How to live on the streets

How to get there How to stay there

I walked across Ross Street to the Civic center plaza. It was a warm, early October afternoon of high white clouds and the smallest shivering of the browning leaves. A few people strolled along the concrete walkways. There were pushcarts selling perros calientes. Mexican music played on someone's radio. On the grass by a county government building, a man sprawled against his gray, rolled-up sleeping bag, smoking a cigarette. He was wearing blue warm-up pants cut off at the knees, a stained tan pullover, some sort of loafers, and a cloth cap reversed on his head.

He had that look.

He might as well have hung a sign around his neck.

So I went over to him, introduced myself, and proposed that I write a story about him and how he survives on the streets. "Are you a cop?" he asked. I assured him I was not. He agreed to the story. I still don't know why. Perhaps he trusted me.

WHY JOURNALISTS SHOULD BE SHOTBecause they are spies. Because they insinuate themselves into the fabric of some other life, acting in a friendly manner, proclaiming good intentions, giving all the right reasons. Because they say they are seeking the truth, the facts, while never telling you that what they really only want is detail. Because in search of detail, they pry intimately into that other life. Because they rarely question their own motivation, convinced that they seek the truth or (if a little more honest) a good story that contains some of the truth. And because if they do question their motivation, they rarely arrive at the right answer.

EVERYONE HAS A STORY His name, he told me, was Mark Massengill. Forty-one years old, a big man, 6 feet tall, 200 pounds, wide-shouldered, square-faced, sandy-haired, grayish eyes. On his right forearm is a tattoo of a gecko; on his left bicep is a cobra.

When I first met him out in the Civic Center, he seemed to hunch in on himself; he spoke almost sideways and seemed dark, withdrawn. But the next morning, coming into Norm's on 17th Street, he walked quickly, almost swaggering, greeting the waitresses: "Mornin', darlin'."

I told him to get breakfast. He ordered modestly. I asked if that was enough. He smiled and ordered a third egg, pancakes, extra butter and syrup, milk.

Over breakfast, Mark told me his story. He grew up in Orange County, went to El Dorado High School, was from a middle-class family. He worked as a carpenter and a framer, made good money, and eventually had a boat, a Suburban, a house in Mission Viejo. Two years ago-maybe a year and a half-everything unraveled.

"Drugs?" I wondered. He smiled sheepishly, a boyish grin, as he raised the glass of milk to his lips. And then the hand holding the glass of milk began to tremble, and then something passed across his face, and then his face sunk in on itself. His eyes lost a little focus, as if he were hearing some sort of roaring sound in his head.

"My son was murdered," he said.

THE DEATH OF A CHILD Joshua Troy Massengill was 20 months old. Blond. Smiling. On Jan. 10, 1997, his body was found propped up against the outside wall of a Santa Ana convalescent hospital. He had been burned with acid, sodomized and bludgeoned in the head. (Joshua had been in the custody of Mark's estranged wife, Jenise. A male acquaintance was later arrested and is in jail awaiting trial.)

'AND THEN . . .' Mark carefully set down the glass of milk. At the time of the murder, he had been living in Oregon, but he came back to be with Jenise. He got a job at a lumber company. His life then piled up on itself. "And then I just went over the edge. Man, I just went into this pit of grief and depression, and I couldn't get out." Perhaps fueled by crack? Mark nodded. Co-workers covered for him for a while, but he eventually lost his job. Then he lost his savings. He was in a cave of blackness. That is when he ended up on the streets.

A little milk had spilled next to the empty syrup dish, and Mark, nodding, dabbed at it with a paper napkin, his hand working more and more furiously. With the fingers of his other hand, he began to loudly tap the table top. And then all that motion stopped.

At a table across the aisle from us, a man paused and stared at us with a bite of sausage on a fork poised at his mouth. We said nothing more. After a time, I paid the bill, and we left.

HIS SPOTAt first, we did not speak. We walked to a nearby store so Mark could buy cigarettes. Abruptly, in the dark cavern of the store, his mood shifted. He bounced on his feet, eyeing the brands of cigarettes available. "Where you from?" he asked the clerk happily.

"New York."

"Oh, man, I look at you I think there has to be some place before that."

The clerk smiled. "Persia."

"Iran, Iran, yeah-I knew that." Happily, Mark handed over money for the cigarettes. Outside, as we walked away-Mark was walking loosely with a little swagger, still bouncing-he said, "I never met an Iranian person I liked, but that guy, well, whatever."

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