How to live on the streets

How to get there How to stay there

SANITATIONWith a little luck and energy, it is possible to stay relatively clean on the streets. A number of agencies and feeding places have showers, and some have washers and dryers. And then, of course, there are public restrooms in gas stations, shops and restaurants. Mark is always careful to retain his privileges. When he uses a public restroom for washing or shaving, he tries to leave it clean so as not to antagonize the operator of the place. I said it was possible to stay "relatively" clean. Anyone who has lived outdoors for any length of time-perhaps wilderness camping for recreation or bumming across the country-knows about being relatively clean. There is a certain amount of grime that accrues just by living more or less out in the open. And there is odor. All the homeless people I met while with Mark had an aroma. The aroma was almost always the same, different only in degree. It was a compound of the odor of sweat of varying ages, of stale clothing that has not been aired, of worked leather, of earth, of vehicle exhaust, of old grease, of stale bread, of traces of vomit and urine and, finally and curiously, of wood smoke. Why wood smoke I am not precisely sure. It is possible that, since one of Mark's jokes refered to homelessness as "urban camping," I was unconsciously finding a reference in the only sort of comparable experience I've had.

FRIENDSJimmy, of course. And Pat. And Spicer: "He's always jovial and generous; he just doesn't like to be told what to do." And Mary, a pretty woman with dirty blond hair who is always trying to keep herself clean and her makeup fresh. One day, she and Mark had a screaming fight about whether health workers can really tell if you have AIDS by testing your saliva. (On the other hand, they agreed that the health workers give you a $5 voucher if you volunteer to be tested.)

PAYCHECKS Mark receives a check for $370 every two weeks from state disability. Others might receive a check from Social Security, or from General Relief or from a small pension. Once you have a check in hand, you must cash it. For this, you can go to a check-cashing place, which will charge you from 2 percent to 10 percent of the amount of the check. It is also possible that you have a bank account on which to cash your check. For an address, you will have rented a post office box, or you will use the address of some accommodating agency, the Rescue Mission, the Sally (the Salvation Army), or a friendly church.

Even if you do not receive a check, you may still be able to generate a cash income. You can, as Mark occasionally does, take the bus to Venice Beach and give Tarot readings.

You can panhandle. There are some rules for this: be in a good mood. Go after everybody. Smile a lot. Keep some change in your hand (if they think others have given already, they won't be so embarrassed to give money themselves).

You can borrow from some mope and hope he never catches up with you. You can scrounge or steal. You can sell your blood. You can sell your body.

I do not know if you can sell your soul, but if it is possible, someone has already done it.

MORE ABOUT MONEYI asked Mark and Jimmy several times if they tried to save any of their checks for a time when they might be able to get off the streets. After all, their living expenses seem minimal. Their answers were never really clear or precise, but they amounted to this: it just goes. (Although Mark did say that sometimes, in attempts to budget, he tries to buy money orders and then leave them with someone at the Place on Sycamore for the future.) It just goes, as it does in any other kind of life. Cigarettes, drugs or booze; an occasional treat; coffee in the morning. There are parties, especially right after the first of the month when the checks come in. (Someone will rent a motel room, and others will kick in for crack or beer.) There may be bus trips to Seattle, say, or Denver to check things out and see if it's better there. There may even be a vacation. Mark told me that once he and some friends pooled their checks and went to Ensenada and rented a place for a month.

ETIQUETTE Mark's basic rules: don't bum cigarettes when you have them; when you have cigarettes, share them.

SEX There is always sex.

NEAR THE END, AN INTERLUDE On the streets, the texture of the days is like a rough, warm, ill-woven cloth always unrolling, never coming to its end. During these days, we made occasional excursions. Once we went to Covering Wings (located at the back of a shopping center in Huntington Beach) so that Mark could look for some new shoes and socks. Pasted to the door was a notice saying it would open at 10:30 a.m. We sat and waited. After a while, another man came and sat and waited with us. He was tall and angular, his face sun-creased, his eyes washed-out, his head wrapped with a bandanna. He told us he had been on the road for 18 years. One time, he decided enough was enough, and he got a place in Barstow and settled down. Then, one day, he got the urge and hitchhiked to the beach, and that got it all into his blood again. On the road for 18 years. We sat and waited, and the day grew warmer. Another man came and started talking about how the grays from outer space were in cahoots with the government, and the black helicopters were searching for the secret hydrogen energy source. Or something like that. Anyway, his friend at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory had told him all about it. He kept talking and talking, and finally, Mark looked up and told him that was enough and to take off. It was the first time I'd heard an edge in his voice. Jimmy stopped by with his friend Pat, who has a small pension and lives in a motel. We chatted for a while. Jimmy said he was hungry, and Pat said he thought there was a place nearby where they gave out free food; they forgot about the clothes and took off in search of the food. It was long past 10:30, and there was no sign that anyone was coming. Mark paced. He paced the length of the walkway in front of the building, stopped in the middle to read the sign on the door, and then paced back. He did this half a dozen times or so. Then he suddenly stopped and looked at me and shook his head and laughed. If Covering Wings opened at all that day, it was long after we had left.

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