How to live on the streets

How to get there How to stay there

Another time, we stopped by Tripp's-the Annie Mae Tripp Southwest Community Center in Santa Ana. It was late morning, and the wooden tables set up in the side yard were filling with people who were hungry for lunch. They were mostly Hispanic people-many families with small children-and a radio played Mexican music, and the lilt of Spanish wove through the air. People wandered back and forth, visiting and greeting friends, the women in dresses and the men in clean shirts. Children played and often called out. At a table toward the back, Mark saw someone he knew, and we sat there. The friend was a young, pale man with almost delicate features and moist, pale eyes shining a small light I could not read. He shook my hand reluctantly, looked at me a moment and said, "I don't really like talking with people I don't know." So I pulled back a little and half-turned, and I watched the crowd. Here and there were figures that drew your attention: a bearded man draped with long robes so blue they were almost black; a bespectacled middle-aged man wearing the remains of a suit who leaned against a wall, reading a folded-over newspaper; a younger, swaggering man in the regalia of one recently released from prison: white T-shirt, tan chinos, tats. I heard only snatches of the talk from Mark's friend. His voice seemed to match his eyes, and I finally realized then what the small, sharp light was: a bitterness so resolute that he might never escape it. He talked of walking all day on a bad leg. He complained of having nothing to do but look at houses and imagine. He complained of the lateness of a check. He complained of the lateness of lunch. His voice ran on and on. And it was that thing in his voice like the thing in his eyes. Mark said very little. And then, just as I was about to voice it, he nudged me and motioned with his head. And so-half-embarrassed, half-ashamed-we got up and quietly slipped away.

AND SO . . . I will tell you this: there are parts of this story that perhaps make living on the streets seem, if not desirable, at least not so bad. I believe there is something to living on the streets, an enticement for a certain kind of person. One day, I listened to Jimmy and Mark talking about it. "There's a certain freedom that's appealing," Mark said.

"Hey, we're free, and we're punchin' no clock," Jimmy said. "There's no responsibility."

"You get your food free."

"There are no dishes to do!"

"There are no tips!"

"Man, it's early retirement!"

They gave each other a high-five.

But I also believe their routine was disingenuous. There was a bit of trickery, and it was for my benefit: I had seemed intrigued by their thoughts, and being good actors, they played to that. The fact is there are many dangers when you are homeless. There is the sickness that accompanies living outdoors and eating often poor food. There are the police, who may ticket you for illegal camping or roust you for sleeping in a public park. There is violence: over women, over a spot, over drugs, over a recently arrived check, over something as seemingly trivial as a cigarette. There is violence that can come suddenly and seemingly from nowhere simply because you run into a person who is totally crazy.

And there is the danger of sheer boredom, which may be the greatest danger of all. Even if you have a good spot like the one Mark and Jimmy have, you must be out of it before 6 a.m., when the neighborhood starts waking up, and you cannot get back into it until after it grows dark and the neighborhood quiets down again. The 13 or 14 hours in between must be filled up somehow, and looking for clothing or food only goes so far. Much of the remaining time is spent sitting around on a bench or the grass, gossiping and smoking, or sitting in the library, flipping through a magazine or reading a book (Mark favors Henry Miller), or on the streets, walking aimlessly. This is the worst kind of boredom because it is a boredom that can come to seem normal. And if it comes to seem normal, then any escape can seem impossible because it is unthinkable.

IN THE PARK I will take you to an afternoon when Mark and I are sitting on the grass. I am braced against a tree, and he is resting on his elbow. We had been talking: I had been asking him about his plans, and he had been diverting the conversation with a few jokes about urban camping and being address-challenged. Now the talk had run out. On benches and grass nearby, a few other homeless people passed the time. I found myself looking at bodies and faces, and what I noticed was the slackness in all the faces and postures-a slackness not of deliberate relaxation but of total lack of caring and energy. There was some movement: a tweaker girl, suffering the effects of meth, tripping through, arms gyrating wildly, lips mumbling incoherencies; a dark-haired man stopping at every group to stare down crazily-nothing more-before stumbling away; an old man, face mottled and whiskered, hands twitching, pacing a circle, staring up at the sky. Mark moved as if he was starting to say something, and I glanced over at him. He, too, was looking out at the scene. "There are people out here 20 years," he said almost wonderingly. And then he turned to me with the strangest expression. "Jesus, man," he said. I realized that what I had seen on his face was fear.

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