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Running on Empty
The daily beat of life gets interrupted when a separate reality lands in our path, reminding us that comfort and privilege are not necessarily the norm.
I live a few blocks from the Wauwatosa Public Library. Almost every time I’m there, I notice a 1961 Ford Falcon parked in the lot. It’s hard to miss. The car has valid Wisconsin plates but is so badly rusted – roof, hood, doors, trunk lid – you can hardly tell it was once a lustrous shade of aquamarine. 

One day, I saw someone sitting in the driver’s seat. Curious, I tapped on the window.

“My name’s John,” says the guy in the driver’s seat, who’s smoking a hand-rolled cigarette. The back seat is crammed with plastic bottles of water and a wardrobe of clothes stuffed inside trash bags. A frayed blanket is bunched up in the front seat. Unsealed envelopes from the U.S. Social Security Administration and state Division of Motor Vehicles line the dashboard. A plastic pouch of tobacco is at his side, along with a box cutter and a pair of needle-nose pliers, used as a clip to hold his skinny cigarettes. “I only smoke tobacco, nothing else,” he insists, showing me his brown-stained fingers.

John is 56. He’s been homeless for seven years, he tells me. He has emphysema, asthma and arthritis. Yet somehow, he gets by on $800 a month in federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and medical assistance. He used to work in the electronics industry at big-name companies assembling circuit boards. But he lost his job before the 2008 recession and hasn’t worked since. 

His Ford Falcon is his rolling home. He bought it on eBay for $700 on Easter Sunday, 2006. The back window needed replacing, and the engine needed repairs, as did the brakes and fuel system. “By the time I was done, I was sorry I bought it,” he says. But now, it’s the only thing keeping him from sleeping on a park bench. “I don’t do homeless things,” he says, “like take a bath in restroom sinks.”

As I jot down these details, John asks me to not reveal his last name. He might be hiding skeletons in his closet, like everyone else, but he’s candid about his past. He claims he’s never been arrested, and an online search of Wisconsin court filings reveals no criminal record. 

Nor has John ever married. He has no children or close relatives. He was the youngest child in his family, as was his mother in hers. “Everybody up and died on me,” he says. 

Although rootless, he keeps a regimented schedule. On most weekdays, he spends hours inside the Tosa library reading books (recently, Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason), watching YouTube videos on the public computers and sending emails to online friends. He’s given up searching the job postings. His age and poor health make him an unlikely candidate. 

He eats lunch every day at a local McDonald’s, where the coffee is good, the salad is a dollar and the regulars treat him like a friend. “They know I’m homeless, but I never ask them for anything,” he says. “I found a wallet in the men’s room once. I turned it in. I don’t know how much money was in it. I never looked. I didn’t want to know.”

He has others who look out for him. An ex-cop on the South Side lets him crash on his couch when the weather is bad. A mechanic he knows fixes his car and lends him money if he’s short at the end of the month.

John buys his dinners at a Chinese restaurant or the deli counter at Pick ’n Save. He treats himself to a piece of cod on Fridays. And on Sundays, he allows himself the luxury of a motel room. It’s basic, just a bed, a shower and a TV. Even at $25 a night, it’s costly on an annual income of $9,600.

Homeless shelters won’t take him in, he says, because his $800 SSI payments are considered income. On most nights, he sleeps in his car in a cemetery. “The crime, it’s all out there, but in this cemetery, it’s quiet.” He’s allowed to wander the grounds and use the bathroom, John says, and the owner doesn’t mind because the presence of his Falcon keeps away trespassers. 


He was robbed once when his car was in the shop and he was on foot, and beat up on the bus when he lipped off to some punks at the State Fair. He claims he’s been roughed up by Milwaukee cops. But after receiving dozens of tickets for parking, loitering and trespassing, the Milwaukee city attorney’s office has given up on prosecuting him, he says. By watching his back, he’s learned to stay a step ahead of the cops, the drunks and the thugs. 

The biggest hazard is winter. Even in his car, he’s vulnerable. He wraps himself in thick blankets and stuffs thermal heat packets into his socks at night. 

John’s car leaks three quarts of oil each week, an unwanted expense. The seat backs are so badly deteriorated that sharp metal springs jab into his back. Yet he takes pride in the Ford Falcon. Once, when he was parked at the library, a woman opened her car door into his. He cussed her out, and the librarian called the cops. He was banned from the library for a couple of weeks. “People gotta respect other people’s property,” he says. 
He admits to a few vices. He drinks occasionally, usually beer – “as a sleeping aid” – and despite his emphysema and asthma, he smokes. “I enjoy it,” he says. “Stupid, I know. But I can’t quit.”

He’s adapted to nomadic life, but his chances of lifting himself out of homelessness are slim. He can’t get ahead on his monthly benefits. He would be eligible for reduced Social Security retirement benefits in six years at age 62. “But I probably won’t live that long,” he says. 

So he lives in survival mode, resigned to his circumstances. In his day-to-day existence, he gets by hand to mouth. It’s an existence I can only imagine. I’ve grown accustomed to convenience and routine, susceptible to far lesser hardships. Luck of the draw? Twist of fate? The clichés may apply, but they never provide much of an answer. 

John finishes his cigarette and returns to the library. Two winters ago, he was hospitalized with double pneumonia. It weakened his lungs. Walking up and down stairs now makes him dizzy and fatigued. He takes the elevator. 

I check out a few CDs and walk back to my car, an all-wheel-drive hatchback with leather seats and a sunroof. I return to a house that’s comfortable and quiet, bedecked with family photos, artwork and a showroom’s worth of electronic gadgets. I fix myself a sandwich and then revisit my home repair project: painting the dining room. The color is a lustrous green-blue, aquamarine, the original shade of John’s 1961 Ford Falcon.




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