Blogging


…but I might as well make it official. I won’t be blogging much for at least another couple of weeks – except to post links for the blog tour for To Dance in the Desert beginning on July 25.

Later, however, I will have lots to say. I’ll wrap up my review of Dick Staub’s book, taking time to do it better justice than I’ve done so far. I’ll tell you about some books I’ve been reading that I love.

And…

I’ll make an announcement…


Shelfari is allowing me to test out a new feature that allows me to post part of my Shelfari bookshelf here. So very cool. These are my top ten. Hit the scroll button under the shelf to view the other four.

When I turn to the first page of a new novel, I begin a search for the one passage that will cause my breath to catch in my throat, the one moment when I’ll stop scanning pages and start earnestly to read, drawn by a question I must have answered.

When I read Squat by Taylor Field, that moment came when a seasoned homeless man asked a young volunteer:

“Do you think that other hardworking people should start work at six in the morning so that we can have that chance to sleep through the morning? Do you think it is good that kindhearted churches like this one give food to people like me so that I can read all day and have money for drinks? …Did you know that because there are several mission-type churches here in this neighborhood, people come from all over because they can stay in an abandoned building for free, get free meals with people like you serving them, then spend taxpayer’s money for crack?”

I’ve heard these arguments from blue collar workers, business owners and politicians, but never from a person like Unc, who would suffer more than he already does, if all volunteers took his advice, packed up the sandwiches and soup bowls, and left.

But that’s not why I turned the next page. I kept reading because I wanted to know how Taylor Field, a minister who works among the homeless in New York City, would answer the question.

And I hoped against hope the answer would not come too cheaply. So often when a minister writes a novel, his book ends up looking more like promotional material for his ministry, simply because his passion is not fiction but the work he performs from day to day, and it shows in the writing.

In my opinion, Taylor did a good job, and Squat is a wonderfully readable novel.

But I couldn’t help wondering what The Homeless Guy would think. Blogger Kevin Barbieux has been homeless off and on since 1982, and I’ve observed that he never hesitates to state his opinion. So I sent him Squat, and asked a few questions.

Here are his answers:


In a recent interview, Taylor Field said he wrote
Squat because he “wanted to tell a truthful story about (the homeless of New York) in a
redeeming way.” In your opinion, how did he do?

I guess that depends on how you define redeeming? But that’s another
point. In deciding to write it this way, he ended up writing the book
backwards – with the conclusion first and then trying to make
everything else conform to it. And thus, instead of the story being
fluid, organic, it comes across as very contrived.


I find it interesting that Field took a typical argument against
ministry to the homeless, and spoke it from the mouth of a homeless
man. For instance, in one of many arguments with a young volunteer,
Unc says, “The iron rule is that you never do for someone else what
they can do for themselves. Otherwise you create people like me.” Do
you agree, or do you side with Jason, who says such talk “Opens the
door for a kind of hardness and greed that is taking over the whole
world?” How would you reply to Unc?


It’s the whole idea of “enabling” which from what I’ve seen is just a
myth born out of an excuse for people to lay blame on the homeless for
being homeless, and thus avoid any sense of culpability. Has our
society, in its design and function created a path for some which leads
to homelessness? We know that each person’s individual actions has an
effect on others. Can these actions be so detrimental to others as to
cause, or lead to them becoming homeless? Being that most people have
a tendency to avoid appearing/feeling guilty, they deny such
possibility. Yes, there are some homeless people who would agree with Unc. I personally disagree with the concept of enabling. We are not
solely the product of our own actions/decisions.


In another place, Unc says homeless people don’t like to be treated
like projects. Do you often feel you are treated like a project by
well-meaning workers? If so, what one change would make the biggest
difference?


Yes, in most cases where people have extended a hand, I have been their
personal “project.” The biggest problem of making a project of a
homeless person is in placing either unrealistic expectations on the
project, or by holding the homeless person to some expectations without
informing him/her of those expectations. It’s crucial that there be
very open communication between the worker and the homeless person, so
that everyone is on the same page. Especially, most workers have an
unrealistic timeline as to when life-changing events will take place.
Even in the best situations, changing a homeless person back into a
homed person takes a good deal of time.


Unc seemed to get all the best lines in this book. In a conversation
with Squid, the main character, he says the reason people end up on the
street is that “…they are not very good secretaries. They are not the
kind of people who say, ‘OK, it’s nine o’clock. I’ve got to go see my
caseworker. It’s ten o’clock, time to stand in line for admission to
rehab…. These people, Squid, just don’t think like that. They are not
good at shuffling schedules and keeping a string of appointments.” Has
that been your experience, or your observation of other homeless?


That has been an issue of mine. Even today, I almost missed an
interview with a student from MTSU, who came several miles to meet with
me. Luckily I caught her just before she left. But, I think that has
more to do with my own poor memory. I easily get lost in thought and
forget about time and other obligations. My mother used to call me
“the absent-minded professor.” This may interfere in my getting off
the streets, but I don’t believe that that is the cause of my becoming
homeless, or of anyone else’s.


Unc says he believes in “Courage in the face of randomness.” Later, Squid comes to a different faith. What do you believe in?


I really don’t get that. Are they talking about being flexible in a
constantly changing world? Homeless people in general have rejected
society because of the difficulties they’ve faced while in it – but not
because society is difficult, but, because of the difficulties, they have
been injured by it in some way. In leaving society they are removing
themselves from further possible injury.


Would you recommend this book to volunteers seeking to help the homeless?


Nope.


Would you recommend this book to someone looking for a good read?


Nope.


The best “faith-based” read on homelessness that I’ve encountered so
far is Under the Overpass which I still recommend to people who
ask.


The best book of any kind, including so-called secular books, is this one. In my opinion, this book best relays the
realities of homelessness.

Thanks, Kevin.

To learn more about Squat by Taylor Fields, visit his website.

(Addendum: Kevin and Taylor started an online conversation after this. If you’d like to see the whole conversation on one page, just click here.)

Know what I do, late at night, when I should go to bed, but I can’t quite bring myself to kiss the laptop goodnight?

I troll for photographs. I instruct my Stumbleupon button to pull up photographers I might like, and then I mindlessly tap that button till I find something that wakes me up. Anything I like, I copy into files for personal reference.

This is actually useful, I promise. I refer to these pictures for inspiration: for journaling, for characters, for plot elements. Robert Olen Butler uses old postcards. I use photographs.

On my computer desktop I have a frame widget that cycles photos from my “story” file, just to keep me company, and my imagination fresh.

One night in my search for fresh thoughts, I came across The Big Happy Fun House, and I found out how much I really, really like old photographs–not even the daguerreotypes from the turn of the century, but snapshots taken in the ’40’s, ’50’s and ’60’s. The world my mother lived in. The world I lived in, and just almost remember. Friends mugging in the photo booth. Hapless fathers asleep on green webbed lawn chaises, their mouths hung open.

If you like The Big Happy Fun House, you’ll also like The Boat Lullabies and it’s related website, Square America.

I found, as I went along, that I also like the occasional odd scrap of paper, such as one that read, “Watch your step with Johny you are too good for him.”

So when I came across Swapatorium, a blog that bills itself as “A Journey Through Junkland – Flea Markets, Thrift Stores, Antique
Shops, Garage & Estate Sales, Found Photographs, Collecting, Odd
Finds, Swaps”… well, I was there.

And what did I find? A young girls diary from 1969. Laid out for you, day by day, page by page, right down to the last entry, where she writes, “I’ll have to stop leaving my diary out–people are reading it.”

Ah. Poor Mallory.

But who’s this David guy?