Reflections on a chat with Sybilka, and Henry Miller

cafe sitwells

Henry Miller, often makes for bizarre reading. Black Spring in particular hits me in the gut in a visceral way. Parts of the book are almost tediously full of the piss, snot, cum, and general excretions of everyday human existence. Henry Miller is Tom Waits in print, or more appropriately (giving credit where it is due) Tom Waits is Henry Miller in verse with musical accompaniment COIL and Nick Cave alike could only wet dream about.

Lately I’ve suspected that Cincinnati, and all of us in it, are simply collectively one large complex novel. There are characters in Clifton who bear more than a passing familiarity to characters in Miller’s Black Spring.

I was chatting with Sybilka over at Sitwells and she pointed out something that struck me.

There is a homeless guy who periodically stops into the establishment, asks for money, and behaves in an erratic manner. She often gently pulls him aside, asks him to leave, sometimes gives him a glass of water.

I’ve seen this guy, in fact I’ve observed him for a few years. He has been on my list of people worth of my observation. He has never asked me for money, though I’ve nodded my head in his direction from time to time, as we make eye contact on the street. His utter, and erratic, humanness strikes me.

Last night Sybilka caught the man rooting through a pile of newspapers, in the corner by Sitwell’s door. Frantically digging away, shouting that he was looking for education “I’ve got to find education.” while digging at the papers.

She thinks he was high at the time. Possibly. I think that he was just mad, and possibly in his madness expressing something burning deep inside of him. Sometimes madness brings out truth. Don’t we all have to find education? Real education? Wisdom and knowledge? Can not so much of our lives be fruitless rummaging through piles of life’s newspapers?

So I throw out some forgettable truism about the human condition, and she responds with something that actually struck me. Inhumanity, only someone who has been treated inhumanely can know what this man feels as the world passes him by. As he wanders around Clifton, with his hands in his pants until someone calls the police, and Cincinnati’s finest drag him into the temporary holding cell that is this city’s answer for the unsightly and disorderly.

this is a manAnd who hasn’t been treated inhumanely once or twice in their lives? Yet do we remember what it feels like to be treated inhumanely? To be treated without dignity?

So Sybilka asks him to move on, before someone calls the cops on him, and gives an old him a glass of water. Water, a blessing on an 88 degree day, to a bearded old man, his hands in his pants in public, dressed in tattered winter gear, half sane, half high, standing on Ludlow in front of the whole world.

This is a rare touch of humanity. Beauty handing Beast a glass. Two humans in small transaction on a small Midwestern street.

Human dignity. What it’s really about is dignity. And humanity.

I was talking to B.K., brother, business associate, bootleg gypsy cab driver, and man of rough truth and wisdom. He just saw The Soloist at the Esquire yesterday. We chatted about the movie, it struck him as interesting because of his street living days.

In The Soloist, the journalist character was awe struck when he encountered a black homeless man who could play music so well, on a partially broken instrument. He was driven to find out how such a thing was possible. The Soloist is a true story, and is rather remarkable.

So often in society we fit people into boxes.

Being out on the street, driving around every day, rubbing shoulders with everyone, you notice things. For example, you notice the increasing number of people sleeping in their cars.

Society’s preconceptions about the homeless only half hits reality. There are some men and women who choose to embrace this, after life passes them a sign that “here is where your best interest lies”.
And there are some men and women who are forced into it, by the weight of circumstances.

Men like B.K, the man has cash, from his business. Serial entrepreneur, hustler, businessman, a man with more confidence in his left foot than I have in my gut, a man who has seen the streets and yet lives above them.

For him, being “homeless” was a manner of creative living; low overhead, he sleeps in his car or in hotel rooms, while he goes around town conducting his business. He has more freedom, and ready cash, than many “professional” men his age, who would find his predicament worth of pity. His is a lifestyle with some real risk, and unstability.

But perhaps stability is for gerbils, or to quote Clifton man about town Abu Abdullah “..Kamal, Security is for Assholes..” We all want to be secure, to have a stable world, to have roots and a sense of place.
But life is unstable by nature. Perhaps some men know how to embrace this.

B.K. pities those who pity him. And why shouldn’t him? He lives in a car, (and rents a different model every week), his car rent is low, it is a business expense for him because he uses his car to make money, the man enjoys an occasional fine 19 year old girl when he’s in the mood (and they go back for more). He travels overseas and around the country, he is a day-trader, and he is homeless. Both by circumstance and choice.

Once homelessness brought him pain, then he learned how to pursue “creative living” as he puts it, and made it work for him, as an intentional lifestyle. With his current level of business success it is possible that he will be close to being a millionaire before his 41st birthday. This is because his living expenses are almost nil, and he is productive in his business endeavors.
That is a hell of a lot more impressive than being an out of work MBA, laid off in a down economy.

It is strange what small assumptions about the world and human nature we can hold and not even question. One would be shocked to learn how many soloists, white and black alike, exist on the streets. Back in my Second Story Books days, on DuPont Circle, I used to know a guy with a Ph.D. in philosophy who always came around impeccably dressed in a three piece suit. Mild mannered gentleman. Homeless for years, and on a bottle bender after an unfortunate turn of events with a woman in his life.

There are the sane Homeless, and the insane homeless, just as there are the sane people with homes, and the insane people with homes. Keeping your eyes open to people, you learn about the brutality and beauty of their lives. How many people are a couple of paychecks away from eviction? How many scraps of self dignity to we bundle about ourselves like quilts to preserve a self image which, if shattered, would leave us ranting on a street corner, reeking of Gin and piss, shaking our fist at a world that sees only our exterior, and not interior?

Food for thought, thank you Sybilka.

2 Comment

  1. chic noir says:

    currently reading henry and june, I’ve read tropic of Capricorn a few years ago. Really Henry is something to behold. The way he writes about getting the clap like it’s nothing. I read a biography about Anis nin and boy oh boy was henry a pimp. Had ole girl taking money from her husband to take care of him. Anais’s poor husband nice buy or beta itch that he was, went right along with it and begged her not to leave him.

  2. Anais was a fey little nutcase. Henry is the very definition of the man who just doesn’t give a shit, and thereby becomes illuminated.

    Henry Miller had more game than the vast majority of men alive today, hands down.

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