Taking solace in stories amidst COVID-19

John, a man who describes himself as a vagabond, still thinks about writing a novel — though maybe not for a few more years. (Photo by Paul Haeder)

Editor's note: This is the first installment of a two-part series on how stories aid Waldport’s homeless during difficult times.

I recently spoke with John — he prefers this pseudonym — about his desire to become a novelist, which incubated more than three decades ago.

“I always thought about that as a career, even in high school,” he said.

He’s a 48-year-old on the road but never claims to be a “victim of circumstances,” though the average person might see him crossing the Alsea bridge at night with his backpack and bedroll and think as much. He prefers to be called a “vagabond.” On several occasions, we’ve talked about intelligent design, quantum physics, zoning laws and solutions to housing instability.

He reads a lot. He spends a lot of the time inside libraries. This pattern has been in his blood way before the seven years he’s been on the road. His own life philosophy is complicated, but in one sense it can be whittled down to “Here today and gone tomorrow.”

“I am not a loner, don’t get me wrong,” he told me while we shared coffee. “I’ll associate with anyone who’s kind regardless of their station in life.”

Like many on the road, John doesn’t want specifics revealed. But he still is open about some things in his narrative. He grew up in Los Angeles. He said he was a foster child. He has no siblings. He has no connection to his parents. The effects of a bullet to the lung and one to the hip at age 22 — both removed — are taking a toll on his ability to work long and grueling jobs. 

“Yeah, I think when you and I were talking a few months ago about the influenza A, I figured anything like this new virus would put a kink in everything. Am I right?” he asked.

Social distancing is easy for John, in that he stays in his own tent,  and difficult because he shares a bench with Brooks, and they swap tobacco and rolling papers for their cigarettes.

“Look, we have been kinda on the front lines of all sorts of diseases,” said Brooks. “New strains of TB., Hep. C — even bedbugs are blamed on us, man. This virus doesn’t scare me. The people out there, the citizens, that’s what scares me, man. All that toilet paper hoarding and shit like that.”

We talked about the concept of story. John is deeply connected to words. He reads a lot of books.

John and Brooks have a lot of stories. John, though, is steeped in the writerly way of framing narrative through his life and a universal lens that someone like John Steinbeck or Margaret Atwood used. Brooks has tales about many dramatic brushes with the law, criminals, courtrooms.

“I still think about it: writing a book,” John said while looking at me pensively but with no regrets etched on his face. “You never know what I might be doing when I turn 50 . . . or 60.”

We continue talking about surviving, and how people on the streets have survival skills the average person in U.S. society doesn’t. Not just the ways these people can find shelter, tap into resources and be blessed with other windfalls. They have a certain outlook on life that is “not filled with unrealistic pots of gold at the end of the rainbow.”

John’s thrown in as a line chef, a carpenter, a cabinet-maker and demolishing structures. He was once paid a penny per word for research through an online university. He worked in Arizona picking melons with mostly immigrant laborers.

“Yeah, right out of ‘Grapes of Wrath,’” he stated. “We got paid 200 a week, but the manager kept our first week’s wages. And, we had to pay for food and this crappy shed to sleep in. We paid every time we took a shit.”

He thinks labeling anyone with “mental illness” is incorrect and a quick way to control people and take away their rights.

“We can have mental issues and problems, but it is not a disease,” he said.

John is skeptical of government services for homeless, saying, “The secular institutions aren’t capable of helping the homeless. When people help me, it’s members of the community. Religious institutions should be helping out much more.

“It seems like the powers that be want us to freeze to death. Sometimes it’s just a place to get out of the cold that can make the difference,” John said.