Hiding Under Covers§
by Russell Dyer
published: september 15, 2003; revised: september 15, 2003; readers in past month: 127
Blessed are those who are poor, for the kingdom of God is theirs. I am the poor, and yet I do not feel blessed. I live in the kingdom of the American dream, and yet I cannot sleep in comfort. Who am I? I am perhaps somebody’s brother, somebody’s father, somebody’s uncle, somebody’s cousin, and without doubt, I am somebody’s son. I am the homeless.
I used to have a job, but not a good one. I once had some money, but not much. I had a family, but not anymore. My job now is to figure out how to eat today—and it’s always today. My money now is a tattered social security card that my mother got for me when I was a child. It allows me to get three nights of sleep a month from the shelter. They’d give us more nights, but there are too many of us. So that we all get a turn, they keep track of us not by name, but by social security number—that’s why I need the card. They’re trying to be fair. But it doesn’t feel fair the other twenty-seven days a month when I sleep one hour at a time on benches, in alleys, wherever I can hide until a policeman pokes me in the gut to wake me up. I remember reading in high school that we dream for a short time every ninety minutes of sleep. What that means to me is that if it weren’t for the shelter, I would have no dreams.
As for my family, the other guys on the street are now my brothers. It’s not a handsome family; nor is it one in which I’m proud. Some lost their minds, and no institution will have them. Some got drunk and when they woke up they found themselves here and don’t know how to get back home. So they get drunk whenever they can, hoping that when they wake up the next time they will magically return home like Dorothy. Funny thing is that Kansas was a gray, destitute place. But any home is sweet to the homeless. Some of us merely lost our jobs and were evicted from our homes; we were then turned away by people who are supposed to love us. Regardless of how each got into this hole where there is only survival, once you’re in it, you can’t get out because the walls get higher each day that you survive. As for me, how I got here doesn’t matter. All that matters is that I am here.
“Next!” a clerk shouts at me from a few feet away. I push my body to the desk and hand him my social security card. The clerk takes my card and flips through the box of index cards looking for my number, reminding me of a librarian. But this grungy fool is nothing like the clean and proper woman I remember from my school library. This Dewey decimaler is one of us bums who kissed up to the priest that comes by here once a week to say Mass and landed himself this little job that guarantees him a bed each night and ten dollars a week. The last guy who had this spot lost it because one week he spent his ten dollars on a bottle of whiskey, got drunk, and then told off the priest. This poor schmuck will probably last about a month.
The clerk looks up past me saying, “You were here twenty seven days ago. Next!”
“Wait a minute! That’s not how it works,” I complain.
Fortunately, a deacon who’s walking by comes over and asks, “Is there a problem?”
The clerk explains my bad attitude and shows him my record. I always come on the third of the month and today’s the third. I come on the third because I was born on November 3rd. It’s not so that I’ll remember, but I like to celebrate my birthday once a month. I know it’s childish, but it makes me feel good. Of course, I don’t want to tell them that.
The deacon explains to the new guy that the one-month count starts from the first day of the three-day stay, not the last day. He whispers, “They can only remember to come on the same day each month.” Doesn’t he know that I can hear him and that this idiot is one of them? It doesn’t matter, though. As long as I get a bed.
Having cleared the front desk, some other jerk takes my bag after I pull out a couple of items that I need for the night. Then I’m probed by another with a hand-held metal detector. Next I’m pushed into a large community shower where ‘All must shower whether they need it or not,’ the sign says. Of course we all need showers. What are they thinking? All cleaned up, but still smelling funky in my dirty clothes, I am admitted to the dormitory where I must scramble to grab my favorite bed: I like the bed nearest the exit.
We’re allowed to lie in bed and read for two hours before lightsout. I have five books that I keep with me. I’m embarrassed to say that two are romance novels that I dug out of a dumpster of a library. I heard from one of the other guys that libraries toss them out regularly. They’re not very good, but it’s something to read when I’m bored. I ripped their covers off so that people won’t know what I’m reading. People don’t understand the choices that we have to make. I also have one of those little Gideon bibles. Some Christian gave it to me instead of the dollar I asked of him. I don’t like to read it too much: I don’t want to find joy in my hardship. One neat book that I have is a philosophy book. I bought it in a bookstore. Boy, that wasn’t an easy transaction. People always panic when we go into a store. They’re afraid that we might talk to them or use the bathroom. I like the book, though, because it makes me think. You have to keep the mind working or you’ll lose it out here. Besides, I sometimes like to imagine myself as a philosopher who walks the streets at night working through life’s mysteries, and it helps to have a prop.
As for the fifth book, I only read it once a month when it’s my birthday. It’s not a reading book really. It’s a picture book on animals. My dad bought it when I was a baby. He died when I was three of cancer, from smoking Lucky Strike cigarettes. I don’t remember much about him, but I remember him showing me this book when I was little. I think because of the colors, I particularly liked the bird pictures. So my dad always slowed down for those and told me stories about them. I don’t remember the stories, but I do remember the pictures and I remember how I felt lying in bed next to him as he showed them to me. I also remember my dad one day showing the book to his brother (my Uncle Clinton) at the dinner table. They were reading about the Tasmanian Devil and its fierceness. I remember my uncle seeming impressed. So now until the lights go off, I show my brothers here the pictures of the mammals and I tell them stories about them. Some guys make fun of me, but some will sit next to me on my bed and look with interest and are impressed. But when all the lights go off except the red exit sign over my bed, I hide under the covers and look at the pictures of the birds in the dim light until I drift off to sleep and dream of my dad.
Who am I? I am the least among you, but I do not feel first. When I was hungry, you did not feed me. When I was thirsty, you did not give me drink. I am the man you drive past, the man you walk briskly around, the one you avoid. I am the homeless.