Monday, January 22, 2007
The city is not an inferno
On the first sunny day in weeks I drove across I-35 to sit under the moon tower at Chicon and East 15th Street. A busy intersection with a bus stop bench at each of its four corners and two competing convenient stores, the site bustled with activity and I sat down on one of those four benches opposite a forty-something man drinking a forty ounce beer in a brown paper bag. He told me I just missed the bus. I said it was not my intent to ride the bus and he replied the same.
I inquired as to his purpose for sitting on the bus stop bench if he did not intend to get on the bus. The man countered that he hoped I would not be put off, but he was a bum, and did I mind if he drank his beer in front of me? I said no, as long as he didn’t mind my cigarette and he turned me down when I offered him one. Drinking was his problem, and I should quit smoking.
With that humble introduction we passed two hours on that bench with hardly a lapse in conversation. My project intrigued him and as the man helped me observe the neighboring activity he told me stories from his life and how he came to make the city his home. He launched into his dissertation with this one thesis: being a bum is the hardest job he’s ever had.
Episodes of paranoia riddled the man’s thoughts but I suppose that comes with the territory when one makes a home on the street. First he said that he cannot sit at any one bus stop for too long because if a police car drives by and sees him on the same bench for an hour they would indict him for public intoxication or loitering. I wondered where a man without a home is supposed to sit and enjoy a cold beer, alcoholic or not. He told me about cameras in stoplights and cameras at bus stops. I guess I always knew of the possibility of cameras but like the moon towers I was oblivious to their existence until today. The man sat at this stop because there weren’t any cameras here and he could drink his beer. As time passed I noticed that most of the people perched on the surrounding benches were not getting on the buses, and the people coming out of the convenient stores came out with beers in brown paper bags and joined the ranks of us loiterers. What this area of east Austin lacked in public spaces the public substituted with the city bus benches. It seemed I’d inadvertently come into contact with a significant object in the urban landscape of east Austin: the homes of the homeless.
So simple are the who, what, when, where, why of this urban object. Who: the homeless or anyone who just wants a place to relax outside with a beer. What: a place to sit, which happens to be a bus stop. When: all day every day. Where: any bus stop without cameras. Why: because being homeless is the hardest job you can have and everyone needs a place to pass the time.
We talked about the government, and how when he votes for Hillary Clinton in the upcoming election it will mark the second time he’s voted in his life. He told me about serving in the military and living all across the United States, how he hates Austin because it has only brought him bad luck, how his bad luck involves a woman hyped up on methamphetamines, and that he used to make pistons for $851 a week before drinking became a full time job. He showed me the seventeen stitches he got last week when a gang at the bus stop up at 38 1/2 and I-35 beat him up for his military sleeping bag. He told me about panhandling and that he can make fifteen to twenty dollars in a day from complete strangers who happen to be feeling generous. If I wanted a real experience to write about, I should try panhandling because you can meet some crazy people that way. I said I’d try it then and there, but apparently 15th Street is off limits. We talked about Quentin Tarantino films and his alleged 5,000 movie DVD collection in a storage unit in Dallas. He read seven books last month and can finish a novel in two days. He tried to quote Dante but couldn’t remember the Italian unless he wrote it down, so when I gave him my notebook he filled it in with some words I didn’t know: “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate,” said it meant “Abandon all hope ye who enter here,” and I believed him. He was right. He then chastised me for not asking his name yet, and I said he hadn’t asked for mine either. So I came to know him as Roger.
How apropos that Roger should admire Dante’s Inferno. The man had in one sitting relayed to me his own past initial joy and final damnation and I could not ignore the somewhat glorified metaphor of the bus stop as his own personal gate of hell. After all, it epitomized his lack of direction or reprieve from a life of unending boredom and untapped potential, not to mention his enslavement to alcohol abuse and an unsympathetic government system. Roger’s bleak outlook on his life situation recalled Inferno’s Opportunists: the souls of the people who in life did not commit evil deeds, as Roger had never even gotten a misdemeanor and did not believe in injuring another person to boost his own prosperity, but also lost sight of any valid or righteous cause for living. In no way would I condemn Roger as a lost soul in Hell Proper; rather, he stood outside the gate with an astounding insight of his position and an immense accountability for how he got there.
I did not tell Roger what I was thinking, only that I was enjoying the time spent observing people when they didn’t know they were being watched. The longer I sat and observed the more validation I got for my own thesis. Nearly every person littering those four benches sat there only to sit. The buses came by and stopped, but the people never got on them. They merely took a moment to slip their brown-bagged beverage behind their back, only to pull it back out after the bus had moved on without them. They were people with nowhere to go and only a bus stop bench to sit on. In this way, the bench as an urban object connected a demographic of people I had never come into full contact with before today.
I was feeling pretty fucking smart with all this Dante’s-Gates-of-Hell-metaphor-for-an-East-Austin-bus-stop shit when Roger went into the convenient store to buy another beer with the two dollars I’d given him for his help on the project. A cop drove by for the second time and I was glad Roger had gone inside at that moment. I guess I don’t look much like a threatening loiterer. Roger came back to the bench and I told him about the cop, that I’d feel terrible if he got in trouble because of me, and that we should both probably move on. He fellated my ego by saying this was the best afternoon of intelligent conversation he’d had in a while, and could I spare just another eighty cents?
I was handing over the last two bucks in my wallet not knowing whether to feel like a hypocrite when my friend Roger uttered the sentence that would repute every piece of this bullshit pompous self-glorifying essay on Dante’s bus stop I had so proudly constructed in my mind. “Emily, I’ve got to tell you because I think you should learn from this: I was just panhandling you.” I said, “Wait, no, we were just talking.” And he said, “Yes, but how much money did you give me? All the money in your wallet. You didn’t have to give me anything. I would have talked to you whether you gave me the money or not. I just thought you should know what I did to you and learn from it.” I had to give him credit; he had to work for those four dollars. And with that I walked away completely dismantled and wondering how many other people he’d talked out of four dollars on a lonely bus stop bench.