I walk with slight apprehension into the Ann Arbor District Library, with my bag in one hand and sound equipment in the other. This Thursday afternoon I’m not scoping out the latest design magazines or plopping down my books and claiming a spot to study for the night. Today I am interviewing an individual who knows first-hand about an important subject matter that needs to be brought to life.
I have met him several times before. He wears conservative clothing, owns a one-of-a-kind guitar, and doesn't step out in public until his hair is gelled to perfection. He spent the majority of his life running a successful advertising and marketing business with his father. An easy-going, likeable guy, he now works at the local bar in town. His name is Jay, and what may not be so apparent, is the fact that he is "homeless” and has been living in a tent community in Ann Arbor for twelve weeks.
I arrive to the surprisingly large library early in order to check out a quiet spot to record our interview. I walk through the busy first floor, passed fifteen or so people each on desktop computers, and notice a small, empty study room. This room could work. Yes, this is where the interview will take place.
He mentioned he might be late because of a doctor’s appointment, which is perfect. I can test out the sound quality in the room and finish my coffee so I am caffeinated enough to summon the courage to ask him why he has failed financially in his life. I get a text “Running late, be there in fifteen -Jay.” I stare at the screen for a few seconds and ponder at the fact that I just received a text from a homeless person. Didn’t think that would ever happen. Then I snap out of it. I realize I still partake in the stereotypical view of homelessness. But, it is only natural. I need to break the label, and teach others to break the stereotype as well.
Through the study room’s glass door, I see Jay in a backwards hat and winter coat. His face is tomato-red and eyes watery from walking in the cold. He waves, opens the door, and in between sniffles he says, “Sorry I’m late, doctor had me waiting.”
“Not a problem, thanks for coming,” I reply. He begins talking about the odd hot and cold Michigan weather as I zone out and brainstorm ways I am going to transition this light-hearted conversation into an emotional life reflection.
In the meantime, while he continues on, I reach for my audio recorder and click “record.” Green light on, recording begins. Before I think of a transitional sentence he exclaims “Okay let’s get started. What do you want to ask?” I looked up, surprised at his eagerness to jump into conversation.
I asked him to talk about his life, his family, his business, his goals, his stresses, and concerns. From an outsider perspective it is apparent that his life spiraled downward soon after his father’s passing a few years ago. He sold the family business and made some bad financial investments. Unemployed, he moved in to care for his mother, who was court-ordered to be institutionalized. He is struggling finding a job and has exhausted all opportunities. It is evident that his story represents the 1.5 million who will be homeless this year due to the recession.
The stories he told about his once-successful business and how his siblings have gone separate ways was interesting, but these particular parts of the interview did not stand out. It was the little moments that got my attention, the parts where he stumbled to find the right word, the parts where he had to close his eyes and really think.
“I really, really, do miss the Red Wings….I read in the paper today that they won 9-1 last night. I usually never miss a game, but this year…I haven’t seen one.”
“Tate and I were talking about things we miss the other day…..I miss doorknobs.”
“I…I don’t know what to do right now. I’m at my wits end. My Jeep Cherokee was on its last legs, but I had to sell it to live.”
“It has taught me…….patience…well, I’m still learning that… humility, taught me the value of a dime….the value of a penny. It showed me that there are still a lot of good people out there.”
“Society negatively views homelessness….they have conceived views of homeless. And yea….there are a lot of bad apples out there, just like in any group that presents themselves. But most of the homeless I have met……..are very nice people…and anyone can end up this way…this is what I live by: never judge a book by its cover.”
“I try not to look homeless. I really try to keep up appearances. And even though I don’t look homeless, sometimes when I walk around……on the street…I have kind of like a……a......what’s the word….a complex…that everyone is looking at me…judging me…and I feel like they know I am homeless.”
“I have never been a collector, besides this jacket that I am very attached to…..I have a pair of boots, my mother bought for me…… I wear them every winter. They are in perfect condition. Inside and out. These boots are older than you.”
“Our little tent community…everyone is surprisingly nice and normal. The group……we all trust each other…..we all rely on each other. Nobody has everything they need…..to survive…whether it be toothpaste……everyone shares everything we have, without questions….and no one has stolen anything. I could leave my tent for 5-6 days and know everything will be there when I get back.”
These little snippets are what truly stood out to me. His delivery on these lines is really, really strong and I felt they were very powerful during the conversation. These were the lines I thought about on the walk home from the interview; I left the library feeling like I had just recorded a successful interview, yet I had a pit in my stomach thinking about everything he had just said. The raw moments of emotional expression were evident.
But one spoken line particularly stood out. One I kept thinking about over and over again.
When Jay was talking about how surprisingly nice homeless people are, he mentioned where most homeless spend their day. They go to the shelters and soup kitchens for food, or when not looking for a job, enjoy the day at the park. Then he pointed through the study room glass door, to the group of individuals who I had walked past earlier, the ones who were all occupying the computers.
He pointed to them and said, “Most of the homeless...hang out……in the library.”
Chills ran through my body, as it was just 40 minutes earlier that I had walked past those people and such a thought never even entered my mind, as they blended into the environment at the library. I thought to myself: these are the people who are homeless, the ones who blend in our environment during the day, yet have nowhere to sleep when the sun goes down.