Day before yesterday, I was walking along the north side of Ellis, near the corner of Hyde, and heading west. I saw a woman lowering herself into the passenger seat of a car parked at the curb, and as she did, she dropped an empty plastic water bottle -- Crystal Geyser, I think -- in the gutter. I had just passed her by a step or two and turned, pointed at her and then at the bottle, and said firmly, "Pick it up." Her face went blank as she stared back at me. I said, "Don't drop it in the street. Pick it up." She reopened the car door, leaned down, and picked up the empty bottle. She closed the door, and it left with her in the car.
I smiled. I have always been a coward. I have only rarely confronted anyone in that way. I habitually stay silent and burn with resentment and anger afterward. So I felt proud both of my action and of the personal growth it demonstrated.
I have said it over and over again throughout the last decade or more: shame is the glue of society.
When I was a kid, if I had pocketed some candy at Sam's Market, any adult who had seen me would have called me out, would have led me by the hand, shoulder, or scruff of the neck, to Sam himself, and he would have called my parents. I would be in real trouble. Standards of behavior depend on a community of individuals each of whom is willing to enforce those standards -- and on nobody trying to shelter their litle precious one from the consequences of the precious one's misbehavior.
Shame is good: it is the assertion of our better selves, the proof of our essential identity as members of a greater whole, a family, a tribe, a community. Without it we are vicious beasts.
If you have been sleeping in the cab of your friend’s pick-up truck, you will find it a challenge to be clean and look well-groomed by the time you have to go to work. Public showers are available at various centers around town, but they may lie in the opposite direction from that which you have to travel, and the uncertainties of traffic and transit connections increase exponentially with every transfer you have to make.
In these circumstances, you will have to make the best of what my father used to call “a sponge bath”. You can make do with any fairly capacious and private restroom (by private I mean that the door locks on the whole room, not just on a stall). The worst that will happen is that a line might form outside. Someone might go so far as to complain through the door. But since the room’s purpose is to provide privacy for acts that no one really wants to see, you are not going to get in trouble.
You can take off all your clothes, fold together a half-dozen paper towels as a washcloth, wet it with nice, hot water, and wipe off the previous day’s patina. I use soap sparingly and only where absolutely necessary (my armpits and feet) because it is difficult to rinse with the aforementioned paper towels, and my skin itches like crazy if I leave a film of soap anywhere on my body. I keep a change of socks, etc., in my bag so that I can put fresh clothes on my clean body. And yesterday’s undershirts (and some other garments) make perfectly good towels to dry with so you don’t end up with little torn bits and wadded balls of paper towel clinging to you.
I am always on the lookout for private restrooms, especially ones not far from -- or on the way to -- my workplace. The Mission branch of the Public Library, for example; Rainbow Grocery; most Starbuck’s, and Trader Joe‘s. (You are obviously in the right place anywhere you have to ask for a key to use the bathroom.).
At times, however, you will need to do without privacy. Minimizing your exposure and accepting your feelings of embarrassment are difficult and mostly painful. There have been mornings when I had to open the pick-up door (I sleep in the passenger seat which is always on the curb side), stick out my naked feet, and pour cold bottled water over them. Sitting in the truck shirtless, door still open, I use the same bottle of water to soak either a small rag or garment, or the corner of a larger towel, and rub furiously at my armpits. Then I dry myself, put on clean socks and undershirt, and finish dressing. I watch for a time when no pedestrians are coming and hurry through these ablutions, but frequently I am surprised by someone coming around a corner or out of a house nearby.
The shame is two-fold (at least). I am embarrassed to be seen even half naked by strangers who are fully clothed and going about their daily lives in a civilized, public space and in conformance with communal standards of appropriate dress. I am also ashamed because my homelessness itself is exposed to them along with my body. This is the shame that makes me want to start casual conversations with passersby so that I can drop excuses that would explain away the three large bags I am carrying. I don’t want to be seen to be homeless, even though I honestly am homeless. I know that poverty is not a moral failing; and yet I feel shame.
This is the kind of thing The Psychopath, a.k.a. MRM, uses to harass me. “Aren’t you ashamed to be carrying all those bags around. Everyone can tell you’re homeless. And your poverty is a moral failing,” he once said in a text message. I was enraged but couldn’t reply, since I obey the mutual restraining order we have against one another even when he does not. I wanted to tell him that I feel no shame because it is his fault, not mine, that I am out on the street. In fact I am much happier homeless than I was being housed with him, enduring his abuse. But later, when I am thinking not of him but of the others who see me, I have to admit what I call my “embarrassment”, but what is, in fact, shame..