via Daily Prompt: Forlorn
As a writer, I am always looking for ways to better enhance my workings, the best being to flat out experience from what a particular character or situation holds. So to better bring the character of Wallace the Humble in one of my short stories, I spent a weekend living with the homeless. Mind you it was in December of 2012, so naturally, I was freezing my bayou-born butt off, while flaming on why those who can afford a few Christmas lights always decide to make a pageant of a spectacle. Worst yet, it rained for a day and a night without end, so the ground was just as damp as the holiday spirit. I’ve been saddened before, but to physically see sadness as deep as it comes on those of the extremely less fortunate put me in a world of which I’m not too familiar with.
It started when I saw a homeless man outside of a Walmart chatting it up with a Salvation Army worker. For a man with nothing but the clothes on his back, he was in a surprisingly good mood, giving me the idea for the character. A few days later I saw him again on the side of a road lugging a rusty shopping cart around that was loaded with a few blankets, small pots, a couple of water bottles, and an old Louisiana vanity plate that read ‘LUCKY ME’. Still smiling, BTW. I convinced my friend to pull over so we could at least take him to the city shelter. He refused, not wanting to be a burden, and when he pointed just where he was staying, the sheer thought haunted us for days. He, along with a few other homeless people, had set up a makeshift camp underneath a covered part of an overpass, the bitterness of the infamous North wind driving directly through it. As we drove off, we couldn’t help but to look back and regret our own selfishness.
I came back later that week to locate that man, having the idea of a happy homeless character fueling what would be the most faith-testing adventure of my three decades alive. It was like a small community under that overpass, and in a sense, it was. The few that did reside there knew each other like neighbors, and I was an out-of-towner alienated their territory. I found the man a few feet from the front edge, singing Nat King Cole’s Unforgettable while boiling homemade coffee in one of his pots. I asked a series of questions about life in general without a home, and when I was finished, he invited me to find out for myself by staying with him for a night. No phone. The same clothes for days, even months. No shower. Little to no food. A bed is a flattened cardboard box that doubles as an umbrella. And, no matter how many coats you have on, it seems as if you can never get warm. As I left, the things he told me practically sunk whatever Christmas cheer I had.
The next day, it was Friday. I had nothing with me but some old clothes in a plastic bag; in case of an emergency, I told two friends about the endeavor and had them drive around the area every few hours to be my only connection to the world. My plan was just to spend the night with the homeless and in the morning catch an IHOP for breakfast. Nope. Wasn’t gonna happen. It rained for most of the day, so finding a dry place to settle in was almost like solving a Rubix Cube–every spot had good points and equally discerning bad points. I was able to make a spot next to the man, and thankfully, he offered to be my guide through all of this. Saturday Morning came with the stench of defecation, one of the women had a bowel accident overnight. The rains were off and on, so getting out and about was not an option. Sunday morning didn’t smell, but it did hold its fair share of stray dogs that wanted us as chew toys. A typical morning for me consists of coffee, breakfast, and a quick check of the day’s local news and weather. This morning consisted of being damp, surrounded by trash drivers tossed overnight, and watching an old lady argue with herself about why the wheel should be reinvented. One man suggested a walk to a food pantry, Abraham’s Tent, about a mile or so away. I took it with a grain of salt–walk on the side of a busy highway while drivers splash sitting water, becoming a speeding blindsiding wall of cold wetness. Even damper than before, we eventually made it to the pantry. Rightfully named, it serves as a welcoming place for any in need.
We stayed there through the day to keep as warm as possible, as I managed to chat with people from all walks of life, seeing first hand how poverty doesn’t discriminate. Some folks were homeless, some with disabilities, some had children & just needed a meal, yet the craziest thing is that most had a smile on their faces. Despite being dealt a terrible hand in the game of life, every dark moment has some light in it–you just have to go looking for it. I didn’t want to go back to the overpass, seeing the cold temperatures drop even colder as the day continued, but had to in order to complete this mission. The ones I arrived with to the pantry didn’t want to either but told me this is how they live. Without aid from the fortunate, they starve, freeze (or dehydrate when it’s hot) and succumb to numerous illnesses, which can spread among them quicker than wildfires. One of the younger homeless men cracked one about some Sundays having church sermons under our cold overpass: it is almost impossible to clap hands and rejoice when you can barely move your fingers LOL. A few hours later, we were still at the food pantry when an SUV drives up. My buddies rolled by the overpass to check on me, noticed I was missing and had decided to check with pantry staff on my whereabouts. They too were floored by seeing just how good they live when compared to the pantry patrons.
I was done, grateful to be launching myself into my own bed, but experiencing all of this gives me a powerful perspective on how to format my character Wallace’s personality, background, lifestyle, and whatever else I could come up with. He would be down on his luck, but happy as a kid in a candy store, and hoping to make others feel the same as not to allow the obvious keep spirits low. Since then, I still pass by that overpass, never to forget that weekend nor the people with me, and feeling I owe a debt to society just for being a bit privileged, I rack up volunteer time at some of the local pantries and shelters. To be forlorn about things, no matter how bad they seem, only further enhances problems. And, I strongly believe THAT theory is what will make mankind rise above from the challenges that plague us today.
Author’s Note: Being that I was exposed to the elements, I prepared myself by getting whatever shots and vaccines I may have needed before venturing out. I advise anyone attempting the same feat of being homeless to do the same–take whatever precautions necessary.