From the Dec 6 – Dec 12, 2001 issueBooks
Life in Tweener Space: A Book review from the Seattle Rocket
by Beth Lovejoy
Ace Backwords, former cartoonist for High Times and Maximum Rock ‘N Roll, is a veteran of the Berkeley street scene. Having been homeless off and on for nearly two decades, he wrote this book, Surviving on the Streets, over a period of five years, sending the Port Townsend-based publishers Loompanics Unlimited a chapter at a time. The result is a painfully sober biography and a handy guidebook for those who have just dropped out of regular society.
Ace Backwords’ brutal prose takes us into a liminal zone, a place where people exist in the twilight between the city and wilderness. Marked as “wildmen,” viewed with suspicion by the law and often the general public, the existence of those who populate this shadowy region under and on the periphery of our rushing, roaring cities is played out in the endless theater of the sidewalk. It’s a heightened zone, fueled by a state of constant quasi-illegality, from which the homeless can rarely escape and others barely understand from the outside.
What, precisely, necessitates such invisibility? Quite simply, the acts that comprise the homeless person’s very existence–sleeping, shitting, fucking–must take place outdoors. And since people don’t really appreciate seeing these acts take place on park benches or in public squares, homeless people face a constant losing battle with the cops. They must therefore expend great effort to avoid cop “heat.” But a homeless person’s troubles do not end with the cops and the productive public; they also receive heat from the “homeless community.” In fact, the most disturbing parts of the book are where Backwords describes the kind of violence perpetrated by the homeless against each other. Homeless life is therefore a delicate dance in the hopes of avoiding a “bad scene,” as Backwords terms it.
The street person must be as self-sufficient and as invisible as possible. That is rule number one. He must watch his back, yet guard against being so suspicious of others that he retreats entirely into a state of alienation. Backwords also says that it is only by “getting involved with things” (projects in the street community, jobs) that the street person can hope to stay sane.
The tips in Surviving on the Streets will surely benefit those who are considering, preparing for, or just entering a life on the streets, but the gentle readers who plan to read this book in the comfort of their warm apartment or home will find pleasure in the sections where Backwords skewers stereotypes. For instance, he detests the notion of a street person as a “Noble Loser”; in an attempt to puncture that myth, he repeatedly offers accounts of street characters so foul it makes the skin crawl. Indeed, the book is a Dostoyevskian gallery of the loathsome, the dysfunctional, the damaged, and, yes, the lazy. There are those who have chosen this as a lifestyle, drawn to the “oddball/outlaw/cowboy” archetype, those who couldn’t “pay the rent,” those who lost their minds. Their reasons are many, and often complex.
It’s precisely this complexity, Backwords argues in another useful section, that undermines the good intentions of the average homeless activist–a class of people he doesn’t much care for. Basically, Backwords sees activists as the sort who leave their comfy apartments, stir shit up, and then retreat while the heat is played out on the streets. At the least, many activists lack direct experience of homelessness, and their good intentions are rarely good enough. “Most of us don’t remember electing the activist to occupy [the position of spokesperson],” he writes near the end of the book.
Ultimately, Backwords is weary of the homeless as a symbol of our social ills. “Don’t pity us,” he pleads proudly. “What we mostly want is to be left alone.”