Robert (sitting in foreground) and friend John, "I found a big piece a cardboard. I just crawled in and slept until the damn trucks started comin' in."
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.
Keith Harold Ruston at University Ave. near Vermont: "I have two blankets and I also have a coat."
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!"
Steve cracks up and Robert smiles, looking down at the garment. He's been on the street for 11 years because, he says, of "a drug and alcohol problem." Robert is 39 but looks younger than his friend Steve, who is 37. The two have known each other for over a decade on the streets of San Diego.
"Where do you go at night to sleep?" I ask either of them. "I had a camper," Steve says, "up until Friday morning. The police impounded it cuz I was drivin' on a suspended license."
"So he lost his house," says Ruston angrily. "So the cops really protect and serve!"
Steve comments on the police herding the homeless along from one area to another. Robert observes, "[Hillcrest] is a pretty comfortable place to be homeless."
"Yeah," cracks Steve. "Except for the homo cops."
"Well, we don't wanna go downtown because of all the shit and violence that happens down there," answers Robert. Last night he slept in the Post Office parking lot across the street. "I found a big piece a cardboard like this," he spreads his arms wide. "I just crawled in and slept until the damn trucks started comin' in."
Steve spent the night in a friend's car. The friend loaned him a blanket and he proudly announces he has "a jacket." He pulls at his T-shirt. "This ain't all I got."
Ruston interrupts, "I get SSI and Social Security, but they're gonna cut it off at the beginning of the year, which is gonna create, what? How many more homeless? What a wonderful government we have!"
"What happened there?" I ask, pointing to the broken stitches and dried blood on his scalp.
"First I got hit by a car, and then this mad Indian woman broke a bottle and smashed my head."
Dr. Michele Ginsberg of County Health Services characterizes medical problems encountered as a result of street life this way: "Primarily trauma. That is, contusions, lacerations, and resultant infection. Skin disease, edema is something we see and pulmonary problems. Right now we're dealing with cold and wet. People are in shoes and clothing that doesn't dry out. Skin problems are exacerbated. Any medical problem, especially skin or respiratory problems, will be aggravated."
I ask the man in the wheelchair, "Where are you going to sleep tonight, Keith?"
"I have absolutely no concept. It will probably depend on my vodka intake."
"In other words, you get loaded enough to crash and that's it. That's where you sleep."
"That's about the size of it," says Steve, laughing. Ruston harrumphs gummily and agrees, nodding his head. "That's a thumbnail sketch, yeah."
Dr. Ginsberg explains how winter increases health problems for the homeless. "A lot of people in that setting have problems with substance abuse, and one thing feeds into another. With alcohol or drug use, people may tend to get into fights and experience trauma. They lose what ability they have to navigate the world. Basically you are looking at a series of issues, one complicating the other. Skin problems and trauma can go hand in hand. Sometimes you have aggressive infections, necrosis. Often it starts in the feet. Again, if a person is in wet clothing and is not able to clean up and dry, those infections will progress."
I ask the trio, "What about the shelters?"
"I've never been in one," Steve says, "but I got friends who've been in, like, the [San Diego] Rescue Mission and some other ones. Each one of them tells me they'll never go back." A conversation ensues about the quality of food in some missions, the mandatory church services, the preaching, the "bucket brigades" in front of grocery stores. "I'd rather hit the Dumpsters," says Steve, "than eat in those places."
"Another major problem," continues Dr. Ginsberg, "is nutrition, or a lack thereof. The person may be getting enough calories but not balanced nutrition -- the balanced nutrition required to stay healthy."
Does Steve hit the Dumpsters for clothes? "Well, when I had my camper I had plenty of clothes, but when they impounded my car, I lost everything."
"Same thing happened to me," says Ruston. "The cops wiped me out. I got popped for drunk drivin', and I wasn't even that loaded. They impounded my van and by the time I got out of jail the impound fee was -- well, might as well buy a new van."
So Steve has a jacket, Keith Harold Ruston has two blankets, a raincoat, and (he hopes) some vodka. Robert has the Post Office sometimes, cardboard sometimes, and his "toxic waste coat," as he now calls it. And Eddy had his paperback-insulated doghouse, at least for a time.