Dead houses come alive at night. When the rest of the world is safely tucked into their beds, our clients begin their desperate stroll toward their nighttime dwellings. They leave the train station or the ferry landing. The homeless easily wear out their welcome at the fast food restaurant they sat at for hours, warming their souls with a cup of coffee procured through the kindness of strangers. The police, sometimes with a kind gesture or with the harshness of a nightstick, move others from their cement seats outside an overfilled shelter. As the librarian begins to shut off the lights, they wonder into the deserted streets simultaneously suppressing the growing hunger in their stomach. In most cities the homeless find a tucked away alley or a vacant park bench. In New Orleans, they find a dead house.
I’ve always been the nocturnal type. Having tended bar almost 12 years in New Orleans, I have no choice. The night becomes you as much as it mocks you. There will always be something about a deserted street at 3:30 in the morning; the piercing silence, the solitary alertness, the known and unknown dangers of darkness. I love it. Always have and always will. I like the independence, the lack of conformity. I like knowing that while the rest of the world is tucked away safe in their pajamas and dreaming of milkshakes and sugar plums, I’m not. While my love of the dark hours of the clock contributes to my love affair with outreach, I doubt our clients feel the same way.
The dipping sun is when the countdown begins. The housed world waits for that five o’clock whistle, anticipating an overstuffed couch, a cold beer and an evening watching Simpson reruns. Our clients wait for the hour of blighted retirement. Making your bed in an abandoned house requires a gutsy perseverance. Slip in too early and the neighbors are alerted. Slip in too late and you find yourself exhausted by the vacant wandering of being too choosy. Your sleep is compromised by the need to fill your stomach with the rummage food or a passed garbage can.
I always wonder what our clients do in their chosen squat. I wonder about how they make their bed, how they chose their pillow. I know they have rituals. I’ve interrupted them several times. In the still of the night, Shamus and I have interrupted the night time reading of several clients. Many times we’ve discovered the deserted novels of Daniel Steele or Tom Clancy next to an equally deserted bedroll. It amazes me that in the desperation of living in a depleted existence, one would decide that literature was an essential tool of survival. Indeed, it is a tool of humanity.
I wonder too about the morning rituals. Are they awakened by the annoying buzz of an alarm clock, like me? Do they turn on a warm and inviting shower to wash away a grogginess of a comfortable sleep? That is doubtful. I imagine it involves a sharp and rude awakening, knowing the housed world is offended by your presence. The rising sun brings increased surveillance. It brings equal exposure. Maybe one quick puff on a salvaged cigarette, strap on a pair of bruised tennis shoes and an illuminated and conscious world awaits. The cycle is repeated as the day erodes into night.
Sometimes, as much as fear, the darkness brings clarity. It can clarify the humanity as much as the inhumanity of existence.