So what if he lives in a garbage can?
Here in Minnesota, winter is thawing. Daffodils and tulips have bounced out of their bulbs to bloom into the speckled array of green. The buds of box elders and elm are shedding their skin and racing to unfurl into soft leaves to canopy the skeletons of branches. The geese and wood ducks have returned. Chickadees and robins twert and tweet in the early morning while the homeless remain in hibernation.
It has not been a tough winter for the homeless here in the land of lakes. Their propped up community under the 394 overpass has remained despite political intervention to oust their village. Urban sociologists have studied homelessness since the sprawl of skyscraper and concrete. Why do they prefer to squat outside in the cold while shelters remain? A variety of variables present answers; the shelters have curfews, don't allow contraband, have a limited amount of beds to accommodate the ever-growing population of people who find themselves without homes. The latter can be attributed to soaring unemployment rates, the recession and a lack of affordable housing. Other reasons are simply explained by levels of socioeconomic stigma, alcoholism and mental illness that plague some of these people.
Men constitute the majority of the homeless I meet. One in particular, David, has a variety of props and treasures in the shopping cart he pushes around the outskirts of Uptown. He is a weathered Lee Scratch Perry type, wiry frame, graying beard. He drapes himself in layers of drab blankets, an urban nomad with crazy bloodshot eyes.
David maintains with half pints and a large walking stick. His means of obtaining money transcends the tired ploys of, "I ran out of gas". He engages folks in conversation and eventually has them sign one of his pieces of art. He has canvases in his cart covered in signatures. His raincoat is a blurred mess of indelible ink. The night I met him, he had me sign a giant rubber carp. Getting people to sign is the hook; after, they feel proud to contribute and it's easy to pass him a buck.
David is schizophrenic and a drunk. During episodes, he is often incarcerated by the Minneapolis blue and stripped of his possessions and the large branches he uses as a walking stick. One night I found him without his cart sitting on a stoop. He had a paintbrush in his hand and was painting the sky, he shared his bottle of vodka with me that night and told me his cart was "at home".
Oscar the Grouch is not homeless. He lives on Sesame Street right around the corner from Big Bird. His best friend is a worm. While not the most popular of the muppets he is an intriguing character. The items in his can are endless. The can possesses the same infinite wonder as the fur of Captain Caveman, or coat of Inspector Gadget. I always imagined the inside of the can as a hobbit hole filled with junk and thought maybe this was where Snuffleupagus hung out before it was wrong to have secret friends.
Oscar eats garbage and lives in a can. I wonder if the Children's Television Workshop intended for Oscar to be a symbol of the homeless? His name precedes him but we often see a helpful and humorous side to the green beast. (Further research for the purpose of this w/u indicates that despite his meager dwelling, he is better off than most muppets. Only Ernie and Bert have an actual residence. Big bird lives in a nest, while most muppets live in a huge pile of felt backstage).
Since I have been city hopping the last few years, my interactions with the homeless have ceased. Most don't even recognize me and are shocked when I remind them of their sometimes fictional pasts or our last chess game.
On a recent Bicycle ride, I saw David pushing his cart full of plastic bags and canvas down Lyndale. He had action figures attached to his cart with twist ties. He had He-man, G.I.Joe and Starwars figures strung to the grate. A woman with a young child was passing him and the child reached out toward the cart and toys. The mother tugged him away as David ranted with the whites of his eyes and hooded head.
Children are curious and observant. They are the wonder of the world. Holding hands, the mother rushed the child to her side, the child's head was turned over his shoulder fascinated with David who was hunching up to a Dumpster. He asked his mother,
"Is that the real Oscar the Grouch"?
"No honey, that's just a bum." She said, rushing to beat the light.
I opened my eyes wide and looked in the direction of David then back into the eyes of the child as they passed me in the crosswalk. I smiled and nodded my head. The kid's grin hit his ears.