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Homeless Depot Dispatch and Bushwa

No Homeless Here: Tiny Town Rhiner's Jungle is Home

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Tiny Town, USA – Life in Tiny Town increasingly resembles a song with lyrics that sound like one thing and mean another. The melody is clear, but the message changes. Words that told a certain story become nonsense or sounds of nonsense become a story plainly told. 


How surprised are we at TinyTownTimes to discover something we thought was one thing is actually quite another. 

The Jungle, for instance. Are the folks on this spit of no man's land fearful of getting kicked out? Not on a warm September afternoon when the beer is flowing. Billy hails us from the tracks with an invite to powwow at the camp.

A party of five are seated and we chat about the encampment, about other camps down the tracks by the fish ladder, who is dead and who's out getting dead drunk somewhere with someone. The day before, Billy got a boat ride on the lake with a friend who had lots of beer.


"Have you seen those rich houses on the lake? Unbelievable." 

There are two memorials at the camp. One for Ray, who died in his tent in the woods down the tracks apiece two or three years earlier. The other is for someone named Susan. "Everybody miss you," it says on the corpus of a stick crucifix. 


A melancholy drowse pervades the little encampment. Stephen Foster seeps up out of the ruined foundation where we sit: "All the world is sad and dreary; everywhere I roam."

Or is it "sad ...  everywhere I go?" I suppose we could Google it and find out. But if it is "Go" as opposed to "Roam" then the feeling is blurred. "Go" is to get to; "roam" is to wander. We thought we knew these things by heart. 

Any poignancy is an illusion, of course. There are fights here. And disease. As the memorials testify, there is death.

"I like it here," says Billy, who lives here year round. "It's a good place."

He adds that the "black sheep" who were giving the place a bad name earlier in the summer are gone. They were the most transient of transients. Without strict rules, exactly how they were evicted from the camp remains unexplained, but they are gone. 

Billy is pretty consistent for a hop head. He says he loves Ithaca and the people here. But when the city started murmuring about evicting folks from the encampment by fining Norfolk and Southern, who own the property, Billy was talking of heading up to a place called Unity Acres near Oswego.

According to the Unity Acres site, the place is something of a Big Rock Candy Mountain for the down and out. Now Billy's talking about hanging here through another winter. He camped through last year's bitterest weather without much complaint. He spends his days downtown, often sitting in the DeWitt Mall, reading a book. His campmates kid him about his reading and we joke that he's the Jungle's Librarian. 


A little further down the tracks is Randy. We've met before when he's come by the TTT offices for collectibles. He's got a nice spot on the waterfront and a quartet of quacking ducks he feeds with corn.

Randy leads us to the slug-infested camp garden; the Brussels sprouts have taken a beating. But there are a coupla hardy tomato plants and some squash. It's a community garden and everyone shares. A white cat trots up the path. Randy bends to give her a skritch.

There was an all-black cat named Pitch at the other site. 

When asked how he deals with skeeters Randy says,

"I swat 'im."

He fishes for bullhead off a concrete piling. Some times he catches none, some times too many. 

As with any social groups, there are divides. Randy doesn't consider himself a drunk or a wastrel. Or even homeless.

He mentions that some of the others in the previous camp, like Billy, are on DSS. But Randy says he works when he can and collects bottles to subsidize his needs. He also says he's not a drunk although he likes beer and refers to another bottle collector we mention as "an alcoholic." 

Another member of the camps passes down the tracks and waves. There is a friendly exchange and he moves on.

Later, Randy's campmate Devon shows up on his bike. All is cool with the TTT crew being there. 

It would be too easy to think these folks have created an alternative bum's utopia for societal drop-outs.

The situation is way more complex than a quick read will offer to the curious.  But the people of the Jungle are three-dimensional and while they play an old tune, the lyrics are different.

Different now, even, than they were at camp yesterday. 

However we choose to describe this group of outsiders, after an hour at the camp, we at TTT are hard-pressed to call them homeless.

The Jungle is their home. 

– C. Penbroke Handy


As an after note we'd like to say we are not really keen on the upcoming event "Ithaca's Wild West End Waterfront District 'Rhiner' Festival " (Sat., Sept. 19).
For one thing, the organizers are charging money. Oh, sure, there'll be lots of cute stunts and some fun stuff for the kids. But Tiny Town is getting just a tad precious about itself these days. A little over-organized, you might say. Too quick to toot its own little tin horn. 

Take the Porchfest thing for one. A feel-good event now has a map and directions. For feck's sake. Can nothing be spontaneous any more? This has become a city of den mothers and soft, fretting fathers. 

For another thing, people like Billy and Randy live there. Oh, not where the festival will be held, Allah forbid it. So attendees will be spared any of the yucky stuff about living "down by the Rhine" as the area near the Jungle once was known.

Last Updated on Thursday, 17 September 2009 10:18

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