Monday, September 14, 2009


[My father requested I write more about my recent homeless experiences. Since yesterday afternoon I have been brainstorming what to write about. I still have no outline or plan of action, so will do what I’ve made countless students do over the past couple years -- write a free write about the experience and see what winnows through the flurry of words…]

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We were sitting on the back deck facing the old depot in DeKalb and Mom reminded me that when I was a teenager I had a fascination with hoboes and living the vagabond life. She reminded me that I threatened/fantasized taking an epic journey by rail and hitchhiking out west. “You still haven’t done that,” she reminded me. “But don’t you dare do it now!”

For good and ill, I have a fierce restless streak, something I have to constantly fight because I want to be involved in my son’s life and provide him the same protection and security that my parent’s did me. But that doesn’t stop me from reading National Geographic, Outside, and Backpacker magazines, studying maps, reading travelogues and planning potential trips. There’s no harm in that, other than the frustration of unfulfilled ambitions.

In the month before I moved out of the house I was renting in Elgin, I knew that I would be homeless for at least most of August because I did not want to commit to a lease in DeKalb and then get a full-time teaching job elsewhere. I debated going on a long hike on the Ice Age Trail or North Country Trail in Wisconsin, but finances and a need to be close to the area for a potential job interview kept me around.

I approached homelessness with an air of adventure. This would be fun, I figured, the vagabond lifestyle that fits so well with my tramp sensibilities. In many ways it was. But I was in for a few surprises as well.

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The biggest and most frustrating surprise was the difficulty I had keeping track of my stuff. I rented a 5 x 8 foot storage unit and had my truck. I loaded the unit so that things that I deemed in need of easy access -- toiletries, clothes, outdoor equipment, etc. -- would be near the front. But as the days went on, I found myself having to move things around a lot to find things. By the time I moved into my current residence, the storage unit was in shambles and stuff flew out, eager to escape, whenever I rolled up the door. A domestic existence cannot be lived out of a backpack. This is why the stereotypical vision of a homeless person includes a shopping cart.

Another difficult aspect of the homeless experience is staying clean. I managed to avoid looking like a bum by showering at least every other day at the Anderson Hall pool locker room on campus at NIU. I also had access to a shower and free laundry at the Augusta Inn, a.k.a. the Bad Boy House, where I even squatted a couple nights. More on that place later. I was very conscientious about not looking like a bum because I know a lot of people in DeKalb and did not want them to know what I was doing, not because I was ashamed of my condition, but because I didn’t want to go through the complicated dance of refusing generous offers of housing.

I met a few homeless people during this time and all of them slept in their vehicles. I’ve always looked at motor vehicles as an opportunity for law enforcement to infringe on my rights, so while I used my truck as a base of operations, I never slept in it and always parked it in public lots downtown.

During the day, I carried stuff using a fanny pack or small backpack. After dark, I rode out to the storage unit and grabbed my GoLite Breeze rucksack loaded with tent, sleeping bag, rain jacket, etc., and rode my bike or walked out to my home for the night under cover of darkness. I NEVER set up camp in daylight, practicing tried and true stealth camping techniques (see an earlier post about these). The rucksack is smaller than a full-size expedition pack, but not nearly as inconspicuous as a daypack.

I camped in a variety of woodsy settings in and around DeKalb, eventually settling on two spots that were secluded enough for me to sleep without worry. One spot was in Prairie Park, nestled beneath the boughs of a grove of chokecherry trees. In daylight, I could walk 10 paces, look around, and not notice the tent. The other spot was in Eco Park, just north of NIU’s campus. This one was easier to get to -- about 20 paces off a trail -- but felt just as excluded. The Prairie Park spot required me to walk a long ways through tall grasses and other itchy brambles.

The worst spot was in a graveyard near the high school. I picked this place because a port-a-pottie and water was nearby, fully intending to camp in the woods that surrounds the graveyard. But when I tried to scout out a spot, I discovered the ground to be all hummocky and/or root covered, so I had to camp in a grassy area on the edge of the woods. During the night, people walked by and I heard a car door slam nearby. I think the graveyard is a popular hang out place for teenagers. It was a very fitful night of sleep.

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I’ve seen DeKalb from so many different perspectives over the years. My first exposure was as a teenager, competing in drum and bugle corps at Huskie Stadium. I’ll never forget Larry E. and I hanging out with the girls traveling softball team in their hotel room, and being chased out and threatened with arrest when discovered by their chaperone. During these annual visits, I only knew the west side of town and NIU’s campus.

When I returned in 1994 to pursue my bachelor’s degree at the university, I lived in the dorms and eventually downtown, exploring campus even more and enjoying the bar scene. I also knew places along the bus routes and the shopping areas along DeKalb/Sycamore Road. Later, returning in 2005 to pursue a master’s degree, and with a couple long distance hikes behind me, I once again lived near downtown, but then discovered all of the parks, trails, and public lands. I realized, upon comparison with my former experiences with the town, how much my perceptions had been changed by trail life.

This is my third time back in DeKalb, and homelessness helped me discover the tasty, cold, clean, and functioning water fountains at nearly every city park. I also figured out which porta-a-johns were the least nasty and when the campus buildings are opened (7 a.m.). And now, living on the east side in a bohemian atelier, I have come full circle and see the city through musical notes, color and creative possibility.

Until now, I’ve always seen DeKalb as a wayside between points of greater interest, primarily because I came here as a student, a temporary condition. But now seems different. My son was born here and lives the next town over. I’m not enrolled at NIU and have no plans to do so. DeKalb has always been good to me. I’ve touched the Kishwaukee River, so why fight fate? I’m happy and accepted here. It feels like home.

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The characters of the Bad Boy House and a description of my new home will have to wait for another post. Check out my twitter page --

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