Years ago, told my friend John Murphy that I wanted to try being homeless for a few months. And I meant it – I wanted to be properly homeless. Sleep on the streets. Eat what I could find or what I could buy with money panhandled from the kindness of strangers. I wanted that experience. I wanted to feel what it was like to have nothing. No money, or possessions, or responsibilities. I wanted to feel the resignation of having nothing and having nothing to do, and I wanted to feel the freedom that came with it.
John thought it was a stupid idea.
He told me that it wasn’t a sincere idea and that I would just be a sort of tourist of homelessness. Knowing that I could and would go back to my regular life with my mobile phone and my laptop and my expensive flat in the hip Los Angeles neighborhood. I could never experience homelessness genuinely unless the universe conspired to put me there.
Well, John was totally right.
Regardless, the other day, the universe did conspire to make me homeless if only for a moment.
My lease at the house with the Swedes was ending and I had to find another place to stay. I tried to book Lou and myself back into the Arts Factory, but they were full. In fact, everywhere was full. It turns out, the whole town of Byron Bay goes completely insane over the Easter Holiday, and not with chocolate eggs and rabbits and resurrected Jesuses, no. They go crazy with greed. Rent skyrockets. The weekly rate at our flat went up by $2000, and the hostels were all the same, if you could find space.
What better way to celebrate Easter than with price gouging?
Lou and I were screwed. We had nowhere to go.
So I decided to “borrow” a Wicked Camper van from work. We rent these vans to backpackers traveling up the coast, so we usually have a few vans sitting in The Rails carpark.
Perfect, a free place to stay.
So we loaded out lives into the van and prepared ourselves for a week or two of being itinerant van-dwellers. The first night couldn’t have gone worse.
We had a few drinks with friends at The Factory, and then parked on the road for the night. At 3AM we woke up to a torrential downpour, inside the van. The roof of our new van-home leaked and a steady stream of water was drip drip dripping on my face like Chinese water torture. We couldn’t fix the problem, so we just laid a towel under the drip and turned so the water was at our feet instead of our faces. Back to sleep. Then at 4AM there was a pounding on the window with threats of $150 fines for illegal camping. Apparently you’re not allowed to sleep in a campervan on the side of the road. I drove the car back to the rails where I dozed restlessly for another couple of hours before going to a sales meeting at work at 8am.
So there I am, unshowered and unrested and in a meeting with the owner of the company when he says, “Hey, we’re supposed to have 4 vans in right now, why are there only 3 sets of keys on the rack?”
Fuck. That’s all my mind can think. Fuck fuck fuck. The keys are in my pocket! How am I going to explain this one?
Reacting to the situation without thinking, I slide my hand out of my pocket, palming the keys. I open the drawer in front of me and let the keys slide to my finger tips as I pretend to pull them out, mumbling, as nonchalantly as possible, “oh yeah, I tossed them in here when the van came in yesterday.”
I swallowed hard, hoping that I’d pulled it off. The meeting went on and no one was the wiser.
Later that afternoon, when one of the rented vans wouldn’t start, we had to rent out the van I was living in, sending me into a complete frenzy. I had to unload all of my and Lou’s stuff, leaving my whole life in a pile in a carpark. I also had to tell my boss that I was living in the van, which she took surprisingly well, but was not happy about.
I was exhausted and exasperated. I was homeless. This wasn’t going to work anymore.
I stored all of our stuff in the broken down van, but I knew I couldn’t sleep there that night — it had to go into the shop for repairs.
Feeling lost, I went to the Byron bus terminal to hide out in the anonymous shuffle of comers and goers. Someone once told me that every day 1000 people leave Byron and every day 1000 more people come to take their place. I watched as groggy backpackers disembarked Greyhound buses, shouldered their overloaded packs, and hobbled off to find accommodation, avoiding touts with zigs and zags. It felt good to be there, stationary in that sea of constant motion.
A man came and motioned to me that he wanted to sit next to me. I obliged, sliding over to make room. He smiled and nodded and motioned at the people and the buses, as if to say, “it sure is busy here.” I realized that he couldn’t, or didn’t speak. He was the perfect companion for me at that moment, and we were both content to sit in silence and watch the people and the traffic. After a while, he reached into a plastic bag that he had been carrying and pulled something out, offering it to me in a closed, down-turned fist. I held out my open palm and into it he dropped two little nuggets of weed. then he pulled a much bigger pinch of weed out of his bag, packed it into the bowl of a small pipe, and cashed it in one long drag. He seemed to exhale with sadness and i wondered what his story was, and thought that maybe I should stop pitying myself when there were people like this man who still smiled and were kind to strangers even when they couldn’t speak.
My friend Marcel happened to walk by and see me there at the bus stop. He wanted to know if I was leaving town, so I told him my story. He went home and told Robin. A half hour later, I was still at the bus stop when I got a phone call from Robin saying that they wanted me and Lou to move in with them. We’d have to sneak around his strict landlord, but we’d split the rent so it would be cheap and he assured me that it would all work out.
I fucking love that kid.
So that’s where I am now. Me, Lou, Marcel and Robin, all sharing a small studio apartment on Bangalow Rd. And life is good again. It reminds me of when Johnny and John and I used to share a small one-bedroom place in Los Angeles. On the weekends we’d have Charles and Leah and Kinga there as well. Awesomely crowded. Full of beer bottles and pizza boxes. Some of my fondest LA memories are in that house. And it was in that house that John and I had that discussion about homelessness.
And yeah John, self-inflicted homelessness was a stupid idea, but an interesting one, and I’m still considering it. But right now, it looks like the universe doesn’t want me to be homeless.
Thanks to everyone who helped me to get through that day.