Saturday, July 29, 2006

Confessions of a Teenage "Bum"

[From my submission to the Voice of Olympia]

Sometimes I am struck by the nostalgia I feel for the way that French fries wore themselves into the carpet at the Denny’s in Parkland. I distinctly remember the sickly smell of cheap food, battered and deep fat fried, and how my empty stomach was comforted by the repugnance my nose felt for the slop. Denny’s, noisy and filthy as it was, was my safe haven for the nine months that I was homeless. Whenever I didn’t have a couch to crash on, and when the weather was too miserable to sleep outside, I’d panhandle enough money for a bottomless, gut-burning cup of coffee and stay up all night writing and smoking hand-rolled cigarettes.

I first ran away from home when I was fifteen. I had started using drugs, fighting – sometimes violently – with my parents, and skipping school. As I became more rebellious, my parents became stricter, and our arguments escalated.

One night I finally got fed up, packed a backpack, and climbed out my bedroom window. Things had been particularly ugly at home, and my parents, foreseeing the possibility that I might run away, had taken my shoes. I walked barefoot for several miles to a bonfire party that a friend was throwing in the woods. I got drunk and slept outside. Two days later, a friend in Yelm took me into her home and let me stay for a month and two weeks.

My parents tracked me down, took me to court, and had me placed on the “Youth-At-Risk” program. The judge ordered me to return home, obey a curfew, speak respectfully to adults, keep my grades up in school, avoid certain friends… The list of rules was lengthy, and failure to obey would result in being charged with “contempt of court”, a misdemeanor.

As my term in the “Youth-At-Risk” program came to an end, my parents motioned the court to renew my participation. I had already racked up two counts of contempt for breaking the rules, and the tension between my parents and I had grown thick. I decided that I would not tolerate living at home any longer. I packed a small backpack and a gym bag, snuck out my window again, and hitchhiked to Tacoma.

I was aware that I couldn’t go back after leaving. I was still court ordered to remain at home, and if I had returned my parents would have reported me to the police.

At first I was overwhelmed by the sense of finality, and loneliness. My safety net had fallen away and I felt as though I was suspended mid-air, grasping tightly to a thin line of fraying yarn that prevented me from falling. Anxiety pushed stiffly outward from within my chest, hampering the flow of air into my lungs. I was on my own, and the noisy, sinister world and an uncertain future loomed overhead, shrouded in the cold Pacific rain.

I learned to panhandle pretty quickly. I panhandled for food, for cigarettes, and for pot. Panhandling is a lot like hitchhiking. You have to be in the right spot. You have to look un-intimidating. Occasionally someone will screech their tires driving past or throw something at you while you are trying to thumb a ride. Sometimes people will make rude remarks or spit at you when you try to spange money for lunch. At least with hitchhiking there is a sense of adventure. Panhandling was just humiliating.

I was lucky to have a number of friends in the Tacoma area, and usually had places to stay for one or two nights at a time. Most of my friends put me up out of pity, rather than out of any sense that I would get my life together. I was for them a likeable but rather stupid pot-head teenager who had little potential. Occasionally a person that I would crash with for the night would try to talk sense into me. What were my plans? They would ask. How was I going to start making something of myself? The conversations were generally more embarrassing and guilt ridden than productive for me, and I would talk my way around the questions. From a distance of fifty miles, and without having spoken to them in months, I could feel my parents’ disappointment tugging at my gut.

On my seventeenth birthday, a friend took me out to stay at his cabin on Anderson Island. His father was building a house on the far end of the island, and Scott offered me a day’s work at five bucks an hour to do some pick and shovel work and to clean up around the construction site. It was good, hard work, and he paid me forty dollars at the end of the day. This was the most money I had held at one time in my nine months of homelessness, and I was elated. We stopped at the island market on the way back to Scott’s house and bought fresh tomatoes, herbs, and sausage, as well as a package of pasta to make spaghetti for my birthday. Scott made me the best spaghetti dinner I’ve ever eaten.

I had never bought my own groceries before. Everything I had was unearned, a gift from someone like my parents or the people who gave me change when I panhandled. The spaghetti was good, made from scratch with fresh tomatoes and herbs, but the experience of having earned it was far better.

A month later, my buddy Jeremy let me move into his camper out in the woods on the outskirts of Yelm. I started getting a lot of work splitting firewood and digging ditches. I had quit smoking pot, and was starting to get my energy back. I made enough money to start renting, and I got my first full time job three days before my eighteenth birthday.

In the time since I was homeless, I've worked two years as an EMT for an ambulance company, graduated from the WA State Fire Training Academy, spent three years as a volunteer firefighter (and I nearly got hired on a professional department), and owned a home that I later sold to pay for college. I've spent the last three years as a live-in staff person at the Bread & Roses Catholic Worker Community.

The greatest gift that anyone has ever offered me was the gift of work, the gift of pride in work and the beauty of hard earned food. I was once homeless, hungry, and depressed. I had alienated my family and relegated myself to what I once thought to be the lowest class of society. There were few people who saw any value in me, but their contributions to my life made a tremendous impact on me, and through me impacted the lives of the patients I served as an EMT and the people I serve now at Bread & Roses. I've lost touch with most of the people who put me up as a teenager. If I could visit any of them now, particularly Scott, I'd immediately drag them to downtown Olympia to see the work I do at Bread & Roses. They can take credit for it.

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