About ten years ago I moved to Tennessee because I wanted to attend a university that had a great music program. At the time I’d just started playing guitar and really sucked at it but I wanted to learn properly and make a lifetime of music because, pre-writing, music had moved me like nothing else ever had. Seeing that I’d just come out of a long bout of drinking I didn’t have a car or shit for money, and it was okay that I didn’t know a soul in the area I planned to go to, and hadn’t started enrolling. I just ‘went with it’ by buying a one-way greyhound bus ticket from Michigan to Tennessee. I took a backpack full of clothes, my guitar, and sixty-three bucks.
Looking back, I can imagine how crazy family and friends thought I was, but, “Fuck!” I thought. “I’m on an adventure! I’m going to do this!” I didn’t give their funny looks a moment’s worry. I just said, “See ya!” and left. I spent the first night in a motel, went to the university the next morning to start the application. The second night I was on the street with about fifteen bucks in my pocket. It went fast. It was summer and warm, so there was that, but after a few days I started starving. I didn’t have a phone, or change to call anyone at home, nor did I want to. I looked for work and hit fast food joints around sundown and asked, “If I clean your parking lot, you want to throw a burger my way?”
Some of them did, some of them told me to get lost.
Those were lean times.
The locals knew I wasn’t from around there the moment I spoke. I was too stubborn to hock my guitar to grab food for a couple weeks. A few people told me about a homeless shelter where they’d give dinner and a bed for the night as long as I followed the house rule to look for work every day, which was fine because I was already spending the coolness of mornings to seek employment. The homeless shelter booted everyone at 7 am and re-opened in the evening, which was smart, because they didn’t have a bunch of bums hanging around all day.
I spent evenings rubbing shoulders with crack heads, whores, gambling addicts, winos. They all had stories and we’d run across each other during our day hikes. Some of them would follow me and try not to make it obvious, but it was because they weren’t wandering like normal, they had things in their head, a sudden purpose. I always carried a knife. Sometimes, late at night when no one could sleep, we’d share a little history. When they asked my story and heard that I had a family who loved me, had left a job, had sobered up and then became homeless, these hardcore addicts gave me damn funny looks and let me know I’d made a pretty silly choice. And they knew all about bad choices.
It didn’t take long to find a temp agency where they snagged workers and paid them at the end of the day. I was in good shape and smiled quite a bit (probably looked a little creepy, smiling like that when I appeared a bum.) I hired on as a construction laborer right away because they didn’t care how I looked, just that I could bust my ass and not stand around expecting anything for free.
Some of the guys who just bummed around and never looked for work would watch me and a few others, wondering if they should try and rob us (and some people did get robbed, usually early in the morning when they were still groggy and the perp was up all night planning and building the courage) but I carried a knife like a lot of others did, and if I had to I would stab someone in the throat and let them bleed to death in the street because sometimes you have to meet crazy with crazy if you want to keep on living.
After two weeks working for the construction crew I saved enough to rent a motel room by the month and get out of the madhouse they called The Shelter. I still saw some of the homeless shambling about in the coming weeks and months, and a few of them tried to stay with me, asking if they could crash on the floor, these guys who had a gleam in their eyes like you wouldn’t believe unless you’d been there, unless you’ve seen violence and hope and hopelessness all fighting inside a person a mere six inches in front of your face, and inching closer by the second.
Even after I had a crappy motel room I still had to walk everywhere because it wasn’t like I could afford a car, and I just enjoyed walking and fresh air, and you can observe and study things when you’re walking. It was a difficult and enlightening time. That year crawled and sped by.
I watched drug addicts—some of them probably decent kids and men at some point in their lives—drag their ghosts behind them, drifting into more of the same, nervous and edgy, always in the same place as if the city moved around them and they never gained any ground at all.
I think some of those experiences (at least in themes) have bled into NURSERY RHYMES 4 DEAD CHILDREN. Spending time with desperate people, and at times being one of the desperate, is something that will always stick with me. Like me, my characters know what it’s like to go hungry, to think things they wouldn’t normally think, to wonder what the hell they got themselves into by charging forward without a plan. There’s a lot of excitement hidden in those quiet moments, alone and still, while the world speeds by though—where you have to depend on yourself and no one else at all. It’s like living and dying at the same time multiplied by ten. It’s seeing the best and worst firsthand and taking from it even as it takes from you.
*Visit Lee at http://alongthispathsodarkly.blogspot.com/ AND visit Delirium to see his new book Nursery Rhymes 4 Dead Children due out in May 2011!!