To The Skin
We ran out of food stamps last week. Since EBT became SNAP (the “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program”), we run out every month. “Supplemental”: in addition to air, fingernails. My partner goes early to the Food Bank, waits long hours in a gray aluminum chair for the Bank to open. Fridays we’re provided stale pastries with which to celebrate the end of the week: crumbled donuts, brick-like scones drizzled with stiff lemon frosting. At Easter a basket, at Christmas a stocking- no other holidays so privileged. Volunteers greet us with smiles and hard loaves of bread. Together we load the car with wilting vegetables and canned curiosities- a peeling can of whole chestnuts, salmon chowder, SPAM. Our child, D., sits inside the car to watch a long line of people, hopeful with their rusted carts and cardboard boxes, rope wearily round the block to the Bank.
We load between a dumpster and the Union Gospel Mission, a grimy orange building sitting squat in a cloud of smoke. When we lived in the shelter we ate at the Mission, in a dim back room reserved for families. Wood-carved biblical admonishments and oily grim-eyed Jesuses overlooked our plates of eggs and fried potatoes. Another family from the shelter- husband and wife, two young girls- ate there as well. They did not speak to us.
The Family Support Center is an overnight shelter that requires check in between five and eight, lights out at ten, take-your-shit-and-leave by seven in the morning. A shared kitchen provides an opportunity to cook and eat. We rarely did so, as our shelter-mates were particularly intrigued by the apparent mystery of my genitals. Without much recourse to subtlety, they giggle-whisper trailed my every word, gesture, and bathroom-ly directed move.
I am trans. So is my partner. So is my kid. My gender ambiguity is obvious; my partner’s and kid’s far less so. People generally get angry about gender under three conditions: 1) when gender is questioned, 2) when gender shifts, 3) when gender is not easily read or read incorrectly. We ate cold food in the car, slipped in just before curfew and read books till lights out.
Reading, we discovered, is a pastime of the homed; homeless people should not partake. A woman in the shelter had a service dog Chihuahua named Pipsqueak. Once, Pipsqueak breached the forbidden barrier between the woman’s plastic mattress and mine to curl beside me as I read. “Traitor,” she hissed. Tail tucked, the dog returned; she and her husband began again to argue loudly about the waste of reading until all was resolved by a quick hand job under the sheets.
Often I waited for others to sleep, wrote and read by book-light in a wide dark room resplendent with cracking mattress shifts, flatulence, long pneumatic snores. The red exit sign cast the subterranean room in a hellish light, our view limited to the sparse roots of church bushes and the occasional dull pull of a passing headlight. Imagine me, then, as I sat hunched on a plastic mattress laid sideways across a church basement floor, my body lumpish and dark with donated clothing, an odd assortment of sheets and sewing-bee quilts pulled across my lap. Beside me my child slept, restless with nightmare in cool sheets, while snow fell through streetlight in the world above us. With a book-light clipped to a notebook and a Bic pen, I wrote an article on experimental literature, or a review of the latest trans health book, for “the leader in LGBT book reviews, author interviews, opinion, and news since 1989”. Previously the shelter had been a preschool- oddly-proportioned animals decorated the walls, a globe in soupy greens, blues, browns; the sinks came to our knees. I missed some deadlines.
Before that I wrote in the closet of a Collective, a string of motels and parking lots, a shack on the side of a mountain, a boatshed alongside a swamp. Internet allows for vast deception, professionalism the same obfuscation of oppression as the reverse-stereoscopic view of homed people, who see dimension in everything on the street but us. Often I imagined slipping untoward sentences between the lines of my articles: I am writing this in the library as my child sleeps at school. He is sick, but there is no place for him to rest. For a few hours the school will keep him safe. If I had a place to go, if I did not have to plan what and how we will eat, when we should risk discovery in the shelter and to what consequence, I would lay down with the enormity of my fear and cry the library carpet damp as my donated coat.
A few months later I attended an after-hours reading at the library. I went early, offered to help the new librarian set up chairs. “Oh no, rest, enjoy yourself while no one is here. Well, while no stinky people are here,” she amended, with a nod to the circle of armchairs where many homeless people weather the hours of the day.
To be homeless is to enjoy new laws of physics. The homeless cannot be seen, but we can be smelled. Lacking homes, we lack bodies: we need not eat, cry, speak, urinate, defecate, shower, or rest. We are instead a stink of guilt and devastation, a living warning against sloth and failure, an opportunity for gratuitous spiritual growth. Clothed in things that others do not want, our bodies waste in ignominy. Homelessness does terrible things to the skin.
We used to live in Georgia. Rural south Georgia, with alligators, salt marshes, Republicans. My kid wanted to go to public school. Worse than that, he wanted to occasionally use the bathroom at school. Wildly, he hoped to not get beat up in the process. Despite the attendant risks of such far-reaching aspirations, with many discussions, sleepless nights, and twists of gut and heart, we enrolled him.
D. was in second grade then- formerly home schooled, reading Harry Potter books by himself. The same dog-eared and broke-spined Harry Potter books that he’d be reading six months later as he lay on a plastic mattress in the animal-bespectacled basement of First Christian Church.
Like homelessness, transness is a defiance of the body against social agreements. To defy social agreements with one’s trans body is simple- you’re born. Gendered projections stick to your flesh, celebrated- the unquestioned glue of society. It’s a boy! It’s a girl! It’s a- it.
They did not want D. to attend their school. They did not want us to live in their town. They published their intentions and came for us, the crunch of dead leaves in the night. Fall had come. We fled.
“It” is the overlap between homeless and trans. Oh, did you have a body? When you’re trans and homeless, this is really what the “for customers only” restrooms sign say, below their cheerily simplified depictions of “men” and “women”. Did you have a body? Did you think you could eat, shit, live?
Trans people, like homeless people, have bladders of steel. We can stretch and hold, carry it- the burden of blood, breath, and waste production- miles, miles, while we try to forget the burn and stretch of muscles overtaxed.
Outside of shelters and homeless encampments, homeless people’s bodies cease: the shelter doorway is the threshold where we flip from flesh and bone to social stink. Within the shelters- checked at the door along with our name, date, and time of entry- we are assigned our bodies back. Heavy, swollen footed, aggrieved with bugs and wind and snow-damp wool, we carry them, our bodies, we feed them, lay them to rest.
In direct inversion to our public invisibility, homeless people are inescapably visible to each other. So penned in, no doors, one room; we can’t look away if we wanted. The shelters are very worried about what we might do with ourselves- fuck, sleep past six, eat chips in bed. We are watched, watch ourselves, each other. These are not good conditions for transgender people to engage in bodily functions.
I didn’t know which bathroom to use, so I waited until everyone was asleep; bets were cast regardless. A man walked into the men’s bathroom while I stood there with D., toothpaste uncoiling from a rigidly gripped tube. Act natural, I thought. We froze. He peed, whistling.
We left, eventually- a trail of homeless shelter transfers, each with varying degrees of safety and privacy. Now we live in the tip-top tier- apartment-style shelter living, complete with subsidized rent and obligatory inspections. Between us we have approximately eight social workers, each with their own monitored goal sheets, none of which include ‘writing professionally’. We are not allowed to move or leave for longer than a week, so residencies and the ever-ambivalent call of grad school are out. I write between social worker appointments, sift rejections and the rare acceptance, edit others’ work- I even have a column, now, on the same site that I wrote for in the shelter.
D. goes to a public school where the administration isn’t invested in policing his gender identity, a public school where 100 out of 200 students get free lunch, a Title I school where a disproportionate percentage of the children are homeless, like us. The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 2002 protects D.’s right to attend school like any other kid, even though we didn’t have his birth certificate or medical records when we crossed approximately 3,000 miles of desert and mountain to step into their front office. Currently, no Act specifically protects transgender kids’ rights to attend school safely and respectfully.
Sometimes now I’m hungry and can’t think. Sometimes there are nightmares. I carry the guilt of reading and writing while homeless, the judgment of always-been-homed writers who consider the lives of the poor too unprofessional to mention. I hide my writing from social workers, play hot-potato with my anger at academics who expect timeliness and priorities that poverty cannot support.
At least the empty-rolling headiness of hunger makes experimental work a snap. Deprived of higher-caloric endeavors, my body entertains itself with intuition, imagination, anger. I write, as I live, across a threshold of physical need and social allowance, search sentence structure and form for fresh escape. Stomach sunk, alone here, I write my hunger real, my body visible. What is not allowed to loiter in public assumes space on the page.
Rumpus original art by Rachael Schafer.
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