Well, that was ugly. I had a really ugly argument with my mom earlier tonight, provoked by my upset when she tried to drag me into the pretentious ritual of making out a Father’s Day card that we’d all pretend I’d selected and bought on my own initiative. The crux of it was that she couldn’t imagine how she had ever been pushy or manipulative or uncaring or tactless. I felt terrible to be in the position of feeling like I had to spell it out for her, but once the confrontation started I knew that I was in way over my head, with the barest of control over the situation. Now that it’s over for the time being, I’m sad to say that my hard line worked. That may have been the first time my mom truly, sincerely listened to me and actually heard and noted what I said in a year and a half, maybe much longer. She didn’t float in and out of presentmindedness the way she usually does in conversations. She didn’t use her hardness of hearing as a social crutch and an excuse for not listening, although, tellingly, she reverted directly to form with my dad not five minutes after she finally put an end to our argument-cum-listening session because she said she couldn’t take it anymore.
One of her curtest responses to me was something like what I used for the title of this post. She wasn’t trying to bullshit either of us, I’m pretty sure; her parents were in debt until she was out of college, and her father was frequently too depressed and neurotic to go to work, erasing the advantages that they all should have had as a two-income household. At the same time, tight finances is a simplistic way to describe her childhood socioeconomic position. She was raised in a normally mortgaged duplex in a solidly middle class part of Staten Island. As far as I know, her parents were never in danger of foreclosure or being unable to pay for necessities. At least once a year the family vacationed in far Upstate New York or New England, at a time when a great many New York Jews took their holidays exclusively in the Borscht Belt or at some downmarket Jersey Shore point. I know for a fact that she has never been homeless, and that I’ve spent much of the past four years homeless, following several periods of tenuous medium-term couchsurfing that I tried to make last as long as they possibly could.
I was taken aback by how upset she got when I rather matter-of-factly described my own homelessness, telling me, on the verge of tears, “It breaks my heart,” and “That wasn’t one of my great hopes for you.” No shit. It wasn’t one of my hopes for myself, either. The truth is, though, that if my parents had really wanted to get me off the streets (well, out of the rest areas), they could have cosigned for an apartment for me in California, where I had recently lived and very clearly expressed my intent to resettle. Instead, my dad offered to cosign on an apartment in Oregon so that I’d be able to commute to Joe Dirtbag’s farm and, I’m convinced, so that Joe Dirtbag and the Family Shrew could continue to act in loco parentis for me after barring me from their house.
My parents were effectively playing chicken with me over my housing situation, probably assuming that I couldn’t possibly hold out for a stable place in California when they were offering to put me up near these relatives whom I routinely accused of badly mistreating me. Early on, I figured that they’d capitulate sooner rather than later on account of their discomfort with their only child being homeless and actually cosign on an apartment in California, especially when my dad started warming up to some locations that I suggested. Whenever he dropped the subject without making any serious offers, I figured that he and my mom had decided instead to pretend that I wasn’t really homeless or to mostly ignore my shelter situation in the hope that it would resolve itself. I made my peace with this situation quite quickly (to the extent that I could figure it out at all), because some combination of Joe Dirtbag and the Family Shrew were so far over the line that I was absolutely unwilling to dignify their behavior and risk getting sucked even deeper into it by settling in their area. Camping out and sleeping in my car at rest areas were rational, although still fucked up, responses to a mess that those who held all the high-value cards were hesitant or unwilling to actually help me clean up.
I’ve never gone homeless to make a broad lifestyle or philosophical statement. If people who won’t listen to me want to construe it that way, I can’t help them or be bothered to care much, but the only statements I was trying to make were narrow ones about refusing to settle under pressure verging on duress in the vicinity of relatives who had been treating me like shit so that the same relatives could continue to exercise uncalled-for authority over me. As a rule of thumb, those two are morally and mentally unfit to have authority over anyone at all. They have their lucid, decent moments, but sometimes isn’t enough when the default setting is high-frequency emotional abuse , punctuated in JD’s case with occasional outbursts of acute menacing. I wasn’t bluffing or trying to be a drama queen by implying that I preferred warm homelessness to capitulation under the circumstances; I actually preferred warm homelessness, and I do to this day. I’ve often tried to think through whether or not I’d also prefer cold homelessness, and I really can’t say one way or the other. The prospect of cold homelessness has really scared me at times, because it has been all too close. At the same time, things would have to be extremely dire for me to capitulate to a crude scheme to financially compel me to settle near people who have abused me. By that point, I’d probably have cause to ask social services to intervene on my behalf. (In the past, I’ve had ample cause to call social services on account of the raging chaos at the farm, although I’ve never gone through with the call.)
Seriously, if the only reason I was in the area in the first place was to do unpaid farm labor for deadbeat relatives and these deadbeats start gaslighting and hazing me again, I have some damn good reasons to always be ready to bolt. Why the fuck would I get a permanent apartment just so that I can be more firmly indentured to such a garbage arrangement? This is exactly the sort of situation the proprietor of the Guide to Homelessness has in mind when he writes:
Most people who write to me who are homeless chose homelessness. Homelessness was their answer to another problem, a foreclosed home, a lost job, a catastrophic disease which left them bankrupt and disabled, an abusive family, a lack. Alas, this is the hardest thing to explain. Homelessness was a positive step toward solving other problems.
In my case, it’s abusive family members. Even just run-of-the-mill emotional chaos involving dysfunctional cohabitants can be worse than sleeping alone at a rest area or trailhead. It sucks to have to choose between minimal comfort (e.g., a bed instead of a reclined driver’s seat) and enough space to not be smothered by excessive exposure to clingy, emotionally volatile people in close quarters. It just sucks. It’s even worse to be in such close quarters with people who yell at each other all the time. (No, don’t shack up with your girlfriend in a tiny house, you dumbass.) When I’m staying with my parents, I have the additional problem of not having a car of my own, or even a bicycle, in an area with absolutely no public transportation, compounded by my parents’ bizarre assumption that this isn’t really a problem. On the other hand, I have a bed and on-demand access to a full bathroom.
I don’t sleep in my car for the sake of sleeping in my car. If I could find a safe, financially viable option outside the Adirondacks involving an indoor bed (like I have at my parents’ place), I’d probably jump at it. The problem is that I can’t do that, pay the $266.80 a month that I owe Kaiser for a $6,500 health insurance plan that I’ll probably never use, and have enough money to chase down paying farm jobs. Besides, what leads I am able to find that are theoretically within what I’d be able to afford consistently look like they’re run by shady landlords, and I had enough of that PTSD-inducing garbage in Eureka to last me a lifetime. I have trouble imagining that my parents would tolerate either the physical plant or the behavior of management at most of these properties. At the same time, they’re unwilling to put any real pressure on Joe Dirtbag and the Family Shrew to compensate me in any fashion, either by providing me a place to stay that doesn’t warrant condemnation for squalor or by finally putting me on payroll. They, like quite a few others, are terrified of the consequences for confronting them, and Joe Dirtbag in particular, for their chronic deadbeat behavior. One calculus that I have to run on the West Coast is that Joe Dirtbag can’t harass me at the farm when he isn’t on site, and I’ve never really been bothered by cops for sleeping at rest areas (just two brief scares that I downgraded in retrospect), while the paranoid old ex-Army Ranger gun nut who managed my building in Eureka terrorized me, to the point that I twice went over his head at the company to threaten to have him arrested at the next sign of trouble.
That my parents aren’t willing to take additional affirmative action (heh–but it sort of fits) to get me into stable housing, other than letting me crash with them for extended stretches and transferring me money, doesn’t really bother me. They’ve been giving me enough help that I’ve been able to stay above rock bottom financially, with only occasional acute scares, and for this I’m indescribably grateful and relieved. Directly confronting Joe Dirtbag for his ramshackle fin-dom fraud would be quite unpleasant, I’m sure. On my end of things, I’m mostly able to make warm homelessness work.
The trouble is with people who aren’t homeless (“housed” is the woke term, I understand) who fish around about my housing situation and then express shock when I tell them that they don’t exactly have one. It’s rare for any of these people to actually do anything to get me housed, even for the very short term. Instead, I just get bothered with, if not also humiliated by, pointless small talk with people who have no fucking clue about how to interact appropriately with the homeless. An American from anywhere above the tenuous bottom of the lower middle class has to be practically eccentric to have this social grace, so I can only blame these people when they’re obnoxious about other things, too (e.g., American Husband, that D. B. Cooper-looking creep with the Transitions aviator glasses, who has also made extended graphic references to cannibalizing me at the dinner table; yes, he’s that fucked up). Still, it can be painful. This is why I usually try not to discuss my homelessness with people who aren’t homeless. They just won’t fucking understand. They’ve been conditioned not to understand.
In my mom’s case today, unfortunately, it was even worse. The assertion that it breaks HER heart and wasn’t one of HER hopes for me makes me wonder whether the problem with my homelessness concerns my ability to cope with personally being homeless or with my mom’s ability to cope with her feelings about my being homeless. How meta must we get? She isn’t the homeless one here. I’ve tried to get her backup, and my dad’s, to read Joe Dirtbag the riot act over his slumlording, but to no avail. She swore that she doesn’t look down on me for being homeless, but how can she not? She tearfully told me that she had had higher hopes for me. She’s quite inept at hiding her contempt for the religious, the conservative (her term, not an objective one), and the uneducated. Feeling superior to the poor fits the bill all too well. It’s sad to conclude that maybe she feels superior to what she was as a child, or to what she thinks she was, and to her own late mother. She told me today that her mother had less money than she does now, which was true but misleading: my maternal grandmother died pretty damn loaded. Mainly she was just cheap. I don’t know how the hell to navigate a quagmire of festering Freudian resentment, defensiveness, and projection like that. It’s bewildering.
My mom got really upset when I insisted that she had been putting undue pressure on me for years. When, she asked, did she ever do that? I was too disoriented to be truly shocked at the time, but that reaction required a shocking lack of self-awareness. I don’t know how she considered it low-pressure to send me to a prep school and then on a grand college tour of selective schools with neurotically coiffed campuses that she and my dad had insisted I visit, every one of them to the north or northeast of Lancaster County, even when I expressed no interest in them, and to badger me when I declined to apply to Cornell and Harvard AFTER this tour. You gotta be fucking kidding me. Not having applied to Cornell is the least of my worries these days; last I checked, a high tunnel vegetable farm just outside Ithaca was hiring field hands, so if I really had the inclination, I could use that as a springboard to test the waters with the Cornell girls even today. Also, I’m homeless. If I had declined to immediately start a bachelor’s program, my mom would have had a fucking fit, and my dad wouldn’t have been much calmer. I’ve seen the handwringing that Senpai-Sensei and his wife have done over their daughter (the dinnertime Instagrammer who is only superficially vapid) for not being able to finish her BA in early childhood education, and I don’t like the looks of it. I’m watching in real time as successful, intellectually engaged people who should know better come by increasingly distorted understandings of the world because they associate less and less with anyone but their own kind. If not having a bachelor’s degree is cause for concern, the goalposts must be movable anywhere between getting tenure and maybe finally moving out of that dope house in Camden.
I’d try harder if I saw a real point to it. Having people throw shade at me for cashiering at Stewart’s sure as hell isn’t why I’m in the job market. Give Mr. Stossel a break. The problem is that I’m surrounded by people who are so conditioned to look down on the working poor, and especially on the educated working poor who they think should be doing something more prestigious, that I’m bound to have dipshits dissing me for holding jobs that they personally wouldn’t find fulfilling or lucrative enough. I’m able to agsplain to them why I keep going back to farm work, but stocking shelves at some supermarket that I merely find tolerable for the pay is unlikely to inspire in me the sense of purpose to keep these people from gaslighting me into another panic attack. “I have a job, yo” isn’t enough because, I dunno, I guess these busybodies expect me to be the next Jeffrey Toobin by now. It certainly isn’t enough for Senpai-Sensei’s daughter. She’s held the same job for eleven or twelve years.
Then there’s the geography. I finally directly told my mom about my objections to her and my dad moving to the Adirondacks, where they arrived with no local friends and are turning into recluses (she swears they’re doing nothing of the sort, no matter how much time she spends holed up in the computer nook, usually fucking around on the internet). Her response was that parents don’t usually consult their children before moving, especially when the children are grown. Months ago, my defended himself similarly: “I’d hope it means something to you that we’re happy.” That’s nice, but they moved north at a time when they knew that my life was in some disarray and most of my friends were close to their old place, fucked up my travel logistics at a time when I couldn’t afford much in the way of alternate arrangements, built their retirement house without air conditioning (which I absolutely would have told them to install), and then repeatedly fished for my blessing of the move after the fact.
Once again, they couldn’t imagine how this move would affect loved ones without a shitload of discretionary funds. They couldn’t think through the implications of not having money to spare and trying to deal with this shit. It isn’t fashionable these days for the bourgeois to think about how their decisions will affect poor relatives or friends. (The latter is less of a problem because it isn’t fashionable to keep poor friends, either.) I don’t normally like to get all no-man-is-an-island on a cracker’s ass, but this is a serious failure of empathy, imagination, and simple listening that has been cultivated in the upper middle class. The poor, for lack of a more precise term that works, are much more dependent on geographical cohesion to make their lives work than are the middling or the wealthy. Having relatives and friends strewn all over hell can be difficult for wealthier people who actually give a damn about community; for the poor, it’s more likely to be devastating. We’re more likely to need to rely on others for help that the bourgeois are too stubbornly proud to solicit or even accept. Atomization doesn’t mean a diminished family life so much as ending up out on the street. It’s a miracle when those wealthy enough to move for lifestyle reasons are willing to listen to us about this. Witness the disastrous, centrally managed scattering of poor New Orleanians to Nashville, Atlanta, Houston, etc. after Katrina, and the sheltered policy dipshits who assumed that these people could be plugged into any vacant apartment building hundreds of miles from home without consequences.
Then there are all the bourgeois resentniks who figure that, well, if I sucked it up and moved away from home for school and work, these poor losers should be able to do the same. This attitude is ugly beyond words, prevalent, and pernicious on account of its usual subtlety. My mom seems to have a feeling along these lines because she didn’t see her mother very often when we were living in California, ignoring that her mother was one of the cheapest damn moneyed crackers you could ever hope not to cross. By the time I was born she had the money to visit us several times a year and still leave everyone with a substantial inheritance. I don’t. My parents shouldn’t have to mind their budget on account of cross-country travel, but they keep having these irrational freakouts about running a tiny bit low on immediately available cash or something. That must be why they’re heading to Europe on vacation next week. Lodging in Vienna isn’t too expensive, but my making quick quarterly or bimonthly trips back east on a shoestring to visit them is? For real? This is the kind of batshit crazy thinking I have to outwit. This is why I’m back east right now. I really did not want to go four months without seeing them on account of their nonsensical, arbitrarily cheap travel planning, so in a way this is an emergency trip.
Go Galt lunatics don’t usually ask their kids back in Michigan to approve their plans to move to The Villages to commune with #TCOT, either. There must be millions of extended families that have been needlessly atomized by that sort of lifestyle-whoring shit. To be blunt, that’s why your kids can’t see their grandparents. Grandpa just has to play golf with other reactionary lunatic geezers, and y’all are stuck in Battle Creek, which has winter. Giving a shit about family would ruin that sweet back nine vibe. Or mean dumping less time and money into that lemon of a pontoon boat while I duct tape my car together and pray that it keeps running.