Although I didn’t know it at the time, I was biking from Chicago to the Ohio River. I was half way, in Champaign-Urbana, in a bike store buying an extra light. When I came out, a group of boys was gathered around my bike. It was a sight. On the back of my road bike was a tent, a sleeping bag and two panniers filled with clothes, books, tools and cooking gear. They asked me what I was doing. I said I was biking from town to town. They asked me where I slept. I slept in my tent, in a park or on a field, wherever I could find. ‘You’re homeless!’ they shouted. ‘No’, I explained, ‘I’m not homeless. I’m traveling. ‘No you’re not’, they said, ‘you’re homeless!’
We can say we’re one thing but be something else in someone else’s eyes. At the time I was homeless, even though I didn’t know it or think it. But I wasn’t, I thought to myself, like the homeless back in Chicago. They were really homeless. They weren’t volunteers, but victims of circumstance and misfortune. I on the other hand, my homelessness was a matter of choice. I wasn’t really homeless.
There’re a lot of homeless people in Boulder Colorado, where I’m writing this now. And a lot of them aren’t really homeless- it seems to be a freely chosen life-style rather than a calamity. They’re less destitute than bohemian. They live in packs, ranging from 6-18 individuals, hanging around the public library and public parks, sleeping in vans insulated with spray foam, the kind you put around a window, or in sleeping bags under trees or in the park. They might have a dog with them, usually a couple of instruments and some weed. They’re also self-righteous. They’re proud of their life-style, their homelessness, their supposed freedom from a job, home and all the soul-sucking implications.
Their pride became obvious to me as I sat on a bench by the Boulder Creek, watching them on the other side, when behind me a group of young recruits, Air Force, started running past in groups of 6-18, wearing identical blue shorts, grey shirts, short hair-cuts and shoes, and one of the homeless guys jumped up from his sleeping bag and started clapping and shouting, cheering and jeering: ‘Hurry! Faster! GO! GO! GO!’
He was mocking them for being in the Air Force and running and trying to improve themselves and trying in general. He meant to make them feel inferior, but the runners didn’t even notice him- they looked empowered, like they were having fun. I remember when I was in cross-country in high school running together along paths early in the morning through woods and trails different than the normal rubber track. Getting back to the school bus where a jug of Gatorade hung out the back, it was only 10 AM but you’d already run 10 miles and were feeling alive as the sun started to shine fully straight over head.
Later, I tell my sister about my observations of the homeless folk. She’s familiar. She refers to them as Travelers OR Rainbow People OR Gutter Punks. They’re a distinct subculture found in most cities, less often in a place like Chicago, which has a long winter and doesn’t suffer loafers gladly. You find them more often in places like San Francisco, Boulder, and libérale Montreal (despite its winter). One of my sister’s friends used to be one, she says, but now her friend has a kid, a house and a salary; she actually likes her more traditional life-style. She likes the consistency, the knowing-where-you’re-going-to-sleep and what’s going to happen Today.
We have choices to make about who we are and what we do and we can make different choices at different times in our lives. When I was biking cross-country, I recognized that- despite being outside on a farmer’s land listening to coyotes- the setting-up and breaking-down of the tent and the cooking and necessary chores to ensure my bike and body functioned was a form of domesticity. Now my life is much more explicitly domestic. Nobody mistakes me for homeless. But neither am I running with a group, chasing a common prize. I’m somewhere between, identifying with both, listening to the Boulder Creek rush away.