They sat just outside the fence at Thorpe Bark Park — 6 feet apart, as per social distancing norms — on a brilliant spring morning, and, like any old friends, their eyes met often and their gestures seemed somehow syncopated as the conversation leisurely unspooled.
They traded slow nods and grunts of agreement, smiles of recognition at anecdotes both recalled and half-forgotten, and, above all, laughter shared and spontaneous.
Cathy A. Small and Ross Moore, 12 years into their unlikely friendship that began at this very spot, talked of old times, good and bad times, recounting their first meeting and so much that came after, and how this whole swirl of fortune led to a joint book project that consumed six years of their lives and went to the heart — and origin — of their lasting bond.
“I still think it’s crazy — and maybe she’s a little crazy — for wanting to do this,” said Moore, first circling his index finger around his left ear and then pointing at Small across the way, adding a guffaw for good measure. “I’m still not too sure all this is happening.”
It most certainly is. That book, “The Man in the Dog Park: Coming Up Close to Homelessness,” written by Small with assistance from Moore and researcher Jason Kordosky, recently was published by Cornell University Press. So, yes, it is a reality, as solid as the heft of this hardcover with the silhouette of a bearded man, shoulders slumped in a half parenthesis, holding the leash of a dog whose head is quizzically cocked.
Moore is that man, homeless and living in the woods around Flagstaff at the time of his fortuitous meeting with Small, an anthropology professor at Northern Arizona University and author of two previous books of embedded, richly researched reportage, spending three years in a Tongan village for one book and a year in a freshman dorm for the other.
But on that chilly winter morning in 2008, when Moore came to Small’s aid to break up a canine spat in the dog park, Small had no inkling that the encounter would lead her to a decade-long deep dive into the issue of homelessness, using Flagstaff as a microcosm. Nor could she have envisioned that she would forge such close ties with Moore, observing as he and his wife went from living in the woods, to shelters, to temporary motel rooms to where they are now, in HUD-subsidized housing.
A book seemed a natural offshoot. Small is, after all, a veteran cultural observer and writer. But it took six years of friendship before she even broached the idea, and then another few years for Small and Kordosky to accumulate scores of interviews with people experiencing homelessness, and for Moore to assist Small in adding context and nuance to narrative seeking to explain and illuminate a systemic problem deeply rooted in society.
“It was our relationship that drew me into things,” said Small, 70, and now an emerita professor at NAU. “We’d be talking and he’d say, ‘I like it in the woods,’ and I’d say, ‘Well, where do you get food? Where does this come from and that come from?’ The more I got into it, the more I thought it should be something that should be told.
“But I said to him a lot of times, ‘Ross, I don’t know if this is going to turn out to be a book.’ I didn’t know myself.”
A different lens for homelessness
The result, despite the circuitous path to publication, is a compelling, cohesive and exceedingly thorough look at all aspects of the homelessness issue, combining scholarship with the personal narrative of Small and Moore’s relationship and a glimpse at Moore’s own odyssey from Vietnam veteran to homelessness to now, at 67, being settled and living what he calls “the good life.” The book’s tone, mostly, is academic, yet accessible.
Through interviews and anecdote, as well as solid reporting on the challenges and systemic barriers affecting a significant chunk of the population, “The Man in the Dog Park” could serve as a corrective to the two-dimensional depiction of homelessness often depicted in the media and pop culture.
Along the way, Small shattered many misconceptions, opining that homelessness often is not “caused” by “character flaws” -- rather, she shows the “unequal playing field” at work, how a combination of personal and structural forces can lead to a “slippery slope” that can send those living paycheck to paycheck spiraling into debt and indigence, and how mental-health issues often can be a consequence, not a cause, of homelessness.
As Small writes in the book, “Part of the problem when you meet a homeless person is that there is no personal history. There is a tired face, or an alcoholic gaze, or an injured presence that makes you either turn away or offer spare change. … You don’t know what this person looked like as a child. Or what his mother did for the community, or how well he could sing, or where his family lived.”
Such personal details saturate the work — both Moore’s own story and in interview with others around Flagstaff.
'Crossing boundaries of the familiar'
And Small also gives readers glimpses into the inner workings of the homeless economy that many with roofs over their heads and steady jobs with insurance coverage never encounter and could barely fathom. Through interviews and observation, the reader is thrust into the grim and unreliable daily toil of day labor, observes the ins and outs of dealing with pawn shops and the inherent usury therein, is introduced to novels ways of earning money, such as plasma donation, is schooled in the often predatory practices of pay-day lending and learns the culture and protocol of panhandling.
Just as Small immersed herself in the “giving” economy and ethos of a Tongan village, and how she shed her professorial robes to gain a better sense of her students’ lives, so too does she take a similar approach in “The Man in the Dog Park.”
“It’s crossing boundaries of the familiar,” said Small when asked what knits together her three books. “When you do that, it not only opens your mind about the world you’re going into, it opens your mind about your own world.”
Small, initially, was curious about Moore’s world. He says she showed a genuine interest in him as a person, period — not merely as an example of “the homeless population” — but it took time, years even, before the two could really open up with each other and Moore felt comfortable enough to tell his story in searing detail and help add context to others’ struggles.
It takes an open-hearted person with time and patience to pierce people’s protective shell, and Small has shown in her work such qualities. She is a fascinating combination of a Buddhist adherent’s cultivated empathy (she teaches meditation in town and also offers Buddhist classes at the county jail) with a native New Yorker’s inherent assertiveness.
Short and petite, and dressed as if headed for a hike, Small might not initially project a steadfastness that would enable her to delve into the vagaries and vicissitudes of homeless life. But her toughness is evident both in her thick New York accent, seemingly undiminished after 32 years in Flagstaff, and in her fierce protectiveness of Moore and others she has met and befriended during the project. Her worry is that people, mostly the media, will exploit the stories of the homeless, present that cardboard-cutout portrait of either a person to be pitied or feared. It’s much more nuanced that that, she insists.
Yet, in an interesting reversal that is one of the more compelling tropes in the book, it is Small whose assumptions are upended and whose behavior is changed in her dealing with Moore. Moore, who sports a flowing gray beard that would make Santa Claus envious, may not have Small’s years of schooling, but he bears street smarts that taught the professor a thing or two. For instance, Moore exudes patience and restraint, and wields a calm forbearance, in dealing with governmental bureaucracies that could test anyone’s civil demeanor.
One day, early in their relationship, Small and Moore were chatting at a picnic table at Thorpe Bark Park when a police officer in a cruiser pulled up in the parking lot. The officer walked directly to where the two were seated. The officer asked Moore, “You live in the neighborhood?” While Moore played it cool, Small recalls “scouring my own arsenal of middle-class capital for the right thing to say.” Small writes that she panicked and started chattering but that Moore remained composed and, eventually, the officer moved on.
Moore was accustomed to being “profiled,” but Small was not. The teacher of Buddhism learned a lesson herself that Moore had long since internalized: that one needs to sometimes play the game and pick their spots when dealing with authority.
Though Small did not delve too deeply into Moore’s backstory in the book, and chided a reporter for asking about it during an interview, Moore had no qualms speaking about how his life unfurled before coming to Flagstaff in 2003 and sleeping in the woods. He had what he calls a typical middle-class childhood in San Rafael, in Northern California. He joined the Navy as teen, did three tours of duty in Vietnam. It was there, he said, that “the activities in Vietnam shaped my life. I kind of lost myself in all the chaos.”
Upon returning to California, Moore said he was “on what they call full tilt. I had messed up and did a few things I shouldn’t have done if I had been in the right frame of mind.” Those mistakes included a prison term for burglary.
“I’m not really ashamed of anything that happened (to me),” Moore said. “It made me who I am. My thing is, I’ve spent my life keeping a low profile. You learn to do that on the street, otherwise you run into problems. That’s been incorporated into my life. I’d rather be locked in my apartment listening to my stereo rather than being among people, anyway. I’m learning not to be as anti-social.”
He delivered that last line with a hearty laugh that jiggled the paunch underneath his plaid flannel shirt. Small, leaning in from across the grass, shook her head and laughed, as well. Just like old times, the two shared a moment of camaraderie. Though much has changed in their circumstances, including what Moore calls this “crazy book,” the two remain as close as ever.
Sam McManis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (928) 556-2248.
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