Our better selves
There was a time for me when success was very hard to imagine. When I struggled to survive and tried to stay numb. More than 30 years later, those days are still a part of me.
My beginnings were as a poor student with an awful home life. By second grade, I was labeled as bright but lazy. I was diagnosed with ADD at 46, which explained a lot, but back then, no one knew what that was. I coped by shutting down. By 13, I was high all the time.
In my sophomore year, I got kicked out of all three high schools in Sioux Falls, S.D. Eventually, I got sent to a drug counselor, who said my family was the problem. At 17, I dropped out and ran.
I worked when I could get it. I dug ditches. I did factory work.
In 1978, I lived above the Arrow Bar, across the street from the Nashville Club. In the early morning, I could watch the street alcoholics out my window, waiting for the bar to reopen. I discovered mescaline, which I loved too much.
I knew I needed a change. So, at
6 feet 2 inches and 130 pounds, I joined the Air Force.
Eventually, I enrolled in community college and was assigned Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh.” The play is about a bunch of barflies, and how they support each other in their illusions of dignity. I recognized myself and all my stoner and alcoholic friends. I was living in Harry Hope’s Last Chance Saloon, and it wasn’t doing much for me.
So, I stopped. A year later, I applied to UMass-Amherst and, miraculously, was accepted.
I didn’t know it then, but I was still a mess. I was a dry drunk, and radical student politics gave me a place to put that. I began remembering the pieces of my former life. I became a writer. I founded a monthly newspaper. Over the course of four years, I learned the ways of the educated middle class. Gradually, I became more whole.
In 1984, I went to a Community for Creative Non-Violence demonstration in D.C. to get arrested with Mitch Snyder, who was played by Martin Sheen in the 1986 biopic “Samaritan.” This was during his 51-day fast. He lost 57 pounds, and when asked if he was afraid to die, he said, “No. It’s painful, but I have a greater fear of allowing people to languish like animals, and sometimes I’m afraid I’m not doing enough.”
Snyder inspired me, as he did many others. I went to work at Boston Jobs with Peace, doing direct action organizing with homeless folks. We were getting in the papers and on TV, but we weren’t building for power. I found that just making a lot of noise wasn’t enough.
So I started Boston’s Spare Change newspaper in 1992. The idea was that people could be activists in a way that met their most immediate needs. A few years later, I moved here to start this paper.
To me, the fight around homelessness has always been personal. When I talk with our vendors, I’m never very far from that stoner kid that was me back in the ’70s. I remember what it was like to be hungry. To feel unloved. To not believe in myself.
What I’ve come to appreciate most about Real Change is how it allows us to care for each other. Those of us who live in despair and isolation have the opportunity to become valued members of a community. We begin to re-imagine our lives. One small step at a time, we all get to become our better selves.
CommentsFunny you should mention that you visited Mitch Snyder during his hunger strike. I interviewed him during that same strike on about day six or seven. I was a film student/bartender, and seeing someone like him commit his life to a cause was inspiring. Now I work in the fields of energy conservation and alcohol awareness. You are right when you say "One small step at a time, we all get to become our better selves." I always knew there was something I liked about you besides Real Change, but until I read this it was elusive.
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