On Being Homeless and Lars Eighner’s Travels with Lizbeth

On Christmas Eve in December 2014, roughly a month after moving to New York City, I became homeless. I’d been trying to find work while living at a friend’s place on the Upper West Side. There were gigs in the hospitality industry but they were sporadic and my salary was minimum wage.

That evening, a minor disagreement with my host escalated into a major fight after dinner. He grabbed my shoulders and shook me. I packed my bags and left his place at 1 a.m. I was slightly inebriated, angry, and desperately sleepy. Riverside Park was nearby but the grass there was cold and wet.

An hour later, I landed at Penn Station. The station, which has been described as New York’s Commuter Hell, is an overwhelming and confusing mass during rush hour. But, that cold night, it was the warmest place in New York City, populated mostly with homeless people and bleary-eyed drunk youngsters who’d missed the last train home.

The next morning, I tumbled out from the station’s dark into the early morning Christmas light, alongside crowds entering the city for festivities. The streets were brightly lit. I sat on park benches and watched crowds swirl around decorated shop windows. I jostled with them in Times Square to get to a food cart selling cheap and nutritious food. In the evening, I returned to the station for another night of aimless wandering in its empty passageways.

In total, I spent three days at Penn station before a kind stranger agreed to put me up at his place in Jackson Heights. The couch on which I slept was hard and the shower water brackish. But I have never had better sleep or felt more refreshed.

That wasn’t the end of it, however. Over the course of the next year, while frantically moving between rooms and living spaces, I returned to homelessness again, finding rest and shelter on benches in city parks, at Penn station, and under construction awnings on rainy nights. I spent ten nights sleeping out in New York that year. In September 2017, I was back for another two nights. Barely a month later, I spent a night on the public bench amid the blinking lights of shops in downtown Brooklyn.

These forays into homelessness were not born out of choice or intention. They were the result of an unfortunate set of events: no rent money, delays in payment for my work, or, simply, the absence of a cheap bed in New York City.

A bunch of similar events coalesced for Lars Eighner. A non-profit worker and author, he was made homeless after being laid off from his job. Travels with Lizbeth is his account of three years being homeless on the streets of Austin with his dog Lizbeth. The book’s title is a riff off John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. But Steinbeck’s was a relatively comfortable journey. He slept in motels and traveled by car. Eighner’s tale is a hardscrabble account of hitchhiking with strangers and sleeping in public spaces.

A Survivalist’s Guide to Homelessness

The initial perimeter of Eighner’s homeless sojourn stretched from Austin to Los Angeles. He’d hitchhiked to LA in hopes of securing an editor’s job. (Note: Hitchhiking such a considerable distance might sound scandalous and brave these days but Eighner’s book is set in the late 1980s). The job never transpired and Eighner returned to Austin out of money, home, and luck. How he spent the next three years, shifting between streets and parks and bluffs, forms the core of his book.

Eighner barely had money during this time. He scavenged for food in trash cans and swam in public pools to clean himself and Lizbeth. At the beginning of each month, he was allowed grace. A friend, prone to drinking away his salary, allowed him to sleep on a couch in his living room for a couple of nights. But it was back to the streets after those nights.

On the streets, Eighner survived on food from Dumpsters. The trash containers provided sustenance, both mental and physical, to him. He found unopened cans of food and semi-finished pizza boxes in them. There were medicines for his ailments and treats for Lizbeth. Term papers and dog-eared novels helped him pass the empty hours of homelessness.

The chapter on Dumpster diving has been widely anthologized and rightly so. It is both pathos and humor, touched with analysis and a meditation on life. Eighner writes about the best methods to find edible food from Dumpsters. Three principles must be followed, he writes. They are using the senses and common sense to determine a food’s freshness, knowing the quality of Dumpsters of a neighborhood through regular visits, and, finally, seeking to answer the question “Why was this discarded?”. Using these principles, Eighner scrapes mold off rotting cheese and eats pizza discarded by students.

Often, he discovers college essays in the refuse and rues their abysmal quality. “I am horrified to discover the kind of paper that now merits an A in an undergraduate course,” he writes. The Dumpster also becomes a source of philosophical reflections on his mortality. The training he has provided Lizbeth in retrieving food from Dumpsters, he thinks, will hold her in good stead after he is gone.

For the most part, though, he spends his days in the ennui of being homeless. Other people in similar situations drink or do drugs to pass their time on the streets. But Eighner drinks sparingly and doesn’t do drugs. In a passage, he ruminates on why drink and drugs have such a strong hold on homeless people. “In a life that seems devoid of meaning and purpose, the quest for the daily dose is something to do, it is a reason to keep putting one foot in front of the other,” he concludes. Indeed, the web of family  relationships, errands and work provides a meaning, an order to life. For those out on the streets, these are absent.

These philosophical ruminations are interspersed with character sketches. With nothing better to do, Eighner spends days watching people and life in motion. His companions are quirky and obsessive pleasure seekers.

An example is Don, a bad poet who lives off the University of Texas. He uses the university’s facilities for various activities, such as showers and workouts, by posing as faculty, worker, or student. He also attends classes without paying fees and sleeps in faculty offices. Eighner refers to Don as an “institutional parasite” but Don considers himself the member of an arcane community of scholars which, he says, is the true society “as opposed to the apparent university, which was composed of various sophists, charlatans, bureaucrats, and hacks.” This community is spread across various top universities – Harvard, Yale, Oxford, Heidelberg, Sorbonne and so on, according to Don. When he is caught and banned from UT-Austin, Don starts drinking heavily and eventually disappears from Eighner’s orbit.

Towards the end of his account, Eighner builds himself a makeshift home under a bridge. It is destroyed by the police. Eventually, he came across Clint (now his husband) whose payment from a pharmaceutical study helped get them a cramped apartment in an Austin neighborhood.

A Humanist Account

I made some entries in my journal about my short stays on New York City’s streets. Some were written in pencil. They are smudges now. Perhaps, someday in the future, I will read through them again and be able to make sense of the sequence of events that led me to Penn station. But that understanding will have been tainted by unreliable memory.

Eighner’s is a fresh account. The first draft of Travels with Lizbeth was written on a manual typewriter in an abandoned bar with no heat and electricity and with paper retrieved from Dumpsters. Despite this, the book brims with humanism. It could have been easy for Eighner to dissolve into a self-pity fueled critique of social policy or society.

But the book’s tone is hardly bitter. The point of his narrative is not to mop up pity or criticize but to describe and inquire. Eighner’s storytelling skills and sharp observations transform a potentially depressing account into a lively picaresque, that may not always be amusing, but one which has a satisfactory ending. More importantly, Eighner’s work subverts the standard portrayal of a homeless person as a helpless drug- and drink-addled creature.

Since that last time in 2017, I have not returned to the streets. Eighner was not so lucky. In 1997, four years after his book was published, he was back on the streets with Clint. He earned an estimated $100,000 from book sales and royalties and settled into a domesticated life. But he failed to produce another work to follow up on his earlier success. Not surprisingly, he ran out of money since Clint was not working either. Eventually a fund was set up for him. Eighner married his partner in 2015 and changed his legal name to Lars Eighner Hexamer (Clint’s surname) in 2017.

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