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BOOKS & THE CULTURE Homeless in Austin BY STEVEN G. KELLMAN TRAVELS WITH LIZBETH: THREE YEARS ON THE ROAD AND ON THE STREET. By Lars Eighner. 288 pages. New York: St. Martin’s. $19.95 WHEN I BEGAN this account I was living under a shower curtain in a stand of bamboo in a public park.” The first sentence of Lars Eighner’s extraordinary new book echoes nothing so much as the opening to one of the classics of American literature: “When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only.” Henry David Thoreau’s experiment in selfreliance consisted of building a sylvan home and living there for two years, alone, deliberately. Eighner did not choose to be dispossessed, but he and his dog Lizbeth spent three years without a home. Travels with Lizbeth is an account of their experiment in living life deliberately, on the road and on the street. It is written with uncommon clarity, grace, and wit, all the more compelling for the muddled world of cruelty and indifference to which it bears limpid witness. Eighner worked as an attendant at the Austin State Hospital for seven years before a conflict with his employers obliged him to resign or be fired. “I had always been in trouble at the asylum, for the humane published policies of the institution conflict with the abusive habits of some of the staff, and I often found myself in an unpopular position,” he explains. Unable now to pay rent, he was not very popular with potential landlords. Because he had quit his job, he was ineligible for unemployment compensation. Because of the recession and because he lacked credentials, he could not find another position. Because he was not already on public assistance,, he could not receive public assistance. Eighner’s odyssey began. It took Odysseus 10 years to get back home, Eighner three to find one. He currently Steven G. Kellman teaches comparative liter ature at the University of Texas at San Antonio. shares an apartment in Austin with Lizbeth and a human roommate. In the summer of 1989, when Eighner found that the blue sky was his new roof, he set himself three rules: No matter how desperate, he would not steal, panhandle, or relinquish his dog. Believing that the grass might be greener in the Golden State, he set off for California in the naive hope of being hired by a magazine that had published a few of his stories. Some of Eighner’s most vivid prose recounts his journey, by thumb, from Austin to L.A. Relying on the kindness of strangers, man and dog also encountered their crudeness. Tucson, where the pilgrims, stranded four days without a ride, were robbed and derided, is singled out as hell for the homeless: “I recalled an anthropology professor I had studied under once, who in proposing a list of cultural universals cited the duty to aid the wayfarer as a common aspect of desert culture. He had never, I supposed, been to Tucson.” Yet Southern California is not much more hospitable. Eighner finds brief employment writing scripts for adult videos, but he and Lizbeth are soon back on I-10, sharing the road to Texas with assorted saints and psychotics. In Austin, they take up serial residence in Shoal Creek and Adams Park and on the porch of a foreclosed bar named Sleazy Sue’s. They face serious challenges from fire ants, dysentery and enlightened officials who admit only three explanations for homelessness drug addiction, alcoholism and psychiatric disorder. “To be poor is to be subject utterly to the agents of the law,” writes Eighner, who, forced to seek medical relief -for clotting in his leg, must fight to free himself from the licensed sadists who lock him up in their hospital and treat him as if he were a junkie, a wino, and a loony. On an equally harrowing occasion, he rescues Lizbeth from extermination by a local society that calls itself humane. “A homeless life has no storyline,” writes Eighner, whose book is richer in observation than narrative. Home is the meridian that endows digression with direction. Without a fixed abode, Eighner drifts, but his text acquires structure from themes more than from events. The most memorable section of Travels with Lizbeth is the author’s disquisition on the art of scavenging. First printed in The Threepenny Review and then in Harper’s, the chapter he titles “Dumpster Diving” has already become something of a publishing legend, even as it has added a pungent phrase to the language. Eighner, who describes himself as “uncommonly stout,” sustained himself and Lizbeth by periodic forays into industrial-sized trash bins that, though often locked in Los Angeles, provide a public pantry in Austin. “Dumpster diving has serious drawbacks as a way of life,” he warns, specifying botulism among them. However, with the same shrewd scrutiny he applies to everything else, Eighner learns to glean enough safe edibles to be able to donate his own surplus to the city food bank. He also acquires clothing, radios, calculators, and even a personal computer. Patrolling the streets surrounding the university, he learns to live by the academic calendar, culling his richest harvests when students are discarding and departing. Eighner battens on the garbage of a pizza parlor that regularly abandons boxes of hot unbought pies. Eighner is not dissuaded when jalapeflos begin to blanket the pizzas he retrieves. “If indeed this was meant to discourage me,” he says, “it was a wasted effort because I am a native Texan.” Dumpster diving is a tribute to the profligacy of a consumer society in which more is thrown away than consumed. In a culture of abundance where nothing but appetite is encouraged to last, Eighner is a renegade recyder, a throwback to the frugal philosophy of Thoreau. “I think of scavenging as a modern form of self-reliance,” he writes. “In any event, after ten years of government service, where everything is geared to the lowest common denominator, I find it refreshing to have work that rewards initiative and effort.” Eighner insists that he is no spokesman for the homeless and that he did not make a point of congregating with other vagrants. But his book speaks eloquently for the perils and pleasures of living by one’s wits. An endearing demonstration of harmony between human and canine, it is also a powerful indictment of human indifference to colleagues in the species. Homelessness is a metaphor for many authors and songwriters who, like Paul Simon, wish they were homeward bound. For Lars Eighner, it was a daily reality for three years. Perhaps indeed there’s no place like home. Eighner’s exquisite prose proves that there’s nothing like homelessness to concentrate the mind. THE TEXAS OBSERVER 17