Once again, I had to take my Ram pickup truck to the dealer. This time, it was just to make sure it was OK before the warranty ran out.
And once again, I bought a pack of smokes and went out to talk to the homeless.
The first people I ran into were Mack and Amy. They were sitting on a bench outside the little shop where I bought the cigarettes. They both had bicycles, not an uncommon thing for the homeless around here. Both were on the far side of 65, or at least they appeared to be. But with the homeless, sometimes it’s not the model year, it’s the mileage …
Amy was scratching off the numbers on a lottery ticket. Mack was drinking a beer. But he had it in a clear plastic bottle that said tea on the side … it’s illegal to drink on the street in California.
He and I laughed about that. When he laughed, I could see that he’d misplaced his teeth somewhere. I told him that at 80 years of age, my father-in-law used to fill up his Ensure bottle with vodka, so everyone would think “Hey, that old geezer’s taking good care of his health” …
I asked if they were living on the street. Mack said he was. Amy said “I kind of have a place …” and her voice trailed off. I didn’t enquire further, not polite.
It’s been raining lately. I said “Wrong time of year to be homeless!”
“Sure is”, Mack said, “I never figured I’d end up on the street.”
“Most nobody figures that,” I said. Amy said she’d snuck him in last night where she’d been staying. They were going to try that again tonight.
We talked about how the worst thing the homeless did was to leave trash everywhere. “They ruin it for everyone. I clean it up around here,” Mack said. “The people who own the store leave us two alone because we pick up the junk.” I looked around. It was true … well, mostly. There was still one of those tall 24-oz Keystone cheap beer cans, and a coffee cup. I picked them up and put them in the trash.
I gave Mack and Amy eight cigarettes, told them it was payment for their cleanup work. They laughed again. We exchanged regards, and I kept walking …
Over on the other side of the freeway, I noticed that half of the street that had been full of homeless people last week was empty. But my favorite tent was still up on the other side of the street.
I was standing there admiring it when the owner walked up. I introduced myself and told him I liked his tent. I asked him about the flag.
“I put it on there because I want people to know that we homeless people are still Americans just like they are,” he said. “They look at us like we’re some kind of creatures from outer space.”
After talking a bit more, he said something I’d heard a homeless man say before—“The worst is when they pretend not to see you at all. They walk by and just look at the sky …”
He said “I’ve got a good place here. There’s a nice lady that lives next door.” “Next door” was the shed on the right, the one designed for a dwarf, with a 3 foot (1 metre) high door. But at least it would keep off the rain.
“Plus,” he added, “my ex-wife lives across the street.” Here’s her charming abode.
I asked what had happened to the rest of the people across the street. He said “Two days ago, some guy was beating up on his girlfriend. Then her ex-boyfriend joined the fight, and a bunch of other people wanted in on the fun. Pretty soon the police came and took them all away to jail. Then yesterday the cops came back and chased everyone else out, and removed all their stuff.”
I gave him eight cigarettes, told him it was because he’d somehow kept his pride despite his circumstances. He thanked me. I thanked him.
On my way down the street, I gave the last four cigarettes to a woman pushing a shopping cart. She mumbled a vague thanks, but she didn’t slow down. A woman on a mission.
On my way back to the car dealers, I came across the place where the police had left the possessions of the people they’d moved off of the street. I was surprised to see that their goods seemed pretty much untouched …
A nice sleeping bag in the wagon on the right, a rolled up tent and a chair in the next cart, a couple of bicycles at the far end … there was something infinitely sad about these shopping carts. Each one contained all of someone’s earthly possessions, waiting patiently for an owner who might never make it back. There are plenty of hidden trapdoors in your path when you are living at the bottom. Step on one the wrong way and you might just disappear, with nothing left behind but a shopping cart full of miscellany to show you’d ever existed.
Unaccountably, I was reminded of the haiku of the famous Japanese poet, Matsuo Basho. He once visited a place where a huge, bloody, and very important battle had been fought some years before. When he got there, it was just a big grassy field. He wrote:
of stalwart warriors splendid dreams
Stay well, dear friends, and be thankful for the roof over your head. As Richard Feynman once said in a totally different context, “There’s plenty of room at the bottom” … and as Mack said, “I never figured I’d end up here”.
My best to all,