I went broke when I lived in Milwaukee, but I was fat. Like a bear, I rode out the winter. I weighed 192 lbs when the money ran out. For some people, money running out was when they didn't have enough to eat out at a restaurant that week, or had to put off buying those new basketball shoes. For me, as long as I had a dime I had money. That year, I found myself without two pennies to rub together. Broke.
I'd been there before, and I knew I'd been a lot worse off before. Resources. That was the perspective I always use, then and now - what are my resources? Inventory time. I was in a city, and having grown up in Chicago I was much better adapted to exploiting a city's resources. Dave Wilson let me live & sleep upstairs in an unheated attic above a bar he owned, across the corner from Mr J's, across the tracks in the way poor side of town. He thought I was crazy to live without heat or plumbing with the Milwaukee weather in January, but didn't worry about me as I had made it through December. It was a hell of a lot better than living under a bridge. I knew that from experience. That spring, when Reagan passed whatever law it was that forced all the real crazies out of the institutions and into the streets, he told me he wouldn't have let one of *them* live in that attic, wouldn't have trusted them. I guess he trusted me.
So I did inventory. I had a roof and a floor. The old woman who had died in one of the connecting appartments had stored some belongings in that attic, and no one had come and got them. I had a bed. Well, a mattress. Two quilts and a blanket. An old broken mirror. Then, my own stuff: A backpack, orange and blue. Still got it. A bookbag. Wonderful Durham hiking boots, one pair of addidas. Two rag wool socks, six pairs of cotton. Eight pairs of undershorts. One pair Levi's, one pair sweatpants, one pair gym trunks. Two t-shirts, three long sleeve flannel. One wool cap. And my coat, oh yes, that awesome Shott Down winter coat. I still have it, held together with duct tape and staples where ripped seams threatened to leak my insulation. My lifesblood, that coat. I remember how I bitched when my mother bought it years earlier, paying a hundred ten dollars for a damn coat. When the temperature got down to -30 I'd sleep in most of it. Or not. Wind whistled through the place, and many nights I'd lay in a tight ball all night shivering, thankfull as hell for the quilts and blanket.
Inventory when your broke is different from inventory when you have money; you start expanding your view of what gets counted. I had a city, dumpsters, libraries & the gym with hot showers only two and a half miles walk, if there was no one policing the entrance. I got to know when shifts changed, when it was likely unmanned. And I had bodyfat.
I was rich. Rich, because I knew cities. They are all similar, and Milwaukee had a hell of a lot more resources than West Lafayette, In; easier to go unnoticed, more privacy, less attention. No one cared. Oh yeah, the bookstore. There was a University Book store where I could stand and read whole novels, new ones they didn't have in the libraries.
Closer to home, there was a grocery store that occasionally had free samples of sausage and cheese with little toothpicks. There was actually a person whose job it was to hover over the tray, a person who occasionally took breaks. I'd walk the aisles and hope, occasionally rewarded with a pocketful of cheesy comestibles.
I never shoplifted, ever. Free food don't count. Funny, but reading it here I sound hopeless. That was as far from the truth as could be. I was rich. I had Slack. Sometimes, I think I had *more* Slack then: a half eaten apple on the sidewalk - Slack! A slab of cookie dough in the dumpster, unopened - Slack! But no, no way really. But there *was* Slack by the truckload. Hunger, too, and soon I got thinking that the only reason I was hungry is that I kept eating not enough. I reviewed my resources, and realized that I had the oportunity to shape up, lose some weight, and get lots of exercise if I only took advantage of it. I had bodyfat; now, if ever, was the time to put it to use as a resource.
I quit eating.
A book in the University store had caught my eye. Fasting for Health. I laughed bitterly when I saw that title, picked it up with contempt. But what I read sunk in. The first three days or so of a "healthy fast" was hell, as the stomach shrank and the mind focused on the discomfort. But, it said, after that there are no hunger pangs. Hunger pangs are caused by the body gearing up for food after the first bite, then not getting enough food. Don't eat that first bite, and the stomach doesn't start producing acids and gnawing. After plenty of gnawing I figured it was worth a try.
Who would have guessed the book was right. After three headachy days I was fine. I had more time for everything important, reading mostly. I learned just how much time is actually spent on food. Think about it. How much extra time would you have without making grocery lists, shopping, preparing, washing dishes? Not that I was doing much of that, but it was a lesson. And how my stomach would growl at 6 oclock. Only because it was trained to. I'd get busy and find it was half-past-ten, and never feel a rumble, nor would it start then. That was a major lesson. My body was Pavlovian, but I was not.
I cannot emphisize enough how good I felt, how rich in time and in Slack. Changes in my outlook, big changes. Freedom. Freedom from routine, freedom to observe how necessity shapes the day until one redefines necessity. Freedom to choose freely instead of following the expected order of most everyone's schedule. Unexpectedly finding myself closer to humanity for the simple recognition that I shared the conditioning, the programming of three squares, through not participating in it.
I went ten days, then found a pack of saltine crackers in circumstances that I will not relate, but whose Bokonistic relevance made it a joy to partake and to share with the mutt that had recently befriended me on that walk. A celebration of connectedness, the joy of steping outside of even my self-imposed structureless structures. I went another eleven days. That book had made it clear that one must drink plenty of water, every day. This is true.
Slack in the awareness of bodyfat as a resource. Eventually, I ran out. Of bodyfat, not of Slack. I had broken my fasts several times,usually about ten days apart, once with a whole tombstone pizza. That was a mistake. By then I had found more and more resources, since I had had plenty of time and the good sense to make resource awareness my hobby. It was April by then, and in Milwaukee April still means up to four feet of snow, but the days were warm and the nights not nearly so bitter. By my bodyfat I had lived through that winter. There was a scale in the gym. I had lost 63 lbs. I found a yuppy store about six miles walk that had fresh week-old bread for sale on Sundays: five one-pound loaves for a dollar. A dollar in change lying on the sidewalks is easy in a city, given a week and lots of walking. I'd share half with a biker named Gunner, or with Crazy Horse, not because they needed it, but because it would just go bad and because they did appreciate it.
By the end of May I was in North Carolina. Northern Telecom. I was caught up short when walking down the hall by a look from my new boss when I spied a single M&M, dark brown, and pounced.
I never ate no rats, tho, but only because in a city there are far greater resources. I suppose I would have if I was out in the sticks and I had to, though. The flame of life burns hotter in a Yeti.
Rev. Random the Other