The Book of Joe
Like most of the others, I go to the library to warm up. It’s an obvious sign that winter is coming. It’s not in your face, like snow, or frostbite, but if you go to library in the winter just before it opens, it’s usually the “temporarily experiencing homelessness” crowd that is milling about waiting for the doors to open. But for some of us the library is more than a warm, cushy seat.
One of the things I like about the library is that you can pretend to be normal. If you don’t smell too much, your hair isn’t matted, and you got some new clothes from the shelter, you can pass, especially if you read an out-of-state newspaper or a thick book. Lately, I’m into this book on wilderness survival, and then I find the place least apt to have other homeless dudes hanging around. It’s the book Joe recommended.
Most home dwellers don’t believe me when I say most homeless are on the conservative side. Not like the faux-con knot-heads running around in DC these days, but people who don’t like change. The funny things is, we don’t like change for the same base reason most conservatives don’t like change: we don’t want somebody passing us by.
That’s another thing I love about libraries - the customs and the ceremonies. It’s not a free for all. There are rules, some I don’t agree with, but I accept the rational. Unless they’re drunk or stoned, the homeless are quiet. “Suspiciously quiet” my friend Marge says. There is so much culture in a library, and by culture I mean the things that keep us in our place, like waiting in line to take a book out, or holding the door open for others. By binding us together, culture keeps us in our place, gives us a mental home.
Joe, who was in China when he was in college, says the Chinese don’t believe in waiting in line, that they just all pile in and elbow their way forward, but then he says don’t believe for a minute they don’t have culture. Paper, fireworks, and the wheel barrow are Chinese inventions, and Joe blows it by saying something like, “Don’t tell me they don’t have culture when they harnessed the wheel.” Being a history buff, I know that the chariot was invented before the wheelbarrow. Still, the wheelbarrow is a fine invention.
Joe is the one who got me into this survival stuff. All of us have some little tick that sets us apart, be it drugs, alcohol, war, or other people. You name it, we got something that makes us fall or pushes us away. Like many of us, Joe’s was booze, but I think that’s the symptom, not the cause. He thought that if he could get away from people and the conveniences of modern life, he could dump booze off his back fast. “Drop it like a heavy backpack,” he’d say.
Joe wanted to go to Coeur d’Alene in Idaho, but I wanted to go further. Marge tells me about Missoula, Montana, and that if she was a younger gal, she would head there. I was close to getting Joe to agree. But he was getting letters from his sister, and news that his Mom wasn’t doing well. He was starting to feel guilty, with the distance in time and space. I asked him if his Mom knew he didn’t live in a house, and how would she take that? He didn’t take that well. He said he wasn’t mad at me, but I unfortunately gave him something to prove. Anyway, we haven’t seen him in Spokane since March. The last we saw him, his sister had bought him a bus ticket back to Saint Louis, and that gave me mixed feelings because he had friends here, people who would help him out if he needed it. I hope he’s alright, but sometimes, cleaning up your life shows you what you’re really hiding from.
Heading east to a city where I used to live doesn’t hold much for me. I like a simple, straightforward life, where you have goals you can meet instead of relationships to endure. Simple things like finding food. Or having a dog. Shelter can be fairly simple too if it’s in season, and you avoid those you don’t know. From what I hear the food is plentiful in Missoula, lots of folks willing to share, and others willing to give, but the givers will eventually ask for something in return. I imagine it’s like here, food and strings in December are like Christmas, bright and cheery. Then they go dark in January.
I’m not going to Missoula to bounce around shelters and soup kitchens. I don’t mind people, but they can take you off track, lead you down a path that you weren’t thinking of, but it isn’t your path. Sure it’s great doing things with someone else, be it a buddy or a lover, but I need some time to do some things on my own, like listen to wind through the fir trees, listen to the birds or the rain, watch the cottonwoods decorate, feel the heat of the sun and the coolness of night.
When I was a kid in school, nobody was dreaming of shelters for warmth or libraries for other reasons besides books. A shelter back then was that pavilion by the little league field where you could run when the rain came in heavy, and it could be a great place, standing under there, feeling the cold coming out of the air, and watching the puddles form under the eaves, but you were dry and the rain on the tin roof was so loud you had to talk louder to your friend who was standing next to you.
And of course we whispered and snickered to each other in the school library, and we got in trouble for talking or goofing off once in a while, but I liked the feel of the library. Just like the pavilion in the rain, it had that feel that pulled something in you.
Going to Missoula is going to be my thing, living by myself, picking mushrooms or snaring animals. Nobody to drag me into town and temptation. And if I mess up, I’ll take a bus back here. I like it here, but I’m feeling like life is passing me by, and I know too many people in this community. I can’t keep drinking like I have been. I need to make the change instead of waiting for a change. I’m not talking about a job. I had a job for a few years. I had things like a decent apartment with fresh looking furniture and a leased car. I had a routine.
Sometimes I miss a routine, but I know once I’m back in a routine, I’ll be saying to myself, this isn’t like the free beer on Friday night you thought it was. You know why? Because when you have a routine you’re subconsciously looking for those things outside of a routine that strike your fancy. It could be something as small as watching a kid pulling his hand away from his Mom because he wants to do the cross walk by himself. And you watch, you smile to yourself. Stop at the curb, moment over, and you were happy because you made the sale, but you can’t place the order that needs to go by end of day today because your client isn’t getting back to you. When you’re in your routine, you’re in your always closing mode, and the comfort in the structure. You also get the positive re-enforcement of accomplishment and a pay check to buy something similar but different to what you saw somebody else wear or drive.
Or it could be the smell of bacon in the cafeteria, and all of sudden your dreaming of Saturday morning breakfast, and thinking of where you’re gonna go to buy donuts, The Whole Donut or Kratz’s Komfy, and should you make a sandwich or hash browns for you bacon and eggs? The cashier asks you a question, and you have to be at your cube in twenty minutes for the conference call, so you take the salad because you’re not getting enough exercise after work. It’s the same salad as yesterday. Some would argue it’s not, but it is.
Yeah, I know, no routine is a big statement of nothingness. That and bicycle will get me a ride into town. It might be the wrong path, but it’s my path. And I have blown through all the other big decisions that set you up for something better in the future, so my future is close and limited. I have no potential to grow into a bank president, or travel to a Greek island with a woman I love, but I have potential. I can watch the sunrise over the mountain, or the stars shift on a hilltop. I can make a plan.
Joe and I would do that, talk about plans as we’d watch the stars, talking about what we wanted to do, and trying to talk the other one into joining in. If I’m being honest, Joe was like the brother I should have had. A guy I could talk to, as well as a guy to twist your arm to do something silly. We also had our own sibling rivalry. Part me didn’t want him to go see his family. Not that I was jealous because he was going to spend time with other people, but because he had a family to go see. Joe has a sister and his mother is still alive. It’d be easier if I had no relatives left, then I could just miss them. Unfortunately, I have a brother, and my father is still around, and I just hate them.
I found a do-gooder who told me he would buy me a bus ticket and some canned goods for the trip if I went to some shelter in Coeur d’Alene and became a man of God. He gave me the name and address of the shelter.
“You can go there when you arrive,” he said.
“I’m fixin for Missoula,” I said.
“This place in CDA will do you well.”
“Who do I say sent me?”
He paused because he wanted to disconnect from the question.
“You know,” he said, “getting out of town will do you good. You need a change. God doesn’t want you sitting around in front of these stores and pooping in the park.”
“What does God want me to do?” I asked because I wasn’t going to listen to his sermon unless I got something out of it. I set him up for the close, yet some of my buddies would be rolling in laugher saying I stepped in it. He looked at me, and it was like the clouds parted and the sun shone down on me, but mostly on him, and he told me that I was to become the man that others looked up to, the man who loves others, cares for them, and tells the words of God. I used some reverse psychology for the suggestion close, or I say the suggestive close. With that meek question, I hooked him into thinking he had a live one, one he could boat, so he grabbed the lectern with both hands. He was feeling it, saying how he’ll help me become a soldier of God. You got to watch these do-gooders because some of them will do the bait and switch, telling you they’ll buy a ticket Minneapolis, and then it’s just a one way Coeur d’Alene.
“Do you know of a church in Missoula I can worship at?” I interrupted. It was a risk. Worship was one of those words that either set the hook, or he’d spit it out.
“Why, yes. Yes, I do. I don’t remember which street, but it’s close to the Greyhound station.” Marge told me that there were churches close to Greyhound, so I knew he wasn’t fibbing.
“Where do you worship?” I asked.
“I’m at the Baptist just down the street here.”
“Good, I’m sure I’ll be able to find the Baptist church in Missoula.”
He felt good about himself, and me, so he went to buy my ticket. When he came back, the magic was gone, like he was in a hurry, so I checked the ticket. It was tonight for Missoula, leaving a quarter to midnight, with nine hours on a bus, before I got dumped in Zootown. I wanted to ask about some canned goods, but I figured he was in a hurry because he had passed his limit of kindliness.
“I really appreciate this. You’re a good Christian. What did you say your name was?”
“Tell them Doug from Spokane sent you.”
I know I shouldn’t have done it, but I cut the outer spine off of this book, the one Joe recommended, and I walked out with it under my coat. I left the spine behind other books on the bottom shelf. I even scribbled Joe’s name in it, in case anybody asked. It’s a weak excuse, but it’s something. I need something to give me confidence going to a new place in the dead of winter.
This book seems to have everything I need to live off the land. Or it tells you how. The author has a sense of humor. The books tells you how to build a lean-to without any tools. I looked under the reference for snow, and he wrote “Don’t even think about it,” but then he offered some strategies if you have half the sporting goods store with you. There was no “no tools” winter crib, which was fine because I don’t intend to start living off the land in the winter. The first few months, I’ll get adjusted, and scout around looking for a good place to remove myself to. Come summer time, I plan on being a few miles outside Missoula, away from any roads. Me and the birds and the bees and the bears, all looking for something off those huckleberry bushes. That’s my plan, and I plan on sending a copy of this book back to the library in Spokane. I wish Joe was with me. He is in spirit.