I spent my 19th and 20th years as a homeless person living on an offramp and scrounging around in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. I suppose I would describe myself as extremely psychologically damaged back then. I had recently gone through a series of traumatic experiences — any one of which would have been enough to throw a normal person off-course. But when you get hit with three of them in a row you end up spinning like a top.
I managed to keep my act together by imposing this weird act of will on my psyche. I suppose you could call it a classic case of “denial.” Instead of dealing with my psychological trauma, I erected this mental wall to completely block it out. For example, instead of looking at myself as a mortally-wounded person who had been relegated to Skid Row, I looked at myself as sort of a Jack Kerouac-type bohemian who had purposely chosen a life of adventure on the quaint and colorful streets of San Francisco (there’s a lot to be said for “denial” and inventing one’s own reality when you don’t have the strength to actually deal with your shit).
I always had this belief in myself, that I was somehow destined for greatness and that I had these great gifts as an artistic visionary. It was a belief mostly born out of desperation and wishful thinking. I mean, considering the situation I was in, I sure hoped to God I did have some special kind of talents. Otherwise I was in big, big trouble. But it was sometimes hard to maintain this outlook considering I got virtually zero confirmation from the world at large.
So, after a couple years on the skids my stony facade began to crack. It is a weird existence on Skid Row. It is like you are living in this netherworld, this twilight zone of lost souls, derelicts and predators. The people seem more like ghouls and ghosts. Faceless non-entities drifting pointlessly through their lives, mostly just waiting to die and fade off into oblivion. So it was a wake-up call to realize that I had become one of them.
So — and this would be a recurring pattern throughout my life — I made a concerted (and even heroic) effort to marshall my resources and Get My Shit Together (as we used to say back in the day). I cut my hair and my beard, threw away my rags and bought some new clothes, and rented out a little apartment in a quiet part of Berkeley. And I got a job as a minimum-wage file clerk at a local hospital. I had seen enough of the wild and weird side of life. So now I wanted to see if I could adjust to a more normal life.
I worked in the collections department. And I was the only guy in an office full of women. Which was an interesting experience. My experience relating to women at this point was fairly nil. So I figured this was an excellent opportunity to study them and maybe figure out how they operate (good luck with that, huh?). I quickly learned that the things the women most liked to talk about was 1.) what they were going to eat for dinner, and 2.) making fun of their husbands. Not a one of them wanted to talk about sports, I don’t know what was wrong with those dames.
Anyways, as a file clerk, one of my tasks was that periodically one of the women would ask me to pull one of the files. I’d open up this huge drawer filled with thousands of people who owed the hospital money. I’d hand the file to the woman who than called the person on the phone and angrily harangued the person. “YOU HAD BETTER TAKE CARE OF . . . ETC. ETC.!!!!!” They kind of had to put the fear of God in the person on the other end of the line, otherwise the deadbeat would never get around to paying anything. Then she’d hang up the phone and go back to merrily talking about her dinner plans and her husband’s underwear or whatever. It was a slightly jarring juxtaposition. Like seeing mild-mannered Bruce Banner transformed into the raging Hulk and then back again.
The other thing that struck me about the job was how much it reminded me of high school. I realized that this was basically what my high school had been training me to do. It was sort of the same fluorescent lighting, and you sit at your desk and do mindless paperwork. And, like with high school, I relentlessly watched the clock. One of the most longed-for moments was when it struck 12 o’clock and I could go on my lunch break. I’d walk down the street to this Chinese restaurant and I’d order Mongolian beef and I’d drink a couple cups of tea, which I’d drink with my little pinky pointing out. I was doing my best to try and mimic a normal, cultured human being.
But I mostly felt like an alien from outer space who was trying to disguise himself and walk among the human beings. After several years of dealing with the raving, screaming lunatics of the Tenderloin with puke drooling down their beards and etc., it was strange to be among these normal, quiet humans in this sort of highly-stylized social setting. It was like going from wild slam-dancing in the punk rock pits to an exacting French tango dance in tuxedos.
Mostly it was the sheer monotony and the soul-less mindlessness of the work that wore me down. I suppose if you could find meaning relating to all the other people on the workforce, you could manufacture that soulful aspect in other ways. But I was an introverted, painfully-shy loner. So the job was not only boring but awkward.
I never felt I was “above” this kind of labor. Just incapable of doing it. I’ve always sort of despised the hipsters who sort of look down at people working at normal jobs. I greatly admire anybody that can get up every day and go to work. I find them even heroic. And I’ve come to despise the sneering TV comedians with their put-down jokes about people who work at McDonald’s. Or even worse, the more-Politically-Correct-than-thou crowd who mock anyone who works for those evil “multi-national corporations.” I still bristle when I remember those jive-ass hipsters, the Dead Kennedys, mocking me as a “good Nazi” because on my bike messenger job I delivered packages to Bank of America and Bechtel (the big nuclear power company).
At any rate, I managed to last two months at the file clerk job before I quit. And then I was back in what would become a familiar and recurring position over the years, namely: Now What The Fuck Do I DO?