The Art of Homelessness

NEW YORK—Rainbow Johnson lived in a room in the Cavalier Hotel on 34th Street. The bathroom was down the hall. He had a hot plate for boiling water for coffee. He ate his meals in the coffee shop downstairs.

Before moving into the Cavalier Hotel, he was homeless in several cities across America.

He was a multicoastal bum, from east to west and north to south. He rated the cities in terms of his experience. New York was a killer; Miami Beach was survivable; Chicago was brutal; Los Angeles was tolerable; Boston was a bastard; and San Francisco was miserable.

It was chiefly a question of climate, both meteorological and sociological. Miami Beach, according to Rainbow, with its sun, beaches and flotsam and jetsam personality, was the best place to be homeless.

“You don’t need much clothing and you can use the showers on the beach that are put there for swimmers. Every day you can scoop up enough change left on the tops of bars to buy something to eat. The bar owners and customers don’t mind.”

Depending on his take from the bars, he could buy a Macdonald’s hamburger or a Subway sandwich with all the veggies, sufficient nourishment for a lean man of no means.

“I managed fairly well in Miami Beach,” he said. “In New York City I nearly fucking died.”

But New York is home to him, and when he received a small annuity from a distant uncle, he came back home. The sum he received allows him to live frugally at the Cavalier Hotel. What would be a lousy life to many people is a sanctuary to a man who hasn’t had a permanent roof over his head for fifteen years.

In that room, on several legal pads, he wrote “The Art of Homelessness,” a slim volume of reflections that was published in New York to good reviews and modest sales.

Appearance is the first order of business for a homeless person, the book begins.

Beg, borrow or steal a decent set of clothes, he advises — another reason favoring warm cities like Miami and L.A., where you don’t need as much clothing as in New York or Chicago or San Francisco.

“An old school friend who became a stockbroker gave me a designer suit he had grown too fat for,” he said. “I wear that suit everywhere I go in New York City. Man, let me tell you, I’m the best dressed bum in town.”

Homeless across America

Rainbow Johnson is a pseudonym of Bill Michelmore

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