I was sitting in a coffee shop once, back home. There were two homeless men seated near me, doing what a lot people do at coffee shops on a weekday afternoon – sharing stories. As people often do, they got louder and more adamant as they compared their tales. The sun bounced off of the honey colored wood floor and my hand gripped my unbleached porcelain mug as I tried not to look like I was listening.
They were vagrants on principle. They had chosen this lifestyle. One of them rode trains, and traveled according to the weather. The other caught rides from friends. Sometimes they had to sleep outside, on the floor or in cars instead of on couches or beds. They had to move a lot. They’d been in city after city, state to state; never knowing what would happen next. All understandably uncomfortable predicaments.
Unbeknownst to them, while they were sharing their Jack Kerouac yarns, I was staring at my cup of coffee and my mind was screaming. When they left I was in tears.
Savor your freedom. YOU HAVE A CHOICE. I DON’T. I would do ANYTHING to just have the option of trading places with you.
At 23 or 24, I was ready to enlighten a pair of middle aged men on the value of free agency and the blessing of adventure. This wasn’t about the politics of choosing to be house-free. This was about waking up in the morning and knowing that you can do anything.
At the time, I was working at a cell phone company. After the initial shit storm of my diagnosis cleared a little, that was the first thing I had had to do. I was too old to be on my parent’s policy. I knew jack about insurance policies, and I was ramen-for-dinner-every-night poor. I had no other option.
It was an entry level job. It had nothing to do with my interests. It didn’t matter. My doctors and medications kept me walking, and the job enabled me to see them. I was chained. That’s the way it’s been ever since, for the past 17 years now.
It wasn’t until I had overheard that conversation between the two philosophical vagrants in that coffee shop that I realized how bound I was to my employment. Yes, I had bills, food and rent to pay for like everyone else. But unlike most people in the U.S., being unemployed meant losing the ability to use my body at all. I know this for a fact. It happened.
I cannot explain the terror. It is a visceral feeling, down to my guts. Losing my medical care triggers instincts in me on an animal level. No health care for me means that I will be without meds, and thus , and thus unable to walk, roll over in bed, wipe my own ass, or chew my own food. Then there’s the excruciating pain, and the emotional humiliation.
I had to go off meds for a while during a med swap. My right knee was swollen to the size of a football. It would not bend, and trying to walk on it would have damaged the joint further. The wheelchair that I had was set up for someone with a cast on their leg – the right leg rest sticking straight out. I spent most of my days in a recliner. My mom would puree my food and spoon feed it to me, or give me a straw to use. I still remember drinking her pureed spaghetti and how grateful I was to taste something other than creamed oatmeal.
When I had to use the bathroom, both of my parents would put me in the wheelchair, and then muscle me onto the toilet. When I was done, one of them would have to come in and wipe me, then get me back in the chair. This would be bad enough in a family that was comfortable with nudity, but we aren’t. Picture the stereotypical conservative Norwegian family a la Garrison Keillor.
At the time I didn’t have the mental capacity to consider things beyond the pain I was in. God bless my parents. Now that I have some distance from it (although there could never really be enough), I feel the deepest gratitude for the patience, love and the respect they showed me. And as a show of mutual respect for them, we do not speak of having to help me go to the bathroom. Ever.
This is why I turn into a rabid badger at the mere hint of unemployment. There are two roads in my life – having insurance, or having someone else wipe my ass. Being the existentially obsessed creature that I am, the very idea of having those two things as my only options in life is horrific.
So life is hard while hopping the rails to ride to Montana this summer? You ungrateful son of a bitch. That sounds like a dream come true to me.
Truly, I would love to be a “traveller” and roam where and when I may. Hopping a train and sleeping under the stars? SIGN ME UP. Only having to worry about food and shelter would be SUCH a relief. If I could sleep through a cold night under a tree and wake up to hike over a mountain the next day, I’d be in heaven.
Instead, I was stuck. My life literally depended on my job, and my job was filing. I can make anything (except having my ass wiped for me) fun, which is a huge blessing. I can also compartmentalize and suppress emotions like a mo’fo. So that is what I did. I took my dreams of actually doing something with my freshly minted Theater degree and carefully stowed them in the deepest, darkest places of my mind. That wasn’t important any more. Survival was important. I had to keep this job, and I had to go to school again to get a useful degree.
I opted for Digital Media, and I went for free at the local Community College. It worked out on two fronts: I gained useful skills and it kept me from stabbing myself in the face from boredom. I needed the intellectual stimulation almost as much as I needed the insurance. And I learned the most valuable skill that I’ve ever made in my life.
I learned to make do.
If that’s the best I could physically and mentally do at the time, I learned to be fucking proud of that. If I wasn’t proud, I was in despair. My new dream was to maintain the status quo, and dig my grip ever deeper into the safety of employment.
People now are sometimes surprised to hear that I have done quite a bit of stage acting. They are intrigued that I’ve directed plays, been a stage manager and run light boards. Given, it was community theater and college, but we put on some damn fine shows. I also have bragging rights to my animation skills, graphic design, basic knowledge of sound and video and other media related computer skills. Then they kind of get that look. It’s similar to the “You don’t look sick” look, but is slightly more … confused. “Why didn’t you do anything with your education?” it says.
To that look I say, for the same reason I haven’t hooped a train to Montana. Certain ventures in life, like career advancement in particular, involve taking risks, and my health would not afford me that. I did what I could in between arthritis flares and other complications. Unfortunately the times in between were never long or profitable enough for me to quit my job, pay COBRA rates for insurance, move to the city and then work as an intern at a theater or production company until I got a placement in a position with benefits. I did not have the money. I did not have the physical capability.
So I made do, and I was proud of that. But man was I ever envious of those two hobos.