Living on the road my friend,
Was gonna keep you free and clean
Now you wear your skin like iron,
Your breath as hard as kerosene.
- Townes Van Zandt, “Poncho and Lefty”
Since my sudden and unexpected return from China I’ve lived between the cracks. I’m not sure when, if ever, I’ll return to full strength and how long I should wait to see if I do. A majority of my recovery happened in Chicago and then a trip down south for my birthday seems to have evolved into several months of homeless wandering in Austin. Much as I’d hoped to on day do a stint as a couch surfing troubadour, so far I’ve been strapped to a software project. In a down economy, I can’t complain.
Regardless, I’ve found myself living this way for quite a few months now and, despite not being able to provide my hosts the joyful songslinging Kai I had hoped to offer, I have learned a few tricks on how to avoid a skin of iron and, most certainly, kerosene breath.
None of this would be possible without a network of amazing, loving friends. You get those by years of being a genuinely caring person, knowing how to listen sincerely and attentively, and seeking to improve yourself every day. This happened to me by accident and, honestly, involved a fair amount of sacrifice along the way. Definitely worth it.
Acts of Service
Little things make all the difference. I wash every dish I see immediately after eating and try never to leave a house without cleaning even the dishes they’ve left out. I make beds. I neatly fold sheets I’ve used. I fix doorknobs. I install screens. I run vacuum cleaners when they’re not around. I clean toilets. You can’t always do everything, but it adds up.
People don’t always notice these touches, but they develop a sense that their houses are cleaner and nicer when you’re around. They’ll attribute it to your magical inner glow and charm. Don’t tell them.
And yes, if you’re not used to it, at first it feels like work. Now it’s so automatic I enjoy it and I’m humming and running through my next project in my head.
The trick to being a homeless person in America is to not look like a homeless person. Even people on the street know this. The simplest trick is to shave your head and/or make sure you shave or trim up your beard every day (women get a free pass on this). Whatever you do, it just needs to look attended to and “on purpose”. It makes a big difference in how people see you. I can tell people over and over that I’m a jobless, homeless, loser without a car and they still fall in love with me. Mostly, it’s because I’m still clean and smell good.
Clothes help too, and I’ve been loving the current scheme. I paid a lot for three really nice shirts and two pairs of pants that dry instantly and look good. I hand wash them in sinks and dry them overnight and they still look new seven months later. Worth the cash. (Details on exactly what I use and how my tiny collection of material things has evolved in a future post.)
I try my best to be invisible. When someone comes home I want it to look as much as possible like no one’s visiting. My secret fantasy is that they’ll feel a little sad when there’s no sign of me and extra happy to see me when I’m around. I have no idea if this works.
The trick is to keep your bag small, organized, loaded and hidden. In the morning I usually have to pull out my clothes bag and ziplock of toiletries. Sometimes I have to spread things around a little to find what I need. When I’m done, I immediately put everything back into its place in the bag (which is automatic and effortless if everything has an assigned place) and tuck it away behind a couch, behind a door, in a back room etc. If I’m using sheets I fold or roll them and hide them as well. If I can’t hide them I try to make them look tidy in neat piles. If you’re really good (I do this when shooting interviews in people’s homes) you take quick photos on your phone of the space before you arrived and return it to exactly that state each morning. It’s more fun if you replace nicknacks at just the right angle and mush pillows exactly as they were.
The Secret House Rules
Everyone has secret rules about exactly how their house should operate. They usually don’t know what they are until they’re broken. You’ll discover most of them by “screwing up”. The trick here is to not take it personally, but apologize and make a note. I keep lists. When I leave a house I go through the list: red towel on the left, folded in thirds. Blue towel on right in halves. Window open in bathroom, only halfway, shower curtain open all the way to dry, drain closed to prevent monsters from coming up through the pipes. The AC is on super low, interior door closed to not waste AC. AC off. AC on high. One lamp left on to make it looks like someone’s home. Door ajar for cat. Door closed for cat. The laundry soap cup must be left full of water.
Avoid the Kerosene. It’s been easy for me, having nearly died from CO, to not do much drinking. I’d already decided to cut alcohol completely when I flew to China to become a superfit superhuman anyway. I’ve also been lucky enough to know better than to pick up any addictive habits over the years. All around this means that despite my injury I’m still smelling good, waking up at least as well as always, staying healthy and not getting distracted from a larger sense of purpose. Which leads to the penultimate point.
Having passion and purpose will make all of this go. Why are you floating around instead of working a stable job and knowing you have a blender and soy milk in the morning? What are you going to learn, or make, with this time? That’s what people are going to want to hear about and support as you visit. And there needs to be progress so that the next time you stop by they can see how far you’ve come. This is your return on their investment.
Most importantly, respect the gift you are being given by your hosts along the way. You are living on other people’s hard work and generosity. Give them something in return: your enthusiasm, mission and joy.
So that’s it. Become a better person every day, pack a tiny bag of only what you need and start with a mission you are passionate about. Not a bad plan for life in general, really.