For much of my youth, I lived outdoors six to nine months of the year. I figured that's the price you pay for chasing your own dream instead of someone else's. Lord knows, I'd rather write than pee indoors. Nowadays, it's called being homeless but back then it was living outside and was a perfectly respectable way to make time for doing what you loved to do.
To me, homeless people lived in cities and slept on heating vents and drank Mad Dog 20-20 that they bought with spare change. I drank Blue Nun, which is better if you can find the corkscrew and I usually couldn't. I was 86ed from Yellowstone Park, in 1971, for spare changing. My girlfriend and I ran out of gas and money at Old Faithful. It wasn't planned. Nice folks gave my girlfriend six dollars behind the ranger's back while he gave me grief about the federal crime of panhandling at Old Faithful. Six dollars bought us gas and a bottle of brandy -- enough to make it back to Jackson where we had busboy jobs that paid us each a couple of dollars a night in tips.
Those weren't particularly the good old days, but they weren't Dickens in London either. The only free people are the very, very rich and the very, very poor because everyone else has obligations. Here's something most of you Canadians don't come up against: You can be too poor for food stamps. I know because I had to social climb up the ladder to qualify. You can't get welfare if you don't have an address. Very, very poor is just as much fun as very, very rich, until you get sick. The biggest cause of death in the U.S. isn't cigarettes, obesity, or drunk driving. It's not having insurance. You want to feel like crap on the road, try showing up at a hospital without it. I read the other day that people without insurance die eight years younger than people with insurance. My guess is that's optimistic.
Blogs are supposed to have a point, I know, but I'm betting this one won't.
Anyway, I was leading up to the difference between being homeless on the national forest and being homeless in the ghetto. Millions of people go to a lot of trouble and expense, each year, to camp out in the national forest. I did it for free. My guess is no one sleeps under a newspaper in the doorway of an inner city Starbucks as a vacation.
My last few years of living outside were spent in the luxury of a home-sewn Cheyenne tipi. I had a little school desk with the top on a hinge and a shag rug. In the fall, I started a fire before I got out of bed. If the smoke flaps were set right, it was as comfy as a condo. If they were wrong, we crawled out coughing.
We made enough money working all summer to move indoors in the winter where I went on unemployment and wrote books. In winter, I was finally rich enough to qualify for food stamps. I still carry my food stamp card from 1976 in my billfold, to keep me humble.
I have this vague retirement plan of moving to Santa Monica in my old age and living on the streets. I spent time in Santa Monica, on movie projects, and vagrancy there doesn't look like that horrible a career choice. If you aren't mentally ill or addicted to something -- which cuts out 95% of your peer group -- it beats the hell out of Wall Street. I think if you're old enough and look scraggly enough, no one will bother you. I've got scraggly nailed. The last time I offered money to a street beggar in Santa Monica he turned me down. He said, "You need it more than I do, dude."
I think I could get by on my Writers Guild of America retirement. I picture going up from the beach to the outdoor coffee shop at the Barnes and Noble on the Third Street Promenade and rewriting scripts for a hundred bucks a pop for young, fabulously well-to-do screenwriters who can give good meetings but can't write. In Hollywood, it's more important to give a good meeting (sometimes referred to as "take a good meeting") than it is to write a good script. You can always farm the actual writing out, once you cut the deal.
I'm great at fixing broken screenplays. It's my talent. Unlike novelists, screenwriters get better with experience. What I need to do is find a 23-year-old who is slick at meetings, lunch, and pitches to front for me, the way the blackballed Communist sympathizers worked it back in the '50s. I've heard of old screenwriters (old means over 50) doing that, but I think that might be an urban legend.
Anyway, I told my wife my retirement plan and she thought I was kidding. She said, "Send me a Christmas card."
I might do that, someday.
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