Tired, hungry, sick and disconnected I went on an after hours hunt for food. These places were easy to spot, despite your state of mind, in the midst of new construction and parking lots stood a few, gothic style Catholic churches. The few places in the city which still leaves out bags of non-perishable food for the needy, and at that moment – I was needy. Although my needs were about to be superseded by a wild-card as I approached the closest church where I heard it before I saw it in the styling of Cypress Hill’s, Insane in the Brain,

Cocaine in the membrane, I got cocaine on the brain!

The veterans on the roof, for a while, began to even out and almost relax around me. About an hour and fifteen minutes into the dabs, then the standard pot as two pipes made their passes. This was topped off with a heavy indulgence of warm, canned Natural Light beer. I partook in the beers, as the pot would have made me incoherent and lackadaisical. I was working after all, and if I can do one thing, I can handle my booze. Although I would need to eat soon, but I was the only one waiting for breakfast now turned lunchtime. I rested on hope for my half loaf of bread that I passed off for sandwiches, which would never arrive.

Without Regards for Society

Between the beers I listened as they spoke at me, only Martins spoke to me. According to Martins, there was nothing worth worrying about this life that they have chosen. He had, “Turned back to time to the good old days,” or whatever that meant to him. Even so, he was the strangest case of the bunch, as he would sometimes speak with the confidence of a Non-Commissioned Officer. Then without warning, he would get lost in his thoughts, become sheepish, and fade out for a bit before returning to something near the point his was making. I still cannot quite put my finger on exactly what was the cause of that, beyond speculation. It may have been the war or a parasite – I didn’t have the means to diagnosis him.

We had been on the roof well into the afternoon, and as time passed so did the crowd who seemed to wander in a rotation. The conversations picked up and just as easily would drone off, as we competed against the sounds from the Interstate, railyard, and recycling plants. From the noise of their disjointed voices, I collected as many details as I could. My stomach churned against the NatiLight, now replaced by some kind of terrible red table wine and a few plastic pints of Jim Beam entered the show to make their way around a communal circle of rooftop day drinking.

As my stomach grumbled from my bagged wine breakfast, followed by an increasing flow of cheap booze. I then looked around and realized that I was the only one with any meat on my bones. This enclave of Homeless Veterans and Railway Kids were rockstar skinny, and VH1 Behind the Music, beaten and battered from living within the homeless scene. It was something I missed earlier as the sun finally parted through the clouds. The sunlight really exposed the layers of filth and hard living. No one here was healthy or remotely clean except for me. I hoped they wouldn’t notice.

The Well Financed Career Path of the Homeless Hustler

I sat and listened as I was now being preached to, in what seemed to be an offset competition of storytelling and bragging. Things were starting to make a little more sense, asides the materials that they had collected from friends, family, and scrounging they were playing the system to facilitate their lifestyle. I won’t contest their earned income from Veterans Affairs Compensation and Pension for the veterans, but they were also running a nationwide welfare racket.

The competition reached a pinnacle of excitement and pride in craft and accomplishment as a near tribal element of storytelling erupted with laughs and high fives. Their voices carrying over one another in an excess of varying places , people, and their varying misadventures. The points I collected from the way they laid it out, was that were all essentially lost in life for one reason or another, and in an act of happenstance found one another.

As they, this band of intoxicated youth and veterans traveled via the hobo express, by hopping trains across the nation. They picked up and lost various people yet they would learn a trick or two from those they met along the way. Last fall, from Cincinnati, Martins and Jake had met some of the Railway Kids at a local super-dive bar and eventually traveled West to California with them on the trains. They were out for the California sun and a Food Stamp program that does not require residence in the  State of California and apparently does not register if you’re double dipping from the system. Everyone here was receiving a government benefit of some form or another; Disability, Food Stamps, Social Security, and Welfare. Some claimed to have a system with a second ID so that their friends in California would keep their Food Stamp cards filled and have their Welfare checks direct deposited from two States. A few claimed to be running the same scam through Salt Lake City, Utah specifically which has an acclaimed homeless program, which they were also exploiting to triple dip.

These goddamned bums were making nearly four times the amount of money I make every month. I was getting pissed, as I sat there and listed to their intoxicated giggles from their carefree lifestyle . . . Was I a goddamned fool for working several gigs and still only clearing a fraction of what they clear in a month?

From this State in Welfare and Food Stamps alone, they cleared around $1,800, $1,300 from California, and $1,100 from Utah. Their other benefits seemed to be scattered and more individualized. This does not include the cash and items that they get from “flying a sign,” begging on streets, or from their family and friends. Meanwhile, I don’t clear a Welfare disbursement of a single State for any one of my gigs . . . What the hell is wrong with this picture?

I’m Out!

That current situation was on the verge of collapse as I started asking too many questions as an outsider to an inebriated group. My gut was twerking with the all-day booze punch, and I was sweating a little. Then the questions came back around to me, and Jake was no longer backing me up. He was now leading an offensive against me. Jake came out of the woodwork, “Man, just who the fuck did you say you were again anyway?” I shot back, “Hey, fuck you! You made it a point to drag me along with you.” But we were past reason, and there was a weird silence. That was my cue as some very intoxicated hamsters mounted the wheels in their brains to formulate a counter to this ornery upstart. I said that I had to take a piss, and walked right out the way I came in.

Such lessons were often placeholders in his life, almost another reality. The murky perception was that of one who has to live like this and actually be indoctrinated and live that  terrible life. I was just going through a few of the motions that they must. Yet, I knew why I was here and moved forward.

“Glass-ceilings be damned,” I thought and I reorganized the clear and present threat of meandering around downtown at all hours seeking and interacting the homeless.

A few ideas bounced around my head until I heard my stomach again. I couldn’t risk being seen by any watching eyes going shopping, the homeless see everything in the streets. So I looked up at the sun, and it was setting, and with that news, my heart sank. There was no way that I was going to make the chow line at my shelter, but I could canvass the few city churches that left bags of non-perishable food out. I waded through the rabble of the downtown close of business and hoped that anyone I know leaving work wouldn’t spot me.

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I just kept my head down and slumped into my pack, and cast my eyes out as feelers in search of food. As I went forth I was marking features to any dumpster near a restaurant that I thought that I could get to in the state that I was in. I had hunger, distress, and some sickness on my face and the people I passed in the street immediately recognized it. I was the rat-king, as they cleared a path for me and kept an awkward placement around me while I made my way down the sidewalks.

They saw that I needed something, but they weren’t sure what, and it terrified them.

Take Me to Church

I carried on, with a lust for food and was soon greeted by one of the church spires. They’re unmistakable, the old gothic style Catholic churches of downtown, which now stick out like a sore thumb amidst the steel and glass of modern construction and errant parking lots. Although the serenity of my salvation was broken suddenly by loud and belligerent voices that pierced the air like an air raid siren. A coming storm, the thunder I heard was an off tempo Cyprus Hill song, but as it rolled in I discovered freestyle remixes in their most raw form. On a beat relative enough to understand I was invasively treated to a play on ‘Insane in the Brain,’ by Cyprus Hill. The op-ed lyrics bellowed out from a larger young man,

Cocaine in the membrane, I got cocaine on the brain!

This rendition went on as I closed in on the church, but his performance had gained heavy support and applause from an unseen audience. Around the corner, in the alley, by the side door drop point, was another homeless population, seven people collecting food and enjoying a live custom remix. In the group, I recognized two of them from my university experience, a Desert Storm veteran, a tanker and a Panama veteran, an MP. They were flagrant and completely wasted, on what I speculate from the song, crack-cocaine. Albeit, I needed to get to the food that was clearly there. As I approached it was the classic scene from a movie, where the record skips when the protagonists walk into the wrong place. Halfway up the alley a voice said, “What’s up, white boy?”

This rendition had now turned the into a conversation about me, and I didn’t give a damn. I just thought to myself, more drugs and how high of an opinion the homeless population had of drugs. The conversations became belligerent to the points beyond recreation and to a distorted and overlapping explanation as to how I needed to, “Get [my] ass up out of here.” Again, I didn’t care, and sat down to eat, and that was it. I assume they initially thought I was a normal person, but my appearance and actions demonstrated otherwise.

Over a can of Vienna sausages, a pop-tart and a small container of orange drink. I ate and listened to a block of instruction on local narcotics; how to identify, purchase at a decent price, where to hang out, what is fun to do and who to buy from. Their night was clearly planned out, but I needed to get back to the city shelter and check my phone, as I left for this excursion on the fly. I’d also need someplace safe to sleep for the night.


Featured Image –Wikimedia Commons