Image above: Members of the Black Seed Writers Group, a once-a-week session for homeless writers in downtown Boston, photographed on April 7, 2020
I’m sitting at the mall charging my phone and watching people walk by. They look like they don’t know what they’re doing or where they’re going. I’m not talking “going shopping” or “buying things”—I mean they don’t have a clue what’s going on. They all live in a big bubble that they think is going to protect them. But when the shit hits the fan they will be the first to run and hide, and the people living on the streets will be there to maybe help and maybe not. Me, I will help anybody that gets hurt or needs help.
These words were written in 2016, by a man named Robert. He wrote them at the Black Seed Writers Group, a once-a-week session for homeless, transitional, and recently housed writers that I run in downtown Boston. We’ve been doing Writers Group, and publishing the writers’ work in a magazine called The Pilgrim, since 2011. Robert (I haven’t seen him in a few months) used to make the coffee—was famous for it, in fact.
Reading Robert’s words today, I feel a tremendous pressure behind my eyes. Apocalyptic or millenarian thinking is a fixture in the homeless community. Many times over the years, I’ve been warned about Chinese black ops, FEMA confinement camps in the desert, the Second Coming, etc. That’s one end of the spectrum. At the other is a simple X-ray perception of society seen from the bottom up. It’s clinical, it’s prophetic, and it tells us over and over again that American life, the American self, as currently (or formerly) constituted rests on pillars of delusion.
[From June 2020: Caitlin Flanagan on the last day of her old life]
I was downtown at 9:30 on a recent Tuesday morning, in the spacious basement of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, for the regular session of Writers Group. The group has continued to meet, and continues (under great pressure) to hold its shape, but this was our first pandemic meeting—anything but regular. Twenty or so writers were in attendance, half our usual contingent. There were no pens, there was no paper: I didn’t want any materials going back and forth. On a non-plague Tuesday, my team and I would have been handing the writers typed-up and stapled-together versions of what they’d worked on the previous week; none of that now. So where there would have been writing, where there would have been words, there was a void. The mood in the room, however, was within our regular mood range, which is to say somewhat merry, somewhat tense—here a pocket of abstraction, there a grimace—but settled, and streaked generally with a rarefied hilarity and graciousness.
Me, I was jumpy. My mindset, jangling with information, was out of sync. As people approached me, people I would normally hug, fist-bump, or otherwise affectionately collide with, I stuck up a blue-gloved hand like a gendarme in a ’50s movie. “Six feet! Six feet back!” No one, these writers have taught me, is more attuned to the flinch of a squeamish citizen, no one knows better the phobia that passes as everyday fastidiousness, than the person who has lived on the street. It’s not his or her sixth sense; it’s his or her seventh or eighth. Now writer after writer was bouncing off my nervous force field. Social distancing as bourgeois hang-up. A luxury, like “personal space.” Clearly not. Clearly not. Right? I felt schizoid in these moments.
We couldn’t write, so I read some poems aloud. I read Dylan Thomas’s “And Death Shall Have No Dominion,” W. H. Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening,” Ted Hughes’s “Crow’s Fall.” Serious, beautiful, hard, witty, eyes-open poems that do not flinch. That do not recoil. Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break … You shall love your crooked neighbour / With your crooked heart … Crow returned charred black … Gravely, tolerantly, the writers listened. Under my declaiming I heard rumbles of assent. A weak or meretricious poem would have perished in that atmosphere, would have curled up and died. These poems did not. I read Philip Larkin’s “The North Ship”: crystalline early Larkin. Three ships; one goes east, one goes west.
But the third went wide and far
Into an unforgiving sea
Under a fire-spilling star,
And it was rigged for a long journey.
Then we wrote our own poem, orally, in one take, with everybody who wanted to contributing a line:
How am I feeling? Like a wandering wind.
It’s crazy what’s going on.
Get this bullshit out of here.
Fucked-up, insecure, neurotic and emotional.
If they cancel the Best Buddies bike ride, sparks will fly.
We’re taking precautions. I think we’re overdoing it.
Confusing motion for progress, fear makes us children.
Spare change. People who change ought to be spared.
I’m feeling fine and I’m feeling prayerful.
Every day I’m still learning to give.
We may not be looking for pity, but this damn virus bullshit is getting shitty.
Robert’s piece from 2016 ends like this: “When the shit hits the fan the people of power run and hide, and they don’t care if the little or the poor live or die because all they do is look after themselves.” Homelessness is a life of exposure, and hazard, and loss of control. Who you’re with, what they’re giving you or taking from you—you have no say. So are we all homeless now, in the face of this thing? No. Right now, if you’re on the street in Boston, you’re experiencing a drastic reduction in places to eat, places to sit, places to use the bathroom, places to charge your phone, places to be safe, places to be. We, the housed and the comfortable, cannot imagine it, could not endure it. We don’t have the wisdom. They, the truly homeless, will help us if they can. Of course, they are utterly unprotected. Reality belongs to them, now and always. God loves the dispossessed, and this is why.
This article appears in the June 2020 print edition with the headline “‘How Am I Feeling? Like a Wandering Wind.’”