portion of the artwork for P.H. Madore's creative nonfiction

Home Free
America from the Outside Looking In
P.H. Madore

Fast-forward to now: I am married to a wonderful woman named Breanna. We have two sons, one of whom was born just the other month. I work from home and draw a disability pension from the Army, facilitated by the Veterans Administration because they believe I’m more disabled than does the Army. I tend to agree with the Army, but recently I had my final call with them: moved to the permanent disability retirement list. Many times since getting married, I’ve wished they’d let me back in. Certain things are simpler on a military installation, like who belongs in your driveway and when (long story), what the cost of food should be, what “affordable rent” means. Also: as an Infantry guy I hardly ever worked later than 5 p.m. when in the United States.

When I met Breanna, we didn’t have a home, neither of us. We met at a Rainbow Gathering in Texas, at the Angelina National Forest, one of the first of its kind in a long time. She had no idea about my writing, or my computer work, or even my time in the Army. She liked me for me, broke and homeless as I was. We were married within a month, our first son was born not quite a year later. It’s been rough sometimes. We’ve learned a lot about each other and ourselves.

We don’t have too many people to thank for our actual getting off the street. It would have happened one way or the other, but the VA definitely gave us a boost by putting us in touch with some programs that were able to help us through it all. We flew cardboard signs when all else failed, and hardly ever paid for gas when we were on the street. We bought a car in Iowa with her student loans. Probably the most expensive car I’ll ever buy, considering everything.

In my 27 years, I’ve been homeless over a year, maybe two. From my most recent, longest stint, I kept journals. Here’s an excerpt from when I was trying to hitchhike out of Florida, shortly before I met my wife. I called it “Starvation Journal” in Google Docs using a prepaid Android phone I’d bought in order to date a girl in San Francisco. I walked 47 miles in all, never caught a single ride, until I reached Ponce de Leon. From there I was pretty much able to catch rides all the way to Lufkin. Here’s some of my thoughts from then:

I’ve been walking my ass off since leaving a kind stranger’s house in Panama City, where I got to watch Georges St. Pierre masterfully fuck up Nick Diaz once and for all; Diaz said he was retiring after the match, which is probably wise of him. I really should’ve spanged longer at the Walmart yesterday morning. I only collected $18, spent every red cent between coffee, donuts, and cigarettes, and got a move on. How fucking silly and shortsighted! Paying for it now. Have no fear on that.

Last night I trekked 10 miles before sleeping on a rural bridge sidewalk until being assaulted by a fakeout sudden morning rain which drove me under the bridge for an hour. Couldn’t get back to sleep so despite my aching body I carried on. Turned out I was only a mile from the next turn I had to take in Ebro. Thought about begging the cashier at the lone gas station in that lonely town for food. Didn’t because I hardly ever bother people and I was sort of digging the deathmarch diet plan. How stupid.

I took a nap by the SR81 sign with my new hat over my eyes and my cardboard sign visible in case anyone was feeling angelic. This was after about 8 miles. Some black kids from Illinois stopped to take pictures with their cell phones. Apparently they’ve never seen a hitchhiker rest before. Who knows? I’m facebook famous to somebody.

All day I’ve been trying to manifest food with prayers to Zeus himself. The best I got were a few half-full Mountain Dews, aged to discoloration but still caloried and caffeinated. But upon seeing this rest stop I figured these trash cans might yield some chow. Presto, right on top of the second can was a Whattaburger bag containing a half-eaten double cheeseburger, some fries, and a chicken sandwich similar to the burger. Whattablessing.

When you’re on the streets, something like a cup of coffee becomes an object of desire, and the only people who’ll really talk to you are also homeless, and therefore usually looking for a way to come up. I will say that homeless people are more human than most of the housed. Sharing is a rule, not a rare act of kindness. If you know the other person and you have more than one of something, say a cigarette or a french fry, you share with them. You never know when that person might save you from getting arrested or worse.

That’s the other thing about being homeless: you’re usually against the law. Just by existing. The shelters are traps at best, places of misery or forced worship, and if you’re trying to travel, just a waste of time. The food isn’t usually better than what you can find in a given dumpster, and the whole locking you in at 7 p.m. and kicking you out at 6 a.m. thing seems more like an act of control than an act of charity. In Denver, for instance, you must have ID, must attend their version of Baptist church, and there’s a lottery system for who gets a bed anyway. A conspiracy theorist might query why it’s still so easy for homeless people to go missing in Denver, with such tracking in place. But if such a person is wanted on a warrant, rest assured: they’ll be found.

At the time I met my wife, I can remember all the things I possessed: a Walmart brand rucksack, an extra pair of jeans, two BiC lighters, the rarely charged cell phone, a light sleeping bag I stole from the Sports Authority in Parkmerced, San Francisco, and a couple of other random pieces of cloth I used for pillows and whatnot. I rarely slept a full night. Hell, I rarely slept. I remember many times getting drunk with the bums in somewhere like Denver, watching them all pass out, and picking up to roam the streets all night. I had a constant fear of waking up to an angry police officer.

Small things would excite me, like getting to a new town. I had a strange feeling of elation when I reached Covington, Louisiana. I went and flew a sign at their Walmart; it was still many days before my next beer day, or paycheck from the VA. I remember very clearly this one lady, she inspected me closely. She asked me to smile, to see if I had the meth teeth. She asked me to roll up my sleeves, to see if I had heroin tracks. Then she gave me a $5 bill. A guy behind her honked, I ran over. He handed me a $20 and a $10. Without getting too deep into the finances of being broke and house-less, it’s easy to get quick cash. It’s not easy to get enough money for place to live, leaving aside all the other struggles that go with that.

I’d probably still be out there right now if I weren’t married. I had no idea what I was doing anymore. I wrote sometimes, but I didn’t care about it. I sometimes dreamed of computer programs I’d never written. But for the most part I just looked forward to the next buzz, the next city, the next cigarette, pilfered pair of Walmart socks, Rainbow Gathering, music festival. I did spend a lot of time reading about cryptography, though, when I was stationary and near a power outlet.

In Texas, things began to shift. I saw her first online, but didn’t want to bother her. Later on I’d find out no one really ever had, at least not in a good way. She started it. I was just minding my business, slurping campfire coffee and smoking community cigarettes, occasionally pitching in with cleanup or something.

She’d traveled there with her brother, and he had decided to leave with some other hippies to go on what’s called the “Rainbow Trail,” every regional gathering between then and the national one, which that year was in Montana. I don’t think she believed much I’d told her about myself before we left the gathering. I understood her hesitancy to trust, but in the end the life skills I had picked up turned out to be pretty useful. The guy she left in Iowa, he was a real scumbag, not a lost soul. A child of privilege who could get it together but wouldn’t. He stalked us for a while, which culminated with a rock to his forehead in Mt. Shasta, California. Shortly after that, she and I decided on Colorado, where I studied to be a mechanic for a while.

Once we knew she was pregnant, I got pretty serious, pretty fast. In Iowa, where she had originally been heading, I found a job that paid far more than minimum wage. That sort of got us going, but the employer was a dickhead. I couldn’t stand Iowa. I was so relieved when she said we could leave. Here’s something I wrote not long after we got married, while she was asleep in a motel bed:

I think I need to drink less. Or not at all. From now on, I think, I’ll only drink when it’s Baby’s idea. Because I love her and I hate how I am when I am drunk around her. Because I don’t know when enough is enough. Because I drink too fast. Because it gets the best of me. Because all the problems are still there when I wake up, and many of them are worse.

And fuck you with your meetings bullshit. It’s just not my style. I don’t need your coffee, your god, your cigarettes: I need my lady. And I have her. What a feeling, seriously, to know that someone will stay with you no matter what you go through. That she will starve with you, sleep under a bridge with you, or kill a motherfucker for you. (Seriously, she probably would.)

Last night Baby said she expected I’d be “meaner.” That says enough in itself.

For me, being homeless was like a bargain with the gods: I will go out and suffer until something good comes along. My wife asked me to marry her and that kind of woke me up. I hadn’t been treated like a human being in a long time, not really. I was never very social, and never very nice.

If you want to learn about America, see it through the eyes of the person on the street. Sleep on the sidewalks of Denver, San Francisco, D.C., Houston, Kansas City, Oklahoma City, Miami. For many people, living on the streets is the most horrific thing they can imagine, but I can think of worse things.

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 46 | Fall 2015