I knew immediately that my homelessness made the woman uncomfortable.
I wasn’t trying to make her uncomfortable. I was simply speaking my truth, sharing my reality.
She was probably a few years older than I was. Her clothing (tasteful but not ostentatious) and her speech (no slang, proper grammar) marked her as belonging to the educated middle class. She had come to walk with her daughter in the Nevada Desert Experience Sacred Peace Walk, and she seemed a little nervous, a little out of her element. Her daughter had wandered off, and the woman seemed to want to chat with someone so she wouldn’t feel awkward in her aloneness.
Women in my age group who think I’m of their social class seem to gravitate toward me when we’re in a group that makes them uncomfortable. I’m educated, and I speak proper, mostly unaccented English. My hair is streaked with grey and my tattoos and the gaps where my rotten teeth have been pulled are mostly invisible. I appear to be a “normal” older professional woman, and other “normal” older professional women seem to think I’m safe to interact with.
I don’t remember how this particular woman and I began chatting. I think she joined me at a table for a meal. Maybe she and I lingered after the other folks at the table left. In whatever way the conversation started, I could soon tell she thought we had similar lives.
I also don’t remember what question she asked me about myself, but my response was that I lived in my van. I immediately picked up on her discomfort. It wasn’t the first time I’d mentioned living in my van to a woman in my age group and immediately sensed her discomfort.
Maybe the conversation went like this: Maybe the woman asked me where I lived and I said I lived in my van. Maybe then she asked me why I lived in my van, and I gave her my stock/true answer that I’d been homeless before I started living in the van, so the van was a step up.
However the topic came up, I knew my talk of homelessness as a real part of my life made my table companion nervous.
I suspect when a woman thinks I’m like her but then finds out I’ve been really homeless and I’m currently living-in-a-van homeless, she gets a little bit freaked out because she’s identified with me. If I was/am homeless, and she and I are somehow alike, she realizes she could end up homeless too. I think it’s a very disconcerting realization for some women.
Upon hearing about my living situation, this particular woman launched into a story about how one night after eating at a restaurant, she gave her leftovers to a homeless man. I guess she wanted me to know she was down with and kind to homeless people. I resisted the urge to explain that street kids call asking folks for their leftovers “white boxing,” presumably because restaurants often pack up leftovers in white Styrofoam containers.
The story was long and detailed, and the woman’s nervousness was obvious. Our whole point of interaction had become about her trying to convey to me how ok she was with homeless people (and therefore ok with me). Suddenly I wasn’t an individual sitting in front of her, but a member of a group that caused her discomfort.
I wasn’t sure how to respond to this woman’s story. I think I managed, I’m sure the man appreciated the food, but how was I to know what the man thought of her offering?
I was almost sorry I’d mentioned living in my van. I hadn’t wanted to cause the woman distress. On the other hand, I wondered why I needed to hide my reality in order to save someone else from discomfort. I don’t have to be ashamed of having been totally homeless or of being living-in-a-van homeless. Being homeless isn’t a moral failure. Being homeless doesn’t make anyone a bad person.
The woman’s discomfort made me uncomfortable too. I felt like I had done something wrong, even though logically I knew I hadn’t. The woman rambled on with a story I didn’t really want to hear. I excused myself as soon as I could and left the table feeling alienated and awkward. I wished I could be as normal as people thought I was.