How to live on the streets
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.
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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I first met him out in the Civic Center, he seemed to hunch in on himself; he spoke almost sideways and seemed dark, withdrawn.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.
"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."
I will tell you now, matter-of-factly, as Mark told me, that he suffers from a mental disorder. The diagnosis was never precisely clear to me, but it's apparently bipolarism. He takes Zoloft to balance things out. And he has had a bit of luck. In the gym of the YWCA on Sycamore Street in Santa Ana, the Mental Health Association of Orange County operates a day-care center for people with mental illnesses. There are showers and food and pool tables and activity groups and counselors. Mark goes there often.
"I'm a nut," Mark said to me and smiled. I did not know what to say.
"Well, c'mon," he said. "I'll show you my spot."
By which he means his house, the place where he sleeps. Mark's spot is the side entryway of an empty office building. It is enclosed on three sides, and it has a roof. The floor is a slab of concrete about 6 feet by 12 feet, bordered on each side by 1 1⁄2-foot-wide strips of dirt that once contained plants. The walls are stucco, dirty and streaked. Finding a good spot is one of the most important activities for someone who is homeless. When you first come to the streets or when, for one reason or another (say the cops roust you), you have to find a new spot, you go on a recon. You look for a place that cannot easily be seen from the street (the cops are lazy, Mark explained; they don't like to leave their cars unless they have to). You look for a place that the daytime tenants leave at a reasonable hour so that you can get under cover for the night. If you are lucky (as Mark was), you will find a place with a working faucet that can be turned on with a pair of pliers if the handle is missing. If you are exceedingly lucky (as Mark was), you will find a place with a working electric supply that can be tapped into in order to power a radio or a small TV or whatever other appliance you may have scrounged or bought or stole. And when you have found a spot, you are very, very careful who you tell about it or invite over for a visit. Someone tipped off by a careless word might hijack your spot. A rowdy visitor, too happy with smoke or booze, might get loud and carry on, irritating more conventional nearby residents and bringing the heat. Mark asked me to not reveal the location of his spot. I agreed, of course. (He also has, he said, several backup spots here and there, with a few things stashed in case of an emergency. These spots are kept absolutely secret.)
In the cave of the entryway, we spread his ground cloth, layered with a thin blanket over it, and sat down to rest. His belongings were around him. He stretched out his legs and leaned back against the wall with his hands behind his head.
THE THINGS HE CARRIES A gray sleeping bag. A bluish-gray jacket with a red checkered lining. A black knapsack containing a silver whistle made in the shape of a cross; two C-cell batteries; two olive-drab socks; a blue marking pen, a black marking pen and a white crayon; a gray plastic toothbrush; a 5-peso coin; his Social Security card; a small, half-used tube of toothpaste; a cheap heart-shaped watch; an unopened cube of bath salts; a small, empty, lidless plastic box; and a rolled-up pair of silver-and-black snowboard pants. There is one other possession: around his neck, suspended from a red-and-white beaded neck chain and generally hidden by his shirt, Mark wears a medicine pouch that a friend made for him. Mark would not tell me what medicine he carries in the pouch.
A COUPLE OF FACTS The best estimate: there are between 12,000 and 15,000 homeless people in Orange County, perhaps as many as one-half of them children. On any given night, there are beds available through various programs for maybe 20 percent of these people. The vast majority of the homeless are white men. Very few are Asian or Latino. "It makes sense," Mark said. "Those people take care of their own."
ANOTHER STORY Mark's roommate is Jimmy. A stocky gray-haired man, 50 years old, pale and lined face, on the streets nine years. Jimmy had been off somewhere and now had come wandering back to their spot. He and Mark talked for a bit, and Jimmy showed him his crack pipe, which was crafted of some dark wood. Then, while Mark sat on the blanket and sifted through his things, Jimmy told me his story: he and Tracy were very much in love. Jimmy ran a tow truck and made close to 4 grand per month. He and Tracy were going to paralegal school. Everything was great. And then Tracy was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer. In 59 days, she was dead. "At this point," Jimmy said, "I fell off the mountain." All of the money went to hospital bills and other debts. The savings were gone, the house was gone, the car was gone. Also, there was a fondness for methamphetamine, crack and various other drugs. Jimmy came to the streets. He then descended into madness. He heard voices in his head. Spells of blackness came over him during which he wanted to kill himself. He carried with him the diary his wife had kept while dying, and he read it so often that he memorized it. I asked him if he still had the diary. He looked at me sharply-perhaps seeing the real reason behind my question-and then shook his head, walked away a few steps, and stared across the nearby parking lot. After a time, he returned and told me that he now takes Zoloft and some anti-psychotics and that these keep him mostly evened out, although sometimes, the blackness comes, and the voices speak to him.
"Lots of people out here hear voices," Mark said helpfully from the depths of the entryway, where he was putting his things back into his bag. "What it is, man, is whether you listen to them."
Mark and Jimmy engaged in a brief exchange about craziness. Mark was singing to the theme song of the old TV show Petticoat Junction a little verse called "Depakote Junction." They both ended up laughing.
Jimmy touched my shoulder. "This guy," he said, nodding toward Mark, "is always helping people. Y'know what I mean? Giving people cigarettes or money or whatever."
"When you got your check, and I needed 30 bucks, you gave me 30 bucks," Mark said.
"Yeah, I did."
Mark stood up and paced around. "It's like, you give people cigarettes or a buck or whatever. I mean, you're out here, y'know? So why not?"
"But not everybody does," Jimmy said. "Yeah, well, there are some real wasted motherfuckers out here, too. Well, whatever."
FOOD AND CLOTHING Living on the streets is like living anywhere else. There are necessities you must have or be able to acquire. In addition to finding and keeping a good spot, these necessities are, of course, food and clothing.
"If you can walk, you'll never go hungry," Mark said. "If you go hungry, it's because you've forgotten how to chew and swallow."
All across the county, places serve free food to those who want it. These places are variously operated by private individuals, churches and agencies. They are supported by donations or grants of public funds. Many people who are not homeless eat at these places. The food may not be great-canned fruit and vegetables, gruel, burritos-but it is filling. In addition, there are various private individuals and organizations and church groups who have removed even this barrier to free food. They bring the food to the streets, setting up tables or what have you in parks or at the Civic Center Plaza. "Sometimes there are so many of them that they're having fights over who's going to feed people," Mark said. "'These are my homeless people.' 'No, no, they're mine.'" He had a good time acting out a little food-fight scenario.
In the world that is not of the streets, some restaurants are better than others. On the streets, some feeding places are better than others. For instance, the feedings at Heisler Park in Laguna Beach are generally spoken of in glowing terms, while the food one woman serves out of her vehicle at the Civic Center is referred to as "junk in a trunk."
On the streets, there are also, just as in the world that is not of the streets, memorable food occasions, particularly Thanksgiving. Mark has not yet partaken of Thanksgiving on the streets. Jimmy filled him in with rhapsodies about the various restaurants that provide free feasts to anyone who walks in. He was nearly overcome recalling the Thanksgiving festivities in Laguna Beach. "Man, you got all these people bringing honey-baked hams and turkeys and pies and cakes and all this shit, and they're all trying to outdo the others." It is also interesting to note, as Mark pointed out, that there are more fat people on the streets than you might think there would be. This is due to the availability of food and to its high fat and starch content; the ingredients are cheap.
Clothing is easily acquired as well. Across the county, there are numerous private and church organizations handing out donated clothing. All that is necessary is that you be able to get to them. It is also helpful to maintain a good intelligence network. By talking with other people on the streets, you will be able to stay on top of which agency or organization has the particular items of clothing you need most. Perhaps you hear, for instance, that at the moment, Covering Wings has an excellent supply of, say, shoes. Clothing is so easily obtained, Mark told me, that some people don't even bother to wash what they wear: when it gets too dirty, they go somewhere and acquire a new wardrobe. There are also money-making opportunities where clothing is concerned. You learn, for instance, that a certain thrift store receives a large donation of clothing originally purchased from Nordstrom, some of it with their tags still affixed. You go to the thrift store and pick out the Nordstrom items, and then you take them to Nordstrom and return them for cash.
We pass now to a related subject: dumpster diving. Mark loves dumpster diving. Rarely in our travels did we come across a dumpster he could pass up. He would root in the trash and come up with a pair of gloves or a crumpled hat or a broken mirror or a bicycle tire or a broken knife or a small plastic table or an outdated calendar. He would admire the items for a moment. Then he would return some to the dumpsters. He would stash others in his bag, some only to be carried around temporarily and then discarded when something better or more interesting turned up. (Mark scavenges even when no dumpsters are available. We were walking along one day, and at the curb near an alleyway, we came upon a discarded black garden hose that was perhaps 30 feet long. Without breaking stride, Mark picked it up and draped its coils over his shoulder. One block later, we came upon a gardener just finishing his work on a lawn and packing his equipment into his truck. After a little bargaining, Mark sold him the hose for $2.) Sunday evenings after the weekend garage sales have closed are good times for dumpster diving. Another good time is the end of the month, when people are moving out and the dumpsters near apartment complexes yield a treasure of items that couldn't fit in the van. Dumpsters near markets are good for finding bruised fruit that can easily be trimmed and other treats such as cakes, cookies and yogurt that have been tossed out because they are just past the expiration date. Another good place is a dumpster near a McDonald's. "The kids go in there with mom, and they get a Happy Meal, and all they want is the toy, so they throw the burger out," Mark said. "You get some good shit that way."
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.
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.
I TRY TO JUSTIFY MYSELF AS A SPYWhen people asked what sort of story I was working on, I told them I wanted to write about how to survive on the streets. And that is true, as far as it goes-in what you have been reading, there is information about that. But my real intent was either much simpler or much more complex. I intended to hold up for examination the life of one man. When we are in a place where there are homeless people, we tend to avoid them. I find myself doing this. The experts tell us that this is fear. The homeless are so different from what we are accustomed to in our lives-and we always fear the unknown. But in rare moments of self-honesty, I realize that this is untrue. It is not the unknown that I fear; it is what is all too well-known. I have failed many times in my life in things small and large. I needed to look at another's life. I needed to know if it could happen to me.
FAIRHAVEN CEMETERYThe lawns of the cemetery lie beneath the relentless sky and the occasional harsh rainbows of sprinklers. We have come to a sheltered corner of the cemetery by a large dark fir where there are rows of marble markers flush with the earth. Mark is kneeling, bent forward slightly at the waist. He reaches into the cup that is imbedded in the earth to hold flowers, and out of it, he draws three plastic toy figures. His fingers tighten around them. He begins to cry silently, and within the tears, he speaks so softly that I cannot hear. A small breeze shivers the boughs of the fir. Here beneath the blue, relentless sky. And after a time, he rises. He turns away and heads slowly back along the row of markers of children. I mean to ask him what he said, but in the end, I never find the courage.
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