If you think of the homeless at all -- aside from how to avoid them or that daily mini-moral crisis as to whether to give them spare change or not -- it may strike you that these people must have certain ingenious secrets as to how to keep warm on the streets at night. Yes, it is San Diego, not Buffalo, but it can get cold enough at night. During the rainy season, the combination of wet and chill can prove deadly to the old, the sick, and those with the alcoholic circulation of dried pickled beets.
One homeless man whose name I never knew though I told him mine (I figured if he wanted to give me a name he would) "lived" in my former neighborhood in University Heights. I'll call him Eddy. He was fat and had an old dog that followed him up and down the alley behind my apartment; Eddy, waddling from Dumpster to Dumpster, the dog trailing, tired but protective. Eddy found a tiny wooden structure beneath a tree, built to stack old newspapers for recycling and to keep them out of the rain. Just a plywood roof and a warped wooden floor, Eddy had gathered odd pieces of old pine paneling and cardboard to seal the sides. I thought that was resourceful but wondered how long he could "live" there without the apartment owners or cops rousting him. What was more interesting to me was Eddy's constant reading of paperback books.
His taste in books was hard to explain: romance novels, Tom Clancy thrillers, a biography of David Niven, science fiction novels with stripped covers, true crime books and, I remember, a collection of Christmas horror stories he was reading in the dead of August. I rarely saw him without a thoroughly thumbed paperback -- never hardcovers -- in front of his face or stuffed into his back pocket. I started to give him books I no longer wanted.
Eddy accepted all of them with a cursory thanks and tossed them into his shanty cubicle. There could only have been enough room in there for himself, possibly the dog; what did he do with all those books? I asked him, but he wasn't the conversational type. Once he said to me, "Elmore Leonard is good." I had given him Cat Chaser by that author and later, several other titles.
Once, after a beer run, I offered him a can of Milwaukee's Best, but he wouldn't take it. I invited myself to sit next to his dog and cracked one myself. He didn't mind. I must have had a few beers as we talked about books (his favorite was Stranger in a Strange Land) before I said, "Well, you don't look like you're starving or anything," and I laughed. He didn't.
"Yes," he said, "I can't exactly do Slim Fast all the time, but I can buy two Big Macs at 89 cents apiece and I can get day-old doughnuts free." I was sorry I made the crack and changed the subject back to books.
"What do you do with all those paperbacks?"
Instead of saying anything he pointed to his cubicle, and I peered in. Taped, tacked, and even stapled against the walls and ceiling were torn book covers with maybe 50 pages of text between the covers and the walls. The tiny room, exactly the size of a large doghouse, smelled like dog.
"Insulation," he said, and then ran his fingers over some glossy covers. "Helps when it rains out. Keeps it a little drier in here. The covers are sort of waterproof, and I look at them and I remember the stories."
I walked down that alley recently and Eddy was gone, the walls and books stripped away to make room for recycled newspapers once again.
* * *
Along University Avenue, between Vermont and Richmond, I see three men nearly every day: an odd trio of the dispossessed. It is between Christmas and New Year's, a cool, humid Sunday, and the three are gathered in front of Servall Market. One man is in a wheelchair; one man, the youngest, is black and seems to be huddling into a thin, green coat. The third man has long, dirty brown hair and just wears an oversized, multi-colored, striped, unlaundered T-shirt, though he doesn't seem to feel the slightest bit chilly. He looks like one of the Beach Boys gone to seed.
None of them flinch from the tape recorder or ask me for money as I approach and introduce myself. The man in the wheelchair has a huge, dirtily bandaged foot, no teeth, and a set of scabs and stitches along his forehead disappearing into his hairline. I estimate his age in the late 60s, but he tells me he is 52. "My name is Keith Harold Ruston, and I'm fuckin' proud of it," he says. "Not to be mistaken with anyone else. And everyone else with that exact spelling is blood kin."
I point out that I see them on the street quite a bit. "Homeless is the word you're lookin' for," says Ruston. "I'm sittin' on my home."
"Where do you sleep?"
"Wherever I want." Ruston speaks with a kind of battered arrogance, his head high, creating the illusion that he is looking down his nose at me although he is in a wheelchair.
I ask Ruston, "How do you keep warm at night?"
"I have two blankets and I also have a coat." I see that the blankets he is sitting on are filthy and thin; the coat is a lightweight, ancient raincoat that at one time might have been fashionable. He pats the arms of the chair. "This is my house."
"Do you find yourself freezing some nights?"
Ruston grimaces with disgust as if that's the least of his concerns, but Robert, huddled into his thin army-issue green coat, says, "I do. I ain't got no blankets; all I got is this." He indicates the garment, which I now realize functions for the purpose of handling toxic waste and gases. Such garments are usually worn with gloves and a gas mask; they are meant to be disposable. An artist friend of mine wore one when he painted. I point this out and Ruston laughs, exposing his upper gums. "Cool," he says. "Yer wearin' toxic waste!"