A couple of years ago, I spent the winter in Austin, Texas. One night I was downtown, on Congress Avenue, waiting for a bus. I was approached by a friendly young African American man who soon asked me where I was headed. I told him I was going to South Austin. His questioning quickly turned to whether or not I had a husband or kids. I told him I had neither, while realizing that he was being more than friendly. I didn’t get the idea that he particularly liked me or wanted to go home with me, just that he wanted to go home with somebody, the home being more important than the somebody.
I told him that I was staying with friends and I couldn’t really bring home company. (I wasn’t at all interested in the guy, but I’ve never been very good at rejecting unwanted suitors.)
Then he told me that he lived in a tent down by the river. He explained that it was very comfortable, with an air mattress and lots of blankets. He talked quite a bit about the comfort of his tent. (Perhaps he had decided that if he couldn’t get a home for the night, he would settle for a somebody.)
He also told me that he’d been dating a woman, but it hadn’t worked out. He told me that when he dated someone, he didn’t like to act like they were homeless, he just wanted to act normal, do normal things like go out for dinner.
I told him that I understood, that I’d been homeless, that I lived in my van when I wasn’t visiting friends. Then I commented that I had lived under bridges before.
The man physically recoiled and immediately began protesting that he had never lived under no bridge. The idea of me having lived under a bridge (which is true, by the way) seemed to truly repulse him.
I guess that was his hierarchy of homelessness: those who sleep in tents next to the river are above those who sleep under the bridge.