Sage Against The Machine

The Generator Experiment – Introduction


If I see my friend Ashleigh Hughes as the potential Evangelical Dorothy Day, I see myself as the homeless anthropologist equivalent of Jane Goodall.

The problem with my comparison to Jane Goodall, of course, is that she actually has a Ph.D. in Ethology, the scientific and objective study of animal behavior. Whereas I am just a lowly English literature major.

Jane earned her Ph.D. in ethology from Cambridge University. She was one of only eight people ever to have a doctoral dissertation accepted by Cambridge without first having an undergraduate degree. I have my undergraduate degree and not a Ph.D. So maybe it comes out in the wash somehow. (It definitely does not come out in the wash.)

I consider many homeless people my friends. I am more interested typically in being friends with a homeless person than a middle class wage slave. I just don’t understand how a person can live a fearful, timid life punching a timeclock for 40 years. But I can definitely understand why a person would say “fuck it” and move into the woods and dedicate their life to a good solid addiction. Believe it or not, that makes complete sense to me.

I am endlessly fascinated with learning what makes a homeless person “tick.” Some people keep coming back to be with and help the homeless population because they want to “love on them” or bring them food and supplies. While I do regularly bring food to homeless people it is not interesting to me in the least. I keep coming back because homeless people are probably the most interesting people I’ve ever met. Why anthropologists aren’t living in homeless camps to understand them better is a complete mystery to me.

Before I go on, I want to be very clear… a homeless person is not, I repeat NOT a chimpanzee or a gorilla or a raccoon. I’m not saying that to be politically correct or to be kind to homeless people. If I thought a homeless person behaved more like a chimpanzee than a human I’d tell you so.

The absolute most important thing to understand about homeless people, no matter how many years they have lived on the streets or in the woods, is that they are 100% human. They are every bit as smart as us. They have exactly the same feelings as us. They think, observe, analyze and educate themselves on their society just as much as any other person… maybe even more than the average human. Whatever makes a human innately human a homeless person is exactly that.

In fact, I often think that in some ways they are more human than us people that live in our little wooden boxes and have never spoken to our neighbors. In many ways we have forgotten what it’s like to be community creatures that we truly are at our core. Yet we are completely, entirely reliant on our community. If our life depended on it, most us couldn’t make clothing or dishware or shelter or fire without being supported by supplies made by our community. We couldn’t tell you how a metal coffee mug is made, much less our phones on which we obsess over to the point of addiction. We would be as vulnerable as a naked 3 year old if it weren’t for our complete indebtedness to our community. But yet we don’t know one single thing about the cashier that checks us out repeatedly at the grocery store.

Homeless people know everyone in their community. They know their mental health issues, their addictions, what they like to steal, who they recently ripped off. They know everything about their community members. These relationships are certainly not always healthy or pleasant. But man. When they are good they are good. I just came back from helping two homeless guys move a washer and dryer into a friend’s house. We fuck with each other like we were blood brothers. Indeed, many homeless people will tell you who their street mom is or their street brother is.

For many years I believed that homeless people were the anomaly. I considered them “wild humans.” I am now at the point where I believe it is us that is the anomaly. And if we have any interest in getting back to our core humanity we would do well to spend more time understanding homeless people and why they live the way they live. We all have more “homelessness” in us than we think we do.

I’m setting this all up to tell you that I’m trying a little experiment.

I have just given a homeless man a generator and 5 gallons of gas.

I’ve chained the generator to a tree with a pretty substantial chain and lock. He does not have the key for that lock.

And then I chained his gas can, which I left completely full, to another tree. He has the combination to that lock.

I told him that I will not give him any more gas for the generator. I told him that the more energy he uses the faster the gas will run out.

I made a video describing this:

I don’t have a hypothesis at this point. I’m just interested in seeing what happens. Some questions I have include:

Will the generator disappear? If he cuts it off the tree, which would be no easy task, he certainly won’t admit it. He’ll say someone stole it. But if he could get it free it is certainly worth some money. I know that this person smokes pot and uses meth. I do not know how he prefers to use meth… smoking, or injecting. But I’m not sure it matters. What I do know is that he has a drug habit and is quite committed to it.

Will the gas can disappear? He easily could unlock that and sell it. Or will he forget to lock it up? If it disappears it’s going to potentially be hard to figure out what happens to it. Invariably he will say someone stole it. (But I know a lot of his friends. I probably can get to the truth.)

How long will the gas last? There are 4 gallons in the generator and another 5 in the gas can. If he uses it full blast 4 gallons will last about 8 hours. I’m hoping I can check in on that from time to time. I find that many homeless people have a “Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em” mentality. Mathew Desmond in his incredible book “Evicted” has a powerful observation that poor people aren’t poor because they waste money. They waste money because they are poor.

It’s not wanton spending that makes Larraine poor, though; according to Desmond, it’s poverty that makes her sometimes throw money away. Since there’s no point in even trying to achieve financial stability, people like Larraine “tried to survive in color, to season the suffering with pleasure” — to have a drink, for example, or smoke a little weed.

From here.

Will he stop using the generator once he runs out of gas? I’m really curious about this. Because if he spends money on gas that means he is not spending money on drugs. I have absolutely no judgement about drug addicts. I know for a proven fact that addiction is a disease that changes the brain. I believe he is a true addict. While I haven’t done a brain scan of him to prove this, I’d say he meets many of the criteria of a truly addicted person. So, if he can spend a little money for gas that should say something. I don’t know if he spends money currently on anything other than drugs. He has a phone that is on. So I’m assuming he’s paying for that. I need to ask him about these things.

I really want to know if I can give him just a little bit of hope that will inspire him to use just a little bit of money for the generator instead of spending most of his money on drugs.

Society knows so little about homeless people that they truly believe that all a homeless person is missing is a house. It’s such a shallow and wrong line of thinking.

People are homeless because they have repeatedly crashed through safety net after safety net. They have very good reasons to believe no one loves them or even likes them. So they are in a state of ultimate despair and hopelessness.

To think that the man I gave this generator to is just missing four walls and a roof is embarrassingly ignorant thinking. He’ll never move into a house given his current mindset. Even if a home was given to him for free for life, I would be willing to take a bet that he’d leave that house within 6 months. I see homeless people walk away from free houses all the time.

Ultimately, if he takes care of the generator and continues to fill it with gas, what could we layer on next?

And also, what is the objective with homeless people? I know most of society thinks that everyone wants to live in a shitty little house just like them. But I’m here to tell you, that’s not everyone’s fantasy. I’m seeing more and more people choosing to live in their van or to build a log cabin and live off the grid.

I don’t know what this man wants from his life. But I do know that his life is currently quite brutal and difficult. I would say he would agree that he would like something different than what he currently has.

I’ll keep you up to date on this experiment. We’ll see if it leads anywhere interesting or not.