Directions to the Dumpster

The first time Edward Campagnola answers his phone, he admits he is just about to take a shower, his first in several days.

“Yeah, I’m at the brand new Wellness Center in Santa Rosa,” he says. “I’m literally just about to step into the shower, and when you live on the streets, when you get a chance to take a shower, you take it. But I can talk now if this is the best time, because I really want people to know about this book.”

The interview can wait.

A short 30-minutes later, Campagnola is back on the phone, feeling clean and good, and ready to talk about “Directions to the Dumpster,” his recently-released novel based on his own life experiences, how he came to be unsheltered in Sonoma County, and what day-to-day life is like for a homeless person. Written before COVID, the story would be even more difficult now, he points out, since the homeless have few-to-zero options for keeping out of the way of the virus.

“It’s hard to shelter at home when you don’t have a home, right?” he says. “Some people think about that, but a lot of people don;t, and I get it. We’re kind of invisible, and the virus has just made us more invisible. But I’m hoping people find my book, and get something out of it, because it’s a great story, a really interesting and dramatic story, and there is a message in it that a lot of people have never heard.”

Written mostly in libraries, the book — which was officially released in August 2020 and is now available through his Facebook page, Directions to the Dumpster. The story is so important to Campagnola that, for anyone unable to purchase a copy, he’s offering free e-editions just for asking.

“I didn’t wrote this to make money, though a little money wouldn’t hurt,” he admits. “I wrote it because people need to know what life is like for us. That their assumptions and expectations are not necessarily correct. And that hurts.”

Among those false assumptions, he says, is the notion that all or most homeless people are there because of addiction to drugs or alcohol.

“Truth is, a lot of homeless are not on drugs at all when they end up on the streets,” Campagnola says. “It’s after they end up on the streets that they turn to drugs, because it’s one of the only available ways to find a little self-medication in a truly hard, hard way of life. Same with mental illness. Yes, some folks end up here because they have mental problems, but let me tell you, a little problem can become a big problem when you suddenly have no support and you are hungry, dirty, exhausted and with limited resources.”

Campagnola, who admits he’s always been a reader but only began to tackle writing in the last few years, originally through writing journals about his daily experiences, says that turning himself into a novelist has been one of the best and hardest things he’s ever done.

“You know what’s hard? What’s hard is writing a book and then reading it and realizing how much you could have used a real editor,” he laughs. “I mean, I have sentences that run on for a whole page. I’m hoping people just think that’s artsy, but the truth is, I’m making this up as I go here. So I hope people forgive the roughness of the writing, and just see through it to the story, which is pretty amazing.”

Born and raised in New Jersey, Campagnola had a normal enough life until the death of his wife several years ago, after which he became nomadic, traveling to New Orleans, Houston and Las Vegas. While a passenger on a Greyhound bus from Vegas to California, he was violently assaulted, the result being a crippling PTSD he’s struggled with ever since. The book, named for actual “advice” he is often given when asking someone for help, was written as a kind of self-therapy. The attack on the bus, written in breathtakingly vivid prose, is one of the key moments in the novel.

Campagnola notes that being a writer would be easier if he had a home, a desk and a regular routine.

“I am trying to find housing, and I can afford to pay rent, but not the rents that everyone seems to be charging,” he says frankly, adding, “If possible, I would love to find a permanent residence in Petaluma, if they would be so kind as to have me. I love Petaluma.”

Petaluma, he points out, is a big part of how he ended up finding his way to Sonoma County in the first place.

“I met a woman from Petaluma, in Las Vegas,” he says. “We fell in love and I moved to Sonoma County to be with her. It’s a huge part of Directions to the Dumpster.” In the book, Campagnola details his various experiences as an unsheltered person living throughout Sonoma County. In his next book, many of those stories take place in Petaluma, where he frequently spends time, regularly working as a sign-spinner for Mancini Sleepworld, and routinely eating meals at the Mary Isaacs Center on Hopper Street. He says that of all the towns in Sonoma County, Petaluma would be his top choice for a place to eventually make a home off the streets.

“Unfortunately,” he says candidly, “I’m working with a monthly budget of $1,200, limiting me to a shared situation where $800 is my maximum so I can still, you know, feed myself and pay some other bills.”

While he works on that, he’s devoted his time to writing, and to promoting his book.

Directions to the Dumpster needs support,“ he says. ”Its an important, socially significant story, giving society an idea of homelessness, how it can happen to anyone, and how difficult it is to survive and find a home again, particularly in Sonoma County.”

Campagnola, as mentioned, has already finished a follow-up book, tentatively titled Directions to Mercy Street, and is about to begin what he hopes will be the third and final book in the trilogy.

“I’m going to call it Directions Home,” he says.

“I have no place to shelter in place or write,” he allows. “I lack the resources to complete the novel, in the timely fashion I am capable of. I wrote Dumpster at the library, but libraries are closed. Currently, I write with my phone, by sending myself e-mails. I have a laptop but its at a secure location I have limited access to, and I can’t get there as often as I’d like.”

  1. Originally published at Argus Courier.

An excerpt from Directions to the Dumpster, by Edward Campagnola

Another day in Paradise

The sun is rising, the fog is lifting, the beginning of another day here in paradise, but it’s not paradise for everyone. Rolling hills of grape vineyards, beautiful ranches, with horses or cows grazing in the pasture. This is Sonoma County and Santa Rosa is the hub for the wine and weed business. There is an enormous amount of money in this region, it’s where the Googles come to play in the Russian River and taste the wine at the best wineries in the world. The cost of living is astronomical and many can’t afford it and are not enjoying paradise, like the rest. Here in the North Bay of San Francisco, it is impossible to ignore the enormous amount of homeless people on the streets. Every single one of them, has had an individual, unique and personal journey to where they are now.

We all enter in the same way, created equal, given no orientation, no hand books or how-to guide. We cannot program our GPS for life, there is no map to help us navigate through this experience. Nobody knows why we are here and what we are supposed to do. We all get directions from others to guide us, from the people who are close to us, to wherever that destination might be.

Having freedom, liberty and free will to make our choices brings us to the street of our own choice, and since we made the decisions and choices, we own our destinations. When others’ imposed will dictates the ownership of our journey, we may not own it, but in that case we must still live with it. Every one of us is given different directions, none of us knows what the destination is, and we hope to own the directions and place on Happy Street.

This story is about the directions that led to the streets that have no name.

This is a place nobody wants to go to and nobody asks for these directions. The directions to these streets can be tougher to accept and handle than the street itself. No matter who we get them from, no matter how bad they are and how much we protest the wrong turns, we arrive and we have only ourselves to find our way back home.

Those that gave these directions are impossible to find at this destination, which will leave you sad, lonely, and searching for new directions. On these streets, most would tell you, they aren’t having fun or finding happiness. It’s a hard life, none of the comforts of life most people enjoy exist out on these streets. The people on these streets are constantly in harm’s way, their well-being is not secure and constantly at stake. They are judged, defined, persecuted, punished and misunderstood. They are targets for the label-obsessed society we live in, labeled as bad, lazy, drug addicts or mentally ill but that’s not always the case.

Getting out of the situation is next to impossible without the love and support of family, friends and society, who can give the directions back home, to Happy Street.

Out of the dissipating fog rides a man on a bicycle.

His name is Eddie. They call him, “Fast Eddie” on the street. He’s been on these streets for five years. Riding his bicycle on the avenue, his headset on, playing U2, “Where the Streets have no Name,” just like these streets. The music continues in his ears, as he rides fast on his bicycle past the homeless camp the County Sheriff’s Department is closing down. Finishing up with the night’s work, they are removing the people. It’s either moving day or jail for them. Left behind are their piles of former life belongings, clothes, pictures, whatever they had in their camp, now a pile of garbage to be gone through by other homeless.

The homeless are the favorite target for police. They are easy and everyone on the street has, at one time or another, been engaged by them.

“Fast Eddie’ has, so, he moves fast by them.

Eddie is unique on these streets. To start, he grew up in New Jersey but has traveled the country and spent significant time in several states. Over the last ten years, since his wife passed away, he’s been exercising and exploring his free spirit, even exploiting it.

Eddie hates labels and would deny he’s any that are placed on him. He’s a happy-go-lucky guy, slightly autistic and neurologically impaired, a worry wart, like Atlas, he carries the weight of the world on his shoulders. He prefers to live and let live, and love one another, but has strong beliefs and he doesn’t shy away from letting them be known. He’s an activist for anything he thinks is a righteous and just cause. He stands up for what is right and selflessly puts himself out in the process, which has cost him. He doesn’t like to be serious, if he doesn’t have to. Always trying to make life fun, he maintains a great sense of humor and can definitely be misunderstood.

With exceptions, he has some firm beliefs he won’t compromise. One of them is authorities. He exercises his rights and they find that he is difficult to prosecute. He’s different in a lot of other ways, as well. He doesn’t steal, rob or take from anyone or any store, as some out here do, and he’s had all his belongings stolen ten times over.

He cleans up after himself and never leaves a mess, he encourage others to do the same. He’s considered weird by these streets, but those that know him, like “Killer Pat,” will tell you the truth.

“From what I seen and know, out here, on these streets, Fast Eddie’s not weird at all,” says Killer Pat. “I know him for a few years, and we hung around that internet café and casino. They all think he’s weird ‘cause they see he cleans up after himself. He even keeps his cigarette remains and any candy wrappers in his pocket until he finds a garbage can. He does the right thing, all the time, never f—s anybody and will help you if you need help. Once I saw him carrying some old ladies’ groceries down the Avenue and up the three story buildings stairs to her door. He gives the police no reason to engage him. I see him work hard, he got several part time jobs. He waves a sign for that mattress store on the avenue and caters part time. He’s a referee, yea, he officiates sports but not as much as he once did. In my opinion, ‘Fast Eddie’ is a righteous brother, once you get to know him.”

David Templeton writes for the Argus Courier. Read other articles by David, or visit David's website.