Matt Forney
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Down and Out in Syracuse and Chicago

Is it a testament to how bizarre my life has become that being de facto homeless doesn’t bother me in the slightest?

I’m not kidding you. When I clawed my way into Chicago last week, I had absolutely no place to sleep. The arrangements I’d made had fallen through at the last minute, all the hostels in town were booked solid, and if I could have afforded to stay in the Hilton or one of the nice hotels downtown, I probably wouldn’t be hitchhiking. Sleeping on park benches like a common bum or going to the homeless shelter was out of the question; I went to college, for Chrissakes.

I have standards.

As of this writing, I’ve finally found accommodation, but I went most of last week without a permanent abode. Here’s my quickie guide to high-class homelessness; sleeping, showering and shaving when you’ve got nowhere to go. Note that my advice assumes that a) you’ve got enough money to support yourself and b) that you’re in a city that’s large enough to have cheap, 24/7 public transportation. If you’re in Podunk, Wisconsin, you’re going to be screwed no matter what.

1. Sleeping: go to the airport.

I wouldn’t choose those cramped, uncomfortable terminal chairs over a bed (or even a soft patch of ground), but they’ll do in a pinch if you need some Z’s and camping out is too dangerous. Just show up with your bags, pick a terminal, find a chair and doze off. You’ll be far from the only one: the increased popularity of air travel and the preponderance of late-night flights means you’ll see dozens of travelers splayed out on chairs at your local airport. I’ve slept in air terminals as late as ten in the morning.

The sleep I got from those chairs wasn’t great: I got woken up every 45 minutes for something or other. But it refreshed me enough that I could concentrate the next day.

Note: before you hop on the subway to Midway or JFK, you might want to log on to Expedia or another such site to research departing flights. Pick one that’s leaving in the early morning and remember it. Why? There’s a small but non-zero chance that while you’re napping, you’ll get interrogated by TSA pukes who’ll want to know where you’re going and may even demand to see your ticket. I was questioned two nights in a row last week; the second time, I had to invent a story about how I was a New Yorker waiting on a connecting flight to San Francisco. Both times I escaped unscathed, but I had to beat feet out of the airport the second time at 6:30 in the morning so the flunkies didn’t get suspicious.

If you can, pick a secluded set of chairs to sleep in to decrease the likelihood you’ll be spotted by one of the pigs on patrol. Also, this should be obvious, but don’t sleep in the same terminal every night. Finally, you probably won’t want to sleep at the same airport seven nights in a row; eventually security will put two and two together.

If you’re sleep deprived, you might be able to catch little naps at indie coffeeshops and cafes, the kinds with quirky decorations and big, soft couches. A few times last week, I accidentally dozed off and no one cared or even noticed. I wouldn’t recommend doing it at big chains like Starbucks; at one last week, I watched a guy who nodded off in a leather chair get slapped by an obnoxious black barista. The best time to try and get some sleep at a coffeeshop is when the place is packed, because the employees will be too busy dealing with customers to bother with you.

2. Shaving: use the airport/gas station restroom.

If you’re going to sleep at the airport, you might as well freshen up there too. Like with sleeping, brushing your teeth and shaving at the airport is perfectly apropos; you’ll encounter more than one businessman or high-flying executive doing it in the can alongside you. The best time to take care of your business is late at night (midnight to 5am), when the airport is deserted and the janitors are at work; this will ensure you get maximum cleanliness and don’t run into anyone. Gas stations also work in a pinch, but you’re far more likely to get stares, and hygiene will be an issue.

3. Showering: head to the pool or YMCA.

Virtually all public pools are not only free, they require people to shower off before they’re allowed to enter. Perfect! All you have to do is bring a bathing suit, some towels and soap and you can get clean without spending a dime. Most YMCAs also have showers, but they’re typically only available for members; however, some YMCAs, like the ones in Chicago, offer free day passes to non-members.

If you’re looking for something to amuse yourself with, every city is chock full of free or cheap events, museums and the like. In the specific case of Chicago, Broke Hipster is a great source of low-cost entertainment.

I love running water, air conditioning and soft beds as much as the next guy, but I know how to improvise when I need to. No matter how shitty a situation you may be in, there is always a way out. Shave and shower daily, change your clothes and get some sleep, and no one will be able to tell that you’re in the same situation as the unwashed bum singing to himself by the highway on-ramp.

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