By Kenneth Justice
~On Saturday morning I woke up in the apartment of a new friend I’d made the night before here in Madison, WI. I’m currently traveling to different cities on my Drinking in the Culture Tour and never really know what to expect as each weekend approaches.
Even though I’m a guy and not particularly worried about the hypothetical negatives that a worrisome mind could imagine, it was a bit surreal waking up Saturday morning because I wasn’t exactly sure where I was; it was so late when we walked back to the apartment the night before and I was crossing my fingers and hoping that I’d be able to find my way back downtown.
At 6am I gathered my belongings and made the slow trek out of the apartment complex; it was a maze of bland hallways and shiny elevators; every walkway looked the same and I must have found myself circled around at my starting point at least two or three times.
Eventually I found a door that let open into an alley and I was thankful that it was warm outside; I had neglected to bring a jacket and had the weather been biting cold it would have made my journey a bit miserable. Nothing looked familiar until I saw the white oval of the Capitol building poking through the skyline; I made a bee-line for it. The city of Madison, Wisconsin was built with the Capitol Building at the very center; if you’re ever lost you just aim for the Capitol and you will be back downtown no problem.
Nearly every business was closed except for the Starbucks Coffee and the place was packed. There must have been more than thirty or forty people hanging out inside, almost all of them were the homeless people I’d seen sleeping on the street yesterday evening. Unshaven, un-kept clothes, faces that said, ‘I’ve lived a hard life’.
I badly needed to shave. I’d left the apartment so quickly I realized that I hadn’t even taken the time shave or brush my teeth and as I stood in line to use the bathroom it suddenly dawned on me that standing there in line with the homeless, with my traveling backpack hung around my shoulders I probably looked like I fit right in.
It wasn’t long before I had joined a conversation with a number of the old men and soon began to receive the 401 on being homeless in Madison, Wi,
“Many of us came here during the Occupy Wall Street Movement” he told me, “I’m not really sure if we actually expected anything good to come from Occupy, it reminded me a lot of the social protests of the 1960’s, I was a kid back then, it felt good to be a part of something; like I was doing something with my life….but then the Occupy thing just fizzled away. All the rich white yuppies who were keeping it going got bored, and so the rest of us were left hanging out here living on the street; stuck with nowhere to go” he said
Apparently, most of these homeless men were from different parts of Wisconsin. Some had grown up on farms, some used to have decent jobs, and all of them had grown tired of being a part of the ‘rat race’, “I just got so sick of waking up every morning and going to a job I hated. What was the point? Look at me, I’m an old man. Isn’t life supposed to ever get better than barely being able to pay for your electricity?” another man told me
However, none of them really wanted to talk about their predicament; they preferred sharing stories. One guy told of a time from his youth when they used to raise turkeys and how his father taught him to butcher them for meals. Another guy told a story about a job he used to have and his wife who taught at a college.
It always leaves me feeling differently when I hang out with homeless people. I can’t say specifically what it is that I feel, but perhaps the best word to describe it would be ‘connected’. Too often I feel detached from other people; especially other people who look and smell so differently from me. I think Western Culture kind of trains us to look away when we pass by homeless people on the street, “Don’t make eye contact’ we tell ourselves.
These men were among the friendliest people I’d hung with in a long time. They didn’t carry smart phones or laptops with them; so their entire life is spent talking to each other and being sociable. Hanging out with these strange men, I enjoyed more conversation and learned more about Madison, WI than had I tried to connect with the rich yuppies who began flooding the place a couple hours later. The two different crowds of people were so different;
—-) The homeless guys would instantly talk to me wither me even having to introduce myself
—-) The rich yuppies would barely look my way as they came in; their heads glued to their smart phones and sometimes they would order their coffee without even making eye contact with the barista
It’s a strange world we are living in. I won’t lie to you; I have a smart phone, a touchscreen laptop, an e-reader tablet, and an I-pad. I’m just as technologically efficient as the next person. I don’t know what I would do without technology. But as I sat there listening to the homeless people tell me stories from their life, my laptop was turned off and I kept my smart phone hidden away in my pocket; I didn’t need them.
Just a few thoughts as I sat here at coffee this morning,
Categories: Culture & Society