The art of homelessness

NEW YORK—Rainbow Johnson lived in a room in the Cavalier Hotel on 34th Street. downloadedfile3The bathroom was down the hall. He had a hot plate for boiling water for tea. He ate his meals in a coffee shop downstairs.

Before moving into the Cavalier Hotel, he had been 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 was home to him, and when he received a small annuity from a distant uncle, he came back home. The sum he received allowed him to subsist at the Cavalier Hotel. What would be a lousy life to many people was a sanctuary to a man who hadn’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 began.

Beg, borrow or steal a decent set of clothes, he advised. 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, once gave me a designer suit he had grown too fat for,” he wrote. “I wore that suit in New York City. Man, I was the best dressed bum in town.”

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