Saturday, September 1, 2012

A Conversation

I was taking a shower the other day in the one public bathroom in town. It's a cement block affair with a floor drain and good water pressure so I fill up my water bottle and pour it over myself. I have to be fast because the police substation is directly outside the door. The toilet has no door so it's basically unused. I don't mind using the city water because currently one of the urinals is running non-stop due to a leaky valve. It runs and runs and I'd need to shut the water off to the bathroom and get a new valve if I wanted to fix it. I could do it but I can already hear the conversation I'd have with the city planners as I explained what I was trying to do. No, it's better to take my shower, soap up my ball sack and shuffle out dripping wet into the 99 degree heat. It's not like I strip down naked to be stumbled upon by an 11 year old playing in the park. God, that would be hard to explain. No, I wear my swimsuit and since the swimming pool is right outside I think it's safe to do this. I'm not taking any pictures of this process because that would be impossible to justify to the cops. Really, there is no other solution except gathering the water in my jug and taking it to a deserted lot to take my shower. I've done that also but since no one uses this bathroom I'm sticking with the status quo.

The other day I walked in and a homeless guy was shaving in the sink. Then I ran into another guy who shuffles around on disabled feet was muttering to himself. He asked if I had a cell phone to call his mother who was sick. I said, truthfully, no. Then I walked in and there was a huge dog sitting in the corner. All three times I asked, "Is it ok to shower?" and received a shrug as a response. This is a popular bathroom with the poor.

One of the guys, the guy with the dog, said there was a free meal to be provided at a pavilion. We walked over there and met two other homeless men, one had a lively Chihuahua sat down and it was an enlightening conversation that I will try to relate as it had a profound effect on me.

We all agreed that rent was too high and that was the main problem stopping us from getting a room. Bed bug hotels were $60 a night. There are no shelters nearby no bunk houses. We didn't want luxury but only wanted a roof and somewhere to leave our shit so we could hunt for work. You need $1200 minimum to move in and unless you work at the Naval Air Station then you will never make the salary to pay rent and utilities. The entire area is basically rental properties. A handful of old Texans own most of the land and none of them are crazy enough to live here so they rent it all. Trailer parks, strip malls, rental houses, condos, apartment complexes. I have seen only one real neighborhood and it was textbook suburbia/land developer cookie cutter set up. The whole town is like a Universal Studios set for corporate/rental America. Any deviation from the working poor and wage slave mentality is quickly eliminated. Christianity, Junk food, high school football, tourist images and fishing are the chief priorities here.

blah blah blah.

We had a long discussion of drugs and the controversy surrounding the legality of pot. People look at me in awe when I describe Venice where you could buy medicinal soda and cookies with your credit card. 9% sales tax all going to state projects. In Texas, a joint will cost you several thousands of dollars if the wrong people find it. The guy with the big dog was convinced it was a vast conspiracy by tobacco companies to profit from pot prohibition.
"You watch. It's going to get a lot worse," he kept saying ominously.
 We spoke at length about the difference between crystal meth and the meth available in, say, 1950. Everyone agreed crystal meth is the devil's drug, probably introduced by the CIA to control the masses. Heroin, however, was lauded as the gateway to heaven. Morphine was an acceptable substitute, but pure opium was the nectar of the gods.
The four of us were all sober and too old to care about drugs in general. Ex wives were discussed. Sons who we didn't talk to. Spine surgeries. Knee replacements. The two men had their dogs and that was enough. I have my literary fantasies and pearl button western shirts to keep me company. The fourth guy merely wanted to eat something. Anyway, we four were real bread and butter homeless people, not dramatic like the paranoid schizophrenic set or crazed Vietnam warriors. We were like privates in the homeless army, we did our chores, washed our clothes in public fountains, tried to find a bathroom when we had to shit, didn't steal our food, didn't take drugs, had job skills but lacked job finding skills, etc etc. We didn't want to organize one another and we didn't want to be organized. Ambition is probably the biggest trait that is absent among the soup kitchen set. After that it's Planning and Follow Through. (Example: I missed two BLM park guide job deadlines because I decided it was destiny that my computer crashed as I filled out the application.)

It has taken some time to fit in and feel comfortable, trusting amongst these men. People tell me I'll never be one of them but lately I think those people are wrong. I'm exactly like them and so are you. Maybe they don't have typing skills or the inclination to selfishly gossip about their own philosophical deviations, and maybe they don't sneak into University of Texas music dept. to play Petula Clark sheet music, but their details are no less personal and their interests are no less varied. One guy partied with the Manson family in Malibu. They are aviation mechanics, fathers, orphans, disabled, veterans. We were children and have talents and played sports and now we have no money and no job and we are basically redundant employees who lack anything that will make us stand out in a huge pool of applicants. How am I any different? I'm not. Are you?

The guy with the big dog lives in his 1990 dodge van so we had much in common. He had arrived because his mother had died and he had some things in her house that his sister was going to throw away if he didn't save them. He was almost ready to return to Montana and lived in the Walmart parking lot. "You've got to stay one step ahead of them," he said vaguely during one of his rants about life. He also spent ten minutes describing the exact location of an old party spot in Malibu even though I wasn't familiar with the area. It was the strangest conversation because he would say, "Now if you take a left on Cloverfield then you'll get to this park with a rusted swingset. If you go to the house with the fire engine as a mail box then you've gone too far." It was even stranger since the party location had been developed into a big box store for at least 2 decades and I have no intention of going to Malibu, but he was very specific about the location so I said nothing as he drew maps in the air.

Anyway, the one guy with the little lap dog was a big man. 52 inch waist. He said he flew here in a rush after having a fight with his son in Arizona. He paid $70 to take a taxi to a campground but soon learned the campground is too far away from anything. So he moved to the street. He can't find pants big enough for him that he can afford and lamented that he left behind two pairs at his son's place. Why doesn't his son mail them to him, we suggested. "Because we aren't speaking," he said simply. And that's the basic situation: A 48 year old man with a ruptured T6 vertebrae, 52 inch waist, a little dog, son who won't speak to him, pants that won't fit, broke, no family and no friends waiting at a pavilion for a free meal. He's not crazy and if you had him stuff envelopes he could probably do it for a few hours. But where is he going to get that job? Not nearby. And what good would it do for him in a market where you need $1300 to move in to an apartment?  So he has no job and relies on bus passes (and he can't take his dog on the bus) to get around. And he has to schedule his day around free meals. It's a brutal existence that would humble anyone if they weren't so busy sucking Capri Sun pouches down their gullets. His wife was sick with a legion of problems. "Pain Specialist" was a term he used like I would say "Grocery Store". The story he told about his wife was heartbreaking but the other guy with the big dog would periodically say, "It's going to get a lot worse. You'll see." and the fat guy telling the story wouldn't pause. The fourth guy looked at his shoes and I could hear his stomach grumbling from 10 feet away. The big guy's wife basically went from one set of medications to another and at some point was given a concentration of methadone that was 10x the intended prescription. She went crazy. Then she was cut cold turkey off a variety of pills.
"Ten days later she shot herself in the head... and died," concluded the story.
"It's going to get a lot worse. You'll see," said the other man.
I nodded gravely and sighed. Some homeless people (like myself) tell stories to support their own perception of themselves. But this guy wasn't so dramatic. He was basically testifying to a period of his life and this was his testimony. Maybe he hoped that it hadn't all been for nothing, that if there was no purpose at least there might be some meaning and value to it all. She had shot herself in the head... and died. I made a note that he didn't just say that she shot herself in the head. She had then also died. There was no opportunity to ask, "What happened next?" It was a perfect story told without pretense or agenda. He'd probably told it before but this story defined a major part of his life so it was something he would tell again and again. I didn't really sympathize with the man basically because he wasn't after sympathy. Unlike B, who was forever recruiting an army of people to convict and damn her long dead parents, this man was still coming to terms with the death of his wife. Was she murdered by malpractice? Could he have done more? Maybe he wanted to hear advice to find closure. Is that different than anyone reading this would do? The incident didn't cause his homeless situation but the cumulative damage of the suffering and addiction and cycle of sadness would be more than even the most resilient to ignore. Right? So mind your tongue when you sneer at a man on the street.

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Man in the Van by Oggy Bleacher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.