That evening, Petey and I arrived in front of the capitol in Albany, New York. I quietly appreciated achieving this milestone on the lawn of the most beautiful state capitol in the United States. It was 300 miles into the trip. A quiet serene moment wrapped in the robe of a young night. I wondered, “If I could ask for anything in the world, for what would I petition government?”
Freedom. Ironic that one needs constraint to defend, if not define it.
I looked around the capitol for a quiet place to pitch my tent that evening – mentally trying to demarcate this boundary between homelessness and protest…
There’s a fine line. There is this homeless guy who has had a tent in front of the White House in Washington D.C. for a while. He’s been there for 28 years. I’ve talked to him. His name is William “Doubting” Thomas. I even watched his camp once, sitting in for him for an hour while he went to go get supplies. Writing this later, he’s passed on – and the last time I checked, his camp was being tended by his long-time partner in life. He was the closest neighbor to the White House, 1601 Pennsylvania Avenue, beginning his sedentary nonviolent vigil on the day after Reagan was shot in the lungs. He had just completed a 2500 mile trek across Northern Africa studying Muslim culture. Perhaps, it had been time for some rest. In any event, he outlasted 4 presidents in the White House, seeing the election of a 5th one, and died of his own bullet to the lung a year before I began my New York trip. He called the sidewalk his home, defending his right to occupy it, even before the Supreme Court. The Court kept trying to redraw this line. In all fairness, it is documentation and press, credit to the country for giving a voice to protest, even among the homeless who might be too tired to have a voice.
Trying not to be trite, but in any event, the point is never judge a homeless person by their position.
Government fluctuates between tolerance and frustration over homelessness, and depending on the political climate, one might be targeted for a round-up. It was still early for the November pre-election round up – the one where the incumbent cleans up the streets, so that when people actually look at the city around them as they go to the polls, they will vote the old guy or girl back in: “No, we don’t have a homeless problem in this city. I took care of it.” The jails literally have people falling out the windows they are so packed at this point. I didn’t even know if it was a city election year.
I didn’t want to risk it. I wanted to finish this trip. I believed myself to be 2/3 of the way through, and the Hudson, in principle, was going to be “all down hill” – that’s the direction that the current flows on a river, and, at this unique moment in my life, in spite of my circumstance, Petey and I were going with the current, and not trying to swim upstream.
City Hall and St. Peter’s: YIELD RIGHT OF WAY
I opt for the less conspicuous park behind city hall. I found a nice little place with enough trees, and pitched the tent. I observed the park benches – in stark contrast to the 95% of benches in the country that are strategically designed to prevent the homeless from sleeping on them, these were actually homeless-friendly. But I had the tent, and it gives one a certain sense of dignity, to in fact, have a home, even if one has to build it every night, and take it down again in the morning.
Reflecting on organized power, in the course of one day, I had passed from the governor, to the state, to the city, in effect moving down the chain of government. From big government to little government – it’s my preferred direction given my distaste for authority. If at all possible, solve the problem locally. Two people work out their differences… That said, sometimes, even I feel overwhelmed, and want help from someone more powerful. But, there is no need to get out the nuclear arsenal to solve a problem that a hammer and a nail might solve. Of course there’s a counterpoint. If you need an economy because it makes some people feel better than others and you don’t mind hurting the environment, go for the bigger solution…It depends on your goals. Sometimes the simpler solution gets sacrificed for the big picture. And then there is the police line, the line where personal security can no longer be maintained. The line where it is no longer about what someone else has, when you don’t, but about boundaries being redrawn so dramatically that you scream in discomfort. Then, one wants intervention, if not government.
For someone who for the most part spends her life trying to avoid government, or rather reciprocate its unwillingness to acknowledge me, it can all kind of blur together. But, now that I was at the capitol, peering in from the outside, it was time for a closer look. Whose idea was it anyway to have states? Are there differences in the way that different state governments work, or are they legislated by the federal government to all work the same way? How does the legislature work with the governor? How does the city legislature work with the mayor? And the mayor work with the governor?
I mentally deconstruct the various machines. Where does a “citizen” go, if they want to change something? How do we define citizenship? What is the difference between a citizen and a person? A person and a being?
I woke up really early the next morning (4 am) because I wanted to be gone before the trash collectors came. It’s a Saturday, and I’m up walking the streets trying to find someplace open so that I can go to the bathroom. A young kid approaches me on the street for some cash. Someone had given me $5 the day before, so I had a little. I felt for the guy. He was clearly not used to the street, and seemed rather disillusioned by his second night out. We head over to McDonald’s, and I stop, first at the bathroom, and then split a coffee and a breakfast sandwich with him as we exchanged stories. Turns out he was dumped by his girlfriend, and now he was trying to get to Connecticut. I explained to him my lifestyle, and told him that I did not think that Connecticut would be that far a walk for him if he could find a tent and a backpack. He seemed unsure.
We part company, and I pick up some film for the camera, and explore the city a bit. I find a plaque commemorating Herman Melville’s house and a very nice dog park. Now Melville was a man of my own impulse. His dad was driven out of the fur business by the war of 1812, declaring bankruptcy, and dying when Herman was 12. Although he struggled with alcoholism and successfully resisted mental commitment his entire life, he was, first and foremost, an explorer. He would try to find work as a surveyor for the Erie canal, later onboard ships, eventually abandoning ship to live among the cannabilistic Typee indians in the Marquesus islands. He was also, like me, a writer – author of several books – Moby Dick, Typee, Billy Budd.