What’s It Like To Be Homeless In Rural America
There are certain things that have happened in my life that I just never told my family about. Call it self-preservation or maybe just cowardice (it’s probably somewhere between the two), but it’s always been a weird quirk about my existence. I long for their acceptance and love, but can’t bring myself to tell them the truth about the more shameful things I’ve done or have been a part of in my life. Sometimes I wonder if they truly love me as I am or the construct they’ve created from the images and experiences I’ve allowed them to have.
There was that time in middle school that I took the blonde girl to a school dance and caught her half-naked in the boy’s locker room with some other kid. Or the time that I stole my dad’s car in the middle of the night and ended up hiding from the cops in a senior residence facility until the wee hours of morning.
Oh, and there was that time that I was homeless, too.
It was the spring of 2010 and I was living in total squalor at my father’s house. He’d left it to me after meeting a woman and I was suddenly left in an empty house that I could do anything I wanted to in. What did this usually mean? I’d throw parties and watch my peers drink to excess and vomit all over the floor (then just not clean it…ever). Sometimes, people would get in fights and punch holes in the walls (never kicked anyone out…ever). By the time that spring came, the house was in shambles and my dad gave up on it entirely.
“You’re old enough now to start taking care of some of this. You obviously don’t care about it if I’m footing the bill, so maybe you should try it out. Let’s see how cool you are with destroying it if you’re wasting all your money and I’m not.” I couldn’t argue his position. The house was in the piss-poor shape it was in mostly due to my own selfishness.
That’s when the consequences started boiling over. Our electricity was cut off after going a full year without paying my bill (I still haven’t paid it in full). We had no running water and once resorted to cooking Ramen noodles over candlelight with old bong fluid that likely sat there and accumulated its grime for months. I don’t remember how it tasted, but I do remember thinking it was all pretty damn funny. I remember laughing a lot.
It was honestly the best of times in a lot of ways. With no electricity came a lot of good conversation and stargazing with friends. With no water came fewer showers, but it also taught me how to take advantage of truck stops and restaurant bathrooms. I learned how to really survive during this period of my life. Since then, I have lost any irrational fear about my ability to do so and it’s been a true blessing to have that. To know that one could literally set fire to every last thing that I owned and I would walk well through the flames. I might even enjoy the warmth. It surprised me to find out later that many people do not have that reassurance and spend the bulk of their lives actively trying to avoid a reality I once embraced. I met the boogeyman and I didn’t flinch when he puffed up his endless, sunken chest.
But it would get a whole lot worse before it got any better.
I thought I wanted to be a journalist, so I took the first opportunity I could to move to Chicago. That’s where journalism is still alive! I thought to myself in a beautiful naivety. I sold my car, bought a one-way train ticket with that money, and arrived in the windy city all on my lonesome. I was hungover and my head was pounding harder than the arctic chill that slammed against me. The people in the heart of the city were running for their lives in an attempt to not interact with a single human soul, their eyes glued to the cement below. Police sirens rang in the air and I followed the direction of its sound trying to find that precious story. Where were the goldmines?
Over the following weeks, I learned that journalism (for me) meant looking for bad news all the time. It meant finding excitement in other people’s calamities. It meant to detach myself from empathy and I really didn’t like the way that made me feel. I quickly fell out of love with the concept of being a journalist and found myself pining for a home where everybody knew my name and looked me in the eyes when they engaged me.
When I ran out of money just a short time later, I got my wish.
Pride got the best of me. I didn’t want to admit that I’d failed, so I didn’t tell anybody about it. I didn’t go back to my dad’s house either, even though I knew he would have let me stay. In my mind, at that specific time in my life, I wanted to sleep in the bed that I so confidently made. I decided to sell my car. I chose to leave my home and it was me that would have to deal with the consequences of those decisions. There would not be a safety net to catch me this time.
It was time for me to grow up.
I found that the police were less antagonistic in Iowa than they were in Illinois, so I spent most of my time there as I looked for different parks to sleep in. If I stayed in one place for too long, the neighborhoods would catch on to me and flush me out like a dead rat in a rain gutter. Some nights, I would be forced to hide in slides to avoid the police and there was more than one occasion that I failed to do so and spent extended periods in the back of squad cars while the cops tried to figure out what to do with me. It was a game of cat and mouse and, sometimes, I was clever enough to catch some sheep. Other times, I got my head clawed in by the long arm of the night patrol.
To the police of Iowa’s credit, they never arrested me or gave me much of a hard time beyond telling me that I couldn’t sleep in the rocket ship or on the picnic tables. I guess it was just one of the perks of being an aimless, emaciated kid with a desire to destroy himself from the inside out: pity came far too naturally and far too often.
I learned to accept that and use it to my advantage, too. It was all about learning how to really survive. It was strange to note the sudden separation I felt in regards to other people. Maybe it was just my own embarrassment, but it certainly felt like people went out of their way to avoid interacting with me. The small town I was surviving in started to feel a whole lot like that cold, foreign city I tried just a few months prior. Why won’t anybody make eye-contact with me? I thought, suddenly realizing just how important that subtle display of humanity was to me.
I never did go back to my dad’s house and it’s a weird life to live now in retrospect. I have a wonderful family that reassures my progress by reminiscing on times of despair that I personally view in a positive light. They talk about the time I didn’t have electricity or running water and point to my present home and all of its maintained utilities as a real symbol of achievement. I tell them of my concerns with this consumer-based lifestyle I live and how uncomfortable it makes me to watch the refuse accumulate in various boxes throughout the length of my breezeway.
“You have to remember how hard it was to live back then, Cody. Be proud of yourself.” They say to me, but I don’t necessarily hear them. I don’t agree with it anyway.
It’s odd that they don’t really know about my time in the parks and, even worse, that many of them will inevitably read this piece and not believe the words I’ve strung together. To them, I have always been open with my life (to a fault) and have never been able to keep a real secret. In some ways, confusingly, that is true. I’m probably not a person you want to trust with a secret.
But it’s also the biggest load of bullshit imaginable.
I guess nobody really knows anybody, though. We have ideas about people and constructs that we’ve invented for ourselves to process and digest more easily, but we don’t really know the people we love any better than we know those that we have never met. There are many times that I am convinced most of us don’t even really understand or know ourselves on any tangible level. We hand out small slivers of ourselves, divided among different people like food rations to the destitute, then we leave the glut of it to fester and rot inside alone. Our enemies are mere reflections of what we perceive to be our own worst traits. We distance ourselves from those people and think we’re isolating and eradicating our own bad parts, but we’re probably just quite good at ignoring the fact that we share the qualities at all. We are just as much the sinner as we are the sainthood.
You are not your failures, but you certainly aren’t only your accomplishments either. You’re both. You’re neither.
But what do I know? I’m still busy doing the very things that annoy me about myself. I’m still choosing what to express and what to bury. Still choosing what burdens to drop and which skeletons to carry atop my bruised and shaking shoulder blades. Still dividing myself up into infinite rations as I attempt to make myself more palatable for those around me. I am ultimately a chameleon first and I blend into my surroundings on an instinct I desperately want to break. How does one separate himself with what he is biologically programmed with? Is it even possible?
I remember how it felt to have nothing and sometimes I wonder about the collection of useless tchotchkes that I have now. I remember watching my childhood home get foreclosed upon. I sat across the street and watched construction workers dump my most prized belongings into large, industrial garbage bins. I remember how sad that made me and, simultaneously, how free I felt when I walked away from it for that last time. I hold on to that memory with all my ability and then romanticize the idea that I could have that courage to do it all over again. Maybe this time I’ll even tell people about my struggles. Maybe this time, it will be a decision instead of a consequence.
On a base level, that’s progress. It’s evolution. You have to take what you can get sometimes. You have to learn to cope. You have to learn what it means to really survive. You have to learn that progress isn’t a straight line and success doesn’t have to be exclusively measured on the back of your bank statements.