Home and Homeless (No. 20)

Some of you have been complaining that there hasn’t been a New Rambler in awhile. Honestly. One would think you were, I don’t know, paying subscribers or something. (An explanation of why I write this and why it’s free and how this is supposed to prevent that dread thing known as selling out will follow at a later date, probably). Anyway, as they say, you pays your money and you takes your choice, except that of course in this case, you don’t pay money, so I get to make the choice. Hey, I may be poor, but at least I’m satisified.

So. En garde.

Earlier this afternoon I was sitting in lovely downtown Iowa City with my oldest friend, just about, and her baby, being lazy and having occasional brief conversations with passersby. (Another old friend of mine used to refer to downtown as the Zoo Parade, but I’ll refrain from comment).

One such guy that we talked to was strolling back and forth, tapping his way along with what appeared to be the handle of a toilet plunger, with a bedroll and a small bag strapped to his back and held in place by a skateboard. He was explaining that he had a job now but was otherwise still homeless. “But that’s okay with me,” he said, “because there’s no way I would pay rent in this town in the summer. I slept up on top of Prairie Lights last night, and it was great.” Then he strolled on.

Although I rarely lived here for any length of time during college, I was usually in town during August, and I would usually spend at least part of my day downtown, holding conversations much like the one above with the smattering of people I know down there. Then I’d go back to Vassar and listen to people talking about their yatchs. I am still somewhat astounded that I did not completely lose it while at college, but going to that school (and, I would imagine, a number of others) trained one very well in living with numerous contradictions. The guy doing coke down the hall from you was probably going to be ignored or, at the very worst, put on housing probation if discovered. The guy half a mile away, though, doing exactly the same thing, was going to get busted and thrown in jail, or shot. It was really Ecclesiastical (supposing that’s an adjective), actually–all that to everything a time and season business. Some people are meant to be investment bankers and some people are meant to be derelicts. And some of us, of course, are meant to flee back to Iowa (methamphetamine capital of the world!)

But this was not actually intended to be about crime or drug addiction or even skateboarding (for the record, still not a crime), or about the homeless, or at least not exactly. I myself am sort of homeless at the moment, in that I am between leases and currently housesitting and all my stuff is packed up in boxes and I have no idea where anything is except for my computer (thank God for laptops). This is, of course, in no way shape or form like sleeping on benches or train-hopping or even camping and moving your tent 20 feet every two weeks or whatever it is that the national park system requires these days. It’s just mildly inconvenient–except that I find it enormously disconcerting.

I’ve lived in something like nine different houses and apartments (plus an assortment of dorm rooms and cabins), and I can only imagine that, if the paperwork ever actually reaches a human being at the Student Loan Corporation, that person is just sitting there sighing and thinking, My God, is this girl ever going to settle down (and start paying her bills on time, for that matter)? and I am about to move into the tenth. But after that, if everything goes according to plan (and yes, I can hear God laughing even as I write), I’m going to buy a house.

And I am going to buy that house here in Iowa.

A number of you, I know, wonder why I would choose to live here. I sometimes wonder myself. The Midwest is not really a nice place. The weather is mostly terrible (cold in winter, hot and muggy in summer, prone to rain the rest of the time). There is no ocean (unless, of course, some enterprising soul finally carries out Donald Kaul’s plan to turn Des Moines into a seaport, which I would heavily endorse). You can really only get fresh produce in the summer. Farms are failing daily; what development there is is haphazard and profoundly ugly; the demographics are, to the minds of many, unutterably depressing (lots of old white people, not much of anything else). Outside of a few select cities, there is not much of what is called culture. And, I have recently learned, Iowa ranks pretty low in air quality (and don’t even get me started on the water). But almost nobody wants to live here.

I have been to New York and I have been to California, and I love both, but I don’t like what I would have to do, or who I would have to become, in order to live there.

Most of the homeless people (though by no means all) I’ve met are homeless by choice, homeless because the idea of a house, an apartment, even a mattress on a floor in a basement and a place to hang their hat is, for whatever reason, unappealing to them. I don’t really understand that–I am one of the most materialistic people I know, and I am passionately attached to my stuff (though its value to anyone but me is questionable). But I think in a way I am like those street kids that I know, because I too live where I do out of choice. I wasn’t always sure of that–there have been times in the last two years when I have doubted greatly the wisdom of moving back here, when I have felt trapped because I was broke and seemed unemployable and felt doomed to live in my mother’s house or do temp work for the rest of my life. And I would panic, and go on a trip, or at least an imaginary trip, to some alabaster city where I imagined my life would be better. Yet even in the midst of this, there has always been something to catch me up–something I haven’t yet found a way to describe and never will–but something that makes me come back, turn back, “choosing,” as Wendell Berry writes, “again what I chose before.”

Thanks for reading.