Every man with the smallest inklings of humility and courage is forever discovering new things about himself. The self-images we cultivate through arrogance and ignorance are easily exposed in the harsh light of life experience. One may think himself a hero or genius or saint, but all too often, these grandiose self-analyses are born of egoic delusion rather than objective reality.
When one’s false pride has fallen and his ego stands defenseless and trembling, therein lays the greatest opportunity for self-discovery. One can either wait for the ego to re-inflate and again retreat to its comforting shelter, or one can leap head-first into the cavernous abyss that the ego once filled. The latter is the action advised by some of history’s great spiritual teachers, but the former is the one preferred by almost all of humankind.
We only do the really serious introspection when we have no choice, when we’re at life’s bottom. Stripped of every flattering self-concept, one is given an unobstructed glimpse of his own soul. The key is to not flinch when this mirror is held to your face. It is even more advisable that you not shatter it and cut your own throat with the broken shards.
I recently had an opportunity to both engage in and witness in others some brutally honest soul analysis. Whether it’s ugly or beautiful, cowardly or courageous, loving or hateful, all the soul can do is tell the truth of itself. Mine, like everyone’s, wants desperately to know love and joy and peace, but it is badly stunned by trauma, heartache,and loneliness. Mostly, it is barely aware of its own existence, let alone its inherent greatness. This also describes the soul of Chuck, a homeless man I met a few weeks ago on the streets of Las Vegas.
I went to Las Vegas with the intention of investigating the city’s homelessness crisis from a first-hand perspective. I was going to live on the streets for two weeks, with no money in my pocket and only utilizing the resources available to the homeless. I arrived on May6th, 2007, after a 30 hour Greyhound bus ride. The first evening was frightening and disorienting. I was exhausted, and for hours, I asked anyone who might be helpful — mostly security guards and police officers — where I could find a shelter for a night’s sleep. But each gave contradictory directions, and most admitted that they didn’t know the location of a single shelter.
I had not slept for two days, and my brain felt mutilated. I decided that my best bet for an evening of rest would be the outdoors. I caught a bus to nearby Henderson and slept in an open field in an industrial area. I worried that this trip just outside of Vegas’ city limits might constitute a violation of the experiment’s terms and integrity. But then I reminded myself that I was sleeping in a field and things were bad enough as they were.
After a few hours of fitful sleep, I caught a bus back to downtown Vegas and restarted my search for homeless services. A few blocks from the Fremont district, a hooker approached me and asked if I wanted a “date.” I told her I was broke and asked her for directions. She did so and proceeded to give me the 101 on being homeless in Vegas:
“Don’t ever walk around without money in your pocket. The police will arrest you for vagrancy. And don’t sit at a bus stop without taking a bus. Don’t stand in one place for too long, and don’t ever try to sleep in a park or in front of a building. And always have your ID on you, or they’ll put you in jail.”
I was concerned about these possibilities going into the project, particularly since the Las Vegas police were already interested in me. I had announced my project in an essay a week prior, and two days before I took the trip, police in Beaverton, Oregon visited my home at the behest of the LVMPD. I was a bit horrified at the prospect of being jailed and would do my absolute best to avoid it.
Following the hooker’s directions, I took a right down Main St. and headed toward a cluster of homeless services and shelters. On the way, I passed a badly disheveled elderly man lying sprawled and unconscious in the dirt. Held in his right hand was a pristine Holy Bible, a “gift” freely given to homeless men and women all across the United States. Upon seeing this tragic and poignant sight, my first thought was, I wish I had my camera — the image would have made great “art,” and I might have been able to sell it to a newspaper or magazine.
Self-discovery number one on my homeless journey: I am not nearly as compassionate or empathetic as I had imagined.
I spotted what l thought was a group of good Samaritans erecting a mini-campsite for the homeless off of a sidewalk, and I approached them and asked for directions. They informed me that they were homeless, and invited me into their “camp.” There were four men in total, 3 of whom were Hawaiian — an elderly man named “Uncle Dave,” his nephew Mark, and a diminutive man whose name I’ve already forgotten. And there was Chuck, a 49 year-old bespectacled white man who immediately began offering me helpful guidance. He offered to show me the various shelters that offered meals and beds, and I accepted.
Chuck looked a great deal older than this years — I would have guessed him to be in his early to mid 60’s. He explained this by describing himself as “a straight up alkie” (alcoholic). Indeed, Chuck placed no blame for his unhappy circumstances on anyone but himself. He told me, “Mike, if I won a million dollars, within 5 minutes I would have a meth pipe in one hand, a beer in the other, and my (bleep) in a hooker’s mouth.” As we walked, he gave me a brief overview of his past. He said that he had earned a decent living as a casino dealer in Reno, but that drug and alcohol addictions had drained all his money and destroyed his ability to work. He had been homeless in Vegas for the previous three months, and it was the lowest he had ever been in his life. Twice, he had been badly beaten and nearly killed by street gangs. He said that he didn’t believe he would be alive if he was still homeless at the end of the year.
Our first meal of the day was an early lunch at a shelter whose name I have either forgotten or never caught. (Lesson number two on my homeless journey: I am a writer and not a journalist — I am far more concerned with the existential wanderings of my own psyche than I am with gathering objective data.) The food was plentiful, and, not surprisingly, not very good. It was bland soup and cheese pasta and all the white bread and rolls you could eat. I found that I was extremely thirsty and tried to load up on water, but it tasted the way tap water always tastes in hot desert towns — murky and gritty. Since I didn’t have money to buy bottled water, I hoped that the dirty tap water would sufficiently hydrate me for the next two weeks.
As the hour approached noon, I noticed with some alarm that the sun was already having an effect on me. The heat in the desert southwest has a different quality than what I am used to in Oregon. Even when it’s not terribly hot, the solar radiation seems to act like a microwave, cooking your organs from the outside in. I asked Chuck how he had managed to live for the past three months under such an intense sun, and he claimed that his body had simply grown accustomed to it.
We headed back to the makeshift “camp,” which was essentially a big tarp and blankets held aloft by shopping carts. I had enjoyed perhaps ten minutes of shade when a police unit drove by and instructed us to remove the cover. I was dumbfounded and asked Chuck for an explanation. He said that the police always insisted that the tarp remain down until at least 4:30 in the afternoon. Whether they were worried about some nefarious activities occurring under the tarp or they were trying to kill us, I don’t know.