For as long as I can remember, I’ve wondered what it would be like to have no home – specifically, what it would be like to be homeless. Sure, it’s easy for me, watching my golden television, eating hundred dollar bills, to suppose what it would be like, but there’s a good chance, I think, that experiencing it might possibly be somewhat different in some respects or others.
John Griffin, who darkened his skin to experience the Jim Crow south as a black man, said, “How else except by becoming a Negro could a white man hope to learn the truth?” I, Ricky Lax, was destined to follow in Griffins footsteps and take on the life of a bum – not just act like a bum, or pretend to be a bum, but actually become a bum for a half hour at the minimum.
I reasoned that my apartment would be a poor (intended) location to conduct my sociological experiment. If someone was truly homeless, they would not be living in my apartment. If they were, I’d ask them to leave. It would be difficult keeping them from my parents when they visit.
Who’s the bum by the refrigerator?
Hi Ricky. Hiya Mrs. L.
(Long, uncomfortable pause)
Then, there’s the whole upkeep issue; feeding him, cleaning him, walking him … I know people that own bums live longer, and that bums can teach your children about death, but I guess I’m just more of a cat guy.
For the experiment, my Kenneth Cole sweater and Banana Republic Jeans just wouldn’t do. Searching through my wardrobe, I found nothing appropriate for the occasion – and the last thing I wanted was to be wearing inappropriate attire for my lower-class society debut. I needed something simple, a minimalist attire that wouldn’t scream social faux pas like my little brother always did. “Social faux pas” he’d shout, for no apparent reason. I drove to the Salvation Army discount store praying I could find something cheap, ugly, and tattered enough for me to wear in the Old Navy behind it.
I carefully selected a pair of faded cargo pants that were two sizes too large for me. I picked out a red t-shirt and orange sweater to accompany it. Orange on red … two sizes too big … boy, did I look silly. Silly and homeless.
Next, shoes. What kind of shoes would a homeless man wear? I asked the sales clerk this and he, taking a real interest in my experiment, answered “Mephistos” without hesitation, and sold me two pairs right on the spot. He sure knew his homeless footwear! He listened and cared about my experiment. And about me. He even said, “I care about your experiment and I care about you, which is why I’ll throw in the second pair half off.” You just don’t find people like that these days. I like to think of the “sale” as more of a friendship transaction. Thanks, friend.
Next: haircut. I tipped the stylist extra to make some sloppy cuts and slips of the razor. The guy next to me, impressed with my new ‘do, asked its name.
“Arthur,” I replied. I’m so witty. Witty, original, good-looking and modest.
All I needed now was my bum name. Scruffy M. Guy would be too obvious and Skinny J. Stature would be too subtle. Tummy S. Empty … perfect.
I, Tummy S. Empty, was now ready to take to the streets. I turned my cell phone ringer off and spit my gum out … before realizing that it was feasible for a bum to be chewing gum. Not only was it feasible, it was probable. Though they have no home, bums, as I’ve learned, posses an abundance of things that rhyme with the word “bum”: A stick of gum, a pair of thumbs, a saltwater aquarium, a troublesome curriculum, burdensome pandemonium, some plums. Sadly, plums alone are not enough to keep someone off the streets…
TALKING THE TALK
Notice the subterfuge, the subtle adding of certain words that a real bum might say when speaking to another: “Good afternoon, fellow bum.* Boy I could go for a nice turkey facashta right now, fellow bum.”
But, it’s not just the words that homeless people say, it’s the topics they discuss as well: “What a marvelous day it is to be homeless. The sun is shining, and who better than we, the bums of the earth, to enjoy its warmth – what, having to home and all.”
I even constructed the following anecdote that would pass as typical: “Just the other day, I was asking this gentleman for change, and he replies, ‘No sir, I’m sorry, I don’t have anything.’ And I reply, ‘You don’t have anything. Hey, who’s the bum here?’ Needless to say, we both had a good laugh. A jolly good laugh indeed, fellow bum.*”
I worried that my friend Mike, passing, would blow my cover. If my new peers saw him acknowledge me as an equal, my experiment would be ruined. As he passed, I improvised one last bum speech, “Look at that student over there. I’d sure hate not to be a bum, but to be his friend instead, and not just because he’s a social climber who would ditch me the second someone more popular asked him to hang out, which is so high school. Yes, that’s what I’d say if we were friends, his name happened to be Mike, and the remaining things I said were applicable to our situation.”
Let’s just say being a bum is not all it’s cracked up (intended) to be. The way you see bums portrayed on television and in the movies is not at all representative of the true homeless lifestyle. And this, I think, is dangerous. When an impressionable child sees Arnold Schwarzenegger or Pierce Brosnan playing a bum on the big screen, strong suave and majestic, he’s likely to think, I want to be strong suave and majestic, much like Arnold Swartcnager or Pierce Brosnan, therefore, I want to be a junky when I grow up-which is ironic because of the classic public service announcement, “Nobody says, ‘I want to be a junky when I grow up.'” Now, those very words are ringing from the Red Wood Forest to the Caves of Silence. This is just one of countless evidences that public service announcements do more harm than good. I’d say, “Let’s put out a public service announcement to stop public service announcements,” if the joke weren’t so obvious and un-funny.
The biggest offender of glamorizing the bum lifestyle is bum-simulation videogames. Don’t get me wrong, technology has given us several great tools, (the stapler, Beethoven’s fifth symphony,) but the bum-simulated video game is not one of them. In a child’s mind, there isn’t a difference between asking a stranger for spare change in the streets or on the screen-we must remember, children are stupid.
So the next time you’re walking to class and someone asks you, “can you spare any change,” tell them you read my piece and that you understand with what they’re going through. Don’t give them change though, they’ll just spend it on crack.