Compositional music provided by:
Pink Floyd / Dark Side of the Moon
by Larry Ciptak
This big-ass city rat came scampering by us last week, under the bridge. It was unusual because Mick keeps the encampment spotless and leaves the rats absolutely nothing to feast on. He was a big, fat bastard rat who just didn’t give a shit, daring us to do something about his existence.
However, under the adjacent underpass, I could hear the occasional screams of the street women drunk on cheap hootch bitching about their rats.
You don’t want rats? Keep your place clean, dimwits. It’s simple.
The guys I hang with have social order, value personal space, hygiene and are rather smart about urban camping. However, most of the women I’ve encountered aren’t so savvy about it. I’ll shelve some misogynistic thoughts at this point, except to say that they know how to manipulate at extremely effective levels within their urban atmosphere. I do not underestimate them, these street women. You have to be one tough broad to make it out on the streets. The women team up with men (of course), who put up with their shit to a degree, whether it be mental illness, alcoholism, drug addiction or a tasty cocktail of all-of-the-above. Then one day she goes “overboard” and the guy snaps on her. Happens all the time. Urban street dating has its own flavor.
Susan Coyle was one of the head clinicians at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic when I worked there, about 12 years ago. I went to my second interview with Sue and was begged by the previous interviewer to please “tone down” for Sue, who was UPMC corporate all the way. We laughed like hell at the first interview but Diane thought I’d better lay a little lower for this one. The hell with that, thinks me. Sue asks me, “Why would you be perfect for this job?” I sat back, relaxed, and looked her in her eyes. I said, “because I only date homeless women.” She said, “What?” I said, “Think about it, Sue, it’s perfect–when the date’s over, I simply pull up to the curb and say, ‘get out, you’re home’.”
After a half minute or so of studying me–as I sat their motionless and expressionless, looking at her–Sue broke down and laughed, and said “you’ll fit perfect up there.” I got the job, case manager for the mentally ill homeless at The Neighborhood Living Project in the Hill District on Centre Avenue. I committed to one year there, and one year was all I could digest of deep urbanization. But I kept doing homeless rounds on my own time and with my own style, and have been doing so for a long time. That’s how I got into this homeless racket, folks.
By the way, Sue, you are one of the sexiest women I’ve ever met. Some women just have “it.” Sue has it.
Today I made a pot of good chili and took it down the North Side. We heated it up with charcoal–very inefficient heating methodology. I need a propane grill. I already have the gas cylinder and hoses. Anyone have one hanging around? And blankets, need blankets ASAP.
But back to the rat. People are like rats. They live in colonies but lead solitary lives, and feast largely on the efforts of others. Put a couple wings on it and call it a pigeon. Same thing–parasite. But a necessary one in the food chain, just like us.
The Inuit in Alaska would put their elders (non-productive) on an ice flow and send them out to an almost guaranteed demise with a polar bear. But they understood the cycle of life, and had incorporated this strange cultural ritual of bringing their life circle to a close by feeding the bears who fed them all those years. What do we do culturally to bring our cycle of life to a natural close?
Meanwhile, there’s this 70-year-old black guy–“Glen”–who is likely going to die this winter if he doesn’t get the hell off the streets. He’s a cantankerous old man but has a gentle, grandfatherly side. Been on the streets on-and-off for almost three years. Domestic issues. We get along, but he barks all the time. I want to do something for him but haven’t quite figured out what that’s going to be yet. And who knows, he might rebuff any help.
Please try to imagine the level of mental illness that exist on the streets. I don’t tread these waters lightly. I understand more about some aspects of mental illness than many psychologists and psychiatrists do. I see their manifestations in the street, way beyond the doctor’s sterile office. But that’s where I belong, in the trenches. It’s part of my calling. I accept it for what it is. I’m not a general, I’m a foot soldier and I’m quite content with my status. It’s where I’m at my best.
Hurricane Sandy didn’t affect us. It was cold and wet and windy but so what. We heated up the chili, fed the boys and Mick and I played football, as we did last week. We just got a little wet this time. My 50-year-old back is already stiff, and I’ll be hunched over like Fred Sanford in the morning. Must be all that good living of mine. Good pain, weakness leaving the body pain. Football under the bridge (and in the street) with hot, homemade chili. How much better does it get?
My cell phone buzzed a couple times while I was with the boys, and I ignored the calls–but the calls irked me. I felt I was being intruded upon–a strange reaction that necessitates further thought.
Monday night is my night, world! I leave my phone on for strictly emergency purposes. Out of all the days of the week, this is the one evening I really put myself into. It’s sacrosanct to me.
I’ve chosen this thing I’m doing with the homeless to be a relatively solo journey. Friends have offered to come with me, but this is my own unique gig. They help through donating. I’m most effective when I’m traveling on my own, whether it’s to Ukraine or Poland or Alaska or the North Side of Pittsburgh. I greatly appreciate all the support everyone has been so far, and over the years. Sue. Helen. Pat. Kevin. Ray. St. Ignatius in Carnegie. Everybody. Keep the goods coming, and I’ll keeping passing them out to unique individuals who truly appreciate the help. Right now, blankets and large or extra large coats are needed most. So are small cash donations to provide the grub and feminine supplies for the women. Winter rounds require a little more strategy.
Before I left, Mick and I carefully covered Glen with his six layers of blankets. Glen rose from his six layers of comfort, grabbed my arm with his seven-decade-old arthritic hand, looked me in the eye and said, “God bless you.” I told him He already has, and I meant it, without emotion or judgment, free in His presence if only for minuscule period of time but touched for a brief moment by the hand that made me.
by Larry Ciptak
Sometime October 1, David Meredith died.
Meredith, 50, of Pittsburgh, was found October 3rd floating in the Ohio River by a couple of boaters. The news report said “It was not immediately clear how he died.”
Another dead homeless guy, found floating in the river. Does anyone remember 15 years or so ago, that petite little hippy gal who cleverly panhandled downtown using two trained cats, who performed tricks for money? Sheer marketing genius. She was found floating in the river as well, under “suspicious circumstances.” Blunt force trauma to the head was the “circumstance.”
Water seeks the common level and flows where man does not dare, says the Tao. The softest thing in the world conquers the hardest. Look at the Grand Canyon. Water is miraculous. But it was the same water that swept David Meredith’s body down the cold and unsympathetic Ohio.
The Light of Life Ministry in the North Side is going to have a memorial for Dave sometime this week. You can call Light of Life, 412-258-6100 or visit them at www.lightoflife.org, if interested.
I met two of David’s friends under the bridge tonight. One had been in the river with him, but somehow survived. I’m not going to tell the story beyond that. This guy spent the next eleven days at Western Psych. He’s been out a couple days now and trying to make sense of everything. His buddy is dead, he survived.
Some of these guys develop very tight bonds and a real sense of community. This was a blow to David’s comrades. They’re feeling the loss.
To the police though, it’s likely just another dead homeless guy. A cursory investigation will be conducted but that’s going to be about the end of it.
Such ignoble deaths. Who weeps for them? Long lost parents, brothers, sisters? Who knows. I just think it’s a real shitty way to go, and I feel for David’s friends and family.
Sometimes I do my Monday homeless gig and look forward to getting behind the computer and letting some thoughts out. But not tonight. I do not want to write about what I thought, smelled, tasted, felt, saw. One of the bitter realities of homelessness jolted me tonight. It pushed me deep inside myself and I’m not so sure I want to share the thoughts I had while there.
I will say this: anyone who thinks they’re an iota above “street people” is deceiving themselves.
Thoughts are just that–thoughts. Unless a thought compels you into some type of action where there is a potential measurable reaction–like writing and posting something–it’s just a thought and sometimes best left as such. I’m keeping what I experienced and received tonight for myself. I’ll post some meaningless thoughts on insipid topics another time, just not tonight.
by Larry Ciptak
I came home from my homeless schtick tonight and put my knife on top of something on the kitchen table. I thought the table was clean. When I turned the lights on, the knife was sitting on top of a New Testament, the only object on the table.
A flood of thoughts engulfed me as I stood motionless, juxtaposing the knife and the second half of the Bible. I was transfixed. Lots of knives and other assorted weapons in the Old Testament–not so much in the New.
The Old Testament was about kicking some ass. Perhaps if modern Christianity threw in some guns and other tools of destruction in the New Testament they could attract the younger demographic, and brainwash them while they play with video games and hand-held devices. This will be the new age of religion and I’ll likely live to see it, perhaps in the not-so-distant future either.
All I know is my Creator compels me to reach out to people in creative and effective ways, and camping with the homeless guys on Monday nights somehow factors into the equation. I don’t question it. It is what it is. Call it a spiritual itch that needs scratched.
I don’t need a book to explain to me what to do and don’t do, or question why I do what I do. The spiritual and philosophical books I read so voraciously from the fall through the spring are now collecting dust. The good ones pointed me in the right direction. These were classic Christian, Taoist, Buddhist and other religious texts. Though they were magnificently written and full of language that lit the senses and strongly encouraged self-reflection at deep levels, all recognized the same basic spiritual truths while encouraging the development of a personal relationship with God while treating people right and with compassion. Same soup, different noodle. Simple.
Anyway, we grilled chicken tonight. Ate very well. Just hung out and bullshitted about nothing in particular. I got to know a 44 year old woman who has been on her own since 16. It shows. She grew up in a very tough section of New York. We talked about a bunch of stuff. She only had the money for a couple beers so she was relatively lucid tonight, compared to how I’m used to seeing her. It was a nice change, I finally got to really talk to her. There’s always a person behind the facade, be it financial success and all the socially expected trimmings to living under a bridge and sleeping on cold concrete.
Everyone assumes a persona that they show to the masses, and the smart ones are careful about who they let into their circle and show their real selves. And some just plain stop caring what other people think about them–they’re too involved cultivating their inner lives instead. Let someone in your thoughts and you become their prisoner, the Chinese say.
The gang thanks you, Kevin, for the hoodies, long johns and socks. The items were fairly distributed and very needed as well as appreciated.
Then out of nowhere an SUV comes screaming over the curb and onto the underpass, skidding to a halt. A large, well-rounded, tough-looking and thoroughly pissed off Sister comes out of the vehicle, screaming at a skinny little guy who is running away from her. She’s way too big to try to catch up with this fast bastard. She’s screaming every name in the book at him–kind of like Aunt Ester did on Sanford and Son–with a few added choice expletives. She comes strutting past us to go up toward the tracks, but this dude is way gone. She knows it. She turns around and cusses to herself and whoever else will listen as she heads back to her vehicle. We go back to eating chicken.
Night time is around 9:30-10:30 under the bridge. It gets very quiet. A stillness develops. It’s time to go.
Lately I’ve been coming home and writing about my experiences with the homeless. I’m not sure I’m going to continue doing this. What I have going on down there is developing into something much more personal and I’m actually feeling a little protective of the guys. It’s starting to not feel right to write about them. They’re human beings and deserve their dignity. This may well be my last post about the homeless, except if I’m putting the pinch on you for donations.
Those who know me well understand that every blue moon, I conjure up some variety of social experiment where I basically light a fuse then sit back and watch it go boom. Like playing “Bad Santa” at the 17th Street Cafe. It’s part of my nature. Actually it’s a Ciptak trait. Sometimes we mess with people a little, just because we can. But this is not a social experiment. My interaction with the homeless guys and gals has no form or agenda. We have our shared tribal rituals but other than that, I’m not certain why I’m really there and it apparently doesn’t matter to anyone anyway.
There’s a lot of beauty underneath that underpass. I don’t need to explain it, just to experience it. I could endeavor to describe it but could never adequately explain what actually transpires there. I am being fed well on numerous significant levels and am coming to new heights of understanding concerning a multitude of things that gnaw at me, in one of the grittiest parts of the city. But that’s my valued environment one or two nights a week, the Church of the Underpass. God bless them all.
Writers are nothing more than storytellers. Why would anyone believe a story?
I can tell you all kinds of stories, some of them true. Most of them, actually–but not all. There is first an event that creates a potential storyline. Then an initial embellishment, which when received with a positive reaction, reinforces a perpetuation of the little fib. After a protracted period of time the line between truth and fiction first thins, then disappears and eventually morphs into what it really is–a story, nothing more, nothing less.
Good stories compel people to get involved emotionally and intellectually–sometimes physically–stories that make them think and feel and pull them into another world where time stops and disbelief is suspended. Then the truth ceases to matter. It’s a story.
Then there are writers who are less storytellers and more providers of social commentary. Some of them are more on the fringe than others. A few simply quit giving a shit about how their writing is received and write for themselves.
Sorry Mom, Dad, Uncle Ben, Aunt Marian, Aunt Loretta, Aunt Liz, Gram and Gramp (R.I.P.), other family members and any current or past business associates that might have a little different opinion of me after reading this.
When I am paid to, I’ll give my clients exactly what they want and need, in a sharp, thoughtful and definitive style. That’s why I charge like I do. They’re getting top-notch writing services.
But my own personal stuff here at theciptak.com? You know, the online stuff potential employers check out when considering you? My answer is that when I open my mind up here for all to see, it’ll attract some and repel others. I’ll end up doing business who I’m supposed to, people I truly connect with. What can I say. Neutrality is for the weak. Live with some passion.
So I’m going to let it hang out a little, and you older folks in my family are going to see a different side of me, one that I am not proud nor ashamed of, but is just part of my being. I offer no apologies for anything I write from here forward.
This is somewhat a career shift for me. Transparency. A who-gives-a-shit kind of translucent stream of consciousness. Being open and sometimes brutally honest, especially toward myself.
Let me provide some meandering thoughts that finally do make a point at the end. I’ll be jumping around tonight.
I spent the weekend being very upset over the actions of two idiots in my life. Lily and I still had our fun–had soccer practice, went to the Apple Festival in Hickory, played at several parks, rode the incline, went shopping. But those idiots–one in particular–I let get under my skin.
So what. What else can be done to me, world? Bring it on. I’m willing to deal with whatever comes my way. I am a Ciptak. That means I’m very smart and very tough, with a few mental twists thrown in for entertainment. But we’re tough motherfuckers. Don’t fuck with a Ciptak–bad idea. We get the job done. My sister Valerie might be the toughest of us all. I wish I knew who you are now, Val. It’s been 25 years.
And Lily is 100% Ciptak, as far as I’m concerned. I see her traits in all of you. She is one smart cookie. She observes and sizes up a room before acting. She’s thoughtful and kind. And she’ll know where to come for truth and beauty and excitement and real life learning. That’s my girl.
At the Apple Festival, Lily got on a fair ride and into a little police car. I told her that Ciptaks usually sit in the back seat of police cars. Some parents laughed, and I thought “if you only knew.”
Dad taught us to be tough, though I still think his brand of discipline was too severe. But it got the job done. Broke us in some places, forged us of steel in others. Everything falls into a historical and sociological/environmental context. I accept it for what it is, an era-specific phenomenon. There were an awful lot of families just like ours.
Many dads in the 70s didn’t know what the hell to do with their kids. What had been taught (conditioned) them wasn’t working well in this tumultuous decade. Some fathers adapted, some didn’t. Maladaptive, multi-generational patterns of child rearing usually stick around in some capacity a couple more generations before they fizzle out. Or sometimes the beat simply marches on.
Hats off, to all with the balls to thoroughly examine and live their lives in a way that makes sense, if only to them. Keep evolving from the norm. “Normal” people have a lot of assholes in their ranks. Give me a hard, interesting, multi-faceted life, with lives within a life, to explore and create and matter… give me a shit-kicking when needed, I’ll eventually get back up and go back at it hard. I can take it. Sometimes I require it to move forward, wherever forward is.
So back to the homeless rounds tonight. I’m heading down to see Mick, at the Church of the Bridge on Cedar Avenue, but I don’t have many goodies with me. I’ve been busy and haven’t been putting the pinch lately on people for needed winter items. A few pairs of shoes were well-received. Thank you, whoever recently donated pair of size nine tennis shoes. That made one man very happy.
Tomorrow night I’m going back down there–we’re having a chicken cookout.. Monday is my usual night.
I went down tonight to look for some truth. I get a lot of answers under that bridge to questions that sometimes torture me. There, among the junkies, drunks, prostitutes, drug dealers and pimps, I get true answers.
Some of the homeless are dug in–they have a little settlement. They keep the place very clean and in order. They even clean up the surrounding streets and parking lots. The white guys run the show under that underpass. Not in a hostile way, just an understanding. The blacks and whites are pretty much segregated as to their quarters. They intermingle (good business) but keep to their own little camps.
Then there’s the transient population. Maybe their parents or girlfriend kicked them out. Or they finally burned all their bridges and here they are, with this existential life crisis. They stay overnight or a few days at most and move on. They are not the “urban campers” I hang out with. These transient guys are restless, looking for a way out of their situation, scraping cash, getting real high if they can, the tortured souls wandering around the streets of North Side and all around the City of Pittsburgh, invisible.
The girls at the Church are usually with some real big man. The man controls her and in return provides protection. She might have to go turn a few tricks to make enough for the night’s dope man, then start over fresh tomorrow. Two black girls were really jabbing it up tonight. I thought I was going to see a chick fight. But they eventually quit jawing and settled in for the night.
I notice this new guy has a couple Frisbees. I ask, “do you play Frisbee?” What asshole asks such a stupid question? I did, tonight. He laughed and we started playing Frisbee under the bridge, then onto the sidewalk, then into the street. The straggling drunks from the Steeler game occasionally come by, then disappear. Night is falling in the North Side.
I haven’t thrown a Frisbee in years. I remember loafing with the Pitcher gang (around age 16), throwing Frisbees at Spinner Field, getting high all day and listening to fusion jazz on Easy 86 AM. Old man Longo always came out whenever we lit up a joint. He had one of these small yappy dogs named “Snoopy.” Snoopy was a pain in our ass. Snoopy always knew what we were up to, and reported to the boss who then investigated further, usually with a walk right by us, as if to say “I know what you’re doing and don’t approve of it.” But he never took it a step further for some reason. We referred to Mr. Longo as “Snoopy Sniffer.”
Cars are stopping for us as we toss the Frisbees in every direction and some end up in the street. We wave and say “thank you.” It’s chilly but I’m getting a workout. I could feel the tension leaving my upper back. What a beautiful activity, Frisbee. When you have the wrist technique down you can really let yourself go with a Frisbee and be creative, free, fluid. Who is up for any decent weather Frisbee? Or even muddy. I’d love to get coated from head to toe in mud, it’s been a while.
So many thoughts go through my head under the bridge, so much stimuli. There’s a lot of life going on there. Other forms of life constantly passing by. Yet we’re invisible to the public, tucked away against the concrete trestle wall a good 150 feet from the road, and I say “we’re” because I do not feel any different from any of them. I am no better, no worse. It could be me and I know it. And who am I to say these guys are doing it wrong?
We all make choices in life, sometimes impetuous ones, which lead to consequences. If a lot of these people really wanted off the streets, they would be off the streets. The resources are there. They may make a few stabs at getting help but quickly get discouraged. That’s where some case management is necessary. I have a background in that through WPIC in Oakland. I worked on Center Avenue in the Hill for a year with the mentally ill homeless population. I was great at it, but all I realistically had in me was a year. That’s what I committed to–one year. But there was way too much bureaucracy. They were burning out case managers left and right. Then St. Francis–the only hospital with a soul in Pittsburgh–closed. Half of the workers we absorbed in the merger left within a few weeks–UPMC was clearly not for them. They had been schooled in a much more holistic, patient-centered environment and also took care of their employees. I had some unique late-night experiences taking drunks to detox at St. Francis. Witold, do you remember? St. Francis were one of the good guys, and now they’re gone. Lots of drunks I know have fond memories of St. Francis.
I got into street rounds while at Western Psych, and loved it from the beginning. I spent a good five or six years after employment as a volunteer, in a concerted effort to make regular trips with supplies to downtown. But I’d often go out on my own, not dragging along anyone. Sometimes friends be persuaded to join me. The police hadn’t yet chased the homeless out of the city. Point State Park was the main target, and along the Allegheny River. Dozens and dozens of homeless in and around that park at the time.
Then I got married and gave up rounds for almost six years. It was a big effort, 52 weeks a year. I got burned out. Now after some time off I’m getting back to it, but on a smaller, more strategic scale. I reach out only to one or two guys at a time. The days of me hauling duffel bags full of clothing and medical supplies are over for me. I have my boys and that’s where I go. One is off the streets now and doing well. Working on another. But as mentioned, some of these guys prefer the streets. They’ve found freedom on a lot of levels. Judge away, but that’s what’s happening.
Getting back to street life, Mick and I run up to Giant Eagle–but they just closed two minutes earlier. Damn. We were going to barbeque chicken on the grill. So that’s tomorrow night now instead. Urban camping with good victuals.
Tonight didn’t yield any universal truths or anything like it. No lightning bolts this time. But I did walk away feeling at peace and with a belief that everything and everyone is indeed connected on a multitude of levels. I’m even connected with those two idiots, like it or not.
So I’m tired and so are they, so I say goodnight and head to the car. I usually drive home in silence, thinking about the encounter. But tonight I listen to some obscure Santana, “Illumination.” Every encounter is somewhat different, depends what drugs the natives are on to a some degree. The weather perhaps. Or the under-the-bridge drinker that went on to be the first public face of the alcoholic.
Homelessness, alcoholism, drug addiction, mentally ill people in need of treatment–they’re all here to stay. They ain’t budging. So what, some people are wired a little differently than you. Perhaps their thoughts and logic and unique perceptive are valuable in some way. Ever really talk to a schizophrenic? We go from A then to B then to C, etc. They go from A to Z, just like that. And if you asked them how they associated “apple” to “Greenland”, they’d provide you with a very logical series of connections that would blow your fucking mind if you tried to process all that information at once.
I’m in the trenches and it feels like home again and I am alive and involved with this community in my own proprietary way. I’m making a difference, if not to them, then to me.
Some jamoke I was talking to the other day posited the idea that a world without borders would be great. That was a fun concept to systematically dissect. On the other hand, he’s right. Borders of the mind have to go. Religions need to either go by the wayside or get their act together collectively and come up with some unified, universal messages. It’s essential to escape the consumer death-grip of pop culture and what’s “hip.” Look at things historically and sociologically so you understand the cultural context of your life, then challenge the tenets that don’t make sense to you. Do some research on yourself. Dig.
I wanted to drive my car onto his lawn and casually park it. He, of course, would have flipped out, to which I was going to quietly respond, “a world without borders?”
Coming off the Parkway exit into Carnegie, some jackass is really riding my tail for some unknown reason. I tried squirting him with my windshield wiper fluid but I was out of fluid. Damn. So he rides me all the way to the 50/Mansfield split, and I’m now pissed. We’re at a red light and stopped next to each other. I went to give him the Polish stink-eye but he was bouncing his head all over the place, singing along with his favorite music. Totally oblivious. So pure. Youth. Not a care in the world at that moment. Just man, machine and music.
I started laughing. I was him–crazy young driver, probably buzzed up on something, blasting music and driving fast. Everything is connected.
Sorry for all those cars I wrecked, mom and dad. Especially the one I ditched and reported stolen in Mt. Lebanon–smart move, with those Nazi bastards. And I wrecked my first car at age 15 in Mt. Lebanon as well. I stole my parent’s Plymouth Valiant while they were at Kennywood and went for a little joy ride. We were on our second stolen tank of gas when I attempted to make a left hand turn from a right-hand lane onto Kelso Drive, and sideswiped another car. But in a panic, I kept moving. The wheelwell pushed into the front tire, created friction and then a black, acrid smoke which filled the car, leaving me to drive down the wrong side of the road with my head hanging out the window. 15.
For some reason, I was able to get my driver’s license at age 16. Bad move, mom and dad. You have no idea what we did in those cars. I’ll leave the details out of it, for now at least.
Readers, please bear in mind that these aforementioned activities were in 1976-1978. Keep it in context.
God, I miss the 1970s. You could get away with shit, do what you wanted. People wore themselves looser. There was way more freedom of expression, before the corporations took over the music and film scenes and ruined something beautiful. No video cameras or cell phones. The rotary phone–the first Facebook. Nothing was immediate. People waited for stuff. The Age of Instant Gratification did not yet exist.
Men settled matters like men, and left the judicial system out of it. Then they shook hands and let it go. The alpha was established. That is natural behavior for man and for numerous other species of animals. It was a better conflict resolution system that I’ve analyzed since. Let’s not forget that we’re simply one species of many on this planet. We’re as much an animal as those poor little bastards some of you guys shoot in the woods.
It’s been a circuitous route tonight, but I’d like to end with the young kid banging away to music in his car. I made an assumption, had a negative reaction, and found out instead that what was next to me was really pure energy, that mad level of vigor and life that is wasted on the youth.
Things aren’t always as they appear. Take it from a storyteller.