Jeff Smith noon, March 8
- Community Blog
Nothing more, nothing less
“We have nothing that is ours except time, which even those without a roof can enjoy.” Baltasar Gracian
“Excuse me. Are you from here?” was the question I heard in front of me. It wasn’t directed at me, but at a young lady in her early 20s. “No” she replied. The middle-aged woman who asked the original question continued. “I didn’t think so. I saw what you did.” Next came an attempt by this woman to “enlighten” the visitor. “You see, we have a problem here with the homeless, so we don’t feed them. It’s like the bears in the National Parks. You don’t want to encourage them.” The young visitor stood on Newport Ave looking as perplexed as would Sarah Palin on Jeopardy. A civil back and forth conversation ensued with neither side being able to convert the other’s opinion. They parted ways graciously. Between the deliciousness of The Vine, South Beach, Hodad’s and Pizza Port, this is a snippet of life in Ocean Beach.
I live in a small studio a couple of blocks from the ocean in this authentic beach town. Fortune has fallen on me…. for now. I am fully aware that while I am comfortable, riches are not mine and my current situation is not fixed. Ocean Beach provides a daily reminder of this truth with its homeless population.
From my volunteer work with the unfortunate who have no place to call home, I’ve learned that while for some this plight is an unwelcome adventure, there are others who have chosen the life they lead. After acquiring an understanding of what is defined as “living” within our current system, they have rejected it. They have decided to nip the experiment in the bud. It doesn’t make sense to them. So, by declaring themselves exempt from controls and defying accepted standards, they have become outcasts – caricatures of animals not to be fed.
Theirs is not so much a rebellion against fellow citizens but of the system that controls them, and choosing to live the way they live is as much a political statement as voting. You have to hold some admiration for someone who invites the hardships that are sure to come by holding steadfast to the ideal of living a life unfettered. Being different is not a comfortable way of being seen. This is what gives status quo its power. Emerson wrote, ”Whosoever would be a man, must be a non-conformist.” Are those who choose homelessness the full bloom of this thought? I’m not attempting to glorify their situation. By their own admission, it is not a “happy” existence. However, in their minds, it is the lesser of two evils – living harnessed or living free. How it must feel to be relieved of the burden of living a life for the approval of others….
The closest I’ve come to the experience of being homeless was when I worked as a wilderness counselor in Utah. The schedule was 1 week on, 1 week off. It wasn’t the week I was living out of my backpack that I felt homeless. It was when I returned home at the end of my rotation. My sun-weathered skin was unshaven. I had not bathed in a week and I was wearing clothes that were filthy. I may not have been homeless but I sure as hell was wearing the uniform. This came to light when I stopped to pick up a six-pack at a grocery store on the way home. NO ONE WOULD LOOK AT ME. Never had so many eyes averted my presence. This was in a small town in Utah, not a big city. It’s the kind of place where you usually get a smile and nod from every passerby. An illumination came to me that night - the most debilitating effect of being homeless could be the dehumanizing that takes place from the absence of acknowledgment.
Homelessness is a part of Ocean Beach. For as the issue of homelessness is not black and white, neither is OB. This is, in part, the warmth or charm of this community by the sea. It resides in the gray area of life - less rigid certainty, more confused humanity. For better or worse, it shows itself. Deep down, isn’t that what we really want. Whether buying a used car or entering into a new relationship, we long for a knowing of what we’re really getting. While not lacking in mystic vibration, Ocean Beach is about as close as you’re going to get to that knowing. It is a real place where the diverse paths people have chosen are on display. A place that is not overly refined, but instead closer to the marrow of what is. It makes for fascinating people watching!