For a longer time than I can remember, the homeless have been presented as a thing, this massive structure that seems impossible to break down or an ocean, because it would be impossible to disseminate a drop of rain from the largest body of water on the planet. The homeless in this country lose their identity and, after a while, they all start to look the same. Even if they look different, after a while something happens where you don’t pay attention. You see them, but it’s like seeing a tree in someone’s office. You don’t think about it. You shut off. They blend into the scenery to such a point that nobody says anything and the world moves on.
It’s when you break down certain levels of poverty that you realize there even are levels. Homeless isn’t the furthest decline into poverty. If anything, it might be nearest the beginning. It depends on who you talk to, if indeed you can talk to anyone. The homeless aren’t always one for conversation. Some need a lot of help and have fallen so far that talk isn’t good enough. They move shiftlessly, like ghosts trying to find their own plane of existence. They have a way of blending in that’s quite miraculous, for although they share the same appearance of grime and disease collected over tattered clothes layered on top of one another for warmth and utility, each of them has a singular destiny relative to his condition.
The Bottle Men are nothing unique to our city. They wander around with steel baskets that they wheel around and fill with bottles. They get their donations from neighbors and businesses. They live among us, and aren’t a they, which is to say they aren’t a group. They’re individuals who make their living off recycling. They pick up the bottles that people don’t want to return and bring them to their recycling centers to get some cash. It isn’t glamorous, but it allows them to exist. I think it’s important to examine this story, because, although it’s not the lowest level of poverty, it’s somewhere within that delicate strata and deserves thorough inspection. It isn’t that they’re desperate, although some of them most likely are, it’s that they’re made to be. They’re made into ‘The Homeless’, when these are individuals under a certain set of stimuli that become a certain way. Their conditions are unique, despite ending up the same, I assure you they’re quite different.
Then, I guess we could ask, what creates this massive body of water that we call ‘The Homeless’, but does that really have one answer? I assume that they’re generated from across the river. They walk along the bridge and ask a question of the Sphinx that guards it. If the Sphinx can’t answer they’re allowed to pass. If he can, he must eat their hearts. You’d think we’d have more bodies washing up along the shore, but the river goes on forever. It’s our protector against the endless sea. If you’d just go over to the other side, you could see them sleeping beneath the overpass, roaming the streets around the mission that’s a block away from the bridge.
Some don’t care about bottles. They’ll scribble a few desperate words on cardboard and wait for passersby to hand over a few bucks. It gets repetitive on your way to work, day after day, as the place remains the same, yet the homeless person changes. I don’t know if there is an agency of homeless that take turns waiting at the same spots, but something must happen, some arrangement of stimuli to make them flock, like birds heading south for the winter. Something clicks in their minds that they have to be here at this time, always the same times each day.
Time seems all the more important to the homeless. You’d think they wouldn’t have anywhere to be, being homeless, but they shuffle in patterns, like the tides that come with morning and night along the river. When night comes, the tide moves in, when its’ gone so is the tide. Morning comes and the homeless move. Five o’clock comes with that rush of traffic and the homeless become vigilant. They follow a rhythm that has yet to be determined, as I doubt many scientists are looking into the migration habits of Bottle-men or the virulent mating season of people that live under the bridge.