Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Origins Of My Homelessness (The Sequel: What Happened In 2012)

When asked about the origins of my becoming homeless (dressed up as the “Piano Van” spectacle or sideshow), in both the LA Weekly and The Organist, I come off much more obsessed with the twin traumas of 2004 (becoming disabled, and losing a full-time job)--what gets lost in both is my ability to survive for eight more years as a culture worker, teaching at a community college, working as a musician, writer and political activist (my attempts at forming a collective, etc)[1]—before I suffered another health crisis and job loss in early 2012.

In fact, it is the concussion and job loss of 2012 that was the more immediate cause for the homelessness, and the “piano van” thing. The interviews virtually force me to open up this “can of worms” and address these issues I really didn’t want to have to get into when other people asked (see the interviews, where I try to focus on my ART and IDEAS more than my LIFE, in Harriet[2] and CITC[3]). The factors involved are primarily: health, employment, housing, and loss of a social support network—and have a complex, and even contradictory, relationship with each other. This makes it difficult to isolate each factorbecause obviously I can’t work if I’m not healthy, but without work, it’s hard to stay, or get, healthy; physical and emotional/mental health can blur, as well as music, teaching, writing, and social life (or its lack); and housing blurs with transportation—but I’ll try to be clearer here than in did in my rants with interviewers (who I treated like shrinks or those ridiculous disability forms I’ve never figured out how to fill out for SSI), and hopefully GET IT OUT OF THE WAY, so I don't have to keep explaining it!

A. My Employment Situation

In the summer of 2008, during the height of the Bush Depression and “Obamamania,” I was hired to teach at Laney Community College. Aside from being a paycheck that allowed me to live, albeit a modest one, Laney College gave me a sense of duty and even community that galvanized me. In the three years I worked there, my teaching became much more politicized, as I became aware of the daily struggle the students face. The concerns my students expressed in their papers and classroom discussions fueled my own writing. In fact, the book I was working on had a strong pedagogical and political-activist dimension that pleased my department chairs. I was planning—at the very least—to self publish it as a P.O. D demand book to use as a text in the classes, in addition to its possible other uses to a more general reader than my academic writing could reach.

Despite the support of my department chairs, in January of 2012, due to downsizing and state budget cuts, I lost my teaching position. My chairs assured me it was a temporary setback, and I knew that if I was hired one more semester there, I would be able to apply for the preferred hiring pool, so I became even more of a shut-in, and devoted more energy to finishing the book. I was receiving a little severance pay that I could survive on if even more frugal.

I had lost my car a few months earlier, which made it even harder to go out (already being disabled), and couldn’t afford to buy another one, but I figured I could get by, as I put all my faith in my writing. I had some very astute, and attentive readers of my writing, and was convinced it could help me find a job at least as good as I had at Laney, with a purpose, and maybe even health benefits.

B. Health Issues (The Concussion & Stroke)

Since I hadn’t had health benefits after being diagnosed with premature osteo-arthritis as a result of the botched surgery in 2004, I never fully regained my leg strength. I fall a lot, can’t walk far, and stairs become difficult to navigate. I’m in constant pain, and this lead to other issues that have not been adequately addressed—specifically in the right shoulder, neck, and teeth. The best I could do to manage the pain was going to water-walking therapy classes on an almost daily basis since 2005, which even strengthened the leg (it’s helped me relearn to walk after the initial accident, and eventually to return to work, at least on a part time basis).

Early February, 2012: The leg is weaker, and the pain is always worse in the cold rainy wet Oakland winters. I’m on my way to the bathroom, and a hungry cat trips me and I hit my head on a porcelain sink. I wake up in a pool of blood with a giant gash on my forehead. First thing I see is this giant cathead! “You gonna feed me now.” Me, ow! I never experienced a concussion like this this before. The doctor at the West Oakland Health Clinic offered more pills, but they had no budget for anything like an MRI. I was told to rest, and take it easy! This will take months to heal!

But I couldn’t rest, and take it easy. I needed to get my job, and my life, back. I couldn’t let a little throbbing head pain, or a groggy, foggy, state of daze, get in the way of it. Time was money, and was running out! Instead, I pushed the book even more, along with the accompanying bad habits (coffee, smoking, plus the painkillers; my eating habits had even deteriorated; largely as a result of losing my car, and not being able to afford another one, unless I lost my apartment, I began having to buy unhealthy food at the local corner store). Within a few weeks, this lead to a stroke. A minor stroke I was told—but my entire left side went numb. This was finally a wake up call.

By March, I had to cease work on the book, and focus on my physical health. Over the next 5 months, I became highly disciplined as I attempted to heal my body on my own without the help of so-called “health care professionals. The best advice an MD gave me was to drink more water, and less juice, but I also continued my therapy at the YMCA, and gradually quit my vices---even vices that aren’t recognized as vices. I quit the painkillers I had been taking since 2004, the processed sugar, the coffee, and, by July, even the cigarettes—the “roy” of all my vices.

I found a cheap masseuse, a chiropractor, and a cranial sacral therapist—together, the three of them were able to do much more to address both the head-trauma and the stroke than the “health-care professionals” were. I also began working with an IBP Therapist (Integrative Body Psychotherapy), who taught me breathing exercises and gradually convinced me to have faith in the wisdom of the body. As the weather got dryer, and warmer, my body responded positively. I became physically healthier. I was believing I was developing a long-term faith—that, whatever was valuable in my “mind” (if it was truly of value), could eventually come back without having to rely on the crutches, the vices, and I’d be able to get back to finishing the (almost finished) book, and get the teaching jobs back—but I knew I couldn’t rush it lest I return to my old habits. Just give it time, as the doctor had originally told me after the concussion---but, if I couldn’t focus on the writing, at least I could do music.

C. The Role of Trumpet In Recovery

By August of 2012, I had been playing trumpet more, and better than I ever had before. I still considered it my third instrument, after voice and keyboards (in that order), but it was the healthiest, especially if you’re trying to quit smoking. One of my housemates was a jazz drummer, and he indulged me as I practiced with him. A previous roommate had brought a band over, Sweatlodge, fronted by the beautiful brilliant Navajo singer/guitarist Rockie Yazzie, to practice, and he let me play “noise trumpet” improvisations with him, and invited me to play a few shows. Playing the trumpet requires having a strong lip, and strong lungs. It is also better if I stand, which is better for my bad back. My leg still shake and I’ve fallen a few times, but if I can find something to lean on while playing it, I can stand. Such standing can give you what Burt Bacharach calls the “vertical view” of music; it focuses on melody, and after playing trumpet—even for 30 minutes a day, I can come up with better melodies for my own songwriting. I can sing better, and translate that singing into a band context. After playing trumpet, it’s much easier to play piano. It can also clear my head, and allow me to talk more artfully, and even write.

I was classically trained in trumpet, but switched to piano when I was 18, I told myself, because I wanted to play more than one note and be able to sing at the same time---but it’s probably not entirely accidental that I began smoking at the same time (for college)—but as I played it with Sweatlodge, Greg Ashley’s Death of A Ladies Man recreation, I realized how my style and sensibility could actual work, as an asset, as part of a funk or soul (think Stax/Volt) horn section—at least in the studio. A little can go a long way, aesthetically speaking. Coupled with the bodywork I was doing, it became part of a holistic therapy process in the deepest sense of the word, and I didn’t want to lose this, even as I was losing many other things.[4]

D 2012: From Carless but Having An Apartment, to Homeless but Having a Van

I still couldn’t focus enough to work, however. I still had a little savings, but with no money coming in—and the failure of the community center I had tried to form in 2010, I was in increasing debt. My credit rating was still good, and I had an apartment with 4 other people; the lease in my name and this gave me some leverage, but I didn’t really take advantage of it until it was too late, after I lost the job and had the concussion. I was living in the most expensive room ($600), but I finally moved to a cheaper room (paying $350), and began getting rid of many of possessions--but I was so convinced that, as long as I could continue on this path to getting healthier, and follow the wisdom of the body, that this would be a temporary loss---“nothing money couldn’t solve.” And I was convinced that the writing, as well as the music, I had already done, that was in the can already, and that most people had yet to see, would help me find a job, or a publisher. I was also told, and convinced, by some pro-bono­ lawyers in Oakland that I had a stronger case this time in applying for SSI & SSDI Disability Benefits, since the concussion.

Since my health/job crisis of the winter of 2012 was exacerbated by the lack of a car. I thought that if I bought a van, it could get me around. I didn’t need to drive much if I could find a job close to where I lived, and I could even sleep in it for a little bit, if forced too. I bought a cheap, old van, which would (I hoped) at least get me through the next winter better--even if Laney didn’t hire me back. I could even put a piano in it, and take it around town occasionally for some sideshow performances, and get some stories for a chapter of my book. Since I had become increasingly a shut-in, and had lost whatever feeling of community I had in Oakland after the losing the job, my girlfriend, and the warehouse collective that allowed the social world to come to me without having to leave my home, this could maybe even help me regain a social life I had once had—which again, was always as a result of my art, as either writer or musician before my disability. Almost immediately, I discovered I had to pour more money into the van just to make it street legal. It took months and the repairs cost more than the original price of the van ($2000).

By July, the van was up and running with the piano bolted in it. I tested it out at a first Friday celebration in Oakland, and was robbed by a homeless man, who had slyly found my wallet while I played him “Dock Of The Bay!” I had just gone to the bank to cash all my roommates’ rent checks, and was out another $2000. I tried to shake it off again—a temporary loss ---but it became clearer to me that, even though I was physically healthier than I had been in a long time, I didn’t have enough money, or social skills, to assure myself that I continue to afford to live even in the cheaper room of my apartment for the next year without the strong risk of becoming homeless myself just in time for yet another brutally cold Bay Area winter----and I certainly didn’t see myself sleeping in the van (which leaks when it rains) every night. I also knew I would no longer be able to afford regular access to the body workers I had gone to regularly over the past 6 months—unless I was very lucky. Something had to change, but what? I thought the van would stave off this encroaching homelessness! Ha!

South For The Winter

The Bay Area seemed dead to me, but I didn’t want to be bitter about it. I wanted to be proactive! I had been toying with the idea of at least checking out Los Angeles for the winter. I knew the weather was warmer. When I had housesat for someone for a month the previous winter, I was amazed how much writing I was able to get done without falling into unhealthy habits. Where I stayed, everything was convenient, which seemed to give the lie to the myth that you need a car in LA more than in Oakland. I was told that the rents were cheaper than what was happening to Oakland. I took a leap of blind faith, but thought I hedged my bets.

As I planned to move out, I purposely kept the lease in my name, thinking Laney would hire me back again after the winter. They said it was a strong possibility, so I thought I had options. I told one friend he could “indefinitely borrow” all my books, another he could borrow my albums while I’m gone. As I threw boxes and boxes of unpublished manuscripts, and letters, away, I was convinced that I had at least managed to save the essentials on a portable laptop computer. I wouldn’t have to pay for a mover, or even waste money on airfare or a bus-ticket to Los Angeles to find a place before I went there.

I could stay in the van for a month or two if need be, while looking—but I was convinced I could find at least a temporary small room in LA, unbolt the piano from the van, and use the van sparingly. I came to LA for health reasons more than anything---also it was closer to Mexico, where allegedly I could find great dental care that I could not find in the states. It may not be better, but can it be worse? It would at least buy me time, to continue on the path to get healthier, and if worst comes to worst, I would get through the winter, and return to Oakland for spring and summer.

I also believed that driving to, and around LA, with the piano for a month or two, would occasion some interesting stories for the final “field work” section of my book, which could potentially make the book much more marketable to a more general audience than my previous writing. “People want stories,” I’ve been told by more than enough publishers, and even though I can teach stories and story-writing, and have stories, my writing strengths have always been more lyric, essayistic and dialogic, rather than narrative in a memoir sense. Yet I had a frame, and a question for study I intended to explore: how do people respond, if they respond, to “music on the street” (and/or the spectacle), in our contemporary fragmented society. And, indeed, I got stories to tell---even after 5 months I did---more than enough for the book.

I could write them now, if I can get an advance on a book, and get a few months to work with an editor, in a room of my own with something to hope for. But I can’t really write them while still stuck in this thing. No time for the contemplation, or the “recollection in tranquility” such an organizational project requires.

In brief, as I told The Poetry Foundation for the Harriet Interview, “it’s getting worse,”--but if you have any follow-up questions, feel free to send them to me, and I can send you a more clear answer than I can do in a radio interview without a script. If I must talk of my trauma and situation, I would at least make it into an art that can be useful to others.

[1] I’ve written in more detail about my attempts to collectivize from 2006-2012, and my attempts to combine my roles of musician, writer and teacher with the community center—but for brevity will not include that here. The focus here is specifically 2012.
[2] http://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2013/07/the-man-behind-the-piano-van-chris-stroffolino-in-conversation/
[3] http://caughtinthecarousel.com/chris-interview/
Sweatlodge: I had just come back from a Cranial Sacral Session earlier in the day. I look healthy! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NicdKk_Mi-4
Sitting in with The Downtown Train: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xnxzgOajwyY&

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