Homelessness Sparked My Lifelong Love of Literature

Thrift stores — and nights in my Corolla — led me to the power of books

Photo: bantersnaps/Unsplash

When I was 19, I threw a mug of hot coffee at a framed wall tapestry my dad purchased when he was in Italy. The cost in damages was a few thousand for the tapestry, a couple of bucks for the mug and brew, and my ability to continue living there.

The mug exploded, the glass of the frame shattered, and the near-boiling roast spewed out over the elegant threads depicting some fanciful 18th-century scene no one in the heavy air of that living room would ever care about. My dad, ever theatrical, called the cops. They came and cuffed me, and we (the cops and I, my dad had found elsewhere to go) had a pleasant chat about the immediate future. They released me on the condition that I would leave the premises, so I took the keys to my Corolla and left.

The Corolla would be my home for a while.

Home sweet home

Homelessness was freeing at first. The most obvious change was that the friction I had with my abusive father was gone; the pressure of our interactions was released into the ether. I found solace in my new routine. Each night I set the car alongside the sidewalk at Triple Crown Park in Perris, California, and slept the best I could, always a little wary of the specters and silhouettes in that kind of neighborhood at night.

I’d wake up bright and early, head to Jack in the Box, and use the bathroom before ordering a couple of tacos with exact change. The employees eventually got to know me. Not my name — the homeless rarely earn that level of recognition — but my face and my routine. I wondered if they wondered how that young guy ruined his life.

Books. They were 25 cents a pop, and, in disbelief, I gathered more than 20 on my first visit. They had to double-bag them.

I’d let these kinds of useless thoughts pass the hours until my friends — my real friends, the ones who didn’t mind the smell or the bags under my eyes — got out of work. We’d hang out for a bit, and I’d get my mind off things before they went back to their homes, and I went back to Triple Crown, moving my parking around as needed to steal some Wi-Fi in the days when folks weren’t yet mindful of security passwords. I would sometimes crash on someone’s couch and take a shower. But I never stayed long, too worried about being a burden.

Waiting is a game for the contented few, and contentment and homelessness are not close friends. I found the slow passage of time away from my computer games maddening, and job prospects sparse. Walks only did so much. The abundance of time and the lack of funds led me to thrift stores, and it was there where I made my most important discovery to date: the power of literature.

Books. They were 25 cents a pop. In disbelief, I gathered more than 20 on my first visit; they had to double-bag them. I picked up books from across the genres: fantasy and sci-fi, thriller, mystery, biography and nonfiction, even romance. I still remember some kind soul (a teacher, she would tell me) approached me at the local mall’s food court as I sat with Dick Gregory’s Nigger open in my hands. She remarked on how rare and wonderful a sight it was to see a young person with a book. I didn’t dare spoil her observation with the truth of how my reading came to be, partly out of shame, and partly because it didn’t make her observation any less true. It is good that I’m here with this book, I thought as she walked away, and I returned to devouring Gregory’s treasure trove of wisdom from the peak of the civil rights movement.

It was the first real instance of a piece of literature challenging, deconstructing, and reassembling my perception of the world around me. After finishing it in one sitting, I stood up from the food court and took my usual walk around the mall. I looked the same in my reflection in the store windows, walked the same, certainly smelled the same, but I was changed. I gripped the tome in my hand, felt the weight of it, studied the cover, moved my thumb over Gregory’s name. Later, I’d enjoy reading Carl Sagan’s words describing a book as “a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles.” To this day, I find the power of those squiggles to be intriguing, mystifying, and intoxicating.

From there, my life took on a character I can only compare to the earliest moments of the universe — that rapid expansion after the Big Bang.

Over the next few months, I read Marcus Aurelius, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Stephen Hawking, Christopher Hitchens, and Langston Hughes. I read Jerry Seinfeld’s biography — funny guy. I read Tolkien and Twain, Asimov and Angelou. Karl Marx brought me to the left; Ray Bradbury sent me to the stars. When I came back down, Junot Díaz reached right through the page, gripped my heart, and crushed it. I read classics, modern novels, short stories, and poetry.

I remember Rage Against the Machine frontman Zack de la Rocha whispering “anger is a gift” to all the rebels who would listen, and I mused about how it echoed in my own story. A moment of rage begat homelessness that caused boredom and spawned time for uninterrupted reading. It generated a more well-rounded mind with a replenishing curiosity, and a thirst for more of those squiggly lines. It would eventually turn into a desire to reciprocate those talented writers, to study the craft and attempt to add something worthwhile to the human echo.

The best literature reveals something about the human condition. After diving headfirst into the world of the written word, more was revealed to me through squiggly lines than in nearly two decades of firsthand experience. At its best, literature was able to equip me with new tools to view and draw meaning from my own experiences. Without the spark ignited in those months, I would have never read Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist and learned how to make space for nuance in that movement. I would have missed out on War Is a Racket by Smedley Butler and never interfaced with critiques of imperialism that led me to separate from the military in my late twenties. The meaning of words like “anarchist,” “socialist,” and “communist” wouldn’t have been defined for me by historical scholars like Angela Davis or Alexander Berkman, leaving my decisions at the ballot uninformed and dangerous. I’d have never discovered the value of meditation or explored the illusory nature of self — life-changing realizations to my conscious experience comparable to acquiring superpowers — from the tempered perspective of a neuroscientist, as I found in Sam Harris’ Waking Up.

I realized that while Aurelius’ body was long dead, the bulk of what constituted his essential “self” was nearly immortal, preserved in his written Meditations as a philosophy for future thinkers. As his words are read in earnest, and readers embody the values inspired by those words, Aurelius survives into the modern day — he survives indefinitely.

My worldview blossomed out of these pages, nourished by discourse, research, and skepticism. The transmission of words — my luck in encountering and receiving them — was the cliché gift that kept on giving.

Unlocked in me was a critical insight: I had no key to a brick and plaster home, but each book was a key to another universe. When I think of that turbulent year in my life, I can’t help but feel a series of shattering moments, a shockwave traveling through my memories. I remember the first day of my shattering calm and the shattering cup, on long nights at Triple Crown my shattering spirit, and in books my shattering worldview.

I don’t know if these squiggly lines will shatter anything in you, and indeed they aren’t always intended to. It’s worthwhile to recognize that they have that capability at all. Words are a time machine — an immortal, magical door. Who is walking through it — you, or me?

i write love letters from the void. editor of The Anticapital, bylines @ LEVEL | P.S. I Love You | The Writing Cooperative

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