Sunday, June 8, 2014

                                          The Summer of Squat                      

In the summer of 1984, I squatted a big house in a historic middle-class neighborhood named Clarksville near downtown Austin that I'd been renting in tandem with two other people and their children I hadn't known prior, really nice folks fortunately, when the lease ran out and everyone else moved.  I didn't have anywhere else to go and in clear retrospect had little prospect for myself and even less income.

The owners had had the house condemned, and I just stayed.  They were allowing me to keep my furniture and some boxes in the detached garage until I could move them.   I took that as covert carte blanche for me to stay as well.  The neighbors barely knew me but apparently well enough to be glad some 'real' vagrant hadn't moved in.  I was gone by day and came back after dark.

The family who owned the house never discovered me.  I don't think they even visited the place, except for one early morning when a teenaged daughter unlocked the front door and entered to show a friend where she'd lived.  I'd slept later than usual and hid ashen in my bedroom closet with my bag as they walked around the house talking, and I wanted to make all my atoms just disappear.
Finally,  after an era of dread, she turned the knob to my bedroom door.  It wouldn't open.  She tried again, and again, and then began hurling herself repeatedly against it with great force, about six to eight times.  I was certain she would break it down.  Then she stopped and walked around the house to the bedroom's other door and did the same thing but still couldn't break through the slide locks I'd placed when I had housemates.  I thought, thank goodness for well-constructed old homes.  I also thought, I'm glad I used the long screws.  Mostly I thought, what has my life come to?

My wife and I had separated about two years prior and were still fighting, and I was depressed, lost, and stymied.  My heart felt splintered.  I still knew I was more or less a good person but seriously wondered what would become of me.  My son lived across town.  I was especially worried for him, his mother trying hard, but a bit unstably, though still providing a secure home for him.  I had been seeing him regularly and often but hadn't been living the steady exemplary life I would've preferred for his sake.  I didn't know how to.

What mostly came  out of that Summer of Squat was resolve.  I was forced to draw my own line in the sand, to dare to want different and better, and to cross it.  I was forced not against my will but against the grain of my depression, and against the grain of what had prior been my perceived hopes for myself, because squatting a house would never in a hundred years have been what I could have imagined my life becoming, for any reason or at any time.
Life's funny.  We sometimes find ourselves in situations that require our extraction that only we can get ourselves out of.  Yet I wasn't seeing a way out.  My sister lived across town then and apparently felt as trapped as far as how to help me as I felt trapped in my own stasis, though she kindly let me know I had a lifeline if needed, and that helped.  At some point that summer, my parents were coming to visit, mostly to see my sister, I supposed, because their son was squatting a house fergawdsake.  Indeed, they feared I'd always be less than prodigal.
Because of their impending visit, I leveraged my shame and marshaled my depression and used the resulting energy to find a full-time job at a popular locally owned bookstore, Watson & Company Books, not far from where I lived.  I continued to squat the house, and the store owner, an intelligent sensitive woman named Ella Watson, never learned of my situation, even though I dared to occasionally sleep there on the nights before it was my turn to open the store.  I brought an alarm clock to wake up in time and never had a close call.  Why did I spend the night?  It was air-conditioned, and I could shower there before dawn if I restored the bathroom to pristine.

It was an interesting place to work, both intellectually and socially, and was a natural rung on the way to recovering momentum for my life, as I'd previously worked in bookstores, including the National Bookstore at Union Station in Washington, D.C.  Believe me when I tell you that one of the rooms I rented when I lived in the nation's capital was probably about two steps below squatting the nice house I had to myself in the summer of 1984.  I also enjoyed the secret contrast between somewhat knowledgeable bookstore clerk and vagrant squatter, but I did eventually tell the open-minded bookstore assistant manager about my living status and it didn't phase her a bit.

In a process that had begun the moment I began squatting the house, I managed to find and salvage a part of myself I'd lost in the previous few years, or maybe that I'd been wondering about or  searching for my whole life, in the way one follows rumors and whispers about something and pursues it out of curiosity and with increasing interest.

Since my early teens, I'd wanted to write creatively in a way that excited me, on subjects that motivate me, in a free way outside of conventions and norms.   That had been a major life goal, though not a totally conscious one, but certainly one that I'd made paramount enough to influence major choices in life.

I'd begun writing satires and other pieces for my junior and senior high school papers  and wrote weekly humor columns for two years at my college daily paper.  I'd later been a staff copywriter for ad agencies and then freelance writer.  In 1981 I wrote almost the entire first and only two issues of a new Austin music paper, Austin Access, which folded quickly, unfortunately for me because I was developing some freedom of style.

In that summer squat of 1984 though, I began writing what I really wanted to write, spontaneously and at length, as if I were only moving the pen and something else provided the content.  I prayed hard for the work to flow, and it did.  It was exciting, exhilarating.

I walked the streets of Austin with a new understanding.  I was my own equal and peer.  I read my pieces at poetry readings to good response.  I was invited to read at a University venue.  I learned I had some kind of gift.  It was really all the reward I needed for that summer.  It was raw and only a beginning, but it was good and more different than I could have  imagined, which was affirming.

Mostly that summer though, I'd wanted to test myself overall, perhaps with a touch of mild severity to 'make me think about what I'd done' regarding my marriage.  Even if so, I'd wanted to put myself in a position that would try my soul, and I knew this as I was making my decision.  Surely, this would not be too hard for me.  If anyone can do it, I can.  I would be enough.  I would emerge better, more whole, as myself finally.  I knew it would be difficult, but anything else seemed impossible.

I walked everywhere and at my own pace in the summer heat, all over downtown and the university area, hundreds of blocks daily.  I walked through the great downtown Zilker Park and its herb and test gardens, picking a few of its vegetables to eat a few days a week, and inhaled deeply of the comforting mints, balms, and salvias.  It was my therapy.  I picked up a bike somewhere, somehow, without stealing.  I rode it even further.  I swam most mornings  at a big city pool called Deep Eddy, full of cold spring water, and I could shower there.  I became in great physical shape.  My strange lifestyle was agreeing with me, and to a large degree it embodied a lot of my ideals at the time.

I was receiving more than $1000 a month from a trust, and I mailed it to my estranged wife and son, less maybe $80 to $100 for me.  So I usually had enough money to order coffee and a small breakfast at a nearby café called The Omelettry, now Magnolia Café, though sometimes only coffee.  I sat at the counter sometimes for a couple of hours, reading someone else's paper, drinking bottomless cups, and chatting with staff and patrons.  It was that friendly kind of place.  Occasionally, a big incorrect order was returned and offered to whatever regular was at the counter.  I wasn't bashful about it.  I want it.  Feed me.  Yes.  I'm worth it.  Hear my good-natured banter and exhortation.  I am a positive presence.
I often had enough money to walk into a store and buy some bread, cheese, and grapes.  It made me feel more like a regular person.  I'd then eat my feast at solo picnics in the park.  A lot of my life was quite enjoyable like that, and I had a friend or two from the poetry readings I'd drink coffee or whiskey with.   Significantly, I certainly had an abundance of time to think and feel, a real luxury most people can't ever afford, no matter how affluent.  Still, though, the solitude and awkwardness of my lifestyle became too wearing and demoralizing.  I started to want out, but didn't know how or when. 
What finally motivated and then allowed me to quit squatting had at least as much to do with other people as with me.  First, there was the overriding concern for my son, whom I rarely saw that summer, and there was Ella Watson who'd hired me at the bookstore.  But then there was my sister who invented a fulcrum opportunity to help me by showing up one evening with Jane, the first real love of my life and heartbreak from 14 years earlier, who was moving to Austin and was a friend of my sister's from way back.  I was sitting on the front steps not expecting anything different, content with enjoying a light relieving summer breeze, when they drove up.

It was a fortuitous coincidence of events and a brilliant intuitive stroke on the part of my sister and Jane, who is one of those caring people who'll do anything in their power to help.  I spent a special time with them both and the rest of the evening with Jane, and it was as pivotal a moment in time as it had been unimaginable prior to it.  That time spent with Susan and Jane reconnected me more completely and fulfillingly with the larger more accepting world and helped connect my past with the present and provided a path to the future.  I wouldn't have been able to reemerge as soon or as successfully if not for their acts of kindness.  Emerge I did, and, though I never looked back, I remember almost everything, and fondly.

I remained friends for years with my former housemates, Alan and Robin, themselves friends and not a couple.  Robin and I even leased a home together years later, and it was a loving revelation to share time and space with Robin and her two sons.  Robin  was the rare person who can be both kind and honest at the same time. 

It's hard to imagine a better mother than Robin as well, working two jobs, one starting early as master baker at Sweetish Hill Bakery, next door to Watson & Company Books, and later for hours at her boyfriend's auto body shop working hard alongside the men to strip and paint the cars.  Her boys never wanted for her love and attention either or for appropriate and firm good-humored discipline.  It's also hard to imagine a parent being a better example to their kids.

In the later 1980s, Alan and his children and my son and I took a ski trip to Ruidoso, New Mexico, sharing good company and memories throughout the drive and new experiences at the lodge and on the slopes, much in the spirit of a family reunion.  Alan, a physics professor, is from New Orleans and I'm from nearby Biloxi, and we once drove together for visits home.

It was heartwarming meeting Alan's dear mom and seeing where he comes from, his family's working-class neighborhood in Jefferson Parish not far from the Huey P. Long Mississippi River bridge, and fairly close to my grandparents' home near the end of the St. Charles streetcar line.

On our return drive to Austin from New Orleans, about eight weary hours into our ten-hour drive home, as Alan and I silently viewed the clear night sky ahead, a long shooting star lit up our world crossing most of the length of the windshield from left to right.  It was a good sign and left an indelible impression.  Somehow, all had undoubtedly gone right with the world.

Jane and I have long since become committed friends of the closest heart kind and is a woman I cherish.  My wonderful sister and I have grown closer than either of us had thought possible, and for me with a greater and greater appreciation of how special and loving she is, and our bond will only continue to grow.

I get to adore my son, a loyal man of integrity with a beneficent heart and a wonderful genius of a personality and humor to match, intelligent and talented, a loving soul whom I'm always increasingly proud of and am impressed by what he's already accomplished and considerably moved by his goals.

Amazingly, I married very, very well by any measurement, a beautiful, intelligent and talented woman, funny as all get-out, an inimitable force of nature, surely beyond my highest hopeful expectations, as indescribably dear as is possible for anyone to be, and with whom I share the most tender of feelings.

The Summer of Squat?  Hardly.  If needed, I'd do it all again, just to do my part to help make sure everything turns out so well.  Summer of Love is more like it.  And a lifetime of gratitude.

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