“I have a hangover today!” exclaims the disturbed woman sitting next to me at breakfast. “A hangover with life.”
I know what she means, but I disagree. I am homeless and living in Washington. Homelessness is generally not the lifestyle people think. Sure, the accommodations leave a little to be desired, but the chow is, well, pretty damn good.
Fact: You can’t starve in D.C. From earliest light ’til evening, the homeless eat. Sandwiches, soups, cookies, full-blown dinners—this city is full of food—seek and ye shall eat. You just have to know how.
The first rule on the street is that you have to find a landing spot that accommodates your needs. I’ve found an awesome, sheltered location in the Dupont Circle neighborhood to sleep outdoors. My site is shared alongside two gentlemen who have two rules: “Do Not Urinate Near the Building,” and “Do Not Leave Any Cardboard or Newspapers Behind.”
Both men are named Larry. So now we are three Larrys. Our domain is kept tidy—which means the building maintenance people have nothing to complain about. The Latino housekeepers who clean the office buildings by night greet me when I arrive each evening and, if need be, they help me find a piece of cardboard for my bunk. There are people like that all over the city, if you know where to look.
Six a.m. I gain consciousness and go across the street to take a pee.
Usually, I’ve slept pretty well. The only disturbances happen because the “P Street Beach”—a known gay/bi cruising area—happens to be my back yard. Cars pass by at all hours of the night and on into the dawn. I hear unintelligible voices and the sounds of energetic footsteps. Some weekend nights, I have been unsettled to find two men groping each other at my bedside. No regard for the homeless. Six a.m. comes early.
I fold up my personal effects and place them in my shoulder bag, pick up the cardboard, and take a 10-minute stroll to Miriam’s Kitchen, a food kitchen run by Western Presbyterian Church, not far from George Washington University.
In the basement of the modern Gothic church, I consume a large breakfast of scrambled eggs, grits, cereal, juice, fruit, and coffee. Breakfast is served year-round to more than 100 people, Monday through Friday. Afterward, a significant part of my morning is spent reading a copy of the Washington Post that I get from a box if I have a quarter, a trash can or someone’s front stoop if I don’t. I used to like observing the workaday expressions of the crowds crossing the park at Washington Circle, but ever since the circle’s been under construction, I’ve been heading straight to Lafayette Park instead.
Midday, I hike over to Borders Books at 18th and L Streets to use the lavatory. It’s a nice, friendly place where many of my homeless compatriates spend pleasant hours reading a book or newspaper, or maybe napping. There are chairs everywhere in the bookstore. The employees are indifferent and do not seem to care who is in the store as long as there is not a problem. I have been able to read a complete novel without being disturbed. Borders is definitely homeless-friendly.
Somewhere around 11, “Sandy,” a sweetheart of a woman in her early 50s, travels through the Farragut Square area giving away brown-bag lunches, coffee, and her written story of how her life has changed and how she’s found God.
Although a lot of locals can’t abide summer in D.C., it’s a wonderful season to sit in Lafayette Park across from the White House. Saturday is culinary prime time. Food is served—and served again. It begins with the minister from Pennsylvania, a white man distributing cold ham sandwiches. Next, a gentleman with an Islands accent delivers egg-and-bacon rolls. He is followed by an African-American man who brings his homemade chili. As Saturday winds down, local churches dish out big meals of fried chicken, rice and beans, vegetables, and dessert. A Girl Scout troop shows up occasionally to deliver a generous bag of toiletries to each homeless person. I have been blessed on Saturdays.
Days when the weather is stormy, I plan to stay warm and dry. The Martin Luther King Library helps—it’s open seven days a week. I can read or use the Internet; I even have an e-mail address. When I have $1.10, I sometimes ride the Metro for a while, but for no more than three hours—otherwise the fare card will expire and I will run into a huge problem. (The first time I went on a journey, I fell asleep and rode the train for nearly six hours. When I tried to exit the station, no such luck. After I told the station manager the truth, he let me leave.)
Waiting in a food line can be very unpleasant, because homeless folks can be less than diplomatic. They want what they want when they want it. People push, nudge, and crush each other in the name of food. I have seen fights, with people using knives to claim a sandwich.
Most of the time, though, order is maintained and stomachs are stuffed. Every evening of the year, the McKenna’s Wagon food truck arrives at McPherson Square by around 6:30. Right across the street from the restaurant Georgia Brown’s, more than 100 people stand in line for soup, and peanut butter or bologna sandwiches. The volunteers make certain everyone in line is served. Occasionally, they give food out two or three times to the people who show up very hungry.
Once I have eaten dinner, I use the restroom at the Hilton at 16th and K Streets. The side entrance is open. My path is designed to avoid hotel security. The sign on the men’s room door reads, “For Hotel Guests Only.” Because I am a white male and dressed like a sightseer, I can go into many locations other homeless people cannot. While walking the city, I am often approached for a cigarette or change. Now and then I wish I had a magic sign that read “Homeless—don’t ask!”
For the end of the day, I usually head to Dupont Circle. “The Circle” enlivens me. Occasionally, I stop in Crown Books for a brief time. They do not have chairs to sit in. They keep the bathroom doors locked. Crown is not homeless-friendly.
Between 8:30 and 9:30, 12-step-type meetings of AA, NA, and Debtors Anonymous are held at the Triangle Club, St. Matthews, and the Dupont Circle Club. The meetings have plenty of stories, hugs, and coffee. And sometimes cookies. Leaving these groups after hearing the stories many people have to tell, I feel less sorry for myself. I don’t have it that bad. And I didn’t need that last cookie.
At the end of the day, I locate some cardboard and begin to organize my post. One sheet, three blankets, and one layer of plastic cover keep me warm should the temperature drop. I scope out my area, check on the two Larrys, and descend into serenity.
During the course of the day, I ask myself all sorts of questions about the events I witness. For example, why do people take pictures of bums on park benches or the homeless persons pushing their carts? How do they become part of the scenery?
My life has two roads. One is comfort, and the other is pain. Comfort is street experience made gentle; pain is no more than a nuisance. “Hangover with life?” Nah, most days, I feel very sober. And pretty well-fed. CP