by Rebecca Koch
Brian is a middle-aged white man who visits the Pennsylvania Wine & Spirits store daily to purchase a pint of Jacquin's vodka. Including sales tax, the bottle costs $4.33. A pint of Nikolai vodka is the exact same price, but Brian doesn't like Nikolai, and if we don't have a pint of Jacquin's he will make do with a half-pint of Jacquin's. I don't know if he's homeless and I think it rude to ask, but I do know that he wanders our parking lot and the rest of south Allentown looking for change. Sometimes he has a bicycle, sometimes a backpack, sometimes both. This morning he has neither, and requests that I put his pint of vodka in a plastic bag with handles to make it easier to carry.
It is early November, the beginning of my third holiday season working in the Wine & Spirits store. Outside it is sunny, but a little cool, and Brian wears a leather jacket with a "Planet Hollywood: Lake Tahoe" logo on the back. I wonder whether he has ever actually been to Lake Tahoe, and where else he may have been before he ended up here.
After requesting today's pint of Jacquin's, as if I didn't already know what he wanted, and placing a pile of change on the counter, Brian says to me, "You look bored."
I nod, but stay focused on counting. There is no one in line behind him yet, but I don't want to make someone wait.
Brian is in no rush.
"I don't think I could do that," he continues, "just stand in here all day."
When he leaves, I watch him through the large glass windows of the store, suddenly feeling like a caged bird. He strolls away from me across the bright parking lot, the plastic bag swinging from his left hand.
Of course, it would be ignorant of me to say that I wish I were homeless. If I really wanted to be homeless, all I would have to do is leave. But there is a part of me that envies the freedom that must come with having so little to lose. How liberating would it be to wake up one morning with no expectations of the day, of the week, of my life? What if I stopped worrying about tomorrow? What if I just stopped caring? What if I decided I had nowhere I needed to be other than right here where I am?
I never planned on feeling like this. Television, movies, and pop music prepared me well for the emotions I'd experience through many life events. I expected to fall in love and to have my heart broken. I am prepared to cry for weeks, maybe even months, when my mother dies. But I never had a single warning that I would someday fantasize about taking a year off and living under the 8th Street bridge.
I am not Episcopalian, but I arrive in the kitchen of the church early on a cold, snowy morning. Earning a bachelor's degree involves learning to live more ethically, and I am asked to perform community service at the soup kitchen as part of a required course. The first meal I help prepare is macaroni and cheese. The head cook assigns me to help another volunteer, a high school boy who is also doing community service as part of a school requirement. We grate an entire case of donated blocks of cheddar cheese in a food processor, while another volunteer cooks noodles in a large pot. I have never made macaroni and cheese like this. Mine has always been made in a paper cup in a microwave with mysterious orange powder "cheese," but usually I just live on bread and peanut butter. I can't remember the last time I had a truly home-cooked meal. My mother doesn't cook much, and but she has two jobs.
While we are preparing the meal, some guests arrive early. They aren't supposed to come into the church until 11:45, but the temperature is below freezing outside, and today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, so the library where they often spend much their days is closed. I think that if I weren't a college student, I wouldn't mind hanging out at the library all day. I used to love to read, but I can never find the time to read things that aren't assigned.
I am surprised and slightly horrified to find my mouth watering as I look over the smorgasbord of donated desserts: cookies, cakes, pies, and pastries in a variety of flavors. The woman pushing the cart of dessert trays into the kitchen tells me I am welcome to take whatever I want. I am tempted, but ultimately decline her offer, as the holiday season has left me feeling a little bloated, and I haven't been making it to the gym as much as I'd like to. I've never made a new years resolution, but I seem to make plans for self-improvement on an almost daily basis:
Floss your teeth more often. This is a civilized country, we floss our teeth! Do you know how many people wish they had a full set of straight, white, cavity-free teeth? Do you know how much your parents paid for your teeth to look like that? And you can't even remember to floss them daily?
Be more organized! You're 21 years old, that's way too old to be losing your homework under piles of dirty laundry!
Stop picking at your fingernails, it's disgusting. You're disgusting.
Stop eating so much refined sugar – you're a nutrition major for the love of God! Have some self-control.
As we serve the guests, some of them request a specific dessert, or ask to exchange theirs for another.
"I don't really like cherry, could I have the chocolate one he got?"
Having worked my share of minimum wage retail jobs, my instinct is to please the customer. But later I find myself wondering, what happened to "beggars can't be choosers?"
The cherry pie was good, as was the macaroni. If that cherry pie were served to me at a restaurant, I wouldn't have sent it back. I would have paid $8 for it.
I sit slumped over the break room table, staring at a text message that reads, "I think ur problem is that u see through the simulacrum of everyday life. Ur best bet is to get more dumb." After re-reading the message for the fourth time, I decide I feel inadequate for not understanding what my non-college-educated friend is talking about. Finally I give in and Google "simulacrum." There's a Wikipedia article on the subject, which I scan, taking in random words but not quite getting the overall concept. It has something to do with post-modern philosophy.
The microwave on the counter behind me utters a weak "ding". "Simulacrum" will have to wait because I only have about twelve more minutes to eat my leftovers and get back to work.
But of course I have to work. I have to work to pay for my car. I need my car to… get to work.
It might be easy to look down on people like Brian with pity. But for me those feelings were briefly overpowered by fascination. I think its possible people like Brian have a quality of wisdom and integrity that we loose when we get stuck on the treadmill of our day-to-day existence. Maybe they just recognize the futility of working jobs they hate so they can buy things they don't need in order to keep up appearances for people who don't matter. Maybe I'm not depressed because there is something inherently wrong with my brain chemistry that requires pharmaceutical correction; maybe I'm depressed because I live in a society in which irreplaceable hours of my life are a cheap commodity item.
A few weeks later, Brian told me a truck ran over his foot the previous night. I can't say I envied him as he hobbled away down the sidewalk.
I don't want to romanticize homelessness.
I don't want to try being "homeless for a day."
But I do believe that if you couldn't feel like a truly happy, satisfied, adequate, whole person living under a bridge, you won't feel that way anywhere else.