Up By the Bootstraps (Or, Why I Write These Stories)
One day, a coworker discovers I am a writer and asks what my book is about. After listening to my ‘elevator pitch,’ the man scowls, skepticism all over his face. “I would never read your book,” he informs me. He’s not a publisher, not an agent, not an editor. He’s a regular guy, a man on the street, so to speak. I’m testing my premise out on people like him, people who don’t know me, who aren’t writers. I’m trying to determine how broad an audience I might have for a book with homeless characters.
The man pauses in his work, straightens his back, faces me. “How come you know so much about homeless people, anyway?”
“I spend a lot of time with them.”
“Well, I used to hang out with them on the street, mostly downtown. For a while I went into their encampments. I like to photograph graffiti, and sometimes I would just stumble into-”
“Hold on.” He holds up a palm, cuts me off. “By yourself?”
“You must be nuts.”
I choose not to respond to this assessment. “But now, mostly, I eat with them at St. Ben’s.”
“What’s that? Like a soup kitchen or something?”
“It’s a meal program.”
The man scoffs. “I have no sympathy for those people. Plenty of people come from nothing and they don’t end up homeless.”
Here we go. To be fair, he isn’t the only person to go off in this direction. Many people feel this way. I launch into my usual list of mitigating factors: low wages, part time work, cost of child care, job loss, lack of insurance, lack of transportation. I want people to think about that before I add: incarceration, evictions, mental health issues. I get through this list before I even mention substance abuse. This time, sensing hostile territory, I omit that particular issue.
The man shakes a finger at me. “You see? They wouldn’t have those problems in the first place if they just tried harder. If they went to school and got an education. If they just stayed out of trouble. Most of them are a bunch of alcoholics and drug addicts. Why should we-” he points back and forth between the two of us several times for emphasis- “be paying taxes to support those people?”
“I mean,” he continues, “why can’t they just pick themselves up by their bootstraps and get a job?” As he resumes his work, he says, “No. I would never read a book like yours.”
The book he’s never going to read is my novel, Tagged. To be honest, I am working off a loose autobiographical base. The protagonist, a woman about my age is, like me, estranged from her child (in my case two children). To cope with loneliness and depression, she buys a camera and starts wandering, discovering beauty in abandoned places plastered with graffiti. Soon, she meets and befriends homeless people. That’s where the parallels with my life end, all laid out in Chapter One. The rest is pure fiction. I don’t know what my children would think of the book because I don’t really know them anymore.
It’s a long tradition, taking pain and sorrow and turning it into art. Making any kind of art for possible public viewing is a vulnerable activity. Half the population will respond with distain.
As the writing evolved, draft by draft, it became clear to me that the book is really about compassion and redemption. Estrangement is a much more common phenomenon in our culture than we realize or admit. It carries a certain shame. No one knows how to respond when they learn you are estranged. People know what to do when someone dies. They bring you flowers, and casseroles and attend a funeral. A body is buried or cremated. And in time, it’s over.
With estrangement, there is no familiar path. People stammer and wonder what to say, what to do. And there is no body. And there is no time when it’s over. But, estrangement happens to good people. I’m a good person. My children are good people.
When I was wandering Milwaukee, camera in hand, coping with crushing depression, and first began encountering homeless people on a meaningful level, I realized that many of us had this in common: we are estranged from people we love. And believe me, homeless people feel pain and depression when they are estranged, just like me. It doesn’t matter who abandoned who, it hurts.
Recognizing a commonality is the first part of compassion. To feel connected to another, we need to arrive at the notion, I am not so different than you, in some ways.
My coworker’s response kicked up a question that wouldn’t stop stirring in my head. How would the homeless and working poor people I meet at St. Ben’s answer his question – why can’t you just pull yourself up by the bootstraps and get a job?
I decided to test the idea.
The first person I broached the subject with was Lamar. He’s a fellow with stellar green eyes who had been living in cardboard boxes for three years, until he recently was placed in an apartment at St. Anthony’s. He routinely offers to be my man. When I’m ready.
“Lamar, I want to ask you something,” I say one night at St. Ben’s. “You have to understand that I’m not asking this for myself. I need your help so I know what to say.” I hesitate. I hate to even let these words out of my mouth. I remind him that this is not me talking, because I know differently. “Sometimes people tell me that homeless people should just try harder to pick themselves up by their bootstraps and get a job. What would you say?”
Lamar takes on a look of pain and grief. His bright eyes dim, his smile fades, and he slumps, eyes darting side to side in thought. Just as I’m about to say never mind, don’t answer that, he glances at me, shaking his head in slow motion, stammering, “I would tell them…I would say…” He straightens his back. “I would say they can’t judge a situation without knowing. There could be anything wrong, maybe mental health problems or something. You can’t tell what a person has been through. People shouldn’t judge a situation.”
Over the next month or so, I continue my informal survey.
Willy, a man who could be a prophet on earth, given his beatific mannerisms and the kindness he shows to his companions, winces like he’s been stung by a bee. “Oh! That would throw me right off my horse.” His eyes tear up. “When you’re homeless, it takes a lot to get a job and go to work. People don’t see that.”
Bill, a full time welder says, “Lots of people are trying their best. They want to work, but maybe they have little kids and no one to watch them, or maybe they don’t have a car. They might miss a court date and break parole- that happens a lot, and then-” he jerks his thumb over his shoulder- “back to jail. You got to have some money in order to find a job.”
Mr. Chicago Blues, a man so cool you can glean his thoughts by the way he hums declares, “That’s just straight up ignorance, saying such a thing. Don’t even bear talkin’ about.”
And Dale, a cherubic white man with few teeth and a bizarre love life never drops his ever-present smile as he suggests, “Why don’t you invite them to come here and meet us, like you did? Tell them to come on in, sit right down and eat our food.” He turns, gives me a sidelong glance, and teases in his sarcastic way, “Oh, right. They wouldn’t do that, now would they?” Striking a haughty pose, pinky fingers in the air, he leans back and exclaims in a high pitched voice, “Oh! Oh! I can’t go there! I might catch something.”
I know this is a small sampling of the opinion of the population in question, far from a scientific poll, but in their own words, I believe they are saying that in order to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, you first have to have some boots. And, if you please, a leg up.