I asked Buddy why it was so difficult to secure a position as a low-paid third-world volunteer. He explained that, for some reason, there were always more than enough qualified people in the applicant pool, especially during tough economic times. I asked him about Peace Corps pay.
“I don’t care about anything like that. I care about the experience and about helping to change the world. This was my dream. They pay enough so you can live comfortably but not extravagantly — adequate to live in a house by yourself, maybe buy a few books here and there, but not have a TV or anything like that. I’d lived worse than that in Mexico.
“I remember the day — August 26, 2010 — when I stepped on the Amtrak to California with everything I could carry. CDs, DVDs, books. When I got out here, I couch-surfed with buddies in Leucadia and San Clemente while I looked for an apartment.”
Buddy was also looking for a way to kick a nagging Klonopin habit to the curb.
“It was an emergency. I ran out and didn’t know you had to have a scrip on special paper. I’d already jonesed it — cut down for the Peace Corps — from five pills to one a day, but when I tried to quit altogether, I went haywire. The withdrawal was so bad, I couldn’t leave the apartment. Couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t read. Withdrawal was attacking my brain. I went to urgent care, went to a homeless shelter, but no one would help. I incurred a huge hospital bill at Scripps. They wanted to keep me there because of my blood pressure: 190 over 157. ‘Oh, my God,’ they said, that’s basically a stroke.’ ‘Just give me my meds!,’ I said. They put me on an IV, kept me there for two hours, tortured me. Finally gave me a prescription.”
I asked Buddy about his Section 8 neighbors.
“Two are physically disabled. One guy has AIDS. Before that, there were some people of a certain race — an old man who could barely walk and his niece. They would sit and drink King Cobra all day. Other relatives would come over and you’d hear them arguing, fussing, and fighting. On the other side is Ray — disabled with a back problem — grossly overweight, but a liberal like me, so we have a lot in common. Across the way, there’s a woman with some real serious mental illness there. I just stay away. In the back, there’s Tommie, a great-great-grandmother who constantly asks me for money for cigarettes when her disability check runs out.
“It’s not dangerous. But I did hear a gunshot the first week I lived there, and footsteps — like a teenager was jumping over the fence. Someone said a guy had been shot in the alley. There’s constant over-circling of helicopters; the police are absolutely out of their minds over City Heights, especially after one of their own got killed at the end of a car chase on 39th. Also, some cat got stabbed about a year ago. Those are the only things I’ve heard of.”
Police pursuits aside, Buddy seems to enjoy the neighborhood’s polyglot nature.
“It’s the most diverse area of San Diego. I’d canvassed for the SDG&E ‘CARE’ program; I went door-to-door everywhere from 39th Street over to 52nd, and all the way down to Home Avenue. It’s about 3 percent East African, mainly Somalians; 30 percent Mexicans; 15 percent black; and another 10 percent Southeast Asian. The rest is plain old white people.”
Buddy, who beds down in a sleeping bag on the floor, doesn’t have a lot of stuff.
“I have a short list for Target. A pair of sandals, a polo shirt. I get all the books and CDs that I want from the library. But there’s no point in accumulating anything — if I move, I can’t rent a truck, since I don’t have a driver’s license.” But he’s less concerned with possessions than with symbolism. “It’s ironic,” he muses. “My new guard post is in the heart of the beast. I’m at the Union-Tribune — right-wing, conservative Republican power-broker — right there at 3350 Camino Del Rio South — your [the Reader’s] arch-competitor. It’s slow-paced — graveyard shift two days, swing shift another. Mostly, I check badges.”
Is he happy? Citing David Foster Wallace — literary suicide of footnote fame — Buddy tells me that in the posthumously published The Pale King, “Wallace said that happiness is paying attention to ‘second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive.’” ■