This is another essay I wrote, focusing on an interview with a homeless man. I made an audio recording of it, which you can listen to via youtube here. The picture in the video is the cover of a chapbook I designed, which I posted here. Below is the text version of the essay.
How do I write this as a story?
Mike told me, “Anything else you can write about me, is that he made people happy. He made people enjoy this life.”
He made people happy.
But that’s not enough of a story, so I’ll have to go further.
Here’s what I know about Mike, from what he told me. He’s sixty-five years old. He went to college and was majoring in accounting, and when his dad died he and his brother took over his business. He had a wife, and he has two children and three grandchildren. He worked three jobs from six o’ clock in the morning to two o’ clock in the morning. He played music.
And then it gets muddy. In his own words, “I was rarely home. I understand why she, ‘you don’t take care of this house’—‘but you like the money.’” At some point he and his wife divorced, and she got everything, and left him nothing.
Mike is homeless. I met him in the pedestrian mall of Iowa City, a short man with a salt and pepper beard and shaggy gray hair. I intended to interview him by asking the question, “What did you do yesterday?” and seeing where that went. But I immediately realized that he was going to drive the interview, and his story wouldn’t be so neatly compartmentalized as I wanted. It was clear that he wanted to shape his own story. He repeatedly asked me variations of, “Have I blown your mind yet?” In particular, he asked, “Now, have I flooded your mind enough?”, “Have I scared you enough?”, “Now, have I scared you enough?”, and “Have I scared you enough yet?” At one point he asked, “So, what did you think of my … story?” and before I could answer he continued on, saying, “Psychologically, you’re gonna find out that life is just nothing but a struggle anyway.” So I let him talk, instead of trying in vain to control his story. He told me to write that he made people happy, and towards the end of our interview he continually emphasized, as his thesis, the importance of trust and hope.
“That’s what this life is about. Trust, and hope. And you can put that right underneath my name, and say those, those two words will remind you of everything I’ve talked about.”
I had to wonder, will they? At the beginning of the interview Mike told me that the homeless were being ignored. He told me that back in the seventies, when he’d been fighting bureaucracy and government, it’d been the same way—but now it was worse. Now “they” wanted to shove them under the carpet.
What hope is there if things are getting worse? How important was trust when his wife divorced him?
How am I going to write this story?
For a moment in the interview, I thought I might have something. “I have one story for you,” Mike said, “and this might really get to you.”
Here, I thought, this could be the body of the story, or at least a thematic keystone.
“A couple days ago, I was up on the hill, and it started raining so, there’s a gazebo up there, and I ran in there and sort of ran into a friend of mine. And we sat there, and all of a sudden lightning started. [Unintelligible] across the street from where we were, got hit by it. He said, ‘you see that [unintelligible]’ I said ‘no,’ ‘look over here, you see the smoke—somebody got it, and it could’ve been us.’”
Aha! I thought I’d stumbled onto the core of my paper. The randomness of life—bad things can happen to anybody—perfect. But Mike kept telling the story.
“And he just, all he wanted to do was drink. Next thing you know he fell on the floor. I see oh, firetrucks and everything else, covered the whole block, trying to take care of that one, next thing I notice he’s down there. I ran over and got a hold of the paramedics who were around here, and I said, ‘I think I have a problem.’ Had to haul him out. Just because he was drunk. It wasn’t because of me. But this is what we do on the street. We take care of each other, and make sure that everyone is safe. And whatever extreme you have to go to, this is what we do. Now, have I flooded your mind enough?”
And once again I was in a mess. What was the point of the story? That people on the street help each other? But, it also sounds like Mike’s friend shouldn’t have been drinking. And is it really true that “it could’ve been us” if they were under a gazebo, sheltered? And why mention the guy who got struck by lightning at all? And what did he mean, “it wasn’t because of me”?
I don’t even know how to tell the lightning story, let alone the whole story of Mike. The more I try to shape Mike’s story, the more I realize it isn’t mine to shape.
I’m not sure what the unconscious narrative most people tell about the homeless is. Maybe that they didn’t work hard enough. Maybe that the system crushed them into destitution. I only know my narrative, which could in fact be the one most people tell: there they are. It’s too confusing to think about what changed them from being like us to being like them. Was is a mental disability? Was it just bad luck? Could that be me? No, it’s much simpler to just believe that homeless people exist, and never won’t exist.
Because the real narrative is messy. It’s not an easily digestible parable, tailored to some agenda.
Halfway through the interview, a mom and her little girl were walking by, and they stopped by a statue of three musicians a few feet in front of Mike and I. The little girl began playing on the drums of one of the figures. Mike hopped up and said, “Oh you have to do that differently!” and showed her how to play the drums. It was after that that he told me to write, “He made people happy.”
I can’t give you a neatly packaged writer’s account of events. I can give you what Mike told me, and what Mike saw his story as.
He made people happy, and he valued trust and hope.