Travels with Lizbeth, by Lars Eighner, is about the three years the author and his dog (Lizbeth) spent living mostly on the streets, in Austin, TX, and Los Angeles. First of all, Eighner is a good writer--whatever you may learn from this book, you'll enjoy reading it, or mostly enjoy it: some of the episodes are hard to take pleasure in, even though they're told well. One point that struck me was the difficulty of writing without a home, or even a desk, to call oneís own. Much of the book was written on the street, because Eighner was a writer before he lost his home, and he had to get it to friends who did have homes, to hold it for him until he could reclaim it. A constant risk of the street life is of having things stolen: a thief might not want your legal pad, or your journal, but you wonít get it back once someone took the bag it was in, looking for money, or clothing, or anything that could be sold.
Good prose, while valuable, isn't the main point here, of course: there are a lot of things I could, and would, recommend if the ability to write a coherent and even interesting sentence were the only criterion. While Eighner does not claim to be typical of homeless people, and in fact says he doesn't know many other people who are or were homeless--he deliberately did not strike up friendships with other homeless people, because he feared it would make him more accepting of the situation he wanted to escape--he has some interesting and important things to say about the condition of being homeless in this culture. The most important, perhaps, is that while our economy does not need individual homeless people, and in fact they are homeless, in most cases, because the economy doesnít need them, it needs the condition of homelessness. It needs to dismiss a certain number of people from society, from the interlocked network of duties, relationships, and interactions that make the difference between a crowd and a culture. (The government more or less admits this, by defining an unemployment rate of five to six percent as necessary to a healthy economy--the part they don't mention is that it doesn't mean we each spend two weeks a year out of work, or collect unemployment insurance for a few months every decade, though some do--it means that some people lose their homes for lack of a job over a long period.) Eighner also discovered, or rediscovered, that, at least in Texas, the purpose of most social service agencies is not to help the poor. "As for public assistance, it is like credit--easier to get if you have had it before. That you have qualified for one sort of benefit is often taken as evidence that you are eligible for another. Documents from one agency are accepted as proof of need at another agency. But as I had never received any form of public assistance before, I had no documents. When I was asked to provide documents to prove I had no income, I could not do so. I still do not know how to prove lack of income." Similarly, the rules for food stamp eligibility, in Texas, rule out the most needy--among other things, you're required to have a functioning kitchen to yourself, which means that if you're renting a room in someone else's building, or sleeping on a friend's couch, you can't get them. (My own cynical take on this is that the main purpose of food stamps is not to feed the poor, but to subsidize agribusiness; this is not incompatible with Eighner's theory that they're there to give jobs to social workers, secretaries, and such.)
Again, the popular image of homelessness among people who have never been there is that most homeless people are either mentally ill or drug addicts (in which I include alcoholics, though people who drink but not to excess are likely to be less nervous around someone who is addicted to fortified wine than someone whose drug of addiction they have never tasted). Eighner argues that this image enables the less compassionate to blame the homeless for their condition--all they have to do is give up drugs or drink, or take their medication for schizophrenia--and gives the compassionate a problem that can be fixed: while beating an addiction is not easy, it can be done by individual willpower, whereas creating places to live requires land, building materials, and (here and now) money and government permits. In the authorís experience, more men took up drinking after they found themselves on the streets than landed there because they drank too much. In any case, "if there were no alcohol, society would still have no place, no job, no home for the men, young and old, who sit on street corners with brown paper sacks. If the cities were filled with sober hopeless people, I doubt that the comfortable would find the results much to their liking." Indeed, alcohol is a depressant, and while it may comfort the homeless and help them get through the days, it probably also makes them less likely to take up armed robbery, or revolution, when they see no other way of bettering their situation.
Some of Eighnerís friends were helpful, of course, but there are limits to what most people will do for a friend, measured mostly in terms of the cost and inconvenience to themselves. One of Eighnerís friends knew that his own pattern was to drink through his salary in about half a month, and that he would be generous while he had money, and bad company the rest of the time. He thus invited Eighner to stay with him for the first few days of each month; Eighner eagerly accepted this offer, because his goal was to get off the streets, not to study the condition of homelessness.
While this book could be called a memoir, itís not a diary: rather than telling day after day, itís mostly organized by episodes. Eighner does this deliberately, out of compassion for the reader and because he could not bear to write it otherwise: "I do not think I could write a narrative that would quite capture the unrelenting ennui of homelessness, but if I were to write it, no one could bear to read it. I spare myself as much as the reader in not attempting to recall so many empty hours. Every life has trivial occurrences, pointless episodes, and unresolved mysteries, but a homeless life has these and virtually nothing else." Eighner not only spares the reader, he entertains and informs, though much of the information may be of little value to the average reader--good and bad places to be hitchhiking, for example, and advice on scavenging food from Dumpsters--and much of the rest is what most Americans have been trying not to notice for the last fifteen years. (Travels with Lizbeth: three years on the road and on the streets, by Lars Eighner, Fawcett Columbine [Ballantine], New York, 1993, 0-449-90943-3.)
This review is Copyright 1995 by Vicki Rosenzweig
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