[Hpn] Heartfelt writings by the homeless; Anchorage Daily News; 8/27/2006
Morgan W. Brown
Sun, 27 Aug 2006 17:18:09 -0400
Sunday, August 27, 2006
Anchorage Daily News
Heartfelt writings by the homeless
By CINTHIA RITCHIE
Anchorage Daily News STORY BY CINTHIA RITCHIE • PHOTOS BY JOHN WAGNER
ANCHORAGE DAILY NEWS
Published: August 27, 2006
Last Modified: August 27, 2006 at 04:25 AM
It's raining outside, a cold, heavy rain that streams dark puddles
across the sidewalk. Inside Cook Inlet Book Co., it's warm and snug.
Robert Lindell, Jolene O'Domin and Isaiah-Henry Wilson sit nestled
around a table, munching brownies and waiting to sign copies of "Where
Light Lives: Voices Without Walls."
The book is a collection of poems, drawings, photographs and stories
of Anchorage's homeless people. It is small and elegant and fits in
the hands like a prayer manual. Which it pretty much is: a prayer, a
testament, a eulogy of hope and despair, dreams and desires.
But it's a slow night, and the rain is keeping everyone away. A
handful of tourists stumble into the store, shake off jackets and
hurry off to the Alaska section. A few wander over, pick up a copy of
"Where Light Lives." There are a couple of purchases, a couple of
chances for the authors to pick up their pens, turn to their work and
carefully write their names across the page.
During a lull, Lindell picks up his book, clears his throat and reads
his poem "Jolene, My Love." He wears a stained white Arizona
university sweatshirt, jeans soaked at the ankles, wet sneakers. His
voice is low as he begins:
"I remember when I first met you/ Your eyes were shining and your/
smile so true."
O'Domin, his girlfriend, wraps her arms proudly around his neck. His
voice picks up strength; his face beams. When he finishes, Brian
Anderson, social services director at Bean's Cafe, asks if Wilson
would like to read next. Wilson is a big man, an imposing man, dressed
in a black T-shirt and vest, gold earrings dangling from his ears. He
murmurs no, turns to the page he wants read and waits for Anderson to
pick up the book. Then he folds his massive hands, bows his head,
"Life is beautiful!" Anderson reads, "but then again, so are those
puffy/ white clouds that float on a clear blue sky on a clear/ day, so
watch and enjoy, they're a blur."
There is a moment of silence, and then Wilson nods solemnly.
"It sounds better," he said, "when someone else reads it."
Late last year, artist and writer Tracey Pilch collaborated with
Anderson for the first collection of writing by the homeless, "Where
Light Lives: Poetry From the Street." The spiral notebook-style
collection is raw and gritty.
"This was not the nice, edited type of poetry," Pilch said. "This was
a catalyst, a way of writing and moving through."
That book housed the works of about 20 poets. The current "Where Light
Lives" edition came about with Alex Johnson's help. A summer intern at
Bean's, Johnson collected and transcribed the writings and edited and
formatted the book, which he sees as a collection of memories and
experiences filled with "little gems."
"Everyone has a story," he said. "Once they tell it and someone hears
it, they feel validated. They know they're not alone. I want people to
read this book and hear someone telling their story. Not necessarily a
homeless someone. Just someone."
The homeless are a transient group. It's hard to maintain a schedule
when you're shuttling from a shelter to a friend's couch, from a soup
kitchen to your tent hidden in the woods. It's difficult to worry
about appointments when you don't know where your next meal is coming
from or where you'll sleep that night.
Of the more than 20 writers featured in "Where Light Lives: Voices
Without Walls," I was able to talk in-depth with only three. Others I
spoke with briefly outside Bean's Cafe or on the street. A few made
appointments but never showed.
But Wilson, 55, was easy to track down. That's because he works in the
Bean's kitchen five days a week in a much-coveted paying job. He
spends his morning bundled in a huge apron, his large, dark hands
chopping salad and cutting fresh fruit.
Wilson is a quiet, unassuming man with a low, careful voice.
Originally from New York City, he came to Anchorage five years ago to
escape the "back East way of life." He's been writing since he was 9
"I still remember my first poem," he says, sitting down in a side
office at Bean's, his apron streaked with tomato juice, his forehead
sweating from a long shift in the kitchen. "I was just a kid, and
suddenly this poem, this bunch of words, just came to me. I wrote it
down, and they've been coming ever since."
His poem "Pit of Snakes" is a complex mix of anger, cynicism and
beauty. It slipped into his head one morning years ago when he woke up
after a rain. He wasn't able to write it down, though, and little by
little it faded -- until a few weeks ago, when bits and pieces
suddenly appeared in his head.
"I had to put it back together again," he said. "Like a jigsaw puzzle."
He estimates he has written 1,000 poems, and he dreams of making the
best-seller list. Then he laughs.
"I just want to get a book published," he says. "I don't care if
anyone reads it. I just want to know it's out there."
But for now, he's homeless. It's not something he's proud of, but
neither does he quake and cower before it.
"Most people think that if you're homeless, you're a bum," he says.
"But you're not. You just don't have a place to go."
He screwed up, he says, and homelessness sneaked up on him a little at
a time. But he's working now, he's got a good lady in his life. Soon
they'll get an apartment, pull themselves up, get on with their lives.
Then he shakes his head, laughs, because he wasn't always so
optimistic. When he first found himself homeless, he was angry and
confused. Everything looked ugly.
"Then I realized, OK, I lost some things, but I can replace them. I'm
still alive. I mean, look around." He throws up his arms. "Look at the
mountains. Look at the eagles soar. How can you be angry and defeated
in a beautiful place like this?"
A LIGHT IN THEIR EYES
According to Anderson, most homeless people struggle with self-esteem.
They don't believe they have anything worthwhile to contribute or that
their opinions count. Which is why he finds "Where Light Lives" so
powerful. He has watched people's faces as they've opened the book and
discovered their names.
"A light shows in their eyes," he said. "It's like they're thinking,
'Someone wants to hear what I say.' "
Esther Friemering, 44, didn't think anyone would be interested in her story.
"It's small," she says, shrugging her white-aproned shoulders.
Friemering volunteers in the Bean's kitchen a few days a week, making
huge vats of mashed potatoes and thick, brown gravy.
"I love to cook," she says. "My mother cooked -- it was one of the
things she gave me, her recipes for moose stew and fish pie."
Her story, which she narrated to Anderson, is about growing up in Naknek.
"The first job I had was setting nets in the mud flats to catch king
salmon," her story reads. "My parents would wake up my brothers and me
at 3 or 4 in the morning, and out we would go when the tide was low."
She was the youngest of 16 children raised by her mother. Her father,
she says, drank too much and was rarely in the picture.
"For 20 years I couldn't think about growing up," she says. "I was too
buried in the bad stuff, the alcoholism and stuff. I couldn't see the
rest. I couldn't focus on the good things."
She slips her hand in her pocket and comes up with a worn picture of
her son and his three children.
"My grandbabies," she says, kissing the picture. "See? All boys."
Her life has been rough, she admits. She lost her husband about 10
years ago and one of her sons a few years later. She has an apartment
now, which she shares with her partner, but her first few days of
homelessness were terrifying. She didn't know where to go or what to
expect. What bothers her, though, is the way people treated her.
"They tear down our tents, take our stuff," she says. "That's the only
stuff we have. That's our home. Then where are we supposed to go?"
'I HAD TO SAY SOMETHING'
Virgil Katchatag, 53, has a remarkable face: high cheekbones, tanned
forehead, eyes that stare long and hard before looking away. His long,
white hair flows beneath a Western hat, and his jeans are soft from
many washings. His voice is low, and when he makes a point, he leans
quickly forward and then, just as suddenly, backs up again. He grew up
in Unalakleet and moved to Anchorage in 1966. He's been writing for
years, mostly poems.
"Trick or Treaty," one of the most memorable in the collection, is a
harsh, angry piece threaded with lethal humor. He wrote it after the
Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act was signed:
"For as long as the grass shall grow .../ (the grass is paved over for
traffic flow)/ ... For as long as the rivers shall flow .../ (the
rivers were dammed for energy to grow)."
The poem, he says, just came to him one night when he was watching an
old Western on TV.
"I was so angry," he says. "I had to say something. I had to write it down."
He glances at one of his poems in the book, pulls out a pen and
crosses out a word here, adds a few more there. Then he frowns,
crosses off another word, lifts his head back up and sighs.
"I had a scrapbook of about 40 poems and carried it around everywhere,
back and forth at the shelter. Then one day I went out drinking and
didn't come back, and they put my suitcase outside. When I came back,
it was gone, all of it, my ivory and my poems. Gone."
Katchatag started writing in high school and hasn't stopped since,
though he admits that when he's drinking, he isn't able to write. He's
realistic about his life; he doesn't make excuses. He just wishes
people were more tolerant of the homeless.
"We feel," he says. "We get cold and hungry, just like you. It's not
all about appearances. Look deeper, people."
Katchatag doesn't really consider himself homeless, though. He and a
friend have a five-man tent in which he houses his large collection of
"We say at the end of the day, 'Let's go home.' And that's what we do.
Because it really is home," he says. "Here in Anchorage, my home is a
Daily News reporter Cinthia Ritchie can be reached at
MEET THE WRITERS
Writers who contributed to "Where Light Lives: Voices Without Walls"
will sign copies from 1 to 3 p.m. Sept. 22 at the University of Alaska
Anchorage Campus Bookstore. Readings, speakers and a photo collage by
Daniel Shepard will be included in the program. "Where Light Lives"
can be purchased at Cook Inlet Book Co., the Campus Bookstore, Metro
Music & Book, A Novel View and Cabin Fever. Cost is $10. Proceeds
benefit Bean's Cafe. ________________________________
BY ISAIAH-HENRY WILSON
Like a sharp sword it cuts into your soul,
and you ask why but don't get an answer.
Satan knocks down your door, and tells you
you no longer own it anymore, get out!
And you ask why, you wonder why he's
screwing with you, but you do not get an
answer. You just leave your life behind and go.
Homelessness plays without your mind, your body, and
your soul. And how you deal with it
measures you as a man, or woman, as the
case may be.
Many of us roam the dark corners of
our minds, letting cheap booze and drugs rule.
But this demon will not beat me. I'm too damn
cool and too damn bad to let it.
I will rise again.
"From Truth and Innuit"
BY VIRGIL KATCHATAG
We are the Real People ... Innuit
We come from this land
We live with this land
We are the Stewards of this land
We are the Real People ... Innuit
We hunt, fish and gather from the land
We hunt, fish and gather from the rivers
We hunt, fish and gather from the sea
We hunt and gather from the air
We are the Real People ... Innuit
We hunt, fish and gather for a bottle
We hunt, fish and gather for a joint
We hunt, fish and gather for some pills
We hunt, fish and gather for a party ...
We were the Real People ... Innuit
Rest in peace, oh you, the Real People
Who we RIP-ped from the face of this land. ________________________________
Focusing on the faces
Daniel Shepard believes that pictures tell the stories we're unable to
say. That's why he spent three weeks hanging around Bean's Cafe
photographing the homeless.
"Their faces," he said, "say so much."
Shepard, a court service officer with the Alaska State Troopers and a
part-time professional photographer, donated his photos to the "Where
Light Lives" project. He also made a 12-minute DVD of close-ups: a
woman crying in a field; two men sharing a joke; a man wrapping
makeshift bandages around ugly sores on his legs.
"It was a humbling experience," he said. "We're all just two paychecks
and a job loss away from homelessness. It could happen to any one of
-- Cinthia Ritchie
Anchorage Daily News
**In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this material is
distributed without charge or profit to those who have expressed a
prior interest in receiving this type of information for non-profit
research and educational purposes only.**
-------End of forward-------