by Daniel Marlin
At first I thought it was an odd and isolated local custom, but soon realized that sleeping outside was an immensely popular pastime. Indeed, in some districts on wet, winter nights, people were bedded down in doorways on almost every block.
They lay huddled under tarps, beneath store awnings, curled in alcoves, wrapped in old blankets in entrance ways, or at the top of church stairs.
In plastic bus shelters, they draped themselves over the steel arms of benches which are explicitly designed to prevent a human body from stretching out in any comfort. Yet how sound their slumber! How great must have been their fatigue!
Did these people forsake warm rooms behind yellow-lit windowpanes in the year’s harshest weather in order to build character? Was theirs a religious rite of passage, a coming of age ritual?
Coming of age, indeed! Most were well past adolescence. In fact many were gray, and when they rose at dawn and packed their gear, not a few made their way using canes, walkers and even wheelchairs.
It seemed almost insane to expose oneself to the elements as they did, vulnerable to police flashlights and the night’s wild card of violence. Why would anyone want to live that way?
I checked my speculations.
If there is one thing I’ve learned while visiting this planet, it is that there are many things which appear utterly insane and self-destructive, but which the population considers virtually sacred. How they trash the green bounty that surrounds them, for instance. For one like me, from a place of sere brown horizons, each sparkling poplar leaf is a miracle.
During the day, many of those who slept outdoors could be observed at activities similar to the rest of the population. They ate, read, napped, listened to music through earpieces, conversed with their peers or with themselves.
A few carried brooms to sweep the sidewalk and gutter around them.
Many went to work at the crack of dawn, foraging for cans and bottles. Upon their bicycles, festooned with huge plastic black bags, they resembled great spiders of endurance.
When I encountered a man with a hand-written “Spare Change” sign, I wondered at its meaning, and consulted my dictionary. Did the “change” refer to a limited supply of clothing? Why was he holding a large plastic cup with a few coins and a dollar bill?
“What does ‘spare change’ mean?” I asked him. He met my eyes for a long moment, evaluating my sincerity, and seemed to conclude that I was in earnest — a stranger, perhaps, though my speech patterns and appearance had been perfectly pre-synchronized before leaving my planet.
He replied, “It’s a way of sayin’ ‘Can you give me some of your money?’”
“Does that mean,” I continued, “that you do not have money but other people do?” He smiled curiously. “Yeah, that’s exactly what it means.”
I had, of course, been educated about the uses of money on earth. We also use a kind of currency at home. There, it is a magnetic thread, invisible but binding the community. The thought that some humans possess more money than others, though, had never occurred to me. And this fact provided a key to unlocking many of the puzzles I was witnessing.
Perhaps this army of outdoor sleepers was not indulging a popular pastime, after all, but simply didn’t have the money to pay for shelter from the wind, cold and rain!