Thursday, September 15, 2011
The following is an excerpt from the book How to Be a Homeless Frenchman (2011). Be aware there is some profanity in the excerpt.
Bob Dylan once said that a poem is a naked person. By that measure, there’s a lot of poetry in a homeless shelter. Every day, there were dozens of new arrivals, dredged in poverty and stinking of hopelessness, standing in the 6pm bed line hoping for a space. Per shelter rules, we had to strip down and take a shower before we could be processed for the evening. We were ordered to keep things “clean,” i.e. no drugs, no sex, and no staring. Get naked, and stop fidgeting! Grumbling yet pleased, we’d remove every stitch of clothing and hop across cold wet tiles in bare feet, swearing “fuck fuck fuckety fuck fuck! This fuckin’ water’s fuckin’ cold!”
“Fuckety fuck fuck!”
In this place, it sounded like giggling.
Every day, it was a water ballet of homeless men raising their arms and twirling around, performing Nutcracker under the nozzles. As the clothes came off the usual social prejudices fell away, replaced by the quirky taxonomy of the despised. Young, old, short, fat, tall, bald, crippled, straight, bent, black, brown, and white. Nobody cared, except maybe the transvestites. Every man in the showers was butt-naked and frozen, shivering as flesh confronted water, cringing against the spray, delighting in the warmth, smiles spreading across faces, opening mouths the way that women open their mouths when putting on lipstick. A reflex. A kiss in the mirror. There was something sublime about the happy sounds we made once we started soaping up under the fizz and pop of hot water, singing “Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream! Merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream!”
And round and round it goes.
One day, good old Larry Chase, one of the unofficial regulars, stripped down to hairy pink, stuck his head under the spray, lathered up his beard, and started to sing. From behind the brouhaha of spittle and spray, his deep voice floated up, loud, confident and strong, an aboriginal calling to the mountaintops:
When I was just a little girrrrrl,
I asked my mother, What will I be?
Will I be pretty, will I be rich?
Here’s what she said to meeeee…”
As if on cue, all the men joined in the chorus:
Queeeeeeeee, sera, sera,
Whatever will be, will be,
The future’s not ours to see,
Que sera, sera.
What will be, will beeeee!
Throatily we sang, with gusto and passion and glee, inner girls swishing invisible skirts, relishing the incomparable absurdity of being Doris for today. Naked men of every stripe and color, strangers stripped of every stitch -- bereft, barefoot, knowing nothing but the theme song to the Man Who Knew Too Much, recalling drowsy days of caramel when we were young and in love, asking our sweethearts, what lies ahead? Will we have rainbows and endless nights of bliss? Will we lie back, sighing, for another kiss? So many possibilities. Whatever will be, will be. Just not this.
But this is what we got. In four-part harmony.
How to Be a Homeless Frenchman by Paula Lee is now available to order online at www.harvardbooks.com, and a www.wellesleybooksmith.com via special order/phone only, 781-431-1160. An e-book Kindle version is currently available on www.amazon.com. A related Give US Your Poor blog entry by Paula Lee can be found by clicking here.
Sunday, September 11, 2011
-From How to Be a Homeless Frenchman, 2011
Everybody has a story. Even boring people have tales to tell. In times of quiet, confessions spill. “I’m afraid of giraffes.” “My wedding dress was a rental.” “I hoard lentils.” “I used to be homeless.” Excuse me? Not ‘homeless’ in an angst-ridden teenager way, but actually out on your ass and living hard in the street? On the one hand, it’s extraordinary that so many Americans have homes to lose in the first place. A testimony to modern laws that make it possible for ordinary citizens to own real estate. On the other hand, the loss of a house to debt, foreclosure, or random acts of God prompts few to celebrate the end of feudalism. But this is silly, you say. Homelessness isn’t about losing a house. It’s really about having no place to live.
“I’m homeless” is a statement of individual loss. “I have no place to live” is a confession of a deep and terrible truth. For it is true of all of us, going straight to the heart of what we like to claim is the “human difference,” a difference insisted upon for hundreds of years as the bedrock concept of civilization. We are the opposite of nature. We conquer and subdue. For we are superior to nature, and here is the iPod as proof! When humans become homeless on this engineered earth, they are as holes poking through the lovely fictions that make electric dreams come true.
I hear the phrase, “I used to be homeless” a lot: pearls falling from the most unlikely mouths. The stock boy. The stock broker. The socialite and her son. Listen, and you will hear tales of troubles fallen upon your nice neighbor and, maybe, the pretty girl sitting next to you as you wait for your teeth to be cleaned. In my case, it was my brother-in-law who’d lived on the streets, and his story was so uncommon, so surprising that it turned itself into a book. How to Be a Homeless Frenchman hopes to change the dialogue on homelessness by insisting that joy is not a commodity, and that laughter is everywhere, even in a homeless shelter. Strange times call for stranger solutions. So let me tell you a story that begins once upon a time and ends the way all stories do – not with a happy ending, but when we close the book.
How to Be a Homeless Frenchman by Paula Lee is now available to order online at www.harvardbooks.com, and a www.wellesleybooksmith.com via special order/phone only, 781-431-1160. An e-book Kindle version is currently available on www.amazon.com. Part II of this blog entry by Paula will appear shortly.