“People whom fate and their sin-mistakes have placed in a certain position, however false that position may be, form a view of life in general which makes their position seem good and admissible. . . . This surprises us when the persons concerned are thieves bragging about their dexterity, prostitutes vaunting their depravity, or murders boasting of their cruelty. But it surprises us only because the circle, the atmosphere, in which these people live, is limited, and chiefly because we are outside it. Can we not observe the same phenomenon when the rich boast of their wealth-robbery, when commanders of armies pride themselves on their victories-murder, and when those in high places vaunt their power-violence? That we do not see the perversion in the views of life held by these people, is only because the circle formed by them is larger and we ourselves belong to it.” (Resurrection, Leo Tolstoy, trans. Louise Maude)

New Readers:

Please start reading with my first post "A Cup of Coffee". Originally posted on March 19, the archival date changed when I made corrections on May 13, which is the date under which you can find it now.

I'll learn to manage this all more smoothly someday, but at present I have at most only an hour online each day (that thanks to the San Francisco Public Library system, without which I would be lost).

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Second of the Paradoxes: Willing Servitude and Sobriety Addicts

[Continued from “The Age of Responsibility”]

Consider the progress of an alcoholic or an addict who “chooses” sobriety.  It is common knowledge that no one can persuade, cajole, manipulate, or force another person to make this change in his or her behavior.  The change must come from “within” the individual, but is it a decision?  Is the change effected by a “free will”?

The hallmark of this change is an experience called “hitting bottom”.  The First Step in Alcoholics Anonymous (and other Twelve Step programs) puts it this way:  “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.”

Almost 350 years ago, John Bunyan described the same experience (more vividly, I think) in his Pilgrim’s Progress:

“Now I saw in my dream that, just as they had ended this talk, they drew near to a very miry slough that was in the midst of the plain; and they being heedless, did both fall suddenly into the bog. The name of the slough was "Despond." Here, therefore, they wallowed for a time, being grievously bedaubed with the dirt; and CHRISTIAN, because of the burden that was on his back, began to sink in the mire. . . .

“This miry slough is such a place as cannot be mended: it is the descent whither the scum and filth that attends conviction for sin doth continually run; and therefore it is called the Slough of Despond. For still, as the sinner is awakened about his lost condition, there arises in his soul many fears and doubts, and discouraging apprehensions, which all of them get together, and settle in this place: and this is the reason of the badness of this ground.”

Both ways of talking about the experience continue alike as well.  The Second and Third Steps say that we “Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” and that we then “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”  Bunyan’s Christian is, of course, on the same path to redemption through divine grace.

Is it not remarkable that the most widely followed and most widely recommended “cure” for addiction and the most ardently preached means of “salvation” from sin have as their foundation the surrender of personal responsibility and the renunciation of individual will?

Alcoholics and addicts are first condemned for lacking “will power” and then lauded for surrendering their will.  They are derided for having no “self-control” and subsequently praised when they give up self-control.  Have the sober merely exchanged an addiction to chemicals for an addiction to meetings and sponsors and The Big Book?  Is not salvation described as obedience to God?  Do they -- do we -- does anyone -- have choice?

Two thousand years of Christian theology come down on the side of the impotence of our apparently free will:  we are saved not by our works but by divine grace alone.  The allocation of grace itself is itself mysterious:  why do some sinners descend into madness, disease, and death while others (the Elect) find forgiveness and salvation?  Why do some addicts hit bottom and go into recovery while others waste away physically, morally, and emotionally?

I remember that when I quit my job teaching at a small liberal-arts college in upstate New York to move to Manhattan with no idea what I was going to do next, a friend praised me for my strength and willingness to take risks.  (It was the early 1980s and Reagan’s America was in love with entrepreneurs and risk-takers.)  Her remark caught me up short.  I had never thought of myself as taking a risk.

I told her for me the biggest risk would be that I might wake up there, in Schenectady, and find myself to be 80 and to have never seen world or lived the life of my times.

Although I had lived through a few months of saying that I was considering leaving academics in order to move to Manhattan and live a different life, I have to admit that I knew all along that I would move.  Once I saw the possibility of that change, I knew that it was inevitable.  The apparent process of making a decision consisted of talking to myself and to others about something that would happen, that had already happened, as if it might or might not.  I believed that this bit of a masquerade was necessary because leaving academics and moving to New York City to deserve a thoughtful process.  [Remember Nietzsche’s point that effects precede causes?]

If I am honest, I have to say that I believe the same to be true of all the momentous apparent “decisions” in my life.  I have written before about having no choice about being gay.  (No one is ever raised to be gay and certainly no one of my generation would have chosen so troubled a life if it were a matter of choice.)  And although one may say that one has chosen to marry this or that person, no one can honestly say that they chose to fall in love with someone in particular.

The decision-making process goes on until it stops, and in its place is a decision, a firmly established state of affairs, one that usually feels inevitable or, as we say, “right.“  Haven’t the major facts of your life, such as what work you do, whom you live with or marry, whether you have children, whether you get along with your parents and siblings, what politics and religion you espouse -- have not all of these been shaped by your love for this or that subject or activity (in the case of work), your love for a certain place or way of life, or your love for certain groups or for certain individuals?  Were these choices or the logical consequences of passions and innate needs which we did not choose?

Our lives are the walking of a labyrinth.  At each juncture, each turning of a corner, we can go only one way or the other.  We cannot split ourselves into two beings, one of which goes right and the other left.  And we certainly cannot see where whichever turn we take will eventually lead us.*

We might imagine that we could take one as easily as the other.  We might imagine that the sun revolves around the earth, too.

It looks that way, doesn’t it? 

I am not here to argue theology.

I am here to show you the world in which I live, the world of the least among us in this wealthiest of nations.

And I am here to chastise you for the judgments you pass, both in word and in deed, against my brothers and sisters every time you refuse them help because they are addicts or unemployed or enraged by their own suffering.

Get out of your cars and walk these streets.  Look into the faces of your fellow human beings and know these things:

Everyone out here is doing their best.  No one has chosen poverty or addiction or illness, whether physical or mental.

Whatever way it is that each of us is making it through the day and -- more frighteningly -- through the night -- the way is valid.  No one gets to be any better than anyone else.  Whatever you have and whatever you lack, it is not your strength or your virtue or your weakness or your vice that earned you your fate. Furthermore, all that you possess might be gone -- in fact will be gone - tomorrow, through no particular fault of your own.

The first shall be last, and the last shall be first, remember?

Now there is a paradox.

*A note for poetry lovers:  Robert Frost, in “The Road Not Taken”, imagines one of those moments in the labyrinth:

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

I love this poem for many reasons, including both Emily Dickenson and Dante Alighieri, but cite it here for one in particular: Frost says that he took one road, not that he chose it.  Then in the course of apparently giving reasons for his fate, as if it had been a choice, he completely undercuts each one.]

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Age of Responsibility

We live in the Age of Responsibility.  We belittle those who “play the victim.”  We believe in “tough love.”  Senators argue against funding for Food Stamps by asserting that such programs create “a dependency class.”  The rich have earned their riches.  The poor would not be poor if they worked harder.  Everyone gets what they deserve.  We make our own reality.  [See “Deserts”]


After being released from Bruno, I was astonished and angered over and over again by the way people responded to my troubles.

I told people how completely blind-sided I had been by my arrest at work.  I had done nothing but avoid MRM, while he had continually violated our mutual restraining orders by stalking me, emailing me, telephoning me, and even by approaching me on the street.  I had complained to the police department about MRM’s hundreds of violations, reporting to them everything he did to harass me, yet I was the one arrested.  Furthermore, I was arrested on a criminal charge of domestic violence on the basis of nothing but MRM‘s unsubstantiated allegations.  (After all, there could be no other witnesses to something that didn’t happen.)

MRM had filed a false police report (alleging that I had approached him in a park and hit him) in order to manipulate the police into doing his bidding, and thereby to ruin my life.  And he succeeded:  the arrest cost me my job, causing me real hardship.  While homelessness was nothing new, homelessness without an income to buy food, occasional shelter, transportation, and the like was both new and very difficult.

When I told people that this is what had happened, they seemed disinterested.  Not one said that the situation was shocking and that the behavior of both MRM and the police was unjust.  Instead, they would ask me what I had done to cause my current situation.  They would advise me in patronizing and self-righteous tones to focus on the lessons to be learned from these events, namely, to see how I had “created” or at least allowed these things to happen to me.

I felt like someone trapped in a Hitchcockian nightmare.  Why was I suddenly a suspect?  [“The police don’t just arrest people who haven’t done anything” -- that convenient lie.  Again, see “Deserts.”]  I wanted sympathy.  I wanted some acknowledgement that MRM’s actions had been both base and unpredictable.  I wanted comfort.  What I received was admonishment, suspicion, rebuke, and the clear implication that if I was not in fact guilty of some crime, then at least I was guilty of “playing the victim.”

This attitude left me speechless.  The first couple of times I  heard these sentiments I protested but incoherently, sputtering like a frustrated cartoon character.  I wanted people to understand the devious, dishonest, and shameful machinations to which MRM had sunk in his efforts to make me miserable.  I wanted people to see him for who he was and to understand that his behavior was so below any decent standards that of course I had been completely unprepared to defend myself.  But I could not seem to make this case clearly enough, because I found myself hearing the same question again and again:  what had I done to cause the situation in which I found myself?

I soon realized that the people to whom I was talking simply did not care about me or my plight.  They did not want to hear my story and so responded with this rhetoric, which seemed concerned, seemed right-minded and responsible, but was designed to stop me from talking, allowing people to avoid having to sympathize or -- worse -- to do something.  I quickly learned to listen politely to their nostrums and add them to the list of people in whose lives I did not matter.  They in turn ceased to matter in mine.  I realize now that this too was a wound that MRM had intentionally inflicted on me.

It was as if I suddenly found myself on the other side of a wall beyond which people’s empathy would not extend.  I might understand such a reaction if I had for years explained my misfortunes as resulting from the plotting or negligence or deliberate malice of others, i.e., if I had habitually portrayed myself as victimized.  But I have almost never thought of or spoken of myself that way.  Ironically enough, MRM does complain of being victimized constantly, in every venue of his life.

But before I go any further, let me here declare that I have learned a number of lessons from my experience.  I do recognize that my own behavior, especially my failure to take strong action to rid myself of MRM early on, contributed to my troubles.  I failed to act on The First of Dasman’s Laws of Human Being:  “Everyone always knows exactly what is going on.”  I knew that MRM was a cad, but when I watched his crude attempts to lash out at others, I saw only the way everything he did only demonstrated to the world what a petty, mean-spirited, and unintelligent man he was.  I failed to realize that he would eventually use these same tactics to try to hurt me.

Here is a summary of my failures:

1.  I trusted someone untrustworthy.

2.  I thought that I could handle any contretemps that a bad relationship might entail.

3.  I thought that in a few months of hunting for a job -- any job -- I would eventually find one.

4.  I did not imagine that well-educated and intelligent people of my milieu would turn their domestic problems into drama played out in the street, much less call the police to take away their (supposed) loved-one instead of talking out their difficulties like adults.

5.  I was vengeful.  When I was down to my last few dollars and realized that despite all his promises MRM would never pay his share of anything, let alone support me for a few months as I had supported him, I resolved to force him to take care of me.  The result was our move to his cousin’s house where his cousin, RA, provided for us.

In short, I failed to be sufficiently suspicious; I was over-confident about my ability to find a job when I needed one; and I suffered a failure of the imagination, being blind to the depths of senseless wickedness people can sink.

Note:  This self-awareness is subject to the Second of Dasman’s Laws of Human BeingWe are each the least qualified observers of ourselves: everyone else sees us more clearly than we ever can.

In making these observations, however, I am not “taking responsibility” in the way people want me to.  So I have to wonder what “personal responsibility” is. 

A truly strong concept of individual responsibility, the idea that “you create your own reality,” while currently popular among the comfortable classes, is absurd.  My sister’s three-year old son died suddenly while playing in the yard with his friends.  The coroner said simply that he had no idea what had happened.  The child’s brain was swollen beyond any hemorrhaging or stroke that he had seen.  If anyone tries to tell me that my sister created this loss, this unspeakable grief, and must bear responsibility for it as part of her reality, I will tear out their eyes.

And a weaker version of the concept doesn’t really say much.  In this ordinary sense, responsibility is diffused.  We act within the constraints of, and in reaction to, a world that is given to and not made by us.  In such a world, can the individual really be held fully responsible for her plight or success?  After all, the events I suffered were shaped by MRM.  He had the upper hand because he took it, striking first and quite effectively.

So we arrive at a larger and deeper question:  to what extent do we control our lives (if at all)?  Is the doctrine of Free Will no more valid that the Ptolemaic view of the universe?

[To be continued . . . .]

Friday, August 16, 2013

The First of the Paradoxes: Traveling Light, Part Three

I have said before that I am always excited, happily so, when I find myself in the presence of a paradox, because it means that I am approaching truth.

[Dear Truth -- such a strange figure, isn’t she?  Elusive and, when available, so often unpleasant, yet she remains for us the beloved, the one true love, doesn’t she?]

The last thing MRM said to me, as I was cleaning the kitchen floor on my hands and knees after our spat over the turkey, was “You’re going to jail -- and you’re going to have a record!”  He was trembling with fury, shouting at me while he dialed 911 on his mobile.

And all I’d done (I say disingenuously) was agree with him a short time earlier, when he had said, “You don’t really love me!” in the petulant tone of a manipulative child working his parents.  I almost responded as I had many times by denying his statement and affirming my affection for him.  But this time I caught myself as I began to respond.  I felt the impulse to argue that I did indeed love him, primarily as a knee-jerk reaction to being bullied in that way.  But instead of acting on that impulse, I took a breath and said, “You’re right.  I don’t love you.  In fact, I despise you.”

Those words sent him running downstairs, where he stayed long enough to strategize, I guess, and to scratch the back of his neck so that he could tell the police that I had attacked him physically.  He wanted me to suffer the worst thing that had ever happened to him, which was being arrested (in his case for dealing methamphetamine in Los Angeles).  Having a record was continuing to cause problems for him 10 years later, especially as he tried to find work.  Being the son of a cop and having exploited the domestic violence laws many times in the previous ten to fifteen years, he knew what he had to say to guarantee my arrest.  All he had to do was to allege physical violence and to say that he was afraid of me.

I remember that as one officer led me, in cuffs, to the squad car, we passed MRM, who was standing with another officer in front of the house.  I looked hard at MRM and said the only thing I could think to say.  In my most sarcastic tone I said, “Thank you.”

Though I meant the remark sarcastically, I realize now that I might as well have been completely sincere.  For over a year, I had been living with MRM and his alcoholic cousin, RA, a psycho-therapist specializing in Post Traumatic Stress who drank himself to sleep every night and rolled out of bed just 15 minutes before he had to meet his first client of the day in the downstairs office.  They treated me as their house-slave.  I did all the cooking and cleaning, cheerfully shopped and gardened and ran errands for them both, washed and ironed clothes, etc. without receiving a penny in wages.  In fact, I paid rent and contributed to other household expenses, even covering MRM’s portion when he spent his earnings on drugs and who knows what else.  The only time I was paid was when RA gave me $50 to take his bi-annual exams to re-certify as a therapist.  (Ironically enough, one of the fields I tested in for him was Professional Ethics.  I scored 100 on all three tests.)

I had also been working in a gift shop for months, hoping to save enough to cover first and last months rent, security deposit and whatever other moving expenses I would incur by leaving.  MRM consistently took any money I tried to save from me, leaving me constantly frustrated and desperate to find a way out.  The one thing I did not consider was walking out the door and taking up life on the street, homeless, in order to escape the abusive pair.

In a sense, life on the streets was an imaginary world that I could not imagine.  As if the life of the unhoused were an alternative reality very like my own but in some other dimension, I could see no gateway, no passage between worlds, that could allow me to step out of one and into the other.

I remember my arrest and the ensuing days as dream-like, the kind of experience you cannot believe you are having.  Survivors of natural disasters or shipwrecks know what I mean.  Many people feel the same way about September 11 of 2001:  the real world became unreal, as if the fabric of that in which we live had been rent and some other place was revealed behind it.

You might say that I, like Alice before me, fell down a rabbit-hole and landed in another world.  I had remained a prisoner because I did not think I would know how to live without the furniture (both literal and figurative) of the life into which I had been born.  But when MRM took from me everything I had been sacrificing my freedom, my dignity, and my very self to hold onto, I discovered that I did not need any of it.  I could stand on the beach in the midst of the storm, without shelter or support, and the waves broke over me.  I did not break.

Fear of losing the trappings of the life I knew had imprisoned me and enslaved me to my abuser, and when he meant utterly to ruin me by wresting those things from me and tossing me out into the street, all he did was set me free to be myself truly, perhaps for the first time in my life.

What you call your possessions possess you.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Our Minds Are Not Our Own (Part One)

I have once again fallen behind in my attempt to post daily -- or at least on most days.  Again, I apologize.

This past week presented two obstacles, one the lack of an internet connection at home, and the other a series of events that had me running about the East Bay as well as The City.  Details below.

One of my day-long adventures last week was getting together with my friend JVD.  We have known each other since we were four years old, but I had not seen or spoken to him for ten or fifteen years.

We first reconnected when my phone rang a few weeks back, and I answered it to hear him say, “This is JVD.”

“J!” I said, “how are you?”

“I don‘t know,” he said.  “I‘m sixty!”

We both burst into laughter, and then began trying to find a time when we could get together.  We had between ten and fifteen years of living to catch each other up on. 
The time finally came last Wednesday, the 7th of August.

I left home early that morning and rode BART to the Lafayette station, where I was met by JVD.  One of my purposes in starting this blog was to be able to tell friends with whom I have not been in touch in recent years the complicated story of how I got from where I used to live to where I live now.  JVD had been reading my blog in the weeks since that first telephone call, and the blog had served my purpose.  We were able to dive right into the nitty-gritty.

We had lunch at a pizzeria in Walnut Creek, the town in which we grew up, and then spent the afternoon driving to the top of Mount Diablo.  From that peak one can see more of the earth’s surface than from any other spot on the planet except one, Mount Kilimanjaro.  We looked out over the rivers, the delta, the bay, and the Pacific Ocean, picking out landmarks and spotting the places where we live and have lived.  The ground on which we stood dropped off so suddenly that we seemed to be suspended in air, hovering over the landscape of our lives.

Because the mountain was formed -- is being formed -- by the collision of the North American and Pacific plates, the rocks get older and older as you climb to the summit.  There the most ancient strata of what was once the ocean’s floor are being exposed by the constant scrubbing of wind and rain.  Even a casual glance at these stones reveals hundreds of different organisms, from what seem familiar clam shells to oddly shaped, jointed exoskeletons that I could not begin to identify or describe.

The fossils provide a kind of metaphor for something I noticed hours earlier, when I first arrived at the BART station in Lafayette.  As I stepped off the train and made my way down the stairs from the elevated track, a great wave of memories, with all their attendant emotions, broke over me.

For twelve years after my father died, I spent every Thursday with my mother.  For most of those years, I traveled from Oakland, and then San Francisco, where I lived, to Lafayette, where my mother would pick me up in her big gold Mercedes Benz and take me home -- to her home, that is, because she and my father had moved out of the house in which I grew up within a few years after I, the last child, had gone out on my own.

What hit me most forcefully this last week was that I had not thought of those arrivals -- of waiting by the parking lot for my mother, then watching her car appear, then opening the door and easing myself into the leather seats -- even though I had thought of the Lafayette station and even imagined it in all its physical reality, its shapes and colors, its place,  the weight of its materials, etc.

My memories were not attached to my thoughts or ideas or feelings.  Rather my memories resided in the landscape, in the steel and concrete structures of that station, and the emotions aroused by those memories -- grief, affection, melancholy, gratitude -- were attendant not on any mental processes in my brain but on my contact with that particular physical location.  Memories reside in the physical world around us -- in landscapes, in objects, in sounds, in food and drink -- not in our heads.

How much of the rest of our thinking is produced not by our brains, and not by some invisible “mind” that lives as a ghost in the machinery of our bodies, but by the world, including the people, around us?
I can no longer believe that our thoughts and perceptions reside “inside” us somehow, as if consciousness were hidden inside our skulls, irredeemably sealed off from any direct contact with other minds, each of which is itself presumed to be similarly isolated with its cranium.  Since I expect that my refutation of this Cartesian model will take many months, if not years, to complete, I beg your indulgence as I begin slowly to explore this idea in this first installment.

What about the rest of my week?  On Tuesday, the day before my “mountaintop experience” I traveled to Berkeley, where I took various steps toward finding a job at the University.  I also had lunch with my friend MP, the poet whom I have previously mentioned in these posts.  And on Thursday I received a list of documents that I had to get together and forms I had to complete because I have a chance at getting more permanent housing, dependent on a meeting tomorrow afternoon.

Then Friday.  I confess that I accomplished nothing on Friday or Saturday, when I should have been writing all day both days.

Friday was the first anniversary of my second arrest, the serious one, the one which cost me my job, which arose from charges based on MRM’s blatant lies, enshrined in a completely false police report, and which has yet to come to trial.  I had not thought much about it, but when I saw the date on Friday morning, “9 August”, I slipped down a rabbit-hole into memories of arrest, incarceration, and the paralysis of depression stirred by hopeless anger at injustice -- injustice that is routinely, even mechanically, created by our laws, our police, and our judiciary.

Again I cry out:  Wake up!  Read Tolstoy!

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Working Poor, Part One

I am hungry again.

I have two jobs. For two days each month, I work as an event coordinator for a company that hosts seminars at the Grand Hyatt on Union Square. I like the job a lot, and one of the reasons I do is that it allows me to spend time in the world I grew up in, the world of middleclass to upper-middleclass life.

I arrive at 7:00AM, an hour and a half before the seminar begins. I make sure that the hotel staff has set up the room properly. I lay out materials for each participant (a pad of paper in a handsome, padded faux-leather folder, a pen, and a USB memory stick). I set up the projector that the leader of the seminar will use to show his or her PowerPoint slides on the screen at the front of the room. I confirm the food service schedule with hotel staff.*

That done, I register each participant on arrival, give them their name tags, and make sure that the leader has everything she or he needs. Then I sit outside the seminar until the session ends at 5:00PM. On the following morning, I again check that everything needful is in its place, distribute more materials to participants, and again sit outside the room from 7:00AM to 5:00PM.

Like a flight attendant, I am there in case something goes wrong. I know the hotel staff and have their cell numbers so that I can locate whatever is needed in an emergency. Otherwise I am free to read, to write, to catch up on my mail (electronic or real), to make phone calls, et cetera. I am paid $200 per day, and that $400 makes up the only truly predictable half of my monthly income.

I also do house and yard work. I started this job last fall. At the time I was applying for any job I could think of, and I was increasingly frustrated by my failure to land one. So while continuing to look for other work, I posted an ad on Craigslist to do house cleaning, etc., for $15 an hour. Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness, right?

I currently work in this capacity for two men, one twice a week and the other twice a month. I usually work for four hours in the afternoon, though at the place where I work only twice a month, I often need an extra hour or hour and a half to get everything done.

Lately, I have had additional hours at my other job too. My employer has been undergoing treatment for lung cancer and has needed my help for an extended period in the days following each chemotherapy infusion. On those occasions I stay at his house from noon Monday through dinnertime on Wednesday. I shop for groceries and prepare meals, as well as cleaning and keeping the yard watered and weeded, typically working five hours a day on each of these three days.

There will not be many of those longer stays however, in part because the number of infusions is limited to only seven or eight in the first place. What is more, my employer is blest with a large and caring family, various members of which have been visiting him from nearby and distant cities for as much as a week at a time. Thus he does not always need my help after every chemo infusion. And because he is responding so well to treatment, he is able to do more around the house during the ordinary days between treatments. So I may be working there even less than the eight hours a week I have been working.

The reader who was good at story problems in elementary school arithmetic has by now figured out that I average $150 a week at these jobs, with an additional $225 possible about once a month. Thus I earn a grand total of $1000 to $1200 a month.

My fixed expenses come to $450 a month: my storage space ($175 a month), my phone ($75 a month), and my rent (50% of my official income, which is the seminar check, so right now $200 a month).

I am left with $550 to $750 a month for everything else. Everything else includes food; transportation (bus fares to work mostly); “sundries”, by which I mean razors; soaps for the body, for the dishes, and for the clothes; the laundromat; replacing a shirt or socks from time to time; and repaying the friends who helped me with bail and other expenses when I was arrested. (In the last twelve months, I have managed to pay them $1000 of the $1300 I owed them.) The “sundries” run $50 to $75 (if I any of my clothes wear out) a month.  Transportation costs $25 to $30. So without paying my debts, I have at most from $450 to $675 a month for food.

I have difficulty getting enough to eat on $15 to $20 a day, particularly considering that I do not have a kitchen and so must pay restaurant prices for anything more than a bowl of cereal or a peanut butter sandwich. A simple breakfast of 2 eggs, bacon, and either potatoes, pancakes, or toast, with a cup of coffee, will set you back $10, including tax and tip, at even the most economical of diners. So will a dinner of two slices of pizza or a Subway sandwich, with something to drink. As a result I eat a lot of Big Carl hamburgers at Carl’s Jr., which with tax come to only $3.25. Unfortunately, one of those sandwiches is not enough to fuel a man my size (six feet tall and a muscular 200 pounds) who does a lot of physical labor, including walking considerable distances to save on bus fares.

I need about 3200 calories a day to maintain my health and strength.**  I buy the Big Carl because it has 930 calories, 520 of them from fat, and so staves off for at least a couple of hours the actual pain (cramps, etc.) that comes with hunger. I do treat myself to the kind of breakfast I described above about once a month, and I eat a lot of pizza slices, for the same reason: fatty foods forestall the discomfort of hunger longer than other, healthier, foods.

I am giving you all these details because I want you to see that I work as much as I can, am very careful with every penny I earn, and that I still suffer from hunger many days a month. Furthermore, what I do eat is not healthy for me, and my diet means that I will be likely to encounter more medical problems and higher medical bills in the years I have left.

I used to get food stamps, and that $200 a month -- $6.00 a day -- helped tremendously. Now, however, my income places me above the ceiling of the current “means tested” system.

I eat a lot of peanut butter sandwiches.  (Safeway sells Pantry Essentials bread for $.99 a loaf, and I search out the cheapest peanut butter and apricot jam I can find, one jar of both usually costing to $5.00 or $6.00 together.  Thus my lunches can cost as little as $2.00 a day.  Daily breakfasts of generic cereal, milk, coffee and sugar also cost about $2.00 a day.)

So I can just make it on what I earn -- as long as I eat an unhealthy diet.

I cut my budget as closely as I can to the bare minimum so that I can repay my friends for their extraordinarily generous help when I was in real trouble.

That means that sometimes I find myself, as I did last Friday, with $18.00 to my name and no income available until Monday evening, when I finish my afternoon at work.  By Sunday I can get pretty hungry.

(To be continued . . . .)

* The morning coffee, bagels, and breads, and the hot lunches, have been stellar. I highly recommend the Grand Hyatt on Union Square, for its newly remodeled interiors, its friendly and unbelievably helpful staff, and its delicious food.

**See the Daily Calorie Calculator to find out your nutritional needs.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Legacy

[Note:  if you read yesterday's post before I managed to add the video at the end, please scroll down and watch it.  My heart is too full to say more.]

When I “came out” -- how odd that the term for identifying myself as homosexual should make me sound like a former debutante -- or not -- one of the great things that happened was being initiated into the lore of the tribe.  In those days (yes, children, it was “When Dinosaurs Roamed the Earth”), older gay men were eager to pass on to us young’uns the oral history, the Mysteries, as it were, of our sect.

I have no idea whether this oral tradition still exists.  I suspect that it died out rather quickly with the advent of bourgeois faggotry, by which I mean the glossy magazines, television shows, and -- that indispensable sign of a group having been co-opted by the money culture -- advertisements targeted at them as a niche market, portraying them as youthful-at-any-age, pretty, and stylish consumers.  If so, I am particularly grateful for the privilege of having been heir to a long-ago kingdom of fairies.

So at the risk of apostasy, let me share a few tid-bits of what was poured into my young ears by The Ancients when I came of age:  Milton Berle had the biggest dick in Hollywood.  Rock Hudson -- also horse-hung -- loved taking it up the ass.  One must learn and be able to recite “The Women”, “Stagedoor”, and Ruth Draper’s “The Italian Lesson” or risk having your "Gay Card" taken away.  Cary Grant and Randolph Scott were lovers.  Guys who wear leather and ride motorcycles spend most of their time exchanging recipes. Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel were lovers.

[OK, listen to "The Only Living Boy in New York" and remember that these guys called themselves "Tom and Jerry" on their first record.  If that's not a break-up song, I'm Ethel Merman.]

Much of this oral tradition (why do I feel like I am punning all the time?) consisted of a roster of famous men who had huge penises.  In addition to the aforementioned, one heard of the prodigious endowments of Yule Brenner, Frank Sinatra, et al.  More importantly -- and, yes, one also learned that “important” is French for “big” -- one heard wonderful anecdotes and thereby inherited a sense of the wit that made our kind so eagerly pursued by the best hostesses in society.

For example, Noel Coward, whose ability to turn an awkward moment into a bon mot made him the source of more of these stories than I can remember, was once being followed about a cocktail party by a good-looking young man.  The youth said nothing but trailed close behind Coward and edged as close as possible to him whenever Coward stood still.  Eventually irritated beyond any ability of maintain his usual polite composure, Coward turned to face the young man and declared, “Young man!  Sharing a sexual vice does NOT amount to a social introduction!”

But, of course, it did.  I have known -- and known well -- a Trotskyite steel worker, who along with his brutal physical labor (God, did that man have a body!) worked relentlessly to convert his fellow laborers to the gospel of the Socialist Workers Party, and I have known the Ambassador to Luxembourg.  I have dined with Virgil Thompson, Madeline (“Jackie”) Horne, James Merrill, Phillipa Foote, Edmund White, Stephen Spinella, Felice Picano, Coretta Scott King, and Paul Rudnick.  I have known people from all strata of our society.  Furthermore, I have been able to move back and forth, up and down, among the classes, something that is extremely rare, for the structure of class has, like time, an arrow:  once you set foot on that ladder moving either up or down, you seldom get a chance to change direction.

I do not think that any of the straight guys I grew up with could have had the range of acquaintances that I have had.  A few of them, I know, have risen to higher and higher planes and moved in ever-more-glamorous, powerful, and wealthy circles.  A few have also foundered, one in particular about whom the last thing I heard was that he had been spotted dumpster-diving in Berkeley -- and that was 40 years ago.  But I believe that not one of those normal people has moved with ease in the company both of the mighty and of the downtrodden, and moved with ease among every class of person between those extremes, as I have.

And that has been a privilege of the greatest order.

Plus Ca Change

Things look different to me now. I got up early and walked to Peet’s for coffee this morning. It is not yet the first of the month, so I could only afford a half pound.

On the way, I walked by some large pieces of cardboard, probably the remains of an appliance box, and a cheap comforter, chocolate brown and heavily soiled. The cardboard and comforter lay just off the curb, in what would be the curb lane or parking spaces at different hours of the day. What I saw was someone’s house, and I wondered what disturbance would have driven them from their sleep in such a hurry as to have left the house behind.

My first thought was of the police.


On many of the blocks I walk frequently in this neighborhood, one finds brass plaques, historical markers, each describing in some detail a jazz club or recording studio or restaurant that once thrived at that spot. The plaques are embedded in the sidewalk in front of burned-out buildings, abandoned buildings, parking lots, and empty lots. I had not realized before how exactly the historical markers resemble headstones in Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, where my parents, their parents, their siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles all the way back to my great-great grandmother are buried.


I learned today that the definition of “homeless” is changing. Used to be that if you were in an alcohol/drug rehab program for a few months but had no home to which you could return after graduation, you were homeless. Similarly, if you were in jail but had no home to which you could return after your release, you were homeless. You might even be homeless if you were staying in a hotel room while looking for a home to which you could move or if you were staying with friends while looking for -- etc.

Now these “marginally housed” situations no longer qualify as homelessness for purposes of being granted subsidized housing. Now you are homeless only if you are wandering around on the streets all night or sleeping in parks or under bridges and freeway overpasses. The reason for this bit of vocabularial legerdemain is “Restrictions in Funding”.

For those who prefer plain English, I translate: The Ronald Reagan/Grover Norquist strategy of dismantling government by bankrupting it has worked. The society no longer has an institutional response to the problems of poverty. If you cannot shell out -- or finance -- 3/4s of a million dollars or more (in San Francisco), you must rely on your friends or live in public, i.e., the wild. From now on, the poor must live as the Ohlone did before the Europeans descended upon them like a plague of locusts.