I was homeless once. Now that I’ve caught your attention, let me explain the circumstances. I wanted to do research for a series of both journalistic and literary stories I was planning to write on the burgeoning problem of American homelessness. So the first step to this plan was to try living homelessly myself.
Not being a very heroic person – instead I am more a fastidious individual – I planned to limit my homelessness to days rather than years. And I wasn’t about to let myself live on the streets. Instead like millions of American homeless today I would live in my car. But my homeless period would take place in the middle of a cold winter, so I didn’t expect the experience to exactly be any picnic.
So I found out that living in a car is no picnic either. On a cold winter you feel about the same as if you were just lying on the sidewalk. In other words, if you can a catch just an hour lump of a sleep anytime at night, you are lucky.
And over a period a week, the sleep deprivation this experience brings begins to make you lose comtrol of your thoughts. In about a week, I found myself observing that I was overreacting to everything and everyone who came my way.
I am now astounded that people who live for years in the streets can salvage as much sanity as they do. Surely I agree now with every doctor who has found that sleep deprivation is one of the surest roads to mental illness.
I am enclosing one of the stories of the homeless I wrote from this experience, which first appeared in Aphelon Magainze and now is reprinted in my new Amazon book, Every Kind of Angel. It is a long story – much longer than anything I have I have recently put into this space – but it is not nearly as long as typical homelessness itself.
Sebastian stepped away from his SAD two-bedroom house on a bright and immediate day in July, but then there was no thought of leaving forever. Instead his mind was filled by the thought that the furniture in his home disliked him, that the sitting things in the living room were hankering to defeat him. The rabble-rouser among the living-room things was the black-leather sofa, glaring at Sebastian so brutally that its mood creased every cushion.
But once out in the sun, aha! Sebastian began to feel BETTER. In the open air, a world of living things came out that instantly usurped the shut-in man-made things.
Five steps out the door, and Sebastian knew he was in a better place.
Even the mulberry tree that had dedicated its lifetime to uprooting Sebastian's small house now leaned toward its landlord like an outdoor compatriot in an exchange of gifts.
Sebastian saw that settling into this home of the outdoors amounted to walking wherever his feet would take him. By pure good luck he had dressed for an indefinitely long walk that morning just before he stopped looking at his face in the bathroom mirror. Using the Greek muscles of his back and his wrists to their limit, he pulled on very difficult black working boots that in their advertising claimed to move over anything in front of him. For energy, his pockets were filled with money and jelly beans.
"Sebastian has gone away. He's gone away, gone far away with quarters and jelly beans," he said, as he started to walk from his home. His reference to his own name made him feel he had already left, and now it was on record.
When he finished walking up his own street, he was ready for many adventures. On a whim, he turned toward the town itself. For several minutes, he was alone on a new planet. Then a DEPRESSING thing happened.
A totally white and older person walked toward him from the other side of the sidewalk.
This person's belief system in whiteness was rapturous enough to fill not only his white tennis hat, but also his white skin, his white shorts and his white hair. Then there were his white shoes and his white socks. He was as white as pure light itself. Sebastian only wondered what a person buried under so many photons could say to him. The question was answered when the white person passed Sebastian without saying a thing.
Onward to downtown, as Sebastian kicked one black-booted foot out before another on the way to the city's energy center.
Go, Sebastian, into your new life!
Now, Sebastian encountered a totally different kind of person coming at him. A woman dressed and painted in every color of the planet walked toward him. Suddenly, her colors changing the scene stirred Sebastian to want to eat the white man one more time whole. But he simply closed his eyes as he passed the woman of color. Then – this was crucial – he was out of her sight in a jiffy.
Luckily, he had no more mishaps as he walked to the outskirts of the town.
He went straight to the public phone he had been thinking about throughout his whole walk.
"It's Sebastian," he said, when he knew that the man answering was Frank, his boss at the TV repair shop.
"Sebastian, where are you?"
"I don't know where I am."
"What do you mean? You were supposed to be in a half hour ago."
"Why did you use the word ‘supposed.'"
"What if I use the word ‘insane?'"
"You are inane," said Sebastian pointedly. He hung up. He forgot to add how protective it was to be silent in certain extreme situations.
He stepped into the McDonald's restaurant that was kindly standing by. Not wearing a watch, he couldn't tell how long he had been walking, but he sensed he had used up most of his morning doing things that only involved himself. Now that he was finally inside, and watching people miserably eating things that must have come out of the same truck on the freeway, he was too aware of being the only person there who represented Greek hospitality.
"Can I have something a little Greek for today?” he said to the teenage puppy who asked in all innocence if she could help him.
He smiled, showing his large upper teeth, his best shot at revealing a soul to this busy young woman.
"I'm sorry," said the puppy at the counter. "We have no Greek food.”
"So it’s like I want the very thing I can't have."
"We have other things you can eat.”
"How about a Big Breakfast. I'd like a Big Breakfast. I want a Big Breakfast."
"One Big Breakfast," the puppy said. She looked at Sebastian as if to tell him that even though he asked three times for a Big Breakfast, she knew he wanted just one Big Breakfast. That was why she was there, to understand multiple things like this at any moment.
Once she got him a Big Breakfast, she left him alone to eat it, and in a matter of minutes he was by himself like in normal times.
But this is the crux of the problem, Sebastian thought, as he bit into the sandwich made of his patch of scrambled eggs, his disk of pork sausage and his biscuit of congealed crumbs. His mother had told him from the start: "We are now living in a country where the people are killing themselves in the pursuit of happiness."
He had learned early in life that his Greek family and extended relations tried to introduce Hellenistic hospitality to the American chase by buying as many restaurants as possible. But Sebastian saw no one close to Mediterranean marrying and dancing in spite of thousands of Greek-owned restaurants and the insertion of feta cheese into the national thinking. And now even Sebastian the Greek was the victim of a common American mishap. It was as if he had only been living in this country as an innocent bystander. “I’m innocent, your honor,” he barked.
After eating his Big Breakfast, and nodding at the silent TV only there to save anyone from human contact, Sebastian walked outside again.
"Bianca, Bianca, Bianca," he said. Even worse than cooking for himself would be eating at one of those better restaurants he had discovered with Bianca, and to sense the ghostly traces of her in them, especially her old smiles and her old energy.
He had plenty of time before lunch now. He decided to keep walking around and thinking some more, even about his ancient Aegean mother.
The scariest thing about his mother? The Furies she brought into his life. Sebastian understood they were special probation angels assigned from Olympus to wayward Greeks, but his mother warned him they were the ugliest things to ever get inside a living cornea.
"The Furies are hideous. They have the worst color coordination," she told him, as Sebastian the little child would try to sleep before the terrible school day started. "They never stop talking to you! They say things you never want to hear! When they talk, they spit in your face! Their breath is so bad, it makes you puke. Because you're a Greek, Sebastion, you have to worry about a Fury coming any time you get out of line! But you must remember they are angels, Sebastion. You must remember they are extremely rough Greek angels who are there for your own good."
When she said that, she would turn his blanket and tell him to have "a good night’s sleep."
He had lately hated his mother (between bouts of loving her) for everything she had chiseled into his brain. In his later years, he had refused to exchange a true conversation with her except on Christmas, Easter, her birthdays, rare Orthodox Greek Saint Days and certain three-day weekend retreats when family gatherings were deemed mandatory.
"Momma, you momma, momma," Sebastian said, as he walked the streets heading away from McDonald's, and as people of the town looked at him in what he saw was a new manner.
As he continued to stay outdoors, there was all kind of life around him, and it was clinging to the soil. Sebastian figured that since he no longer had a job or a home (because Bianca had haunted their house when she left) he might as well join the plants and the lilies in their successful adhesion to the ground. To start the new experience, he headed to the nearest public park, where many wild flowers had been gathering without him.
Arriving at the park, he was startled at how bigger the sky was than anything else around him. When he kept studying the imbalance, he wondered why no one else seemed to notice that the sky was effectively taking over the whole scene.
Soon he was asleep under the tree
When he woke, it was time for lunch. He still had a lot of money, so he could indulge spending on himself before the foraging in garbage cans that the future would hold in store. When he arrived at a good Burger King after a half hour of speedy walking, he went to the bathroom to clean up.
Then he saw it.
He stopped everything, even the washing of his dusty hands, as he looked at the mirror.
His old man stared back at him
At that second, Sebastian decided (suicided, and homicided, and now it was decided) one of the reasons everything was different today was that he himself was dead without knowing it.
Wait. Hold on a second. Just a minute. Sebastion had to grip his lower lip with his upper teeth
After some calmer thought, Sebastian concluded that the only person around who had died beyond reasonable doubt was his old father, who in fact had passed away over seven years ago and had been the subject of an extensive autopsy.
Who would have thought that after all those years, the old man was waiting for a chance to come back, and now in the most extreme moment of his son's journey had landed on Sebastian's vacant face.
It was like his old man was saying, well, since Bianca moved out you have room for your father now. So he moved right into Sebastian's flesh. His telltale old eyes were already in his son's sight sockets. Now his down-turned mouth was showing up, too.
"This is not my idea," said Sebastian, knowing as soon as he let the words out that they didn't help. Then he went further. "Nothing is my idea."
He went out of the bathroom and pushed his way to the front counter, where he ordered a double hamburger and a little chocolate shake. As he ate, he consoled himself that there would be many things he would never try again, such as looking in mirrors. Instead he would eat more chocolate and do more things For himself. For HIMSELF.
He finished one CHOCOLATE milk shake and another one. Then he burped the surplus out and walked for over an hour to the city's small airport. Watching a small plane lift itself by sheer scientific will brightened at once. Soon more small planes followed its example.
How about that?
Taking off and landing. What small planes did.
After hours of watching plane after plane successfully go up and down, Sebastian began to feel a hankering for dinner. Since he had already hit two hamburger places that day, he decided on Mexican food.
Entering a Taco Bell, he finished off a bean burrito and a pinto and cheese in a breeze.
When the eating was over, it was too early to go to sleep. But Sebastian had run out of bright ideas about what to do next. At last he decided to visit the library, which was still open. Once in the library, he started to read a small book that awaited on a table like small party food.
After noting that the author of his book was dead, Sebastian felt a little misled by this public-library system. The last person he would go to seek any kind of enlightened advice was from someone who was even more dead than he was himself. When he left the library, it had become a sad and quiet place with or without him.
Pagh! Dump it..
He chose again the open spaces, especially a vast green field that seemed to have no claim of ownership or purpose before he had docked at its shore. He had only a few clothes in his small backpack and he pulled most of them on to fight off the cool Indian summer evening. Everything was better with three layers of clothes on, and on this night the stars were a welcome entertainment as an opening act. At last Sebastian started the serious stuff of sleeping and dreaming about human miracles.
He was grateful that he awoke only once, and that was to greet the rim of red rising sunlight. Now that he was living on a shoestring – without all the other man-made meddling into nature – he was free to get the direct message of resurrection that came out of each dawn. For the first time in his life, he was going for the long run by only doing the essentials.
He celebrated by repeating all the pleasant things he had done before. It was McDonald's and Burger King and Taco Bell all over again. That little airport, too. Even the depressing public library, which at least gave off a gloom he could predict.
The best thing about living without time or space, Sebastian decided, was the experience could make an entire year seem like one big day. Or two years seem like two big days. He even had time to watch for lizards. Boy, were they fast when they wanted to be. Lizards could fly.
Lizard, doing what you do,
Dealing with the cards you were dealt,
Trying to be the best lizard possible
Even though you only have half a brain.
But at least you can move around in a jiffy.
So there's that.
Cheer up, Liz.
It was by coincidence that after a day devoted to thinking of lizards, Sebastian walked into the depressing library to find his former wife at one of the tables. At first he thought it was only an imposter trying to look like Bianca. But indeed it was his old wife, lined and thinned-out as if she had grown completely middle-aged overnight.
"How are you doing?"
"Fine, Sebastian. I'm doing fine."
"Imagine seeing you here."
"What's so interesting about it?"
"Because I'm here every day."
"Please, Sebastian. Can't you even be the slightest bit domesticated?"
"Do you remember me dancing?"
"Sebastian. Walk on, please."
"The box step at our reception. One, two, three."
"Now would you leave me alone, please?"
"You were carrying your fluted glass on my shoulder as we waltzed."
As he imitated the wedding dance with his boots, she gathered books and strode out of the library, leaving other people looking at him.
That night, in his field, Sebastian woke up under a DARK sky with the feeling someone had been next to him. He stood to look all around, with no one in sight, only the living lights of a supermarket in the distance.
When the sun got completely up from the horizon, Sebastian rose with the feeling it was time for him to move on. In fact, he was sensing in the morning air the call of the sea. His father had ascended from the small Greek rock islands where there was a belief that the natives were originally the tenants of Poseidon, who ruled over the sea in turbulence. In one of Poseidon's lousy moods he had kicked out a couple of mating fish who ended up walking as best as they could onto land and started the ball rolling on creating A Greek Dynasty.
Sebastian was an hour into his morning walk and almost at the beach when he felt again someone with him, just behind his heels. He turned but found nothing behind him, except for a new smell in the air.
He arrived at the beach just as the shopping cart he was pushing overturned, spilling out everything from a blanket to bottles of water. He was lifting the shopping cart back up when he got a sharp slap to his ear.
Then another slap went on the other ear.
"Cut it out," he said, turning blindly against the wind and the roar of the sea.
A hideous Angel Fury was behind him
It was this dirty creature dancing around him, as a boxer might dance in a big fight, but there was something more terrible than fighting in her. Her face was yellow with red stripes running sideways, she smelled like barf, the left side of her head didn't color-coordinate with the right, she had too many eyes that ran around her head like a spider band, she had miserable moisture flying from her face, her whole facial expression looked worse than old pizza joining the elements, and her brown pants and blue button-down shirt didn't fit together.
"Who are you?" asked Sebastian.
"You know who I am."
"A Fury Angel?"
The Fury slapped Sebastian flat on the nose.
"You're not to go near the sea today, Sebastian."
"You're insulting your ancestors, the fish parents."
"You say I’m not even faintly a fish then."
"You're not even that. And you're not even trying to be anything."
"I’m not anything.”
"Liar. You’re the son of a Greek mother. That’s what you are.”
Jabs from the Fury were coming down on Sebastian's face in buckets.
Moe: Love never stops. Call your mother.
Curly Joe: That's why you came down from the dead to tell everyone. Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk.
Left-handed uppercuts made Sebastian's head go up and down, up and down, up/down,
Groucho: You know her phone number.
Chico: I lost it in my head.
Groucho: You going to see your old mother, who is still alive in spite of you, or am I going to put you in the hospital?
A young surfer named Barkley had arrived on the beach with his board in his hand and his brand-new bachelor's degree in his head. He saw Sebastian at once, and at seemed that this poor man was now running at him. Barkley side-stepped just in time to give Sebastian – who was intensely talking from both sides of his mouth -- his running route.
Barkley simply had no idea he had marked the spot where the city’s best-known homeless person had finally started the road to going home to his mother.
Chris Sharp— Commentary
Chris Sharp is an Educator and a prize-winning professional writer. He has recently published a new book titled How to Like a Human Being . His commentaries represent his own opinions and not necessarily the views of any organization he may be affiliated with or those of The SCV Beacon