"Over here, by the cab stand, I have been eating ice cream cones, candy bars, and burritos and a little bit from the Saint Vincent de Paul shelter. I do this alternately to have a little energy; otherwise, I would have landed at the hospital."
Does she have a medical condition?
"No, I don't. I just need calories to get around and go to the bathroom at the shelter when it's not locked up."
And what will she do for Thanksgiving dinner?
"At one o'clock I will be going to Saint Vincent de Paul's shelter, and I will be helping out in the kitchen."
Can I ask how she came to be homeless? "No, I'd rather not say." Apropos of nothing in particular, she tells me, "At church, I walk upon my knees many times to receive my Savior, and I say the Rosary. I pray to Saint Odelia many times."
Adam Mount, Corey Nowak, and Andrew Olson are Marines. "We're just kind of wandering around downtown, staying in the hotel all weekend, 'America's Best,' " Mount tells me. The Marines are, respectively, from Omaha, Nebraska; Chicago, Illinois; and Minneapolis, Minnesota. The young men will be going to Iraq "in a few months. We're training right now. Infantry training. We've all been in about six months now. We'll graduate in a couple of weeks and then go to the fleet." Mount is the spokesman for the most part, but Nowak and Olson contribute. When asked how they feel about going overseas, Olson says, "We're nervous, but we all knew what we were getting into going in." And this is a good thing we're doing there? Nowak doesn't hesitate: "Yeah."
The few and the proud list their priorities for the day as "Food, football, and women. We're always looking for a few good women."
A young Latino couple, Mark Morelos and "Just Marie," 36 and 32, found out two weeks ago that they were pregnant. "We don't know if it's a boy or a girl yet." They live in Chula Vista and have spent the morning at a casino in East County. Seated at one of the concrete benches waiting for the Orange Line home, they had been discussing their wedding plans. They have been a couple since April. Though invited to friends' for dinner, Marie says she expects it will just be the three of them for a quiet dinner at home. The three of them? "Isabella, I think," says Marie.
A man, who looks to be in his 50s, more or less my own age, is off by himself, his back to the tracks. He wears a baseball cap the old-fashioned way and has a small khaki backpack draped over one shoulder. He is reading a paperback novel, The Fourth Hand, by John Irving. He is civil and articulate but does not wish to be interviewed and does not give his name.
"How's the book?" I ask.
"Just started it. I picked it up because of the opening quote the guy uses. It's one of my favorites from Stuart Little."
The quote: "...a person who is looking for something doesn't travel very fast." -- E.B. White.
His plans: "None."
Nancy Heryla, descending in her motorized wheelchair from the wheelchair lift off the Orange Line train, is 54 years old. She has a couple fingers missing from her left hand and most of her legs have been amputated. She is to meet her friend David at the nearby Starbucks at Tenth and Market. I ask if I can join her; she agrees and accepts a cup of coffee. Her voice is constantly at the verge of breaking -- rising, crying. Her name and age are established, and the next thing that is later comprehensible on the interview tape is:
"I have a lot more operations comin'. I'm tired of the pain; I'm tired of the letdown. I have sutures comin' out. Go figure, three and a half years later. It oozes, lookit." She demonstrates by lifting an empty shirtsleeve, or possibly it's a pants leg; I'm looking with one eye, though I don't mean to.
Her friend David joins us and tells me that Heryla is "paying $450 a month for one room in a three-bedroom home which is an inappropriate place to be because there are activities in there..."
"No, don't talk about that," she tells the man. In his 70s, David Ross is known among the homeless in the area as "Motown" because of his Detroit origins or "the Waterman" because he distributes cases of bottled water nightly to those on the streets in "Skid Row," nearby, where there are no public water fountains within a dozen or more city blocks.
"She gets $800 a month from state disability," he says. "How do you get back and forth to hospitals? She has to get hooked up, some sort of accommodations from UCSD, a shuttle or something. The woman's immobile."
Heryla's mobility is only part of her physical problems. Her speech is somewhat distorted as a result of a form of toxic shock syndrome she incurred due, in large part, doctors speculate, to exposure and other unknown factors. For some time, a flesh-eating bacterium was suspected because the disease acted similarly on her face, limbs, and other body parts, leaving eroded holes that have since healed, though she needs plastic surgery and a mouth reconstruction that poses several technical difficulties. All of this is expensive and out of the question for this woman. These problems, stemming from homelessness, dated after a devastating fire that took the lives of both her sister and mother.
As I talked with Nancy Heryla while she waited for the Orange Line at the trolley station, it became clear that hers was a story requiring far more space than could be allowed here. When the train arrived, she boarded the wheelchair lift with practiced movements and was lifted onboard. When I asked her how she might pass the rest of the holidays, her answer was more or less along the lines of sitting or lying in her room and dreading the next need to use the bathroom down the hall, an effort that would leave her exhausted. Ross has since found a portable toilet for her that partially alleviates the situation but not entirely. "I can't even get out to see the Christmas lights," she said, and this precipitated another weary bout of tears. As the train headed south toward her home, such as it is, in Chula Vista, where she was recently beaten by a man who lived there (he was subsequently arrested), I was relieved.