Photo by Robert Burroughs
Crossing to St. Vincent’s main entrance, I spot a familiar face in the meal line: the black fellow I stayed with in Balboa Park two nights before. Uncle Remus’s companion, the quiet man.
Twirling like a leaf in the breeze, just released from the top of a birch, I float down from one world to another. My eyes flutter open.
Where am I? Oh, yes. Embarcadero Park. Another night on the streets drags to its end. What am I doing here? I take a deep breath. Rub the sleep from my eyes. The last three days come back to me in a rush. As do my motivations. To find truth. To learn of homelessness by living as a homeless person. Three days and three nights on the streets. I’ve barely scratched the surface. There’s more to learn.
Food at God's Extended Hand looks and tastes much the same as the food served at St. Vincent de Paul’s.
A clanging trolley bell punctuates another volley of noise from the ferry, both helping to direct my mind’s attention. I am confronted with the day’s task. No time to waste. Must find shelter. But first, something to eat.
My clothes are moist from a night on dewy grass. I try to rub the damp from my sweater, but that only makes me shiver.
I discovered few differences between those of us with homes and those of us without. Not in our quest for that absolute. Not when facing the crucible of life.
From my bag I dig out the Infoline referral card given to me yesterday at St. Vincent de Paul’s. I scan the index of San Diego meal centers before returning to a name near the top of the list. God’s Extended Hand. On 16th Street. It’s early yet. But first-come, first-served meal centers fill up fast. I don’t want to miss what could be my only chance to eat for the day. I’ll set out for God’s Extended Hand this morning.
“This is the cleanest, safest shelter in town.”
Approaching a bus stop at India and Broadway. I wait for traffic to clear before crossing. The roar of a departing bus pierces my ears. Strained gears crank loudly. A plume of bluish-grey discharge left in its wake engulfs me. Broadway’s too crowded and noisy today. I skip across the avenue, turn onto C Street, and head east.
Go by the First Lutheran meal center again. Won’t be eating there today. Too late. Dinner’s been served.
Farther along a tree-lined walk, morning light bathes buildings on either side of the street. A maintenance man sprays the walkway of an office complex. The jetting stream arches over the shrubbery, forming pools of water on sidewalk and street.
A cafe on the corner of First has its door wide open. I stroll in and order house blend. When I reach in my pocket, I feel the bulge of change. It’s shrunk since yesterday. Funds are running low. I’ll have to make more economies.
There’s something crawling on the floor. I blink away the water from my eyes. Look closer. Cockroaches! Damn! Let me the hell out of here!
At a table near the window. I savor each creamy drop of coffee. I escape for a while the demands of my street life. But just for a while.
I drink the last drop. My cup is empty. Time to leave.
On Ninth I step into a market deli and thumb through magazines. More escape from the dreary routine of the streets. Still early enough to kill time before I wait in another food line.
Reading the headlines of the papers, I hear a young man open the door and shuffle in. A woman and an older man follow. The woman moves hesitantly at first, then picks up speed past the cashier, a large canvas beach bag squeezed between her arm and her ribs.
When the first man steps up to the counter, he grabs a cup and pauses. The other two walk past. I notice the woman side-glance the man at the counter while he pours himself a coffee. He nods at the woman as she brushes by.
From the magazine shelf, I can see in the corner of my eye the man and the woman at the far end of the store.
The first man approaches the cashier with his coffee.
“Ninety-five cents, please.”
Just as the man reaches in his pants pocket, his cup tilts and the contents splash over the register.
“Sorry ’bout that,” the man says. “Guess I’m still half asleep. I’ll get some napkins.”
“No! I’ve got a rag.”
While the cashier’s preoccupied, the woman dips her open bag down below her waist. Her companion looks quick to the register. Then turns back to the woman. With a sweep of his arm, he sends a row of cans off the shelves and into the waiting sack. Bag full, the two stroll out of the store, the cashier still searching for a rag beneath the counter.
“Well, you’re busy now,” the first man says. “I’ll come back later.” And he leaves, too.
At the market’s threshold I look up and down Ninth but don’t see the three cohorts. They’ve merged into the crowd hurrying along Broadway.
“Damn!” The cashier drops his fist on the register. “It’s jammed. Can’t get it to work,” he says and peers out the open door. “That stupid shit. Didn’t even pay for his coffee.”
On the comer of 16th and Island stands a green, two-story building of wood and stucco. God’s Extended Hand.
Stepping inside the building, I hear a throaty baritone clash with out-of-tune notes played on a piano.
“Bringing in the sheaves. Bringing in the sheaves. We will come rejoicing. Bringing in the sheaves.”
A man greets me at the door with a handshake. “Welcome. Sit right here,” he says, and ushers me to a table near the front door.
The interior of God’s Extended Hand: same color as the exterior. A dark green covers all four walls. Religious pictures hang from each wall. To my extreme left is a makeshift altar, equipped with miked lectern and crucifix. To my right, a large rectangular mirror stretches the wall’s length and gives the illusion of greater dimension. The wall in front of me has a couple of banners: “Our 69th year” and “His Compassion Fails Not.” Between the two hangs the room’s largest picture, a smiling Jesus, staff in hand, crowded by a flock of sheep.
Many of the shelter regulars I’ve come across these past few days are here. Most have stood in line with me at St. Vincent de Paul’s. They’ll come here for an early lunch. Then head to St Vincent’s for another.
At the back of the room a man and woman go through the contents of a canvas bag misshapen by the items within. I look closer. Then realize who they are. The trio that ripped off the market deli on Ninth Avenue. Their accomplice, the young man who spilled coffee over the cash register, enters the building just then and strolls by me when the woman waves him over.
“Bringing in the sheaves. Bringing in the sheaves. We will come rejoicing. Bringing in the sheaves.”
God’s Extended Hand is near capacity this morning. One last man is greeted at the shelter’s entrance, then directed to the seat at my side. The clumping sound this newcomer makes draws my attention. Such a tiny man producing such a loud noise. He’s short. Barely four feet tall. His club foot drags behind him, slowing his gait.
A painter’s smock stained with blotches of color hangs loosely over his shoulders. It covers his upper body, the hem stopping just above his knees. A maroon beret sits flat atop his head.
His pointed goatee and round-rimmed glasses make him a dead-ringer for Toulouse-Lautrec. After a painful five steps from the door to our table, he slams his sketch pad and paint box on the floor and plops himself into the chair next to me. Once seated, his feet barely reach the linoleum.
He takes off his beret and rests it on his lap. Then runs a hand through his hair with a sigh. When he turns toward me, two hard black eyes latch onto mine.
“What the fuck are you looking at?”
“I’m sorry,” I say. “Didn’t mean to stare.”
“I noticed that sketch pad. Your watercolors.”
“What about ’em?”
“I paint, too,” I let him know. “Draw mostly.”
The suspicion and hardness in Toulouse-Lautrec’s eyes begin to soften. He seems pleased to find someone who shares a common interest. A few moments into our conversation and the little artist opens up to me with his story.
“Got here a few weeks ago,” he’s telling me.
“Where you from?”
“Tacoma. Left there ’round January. Tried the Bay Area. Decent place for artists, but got nowhere myself. Almost hooked up with a gallery in San Francisco. Then one of the owners made a pass at me. No fooling. Woulda been all right if it’d been a woman making the pass. Both owners are guys. Well, sort of.”
“God damn faggot! Had a nice gallery, too. Enormous clientele. They showed me their mailing list. Big-wig collectors from Long Island, Chicago, Beverly Hills. They loved my work, the owners. ’Gonna have a first class show for you,’ the faggot said. ‘Lots of publicity. Have a party for the opening. Shoot the works.’”
“Sounds pretty tempting. What happened?”
“We’re going over my portfolio, picking out which paintings they want to hang. Then the faggot partner bends over my canvas. Gets real close to me. And ya know what he does?”
I hunch my shoulders.
“Out of the blue he reaches over and plants a big sloppy wet one right on the kisser. Tongue and all. Jesus! I nearly pissed my pants.”
“What’d you do?”
“I tell him right there, ‘Hey, pal. Back off before I stab you with my palette knife.’ Then I grab my things and run like hell out of that gallery. Got nothing ’gainst gays. But, Jesus Christ! Don’t wanna sleep with ’em neither.”
“Then you came to San Diego?”
“No. Checked out Los Angeles first. Waste of time. Fucking la-la land,” Lautrec says. He shakes his head and whistles through his teeth. “If I hadta guess I’d say damn near every freak in the world must live in that town. One time or another.”
“How long did you stay?”
“Lasted about three days. Saw all I could stand. Then blew outta there faster than shit through a goose.”
“And that’s when you came to San Diego?”
“Uh-huh. Been here ever since. Kinda like it, too. San Diego doesn’t have much of an art community. But I’ve been comfortable. Not a bad place to paint neither. Sunlight’s super. ’Specially in the afternoon.”
A call for silence from the altar interrupts our conversation. “Well, here we go,” breathes Lautrec.
A middle-aged man, pleasant and dignified, stands behind the lectern waiting for the voices to quiet.
“I appreciate your cooperation,” the man says, hardly above a whisper. He introduces himself as one of the directors of the center. We can barely understand him, his tone is so low. Reminds me of Mister Rogers, this director, with his mild manner and gentle demeanor. “Most important thing you could listen to is the word of God. And we have a guest to offer the ministry of His word. So, without further wait, I present to you Reverend Bobby Washington.”
Half-hearted applause greets the visiting minister, a copper-skinned man wearing an ill-fitting thrift store suit and a Little Richard hairdo. He steps up to the lectern and spreads open his big Bible.
“See? What’d I tell ya?” Lautrec says. “They gotta save our souls before they kill our stomachs.”
“There are other meal centers out there,” I suggest.
“Not really. Those places aren’t always open. I’d go to Saint Vinnie’s, but this center is the lesser of two evils. Sit through the Sermon on the Mount or wait two hours in a fucking line with a bunch of degenerates. I go for the sermon. At least I get to sit down.”
“Good morning, Brothers and Sisters,” the Reverend begins. “Today’s reading is from the Book of Psalms...”
The reverend ministers to the hall, his words echoing over rows of heads hung in prayer. Though most really hang in sleep. The sermon ends with a call to hold hands.
“Look to the brother and sister on either side of you,” the Reverend commands. “And take him by the hand.”
“Holy crap!” Toulouse-Lautrec shrieks. “I ain’t holding his hand,” he says, leaning away from the man to his right. All eyes turn to the little artist sitting by my side. “Christ! Just two minutes ago the guy had his finger buried up his nose. And now you want me to grab that shit-picker? No fucking way!”
“Alleluia! Alleluia!” the Reverend calls out. “This sermon’s complete. Praise be to God.”
“A-fucking-men!" Lautrec shouts back to the preacher. “Now how ’bout some chow?”
Lunch is brought to our tables. Looks and tastes much the same as the food served at St. Vincent de Paul’s. Nutritious enough and filling.
After we clean off our trays, Lautrec and I step outside. “There’s an art store in Little Italy,” Lautrec tells me as he wipes away crumbs from the hair on his chin. “Ever been there?”
“I stopped in a couple days ago.”
“How was it?”
“Not bad. Decent art supplies. Good quality.”
“I’m gonna do a little sketching down in the Gaslamp Quarter. Then I’m heading for that store on India Street. Why don’t you join me?” he asks. “You can sketch if you want. Got extra paper here if you need some. Maybe we’ll go for coffee, too. Whatta ya say? You game?”
Lautrec and I plan our rendezvous, then I head for St. Vincent de Paul’s to arrange for shelter.
Crossing to St. Vincent’s main entrance, I spot a familiar face in the meal line: the black fellow I stayed with in Balboa Park two nights before. Uncle Remus’s companion, the quiet man.
“Hello,” I say, cutting into the courtyard.
“Hey. How ya doin’, son?”
“Sleep all right the other night?”
“Sorry we left without sayin’ nothin’. You was out like a light. Didn’t want to wake you.”
“That’s okay. I needed the rest.”
“Remus told me that if I saw you, then I should say good-bye. And thanks for the chicken sandwiches.”
“How’d he make out?” I ask. “He get on the bus all right?”
“Never got on no bus,” the quiet man tells me.
“Oh, no. What happened?”
“He called up his sister like she told him to. And she had a surprise for him.”
“Yeah. She said for him to forget the bus. ‘Bought you a plane ticket,’ she said. 'Get to the airport. You’re flying first class.’ Remus got so choked up. Thought he was gonna start bawling right there on the phone.”
“And he got to the airport all right? No problems making his flight?”
“Oh, yeah. He got there without a hitch. I made sure of that. Went with him right to the terminal. Watched him fly out.
“Sorry to see him go,” he says after a moment. His eyes moisten. “Gonna miss the ol’ goat. But it’s the best thing for him. Finally get his butt off the streets. Once and for all. Much better for him to live with some family. I wish him the best.”
The quiet man breaks a momentary silence. “Tried to call him at his sister’s place. See how he made out with his flight. Didn’t have enough change for no long-distance call.”
“Well, I better be going,” I say and pick up my bag. Halfway out the courtyard, I stop and turn back to the quiet man. “How much were you short for that phone call?” I ask.
“Here’s four,” I say and hand him a crumpled roll of ones. “Son, you don’t have to do this.”
“I know. But I want to.”
“Uh-huh. And when you call him, just say hi for me. Okay?”
“I’ll do that. Thanks, son. Thanks a lot.” In St. Vincent de Paul’s reception lobby, I inquire about a place to stay. Same woman I spoke to two days before. Same forced smile. Same automatic reply.
“Come back at 5 p.m. A free phone line will be available. Call the Infoline referral number. They’ll tell you of emergency shelter availability for the night.”
On a corner across from Horton Plaza, a man in his 60s sits in a wheelchair. One eye is crossed, a cloudy film obscuring the brown of its pupil. Facing the traffic on Broadway, the man searches passersby for a sympathetic stranger. “Please help the blind,” he calls out, and rattles the coins in his Styrofoam cup. “Money for the blind.” He turns his good eye to the change at the bottom of his cup. After he inspects his take for the day, he shouts again with some pith, “Please help the blind.” Shoppers hurrying to the plaza brush against my back and nearly knock me over the man in the wheelchair.
“Please help the blind.”
I drop a quarter in his cup.
Following the walkway that circles the big fountain at the plaza entrance, I turn onto Broadway. A woman stands on the corner with a baby sleeping in a carrier by her feet. Her eyes catch mine and lead me to the cardboard sign she’s holding high against her chest: Homeless. Hungry. Just got in town. All our things were stolen. Need diaper money for baby. God bless.
I pull the referral card from my bag and am about to hand it to her when a tap on the shoulder takes me away. I turn around. It’s the homeless girl I met last night at Embarcadero Park. The pregnant runaway from Oakland.
She looks different today. All smiles. She’s beaming. Standing on the balls of her feet. She’s cleaned up. No trace left of that sad street waif who sat crying on a park bench hours before. With her pixie hairdo and freckle-covered cheeks, she could be cast in a Disney picture.
“Hey. How are ya? You look better than last night.”
“Got some news,” she says.
“My sister’s coming to rescue me.”
The girl takes my hand and we sit on a nearby bus bench.
“So, what’s this news you want to tell me?”
“I’m getting out of here. Today.”
“You mentioned something about your sister.”
“Yeah. I called her, like you said I should. Called her late last night.”
“She must have been surprised. What’d she say?”
“We had a long talk. Told me that Dad used to beat her, too. Real bad. She never said nothing about it, though. To anyone. Said she was too scared to.”
“Did you let her know what was going on with you? Same situation, almost.”
“Oh, yeah. Let her know the whole story. When I finished she was so mad. Said she wished he was dead. I mean, that’s what she thinks about Dad. She started to cry. Then I cried, too.”
“What made you decide to call her?”
“I dunno. The shelter where I stayed last night was okay. But who wants to live in one, you know?”
“Yeah, I know.”
“I don’t have to worry about that now, huh?” she says and lays her two small hands on my arm. “My sister and Tom, that’s her husband, they should be here this afternoon. Meeting them at the shelter.”
“They’re driving in from Sacramento.”
“Well, at least you’ll be with one of your family.”
She nods again.
“I’m hoping she’ll let me stay with her. I think she and Tom will let me. We haven’t talked about it yet.”
“Sounds like a good option if they’ll let you stay.”
“Oh, about that other thing,” the girl says and pats her stomach.
“My sister thinks I should keep it.”
“What do you think?”
“I dunno. It’s early yet. Still got some time to decide. We’re gonna talk it over on the way home.”
“I wish you luck with whatever you decide.”
“Well, good-bye.” The girl touches my arm again. “Thanks for all your advice.”
“I really didn’t give any.”
“Then thanks for just listening.”
She smiles and waves, bouncing along through the pedestrian traffic on Broadway.
When the young runaway disappears into the crowd, I feel another tap on the shoulder. “Hey, sport.”
“Sorry if I’m late.”
“How was the Gaslamp district?”
“Ended up on El Cajon.”
“What’s there?” I ask.
“Yeah. Streetwalkers. Hookers. Prostitutes. Ladies of the evening.”
“They make great subjects to draw.”
“Oh, yeah. Some of ’em even pose for nothing. And they’re great to shoot the shit with, too. You wouldn’t believe the stories I’ve heard.”
Crossing the street near Horton Plaza. Lautrec spots the homeless woman panhandling with her baby. He stops to read her sign.
“Spare any change?”
Lautrec blinks at the sign.
“Anything you can spare will help.”
“Hey, listen, sweetheart,” Lautrec says to the woman. “I been living on the streets a pretty long time. All kinda places, too. Up and down the coast. I gotta tell ya. This is about the most pathetic thing I’ve seen yet.”
“Mind your own business, you little monkey.”
“When you scam people on the street, honey, then it’s everyone’s business. But really. This is the pits. A mother using her kid to panhandle money.” Lautrec whistles through his teeth. “Fucking low, man. Real fucking low.”
“Blow it out your ass, you stupid dwarf.”
“Okay, sister. But that’s a lousy sales pitch you got there. Why don’t you get your shit together and find a job or something. At least leave the kid somewhere.”
“Think I’ll pass,” Lautrec tells her, shaking his head in disbelief. “Let’s go,” he says, and leads me across Broadway.
We walk a couple of blocks in silence. When we drift onto Third, Lautrec starts in again on the woman with the baby.
“Girl with a kid on the streets,” he’s telling me. “Not just a kid. A freaking baby. How old would you say the kid was?”
“Less than a year, I suppose.”
“Six months, tops. Some people’ll do anything for a couple quarters. Anything but get a fucking job, that is. Understand. Got nothing against guys who panhandle. If that’s how they wanna spend their lives, fine. Me, I got better things to do. But when I see someone using a baby to scam. Christ! You gotta say something.”
Getting closer to Little Italy. Lautrec stops me as we approach the side entrance of St. Joseph’s church at Beech Street.
“Let’s sit on the steps here,” he tells me. “My dogs are barking.”
“Hey,” he says and lays open a sketch pad over his lap. “Take a look at these. Some sketches I made a couple nights ago.”
Turning the pages of Lautrec’s tablet brought me from one street gal to another, one street story to another. All rendered without manipulation or judgment. When I come to the end of the pad, I am surprised to see a drawing fashioned far differently from the rest. A woman’s beautiful head tilted gently downward: Warm and gentle eyes cast in a far-off gaze. Curls cascading over her shoulders. A subtle presentation, her features modeled in soft tones of grey and white.
“This one’s interesting,” I say and hold up the pad for Lautrec.
“Oh, yeah. Started that last week.”
“Meet her on El Cajon?”
Lautrec laughs. “No. That’s my mother.”
“Thanks. Haven’t seen her since I was a boy. I’ve drawn that picture so many times I can do it from memory.”
There’s a pause in his story. He’s hesitant to tell me more at first. Then just as he’s about to continue, a man and a woman approach.
“For the love of God!” the man is telling the woman as they pass. “Even a place of worship isn’t safe from that bunch.”
Lautrec leaps from the church steps to the sidewalk. “Hey, pal,” he calls to the couple. “Excuse me. Don’t wanna be rude. But why don’t you kiss my ass?”
The man and the woman glare over their shoulders but don’t stop.
“That goes for the lady, too.”
The couple round the corner. Lautrec snatches the drawing pad out of my hands.
“Assholes! Think they own the world.”
“People get territorial,” I say. “Especially with religious sites.”
“Bullshit! These places are for everyone. Didn’t Christ walk among the lepers and the sinners, too? I’m not stupid, you know? I’ve read the Bible. Maybe I don’t park my ass in a pew every Sunday, but at least I’m not a hypocrite like that bastard who just walked by.”
Lautrec starts to rock on the balls of his feet like a prize fighter waiting for the bell to sound.
“I’m going for a drink,” he says, glancing in the direction of the couple. “Wanna wash the bad taste out of my mouth.”
“There’s coffee shops on India.”
“Nah. I’m more in the mood for a Chartreuse jaune, money permitting. Then I’m going to that art store. You coming?”
“I should get to a phone,” I say. “Make arrangements for a shelter tonight.”
“Well, I’m out of here.”
“Maybe I’ll see you at God’s Extended Hand again.”
“Maybe,” Lautrec says and Fingers away some sweat from his nose.
He orders his sketch pad and takes a quick peek at the last drawing in his collection. The one of his mother. He shuts the pad closed and heads down the street.
“Be seeing ya.”
“Listen, sport. Whatever shelter you end up in, be careful when you take your shower. Make sure to have your back to the wall when you bend down for the soap,” Lautrec calls out and I hear him laugh as his tiny figure vanishes down the crest of a hill.
Wednesday evening. Finally able to secure accommodations in a shelter when I call the referral number. “On Seventh,” the voice on the phone instructs me. “Right near the post office. Can’t miss it.”
Following the man’s directions, I find myself standing in front of the Salvation Army men’s shelter. At first glance it reminds me of shelters I’ve visited in New York City. Though this is less conspicuous than its Bowery counterparts. I had passed right by it when I first turned onto Seventh. I’d approached a young couple and asked for directions.
“See them bums sitting over there?” the woman said, pointing to a collection of men three doors down.
“Well, that should tell you something.”
A locked gate encloses the shelter’s front entrance. No way to get in. Place is like a fortress, barred windows, surveillance camera. I hear voices around the corner then and move toward them. At the end of a pathway men sit smoking, taking gulps from a two-liter bottle of Coke. Under a dim splash of light flickering from a lamp above the side door, the conversation trickles to its end. Man with the bottle stops in mid-gulp when he notices me approaching. He nods as I walk past, his drink dribbling down his chin onto his collar.
“Watch the back flow, man,” his friend warns him. “Watch the back flow.”
“Yeah,” another complains, “last thing I want is to swallow another man’s spit.”
Entering through a side entrance that opens to a narrow flight of stairs, I descend to the lower depths of this old building. When I take the last step, I cross through the path of a motion detector and a buzzer sounds.
Noise from a TV blends with the music from a radio in a far-off room. Sounds emanating from the bottom of the stairs lead me to a room on the left. I walk in. I am surveyed by a man behind the reception counter. With a side glance, he watches me as he’s assailed by questions from shelter residents.
A couple of minutes pass, and finally he turns his attention to me.
“What can I do you for?” he asks. I notice the name tag over his left shirt pocket. “Jim,” the name reads. “Assistant Supervisor.”
“I’m here for a room,” I tell him.
“A room?” he laughs. “This isn’t the Regency.”
“I mean a bed.”
Another barrage of questions from shelter residents makes the supervisor sigh irritably. “Hang on,” he says to inquiring men. “One at a time.” He turns to me again. “You’re late.”
“Sorry. Got lost on the way.”
“Supposed to sign in by seven. By right, I shouldn’t let you in.”
“I’m very sorry.”
“Well, okay. But tomorrow try and be on time.”
“Yes, I will.”
“Got a referral?”
“Infoline sent me.”
I tell him.
I show him my passport.
“Can you read English?” he asks and slaps a registration form onto the counter.
“Good. Read the rules. Write your social security number here. Your John Hancock in that space. When you’re through with that, put your name down on the sign-in sheet. Got it?”
“You have five nights here. Curfew’s at 9 p.m. No exceptions.”
“At the end of the five days, you’ll have to make other arrangements.”
“We allow no booze and no drugs. You don’t have any in that bag, do you?”
I shake my head.
“Good. You’re in bed number 51. All right?”
“Just one. I’m a little apprehensive. I mean. I’ve had trouble in these places before and...”
“Don’t worry,” the man cuts me short. “This is the cleanest, safest shelter in town.”
When I complete the forms, I join a group of men watching television in a small lounge. Metal lockers line the adjacent wall. In front of the lockers two rows of beat-up couches are placed before an elevated TV. I plop myself on one and sink deep into the frayed chintz. I squirm when I feel the point of a spring digging into my thigh.
There’s no one I recognize. Nobody here I’ve come across in other facilities. I look casually around as all heads are turned toward Jimmy Stewart, their eyes reflecting the TV’s bluish glow. My attention wanders to a cardboard sign, printed in bold black letters:
I sink deeper into the couch.
A shout from the reception counter reminds the visitors it’s time for bed.
“Lights out in ten minutes,” Jim, the assistant supervisor, calls out.
I pick up my pillowcase and bed sheets at the reception counter and follow the line of residents ; into the sleeping area. I push through two doors that lead to a gymnasium transformed into sleeping quarters.
A stench of sweat and urine saturates the air. Hard to breathe. Sheets of dim light drop from ceiling fixtures and soften the gym’s obscurity. Standing on the basketball court amid rows of metal bunks. I’m having trouble seeing my way as I weave around residents preparing for bed. Where is cot number 51 ? After some 15 minutes of searching, I come to the hall’s most remote corner and find my cot for the night. It’s a bunk bed, the top part unoccupied. Number 51 is on the bottom.
Four men lie quietly on the bunks on either side of mine while I drape my bed sheet over a two-inch-thick mattress, old, shoddy, and damp. When I lift my pillow to put on its case, some stuffing oozes out of a tear in the fabric. Then a family of silverfish fall from the same hole onto my mattress. I swipe at the tiny insects racing across my bed sheet.
“Oh, my God!”
A black man in the bunk to my right starts laughing. “Your first night here?”
He laughs louder and rolls onto his side.
“I think I’ll get another pillow,” I say and drop the one I have on the floor.
“Forget it,” the laughing man tells me. “One per customer.”
“But this one’s got bugs.”
Sitting on my cot, I survey my surroundings.
Most of the bunks are taken. Some men are already sleeping. Others read books or write letters. Some sit and stare. An older man sneaks drinks from a bottle tucked in a brown paper bag beneath his cot. Another man hides a porno magazine in a newspaper.
More men enter. A young man in his early 20s approaches my bunk.
“Looking for number 50.”
“It’s the one on top,” I say, and point to the bunk over my head.
He flings his belongings onto the top bunk and steps back a few feet.
“Watch out for the silverfish,” I warn him.
“Never mind them,” the laughing man to my right says. “Two-legged bugs are the ones to look out for.”
The young man shrugs, then asks if I’d help him up to his bunk.
“A little tough to climb,” he says, and with his chin gestures to his left shoulder. His shirt sleeve is empty. He has one arm.
After I help the young man to his bunk, I take out my drawing pad and attempt a sketch. I squint my eyes. Look all around me. It’s no use. Can’t see in this lousy light, so I put back the pad and stretch out in my bunk.
I’m using my bag as a pillow. I reach behind my head and rummage for two special cards. Pictures of works by Van Gogh. One is a pencil sketch of pollard birches and a shepherd. The other, a reed pen drawing of a sower in a wheat field. I hold them up to my eyes but can hardly make out the two drawings. It’s okay. These images are etched in my mind, and that’s enough to assuage the loneliness.
A muffled sound from above. Can’t make it out at first. I look up but only see the stained underside of a mattress squeezed through a criss-cross of springs. The mattress has taken the shape of its occupant, who’s lying stomach down, face buried in his pillow. The strange sounds become clearer. The one-armed man is sobbing. I consider saying something to him. Try to comfort him. Better to leave him alone, I decide.
I lay my Van Gogh cards on my chest and close my eyes. There’s solace in Vincent’s company. My mind turns to thoughts of home: cherished books, a warm bed, home-cooked meals, a lover’s caress, and my father. I miss him most of all.
Fatigue falls over me like a shadow. I yawn. Open my eyes one last time, then go to sleep.
Early the next morning, I am summoned back to consciousness. Something’s crawling around my ankle. No. Go back to sleep. You’re dreaming.
Feel something at my ankle again. It’s not a dream. I’m wide awake now. I sit up on my cot and reach to my feet. Oh, Jesus! Vermin! A parade of these reddish bedbugs march from a hole in the mattress where the seam’s come undone. I swipe away the little regiment at my feet, but the army’s too large.
I grab my bag and hurry toward the bathroom. Then slow myself down. Be calm. Don’t panic. In the john I pull off my sweater and shirt. Then my trousers. I shake them in the air and whack them against the bathroom floor. That’s not enough. I want to burn my clothes. Bury the ashes. But I’ve nothing else to wear.
I shake and whack my shirt and pants over and over. One final whack before I inspect them. They seem bug free as I lay them over a bench and head for the shower.
The hot water pours over my body. I bend my head and allow the stream to jet down my spine. Getting lost in what comfort the shower brings. Wish I had some soap. I open my eyes, glance down. There’s something crawling on the floor. I blink away the water from my eyes. Look closer. Cockroaches!
Damn! Let me the hell out of here!
I get dressed and grab my things, run up the stairs and out the door into the early morning cold. Two hours later I’m still walking the streets, hungry, weary, confused.
At the end of Ash Street, I come to an office building that seems deserted. I walk into the lobby. Nobody’s around. I try the men’s room door in the lobby. Locked. Head for the elevator and try the next floor. That’s locked, too. Every john I go to from the lobby to the 18th floor is closed.
On the 19th floor I pass by the open glass door of an investment management office. A woman bent over her desk filing papers is startled when she sees me walk in.
“Excuse me.” By the look on her face I can tell there’s no way she’ll give me the men’s room key. I notice an office index just outside her door with an employee listing. The name Harold Siegel tops the list.
“I’m sorry.” Her tone is strictly business. “Our office isn’t open just yet.”
“Yes. I realize I’m a bit early. I’m here to see Harold Siegel. Actually, I have some figures to add to a fiduciary prospectus he’s adjusting for a client. I’m with an investment advisory firm on Sixth. Harold said I could drop off the folder anytime,” I say, and gesture to my bag.
“Mr. Siegel hasn’t left a memo. And I don’t recall him saying anything to me.”
“Well, he rang me at home last night. Excuse my appearance. Didn’t have time to change. You see, I do volunteer work at a local homeless men’s shelter,” I explain.
“Oh, I see.” Her expression softens. “Well, Mr. Siegel won’t be in for at least another hour,” she tells me. “Why don’t you leave your folder with me? I’ll get it to him.”
“I should do that. Have such a busy schedule,” I say and glance at the clock on her desk. “But I think I’d like to give it to Harold in person. Want to make sure the prospectus is in order. I’ll just go to the coffee shop downstairs and come back. My name’s David Rioux.”
“You’re welcome to wait here, Mr. Rioux. I’ve just put some coffee on, if you’d like a cup.”
“Wonderful. I could use a cup. Oh, and might I have the key to the wash room? I’d like to freshen up a bit.”
“Certainly,” she says and hands me the key.
In the bathroom I undress and wash myself with a damp paper towel. I feel guilty having lied but can deal with that better than I can deal with the crawling-flesh feeling I had when I walked in.
After I share a cup of coffee with Mr. Siegel’s secretary, I make my excuses and leave.
Heading North on India Street, I am passing a photography shop when a hand reaches out from the doorway and grabs at my ankle. A woman groping on her knees struggles to get to her feet. When I take the woman’s elbow and help her up, I nearly lift her off the ground she’s so light and frail. My fingers wrap all the way around her biceps.
She balances herself against the building and steps into the sun. A film of dirt covers her body. Raw, red eyes try to focus through a drunken haze. Her cheeks are sunken. Her gums toothless. I get a strong whiff of whiskey breath when she opens her mouth to speak.
“Can you help me?”
“What’s the matter?”
“I need some money?”
“There’s a diner on the next corner,” I say. “I’ll buy you a scone and some milk. Okay?”
“You don’t understand. I want to go cross-town. There’s a rehab center there that can help me. But I ain’t got no money for cab fare. Not even enough for the bus.”
“You can’t walk?”
She shakes her head weakly.
“I don’t have much money.”
“If I can just get enough for the bus.”
I give her money and leave her sitting on the bus bench, laying the dollars across her lap.
Thursday afternoon in Balboa Park. I head down a path that cuts through a thicket of shrubbery and tall eucalyptus near the zoo. In a clearing to my right, I spot the squirrel lady I met my first day on the streets. The woman who gave me directions to a meal center.
“Hello. Remember me?”
When she turns slightly to one side, I am shocked by the sight of blood-caked wounds spread over her cheeks and forehead. Her face is swollen. Both eyes are blackened, one shut closed. Red welts cover her neck and shoulders.
Her gaze is fixed on the squirrel at the edge of the clearing. From the paper bag on her lap she takes a peanut and lays it by her ankle. Her friend retrieves his present and returns to the edge of the path.
“I finally found a shelter to stay in,” I tell her.
She says nothing and shows me her back.
“Scary place. Can’t say much for the accommodations. Have you slept in many shelters yourself?”
Still no response. She takes another peanut and waits for the squirrel to approach.
“Maybe you’re right. What you said about the parks being more comfortable than the shelters.”
“Beat it! Will ya?”
“I hope I...”
“Hit the bricks,” she screams and turns around to face me. “Can’t you see I’m busy. Ain’t you got eyes in your head?”
I pull a dollar out from my pants pocket and hold it to her. “Here. Buy some more peanuts for...”
“Take your fucking money and leave me the fuck alone.”
I shove the dollar back in my pocket. Consider asking if she’s all right, if there’s anything I can do for her. But I don’t. Then leave the woman by herself, feeding another peanut to her squirrel friend.
It’s Thursday evening at the Salvation Army men’s shelter. Leaning against the side of my bunk in the sleeping quarters. Curfew has passed. All around me, men prepare for bed. Lights are about to be turned off for the night.
Jim, the shelter supervisor, comes around a dark corner escorting a new arrival to his bed, a young blond man barely 20, cheeks and forehead covered with acne, twitching facial tic, his blue eyes darting nervously from one filthy bunk to another. When Jim spots me he stops.
“Hey, it’s Rioux, right?”
“No trouble last night, huh?”
“No. Not really. But there was...”
“See. What’d I tell ya?” Jim says and turns to the new man whose gaze is fastened on his feet. He seems to be avoiding eye contact with the other men. “Cleanest, safest shelter in town.”
“I did have one problem, though,” I say. “Had to do with my pillow and some...”
“Okay,” Jim says to the new man, leading him away with a gesturing arm. “Your bed’s this way. And remember. Wake-up call at six. Everyone’s out by seven, sharp. No exceptions.”
My surroundings here in the shelter’s sleeping quarters have changed little from the previous night. Same men in the same bunks. Reading books. Writing letters. Same man across from me sneaking drinks from a paper bag. Another sneaking peeks at a concealed porno magazine.
The black man who occupied the bunk to my right is there again, too. He leans on his shoulder, faces me, and his gaze falls right on the corner of my mattress where the seam’s come undone. He glances at me standing there as I mull over my bedding options and pretend not to notice him. Then he rolls on his other side, tugs his blanket up to his chin, and laughs.
From my bag I pull out a notebook and plug up the hole in my mattress with crumpled sheets of paper. When I stuff the mattress to capacity, I lay my blanket over as much of the bed as I can and toss the pillow beneath my bunk. Searching for signs of silverfish and roaches, my eyes sweep over the frayed bed sheet stained brown and yellow.
I contemplate sleeping on the floor but opt for the bunk. Lights go off. The sleeping quarters door closes.
My thoughts drift to the squirrel woman. Where did she get those bruises? Where is she sleeping tonight? My mind wanders to other people. The little artist I met this morning, probably passing this night on El Cajon Boulevard, sketch pad in hand, a streetwalker modeling. And that teenage runaway. She must be at her sister’s by now. And my father back home. Hope he’s all right. Hope everything’s okay back home. Wonder what time it is in Massachusetts.
I yawn. Curl up on my side. A final sputter of thoughts surface in my mind. Another yawn then I fall to sleep.
The rest is not for long. Whispering voices near my bunk wake me. I hear men talking, though not in conversation. “Over there,” one voice is saying. “Where?” another asks. “The other side, man. On the other side.” I don’t know where they are but can feel their presence. Very near. I open my eyes to a squint. Can make out shadows cast against the wall, dancing figures scurrying on all fours. I see one of them. He’s on his belly slithering to the side of a bunk across from me. A second man crawls to his side. They’re going through a bag on the floor beneath the bunk, its occupant sound asleep. One of the men pulls out a plastic pouch. Shows it to his accomplice. He nods. They move to the next bed.
A door at the far end of the hall opens just then. Light from an outer room scissors through the darkness. The door closes quickly. Dark again. More whispering. More movement. I close my eyes.
A few moments pass. Then I hear footsteps. Someone’s approaching. He’s right at my bunk now, standing by my side while I pretend to sleep. I hear him breathing. Can smell his odors. French fries. Pizza. Aqua Velva. He sighs. Then I feel a hand on my shoulder.
Dear God! Make him go away. The hand starts to shake me. Please go away! For the love of God leave me the hell alone!
I open my eyes. Squatting before me is the young man who I helped to his bunk the night before. The guy with one arm.
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to wake you. Can you give me another boost up? I’m real sorry.”
Friday. Breakfast at the First Lutheran Church at Third and Ash. I walk by the “Welcome to Bread Day” sign at the entrance and follow the pathway to a table toward the middle of an outdoor courtyard. Trees and shrubbery in full bloom border the courtyard’s perimeter to the east. Drooping clusters of wisteria purple a nearby wall.
A woman shuffles weakly into the courtyard, the woman I met yesterday on India Street. The drunk trying to get to a crosstown rehab center. “It’s way out in Chula Vista,” she’s telling a sympathetic passerby. “I’d take a cab, but I ain’t even got enough money for bus fare. Whatever you can spare would help.”
A tooting horn from a car on Third disrupts the tranquility. As I turn toward the street, my glance rests on the familiar bowler hat bobbing between the trees that line the walkway. It’s Uncle Remus’s partner, the quiet man.
I hurry out of the courtyard onto Third and finally catch up a half-block away.
“Hey, yourself.” he says, stopping when he hears me call. “You ever get to phone Remus?” I ask.
“How is he? Make it to Louisiana okay?”
“Uh-huh,” he nods, a broad smile stretching across his face. “That’s right.”
“What’s going on? You look like the cat who swallowed the canary.”
“When I called Remus, he had a surprise for me.”
“Another surprise? What, is he coming back for a visit already?”
“Better than that. I’m going there. To Shreveport.”
“Wonderful. Good for you.”
“That should be a fun place to visit.”
“No visit, man. I’m going there to live.”
“No joke, son. Remus’s sister say I can live there, too. Share a room with ol’ Remus.”
“She even bought me a ticket.”
“No. Taking the bus. But who cares? I’m on my way to the terminal now. Bus leaves this afternoon. But I wanna get my ticket. Make sure everything’s all set.”
“Well, this is great news. I’m happy for you.”
“I’m happy, too. Why don’t you walk with me to the station?”
At the Greyhound Bus terminal at First and Broadway. The quiet man gets his ticket. Bus leaves at 5:15 p.m. Off to Louisiana. A two-day trip.
“Got just enough time to say bye to some friends at the park.”
“When you get to Shreveport give my best to Remus, okay?”
“I’ll do that.”
At the entrance to the terminal, we’re about to part.
“Well, good luck to you,” I say, and hold out my hand. The quiet man brushes aside my arm and gives me a hug. I hug him back. Then we leave.
Traveling up Broadway I come across the woman panhandling with her baby. She’s holding a different sign today: Hungry baby and mother. Homeless. Need money for food. God Bless.
“Spare any change? Whatever you can give, it’ll help.”
I reach in my bag and pull out the referral card.
“Why don’t you look at this?” I tell her and hold out the card. “It’s a listing of social services available here in San Diego. You can get connected with a shelter. Won’t be the Marriott, but at least you’ll have a bed and some food for you and your baby.” She takes the card. Glances at it. Then flings it in my face.
When I pick up the card from the gutter, her baby starts to cry. For a moment I am tempted to hand her the card again. Insist that she at least consider an alternative. I look into her eyes. I see bitterness, resignation. I put the card back in my bag and leave her alone with her child and her sign.
Walking south on C Street I’m thinking of the quiet man’s smiles. How happy he’ll be, reunited with his old friend.
Go by the First Lutheran meal center again. Won’t be eating there today. Too late. Dinner’s been served.
Without an itinerary I decide to visit the waterfront on Harbor Boulevard. But first I’ll swing by Balboa Park. Perhaps I’ll run into some familiar faces.
Heading north on Third, I reach St. Joseph’s church and sit on the same steps Toulouse-Lautrec and I rested on two days before. I remember what he said to that rude couple. And I remember how disgusted they seemed by the likes of us. So brazen to sit on their church steps.
A woman approaches me just then. I look away to the wall so I won’t make eye contact. Don’t want another confrontation.
The woman walks right up to me. Can’t avoid her. I turn to her. She’s smiling.
I smile back.
“Didn’t I see you here the other day?”
“I...uh...yes. I suppose. It’s all right to sit here?”
“I don’t mean to trespass.”
“You’re not,” she lays her hand on my shoulder. “You’re more than welcome to rest on our steps.”
She’s about to walk away, then hesitates.
“You have a place to stay? Gets cold at night this time of year.”
“Oh, yes. I have somewhere to go.”
“Thank you for asking.”
She smiles again and walks away.
It’s late in the day when I finish my rounds through Balboa Park. What time is it really? Probably around four. But I don’t know for sure. Morning slips into noontime and dusk into night with barely a notice.
On the Prado. I bear left on my way out of the park. Festive sounds of a party stop me at the entrance to the Casa Del Prado. At the doorway my eyes scan over the guests of a wedding party.
A silver-haired Mexican dressed in a tuxedo stands by a buffet table where a five-tier cake is displayed. Another man, dressed similarly, rushes up to him, a cordless phone in his hand.
“Here ya go, Dad.”
“They here yet?”
“Good. Gives me chance to straighten out this pain in the ass,” he says, cupping the receiver in the palm of his hand. “Big account, though. Six figures. Wouldn’t want to lose ’em.”
The son nods.
“Let me know when their limo pulls up.”
The son nods again.
“Hey, how are ya?” he bellows into the phone. “Look, here’s what I think we should do...”
By the sound of the conversation I overhear, the businessman moves around large sums of money the way most people deal with change.
“Look,” he says into the phone after his son tugs at his elbow. “I’m at my kid’s wedding. Girl’s tying the knot in about ten minutes. How ’bout if we finish this up Monday? First thing in the morning. Okay? Great!” he says and hands the phone to his son. “That oughtta hold him till Monday, that pain in the balls. They here yet?”
“Limo’s on the way.”
The bride and groom arrive. The ceremony is underway. Vows are exchanged. The party begins.
At the back of the hall three uninvited guests wander into the Casa Del Prado. Three men with plastic bags slung over their shoulders. Businessmen of a different breed, exploring the room for prospective opportunities. They stray farther into the hall. Heads turn. Shocked looks. Mouths gape. The hurried footfall of security personnel rushing from the front of the room.
Before the three entrepreneurs can fully investigate trash cans that dot the hall, the officers converge. The three businessmen are escorted back to the streets.
Walking down Laurel Street’s hills, I arrive at Little Italy. A woman moving in my direction slows her pace when she spots me. I recognize her. The toothless grin. The painful gait. It’s the woman I helped the day before on India Street. The same woman who pitched her story at the First Lutheran meal center earlier today. She’s about to say something. I know what’s coming. “Excuse me, sir. Could you spare some...”
“Didn’t I see you just this morning?”
Her eyes narrow. Try to focus. She doesn’t remember me. “You see, I ain’t got no money,” she says, “and I wanna get cross-town to...”
“To a rehab center.”
“Can you let me have some money so that...”
“Just enough so I can take the...”
“God bless,” she says, and proceeds across Laurel to a man walking the opposite way.
Heading south on Harbor Drive. The last afternoon sun warms my neck. I’m thinking of Lautrec again. Wondering if he’s sketching streetwalkers on El Cajon today.
I cross the Pacific Coast Highway and approach the San Diego County administration center. A man lies at the entrance to this grand building. Sprawled on the steps. A sign leans against his legs, an open, empty shoe box at its side: Homeless & Hungry Anything you give will help. God bless.
My eyes move from the plea on this street person’s piece of cardboard to the pronouncement etched in stone above the entrance to the building. It reads: THE NOBLEST MOTIVE IS THE PUBLIC GOOD.
Another similar message runs above the entrance on the opposite side of this same building: GOOD GOVERNMENT DEMANDS THE INTELLIGENT INTEREST OF EVERY CITIZEN.
The man with the sign opens his eyes for a moment. He scratches his neck, and his gaze sweeps lazily over the harbor. The sun makes the man squint. He shields his face with his hand and squints harder still as his eyes latch on to a bird.
He watches the bird circle. It hovers, then changes its course. In a wide sweeping motion, the gull descends to the water, plucks its prey from the ocean, and heads back for the clouds.
The man yawns deeply as he takes a last look at the bird before it vanishes in the offing. He closes his eyes. Reclines back on the steps and falls back to sleep.
A swooping bird. An inert mass of humanity.
Therein lies the truth. What I had set out to find when first venturing into the world of San Diego’s homeless. Survival. That is the one absolute.
During my days of street living, I discovered few differences between those of us with homes and those of us without. Not in our quest for that absolute. Not when facing the crucible of life. Survival is our common ground. We all survive in our own way.
For those of us with a conventional frame of mind, it is difficult to grasp why some street folk seem to invite their circumstance, as indeed many homeless choose to live as they do.
Again, the one absolute.
The man dozing on the steps of the county administration building is more at home in the open air. He’s found a way to survive.
Perhaps that is why so many opt to stay on the streets or in the parks. The sense that what is outside the homes of others becomes the property of those without. A comfortable illusion? Maybe. In the end, however, the homeless remain outcasts. Always on the outside looking in.