Jack In The Box, A Life In Cardboard Purgatory


This story is a bit long but its a socially important story of struggle and unfair judgment designed to help shed some light on a deeply disturbing problem so IMHO worth the time spent. As tempting as it is to turn it into a political wage equality statement it goes far beyond that, beyond the argument of entitlement vrs. privilege, it’s a plea for us as humans to return to humanity. This is a story of real lives, real struggles, and issues about the need of not just throwing money at the impoverished or disadvantaged but understanding, educating, guiding, and offering a fair and equal opportunity to all of us to live productive lives in a society that values life. All life…One world, One Peace.
By J.T. Hilltop
Never judge a book by it’s cover. Check that. Don’t freaking judge anything at all books or people until you truly understand them. Like the famous Native American proverb says “Never criticize a man until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins.” There are a number of variations of that proverb and any one of them will do it just means walk the walk before you talk shit. The handsome business man next to you on the train could be a serial killer planning his attack on you. The nice sweet looking old lady could be sticking knitting needles into her cats when she gets home. That mean looking dirty hippie could have a full time productive job. There are low income people who do more for their communities than so called upstanding citizens and phony philanthropists who couldn’t care less about the people they gave to as long as everyone knows how helpful and considerate they are. They don’t even walk a single step they pay someone else to walk the mile for them.
When my first child, my daughter was born I wanted to commemorate her birth by getting her name tattooed in a rose on my arm. So at two weeks old the very first outing my baby girl had was to a tattoo parlor on Long Island that was filled with half a dozen very tough looking mean looking bikers. When they saw this two week old little child they became total mushes. They ewwwed and ahhhed and acted more like we were at a baby shower than a tattoo parlor. So instead of hiding my baby in a blanket I let them make cooing noises and fuss over her like a grandparent would. Who am I to judge?
Not judging was the biggest lesson I took from an adventure I went on after making a long series of bad decisions and having even worse luck. It took scraping the bottom of the beer barrel and finding myself constantly at another self imposed dead end for me to decide it was time to make a U-turn. After a series of misfortunate circumstances I found myself totally alone somewhere in Georgia, some 600 miles from home with nothing but a few bucks in my pocket and the clothes on my back. I had slept the night at a Salvation Army shelter and while I laid in a cot instead of focusing on how and why I ended up lost, broke, and homeless I convinced myself I could turn all my disadvantages around. With the little money I had I would buy a pencil and a notepad and transcribe wherever my journey led me and go out in search of Americana. Someday I’ll write a book. I’d find work along the way teaching myself how to survive and transcribe all my experiences. And so I did.
When I set out on my hitchhiking/transcribing adventure I thought it would be the story of me, how I turned my life around while traveling and learning. I quickly realized however that my adventure would have little to do with me but everything to do with the people I met along the way. And it became obvious the first day. When I left that Salvation Army revived with a shower and a hot cup of coffee I wasn’t even sure where I was going. Maybe back to New York, maybe to Arizona, or maybe I’ll head straight on to California. I was playing each card as it was dealt to me, no plan, no direction, I just wanted to see different places and write about little town America on the way. I used half of my life savings and bought a notebook and pencil.
The very first person I came across was a man I guessed to be about my age sprawled out on the grass seemingly passed out from drinking and baking in the sun. I gave him a little shake to see if he was okay. He rubbed his eyes and sat up. On closer inspection the man was probably younger than me with at least three days worth of stubble hiding his reddened weathered face. Neither the stubble nor the redness could hide his eyes though which were as bloodshot as a blushing beet. But it was more than that. His eyes also made him look a hundred years old, solemn yet unwise with nothing left in him but the ability to reflect inaccurately on his past. He coughed to clear his throat then spat a huge something across the lawn as he stood up. At first he wanted nothing to do with me having mistaken me for another Bible Belt wannabe Christian savior saving his soul and helping him to find salvation through religion. I assured him I was not in fact looking to help him or anyone because I have had enough trouble helping myself and that I never did find salvation in any religion. All I wanted to do was meet people and write about the experience. He offered up an invitation into his world and instructed me to follow him. I didn’t realize at that time but he would help me walk the mile.
I followed behind him while sizing him up with my pre-conceived notions. A homeless young man with a serious drinking problem who would rather get drunk than find work. He was dirty and unkempt with the stench of stale smoke and alcohol trailing behind him like smelly ducklings following the imprint of a mama duck with irritable bowl syndrome. He managed to stay ahead of the wafts of stench but many of them darted directly into my nasal cavity to set up camp in my olfactory glands causing me to wonder if I had already made another poor choice. I wondered why he didn’t just get cleaned up, find a job somewhere, anywhere, doing anything. He was young, seemed relatively strong, and I sensed at least a basic level of education. We walked about ten minutes then through a hole in a fence and finally to an area under a highway overpass. The sight was unsettling. It was a commune of the homeless, an urban campground of cardboard boxes, makeshift tents, piles of blankets or just piles of whatever, all types of homeless nests where everyone carved out their own living area. Like an office cubicle each person had their own territory with their own personal mementos, old torn photo’s, broken statuettes, any remnant that brings a shard of happy memories or a thread of hope. People here used shopping carts as if they were pioneer chuck wagons loaded with all kinds of stuff. Some had clothes hanging on strings between tree’s or posts, a makeshift grill here a three legged dinner table there, whatever resourceful use they could find from the discarded junk of suburban life. A commune of displaced humans seeking shelter from the storm. They mostly knew each other and I stood out as an obvious outcast and I would continue to be an outcast in their eyes until I walked the mile.
I began talking with the people living here in Spivakville (Named for a John Spivak a local inhabitant many years ago who was a champion for the poor and mistreated during the depression) I was expecting to find a profound level of hopelessness but what I walked away with was a profound sense of sadness with seeds of hope looking for a little empathy to help it grow. A few felt hopeless but for the most part it was the feeling of abandonment which was the more dominant emotion. Most were abandoned or mistreated at home or in school, laughed at, scorned at, and forgotten or looked down on by society. Not entitled, not looking for an easy way out, just looking for a fair shake, an opportunity for change. The worst thing for me was what they mostly received was pre-conceived notions like the mistaken ones I had leveled at a man I knew nothing about. I couldn’t give him a job, I couldn’t give him money, but if nothing else I could invest some of my time to hear his story. Jack shone a light on life that had me feeling shamed for having judged him but newly educated and enlightened.
His real name is Sam but since he came to Spivakville he’s been called Jack, short for Jack in the box because his first night he slept in a cardboard box that sat upright making him stick his head out like a Jack in the box. The name took instantly and he never corrected them. My guess is because for the first time maybe in his life he was in a group of people who made him feel like he belonged unconditionally, like he was accepted for himself. Jack crossed the border from South Carolina to start a new life in Georgia. In Grahamsville, SC he was beaten repeatedly by his step father and tended to his alcoholic mother along with two older siblings until he could no longer take it. He saved up some cash, took a bus to Augusta and got a room in a single room occupancy hotel that charges by the week. He had a job as a line cook at a local restaurant within a week. He was on his own and he was surviving. He fell in love with one of the waitresses. Her story was similar to his except she was still living in an abusive home. Together they vowed to help each other rise above the filth of abusive life and begin a new one together. A couple deeply in love and deeply dependant on each other emotionally.
One day she didn’t show up for work and Sam got worried. On his break he ran over to her house but on the way was stopped by her sister who told him she was in the hospital, had been struck by a car and was in intensive care. Disregarding work he went straight to the hospital and sure enough she was there and in real bad shape. He convinced a nurse with the help of his girlfriends sister to let him in to see her. The last vision he had of the love of his life was a battered beaten face and an array of tubes coming from various machines and an IV pole. He never even had the chance to say goodbye because she died a few hours later not having woken up from her coma. Along with his girlfriend Sam’s hope died as well. In desperate need of a friend or shoulder to cry on Sam did what he thought was the next best thing. He bought a bottle of vodka and went back to his room.
Over the next few days he only left that room to use the bathroom down the hall or to go to the liquor store. It wasn’t long before he ran out of money, constantly drinking and eating donuts to survive. He knew it was the worst diet possible but he really didn’t care about much of anything. After a week and a half he finally realized he needed to get back into life. He made his play to get his shit together, showered shaved and went back to the restaurant to beg for his job back. The manager didn’t want to hear about it because he never even called or let them know what was going on. He had no opening but if one came up he would consider him because he was after all a really good worker. He took his final paycheck and went to a bar. When he returned to his hotel that night the clerk, who had always engaged in conversation with Sam, had a saddened look on his face. It appeared the hotel had changed his lock and removed all his belongings which were in a closet in a large trash bag. The desk clerk was directed to deny Sam entrance unless he paid up his bill and another week in advance. Sam didn’t even have enough money to pay his back rents so he reluctantly grabbed the bag and left. The empathetic clerk informed him of a men’s shelter in town where he could stay until he figured out what to do.
Sam left that hotel with everything he owned in a trash bag. His life had been reduced to a Hefty bag full with some clothes, a radio, a hotplate, toothbrush, shampoo. As if that wasn’t deflating enough in it’s own right, when he woke up the next morning on a cheap cot in the men’s shelter, nothing was left in his trash bag under his bed except a few dirty socks and a half used bar of soap. During the night his belongings had been raided and that was all they left him. He moved into the street.
He slept behind a gas station in an abandoned car and used the rest room as his bathroom. Washed in the sink as best he could and shaved whenever possible with only water and an old razor. He went out looking for work but without a plug for an alarm clock, or the clock for that matter, going to interviews on time was a challenge. Add to that interviewing in the same dirty clothes traveling with a profound body odor it wasn’t long before he wasn’t even granted interviews. He couldn’t get a job because everyone hiring saw him as a dirty lazy bum, much like I had earlier. It was at that point I began feeling like a complete ass. Here I had judged him harshly before knowing his story, and now upon hearing it not only could I relate, but I could imagine that happening to me or any number of my friends. What a shit I was for assuming he had just been drinking his life away because I forgot to walk the mile.
Out on the streets he befriended a young man named Corky who schooled him on street life, how to panhandle, how to swindle, how to hide from the police, all the essentials of surviving the street. He had already learned not to leave anything of value unattended. Corky brought him around to Spivakville, showed him a free spot he could camp out on and pointed to cardboard box, “Cardboard acts like an insulator, it’ll keep you warm and dry if it don’t rain too hard. Until you can build a cloth home you should live in the box.” Sam grabbed the box, put it in his new spot and followed his only friend around the commune to meet everyone. That night Sam slept in the cardboard box as suggested but not knowing anything about being homeless he slept in it standing up vertically. The next morning when he popped his head out of the box Corky and the people around began laughing as Corky yelled, “Hey, it’s Jack In The Box” . Even Sam laughed. It earned him a new nickname, a good feeling, and a new sense of belonging. He had friends now, not one of which would ever judge him. Everyone at the homeless encampments has walked the mile.
Jack introduced me to many of his friends who came from all walks of life. Corky was once a promising comedian but lack of work and a girlfriend who introduced him to the needle ruined his act. A true character Corky seemed always ready to make others laugh to brighten their day even though his days are spent in constant darkness. I met Dennis and Sandy who had their house foreclosed on them because Dennis could no longer work construction due to an accident outside of work. Still in love but a completely different life from what they had before. Sandy pointed to an older black woman, “That there is Cookie, her own father pimped her out on her 14th birthday. Onlyest life she ever know was a life of drugs. Half the people here been crack addicts or junkies at one point, some still are. They sell they bodies or give sexual favors for either drugs or something to eat. Ain’t a single on of them say that’s they goal but it ain’t always about choice JT, y’all makes sure you put that in yore book.” I promised I would quote her on that. Next I was schooled in street cons from Slick, whose nickname was well deserved. He sold life insurance, had a house and a wife, sports car, and lost it all because he fell prey the perils of cocaine. He used the money people were giving him for insurance to go on three or four day benders of cocaine. Just an average guy who couldn’t keep away from coke. Everyone has a story, a beginning, a time when they understood what promise was. Everyone one of them hearts of gold. None of them wished to be here. Some came out of the womb at a disadvantage, some were forced out into the streets as kids, and some drove themselves to rock bottom but truthfully not one of them belonged here. Victims of circumstance, of environment, or just being born into a world that offered them nothing but scorn.
Most depressing was the amount of vets living here. All the flag waving and “thank you for your service” and “I support the troops” haven’t helped them at all. To them it’s all bullshit and lip service from the civilians who want to make themselves feel better, like proclaiming support on bumper sticker proves how much they care about the vets and validates their gratitude as payment enough. They don’t sit down and hear what the vets say because they don’t have the time. They look and sound crazy from shell shock or PTSD. Besides war is ugly and they would rather not hear about how truly horrible it really is and some of the things they saw and did. No the vets don’t want your verbal support they want medical attention, jobs, homes, they want to forget the horrible things they saw and did and just go back to living normal lives. They want to live without having nightmares every night. Yet now their normal is panhandling while living below poverty standards. Thanks for your support! They have walked the mile, many times, only to come home and find that others back home haven’t even recognized the fact that there is a mile to walked. Shame on us all.
In the end the common theme is in what the homeless really need. Some support, maybe learn a trade or get a break. Instead they get looked down on by most of society who won’t take a minute of there lives for the lazy free loaders who do nothing but look for handouts. Too many of us condemn them instantly, disdainful of them for not having money yet doing drugs or drinking, likes that’s a privilege only for the well off. You say we should give them drug tests before giving them welfare but I say no problem when you’re ready to do the same to all the wealthy and CEO’s who get tax breaks. I want to make sure they aren’t misusing the money we give them which even without a math degree I can state with confidence comes to far more dollars than we give to the impoverished.
In all my travels I have met many people who are reformed drug addicts or alcoholics both the well off and the poor. Bad luck has no prejudice. The big difference is the well off have family or friends, or at the very least one person who not only believed in them but got them to believe in themselves. I can tell you from experience that once you start to believe you can find yourself in a bottle, or a vial of pills, or even a syringe it’s very easy to lose yourself completely. At first it’s not a downward spiral it’s just a misstep, getting a kick. No harm no foul. Before long that misstep becomes your reality and you find yourself on a wrong path. Before you know it you’re so far down that path you don’t even recognize it, you don’t know where you are or who you are. You no longer even recognize yourself, why there’s an empty soul looking back at you from the mirror. You do things you swore you would never do to just to feel regular, to feel normal because you no longer know what normal is. You completely forget who you are and suddenly it’s too late, you give up. You can’t make it alone anymore. You’ve fallen so far down everyone else steps over you preventing you from rising up.
I stayed with them for three days until I felt it was time to move on. “Just point me west”. In a way I didn’t want to leave. The people I met here are what we used to call the salt of the earth. They didn’t judge me, they weren’t fake, they were just real people trying to survive in a difficult environment, and if you don’t believe that then there’s only one way to get you to understand. You have to walk the mile.

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