Search Lobsterland

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Welcome to the Jungle

You never know where Corinna will take you. Who you'll meet in her company. You could even run into someone in a suit.

But not this time. Riding toward her house, I was looking for her because we'd aimed to rendezvous and ride together a bit. Riding along [redacted]*, I saw her free ride bike chained to a light pole.

But no sigh of the Poet Laureate herself. I called her cell, looking around, wondering if she'd jump out and startle me.

She told me she'd be right there, and she was. Where she appeared from, you wouldn't expect. Not if there's a warm bed with a flushing toilet really nearby waiting for you, anyway.

The terrain she led me to was, to my eye, forbidding. It's not like rock climbing, but I get cranky riding my bike on gravel roads, and this wasn't even a place I could hike my bike to.

"You okay with this?" she asked. "There's no suing the city on this one."

The thing I'm suing the city over, that's a hazard that's in such plain sight their official position is it's my fault for not paying attention. This is the opposite, more apparent danger than you're probably in unless you quit paying attention and listening to the advice of those who have made the trip a few times.

But I was curious. I've meet a few of Corinna's 'homeless' friends. I put it in quotes because they have homes, they're just not houses and apartments.

What I arrived at was, basically, a hobo jungle. A latter day Hooverville, a cluster of tents, debris and hoarded cast-off goods.

I was offered dinner, and despite wondering how it was prepared, I didn't want to be rude. Plus, I was actually very hungry, ten-ish miles in the saddle and I'd skipped lunch. Dinner was mac & cheese with ham chunks and a bowl of chicken & dumpling stew, both gone cold.

Cold but actually quite tasty, and about when I was impressed at the cheffery of men living on the ragged edges of society, I learned that this was food dropped by a charity, a charity who had been told a couple of extra mouths were on hand this evening. A charity I plan to give generously to.

Derek** wanted us to eat in his tent. Which was set on pallets he'd laid after leveling the ground. He sunk a 55 gallon drum halfway in the ground for a fireplace, by itself a fairly backbreaking task, and he was talking about lining it with stones. He had a structure he hung his cookware on, and various other amenities, most of them acquired through remarkable resourcefulness and pathologically hard work.

We ate on a couch (he also has an easy chair by the fire pit) that took up one end of his large tent opposite a proper bed, in between which were several candles for light. Derek is a veteran of the first Gulf War, and I don't know exactly what chains he is evading, but he describes his abode as 'Freedom.' Yes, with a capital F.

He told about the shelter for the homeless, fifty guys in a room, no privacy, no smoking, no beer, etc., and I had to say, being in his tent felt a lot more comfortable than that sounds. He said when he talked to his (understandably worried) parents, he asked, 'Where did I run off to when I was a kid?' The woods, was the answer. I could dig that, I remember the woods around Turkey Creek being a refuge when I was growing up, and if I'd been more susceptible to that Army recruiter in 1988, who knows? Maybe I'd be living out there with Derek.

His camp-mates were older, also veterans, but from America's adventures in Vietnam. I didn't hear as much of their story, but I'm not sure they aren't among the many opiate addicts that war generated. Maybe not, it could have been just more PTSD. While I was sitting in their tent discussing the mistakes we'd all made as rebellious teens, my cell phone rang, my daughters with the usual bedtime routine.

When I got off, feeling self-conscious, I apologized for the interruption. One of the elder statesmen shrugged and said "It goes with the territory." He then told me about his five kids, eight grandkids, and how his mother had cursed him by wishing he'd have kids as hell-bent as he was.

Which is to say, he talked about his family the same way anyone else would. That's what's surprising about eating dinner in a hobo jungle (okay, these guys seem pretty settled, but train tracks are nearby and if any of them decided to relocate, I'm sure hopping a freight would be as logical as anything else): it's just like visiting anyone else at home. Derek wanted to show us all the great things he'd acquired and done to set up his home, all the upgrades he planned.

And he knows, for a fact, that sooner or later the law will roust him and he'll get away with what he can carry, if that. All his hard work will get the bulldozer and after he gets out of lockup, he'll do it all over again.

It's so easy to judge men like Derek. He's been to prison, I know, though he didn't say what for. Except for working awfully hard at homesteading a property he can never keep, he doesn't have a job. But if you visit him at home, he's no different from a department head, a shift manager, a graphic designer.

The pics that accompany this post, well, one of them was from the same night we visited Derek. All were from adventures I've had lately riding with the Poet Laureate of Lobster Land, all from things that, like this hobo jungle, I wouldn't have seen if I hadn't asked her where the Heart of America Bridge was back in October...

*I won't say what street this was for obvious reasons. These gentlemen made us guests in their homes, and no matter how slight the risk that information gleaned from this blog would be used to their disadvantage, I won't risk it.

**No real names/nicknames here for the same reasons; if these men wanted notice they wouldn't be so well hidden.

No comments: