I had to get out the house: there is a point where staring out of windows writing and playing guitar reaches lethargic proportions, and what is really needed is some fresh air and a walk. Also toilet paper. And a bag of apples. I live on apples and tea. It was getting late, the last of the 9/11 daylight draining away. 20 years since I was standing in that Tokyo classroom, teaching a bunch of old salarimen how to speak without a katakana speech impediment, watching the planes smash into the side of the twin towers, only a short time after leaving New York City for a hop and international skip to Japan. It feels like a lifetime – which it is – and also a heartbeat. I am still that young woman, at least somewhere deep inside, her life ahead of her, and I am also someone entirely different. Changed. Transformed.
The walls were closing in on me. It happens sometimes – I need to get out and feel the sidewalk under my feet, and the sky above my head. If I close my eyes, and remember I can be beneath the Oregon trees, or an Ome Kaido sidewalk, or a hospital bed with my baby in my arms smelling that newborn innocent unsullied scent of hope and love and perfect happiness tinged with utter fear. Tiny Dancer players in my headphones. The song is an entire vibe, a mood, a groove. In my hand, drawn by my mind’s eye a small cartoon ballerina mouse dances, pirouettes, before falling shattered to the floor, the spell broken. I have been struggling of late. Tears gulping down hidden behind laptop screens and pillows. Does it all have to be so hard? My heart is breaking. There is nothing else for it but to go out. I wanted to go out alone, but sensing trouble, or sadness, in a move of protection and love the boy pulled on his sneakers and insisted on coming along with me. We walked out into the cool San Francisco evening. It felt safe. I got the urge to stop in a bar and have a drink. A gin and tonic at an outside table to watch the sun go down on a day that felt so difficult. I am always disappointing people. I am always letting people down. I have an immense and grinding guilt at being inside while others are outside. I am so grateful to be in this apartment, so scared of losing it, and feel so horrible that anyone else is left on sidewalks, campgrounds, parking lots and shelters.
Walking up to the drug store life felt so different to how it was even when we were in the shelter, where we couldn’t dream of walking ____ St so late in the day, and so could not go out after 4pm safely. Compared to the years spent in the wilderness camping life is unrecognizable. The air was cool, the people smiling, it was easier, quieter, almost like a real life.
The drug store was playing kd Lang’s Constant Craving. A thin woman was jerking around and wiggling in the aisle as she waited to be served, singing along to the words: “constant craving has always been” that she sang with more desperation than the sweet kd could ever summon. I met her eyes, wide pupils blown, cheekbones like razor blades, a glassy countenance. I dig, sister, I dig. These constant cravings never leave you alone, they never give you quarter or peace, nor leave you sustenance or fulfillment, just a black hole soul that devours everything you pour into it, and then scratches at your door begging for more and more and more. She was wiggling and communing with the song, her wasted body pulled deep into an understanding or an agreement. I paid my money to a sullen man who eats up politeness like a starving dog and spits out bile in return. He threw my change at me, dropping half of it on the floor. I smiled at kd’s newest fan, and headed out the door.
Walking home down ____Ave I saw a very elderly homeless lady sitting on the sidewalk, a thin white comforter, damp and greying over her lap, surprisingly few bags, no tent. She had got rolled by the ‘sweep’ crews that take away every bit of safety and comfort people manage to snatch out of this cruel world, and lost everything. All she had left was a wet and wadded stuffed comforter,and one tote with a few things. Her hair was white and her skin whiter, translucent, apart from the dirt that streaked down her cheeks. I found that buck I keep for people who look desperate, and handed it to her. She won’t go into shelters, as she found she was being bullied in there. She had been out on the streets a long time, due to her mental illness that she told me kept her from getting help. I understand. Trust is an expensive and dangerous concept. One she couldn’t afford. One I couldn’t, and still can’t.
I asked her name, and she told me she had no name. She had ditched it. I thought of the name I grew up with, that girl I shed like a skin that didn’t fit no more, and nodded at her smiling. She smiled back: “I’m Nobody, just one of these nobodies out here. There are lots of us nobodies out here. Just about everybody is a nobody,” She told me. I told her I had been homeless a long time, but just got into an apartment. She smiled, and with a genuine openness and glee told me how happy she was for me. No jealousy. Nothing but honest love and happiness for me and the Boy. The tears came up again. “Careful of that glass, honey. Someone threw a glass at me while I was sleeping, it shattered all around me. It cut my face. It cut my hands. It cut my eyes. It hurt me. My hands….”
Let’s just press pause here. Someone threw a glass at an elderly homeless lady who was sleeping and minding her own business. No, she cannot go to the police. She doesn’t trust the police, and to be frank they wouldn’t care anyway Being seen as ‘crazy’ means that people can do just about anything to you, and it will be the mentally ill person that gets blamed for their own misfortune. She had learned her lessons well. If you do something a few times, and that thing always gets you burnt, it is insanity or else masochism to keep on doing it. Why would Ms. Nobody trust anyone, let alone the cops that keep on moving her on and take away her stuff?
I tried to tell her about the program I had been in, offered to make a few calls to see if I could find her a place she might be comfortable in, but the plain fact of it is that some people would rather be free than try and get along with rules they are not capable of following. I found it immensely hard to accept the shelter rules that seemed to be more about control than safety or finding long term housing. For Ms Nobody her freedom is non-negotiable. I have a child, I don’t have that luxury, I had to do it. The simple fact is that barriers have to be removed that keep people from seeking help and shelter that will enable them to live the best lives that they possibly can. Ms Nobody at this point in her long life needs to be inside, with food and warmth and a shower and some comfort, heck a tv to watch and a small dog to love. I refuse to believe this isn’t possible for her.
I felt a shiver of shame as I realized I mentally discounted her claims that glass was thrown at her – after all she seemed pretty crazy, with her talk of rattlesnakes. When I looked down to see shattered glass everywhere, chastened and horrified, I realized how easy it is to slide into a position of disbelief, of judging books by covers, of brushing someone off because they are down there, and I am now up here. There was glass everywhere, and the shattered glass was not just in her head. Someone had indeed thrown a glass bottle at her, which had shattered around her as she slept.
She politely turned down my offer to help. The Boy dug his hand in his pocket and pulled out a buck, carefully placing it in her hand. I give him $10 a week pocket money. “We don’t have much, Mom,” he said as we walked away, Ms Nobody worrying we were going to get cold out there while she was left freezing on the dirty avenue, “but what we do have we share.”
I can’t help but wonder when these tears are going to stop.