She stood amid the streaming rows of traffic at a congested intersection. Ripples of heat distorted my vision as I craned my neck out the window of my car. Bonnie held out her ragged cardboard sign. Large black strokes pleaded “Homeless with children. Please help.” Bonnie was dressed all in black, as if mourning her life. Her faded black T-shirt and pilled, threadbare sweatpants hung on her spare frame. I pulled over and rummaged for change. I had only two quarters in my pocket, but Bonnie seemed eager to procure them. Her speech was rapid-fire. She revealed that she had been homeless since December 1998 with two small children under her wing. Then she played me like a fiddle.
When I first saw Bonnie, I was reminded of the parable of Lazarus the beggar and the rich man: The rich man feasted every night while Lazarus lay outside his gate, hoping to be fed scraps from the table. Lazarus died and was carried off by the angels to the bosom of Abraham. Likewise, the rich man died but was sentenced to eternal fire. In his anguish, he pleaded to Abraham that Lazarus be sent to warn his brothers to change their ways lest they receive a similar fate. “No,” came Abraham’s reply, “they have Moses and the prophets to tell them.” I wanted to get Bonnie’s story, not because I was a holy person but because I feared that I was like the rich man in need of warning. She agreed to meet me the next morning.
We met at a Sav-on drugstore near the Mission Valley intersection where she panhandled. She wore the same dingy black clothes as she had worn the day before and clutched the same worn cardboard sign. She told me she had a 16-month-old son, Jacob, and a 4-month-old daughter, Sara. They were at a baby-sitter’s, since checkout time had come and gone at the motel room she had rented the night before.
She said, “I’m originally from Las Vegas. I lived there with my parents. My dad was on Social Security; he was disabled. He had back trouble, and later, terminal lung cancer. My mom was a housewife. Dad’s dead now. That’s what brought me here.”
“When I was younger, I did some things I shouldn’t have done: partying, drugs. And, well, I was with this girl in a motel and she beat and robbed a guy of his watch. I got out of there quick, but I was the one that got caught. Since I didn’t turn her in, I got a conspiracy charge. I’m no snitch so I ended up taking the blame. They gave me probation, but at the time I was a brat. I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to do and I never completed my probation and ended up doing two years in prison. It wasn’t too bad. It was almost like being at home except I couldn’t go out the gates. My father died two days before I got out. Hospice paid for my trip to the hospital, so I got to see him. He died the next morning. That was real hard.
“We were pretty close. I used to be close to my mom until she met this guy. What happened was, the father of my kid — Clyde — his dad is married to my mom. Clyde and I were dating a long time ago, and I introduced my mom to his dad, Harry. She left my dad for him. We were really tight until she got involved with Harry. She left my dad when I was 20 but was having an affair with Harry since I was 17. That’s when I started doing my thing. I started partying, because I knew they were having an affair. I wanted to tell my dad. I was hurting, but I didn’t know how to confront them. Like I said, she left my dad when I was 20; she disappeared. Me and my dad stayed in Las Vegas, and I guess my mom came here to San Diego.”
Bonnie was released from prison when she was 25. “When my father died, my mom showed up at the prison with all my stuff, without even asking. She goes, ‘I’m bringing you home with me.’ And I’m, like, ‘Why?’ ‘I want to give you a fresh start, a new life.’ I went with her to San Diego, and when I called up my boyfriend Clyde, I found out he was already here.
“We hooked up again, but my mom didn’t like Clyde. I thought she did, but when we started up again, she started not liking him. And Clyde’s dad doesn’t like me. He smoked pot; he’s a bit of a shady character. It’s kind of funny; my mom’s married to Clyde’s father, yet she doesn’t like Clyde. So she threw him out, kind of threw us out of the apartment.” That was December of ’97.
After getting thrown out, Bonnie and Clyde headed north to Hollywood with stars in their eyes. The stars lost some shine after they spent a few nights on the streets while trying to hook up with friends. “We stayed in a shelter for a couple of days. I had to look through a phone book to find my friends. I would panhandle to get a little money to eat. They feed you awful at the shelter. It’s like you’re eating Gravy Train dog food. It’s real bad. I’m not picky; I can pretty much eat anything, but that stuff was bad. The lunches were good, because they gave us baloney sandwiches, but dinner was some gravy stuff, slop. They gave us rice with some meat gravy stuff and it was disgusting. But there were times when we would just eat it.”
Shortly after they moved in with Bonnie’s friends, says Bonnie, Clyde had a fling with one of the women living there. Hurt and angry, Bonnie had a fling of her own. “I took off and stayed with this guy I knew. It was pretty much just a one-night stand. It was a payback thing.” Shortly after that, Bonnie’s mom caught up with her and offered the couple another chance to live with her and Harry in San Diego. Familial tensions prevailed, however, and Bonnie and Clyde were thrown out again.