On The Road, with whatever Village It Takes to keep The Road passable

Construe the capitalization however the fuck you like. Does it take any of the Village People to maintain The Road? No, it isn’t that fabulous. In one of life’s small mercies, though, it doesn’t take Steve Hartman, either. Be thankful; I am.

No need to be thankful for anything more right now. A parasitic hipster shitbird by the name of Rikki Hall has gone on the record for having perhaps the most fine-ass sense of style in New Zealand. Straight from the horse’s ass: “I take style tips from everything, even kids and homeless people.” Having been intermittently homeless myself for over three years, I should offer some #TeshTips of my own about the high-functioning homeless, specifically, that we do not take style tips from the homeless. Homelessness is more than enough trouble without looking the part, okay? It’s pretty fucking straightforward. It’s bad news to be lumped together with the incompetently addicted and mentally ill. It’s even worse news to be lumped together with cutely ironic hipsters and cryptohipster traveling kids who choose to be derelict as a voluntary lifestyle.

By the way, stateside, this bad news dates back at least to The Jungle: Jurgis Rudkis, physically and socioeconomically ruined by his short tenure as a meatpacker, found himself unable to compete with professional beggars on the streets of Chicago in his time of destitution. He just didn’t look ruined enough.

These days, this fraud is an international Commonwealth and Friends sensation. In addition to pseudohomeless, pseudo-Maori Rikki Hall, New Zealand has been infested by Jesse Hamilton and Lorielle Vidot, proud cat-parents to ten-month-old Jango, the hipster couple who are pretending to abandon their four-bedroom house in order to bum around the country in their car. Again, I’ve slept in my car more nights than I can count, and not entirely by choice. Sleeping in my car is one of the easiest decisions I’ve been able to make to keep myself from going flat broke. It’s the cushion that keeps me a few hundred dollars in the black. I’m lucky enough to have a dividend-bearing brokerage account worth several thousand dollars, but I damn well do not have a four-bedroom house to which I can return, with or without any girlfriends and kittens gracing my life at the moment, when I get tired of pulling into highway rest areas. I’m also damn well thankful that I’m able to afford enough gas to drive to rest areas regularly, so that I’m not forced to expose my living arrangement to nosy, hostile municipal cops. San Francisco and Palo Alto are sundown towns for homeless people trying to keep themselves warm, dry, and reasonably safe from violent prowlers by sleeping in their cars. Believe me, being under the hands-off protection of state highway patrols, rest area cleaning crews, civilian passersby, and my literal fellow-travelers is a huge blessing in these circumstances. Most of the alternatives are hellish. The only one I can think of offhand that is reasonably safe and under morally decent police supervision is the Market East regional rail station in Philadelphia, where SEPTA and Philadelphia municipal cops occasionally walk through to make sure that no one has gone dangerously crazy. I’ve seen them keep some of the most overtly disturbed people and everyone else on other benches nearby safe without hassling anyone. I’ve also seen NJ Transit cops patrolling Penn Station bark at the homeless to get up and get moving right now while their NYPD colleagues stand by, apparently afraid to start an interagency beef by telling the transit cops to take a chill pill.

These are examples of real homeless people and real homelessness. With luck it’s tolerable, not a recurrent nightmare of official oppression and imminent threats from all directions. But for the grace of God it would be much, much worse. I’ve overstayed the posted time limits at rest areas a number of times, but very thankfully, I’ve never had highway patrolmen give me the bum’s rush. As it happens, the only time to date I’ve been asked to leave a rest area was this morning, at Grass Lake on US 97. A maintenance guy came up to my window and told me that his crew would be closing the rest area in ten minutes to make emergency plumbing repairs on the restrooms. He told me not to rush, though, and that I might as well fill up the plastic jugs in the passenger foot well from the outdoor tap. He was a really nice fellow, genuinely apologetic about the closure, and he wasn’t the least bit snotty about the jugs; he said he noticed them and figured I might want some water for the road.

It’s scary to think about how that interaction might have gone with the wrong Chippie. The CHP has recently gotten into scandal on account of its officers committing aggravated battery (without indictment, of course) on a woman who had been behaving erratically on a freeway shoulder and falsely arresting (again, without indictment) an engineer from the Chula Vista Fire Department for refusing to move his fire truck during an incident command pissing match at the scene of an injury accident. My own experiences with the CHP have been overwhelmingly positive. But for the grace of God.

The Kiwis discussed in that link are certifiable asshats. The question is why. I can think of three plausible explanations, none of them mutually exclusive. One is that they’re truly too sheltered and privileged to notice that their behavior is offensive mockery verging on fighting words. Call it the Marie Antoinette Complex. The second is that they’re amoral mercenaries looking for an easy buck. The third is that they’re emotionally predatory psychopaths. They’re probably some combination of the three.

Although they’re probably much more solvent and affluent, they remind me of Joe Dirtbag and the Family Shrew, who apparently consider it morally conscionable to leave me sleeping in my car or in uninhabitable farm outbuildings on 28-degree nights–at times when I was doing unpaid farm work for them–because they were too butthurt over years-old emotional offenses that I committed against them in the course of responding on the fly to their unhinged emotional belligerence. The exact nuances of their moral reasoning in these circumstances, the precise balance of sincere upset, principled vindictiveness, and awkwardness, can be analyzed to no end, but whatever inevitably tentative conclusion one reaches about the mix of their motives doesn’t change the fundamental truth that their behavior towards me was exactly the sort of treacherous immorality that fair housing laws are crafted to forbid in formal landlord-tenant relationships. They’ve made a number of comments to the effect of my being a free spirit, rather than a sporadically housed vagrant with a spotty work history, one that their refusal to pay me greatly and articulably aggravated. I infer truths that they would never utter themselves because they’re serial dissemblers.

I should be clear on one thing since I’m on the subject. I am absolutely not the only person to end up in equivalent circumstances. I can think offhand of at least two age peers who have told me about similar treachery affecting their own housing situations. One of them was evicted from a marijuana grow in North Mendocino County for getting pregnant. (This was a completely separate situation from my crazy quasi-boss in East County, the religious nut who evicted her own tenant because “she couldn’t keep her legs shut.”) Another, a longtime friend, had a possessive, paranoid dirtbag boyfriend who repeatedly kicked her out of her house in Philadelphia (she was paying the rent, anyway) in the middle of the night, forcing her to drive dozens of miles into the suburbs to take emergency shelter with relatives. This fellow was subsequently arrested in an FBI drug raid. During the course of his trial for pharmaceutical trafficking, my friend moved in with relatives near Denver and broke up with the dirtbag for good. After a month or two, her ex tagged her in a bunch of old photos of the two of them on Facebook, implying that they were back together. He did this on his own to retaliate against my friend, who was livid when her relatives confronted her about these apparently new photos of her with her dirtbag ex. She wasn’t able to convince them that he had gone behind her back; they summarily evicted her on the basis that she had violated their trust by getting back together with him after promising to make a new start in Colorado, and she ended up living in hotels for several weeks while she looked for apartments of her own. I think she told me the truth about this, in any event. I’m not entirely sure, since she’s apparently told some little lies about her romantic interests in the past, but I do know that everything I’ve heard about her ex from various sources with equally diverse self-interests indicates that the ex was and is majorly fucked up. Other people were accusing this guy of being shady and unethical long before she was. By this point, I’m fully convinced that he’s out-of-control hell on wheels.

A third friend of mine shacked up with a similarly possessive dirtbag in NorCal. He wasn’t nearly such a hot mess, but he was still bad news. She was scared to talk to me in public when we ran into each other around town if he was anywhere around, and I could tell that she wasn’t playing scared. This dude was genuinely frightening her with his paranoia and possessiveness. His big thing was accusing her of having affairs; at one point she told me that she thought me might be projecting his own philandering onto her. The Philadelphia druggist behaved similarly, traveling on his own to a bikini contest in Key West while telling my friend that he didn’t feel comfortable with her living around male friends at college.

The point is this: for many Americans, housing arrangements are mediated by predators through private or quasi-private channels where the force of landlord-tenant law is dubious. People caught in these arrangements can easily end up being put out on the street for no other reason than their pissing off the wrong antisocial predator or moralistic shithead. The circumstances of my own original falling-out with Joe Dirtag and the Family Shrew are too complicated to be worth explaining in detail again right now, but in retrospect, I sincerely believe that they gave me a tenuous but fully bona fide claim on domestic violence support services, primarily for rehousing. I also believe, again in retrospect, that I could have made a good-faith application for rehousing assistance at my last long-term apartment on account of the hostile, paranoid behavior of the building manager and the pervasive criminality of the property management company from which I was renting.

Avoiding situations like these require both good judgment and money. High-end private landlords and property management companies know better than to pull shit like that. With luck, their midrange counterparts are equally scrupulous, having been equally stirred by the fear of God and plaintiff’s attorneys. The low-end ones, in the United States especially, are often nightmarish clusterfucks. It’s the Wild West, an environment of pervasive lawlessness and moral hazard consistently benefiting the powerful at the expense of the powerless.

I’m convinced, in part from personal experience, that the predatory behavior of American landlords is responsible for widespread subclinical PTSD among tenants. I call it subclinical because it usually goes away once someone starts consistently enforcing landlord-tenant laws, like any civilized society would do. It isn’t the heavy shit that one might have seen in Nam, but neither is it the sort of heavy shit that one might very calmly and smugly lie about having seen in Nam. As they say at VA PTSD pension recertification exams, pulling the list of symptoms from their breast pockets, “Let me tell you about my trauma.” (Eric Shinseki was never what was wrong with that outfit. If he were brought back to spend the rest of his productive life failing to reform the VA, he still wouldn’t be the problem.) What I’m talking about is low-level, cumulative trauma resulting from structurally predatory socioeconomic arrangements. It may not look like much from the outside, but it’s very real, and it’s pervasive in the lower and lower-middle classes. One of the most useful ways to distinguish the United States from more equitably run First World countries (i.e., not Spain these days) is probably its wildly elevated levels of cumulative trauma among its lower classes. I haven’t mentioned prisons yet, but we have a few of them stateside, and the literature on their wake of clinical psychological trauma, excluding the subclinical forms that I believe just haven’t been properly catalogued yet, is powerfully damning. We might think of American prisons as exceptionally horrific property management companies. And no, I’m not entirely tongue-in-cheek here.

The Kiwi hipster derpfest isn’t just a function of hipsters being asshats. Much of it is a function of wanton dereliction of journalistic duty. This is a natural state of much journalism the world over, maybe even most of it. Everything goes to clickbait. All fades to yellow, doesn’t it, Mr. Hearst? It’s worth considering that the hipster, as popularly imagined, may be a category error established by unethical journalists in service to their own laziness and greed. It’s certainly bizarre to use a single neologism to describe everyone from craft brewers and woodworkers to utterly masturbatory shitheads like Rikki Hall and young Jango’s kitty parents. Even as a purely stylistic shorthand, it’s overbroad, covering everyone from these Kiwi fuckheads to every douchebag walking around Los Feliz in a faux-bespoke T-shirt and a bowler hat. But it isn’t a mysterious linguistic sloppiness. Hipsters are of painfully obvious use as a marketing demographic, and marketing demographics are designed to be as broad as possible without losing all focus. Ultimately, it’s about maintaining Dov Charney in a sexual playground where he has license to whip it out and jack it in front of visiting business reporters, like a spazztastic LBJ. Other, better put-together shanda fur die goyim types are downstream of that goodness, too. Right, counselor? Hey, I may be only a quarter Jewish, but I’m a hundred percent embarrassed by some of that shit. #TeshTips: The billing rate of a lawyer not currently focusing on criminal defense is roughly proportional to his deserving another of Mel Gibson’s discourses about the Jews. Cry for someone else, though, Argentinian or not: counsel charges full rate for all screeds against people of all creeds.

Journalism about hipsters is a similarly mercenary and sleazy affair. If it weren’t, it would probably be journalism about something other than hipsters. A brewer who insists on wearing a bowler hat and an American Apparel T-shirt to sell his beer to other douchebags in Los Feliz is still a douchebag, but at least he’s a douchebag practicing a real craft. Driving around New Zealand with a cat and gawking at the poors, Jacob Riis-style, is not a craft. Shit, this is worse than Jacob Riis. His photographs at least had a redeeming reformative effect by exposing the atrocious conditions of Manhattan’s tenements. He could be an intrusive fuckwad, but at least he wasn’t all like, check it, I’m dressed like a bum, mate, cool shit, cat.

These are signs of the times. Riis was one, too, because we’re in the new Gilded Age. We’re also in the new Great Depression. The chronologies don’t necessarily align the same way each time around; that’s one of the scary things about trying to discern what troubles or, God willing, things other than troubles await us over the next event horizon. It’s maddening to try to find useful business, industrial, and infrastructural analogies from the Great Depression–J. C. Penney, the DC-3, Union Pacific’s early high-speed train sets, the WPA–because it’s basically impossible to predict which innovations will actually take, but it’s easy to name the cultural analogy of a downwardly mobile population taking to the road. Or, if you wish, to The Road. The first nation to go to the poor house in the automobile is going there again, although it’s true that an automobile can’t go to the poor house if it already is the poor house. I just pull into a parking space at some rest area and recline the driver’s seat. Enjoy the journey. My bad, that’s train travel, which is more expensive than filling up an old Civic.

An exhibit that I saw at the Smithsonian Museum of American History claimed to have identified the first trailer park, somewhere in New England, if I recall correctly. It was basically whatever Okies would be if they weren’t from Oklahoma (Mainers are close enough) pulling whatever piece of shit old farm truck they were still able to drive or tow into some ass end of an enterprising landlord’s forest. That’s life on the skids already, but the really eerie thing about the exhibit was its description of householders and local officials flipping their shit because the trailer parks and their tenants weren’t paying property taxes. That is, they were trying to squeeze property taxes out of the indigent homeless.

We’re really lucky that we haven’t had Hitler, just Fr. Coughlin and Donald Trump. As a country, we’re asking for it yet again. Every time we have a cataclysmic depression, some asshat gets up on his soapbox because MUH PROPERTY TAX. Or maybe MUH PROPERTY VALUES, which helps explain the rising tide of constitutionally edgy local ordinances to criminalize homelessness and charitable efforts to minister to the homeless.

As I mentioned at the top, someone has to maintain the roads in this arrangement. The rail system, too, if we’re planning to maintain it the way we more or less did through the Depression and WWII instead of repeating the great postwar orgy of official infrastructure sabotage of the trolley networks on behalf of GM and Firestone. The answer is that the infrastructure generally keeps getting maintained because the United States remains a wealthy, prosperous country with a functioning engineering brain trust. It’s just that we know fuck-all about distributing our national wealth halfway equitably. We didn’t know shit to this end going into the Great Depression, either. Taking to the roads was parasitic, but we were  prosperous enough that there was room for the parasitism, and the incentives were for this parasitism, not against it. Same as it ever was, but with bigger housing bubbles this time.

We were lucky enough to get FDR as our reformist. Germany, you may recall, got as its reformist that washed-up Austrian corporal with the Charlie Chaplin mustache and the budding interest in genocide. I’m not trying to say which of these the Donald is, since I honestly can’t figure him out. All I know is that as a country we have to do something with our poors other than humiliate them with detached, ironic mockery the way New Zealand’s premier fuckheads have taken to doing. (Their actual Premier, John Key, is a mere frotteur with an interest in ponytails.)

Here comes that springtime for Hitler feeling again. Pray that Amtrak remain fully in charge of our trains.

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