I was up north for 26 years. I came back to San Diego by invitation from an ex-wife. Two of my grown sons were in town, and my partnership in a newspaper in the Comstock hadn’t broken even for two years — and it didn’t look like it ever would.
So I just piled my junk in my little Chevy S-10 and blew down highway 395 ahead of a snowstorm. I left a wife and son behind, but they had been living with someone else for years.
It was okay with the ex for a while, but I sure as hell didn’t fit in at Radio Shack, and my ex and I were fighting over the same old shit. Finally she offered me gas money to go back to Nevada. I took the money and went back, but I had burned too many bridges and didn’t really feel comfortable there anymore. I ended up back in Pacific Beach, but this time on the street.
The first night was weird. I parked by the ocean near Law Street and slept sitting up in plain view. Later, I put a piece of plywood behind the seat, and I could lie down as long as I didn’t try to stretch out.
I’d move the truck in the morning and in the evening. I like to read. I read a lot. I walked on the beach and hung out at the library.
I was depressed. I had tried many jobs. I had worked as a biological technician, a carpenter, restaurant manager, plumber, electrician, maintenance manager, photographer, reporter, page layout, etc. I was getting too old for construction work. Three marriages in shambles (one twice!). I thought, To hell with it, I’m just going to do nothing until I can figure out what I’m doing wrong.
I began to meet some of the characters that live between the lines of life in Pacific Beach.
I got in a bind when I left my headlights on in the truck one morning and ran the battery down. I didn’t know anyone to ask for a jump. It took me three days to get up the nerve to ask for help. That’s how I met “J.” He’d been living in vehicles for years. He’d get one vehicle fixed up beautifully and then get another idea, sell it, and start on a different one. He was a great mechanic and an all-around genius at fixing stuff. Very slow, meticulous, and thorough. “J” worked for a property management company. He had spent three years in a monastery and was physically fit and into meditation.
He had some great books that he shared with me and a collection of recordings of everyone from Allen Ginsberg to Thich Na Han.
I got used to cold showers and public restrooms. Finally, he introduced me to his brother, who had a remodeling company. “K” was a big dude. He hired me just when my truck was dead in the water on El Carmel, so he picked me up for work for the first couple of weeks until I got the truck fixed. He is a good craftsman and a big-hearted soul. He attracted some really great customers, most of which he had done jobs for again and again over the years. The workplace was very mellow.
I worked with him off and on for three years. I was still living in my truck but now with money in my pocket. I might have afforded a room somewhere, but I had no credit and no references and I was actually enjoying myself.
I finally saved up some money and bought a van. The S-10 was suffering from neglect and severe corrosion from life at the beach. I gave it to one of the Mexican-American guys on the crew. He was an American citizen, but his wife had been busted as an illegal, so they had to live in Tijuana with their three kids.
I took all the back seats out of the van and bought a custom mattress, put in some blackout curtains, and I was in heaven — so much room to stretch out.
I started attracting drama. I managed to hook up with three severely alcoholic women in a row. Not binge drinkers — these ladies drank from morning until night. I had never seen anything like it. I spent days and days in emergency rooms and hospital rooms. I saw how sick they became and thought they would want to get well. I had no idea what I was dealing with.
There were those romantic moments, such as when I was driving on Mission Boulevard and got kicked in the head. Or a different woman who liked to flash other drivers and pedestrians and scream obscenities out the window. I’m just trying to show you I wasn’t making great choices.
Every woman that I met on the street, and got to know somewhat, had been molested or raped at a young age (one by her father). Most of them were in and out of jail on a regular basis. Tickets for illegal lodging (sleeping on the street) or public intoxication, followed by “failure to appear” (as if they could remember what day it was, let alone figure out how to get downtown to the courthouse). So most were continuously sought by the police, and all of them knew the local cops by name.
When I wasn’t working with “J” or “K,” I made some money playing guitar and singing on the street and driving people around for gas money. To play on the street in P.B. you need a permit. To get a permit you have to go to the Park and Recreation Department in Balboa Park on the first Saturday of the month. I never got one. Most of the cops ignored us (I usually played with one or two other musicians). But one cop pulled up one night and screamed, “The next time I see you down here, I’m taking that guitar.” That kind of took the fun out of it for me. (The money wasn’t much to start with.)
Even though I was homeless, I always had a vehicle, and that made life far easier than it was for those living out of backpacks. Having to watch everything you own every minute of the day (including when you are asleep) makes for a tough existence. When a homeless person was arrested, many times the cops would leave their belongings behind. Numerous people I met, who had identification, lost it on the way to jail — the cops would just throw it out the window of the squad car.
One colorful character in P.B. has been living in vehicles for upwards of 20 years. He was laid off after 19 years at a local aerospace company. Nowadays, he’s pretty crippled up and has a hard time walking. He is one of the most compassionate people I’ve ever known. He’s always there to talk to anyone who wanders by. He helps people to get to court, helps them file for disability, and gives them rides to the feeds. He’s well-read and highly intelligent. He loses one or two vehicles a year. Either the cops tow them for some infraction, or they die of old age. Within no time, he’s found a new beater “home.” Why live like this? With his disability, he can either afford a dumpy room in a bad neighborhood or he can eat.
There is a definite feeling of family among the local homeless at the beach. They often share what they have and try to watch each others’ backs. Most are loners by nature, but there is a definite feeling of extended family when they get together for meals at the local churches.
And speaking of the local churches (were we speaking?), there are four churches in Pacific Beach and one in La Jolla that feed the hungry one day a week, and the church in La Jolla feeds six days a week at Mariner’s Point. The Methodist Church not only provides a meal, they also have a medical clinic, dental clinic, and acupuncture.
Most of the churches have been hassled by neighbors and the City of San Diego. The churches are careful to insist that people only come on the property one hour before the feed and leave the property after the event. All of the feeds are put on by volunteers and often, to some extent, at their own expense. The hassles faced by the churches active in feeding the poor no doubt discourage other churches from starting their own programs.
I was amazed by the commitment of many of the volunteers who spend most of one day a week preparing for the feed, collecting the food, and cooking it. Then they have to clean the kitchen and dining room and leave the property as they found it. The people coming to dine are always greeted with a warm smile and a hearty welcome. The often-heard criticism of these programs is that they are “enabling” the homeless. I guess the theory is that if the poor could just get hungry enough, they would snap out of it, realize that poverty is their own folly, and then they would immediately become successful used-car salespersons.
I was at a meeting yesterday of the City Council Permanent Homeless Facility Task Force. There were many compassionate folks at the meeting, responsible for years of hard work furnishing shelter, food, and counseling to those living on the street. But the political and much of the financial will behind this group’s efforts emerged gradually — the wealthy owners and realtors downtown were upset that all those folks sleeping on sidewalks were making sales of all those new million-dollar condos difficult.
The chairman just wanted a number — how many beds do we have to provide before we can again start writing “illegal lodging” tickets and round up the strays.
The reason the City of San Diego had a moratorium on rounding up the poor was not out of compassion for the poor. It was because of a lawsuit, filed pro-bono, by two young lawyers who pointed out that if there were no beds available in the community, then the only legal option for those living out of backpacks was to keep moving 24 hours a day, every day. Even a well-fed Olympic athlete might have trouble with that after two or three days.
But I digress.
So, I’m on the street, working mostly, and for the most part staying under the radar of the SDPD. I had been on my knees for a few weeks laying tile for “K.” One morning I woke up with a swollen knee and I could hardly walk. After a few days, I went to the emergency room at Scripps. They drained some liquid off my knee and said I’d have to stay off it for a few weeks.
I had saved up some money and I thought — road trip! My plan was to drive to Norfolk, Virginia, and visit with my brother and his family.
Before leaving, I managed to hook up with a woman who wanted a ride to some religious community in Arkansas. She didn’t make it that far. She jumped ship in Arizona, thank God.
Meanwhile, my leg was getting worse. I had a wild ride one morning talking to 911 on the cell phone and asking where the hospital was in Kingman, Arizona. I was 60 miles out of town, and the operator tried to talk me into pulling over and sending an ambulance for me, but I couldn’t leave my van out on the road. I finished the drive in agony and spent a few hours in the emergency room. The diagnosis was that I had a cyst behind my kneecap. The doctor said to elevate my leg and stay off it for a while. He gave me a prescription for pain pills and I was back on the road. I made it as far as Austin, Texas, when I got a phone call from some friends in Virginia City, Nevada. They said that my wife had been busted for methamphetamine (yes, I’m still married to her) and that I might want to head that way in case she had to go to jail, so I could take care of our ten-year-old son.
I spent a couple of weeks in town getting reacquainted with old friends and trying to set up a visit with my son. Finally, the visit was arranged, but it was instantly apparent that mom had made sure he had no desire to see me. As near as I could find out, she was in no danger of going to jail, and my money was running low; so I headed back down Highway 395 toward San Diego.
I hadn’t kept track of my money, and when I got back, I found I was $2000 in the red. I ended up selling my work truck to pay off my boss. I was still using a cane to get around, so I spent some time hanging out with my leg elevated before going back to work. The boss had started a major condo remodel in La Jolla. He already had a big crew working.
I worked with them for a few days but didn’t mesh too well with the crew. So I was sent on a job in El Cajon where I had already done a bunch of work for the client at both their offices and at their home. Things went well for a week or so. The clients, husband and wife, had always been very kind. I had spent weeks and weeks at their home previously, installing granite bars around three of their outside decks. They were also close with my boss and his wife.
One morning, they left me a letter questioning why I had billed them for a couple of hours before I arrived at work. I should have just done as they requested and explained that I was picking up materials for the job, as well as picking up some brochures to help design a new front entry that they were proposing, and that I would be happy to take it off their bill if they still felt it was unjust. But NOO! I wrote my own letter, all hostile and defensive. Well, that was the end of that job.
Several things went through my mind. I was getting too old for construction work (I was nearing 60); I needed a way to make a living that used less brawn and more brain, and maybe something would come up. (I secretly hoped that the boss would call me back to work).
I always seemed to squeeze by with enough gas money to keep going. Someone would need to go somewhere, and they’d put a little gas in my tank.
I was back eating at the churches and at Mariner’s Point and was learning dumpster-diving from some pros. You have to know when stores dump their outdated food. Some have their employees cut open packages and make them even more unappealing, and some have their dumpsters behind high walls, requiring late-night scavenging expeditions.
Clothing wasn’t a problem. There is a missionary who lives in her vehicle and collects awesome clothes from stores in the area and distributes them to whoever needs them every single week. No one that knows of her ever has to go without a warm coat or a pair of shoes. She became a good friend, and I helped her when I could, loading and unloading hundreds of pounds of clothes every week. She’s prayed for me a lot over the years, even though she knows I’m not much of an admirer of Christianity.
One of my “taxi service” jobs became taking a friend’s son to elementary school in Clairemont. One day, I had five passengers in my van, including the boy’s mother. We dropped the boy off at school, and on the way back to P.B., “D” asked if we could stop off at her ex-boyfriend’s house in Clairemont and pick up something of hers, as he was moving.
We pulled up in the alley behind a house, and she went in for a few minutes and returned with a gym bag and a backpack. We headed back toward the beach. As we were cruising through a quiet neighborhood, suddenly we were being followed at high speed by a small car with two people inside. They passed us and came screeching to a halt in front of us, cutting us off. (I later found out this was the ex-boyfriend and his brother.)
Apparently, there was a major disagreement over the ownership of whatever was in the bags that “D” had picked up from his house. But, at the time, I really had no clue as to what was going on. The ex approached me on the driver’s side and started screaming and punching me through the window. His brother stood by his car brandishing a three-foot crowbar and talking on his cell phone.
My two male passengers jumped out the side doors to defend me. (They said later that they couldn’t just sit there while this guy wailed on a senior citizen.) There were some fists thrown, my shirt was ripped to shreds, and the mirror on the passenger side of the van was smashed. Somehow, we got back on the road to the beach, but they were still in hot pursuit.
I yelled at “D,” “What the hell do they want?” She said she had something he wanted, and I said, “Just throw it out the door, and maybe they’ll leave us alone!” So a bag went flying out the door, and they stopped and picked it up. We headed back to the beach thinking that the incident was over.
I pulled into the 7-Eleven parking lot and “M” and “B” jumped out to go across the street to Starbucks.
Two minutes later, a San Diego Police car pulled in behind us. It was soon followed by several more. “D” and “B” were still in the van. “Put your hands where I can see them!” We were cuffed and separated. I was still in shock from the chase and the fight. I asked why we were being detained — they weren’t saying. I sat on the curb by the 7-Eleven for about an hour in handcuffs, while the police conferred with each other. Finally, I was put in the back seat of Lt. Summer’s squad car. She had a ride-along that was introduced as a shrink with the police department. I tried to strike up a conversation with them about the plight of the homeless. I was starting to feel a little uneasy about what kind of justice we might be facing.
I was taken to Northern Division and put in a glass box. After conferring with each other for a few hours, the cops told me I was under arrest for armed robbery. My spirits were sinking fast, and I was driven downtown to the Central Jail.
I was fingerprinted, photographed, strip-searched, and given some snappy new clothes. I think I finally got to a cell about 9:00 p.m. I was exhausted and had developed a dry cough. My cell mate told me to roll up my stuff and get the hell out of his cell. I didn’t think I could just leave, but he convinced me. He head-butted me in the face and I staggered down the stairs with a towel, trying to catch the blood pouring out of my nose. When I finally got a deputy’s attention, he was upset that someone would have to take me down to the dispensary. He asked me if I was prejudiced toward skinheads. I replied that I hadn’t labeled my cell mate a skinhead — he had it tattooed in big letters on the back of his shaved head. While I was in the dispensary, my stuff (really the jail’s stuff) was transferred to another cell block.
In a couple of days I was transferred to George F. Bailey Detention Facility. Every seat on the bus was full and everyone was handcuffed to someone else. The bus ride was better than jail. You could see the great outdoors and they played the radio. It took all day to get strip-searched, separated into different units, and assigned a cell.
My cell mate (celli) was the unit spokesman. He tried to fill me in on prison etiquette before I got hurt again. First of all, the prisoners run the units. (2) Absolute segregation must be observed. blacks, Hispanics, and whites all had their own tables — they’re not labeled so you have to memorize the pattern. (3) Any hassles on the unit will be adjudicated between the spokesmen for the blacks, Hispanics, and whites. This was a bit of a shock to me, having grown up on Navy bases where (at the time) race was the last thing that you noticed about someone. (4) Do what you’re told by the group leader or suffer the consequences. (5) Never rat on anyone to the deputies.
The only serious discipline I ever witnessed was when one of our group was complaining about the exercises he was asked to do because of some infraction. The disciplinarian (his friend) took him in a cell and broke his face. He had to go for some serious medical attention, and he was transferred to another unit. Nothing was ever said to the deputies by either party.
Finally, I was sent downtown to court for my arraignment. It was the first time I had seen my friends from the van since our arrest. “M” and “B” had been arrested in the meantime. We could see “D” and “M” in the courtroom, but they were in separate glass boxes. The only thing that we were asked that day was to sign a statement so our case could be delayed as the lawyers weren’t prepared. Back on the bus; back to George Bailey. These trips to court start at 5:00 a.m., and you don’t get back until 5:00 or 6:00 p.m.
After a few more days, I had a video conference with my lawyer. She hadn’t received my paperwork yet, and she asked me to tell her what happened. She didn’t give me any indication of what she thought of my case, but it was some comfort that I had a lawyer (court appointed, of course). She said my bail was $40,000, but it wouldn’t have mattered if it was $4 as I didn’t have it.
Finally, on my 25th day of detention, we were all assembled in the courtroom (all five of us were being tried together). We never heard any testimony. After a while, my lawyer came over and told me that all charges had been dropped against all of us. We were jumping for joy and high fives all around (not easy to do with handcuffs on). Back on the bus; back to George Bailey. I went to my cell and told my celli that I was getting out. I thanked him for watching out for me and told him I’d keep in touch. He said, “No you won’t,” and went off to arrange for a new celli. He was right — that place freaked me out so bad it has taken me 17 months to sit and write this down.
It took until almost midnight to “process out.” I had my badly torn shirt, shorts, and flip-flops. They gave us a bus token and a cab ride to the trolley. I rode the trolley and the bus back to Pacific Beach. I found some newspaper and curled up in the sand in front of the new lifeguard tower at the foot of Grand Avenue. I froze my butt off all night. Now that is homeless.
My van and everything I owned was in the tow yard used by the SDPD, with a bill that was $1382 to get it back. My sister stepped in and bailed the van out and saved the little shred of sanity I had left. My sister and her husband took me into their home, and it has been wonderful for me. “M” lost custody of her son.