Thursday, July 17, 2014

Institutionalized

You know, it's funny, but I remember for years and years I used to tell myself there was certain things I'd never do while living on the streets, spurning such things as if they were beneath my dignity and even ridiculing other homeless people for doing them. There is a certain ugly quality to human nature that impels us to raise ourselves up kicking others down, even if only metaphorically and cathartically. However, this time around on the streets I'm finding myself doing a couple of these things that I forswore so vehemently in past dereliction sojourns, and I can't help but wonder if maybe I'm not suffering from institutionalization and am embracing diminution.

Pushing shopping carts is one of them. We used to mockingly call them Burnside Cadillacs, at least us natives who remember the days when the entire length of West Burnside was a homeless camp and people walking up its length would have to gingerly step over and around junkies, bottles of wine, and the aforementioned shopping carts. It's a strange thing to vilify, for when you think about it it's eminently practical for a homeless person to portage his worldly possessions somehow, especially if he's older or in some what disabled; I suppose it's just another example of hostile group identification, like metal heads' disdain for Dockers. I only push a shopping cart when canning, when it's hot out and I'm going for a big haul or when I anticipate picking up a lot of glass bottles. I hate it, though, because they're damn noisy to trundle and cause me — normally inconspicuous — to appear on the radar or mainstream respectable society and parade my disgrace.

The other thing I swore to myself I'd never do is dumpster dive for discarded food. Not only is it gross and shameful, it can potentially send me to the hospital if I catch an especially nasty foodborne illness (like salmonella, norovirus, and toxoplasmosis). Honestly, I'm pretty surprised that I ended up taking to this, though in reality I do it infrequently and only when I have neither food nor money for Jack in the Box. Still, even though I haven't made it a daily lifestyle choice, it does worry me somewhat, especially because I've gotten sick from the food I've dived for a couple times recently. Then again, I've also gotten sick from food served me at various feeds throughout town, so in that respect it's actually not much more dangerous for me to eat left-over Korean cart food than it is for me to sit down at lunch at Trinity Cathedral. I didn't start doing this until I moved out to Northwest, my last stint indoors at the Fairfield having inculcated in me an antipathy for downtown Portland; most of the free meals are served there.

One thing I'm learning is that it can be difficult to determine whether or not a habit of thinking and behaving is borne out of expediency or is a habit that's become ossified into an institutionalized pattern. I say institutionalized because I can't help but fear that the past couple decades of living on and off the streets, struggling with addictions while picking up and throwing away people and jobs like so many cans of malt liquor, have worked on me similar to a ten-year stint in a prison or a psychiatric ward. I suppose any kind of lifestyle can be regarded as an institution of sorts, but of course not all are edifying or ennobling. I can say for certain that living on the streets isn't very much so; if you don't maintain vigilance and discipline out here it gets easy to become embittered, entitled, self-absorbed, opportunistic, addicted, lazy, and small-minded.

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