Roof, Shelter’s magazine, September/October 2006
The plight of the homeless first really dawned on me when I was twenty-one and living in America. My friend, Justin, and I were fast running out of money and needed work: we’d prepaid the rent on a short-term let – a poky studio flat just big enough to swing a cat in – and had just a few weeks remaining before we were out in the cold. Well, at least we were in Los Angeles, we told ourselves, the sun nearly always out in southern California. But, thankfully, work came in the nick of time.
We were hired by a pushy, blonde and busty LA girl – yes, the bosoms had, of course, been surgically enhanced – who was willing to take a chance on two young Brits (I doubt she would have hired us were we Mexicans), with no work permits, who needed money. However, it must be made clear that her motives were not entirely philanthropic: she knew she could pay us bugger all because we were working illegally, and it wasn’t as if we could throw the worker’s rights book at her. We had no rights … we were ‘aliens’ (according to the US Immigration and Nationality Act)! She also happened to have a bit of a soft spot for Justin: she couldn’t resist the English accent.
And so it was that we came to work for Balloon Celebrations, a business that made its money from selling latex, albeit latex balloons rather than condoms. The company was housed in a small retail complex that consisted of several shop units, and there was a common area at the rear which provided access to a large parking lot. It was there that I first met Lennie.
He was the very antithesis of the person I was working for. Not only was he not busty and blonde but also was someone who would have refused point-blank to cater for the excessive and ostentatious whims of the wealthy, and this was not just on account of his socialist principles. We had customers who spent tens of thousands of dollars on their own birthday party, and this was just the cost of the damn balloons! Lennie, rather, was someone of modest and humble disposition who lived a life on the streets, and had done for many years.
I heard him before I saw him, a man with a gravelly voice reciting John Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn. His recital immediately piqued my interest, not least because it was strange to hear the words of a nineteenth century English poet being spoken by a tough-sounding American guy in an ugly car park – though I’m not sure there is such a thing as a beautiful one – against a noisy backdrop of slamming doors, honking cars and moaning dump trucks.
Immediately I went looking for the source of this recitation, and with the closing words, ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ I finally came upon a man in his mid-fifties with a mass of wild grey hair and a thick beard with streaks of grey in it, slender, and of average height it appeared, though I could not be sure as he was sitting down, leaning against the side of a dumpster. He wore a threadbare jacket, check shirt and a grubby pair of trousers. By his bare feet there was a plastic bag full of old books and magazines.
The first thing I did was to offer him money, a dollar bill, which he refused with a gentle shake of his head. Had he not been homeless then I surely would have done something else first, perhaps said hello, introduced myself, asked his name. But no, on account of his appearance I assumed he wanted money and nothing more. He smiled, his eyes a radiant blue, then said, ‘I don’t want your money, but if you’ve finished with that sandwich in your hand then I’ll have the rest of it.’
I promptly gave it to him, and so it was that I came to know a little of the life of Lennie.
In many respects he was a man of great dignity, and such a quality does not come easy when you’re sleeping rough, when your clothes are ragged and filthy, your body foul-smelling and dirty.
Lennie had taught English literature at Penn State University. He had married late, to a woman he loved very much, and expected to spend the rest of his life with her. However, she had died suddenly, in the blink of an eye, in a car accident: the driver who hit her had been drunk.
During the months following her death, torn apart by grief, Lennie found it increasingly difficult to cope: he struggled to hold down his job, struggled to find a reason to get up in the morning. In the end his mental collapse was swift. One day he was simply unable to get out of bed, and just lay there in a fetal position. He spent three days like that until he finally summoned the will to call for an ambulance: he was immediately hospitalized.
His story was familiar to me – I had also suffered a mental collapse, though not on account of grief – but I had been fortunate enough to have someone there to pick up the pieces. And once I had got through the initial period of crisis, where the symptoms of anxiety and depression were most acute, I had the benefit of continued support: a roof over my head, free health care, someone to talk to. But Lennie, after he was discharged from hospital, had none of these things: he was simply bundled out of the door with a few pills in his pocket, some Prozac (an antidepressant) and Xanax (an anxiolytic).
It was a broken-heart that had rendered him homeless, that had changed the course of his life irrevocably, and I only discovered for myself what a broken-heart could do a few years later when a relationship I was in with a woman I loved very much fell apart.
It was with this experience and with Lennie in mind that I began work on my first novel, Love and Mayhem, a book about love and what can happen when it is lost.
Lennie’s story is sadly typical of many who live on the street. He wasn’t a drunk, he wasn’t a junkie, and he wasn’t just plain lazy – far from it in fact, he walked miles every day and was an avid reader (an activity which often requires significant thought, concentration and diligence, that is unless you’re reading The Sun newspaper) – but he had suffered a mental collapse, had then not been given the necessary care to help him back to work, back to mainstream society, and so had been left to muddle along on its fringes, in the shadows, behind dumpsters or in shop doorways.
Marginalized, life on the street had slowly become a way of life for him, and by the time I met Lennie he was almost committed to this renegade existence. And why not, part of me thought. If this life he now led gave him some measure of peace and happiness after years of pain and heartache, then why not just let him be.
Writing about Lennie makes me think of the plight of someone closer to home, Anne Naysmith, who lived for three decades, until 2002, in an old beat-up Ford Consul parked on a wealthy residential street in Chiswick, west London. A former concert pianist, she had suffered a nervous breakdown after a failed love affair. She subsequently took to living in her car, and had become quite content there. However, an argument slowly began to rage between the street’s residents until those who were most concerned simply about how her presence might affect the value of their homes finally won the day: they promptly had the council remove the car, and she was forced into public housing.
It does seem, when it comes to people like Lennie and Anne, that we are often too quick to force others to live as we do, and struggle when they cannot or will not conform. Perhaps we would sometimes do better to merely listen, to remind ourselves of what a broken-heart feels like. Or maybe it is just that our heart is yet to be truly broken?