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The incongruous mission style of the library doesn’t match this wintry landscape. The building looks almost too bright, warm and cozy…
I have been here before.
I played a few concerts for the homeless, graciously organized by the local administration…then I hung about for a while. My son maybe skateboarding in the surrounding park — tensed, aloof, mad at me as he was in his early teen years, when I dragged him around various activities. Concerts for the homeless being some of them.
Still, besides the awkwardness of dragging a child to whom I couldn’t give all due attention, I remember the peace coming from the place itself.
A park and a library: they inherently feed the soul with freedom and mercy.
Here I listened to a concert as well, from a band other than those I played with. The fiddler was excellent and I knew the bass player, having danced with him for a TV clip. He was there with his wife and children, bidding time more graciously, I reckon, than my child when I was squeezing my box. We get what we deserve.
Once, I looked in this library for a book on Violeta Parra. I was wondering about artists and suicide. I found what I was seeking.
Last winter I was homeless. Temporarily, still full of uncertainty and ill at ease. It’s not fun, at no age, under no condition.
I remember sitting in the cold early morning, by various libraries, since I had nowhere else to go. I waited for the opening hour, holding my 7/11 cup of coffee (the smallest and cheapest one) as a treasure. A round, circumscribed happiness.
Searching for a new home was a long ordeal. Finding it in the end was heaven. My abode, my refuge, my orderly and fertile surroundings… could I live without it? I guess I could not.
Today, one year later, I sit here with my cup and a notebook. I have a place to go back: this is a just a visit. But I recognize the feeling, and it’s comfy for I know it well. I have been homeless, in fact, more than once and I can live like this, too.
Yes, this rigor becomes me.
This simplicity, devoid of responsibility, easy, easy to hold.
In front of the library I write, sitting on a stone step since this building (on street, almost) misses a front yard, a porch, an anti chamber of sort. No big deal. I sit sideways on my improvised bench, and it fits me.
Once more I am waiting for the opening time, to return a movie (there’s no outside container for audiovisual materials). To dispose of expired batteries (another thing libraries are good for).
The guy lands his heavy backpack near me, a large smile on his face. His expression, no doubt, shows he’s going to start talking. I’m not in that mood but, oh well, people are like the weather. You don’t get to choose. It rains when it rains.
Like rain, the guy’s conversation pours on me, sudden and inescapable. His arriving was the preceding cloud, casting its shadow from above. The metaphor is strikingly complete.
I assume he’s homeless, although, really, on which basis? Hard to say.
Maybe, technically he’s not. He might have slept in a shelter, somewhere he can go back tonight, every night. Somewhere, though, where he can’t leave his stuff: all is in his backpack, loaded beyond imagination.
Is such a place called home? I’m not sure and I wonder, since it happened to me as well. Living in places where none of my belongings was safe, for they could be stolen in a blink and they would be. No, I couldn’t call that home.
Of course, his situation is different. Here, the reason why he needs to clear all isn’t danger, exactly. Mostly, shelters don’t take reservations. You can’t hold your seat. First arrived first served. Where there’s no money involved, we are interchangeable. We have no identity, we are a bunch of no ones. You can’t leave a rose on your bed stand. It is not your bed stand. It is not your rose.
The homeless guy is happy. His smile creases a half moon on his chiseled face. Chiseled not because of the finery of his features, of course. But because whoever held the burin went overboard, tracing the equivalent of a labyrinth on his skin. Definitely this man is weathered. Maybe he doesn’t spend his nights in a shelter, after all. Still, he doesn’t emanate the characteristic stench one should expect. Evidently, he carries his toiletry in the bulging rucksack, and he regularly washes up, in the library.
Still focused on my page, where it was my intention to remain, I miss details of his initial statements. I vaguely register… their vagueness. Although starting with the particular (what brought him here, today, at this time: that I can’t possibly recall, having paid no attention) he soon bounced to generalities. He dove into the ecological, philosophical and political, without stopping for breath. He likes very long sentences, filled up, spilling over… I nod from below, barely lifting my gaze, my pen still in my hand.
Cruel of me: I finally sense it. I put my pen down.
The guy takes a step back. Do I stink? Perhaps. One never knows. I hope not, but it doesn’t matter enormously. I think he steps back to examine me: that I let him do.
In a glance, he scans the cheap necklace I wear and he asks about it. Only for conversation sake: he knows what the pendant symbolizes. At that distance, he figures the nature of two minuscule stones. He guesses the first one. With the second one (way more difficult) he comes close. Now I smile and I give him the answer. I can tell it was on the tip of his tongue.
From the same vintage point, a few minutes later, he comments on the color of my sweater. A strange color: I cherish it for its oddity. Everyone I know would say beige. I would never wear beige. “Rope” he says, his smile getting larger, if thinkable. Yes. Rope.
The neckline is also of a singular shape, that none of my acquaintances could name. He does it immediately, with visible satisfaction. It’s hard to say if his joy, increasing with each discovery, comes from my fashion choices (possibly of his taste) or, indeed, from his ability to name them. Promptly, perfectly.
Clearly, he doesn’t just brush his teeth at the library.
“Mother,” asks my young son while we walk, as usual, towards our local 99 cents store, crossing the huge parking lot with its regular stand-byers, “why all drunk and homeless men like you?”
I look longtime for an answer. I’m still looking. There are so many choices, all true.
“That is the only state allowing them to do so. If they were sane and sound they’d dislike me.” “They’ve a bunch of time on their hands, so they can like whoever goes by.” “I don’t scare them.” “I’m not scared of them.” “I resemble them.”
Well, not that much. Resemblance between a homeowner, a home renter and a homeless can’t be but a fiction of sort.
I don’t resemble them. I don’t envy their condition. I don’t even envy the freedom that comes with it, as a consolation prize, maybe? I’m not sure.
But that freedom hits me on the side. It burns my cheek like a cool breeze. That’s good, even in wintertime. I can’t ignore it.
Freedom has a price, I was taught, long ago. Yes. In fact it’s paid by the ounce, the gram, the milligram. An infinitesimal drop, smaller than this chip of stone hung around my neck, is an arm and a leg. Literally.
Sometimes, when you buy it on the spur of the moment (always after one of too many) you don’t realize what you signed for, do you?
Only the morning after.
Toti O’Brien’s work was published in The Altadena Review, Poetic Diversity, Edgar Allan Poet and other journals. She has published two children books, two collections of short stories and one of essays in Italian. She has contributed for a decade to Italian magazines such as Mezzocielo, Salpare, L’Ostile and Inguine with articles, reviews and short stories.