Select Page

Without Deviation, Progress is Not Possible

music inspiration by Carlos Santana (“Borbeletta”)

Without Deviation, Progress is Not Possible

by Larry Ciptak
November 27, 2012

Trying to be philosophical about something I don’t understand is fundamentally dishonest. Yet that’s what most of the postings concerning my homeless encounters are, pseudo-philosophical diatribes about how entrenchment in this particular subculture is enlightening me.

Truth is, I’m not sure why I do what I do, what good I’m actually doing or what I’m really getting out of it.

It started out as a social experiment, deviating from normal “street rounds” typically involving custodial care (giving out food and clothing) to one of direct involvement with a particular homeless community. After six years of handing out hundreds of coats, blankets and sacks of sandwiches, I was tired and burned out. So I took a break, got married and went into hibernation on many levels for about six years. Since that particular social experiment failed I wanted to get back into the homeless scene, but involving less work and more strategy. So I headed out to the streets, no idea of where I was going and eventually found one encampment that for some reason just felt right, where I could get involved on a weekly basis, rain or shine.

But my role? Who the hell knows. And who cares? As the weeks progress and the concrete gets colder, I find myself looking less for meaning in the experience. This is just what I now do on Monday nights and I put less thought into it as time goes on. It just is what it is, whatever it is. Maybe someday it’ll come together and make sense in some big picture, but right now I’m content letting it be elusive and inexplicable. Let go into the mystery, advises Van Morrison.

It confuses some homeless that don’t know me when I explain that I’m not there with a church group or non-profit entity. They ask why am I really there. I tell them I don’t know–but do you need a blanket or a pair of socks? Then instead of moving on to the next camp, I go sit with Mick and the other guys and hang out for at least a few hours. And I do this every week. Sometimes we cook out. Most times we play football in the street for an hour or so. After four or five months of doing this (who’s counting) I’ve become accepted into the tribe. I come and go without fear or worry and know that if anyone were to mess with me, I’d have at least two or three guys on top of them within seconds. If you’re worried about my safety–under a bridge in a drug-infested neighborhood, alone and at night–please don’t. I’m safer than you can ever imagine.

So I’ve deviated substantially from the typical “help the homeless” routine. Frank Zappa said, “Without deviation, progress is not possible.” Early on I took others with me (safety in numbers) but found that including then was cramping my style. I knew I would be more effective on my own. So I began going down the North Side by myself, and that’s what I’ve been doing since. If you want to go out and help the homeless (and put together some stuff to take them), I’ll gladly take you–just not to my spot. That particular underpass has become sacrosanct to me.

To everyone who has donated blankets, clothes, coats, long johns, food and all the other wonderful items, I can assure you that everything is distributed fairly and is genuinely appreciated. That much I can state as fact. Whatever else comes out of my mouth might just have a good dose of bullshit mixed in with it.

Larry Ciptak
2:30 a.m. 11/27/12

Don’t Take Me Alive

Musical accompaniment provided by Steely Dan’s “The Royal Scam”
Tuesday, November 20, 2012

by Larry Ciptak

Don’t Take Me Alive

Man, I wish I could tell you what my life is really like. It’s much more amazing than the silly antics I write about here. So I generalize about the street stuff and instead attempt to capture a general mood or ponder a thought, placed in somewhat of a social context and without judgment, which is impossible.

But I appreciate you reading this anyway.

Every Monday night I am presented with the opportunity of finding light in what appears on the outside to be the darkness of street homelessness. But I find light in abundance. Sometimes I keep it to myself, sometimes I write about it. Tonight I needed to write, despite the fact that I have 15 things to do tomorrow.

Steely Dan’s “Don’t Take Me Alive” just came on and caught my attention. I stopped and listened to lyrics for a change–as a musician, 95% of the time I am listening to the musicians rather than the vocals. They seemed appropriate for tonight. I’m going to take the lyrics to this song and write some thoughts around them. But I wish to acknowledge my deepest regret that I can only divulge portions of my street adventures in my sporadic posts, mainly out of respect for the residents of the underpass.

Imagine that–a Ciptak, practicing portion control. Let’s wait to see how long it takes for that experiment to go awry.

Below are some lyrics from the composition coupled with following meandering thoughts. I’m winging it tonight, writing about whatever floats through my Polish onion. The Chinese say when you care about what others think of you, you become a slave to their thoughts. I am letting you inside my head to a relative but innocuous degree. What you do with that information is up to you and does not affect me.

The Chinese had a lot of basic truths figured out–2,500 years ago. I was born in the wrong period of history and in the wrong place. I’ve had it way too easy. Bring me a hard life. Maybe next time around I’ll be sufficiently challenged on a multitude of levels. For the most part, my generation does not grasp the concept of sacrifice. It’s not an indictment, it’s simply a fact. I wish I understood sacrifice, but I never will.

The lyrics:
Can you hear the evil crowd
The lies and the laughter
I hear my inside
The mechanized hum of another world
Where no sun is shining
No red light flashing
Here in this darkness
I know what I’ve done
I know all at once who I am
Don’t take me alive

This spiritual journey we’re all ultimately on has taken me to some interesting places. As a rule, I naturally gravitate to where I feel fed spiritually, intellectually and emotionally. When I don’t nourish myself spiritually, I feel separate from my Creator and typically wind up depressed. If I wasn’t getting something out of “helping” the homeless, chances are I’d stop doing it. My street rounds are a spiritual vessel for me. It has less to do with benevolence on my part than you might realize.

And if what I “do” on Monday nights is not of body but of spirit, how can I adequately explain it when I have no clue myself? It’s not a calling and I am not evangelizing –so what am I doing? Who knows and who cares. There’s an indescribable connection there, and that’s all I know. It is what it is. So be it (Latin for “Amen”).

When something was really cool in the late 1970s, we’d say it was “tits.” You should meet some of the individuals who provide the needed items for the street rounds. To me, they’re tits. Beautiful men and women, generously donating their time and sometimes money to buy or collect good, practical gear that’s needed on the increasingly cold streets of the North Side. What wonderful, kind, intelligent, soulful folks I’m encountering. Some of you I’ve known for years and others are names or emails at this juncture. The guys and gals under the bridge wanted me to thank everyone for the goodies. They take only what they need, and everything is much-appreciated. Everyone responds well to simple kindness.

Rumor has it a load of deer, bear and wild turkey are soon heading this way from Lewistown, near State College. Everyone is looking forward to eating the game, cooked proper (need to research proper marinating methods and such). I envision a big pot of bear stew, with whole small potatoes, carrots, celery, onions, some garlic and other spices, with thick gravy made from the stock. Umm. Any time-tested recipes would be appreciated. We’ll be grilling it every Monday, regardless of weather or temperature, even when it’s 10 degrees out. Bring on the meat (did someone say, “that’s what she said?”).

I can feel the vibes as I’m passing along what on the surface appears to be simple custodial items–like a blanket–and that’s really all they are without a real human encounter to go along with it. I tap into the collective humanity within every one of you. I need you and more like you. When I say I feel the love, I mean it. I am simply a conduit, a messenger, letting these men and women understand that we see the human beings behind the broken facade. So thank you, from the bottom of my heart, which bursts with joy and breaks simultaneously.

There was a small surplus of blankets tonight. Everyone who needed a blanket received one or two.
The homeless climb into bed earlier when it’s cold. It was quiet tonight when I arrived as usual around 8:30. Perhaps I’ll switch nights or further shake up what little routine I have and simply go down to the underpass earlier. Who knows what I’ll do, this is a work in progress.

So it was a quiet and rather peaceful night under the bridge. No one was shooting up (unless well-concealed) and I didn’t any signs of prostitution or other such nonsense. No obtrusive drunks. Quiet. Would have been a great night for a fire but the police don’t allow that.

Underneath that indistinct underpass I have these moments–who knows how long they actually last, because time becomes suspended– of what I’d describe as pure clarity of thought. It’s an incredibly heightened awareness where all senses are suspended and it’s possible to see the interconnectedness of everything that surround me and the things that surround that and so on down the line. How we are truly one–whether we like that idea or not. God help us if we should stop, think and realize we’re not the center of the universe but instead play a miniscule but nevertheless vital role in something beyond human comprehension. It doesn’t happen every time but it has occurred more than once. These unique periods of time, those moments when the world stops, are absolutely invaluable to me as I strive to achieve higher levels of consciousness because I feel that pull, that yearning for oneness, that level of pure understanding that comes and drifts away as quickly and as mysteriously as it appeared. But a moment, however short, is gold. And those who participate through their philanthropy and with their good hearts make it possible.

No good street stories to tell tonight, folks. The real good ones I save for those closest to me anyway. Mick and I hung out and played football, while people came and went but with more purpose, like it’s f’ing cold out and I’m getting from Point A to Point B as expeditiously as possible. So no real milling-around tonight, just me, Mick and a football.

It takes a good 15 minutes to work Mick sufficiently up for good sport by gradually increasing his physical challenges (I can still throw a football well at 50) until something in him snaps into place and bang, it’s game time. Then we go at it. I brought my A game tonight but with a sore shoulder and a long day behind him, I got a B out of Mick. But he gave 100% of what energy he had left. Usually he runs circles around me but tonight was mine. Bear in mind that we’re both competitive individuals, hard-wired that way. We enjoy mutual respect but deep down both of us like to win, to emerge with that sense of hard accomplishment that these soft little bastards of today will never understand. They play their Wii and see who can kill more virtual soldiers and their lives become further mediated to where everything appears to be a secondary experience and their emotional, intellectual and spiritual growth is stunted. Bah. My daughter is not going to grow up inundated with that nonsense. Primary experience only is what she’ll get when with me. Interaction. Socialization. Volunteer work (which she’s already doing at five). Learning to coexist and develop meaningful relationships with people even if you’re tuned into your own proprietary frequency (“the mechanized hum of another world”). Self-acceptance. God-consciousness. Love in all its facets. A sense of community, possible even in these transient times. Bountiful opportunities. Travel. Exposure to lots of great music. Ample encouragement and resources to nourish her as she pursues her own creative paths. She locates the itch and I’ll help her scratch it.

Back to football. It’s in the 30s and I’m running around making these crazy catches that a balding, half-blind, out-of-shape white guy shouldn’t be making. I surprised myself tonight–still have it in me, eat my dust, young ones! I’m taking off my increasingly sweat-soaked layered clothing off one at a time. I threw an absolutely perfect and relatively long pass for the observing Pittsburgh Police to enjoy–then politely nodded to them. Then I whooped a couple passes over some PAT busses. With the exception of a few miss throws, I nailed Mick time after time and gave him some great passes to jump after.

At the end I stood there drenched in sweat, arms in the air, taking in deep breaths of city air, feeling triumphant, alive, prepared for the world, bring it on, all of it, let’s see what I can really handle, I’m ready!

Larry Ciptak
11-20-2012 2:39 a.m.

Blankets, Socks & Urban Football

Monday, November 6
2:20 am

Homemade spiced cinnamon candle provided by Sammi & Natasha
Music generously provided by Carlos Santana (Borboletta) & John Mayall (Turning Point)

Blankets, Socks & Urban Football

by Larry Ciptak

The football nearly grazed the windshield of the PAT bus as it rolled down Cedar Avenue. Perfect pass, could’ve been caught by the driver if he didn’t have a window. Rick, the passer, looked like he just won the Super Bowl. Everyone had their arms up in touchdown position.

Welcome to urban football on the streets and parking lots of the Pittsburgh North Side.

Sometimes cars come by and get in the way of our game, but we work around them. And I’ve discovered that at 50, I still have a very good arm but shouldn’t try throwing any more 50 yard passes.

These homeless guys are whipping my old ass into shape. Between chasing after Frisbees and footballs bouncing off of street signs, underpasses, jumping up and down curbs and other concrete obstacles while trying to keep my eyes on the ball, I’m getting plenty of exercise and feel my body coming back to life in numerous ways.

Ah, the streets. Absolutely full of life in so many forms. I get a larger dose of humanity in three hours under that bridge than I do in the course of my regular life the other 165 hours of a week.

Everyone (about 20 people) got a new or nice, clean blanket tonight–as well as plenty of comfortable and warm winter clothing–thanks to Barb, Sammi and her friends in Lewistown, Don, Russ and Mindy. I took down an SUV load of donated items, jumped the curve and drove right under the underpass, blasting Zappa’s “Let Me Take You to the Beach” off of his Studio Tan album. Cool entrance. I wasn’t up for lugging all that stuff from the convenience store a block away.

Some nights–like tonight–I have lots of stuff to take, other nights I just show up with a cup of coffee. Nothing is expected of me by anyone under the bridge. There is not a culture of dependency in this particular encampment. They just like me coming down and hanging out. Goodies are ancillary.

Back to urban football. It brought back memories of playing at Spinner Field (as well as on Bartola Street). Playing on Cedar Avenue provided that joyful adolescence rush of doing something you really shouldn’t be doing but doing it anyway. If the police came, I would play the “I’m a homeless advocate” routine and they’d leave us alone–after telling us to stay the fuck off the street in no uncertain terms. The City of Pittsburgh Police don’t particularly like the homeless, but they have some established but unofficial rules of conduct. Occasionally liquor or drugs pushes some homeless over the lines of socially acceptable behavior, and they sometimes end up in the clink going through some type of drug or alcohol detoxification without medical care for at least a few days.

Kimmy (I call her “little girl”) was on a vodka bender tonight, sitting alone, on the sidewalk under a streetlamp, reading her journal out loud. I quietly sat next to her, and she kept on reading. When she was done, I looked at her and said, “your heart is broken and you don’t know what to do,” and she started crying, saying “I can’t take this much pain.” I didn’t get the whole story behind it, but that doesn’t matter. A broken heart is a broken heart, whether you have three fireplaces and five bathrooms in Nevillewood or are covered by five blankets under a bridge in the North Side, surrounded by drunks, addicts, the mentally ill and wide assortment of other seedy or sinister types.

My heart ached as I listened to her. I told her I had something special for her. Someone had donated a blanket that had the poem “Footprints” written on it. I told her the minute I saw the blanket I knew it was for her, and saved it for when I next saw her. I shined my flashlight on the blanket. She saw that it was Footprints, started crying and said, “how did you know?” She then took me over to her camp and showed me her framed version of the poem, hanging on the wall of their part of the underpass, and again asked me, “how did you know?”

I told her I didn’t know why, I just knew in my heart it was for her and that I didn’t question why. I told her not knowing was a very liberating experience. She looked at me–with 2/3rds of a half-gallon of vodka down–and said, “I love you, Larry Canary” (that’s how I got her to remember my name, by association). I got a genuine hug from her that left me feeling like there is meaning after all, amongst all this madness.

Kimmie needs a good, warm pair of size 8 women’s boots, if anyone has a pair available.

Crazy Dave was conspicuously absent tonight. Apparently he had procured enough money for a big bottle of his own and was up to no good somewhere in the North Side. This is the guy that fell into the river a few weeks ago and almost drowned, while his buddy that fell in with him did indeed die. Hell-bent on self-destruction, in an unapologetic yet endearing way. I missed him tonight. His frenetic (bipolar?) energy would have worked well this evening.

Some of these guys are dug in for winter. When I asked Mick what he was going to do when it was 10 degrees out, he folded his arms and said “brrrrr!” Some will try to get into shelter (usually too late for that) and others will go to the cold weather shelter downtown, that opens at 7 pm when the weather goes below 20 degrees, including wind chill. Then everybody (sometimes 200 people) are launched en masse onto the streets of Pittsburgh at 7 am, when the shelter closes for the day. But my North Side boys are ready for whatever comes their way, meteorologically, physically and psychologically. They’ve done it before–nothing new to them, it’s simply winter.

The way I conduct “rounds” is so radically different than what other organizations do. I really am the odd duck out there. Frank Zappa said, “Without deviation, progress is not possible.” I attended a lecture at CMU this past week on “Positive Deviance” which in a nutshell contends that you look to people in the trenches for real solutions, not to CEOs and upper management or politicians. Somewhere out there, perhaps somewhere remote, someone is doing it right. Identify that success, and overcome the cultural barriers that keep a society from embracing the necessary change on a meaningful and lasting level. They used Positive Deviance successfully in the 1980s when both the Soviet Union and China shut off Vietnam’s rice imports at the same time, leaving the Vietnamese really screwed. The PD team identified those unique individuals who growing rice successfully in their own way that made sense, and set about getting the whole culture to adapt to those successful practices. It took time and effort, but it worked. The “agents of change” were actually those in the fields, toiling away but finding a better way to sustain themselves. But sometimes ingrained culture gets in the way and is the variable that needs overcome for mass change to be adapted. Fascinating stuff.

I know that the chances of getting to know someone who will die on the streets this winter is high. Perhaps not as pronounced as when I did rounds downtown back in the old days–when I still had some hair–servicing 40 to 70 people a night. During that era I saw four homeless people I knew well die from alcohol or get murdered or end up in the river under “mysterious circumstances.” It’s a rough life out there. At the underpass, I’m part of a community of about 20 people, some who actually have their acts somewhat together. Most aren’t crazy, they’re just typical drunks or addicts. But there is a segment of the homeless population who is severely and persistently mentally ill, and many of these (sometimes paranoid schitzophrenics) don’t mix well with others. You typically don’t see them in shelters or in encampments. They’re loners and the hardest to reach of all the homeless. They just do not mix well with other humans. When I did rounds downtown I used to feel a fair amount of fear–especially along the Allegheny River–but under my North Side underpass I feel none. I feel at home, insulated.

I told Kimmie to get some sleep, and allow her last waking thought to be the Footprints poem on her new blanket, the one that found a very special and meaningful home tonight. That magical blanket–an inanimate object but an agent of change nevertheless. Thank you to whoever donated that particular blanket. It helped me further develop a necessary connection tonight.

We’re all agents of change, be it negative or positive. I get far more out of this regular Monday experience than any of the homeless do. It’s that very special night of the week that strips me of my ego-driven self and allows me to be present to others, in the moment and without judgment, feeling the presence of the Almighty that brought us all together under sometimes very questionable circumstances.
It is what it is. I really don’t know how else to describe it.

Larry Ciptak