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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.

Larry Ciptak