Houseless, not homeless
The Sixties is the era that just won’t go away. People who weren’t around for it, wish they had been. People who lived it, wish they could go back and do it again, and this time do it better. Today it’s trendy to dismiss Sixties people as caricatures, and the whole hippie lifestyle as a joke. Why are some of the most enthusiastic participants in the bygone era now ashamed of their youthful idealism and readiness to challenge boundaries?
Of course, the recantation isn’t universal. Ken Kesey never repudiated his younger self. This whole train of thought was kicked off by an indie film called Rubber Tramps, one of his last media projects. His commentary alternates with documentation of the ways and thoughts of people who live in vehicles and tend to move around a lot. Over all, it contains the distilled essence of the Sixties. For example, one vagabond tells how his mother asked, “What are you going to do with your life? How will you get the things you want?” He says, “I have the things I want now.”
Kesey guides the film crew into his woods to the resting place of “Furthur,” the noble bus that carried the Merry Pranksters and Neal Cassady. Their adventures provided a blueprint for others who acted out the paradigm of life as a never-ending journey. “Furthur” is cousin to the strange vehicles that occupy the side streets, parking lots and lonely spaces in so many cities. These rolling homes are a source of perpetual aggravation to many permanent residents. In them dwell people whose most important possessions are their wheels – individuals who preserve the idea of freedom for the rest of us, in case we want to get re-acquainted with it some day.
Sixties people felt the need to separate from the prevailing society, which was seen as toxic in all its manifestations. An enormous influence on young minds, at the time, was Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, a novel about a character who blew into town encumbered only by a big trunk plastered with labels from various exotic lands. His room was a disorderly midden of wine bottles, poetry books, paints – about what you’d expect to find in the bus of a modern-day rubber tramp. As mysteriously as the Steppenwolf had arrived, he vanished, leaving behind nothing but a manuscript that traced the development of his philosophy. Its main tenets were a deep craving for independence; hatred for all offices whether governmental or commercial; and refusal to sell himself for money, comfort, sex, or power.
In the Sixties, we had not the first, but certainly the most contagious, instance of a whole lot of people spurning the received wisdom of their society. Countercultures have always existed, and always will. People who prefer motion are a subset of the conformity-spurning class. Gypsies, theatrical troupes, sailors, traders, itinerant musicians, desert herders, shell-shocked veterans who can’t stay under a roof, all kinds of nomadic populations – they’ve been around forever, too. And sometimes a person just wakes up one morning and decides, “I’m not gonna do it. I’m not gonna start my day by tying a noose around my neck. I’m not gonna suck up to a boss. I’m not gonna squander my life buying status symbols for my relatives to flaunt, while I grow stomach ulcers.”
We know where you live
For any government, there’s an advantage in having twenty zillion laws on the books, even if many of them are generally unenforced. When authority wants to harass you, it will find a reason. The trap is always there, jaws agape. Believe it: there are few adults in America who couldn’t be arrested for something. Everybody’s ass is up for grabs, all the time.
But first, Big Bro has to find you. He can’t abide a shifting population. That’s why he wants everyone locked into “real” jobs, marriages, and mortgages. People are optimally kept track of when they are neatly lodged at permanent addresses. The next best thing, from the tyrant’s point of view, is to have people un-housed, but contained in certain areas of the urban complex: designated parks, or Skid Row, or maybe even shelters. In the first instance, cooperation is secured because you have too much to lose; in the other, submission is guaranteed because you have nothing to fight for, or with.
At either extreme, householder or homeless waif, the bottom line is: the government knows where to lay hands on you at 4 a.m. That’s what it’s all about. What really irritates authority are the loose people, the ones who might be here or could be there, the ones who flit around. Like the rubber tramp who says, “I’m not homeless – my home is homeless.” And the one who says, “Freedom fixes most anything.” To authoritarians, restless folk are anathema, especially when the wanderers don’t particularly care to be accepted as citizens by the larger society. They like being alienated and disaffiliated. It doesn’t mean they’re evil. It means they want to be left alone.
Like a rolling you know what
In our day and age, the “floating anarchy” subculture is one of the last minority groups it’s okay to openly, unblushingly hate. The bureaucratic persecution never lets up, and yabbos entertain themselves by committing arson and assault against the rubber tramps. The non-traditionally housed are loathed and feared as much as the homeless. Especially when they are vonu by choice. That’s a libertarian-coined term for a philosophy whose primary goal is to become invulnerable to coercion. There are real-world components, techniques of withdrawing or disappearing from society. There are mental and emotional components.
For every person who actually unleashes the inner gypsy, there are a hundred who wish they had the balls to give up all the illusions and follow their hearts. Some rig up a vehicle and a lifestyle for a couple weeks annually, and take off for Burning Man or a Rainbow Gathering. Others live on the edge 365 days a year. Some go for the completely unplugged “acoustic lifestyle;” some have electronic amenities. For true vonuists, it becomes ever more difficult to live under the radar – even when you do absolutely nothing deviant except live under the radar, which has to be defined as wrong, for control to be as tight as a paranoid government requires.
Moss needs love too
The Sixties was the epoch of the rolling stone meme, as seen in the Dylan song; the rock’n’roll magazine; the band. Even then, the quotation was ancient: “A rolling stone gathers no moss.” The trouble with the proverb is, it takes for granted that a question about the desirability of moss has been decided. But is moss bad? In a way, yes. It erodes a small rock just as surely as the roots of larger vegetation can erode a mountainside. Doesn’t sound good. On the other hand, moss is also part of nature’s grand design.
At any rate, a generation arose that avoided gathering moss, in the form of either belongings or obligations. One way to be invulnerable is to not have things that can be seized and forfeited, not have loved ones who can be used as leverage. Children are the most easily threatened hostages to fortune. One traveler in the movie is RomTom (that’s Rom as in Romany, or Gypsy), whose photographs validate the Phil Ochs line, “In such an ugly time the true protest is beauty.” RomTom and his wife Ellie were on the road for decades, repairing bicycles, transforming life into art, and generally upholding the tradition of the eternal wanderjahr – and enduring the ongoing horror of having lost their three daughters to the social services machine. It’s been said that you can do anything you want, as long as you’re willing to pay the price, and there is a hefty price tag attached to life on the road. Sometimes the cost is much higher than your worst nightmare.
Despite the hazards of camaraderie, wanderers still value it, and some prize it above all things. The difference is, they form chosen families and communities through voluntary association, rather than by blood kinship or other arbitrary standards. In the movie, four rubber tramps spend most of their time playing dominoes, digging each other’s company, tall tales, wisecracks, and survival skills. So what? The famous prime directive for doctors – “First, do no harm” – is a good rule for us all, and these guys follow it. Four misfits choose to spend their time on a game, they’re not hurting anyone, and in fact the world would be a better place if certain people followed their example.
In a big city, a hustler can knock down one mark after another and move on. But vonuans, whose relationships are necessarily few, must value their human connections and treat them with integrity. The road may seem like an easy place to be anonymous, but in a sense it is one big commune without borders, shared by people you tend to meet over and over again.
In the Sixties, Baba Ram Dass told us, “Your teachers are anybody or anything along the way that points the path…” In the nomad life, you might find yourself living serially with different sets of people, as either guest, host, or partner. One guy in this movie says, “You never know when you’re feeding an angel,” an echo of the Arlo Guthrie lyric, “Maybe your ticket on the last train to glory is the stranger who is sleeping on your floor.”
A nickel and a nail
Here’s a strange thing. A person who makes a few million bucks, and then discovers “voluntary simplicity,” gets his picture on a magazine cover, and pontificates about how the real values of existence include watching the sunrise and milking the goat. Money isn’t everything and now, in the rat race of life, he’s a true winner. Whereas a person who has always known that money isn’t everything, and who has conducted himself accordingly all along, is known in our society as a loser.
A condition of mobility is that you don’t have much stuff, and what you do have is likely to be previously owned. Expertise in dumpster diving is optional. Society should be grateful to a subculture dedicated to keeping old vans and buses and pots and pans out of the landfills. Yet the amount of official obstruction that befalls these wanderers is a damn shame. With homelessness so pervasive in our deceptively rich-looking society, why not let people who can manage at least a vehicle, have it? And quit hassling them.
From the perspective of the big picture, they are not the anomalous ones. On planet Earth, most families don’t own a four-bedroom house with a two-car garage, and for millions, having a rusty van to live in would be a definite upgrade. In a global context, America’s rubber tramps are rich. But here in their own land, they are poor and scorned.
And they are the future. In the vision of tomorrow glimpsed in William Gibson’s speculative fiction, people own the clothes they stand up, in plus a few gadgets. In a Norman Spinrad story, the only survivors of nuclear doomsday are a caravan of Gypsies. Our rubber tramps are practicing up to be the teachers and mentors of tomorrow, when the “long emergency” makes scarcity more and more the rule in America. Today’s hardy minimalists will soon be coaching the rest of us in the art of getting along with plenty of nothin’.
Manifest destiny and the cosmic messenger service
In our country’s infancy the urge to Go West, always in pursuit of the next frontier, was the foremost and proudest American trait. In the old days, the government lavishly rewarded this desire to cover new ground. The more people who moved, the better, because it helped fulfill the Manifest Destiny concept of an empire that stretched from sea to shining sea. Now, there’s no more west to go. But the urge still exists. It’s like the problem with soldiers who come home after the war with serious anger management issues. Once you wind people up and point them in a certain direction, how do you shut them off? A lot of Americans really do have perpetual motion in their blood. Problem is, now the government finds it more useful to reward only those who stake out a little piece of ground and stay put.
Cosmo says he left home a long time ago because “My folks didn’t have no understandin'”: a summing-up that could be echoed by many of his road brethren. Cosmo and his arthritis share a leaky van, but he says living in a house would make him old before his time (he’s over 70). The prospect of being elderly, sick, in pain, and poor is what keeps most citizens in line, doing the 9-to-5 thing to assure future comfort. Cosmo would rather take the poverty and pain, than be confined. There are retirement home inhabitants who wish they could change places with him. When vonu works like it ought to, as another rubber tramp puts it, “You don’t get Christmas, you don’t get Thanksgiving …What you do get is every other day of the year.”
Without over-romanticizing, one can still recognize a lot of value in the mobile lifestyle. It’s a life that calls for great courage and resourcefulness. Constant motion is the ultimate transition, and the thing about transition time is, you can’t be on automatic pilot. You have to always be thinking: What’s needed right now, in this moment? As Kesey points out, it’s all about being here now. In the best case, having no home is synonymous with being at home everywhere. The ability to be at home anywhere is a great gift. Your center is internalized and travels with you. Imagine that: the whole world is your comfort zone.
Another maverick explains the importance of making time to “sit like a Buddha in the sand dunes and see if there’s any messages on our e-mail through the cosmic messenger service.” This is the bottom line, really: to create a life that encompasses the willingness and ability to listen for communiqués from the Great Spirit, and allows time to do so. Because if you let go of your soul, none of the rest is worth a hill of beans. That was the great message of the Sixties, and it goes a long way toward explaining why the era is so maligned.
“We are mobile beings,” says one of the rubber tramps. “We were meant to move.” Some of us, anyhow. Not everyone likes to move, but everyone should be able to. Whether or not the argument of a biological imperative is valid, the nomadically-inclined shouldn’t need it to back them up. When folks want to go, the fact that they are free people living in the free land of America ought to be all the justification anybody needs.
directed and edited by Max Koetter, produced by Kenny Rosen
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