Back to The Streets- A Book ReView

root - Posted on 02 September 2006


by TJ Johnston

"Last summer under the shade of a tree on the Boston Common, I spoke often with a man who'd been homeless for ten years. He was in his late fifties an had an alcohol problem. He described the daily humiliating routine of checking in and out of the shelter at night and morning Food and clothes were available to him as well as a bed. Yet when he got up to leave he'd say, 'Back to the concentration camp.'

"He was articulate about his life in the shelter that was as if
he'd allowed me to visit his reality."---Poverty and Language

The reality of this unidentified homeless person mirrors that of
George Wynn's characters in Back To The Streets, a collection of
stories,essays and poems in which he fabricates a vivid reality of
society's dispossessed. It has just been published by Freedom
Voices in San Francisco.

Most of the stories are set in Boston and have been originally
printed in Spare Change, the local homeless paper (they've also seen publication in Bay Are a counterparts Street Spirit and Street
Sheet). "Exiled and Eyeless" and "Dinner in Chinatown" depict
Beantown's gentrification on those not affluent enough to live in the Back Bay neighborhood or attend the city's universities.

But the travails of the down-and-almost-out aren't just confined to New England environs. They fit just as easily in Texas, Seattle, Montreal or, for that matter, San Francisco. Wynn reminisces of the SF of his youth in his poem "Radio Trance": "Restless Tenderloin room/ On Golden Gate roof/ Listening to Stella Dallas/ Dusty silver radio."

Wynn was born in San Francisco and spent a dozen years in Boston. Upon his return, he observes the proportionate increase in
homelessness and hostility towards the homeless. "Who swallowed
up peace?/ What happened to love everybody?/ What happened to
the new age?" Wynn beseeches in "San Francisco, New Year. He
displays the grit in this picture: "Hobbled men piss between dumpsters/ Grizzled men piss on every corner/ Restless Men in Blue---clean shaven---/ stampede homeless folk through Tenderloin/ alleyways to Market Street encampments/ Without pity/ Tinged with blood."

In "UN Plaza: A City Attacks The Poor," Wynn points out that such harassment of indigents belie images as a beacon of tolerance San Fran portrays. The Proclamation of the United Nations (founded in SF in 1945) is etched on the plaza. The lofty ideals espoused are but mere words where the desperately poor have their human rights ignored.

However, the humanity of Wynn's fictional outsiders is acknowledged. Behind every person written off as a statistic in a
headcount, there is an individual's story and Wynn aspires to detail that person's own narrative. Aside from immediate housing, each person longs for a human connection. When it is received, it could take the form of language lessons (and food) in "The Chinese Teacher" or even justice afforded an ex-football player who is falsely accused of avoiding payment on a meal.

In this milieu, literary references are abound. The Characters read and cite Camus, Proust, Dostoyevsky, Kafka and Nikos Kazantakis.Literature is a respite, compulsion or redemption. Note Dexter from "Keyboard Jockey": a former journalist, he doesn't let his hard times deter him from writing or taking the young narrator under his wing.

In his essays, Wynn charges the reader to recognize the persons who characterize homelessness and to those who want to write about their condition (including those experiencing it for themselves). His language is obvious and lucid and urges the would-be street writer toward similar clarity in his/her advocacy.
By the same token, he also recognizes that the voluntary silence of the homeless person is also valid and must be respected: "While personal experience of the homeless may be related vividly or kept private, language in defense of the homeless and advocacy for the homeless must be direct and aggressive."

Wynn acutely observes the hopes and despairs of the downtrodden and, need it be said, makes a damn fine read.

Back To The Streets by George Wynn. Available from Freedom Voices, San Francisco. 80pg.
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