Breaking and Entering

From the Femme Maison series of paintings by Louise Bourgeois; reproduced from Femme Maison – Wikipedia

Decades ago, when I was young and living on the first floor of a cheap Pittsburgh 2-story rental house, I met Ryan. He was a good kid, if a little weird.

Ryan lived in the 2nd-floor apartment of the house, and we shared a basement and yard. I saw the kid a lot, as he gobbled up any scrap of attention I or my partner could spare—he was lonely, living with a mom who had to work all the time to support them, with no friends that I ever saw and a really intense stutter when he spoke. I invited him in often just to hang out, play a game, talk a little, have some company. He’d often come over when I got home from work in the evenings and stay until him mom would get home.

Problem was, Ryan was a sponge for attention—my partner and I were, as far as I could see, the only people who listened quietly and patiently when Ryan talked. Sometimes it took him several minutes to get a single sentence out with all the stutters, which set my innards jangling with impatience. I tried not to let it show outside, because I figured that would probably make the stuttering worse, and it was just plain mean. It was probably pretty painful for him, too. I hoped that being allowed to speak at his own pace would, if not help his stutter, at least make him feel more supported.

Like a starving cat, Ryan haunted my doorstep, and I fed him every time he came by. Which was every day. I didn’t want to hurt him by shooing him off, but man alive, he was hungry for attention all the time. He even seemed to want to fit in with my partner and me—when I first met him, Ryan made “chinky eyes” and other anti-Asian racist jokes he’d probably thought were harmless fun, but after a while he seemed to make the connection that my partner was one of the people he was mocking, and he taught himself to stop.

Ryan was, as I said, a good kid, essentially.

We lived in a molding old house at the very top of a very steep hill. Our front yard was comprised of ivy and a practically vertical set of stairs. The house was on a busy street right across from a bar. The bar crowd was rowdy, drunk, sometimes violent and dangerous-sounding. Our front door did not have a working lock and the landlord wasn’t inclined, on our meager rent, to fix it. On those nights, I thanked my lucky stars that the screaming men on the street would probably not attempt to scale the steep stairs to our house. Probably not, I always thought. Security was a privilege of rich people.

The place had not one locking door or window—it might as well have been a tent. The door from our apartment to the shared basement was in our kitchen and was fastened only by one of those hook-and-eye catches, with a big gap between the door and the jamb. This meant that Ryan could go into the basement, grab his hockey stick and easily open the latch to our kitchen door while my partner and I were both at work. Which he did on a near-daily basis.

I think Ryan just wanted to be in our space—he didn’t seem to be stealing anything or doing any harm. He was probably playing with our cats, breathing our air, maybe hiding. Once I came home and found one of our indoor-only cats (she was brain damaged and we were nervous about letting her roam around cars and other animals) in our postage stamp back yard. I figured that Ryan had broken into our house, left through the back door and allowed the cat to escape without realizing it. Other than that, the B & E was a pretty harmless habit he had, and he was never there when I got home from work, though there would be signs of his presence everywhere (the toilet seat left up, or crumpled gum wrappers on a table, the smell of sweaty kid, the cat on the lawn).

I barely remember what Ryan looked like, or what his voice sounded like, or even exactly how old he was. I think he was somewhere around nine. What has stuck with me for 25 years, though, is that feeling of someone breaking into my space.

When I wrote Luckmonkey, Ryan was on my mind. In the book, the characters are houseless, but concoct a politically-motivated social project in which they break into other houses and businesses to steal one thing and replace it with something else (they might take the coffee maker but leave an exercise bike, for instance) as an anti-private-property act of disruption.

When I told someone about the idea for the book, they asked me, “Have you ever been robbed?” It was a challenge, a way to suggest I wasn’t going to be writing from a place of understanding. I thought of all the ways I’d been robbed, all the ways my safety had been unambiguously challenged. As a queer, fat woman who went to a predominantly male college in the late 1980s, I could compose quite the list of violations on my body, my sexuality, my privacy. But what has stuck with me are not the big soul-crushing violations of that time, but Ryan and his little, harmless break-ins.

That time just after college, when I was living in Pittsburgh, was full of un-safety. I was renting an unlockable house across the street from screaming drunk men, working a series of low-paying crappy jobs at which my hard-earned college degree was not useful, jobs at which I had to put up with all manner of treatment (deliberately locked in a walk-in freezer once, called “that big fat girl” by a colleague on the phone another time, bombarded by a profanity-laced screaming fit by a temp boss for…I’m not exactly sure what reason…so badly that I quit in tears, and him mystified when I did. You get it. I’m sure you’ve probably been there). Suffice it to say, I did not feel an abiding sense of security about anything—my privacy least of all.

So when I lived in that unlockable house on the hill in Pittsburgh, when Ryan used his hockey stick to sneak into my private space, it felt terrifying and awful and familiar. A sinking, slipping feeling. Someone had been in the place I went to be alone, to be unwatched and unevaluated and safe. The world was an awful place, but I had that cruddy little apartment with my partner, and I thought I could depend on that safety. The disturbing thing about Ryan’s break-ins wasn’t that he did anything bad or took anything. It was that I knew he could, and therefore I knew anyone could. As much as a home should make you feel safe, it’s an illusion.

That was the feeling on my mind as I wrote Luckmonkey—and that is precisely the feeling at the heart of the characters’ political break-in project, the Uproots. It’s not to take away property, which can be replaced. It’s to disrupt that sense of safety and power that comes with property. A home should be a place where you can speak, breathe, decide what comes into it (or stays out of it), what happens to it. Your home is like your body. (And here my former film scholar self says, femme-maison, and she is right and you should Google it.)

I realize now that Ryan is all over the pages of Luckmonkey, in the houselessness and displacement, in the Uproots break-ins, in the stories of alienated folks (the first-gen kids, the queer kids, the gender non-conforming kid). All of those elements are versions of Ryan’s break-ins in that they are about rootlessness, the privilege of ownership, how to speak so that people will hear you.

I wonder where Ryan is now. If he’s okay. If he’s found someone to listen as he stutters.

Houselessness in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood

When I was in college, living in Pittsburgh, my friend interned for Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Turns out, that show was filmed in Pittsburgh, and my friend got to meet Fred Rogers and eat her lunch under that famous tree, the one in which the puppet X the Owl lived.

That world was a lovely one, in which the worst people (or puppets, like Lady Elaine) were simply grouchy, and the most houseless you got was living inside a tree like X the Owl. Owls usually live in trees, so it was probably NBD.

‘Round about the same time, I interned at Scholastic, Inc. in New York, and temporarily living there afforded a substantially darker picture. I was staying in a residence hotel on the Upper West Side, terrorized by 3-inch-long cockroaches and someone with punked-up hair and pleather pants who was always—always—using the single payphone in the hotel’s hallway and would crab fiercely about EAVESDROPPING at anyone who dared to pass by them.

The only thing that could have made it more dramatic was puppets which, thankfully, were not a feature of that life.

According to some recent statistics, however, Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood—by that I mean Pittsburgh—isn’t much like the Land of Make-Believe. About 1/3 of Pittsburgh’s population currently lives at or under the poverty line (according to H.U.D.). More than 13,000 people in Pennsylvania are experiencing homelessness (says the US Interagency Council on Homelessness).

My latest novel (Luckmonkey, coming March 9) features a small group of houseless young adults squatting in an abandoned building in Pittsburgh in the early 2000s. Even though I lived there in the 1990s, I had to actually research homelessness in the city. I recognize how lucky I was that it was just something I rarely saw as a young adult.

Perhaps it was because it didn’t affect me directly—I was a student at a major university, I had an apartment and a job (well, three jobs cobbled into one living wage, but still, the point is that I had a means to support myself). I had a family who, while not able to pay may way through life, would step in to help me if I ever got into a situation of real need. Perhaps it is because I didn’t go to the places where I might see houseless life in the open. Perhaps I simply chose not to look—or chose to look past—houseless people, as so many people seem to do.

Whatever the reason, my memories of Pittsburgh do not include the houseless.

In graduate school, I had a friend who lived with her boyfriend in a converted factory—her spot was a large, loft-like studio (she was a poet, he was a sculptor, it was perfect for them) in an uninhabited corner of Brooklyn (those really did exist back then, I swear). The place didn’t have a bathroom, so they used the toilets and bathed in the sinks of the gas station across the street, but the rent was very cheap. It was romantic, chic, New York Artist Life, not true need, but it was the closest I got to understanding how so many people live, unromantically, without other options.

The recent pandemic has likely increased rates of houselessness, and also presents increased risks of COVID-19 contraction and complications for those who are houseless, according to experts at Vanderbilt University. Fact is, living without stable, safe shelter puts you at all kinds of risk to your physical and mental health, and we fail to protect people properly from such risks.

Moreover, being a queer/trans person automatically puts you at greater risk of houselessness and makes finding shelter and services much more difficult. Very often, young folks find themselves houseless (and booted from their families) exactly because they are queer or trans. And many services for the homeless are dangerous or unaccepting of queer/trans people in need. The picture takes on greater dimensions when you consider that, according to one study (by the UCLA School of Law Williams Institute), 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ. In other words, houselessness is a significant queer concern.

I don’t mean this essay to be all sturm und drang, truly. I’d like it to underscore the dire crisis of LGBTQ houselessness, but this is not to say that the experience of queerness/transness is all terrible, or automatically leads to instability. Part of the reason people have begun to use the term “houseless” instead of “homeless” is to emphasize that the problem is a lack of physical housing and not a lack of (or inability to form) close relationships, intimate spaces, stability or a sense of belonging. A “home” is so much more than a “house,” and many people make a “home” in places that are, by most accounts, unlivable or unsafe.

So please don’t mistake me. By writing about the increased risk of houselessness among queer and trans folk, I don’t mean to suggest that this is somehow related to our identities so much as it is related to treatment of us by the culture at large. And I don’t mean to suggest that this treatment is all there is, either—I live with my wife in a stable, loving home, surrounded by a supportive community, family and friends, and I know that I am not the only queer person who can say this.

I do mean to say that social conditions make it so that the population to which I and my wife belong—queer and trans folk—is made more vulnerable to houselessness. And I do mean to suggest that this is a problem worth fixing.

I’m using the upcoming release party for Luckmonkey to raise money for one organization supporting houseless LGBTQ people in Pittsburgh, where the novel takes place (www.proudhaven.org). I hope you’ll (virtually) attend the release party online and give a donation. But if not, please consider donating to an organization for LGBTQ houselessness in your community.

To attend the book release party for Luckmonkey, at which I’ll be raising funds for Proud Haven, please see the invitation here. To donate directly to Proud Haven, please visit their website.

On DisRESPECT

I have now seen three indignant online responses to articles about social protest (two about Kapernick kneeling—one from my own beloved niece—and one about a kid who refused to stand for the pledge of allegiance in school as a protest and whose teacher hit him in response), and I’ve gotten to the full-to-boiling point, which means I’m going to write something. (I was taught to use my words and not to hit people with whom I disagree).

Each of these indignant responses wails about a lack of RESPECT (every time in all caps like that, because type-shouting is certainly a clear sign of respect) on the part of the person kneeling or sitting. There’s something going around among a certain segment of Rumpers about disagreement equaling disrespect, a kind of “sit down and shut up” attitude that makes my skin crawl even as it makes me laugh.

First, I would like to respectfully ask these folks where their respect was during the previous presidency. Where is the respect in (falsely) accusing—publicly, in the press–a person of lying about where they were born and demanding to see their birth certificate as proof of citizenship? Where is the respect in interrupting a political candidate while she speaks (“Wrong!”), or in looming behind her like a ghoul during her time to speak in a debate?

Where is the respect, I ask respectfully taking a respectful tone as a result of the utmost respect, in accusing trans folks—children, even—of wanting to sexually molest people simply because they’d like to use an appropriate bathroom (especially when straight men—not queers or trans folk—are by far the most frequent sexual abusers, even of boys)? Where is the respect in denying large segments of our population their human rights? Where is the respect in bombing a women’s health clinic because they perform abortions? Where is the respect in violently separating children from their families, putting them in cages and allowing several of them to die or be severely wounded in custody? Where is the respect when you condone your own police force beating and killing men of color because… wait, why, again? I missed that part.

Respectfully submitted: where is the respect in allowing the frequent beating and murder of trans women? Where is the respect in the Resident of the United States accepting the support of white supremacist groups (and then pouting because he’s been asked to stay away from a famous Black singer’s memorial)? Where is the respect in voting into office a person of whom there is ample evidence (including his own bragging) of the sexual assault of and unbridled disdain for women? Where is the respect in supporting someone who publicly mocks a disabled reporter and then does his best to take away medical care for disabled folks like me? Where is the respect in paying people wages according to their gender, ethnicity, or sexuality, or refusing to hire them entirely, even when a law tells you that you can’t? Where is the respect in gleefully creating, backing or voting for policies which will deprive people of human rights or safety?

Oh, golly, I could go on, quite respectfully, but I won’t. I’ll simply respectfully ask: where is the respect for those of us—POC, women of all colors, disabled folks, LGBTQ+ folks, immigrants and non-citizens, the list is longer than I can probably properly reproduce—with whom you disagree, or who dare to disagree with you? For those of us whose humanity you feel so comfortable to deny, whose cakes you refuse to bake, whose children you refuse to care about, whose human rights you refuse to recognize?

I respectfully think there is a fundamental misunderstanding of “respect” and social protest. Social protest that is respectful in everyone’s eyes is not social protest. Please look at the history. Social protest is meant to disturb the social scene, to call attention and to resist. What is the point of showing respect for a system against which you are protesting because it denies your humanity? The point of social protest is to disrespect the dangerous inhumanity of a system.

Respectfully, I’d like to say that when people refuse to “show respect” during the national anthem, they are not only doing their civic duty (please RESPECT American history, since that kind of lack of RESPECT is what founded this country), but they are protesting in the most civil, RESPECTful, peaceful, quiet way possible. Sometimes fighting in other ways is certainly the right choice, especially when lives are on the line. But sometimes, one chooses to do what one can in the space one has been given: kneeling, sitting, refusing to participate, even symbolically.

That choice deserves your respect. No, wait, I’ll write it so it makes sense in online vernacular: that choice deserves your RESPECT.