There were lots of things about living on the street that you don't imagine when your living a so-called normal life. Few people treated him kindly, but more surprisingly, the absense of kindness hurt. The kindest people he met were the volunteers who would provide him with food and other comforts from time to time but they would scurry off as soon as they fed him, afraid that he might bite. There were those passing by who offered him money but it often came with an whiff of resentment. There were others who offered food, usually with pride and a sense of superiority, don't give the beggar cash, he'll just use it to buy drugs. Actually, he never begged, he just kind of sat there with his hat upside down in front of him when it wasn't on his head. A few coins were better than none but he never said a word or paid much attention to how much went into the hat. He'd make due or he wouldn't but there was usually something to fill his stomach if he looked around long enough.
There was one last kind of passerby and while they were a tiny minority, they were almost impossible to ignore. These few felt the need to make their complete and utter disdain for him well known. They spoke whatever poison was resting within them, spreading it to others in a hopeless attempt at cleansing themselves. They knew the world had lots of problems and while they couldn't wrap their heads around the complexity of those problems, they assumed to have identified him as one of the causes. Get a job like the rest of us. Look at this piece of garbage. Take a fucking shower. He had heard worse than these and had even run into a fellow street dweller who had been beaten and bloodied by an angry drunken apartment dweller on his way home.
Sometimes worse than the people who acknowledged him were the people who didn't. There wasn't anything unusual about being ignored by a majority of strangers on the street, but the way in which they ignored him was different than before. Even those who had given him money or food a day earlier would avoid eye contact like the plague. Once in a while someone would trip over him or spill coffee on him without offering an apology. It was as if he didn't exist. He could go days or weeks without any proof that he wasn't completely invisible. For a long time, it messed with him.
Sometimes even he forgot that there was really nothing wrong with him, nothing inherently different from the people who rushed back and forth between work and home and whatever social activity they were expected to take part in. It's easy to pretend not to care what others think of you when you can at least expect them to acknowledge your existence and treat you with the bare minimum of basic human dignity. All expectations had to be shed out here. Sympathy was the best form of humanity available out here and it always came with distance or resistance.
All over the world, in the daily lives of the rich and the poor alike, trust is something rarely found in abundance. If it was, the world wouldn't be so full of problems. We distrust each other and turn a blind eye to misfortune. One country's people distrust another's and allow tensions to escalate into war. We distrust our neighbor and live in fear which causes others to distrust us. We distrust children and make rules for them, adults and create laws for them. We distrust the rich and strive to become like them, fighting each other over whatever we can grab on to and we distrust the poor, hoarding on to what we already have. Even within most households there is just barely enough trust for a family to function so it's not strange when a street dweller receives absolutely no trust whatsoever. This lack of trust, along with the lack of acknowledgement were by far the hardest things about his new life, not the dirty clothes, not the discomfort of living outdoors, not even the fear of death which he had come to terms with very early on.
The fact that trust was nowhere to be found was made even harder by how clearly some things became when observing from the outside. One thing that he could see clearly was that all that valuable trust that, if shared, could solve almost any problem, was instead given to pieces of paper with imaginary meaning attached to each piece. A necessary evil or just institutionalized fear and addiction? All he could do was focus on what was in front of him. Though his first few days were filled with angst and self pity, he quickly realized he wouldn't last long that way. He would try to see his situation as a gift, a chance to see things from a different angle.
After a few weeks he tried out a few shelters but he felt that in almost every way, the atmosphere was worse than out in the wild. If trust was a rarity in society, it was a myth in the shelters. Due to overcrowding, there were a limited amount of beds available and there was really no way to guarantee a space for the night. Sometimes he would arrive hours before the doors opened only to find the line curving around the block. Fights would often erupt among those who had been turned away and on the few occasions he actually managed to get in for the night, he found himself surrounded by unimaginably desperate people. Most in the shelters were already lost to despair, depression and paranoia. They were volatile and ready to explode or break at any moment. He understood on his first night that this was not a place of healing or recuperation nor was it a place he could get his shit together. It was the end of the line. Those with homes and jobs might look at him and see a similarly desperate man, but he knew was different from the people there. Their dark thoughts were toxic, airborne and highly contagious. After a few nights, he decided that the food and bed weren't worth it, better to starve then to live like this.
Once again he found himself a wanderer of the streets. He wandered through all the side streets he could find, adding to the information in his internal navigation system. Before long he knew the entire city inside and out. Stores however were, for the most part, off limits. His denied entry didn't bother him in and of itself but it never felt good to be treated the way he was treated by security and those who alerted them. At least he didn't have much reason to enter these places of consumption. Aside from not being able to buy anything, he was finding himself less and less interested in what was for sale and imagined that even with enough money to shop as he pleased, he probably wouldn't bother.
On the occasion that he did enter a commercial establishment, he was treated as a nuisance to be disposed of immediately. The fact that he had no paper currency with imaginary value attached nor plastic cards with magic purchasing powers meant that he was rejected the right to exist within such establishments. He had to find creative ways to sneak in and out of shopping mall bathrooms to wash his face and armpits and whenever possible, his clothes. He tried hard to cover the fact that he was not a regular member of society, not because he cared what others thought but because of the inconveniences he was likely to face as a street dweller. Despite his attempts to be respectful and discreet, the shoppers he ran into would often look with disgust when he stepped out of the restroom with his messy hair, his beard and stained cloths. Sometimes they would even alert security. These were the same people who gave money to charity and taught their children to treat others the way they wished to be treated. They had never imagined how they would want to be treated in his shoes.
The only kind of store he still had any interest in were book stores. He shaved as often as he could, mainly in the hopes of passing for a regular member of society long enough to sit down with a book of his choice but there were fewer and fewer book stores these days and it was never long before the staff started to recognize him as an undesirable.
The opening of a new bookstore had become an extremely rare event since the popularization of PDFs and mobi files so he almost jumped at the opportunity to browse books without being instantly recognized as "the dude who lives under the bridge". He thought it best to wait a few days until things in the store quieted down after its grand opening. He spent a week trying to find new cloths that would not tip anyone off to his current living situation. In the end he only managed to find a shirt that was almost as worn out as the one he was wearing. It would have to do.
In order to avoid being escorted out, he first trimmed his hair and beard and made a pit stop at a gas station restroom to wash himself in the sink. When he entered the bookstore he tried extra hard to look like he might have half a year earlier when he always had a fresh pair of cloths and soap readily available. It was harder than he thought. He worried he might be stopped at any moment. Despite showering in the sink, he knew he still didn't blend in but luckily after the grand opening event the store was already understaffed and so no one noticed him.
He slipped in through the front door and veered off to the side furthest away from the cashier counter, moving as fast as he could without drawing any attention. He recently had the idea to search for some material that might help him get by now that he was left to his own resources. He picked up some books on surviving in the wild and on freegan lifestyle and hid himself in the most desolate corner of the bookstore. He kept his head down and read as quickly as he could, not knowing how long it would be before he was removed from the premises.
As he skimmed the pages he took mental notes, trying to pick up as much useful information as he could in as little time possible. He wanted more than anything to be reading a thick novel instead but when he imagined all the different ways he could make his days more livable or even more enjoyable he could easily set that desire aside. Besides, he found random books in the trash from time to time, though it was rare to find one he would have picked up under different circumstances.
Apparently, there were even more ways to stay fed then he had realized. He thought for a while of different places he might be able to secretly grow vegetables and so he tried to familiarize himself with what could grow easily in any environment. He regretted not thinking to hunt down a pen and paper before entering the store. He would definitely have trouble remembering everything but even bits and pieces of the right information could prove useful later. He read up on the do's and don'ts of dumpster diving, how, where, and what time to find the freshest food with the least trouble and which vegetables were most easily grown in city landscapes.
As he read he noticed, out of the corner of his eye, a person standing over him as if to observe him. He pretended not to notice. He pretended it was a bee that would go away if he just ignored it. It didn't go away. It spoke.
"Excuse me sir, I'm going to have to ask you to leave."
A pimple faced, long haired, college aged metal head type stood over him, half hiding behind the bookshelf. He froze for a moment, not sure how to react. The metal head looked down with a hint of pity in his eyes. Most of the people in the shelter would have gotten angry or just trudged bitterly out of the store, but he wasn't them. He tried to separate himself from his situation and keep a cool head.
"I'm really sorry. I know you're just doing your job. You know it's hard out there on the streets if you don't know what your doing. I'm trying to learn something that'll help me out there."
The metal head seemed surprised, as if the books were talking to him. He also froze, awkward and contemplating for the better part of a minute. His mouth finally opened, slowly and hesitatingly.
"You haven't been homeless long, have you?"
"If I had been, I don't think you'd want to be having this conversation with me now. You know they say there are lots of mentally ill out there, but mental illness in the streets is one of those chicken and egg things. It's hard to get good sleep, people treat you like dirt, you lose all points of reference...it changes you. I'm trying to hold on to some semblance of who I was, the good parts, or at the very least to stay decent. It's so hard to stay decent when people stop treating you like a human."
He wasn't looking for pity but he would take it. It had been a long time since he managed to get so many words in with a stranger. The stranger was obviously torn about what to do with this. He was not paid to be a good person and he might even lose his job trying to be one.
"My boss usually comes in at 3 pm. He doesn't give a shit about my problems, you can be sure he won't care about yours. If you can get out of here before 3 on weekdays, I won't bother you. I'll tell the two other guys to leave you alone too, they're cool. Don't even bother coming in on the weekends."
"Can you give me a heads up at 2:30. Lost my watch."
"Damn man....yeah, just don't get me fired."
"Will do." He smiled a real smile and the metal head walked away awkwardly.
The difference between a good day and bad day often laid in the interactions one had with various people. That hadn't changed. What had changed was the willingness of those various people to interact with him when they knew he had nothing to offer. On the days that he couldn't bring himself to smile, there was nothing, no sympathy, no remorse, no attention, no second thought. Today was a good day.
At first he felt ashamed for having to rely on others for everything but the more he thought about it, isn't that what everyone did to survive? It's easy to see yourself as independent inside a bubble where money equals food but how many of these people could survive if their money meant nothing. And weren't they just relying on a company to provide them with that money in exchange for their precious time and energy? What was the difference really? Was it somehow more noble to sacrifice oneself to those with more?
How is showing complacence to an entity with hoarded resources just in order to survive any more noble than making use of what others waste without a second thought? This idea that everyone needed to earn their living and earn it by hard work was a very convenient belief for someone who could tell themselves that things were more or less set up to always work out for those who deserve it. As someone who had the experience of things just not working out, he knew this belief to be overly simplistic. Rather than feeling guilty about scavenging, rather than feeling sorry for himself, he decided to just be and see where that led him.
He continued reading and he knew that 2:30 had come when his new pimply friend once again popped out from behind the bookshelves and cleared his throat twice. He finished the page he was reading and thinking it best to avoid the manager at all costs, within 3 minutes he was out of the store.
As he walked back to his bed under the pedestrian bridge of his nearly forgotten highway exit, he felt a sense of accomplishment. He noticed the city around him buzzing as it did from time to time. The voices of those passing by, the roar of engines, the wind blowing, a news report, the songs of buskers, shouting and laughing; the city was perpetual chaos. Still there was a certain rhythm to it all and when he could follow that rhythm, things happened. Everything had a voice, a language or dialect, and that buzzing sound, that was the thread that held it all together, the common language.
"Today was a good day." He said to himself as he closed his eyes and drifted into dreams.