The horrible night in the wind and rain reminded me of my first experience camping alone on Stone Mountain in Georgia 6 years earlier. I had been living out of a car, traveling from Florida through Georgia with 2 other dogs, and my car had broken down outside an apartment complex. The dogs and I were sleeping in the parking lot of the complex, while the refugees from the Serbian-Bosnian conflict who lived there would watch us from their apartments – the mothers sending their children rushing out with a leftover dinner plate whenever they would see me opening tin cans of food with a pocket knife. I had been determined to try to camp out in the forest before it became too cold. It was the day before Thanksgiving and I had determined that this was the designated time for this rite of passage. I took the 2 dogs I had with me (Chuckles and Casey), a tarp, and a child’s cloth sleeping bag donated by a local church (no flashlight or tent). I made a tent out of the tarp by moonlight on the Indian side of the mountain using plastic ties unwound from a gymp that I had picked up from the side of the road, and wrapped the tarp like an encircled “c” to make a shelter with an opening flap. That night (a full moon), the Indians came out and I heard the drumming and chanting on the side of the mountain. Unsure whether I would be able to find my way back without a flashlight (or even with one), I enjoyed the ceremony from my tent. The following day was Thanksgiving and I went out for a hike. When I came back, someone (I suppose an Indian) had rearranged my tarp slightly, teaching me how to tie it a little better. That night (November 25, 2006), the Athens Banner-Herald headline read “Fall weather – literally” and shows a picture of a fallen tree. The temperature went well into the 30’s and the weather was almost hurricane-like with wind and rain. We survived, but I vowed never to get that cold again.
Six years later in New York State, as I hiked out from the rest area with Petey, I approached Tepee Pete’s, an icon alongside the road. From its appearance, I had been expecting a really kitschy little store, but the attendant, Dale, turned out to be a very knowledgeable source of Indian culture. We talked about the treaty of the peace tree and the five nations. I watched in fascination as she played the curved flute, not understanding completely how the waveforms could produce the correct sounds with the curvature of the flute.
The astute musician will observe that a curved flute is not the only instrument to incorporate curvature into acoustics. The salient example that comes to mind is the saxophone, developed in the mid-1800’s by Adolphe Sax, but other examples abound such as the French horn or tuba among the brass, and both the resonant cavity and the neck with a guitar.
When I had not been hustling day labor with the “illegals” in the previous few years, I had panhandled quite extensively to support myself. The initial signs I flew had always had lists of supplies that I needed, as well as some often inadequate attempt to balance carbohydrates with exercise. “½ donut = 30 min. dog walk”. I would have made more money with a simple sign “Homeless, broke, no job, etc.” But my signs gave me the illusion of dignity. I had a job. The signs attempted to educate, as well as to heal.
Panhandling is not easy work. Apart from the weather which can range from suffocating sauna-like to blizzard-like, and the general indifference of the public that one confronts on a good day, a bad day might have one negotiating a verbal obstacle course that could include hostile people yelling “Get a job” followed by a string of expletives, or “I’ll give you $20 dollars to have sex with me, right now”. Depending upon one’s location, there was always a finite period of time before people began calling the police (one minute to several). The police would sometimes politely defer for a few minutes to a few hours, and then finally tell you to move on: “It’s against the law in this county; the county line is over there…”
To pass the time, I had begun to make more challenging signs. In the beginning, they would spell out the alphabet, A one day, B the next, etc. until, in 26 days, the signs would cover the entire alphabet with a list of things that I needed, each item on the sign beginning with the right letter. Although I am not one for organization, belonging in fact to that class of people that in all appearances is “chronically organizationally challenged”, in some of the more creative towns, the homeless would organize with one person holding a sign with “A’s” on one block, the next block would have the “B’s”, the following one the “C’s”, etc. I felt connected. On G day, I could even panhandle for a grant. That was funny. In some fundamental way, I connected with my government-sponsored office-sitting peers. Later, I would progress to spelling out charities that began with the same letter as the town I was staying in: “Habitat for Humanity” in Houston, “Amnesty International” in Austin, “World Vision” in Washington, “Doctors without Borders” in Dallas, “Public Education Network”, “National Public Radio”, “Save Darfur”, “Puppies Behind Bars”, the “A.J. Muste Memorial Institute”, “Sierra Club”. Each day would be a new letter. I was a sister of charity.
The police would also get funny, and start putting together sentences with arrests for crimes beginning with the letter of the day in question. It became big time Scrabble painted out on this world canvas where I teetered precariously on the verge of commitment into a mental ward. Perhaps I was already there – consigned by some court I would never have a hearing with, to the status of “mental patient.”
Finally, I had begun to play music. My signs would list things that I needed, each item beginning with a letter that corresponded to the notes of a Beethoven piece in a town that started with the letter B, a Handel piece in a town that started with the letter H, a Mozart piece in a town that started with M. If I remember correctly, I also did Bach. Sharp notes would be in capitals, and flat notes would be underlined. I would try to play out the rhythms with my feet as I marched up and down the dividing center with my sign, playing the swells and recessions I imagined in the classical music to this economic rumba with poverty that I danced – one step forward, two steps back. I rarely made more than $30 a day in a country where the average cost of eating out is $6/day. Some days, I would only make $1 or $2, especially when I would first start out somewhere new. People want to see where the money goes.
It wasn’t an easy life. I learned to dread picking up a sign – this symbol of the first amendment that, in contrast to the approximately 4 million institutionalized people in the U.S. who lack this privilege – defended my right to have a conversation with a community rather than a controlling doctor or prison guard. That said, I also learned to read music.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. “
Now, as I watched Dale’s fingers moving deftly over the curved flute, my mind began to contemplate the effects of curvature on the production of sound. The different pitches in music are actually wave frequencies created by the movement of air within a cavity. What happens when the wave bends?