Gallery Index


We jump forty years ahead now, from the biography of Paul William Martin to the biography of just plain John -- anthropologist Katie Stewart identifies him only by his first name -- firmly pulling our analysis out of the past and in to the present, through we will find ourselves on much less solid terrain.

Unbound by any family or ancestry and unprotected by any permanent shelter or address, we enter John's life just as he is learning what Stewart calls "the sensory labor of living on the streets," capturing in a single stream of raw, ethnographic observations how vulnerable a body can become when it is left to run on empty, getting more and more ragged, more and more beat.


Things accelerate into a life weighted with the buzz of atmospheric fill. Rhythms, sensory habits, gathering materialities rind up into a compositional present. Worlds bloom up, fall apart and leave you standing or, same thing, catch you up and never let you go. A body has to attune itself like a musical instrument to a world’s singular texture and shine.

For John, now, it’s becoming homeless. When he was in high school, he skipped classes to play basketball with the guys even though it often ended in assault suffered. He disappeared at night into the budding neighborhood gang and nothing could pull him back into the something of our household instead. Not even close.

His buddies shaved gang symbols into his hair and painted them down his arms. He got thrown out of school under a no gang tolerance rule. He was arrested for trace amounts of marijuana possession – an event set off by him looking suspicious. And all of that was just the beginning. Take ten steps forward (alternative high schools, Job Corps (kicked out for fighting), the military (fraudulent enrollment for failing to report his marijuana conviction), training and working as a nurse’s assistant (he forgot to bring his ID to the certification test), group housing (kicked out for losing his job and not working his program to get another one), transitional housing he followed someone home to (that didn’t last long). 

Now he’s on the street, learning its sensory labor. The walking, the finding places to sleep, the broken nose from rolling over on a rock, the encounters with the police, the talk – "I’m gonna get a place of my own with Jimmy, I’m gonna get my job back, I'm gonna get myself off the street, I won’t be on the street for long, I give it 90 days. Give me 30 days and then I’ll be back. It’s not as bad as you think." 

He and his running buddy have a fight, split up, then reconnect; the counselor at the homeless shelter gives them the language of watching each other’s backs. Their blankets are stolen. One night when it’s below freezing someone throws a blanket over them while they sleep, wasted. It’s like a miracle.

They find a free city pool that has showers; they swim for hours. He shows me what’s different about him now; he has no hair on the insides of his calves because of all the walking for food -- a church on the East side of town (Wednesdays at 9), some mornings there’s a truck down on the tracks, the Sally serves but everyone hates the Sally, Lifeworks is for the kids; they go there for lunch. He’s had so much milk, no coffee, he’s lost weight from not having enough to eat.

He’s proud of his new shirt -- it’s worth like 20 bucks -- and he took a shower before he showed up on our steps this time. Every time he comes he has forgotten what he said last time, what he was planning. He says he looks good. He says he can’t go into the army because of the ulcers on his feet and the swelling in his testicles. I say you need medical attention; these things can be fixed. Not these things, he says.

Katie Stewart is a professor of anthropology at the University of Texas-Austin. She is the author of two now classic ethnographies, A Space on the Side of the Road: Cultural Poetics in an 'Other' America (Princeton University Press, 1996) and Ordinary Affects (Duke University Press, 2007).