittered, and I could see in the man's eye a glint of genuine humor underneath (or perhaps within) the craziness. I walked directly toward him, gave him a thumbs up, and said, "I like your shirt, man." He returned my smile and simply said, "Yeah."
At that moment, the T-shirt's maxim seemed like the most profound teaching I had ever encountered. Think about it. It's not as if anyone has ever set out to intentionally suffer. And we don't ruin our own lives out of "sinfulness" or "evil" or
"badness." We are each of us doing the absolute best that we can in a culture and a world that lives in direct opposition to the truth. Some of us have had our bodies and brains and souls damaged by circumstances completely beyond our control. And others are continually harmed by the inevitable consequences of their own bad choices, but even these individuals are doing their best and are thus deserving of compassion.
Who among us feels that his life is the one that he "ordered?" Nothing turns out the way that we plan. When you're young you have a million strategies for a perfect little life, but as you get older, your choices become evermore narrow. Your identity in the world is firmly entrenched, your personality is set, and indeed, your very consciousness is growing dimmer and dimmer. It's a myth that people improve with age -- most become caricatures until they finally submit to their own worst inclinations -- the addictions, the prejudices, the neuroses, the obsessions.
I walked with Chuck and expressed some of these thoughts to him. He commiserated, but insisted that he was not yet ready to throw in the towel. "This is not the end of me, Mike. I'm gonna get back on my feet, and when I do, I sure as hell won't take things for granted like I did before." I then reminded Chuck of what he said he would do if he won a million dollars. He just laughed and took a pull from his cigarette.
When we finally arrived at the "picnic" after nearly an hour of wandering ("under a bridge somewhere" is not the most helpful direction in a big city), my throat was parched and my head was pounding. I was able to drink a couple of bottles of water, but I was dismayed to see a line of roughly a hundred people awaiting the promise of a meal. Chuck believed that the front of the line was located where a sermon was being performed. Unfortunately, this turned out to be false -- it was in fact the END of the line. We endured the boring and soul-numbing sermon for nothing, and when it finally came our turn to be served, the best of the pickings were long gone. I felt physically ill when I saw our remaining food choices -- cheese pasta, cheese sandwiches, Pepsi, and Chee-tos. I forced down the soft drink, begged another bottle of water, and said a prayer that I wouldn't wretch my stomach's rancid contents.
We got back to the camp at around 7:45 or 8 PM, and the sun was mercifully all but a memory. I lied down and tried to ignore the throbbing in my head and turning of my stomach. The ever-helpful Chuck offered me more Night Train and cigarettes and even some pot, all of which I politely declined. I dozed off thinking of nothing but that T-shirt and its world-weary axiom.
At around midnight, I woke up and instantly knew that I was going to vomit. With knees buckling, I very slowly stood and began shuffling up the street away from the camp. My headache had grown from a dull throb to a full-blown migraine, an electric spike shoving through the base of my skull. I doubled over and coughed and hacked a dry heave for maybe thirty seconds. Every wretch made my headache more agonizing, so I was enormously relieved when an ungodly eruption of pasta and goulash spewed from my mouth onto the Vegas sidewalk.
It occurred to me that there was a very real chance I might be dying -- sunstroke, dehydration, or food poisoning seemed the likeliest culprits. With all of the bemusement I could muster, I sort of chuckled at my own meekness -- it had taken less than 36 hours for Sin City to almost kill me. Even those who had advised against my experiment conceded that I might last at least a few days. Interestingly, my body had not been damaged by an attack from a homeless person, as many people had warned. Indeed, I had felt no anxiety whatsoever in their presence. It was the natural elements of the city itself -- and the ultra harsh circumstances intentionally inflicted by city officials, led by Mayor Oscar Goodman -- that did me in.
I took my cell phone from my pocket and dialed 9-1-1. I wasn't sure if this action was going to mark the end of my experiment, but I felt that I needed some immediate medical attention.
An ambulance came and took me to The Valley hospital. After about 30 minutes, I vomited again, to which the attending nurse commented, "Hmm...That looks like the stew they serve downtown." For some reason, I didn't want the guy to know that I was living as a homeless person, so I told him I had eaten dinner at the buffet line at Circus Circus (a very plausible lie).
Unsurprisingly, the physician who attended me insisted that I needed some expensive tests, beginning with a Cat Scan. I agreed to this simply because I thought it might give me an opportunity to catch a few minutes of sleep. The physician then stated that he thought I might be having an aneurysm, and he needed to perform a procedure called a lumbar puncture (or a spinal tap). I don't know much medical jargon, but any procedure with the word "lumbar" in it sounds way too f*cking expensive. I told him I felt certain that I was dehydrated and not having an aneurysm, and he responded that I knew no such thing. I then asked if I had the legal right to leave the hospital, to which he replied, "Yes, but you have to sign a waiver stating that you are leaving against medical advice." I signed the waiver and walked out of the hospital at around 4 AM.
I've done some catastrophically stupid things in my life, but leaving the hospital in the sad shape I was in is at the top of the list. And the fact that I had no idea where I was and didn't know how to get back to the camp made matters worse. For the first time in my life, my body was so depleted that I felt unable to simply put one foot in front of the other. It was like trying to walk underwater. My throat burned from vomit and my head felt like a canoe. Shit.
I took out my cell and called my parents. They agreed to Western Union me some cash, but they'd be unable to do so until 10 AM. I realized what this meant -- I would have to shamble up and down the Vegas streets in a state near death for the next 6 hours.
And that's what I did. I tried asking for directions back to the camp, but I was too exhausted to walk for more than a couple of minutes at a time. I found a bus stop that offered a little bit of shade, but as soon as the sun came up, its glare beat directly down on my head. I found it nearly impossible to stay awake, but every now and then, I would see a police car drive by and I would snap my head to full attention. I remembered the hooker's comment that the cops would arrest anyone who loitered at a bus stop. I had no money in my pockets, so according to Vegas law, my very presence on the streets was a crime. I began to feel real terror that I might get arrested, a scenario only slightly more appealing to me than physical death.
Until perhaps 8 AM, I would sit at the bus stop until the bus arrived, stand and lurch a few steps away, then return after the bus had left. I felt desperately in need of water, so I staggered over to the nearest casino/hotel, hoping against hope that my uneven gate would not lead to an arrest for public drunkenness.
Inside the casino, I asked one of the porters if they had a Western Union, and much to my relief, he said yes. But unfortunately, a casino is only a hospitable environment to those who are spending money. I had none and couldn't just sit and stare at a slot machine to kill time. So I walked into a bathroom with the intention of hiding in a stall for a couple of hours.
After drinking countless handfuls of water from the tap, I sat miserably on the toilet and drifted in and out of consciousness. The bathroom was equipped with a PA system which blasted an inane assortment of bad 80's tunes by bands like Huey Lewis and the News and Air Supply. When you're squatting and slowly dying on a toilet in a Vegas casino, a song like "Hip to be Square" seems sadly appropriate. I wished for cyanide capsules almost as badly as I wished for a 60 ounce Big Gulp.
After maybe an hour, I was jarred from my stupor by a loud pounding on the stall door followed by a deep voice that bellowed, "Security!" I guess that someone found it a little suspicious that the same pair of shoes could be seen in the stall for an hour without so much as a flush (this makes sense -- the function of a bathroom is, you do your business and you leave). I opened the door, and this big burly behemoth with real alarm on his face asked me, "What's the problem, sir?" I felt certain that I was about to be arrested, so I used the truth as my only defense.
"I'm waiting for a Western Union, man, and I can't wait in the lobby. You have to spend money to be out there, and I don't have any."
He responded that I couldn't just sit on the toilet. Apparently, it frightens people too much.
Much to my surprise, I was allowed to walk from the bathroom a free man. The Western Union was not going to open until 10, so my challenge was to exist in the casino for almost an hour without getting the boot for not spending money. I sat in front of a slot machine and punched at buttons while trying to stare attentively at the screen. I counted the minutes in my head and tried not to look as wasted as I felt. I hoped that when the Western Union opened I would be coherent enough to communicate intelligibly with the agent. The minutes passed and I kept stabbing stupidly at the slot machine buttons.
With legs filled with cement and acid, I staggered to the gated booth that I hoped might hold my salvation. The woman behind the counter looked at me and shook her head. "We don't open until 10." I looked at the clock on the wall behind her and it said 10:07. In a moment of blind and irrational panic, I wondered if she meant 10 PM rather than 10 AM. I watched her walk back and forth shuffling papers and stapling things and looking busy for the next few minutes. Finally, with the mercy of Mother Mary herself, this stupid yet wonderful lady asked me for my business, and I could have wept with joy.
I got enough money for a motel room, where I would wait until my sister (who -- thank the love of Christ -- lives in a small town a few hours away) could come and pick me up. It is with no shame I admit that without the loving assistance of my family, I might well have died on the streets of Sin City. For the record, I am 31 years old and in excellent physical shape -- I don't smoke or drink, I eat a healthy diet, and I've been a devoted marathon runner for the last 17 years. I knew that Vegas was a tough place to be homeless, but my God -- less than 36 hours, and I was at death's door and crying to my mammy and pappy for help.
Going into the experiment, I had been communicating with a reporter for the Las Vegas Sun newspaper named Tim Pratt. When he learned of my experiment's premature and pathetic end, Pratt insisted that it might still make for a good story. After all, the reason I almost died is because I had no money, minimal resources, and was trapped in a viciously hot climate. In other words, I was in EXACTLY the same boat as the approximately 12,000 homeless human beings who live in Las Vegas year round. 36 hours, and I was almost dead. Imagine trying 36 days, or 36 weeks, or 36 months, as many have.
As an interesting footnote, Pratt informed me that roughly 40 percent of all homeless in Vegas have no valid ID whatsoever. This prevents them from getting work and even receiving many essential services. I experienced the horror of this first hand -- I lost my birth certificate in Vegas, and while trying to get some temporary work while staying with my sister in Arizona, I found that no one would hire me, since I had only one form of ID. I don't casually use the term "police state" to describe America, but the first rule of any police state is, don't go anywhere without your papers.
Synchronistically, as I write this, I am a couple of days from returning to Vegas under much happier circumstances, to attend a scientific conference. It is with little fondness that I remember my hellish two days on the city's unforgiving streets. But I would give anything to again encounter that lanky crazy fellow with the funny, sad, and oh-so-true axiom on his T-shirt.
"This is not the life I ordered."
It's not the one I ordered either. But I have to believe that my order still matters. Self-discovery number whatever on my homeless journey: our choices ALWAYS matter. No matter how bleak or hopeless or unforgiving our circumstances, there must be meaning in choosing wisely rather than poorly. Alternatively, life is truly without purpose and God a sadistic madman. Our choices have to matter. Always. In the gutter, on a battlefield, right up to the moment of death.
If nothing else, I want my order to be a true one. I no longer ask for a "better life" -- no force in the universe exists that can provide it for us. Rather, I want the ability to choose correctly, now and forever. Sanity. Rationality. Integrity. Love. These are the gifts I want for myself, because they ARE the road to a better life. In this moment, this is the life I order.