Listening to the 18-minute musical monologue has been a Thanksgiving tradition among folk music fans for decades.
Thumbing through Wednesday’s Boston Globe, back in the Metro section, there’s a story about a man found dead Tuesday on a park bench in Boston’s Fenway neighborhood.
Police suspect he was homeless, and won’t be able to identify him for a few days.
His story may never be told. But the stories of other homeless people, written in their own words, are being told.
James Parker, a columnist with the Atlantic, last year began publishing “The Pilgrim” with help from Boston’s historic Cathedral Church of Saint Paul. Each issue contains stories, essays, poems, even comics, written by the homeless. It started when Parker began a writers’ group for the homeless at the church.
“As soon as these guys started writing, I became aware instantly that I had some amazing material,” Parker said.
“So being a wise guy, I say, ‘Yeah, I’m practicing homeless yoga, lady.'”
The stories are stark and serious, ironic and funny.
Kevin Walker, who’s been homeless for five years after getting laid off from his job, wrote about his experience trying to find a way to stay dry inside his sleeping bag.
His solution was morbidly simple: a body bag. He bought one, and it even came with a toe tag.
Walking down the street one day, with the body bag rolled up under his arm, a young woman driving a BMW pulled over and stopped Walker. She looked at the rolled up body bag and asked: “What kind of yoga do you do?”
“Oh my God, she thinks I’m practicing yoga,” Walker said. “So being a wise guy, I say, ‘Yeah, I’m practicing homeless yoga, lady.’ ”
In “The Pilgrim,” Walker’s story became a comic strip, thanks to artwork by Parker’s friend, Rick Pinchera. (See the full comic below)
In the last panel, Walker moves on, with the body bag rolled under his arm “… in anticipation of sleeping like the dead.”
That may sound cynical, but Walker says that’s his life.
“Because I sleep outside, and I count my victories by getting a good night’s sleep,” Walker said. “And I was looking forward to a body bag keeping the rain off me and helping me sleep.”
Writing As Therapy
Walker says writing about his experience is great therapy for him and something that he and other homeless people look forward to each week.
Margaret Miranda, another contributor to the magazine, agrees and says the magazine gives the homeless a chance to tell their own stories.
“So often, homeless people are seen as a mass, we’re not seen as individuals,” Miranda said. “And this is an opportunity to share our individual voices.”
In her poem, “Somewhere There is a Child,” Miranda writes about a small gesture of kindness that still stays with her.
It’s about a child who made her a bag lunch. Miranda writes that the child “wrote on it in blue-violet crayon ‘Have a GREAT day’ and the ‘GREAT’ is so big there is barely room for ‘day.’ ”
Miranda says she keeps the bag as a reminder of that kindness and the child. “Still have it. Will keep it all my life,” she said.
The Art of Panhandling
But some of the pieces are more dour.
David “Shaggy” Hurley, who lived on the streets for decades before finding housing, writes about his experience panhandling.
In the beginning, he would lie to people, saying he needed money for a bus, or was trying to get enough funds to go home for the holidays.
But eventually, he realized that the best approach was honesty.
“I had to change myself, and I got to meet some interesting people,” Hurley said.
Shelters Not Always A Welcome Refuge
“The social workers will bend over backwards to help you, they’ll kill you with kindness,” Walker said. “But the so-called guests, the homeless, will kill you period. If you like the shelters, fine, do them, by all means, but not me.”
Walker said one veterans’ shelter he tried was worse than boot camp, and he was tired of being treated like a criminal. So he opts to sleep on the streets.
“I’ve been sleeping in a sleeping bag outside now for five years. And why, because as someone else said, the days go by slow, but the years go by fast,” Walker said.
Walker says it’s hard to look for a job, when you’re trying to survive.
“I did not know I was going to be outside for five years. I get locked into this homelessness, because the resources, it takes all day to take a shower, it takes all day to eat, it takes all day to keep yourself clean. And you avoid the shelters, because that’s a good place to get hurt,” Walker said.
Christmas: A Severe Survival Day
The homeless get more attention during the holidays, and the contributors say that’s fine by them, because the winter can be a dangerous time of year.
“Homeless people die by the way, that’s what bothers me. They die ignominious deaths. They croak, they die on benches, they die on sidewalks, and they get ignored, they get walked by,” Walker said.
Christmas is an especially tough time of year, because many homeless don’t have any family members to turn to.
“I’ll probably do what I did last Christmas, which is sleep late. And then attend a religious service — attend church,” Walker said.
But the shelters will be overflowing on Christmas, and Walker says some homeless will find themselves struggling.
“It’s a severe survival day,” Walker said.
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