The Random Griffith

Sleeping under the stars

Posted in Uncategorized by Jackson Griffith on 25/01/2010

Cold and rainy is a bad time to be stuck outside in the elements. In my travels around this city, I see a lot of people whose fortunes have taken a sharp turn downward, who are left to fend for themselves. In a sense, I’m one with them, having been out of work for pretty much the entire Great Recession, which — according to the people who track these things — began in December 2007. I’ve been lucky enough to find places to stay, and help from caring people, and I pick up writing jobs here and there (and here’s hoping that, in 2010 and beyond, there will be a lot more of those).

But I now know what it’s like to go without. I now know what it feels like to walk by a restaurant where you see people stuffing their faces with food, when your own stomach is aching and growling and you only have a few bucks in your pocket, but you’ve got to got to stretch those bucks until your next payday, so you eat one meal that day. I now know what it’s like when someone comes up to you and tells you not to lose any more weight, because your face is looking thin and wan, and you want to tell them that everything’s under control and will be okay, but in your mind you’re not so sure it is, or ever will be again.

On the positive side, I dropped some serious weight under this diet. Going into 2009, I weighed 260 pounds. The last time I got on a scale, I tipped it at 190. I’m afraid to get on one again. But if anyone wants to know my secret, I’ll tell you: involuntary fasting. It works, for sure I know now. But really, I’d rather eat than not eat.

See, I’d like to be working. I prefer to work. I’ve worked all my life, and I function better that way. Like my mother and father, I’m a working class guy, and like Merle Haggard has often sung, there’s a lot of dignity in that. As for quiet dignity, I’m clean and sober and smart and kind, and I have a lot of other very positive qualities. But the jobs aren’t out there to be had, or if they are, I just haven’t found one yet. And this isn’t a bunch of mewling self-pity from me; it’s just a statement of fact.

So I ride around the downtown-midtown grid on my bike quite a bit, because some guys in an office tower in North Carolina decided that it was better for me to ride a bicycle than drive, and in that biking I begin to see the same cast of characters day by day. Like Michael, who pushes a shopping cart and curses the heavens. I haven’t seen or heard Michael in a week or so, and I’m guessing most people might be afraid to talk to him, but when I have talked to him, he warms up and smiles. Even the forgotten like to be treated like human beings.

Below is a video for a song I wrote last year, titled “Sleeping Under the Stars.” I was trying to learn three Merle songs to play a Haggard birthday show that local promoter Jerry Perry staged at Old Ironsides last April, and I got inspired to write a song. This is what came out. My friend Josh taped me playing it next to the railroad tracks off Freeport Boulevard near Vallejo Street last spring, when I had a beard and more weight than I have now. We almost got arrested, but the security guard was cool and let us off. I also sang the song at a rally for the homeless at the State Capitol, and when I saw the wonderful experimental pop band DoomBird play last night at Old Ironsides, the group’s Kris Anaya remembered me playing it.


And here are the lyrics, for those of you who like to follow these things.

Always loved that camping life, sleeping under the stars
Until I lost the job I had and soon all I held dear
I lost the house to foreclosure, then they repossessed the car
So I grabbed a bedroll and some things and found my way down here

It’s not so bad, I heard it said, there are ways to survive
It takes a bit of readjustment but you’ll do just fine
Just keep your wits about you, it’s a different world outside
Trust those worthy of your trust, and don’t drink strangers’ wine

I’m sleeping under the stars again tonight
The crickets and the bullfrogs singing like a symphony
Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka are all right
They keep Orion’s toga on while my fortune has come and gone
And that distant train whistle’s song feels sad and warm to me

It used to be you’d have to drink your way down to this place
Yeah, back when jobs were not so hard to come by like today
And now that wrecking crew in Washington’s laid us to waste
Left here in weeds and creosote and gravel by the way

Yet for all the hardships in this life, a man can feel free
But you won’t find me singing “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum”
I still hang on to tattered threads of my integrity
Even if the powers that be now treat me like scum

I’m sleeping under the stars again tonight
The crickets and the bullfrogs singing like a symphony
Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka are all right
They keep Orion’s toga on while my fortune has come and gone
And that distant train whistle’s song feels sad and warm to me

Now, Officer, I know you’ve got to do things by the book
Yes, I know we’re trespassing but we ain’t got no home
Can’t you go arrest those politicians and them Wall Street crooks?
They’re the ones who put us here, please leave us folks alone

And when your shift is done you’ll go home to a nice warm bed
And perhaps to loving arms with enough food to eat
While those of us whose luck has turned will shiver here instead
So won’t you show compassion to the homeless on your beat

I’m sleeping under the stars again tonight
The crickets and the bullfrogs singing like a symphony
Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka are all right
They keep Orion’s toga on while my fortune has come and gone
And that distant train whistle’s song feels sad and warm to me

The city council’s up in arms, the mayor’s all upset
How could this grim scenario come to America?
Where did that thing go that we used to call a safety net?
How did we lose this essential part of our character?

The cameras came, the story made it to the nightly news
The talking heads looked quite concerned as they furrowed their brows
Then everyone moved on to something other than the blues
While those of us still stranded were left praying for safe ground

I’m sleeping under the stars again tonight
The crickets and the bullfrogs singing like a symphony
Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka are all right
They keep Orion’s toga on while my fortune has come and gone
And that distant train whistle’s song feels sad and warm to me

As I said, things are getting better for me, or at least they seem to be. I’m a reasonably talented writer, and I can do a lot of other things, too, and sometime soon, someone will figure out what a worthy addition I will make to their company or organization. But until that day arrives, it’s likely it will remain hit and miss for me like it’s been for the past year.

One thing is certain: I’m forever changed by what I’ve gone through. I just wish I had that pocketful of money to give to the people I meet in my daily travels. Some of them could really use the help. —Jackson Griffith

4 Responses

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  1. folsompathwayssangha said, on 25/01/2010 at 10:16

    Jackson, I experience the same strong desire to do SOMETHING when I pass some poor soul, walking in the rain, covering himself with a soggy blanket. Put him up in my house? Give him money? For the most part, I do nothing. And my heart breaks over and over again.

  2. jaxong said, on 25/01/2010 at 11:12

    It is really tough. I see the same people day by day along the corridor of 21st Street. Some of them are mentally ill, some are chronically inebriated, and some are strung out, the latter the type who get arrested for “aggressive panhandling.” But you would be surprised how many of them are folks you can carry on conversations with, people who try as best to maintain their dignity under difficult circumstances.I wish I had a continually replenished supply of money to pass out and maybe help make some kind of difference. And, yes, it is heartbreaking to witness.

  3. Pat said, on 26/01/2010 at 05:54

    My friend Jackson, you are a beautiful writer, and consequential soul. I wish they would publish this in the Sac Bee.

  4. Amy Reed said, on 15/02/2010 at 13:12

    Love this Jackson.


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