Paying my dues, singing the blues?


(Originally posted 2014-07-09.)

Courage and despair hang in the balance for a homeless radio talk jock wannabe.

“You’ve got to pay your dues
If you want to sing the blues,
And you know, it don’t come easy.”
— Ringo Starr, “It Don’t Come Easy”

Many years ago, when I first conceived the ambition to become a radio talk show host, I quickly selected that song as virtually a theme for my show. Life is difficult. My heart’s desire was to equip people to face life’s difficulties head-on.

My life circumstances were far more comfortable at that time than they have become since. Now I’m asking myself if I’m paying my dues; if I can sing the blues; and whether I myself will face life’s difficulties head-on.

I became homeless on March 7, 2011. I had several weeks to prepare, and found what must be the premiere men’s homeless shelter on the east coast. There are sixty beds. The first night’s free; after that, it’s $3 per night, which successfully keeps out most troublemakers. You get a bed with a clean sheet and pillowcase, a blanket, a mandatory shower, optional change of clothes, and a pretty good (normally) supper and breakfast. One must take all one’s possessions and leave at 5:45 a.m., and cannot get back in until 3:00 p.m. One cannot use the mission as a mailing address.

There is a 450-bed, twelve month residential drug rehab program. Its “clients” have many privileges denied to us overnight “guests.” They can keep their possessions there, need not leave daily, and can use the mission as a mailing address.

I can stay elsewhere. Another mission is 100 yards away. You can arrive anytime until 7:30 p.m. It’s free. For that, you get no pillow, blanket or sheet. It’s poorly lit and bug-infested. The food is poor. Clothes are only available three days a week, and I’ve never found out how to take a shower. There are no stalls in the bathroom.

To leave the shelter and get my own place is not a goal right now. To do that, I’d need a full-time job paying at least $10 per hour; and no conventional job is likely to have hours that will let me stay at the better mission. My current goal is a part-time job that will enable me to (1) stop asking people for money, (2) keep my website up, and (3) buy a digital audio recorder to make my demo tapes.

I found work at a startup temp agency near the mission, that currently has one client. I worked for this client in 2011 and 2012 through a previous, now defunct agency. They have the temps work a special shift designed to accommodate workers from the mission. I like the work; I like the people.

You must report at 6:00 a.m. daily to find out whether you will work that day. A van takes us out to the work site, thirty miles distant and inaccessible by public transportation. The same van brings us back in the afternoon. One either does or does not work a full day: I must take a full day off to see the doctor, pick up prescriptions, or check my mail.

The client names the specific workers they want each day — sometimes five, sometimes ten, sometimes twenty. It’s hard to get fired up for work each day if you don’t go out. You feel like you’re dealing with the boy who cried wolf. In 2013, I worked two days one week, one the next, one the next, none the next, three the next. It hurts to see myself passed over for men who don’t even show up every day.

On non-work days, I take the bus from the agency to a Dunkin’ Donuts downtown, where I drink coffee, write and pray. When the library opens, I go online for as long as possible (four hours maximum). Then I return to the mission. Sundays I attend the church where I’ve belonged since 1979.

Online, my search engines at Monster and Career Builder send me dozens of job listings every week. Looking for “the job for me” is a needle-in-a-haystack proposition. I must comb through all those listings to find those that fit my skills and background and are within reach by public transportation. A single application can take ninety minutes.

Worse, recent changes at the mission have cut my Net access in half, so that it’s almost useless for job search purposes. The drug rehab program commandeered twenty-two beds from us “overnighters,” reducing the shelter’s capacity from sixty to thirty-eight. Before, I could arrive at 4:30 and be assured I’d get a bunk. Now I must arrive at 2:30 and stand in line for up to an hour before admission.

What encouragement can I give someone who is “paying their dues?” Can I take my own advice? Can I even find it credible?

I am about to bring up a subject many readers will object to: religion. Such objections are misplaced.

On the one hand, my religion teaches me to value integrity. My religion teaches me to take responsibility for the results of my actions. My religion is the root of my altruism. It equipped me to discern the self-image and behavior patterns that contributed to my becoming homeless, and empowered me to correct them. I have made tremendous progress.

On the other hand, “The William Tell Show” will not be “about” religion. It is to focus instead on current affairs and principles of public discourse — principles applicable not just to conflicts in politics, but also conflicts on the job, in the ‘hood, in the home. They can go a long way toward helping folk face life’s difficulties. But when one is at the point of despair, as I am now, I need a word to say.

In times of crisis, I find confidence in two places, one concrete and external, the other inward and spiritual.

Outwardly, I turn my attention to those things of which I can be absolutely certain: my concrete, material circumstances here and now. For example, at this moment I write with a pen in my right hand, in a notebook on a clipboard in my lap; I sit in a plastic chair, wearing blue jeans and an olive green cotton shirt. This focus frees my mind from emotional and social turmoil. Whether or not I like what is, becomes immaterial. I can deal with it.

Ideology begins with refusal to deal with what is.

Inwardly, I attend to the “divine spark” at the core of my being — or any human being. Each of us is connected to God in a bond no mere act, event or circumstance can undo. God is present to each one more intimately than the atoms of one’s body. Thus someone said, “Even the hairs of your head are all numbered.” From this connection flows all human life, creativity, brilliance. Thus someone also said, to a crowd of common people just like you or me, “You are the light of the world.”

This bond survives death.

Thus I have nothing to fear. Whatever the outcomes of my decisions and actions, life cannot lose purpose and meaning.

The ancient Greek hero Ulysses, about whom Homer and Tennyson wrote, paid his dues. Given my convictions, rather than sing the blues, I should far prefer to face uncertainty as he did, resolved “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

(Originally published 2013-02-20 at Yahoo! Voices.)

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