Amy told me,
“My Dad’ bought me a bright lime green tee shirt one Christmas and when he gave it to me he said, ‘Here…now go on, get yerself noticed!'” Her voice trailed off. Having spent six months, as a teenager, comatose, ventilated and tube fed through her stomach after a car accident and subsequent head injury, the rest of Amy’s life was anything but un-noticable.
She became a heavy user of methamphetamine and her addiction, combined with the chronic depression and learning difficulties since the wreck contributed to the loss of her son in to foster care.
She had suffered terribly at the hands of an abusive ex-husband or boyfriend and what was left of her family, they really didn’t care anymore. So, she drifted from city to city, travelling and existing by the seat of her only pair of pants. By no means slow or stupid, I found Amy to be very quick witted, curious and definitely street smart. Hitchhiking and hustling from place to place, she’d learned to trust no one.
Her voice was permanently hoarse from being trached and she readily showed me the scars on her belly. “See…” She continued, “When you’re homeless you try real hard to not get noticed. People look right through ya anyway. they just don’t wanna see you…”
My experience on the street was much different to Amy’s but we shared the same feelings of isolation and vulnerability. Street life. It’s beyond an edgy, space-time continuum thats all screwed up. A glorious absence of monotony. And immeasurable pain.
It’s a two way street because you want people to see you, so that they can help you and understand how life can just beat you down so hard, that it can so easily happen to anyone.
But, mostly you don’t want to be noticed at all. As if there could be a parallel dimension to slip un-noticed in to and avoid having to have contact with the rest of society ever again. Ashamed that your clothes are soiled. They smell and have been slept in. Embarassed that you haven’t shaved or seen a dentist in a while. Quite a while.
You’ve bathed randomly at gas stations and truck stops, making do with what you can in the rest rooms. A backpack is a dead give-away and there’s no way around it. You just need to carry your stuff, somehow, someway without looking like a turtle hauling his house full of junk and scrap metal.
We turn in to shells of our former selves. You keep your unwashed hair tied back and under a hat, making it easy to look down. Eye’s to the ground.
I read somewhere that ‘a home is a place where you are supposed to be able to leave the outside world behind.’
Imagine that. Now all of a sudden the outside is your home and all that you do is visible to the public.
Now, all of a sudden certain groups of people DO notice and recognize you, for example the police and the criminal justice system. A cop told me one day, “To get outta here! I don’t wanna ever see your face again!” I was on the way to the library. It readily felt like the local sheriff was running me out of town as soon as I got there.
So, what do you do? Hide in plain site and try to blend in. You learn fast, from other homeless, travellers, drifters and local eccentrics. Random samples of the roughly handled. They tell you where to not go, where the cops love to harass. “Don’t cha ever cut across a parking lot downtown, they’ll arrest ya for trespassing.”
Invisibility becomes a way of life…physically, psychologically and socially.
An old friend will call you up and ask, “What’s up? How ya doin’? Wanna do lunch this week?”. I glance down at my nails, all dirty and uneven from painting and camping in the woods. “Uh-hum…Oh, I’m great! But…err, I’m pretty busy all week. But soon. OK?”
Helen Bird April 26th 2014
Published in The Contributor May 2014