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  • Ken Ilgunas

Bums and Chums

I’m a little over a month into radical living and I’ve spent every dollar as carefully and as frugally as possible. That is, until today.

I spent $50 to join the University’s “Outdoors Club.” The fee pays for membership for one year and goes towards funding group wilderness trips to nearby parks and allows me to use the climbing wall at the gym every Thursday.

Though reluctant, I opted to shell out the fifty bucks because I’ve realized that, however solitary a person I might consider myself, I knew I needed to create some sort of a social network here. This became apparent when I noticed how I’d been talking to myself more and more frequently. Most times I just mutter some passing thought to myself, or sing a tune stuck in my head—normal things—but today I had an actual fight with myself—aloud—that went something like this:

Me: It smells in here. You should clean up after yourself.

Myself: But baby…

Me: Don’t you “baby” me!

So it was either I pay money to get friends via a school club or I get a volleyball and paint a face on it with my blood.

Because I’m new in town, and because I’m so paranoid about campus security finding out about the van, I’ve been reluctant to reach out to other students. In the time that I’ve been here, I have yet to have one actual, genuine conversation with anyone. Upon meeting someone it seems that finding out where one another lives comes right after trading first names. And each time I find myself souring the conversation with preposterous lies–lies about where I live–that I tell to protect myself.

It’s not that I’m embarrassed about the van—in fact I’m quite proud of my little experiment. It’s just that I’m so nervous that once a few people find out about the van, news will spread and the following events will transpire:

1. A facebook group will be created for “People who’ve had a confirmed sighting of the campus vandweller” as if I was the mysterious Yeti of the Himalayas. (This I wouldn’t mind too much.)

2. Campus security will find out, deem my mode of habitation illegal, and then promptly kick me out of the van and into some conventional and unaffordable style of living.

3. Ken deems it necessary to spend ludicrous amount of money to buy a rug—among other superfluous items—to tie the room together in his new apartment.

But, to be honest, I am dying to tell someone my little secret. The only person who I’ve confided my secret in is a bum who approached me on the street to beg for money. Normally, I recoil from contact with the homeless with the same concerted panic that I do in avoiding a run-in with a pair of well-attired and determined Jehovah’s Witnesses. But this time I greeted the bum like some long-lost high school acquaintance.

He asked me if I was from town as he rode towards me on his bike. Before the begging began his destitution was readily apparent: scraggily blond hair, unchecked facial hair approaching the feral-state, and enough denim to exceed, what is today, fashionably appropriate.

He told me he was new in town, couldn’t find work, and was on his way out, assuring me that he wasn’t a “wino like the rest of them” and that he just needed some money for food. I didn’t know whether to believe him or not. But I felt sympathetic and I was sick of all of the spurious conversations I’ve had of late so I tried to establish a common bond between us. I said:

“Yeah, I know how it is man. In fact (pausing with deliberate graveness), I’m living out of my van…”

Expecting that we’d trade declarations of sympathy in the mutual acknowledgment of our beggarly conditions, I was surprised with how indifferently he passed over my admission and continued to prod me for money.

As much as I pride myself in living “on the edge,” I had to admit to myself that I was not homeless in the way that he was homeless. There was a glint of desperation in his eyes. The voluntary nature of my experiment precludes me from experiencing poverty in its most extreme and authentic form. I’m playing with poverty; he’s living it.

I gave him three bucks and he thanked me and said he was leaving town to find work. But only one of us got what they wanted from the transaction.

Just yesterday I heard the same voice yelling in my direction. From amongst his council of homeless comrades, huddled together, warming their hands around a flaming barrel, he yelled, “Hey man! Are you from town?,” which I then realized was the prologue to his standard routine. This time he was audibly drunk and had no idea that I was the one he “fooled” the week before.

I had no sympathy this time around; just disdain, maybe even a strange hint of envy. I ignored him and his subsequent screams.

I continued on towards the library, with a laptop and a lunch packed away in my book bag, while he returned to his friends. This time around, for a moment, I couldn’t quite tell which of us was the poorer.


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