Today was one of our days off. We went out to baseball. Sat in the park. Went for a walk. We both really needed to hang out together and try and adjust to our new lives. There is not much to do but try and fight off the fear that this blissfully happy time together is going to be transient. I don’t dare fill the apartment with furniture. I just about managed to make a commitment to some houseplants and cacti. We have a bamboo plant called Takeshi, a lame joke on my part, playing on the fact that take can mean bamboo, and Takeshi, a popular Japanese boy’s name, usually doesn’t have the Chinese character for bamboo, but hey, I can be goofy sometimes. I rarely have had the luxury of being playful, it has all been too serious and dangerous to let myself be lighthearted. It’s hard to goof off when you don’t know if you are gonna make it to morning, or you will get to stay with your Boy.
We walked up to baseball, I happily sat watching feeling almost normal. It is a privilege to be able to do that kinda thing in the City. I guess we won’t be able to watch the Giants play a game in Oracle Stadium, but popcorn and icecream and a television to watch a game or two on, in the happy warm safety of our own home is a joy. I don’t want summer to end. I don’t think I have ever felt this content. It always has an edge of loss to it, a hint of sadness, a streak of fear. I remain permanently terrified I will lose people I love. I find myself even panicking Ruthie will somehow decide she hates me or won’t be able to tolerate me. Im a human pushmepullyou – give me space, but do it closer.
I’ve given the Boy a metro pass, his own keys, and strict instructions concerning where he can and cannot go alone. It is almost killing me. I spend every moment he is out and about feeling terrified I won’t see him again. I wouldn’t wish feeling like this on my worst enemy.
Multiple people have mistaken me for one of the normal average johanna’s today, telling me how there are ‘too many homeless people’ in San Francisco, not realizing that they were telling me that they wished I would ‘disappear and fly fly away’, just like Uncle Lou sang in The Dirty Boulevard, from his almost perfect epic album, New York. I didn’t embarrass them by telling them that I had been homeless in the City and living in one of the ‘welfare hotels’ as Lou puts it, or SIP hotels in modern SF parlance. Lou gets it, Lou digs, ‘it’s where they keep poor people’ he drawls in his usual sardonic sneer. Lou can sneer as much as he wants, he is sneering at the right people – the politicians and the landlords. “This room cost 3000 dollars a month, you can believe it babe it’s true. Somewhere a landlord is laughing till he wets his pants.” Forget finding anywhere to rent in the city under $1000 a month for a room in a shared house, $2000 for a small apartment. There is no easy escape from the Dirty Boulevard. To rent without subsidy you have to make 2 and a half times the rent in income to even be considered. Competition is high for places. Dirty Boulevard is as pertinent today as it was 32 years ago when it was released. What does it even mean to think that there are ‘too many homeless’ in San Francisco, and just why do people think it is ok to voice their opinion that people should cease to exist?
Here is a newsflash – homeless residents are still residents of a city. The unhoused are worth no less than the housed. The addicted are not less than the non addicted. I am no better than any currently addicted junkie, and they are no better than me. Having a place to lay my head tonight inside, with my son safe in his own bedroom doesn’t make us superior: it makes us privileged.
A woman sat in her wheelchair in Filmore. Tears ran down her face. She was asking people for money in a way that betrayed her utter panic. She felt it necessary to reassure people she just wanted a rotisserie chicken to eat and that was what the money was for. She was immensely polite despite her distress. Between me and the Boy we came up with a bit of change. I asked her her name and gave her mine. I asked her if she was ok, and if there was anything else I could do to help her. She is my people. She is my peer. She is my homegirl. I told her I had been in the shelter out on ____ Street until two weeks ago. I selfishly needed her to know that I was on her side, that I was not one of those bitchers that complain that she and others like her exist. “I believe you” she said. It was the nicest thing anyone had said to me all day. If there was no fucking pandemic I would have hugged her.
I could not give a flying fuck if her desperation was for chicken, or booze, or for crack, or smack, or for her pimp if she had one, or whatever. The fact she felt as if she had to justify her need broke my heart. It doesn’t matter why people in desperate straits need cash. It is the need that matters. I actually detest people who insist on choosing food for other people and giving those in need a meal not of their own choosing. Removing the autonomy of people who have so little to start with is cruel beyond measure. I wish I could get through to people who think that the unhoused don’t deserve the right to spend donated money on what they see fit, to try and control those in need by giving stuff that might not be needed, instead of cash. If people need food they will buy food. If people need socks, ditto. What does it matter if the giver or the give-ee buys the socks or the meal? Think of the joy of the freedom of choice! Part of the gift is the gift of not judging.
“I don’t want them to spend it on alcohol!”
“They might just buy drugs with it!”
“I’d rather buy food for their dog!” Trust me, a homeless person’s dog is perhaps the being they care about most in the world. That dog will eat before they do.
Removing the choice, the freedom, the choice, the decision is removing part of what little people have left. Trust that people know what they need is a huge gift, shows understanding and compassion. Trust me if what someone needs is their drug of choice to make sure they don’t go into withdrawal which is impossible and dangerous to go into on the street then that is where the money is best spent. No disrespect to those who do stimulants, but the terror of opiate withdrawal, puking and shitting yer pants, shaking and in bone-cracking leg trembling back spasming agony with no bathroom, no safe space to be vulnerable is perhaps the most frightening thing that has ever happened to me. It is a long time ago now, but I remember it as if it were yesterday. I ran out of time, couldn’t get what I needed in time, and shit myself trying to get to a safe bathroom I could use, in the early throes of withdrawal. The shame, the horror, the terror, the pain, the sweat-drenching awfulness of it haunts me. It didn’t stop me using. I wish I had got some money in time, some dope in time and it had never happened. I was gonna stop when I was gonna stop. No sooner and no later, and certainly not because I didn’t have a buck from a kind person. Or cigarettes. Cigarettes are gold. I would shark the sidewalk looking for discarded butts. You would not believe how little of a cigarette some people smoke when they have a plentiful supply!
Not contributing towards someone’s bottle is not going to make them get sober. Not donating a buck towards their bag won’t stop them using. All it will do is add to their agony. If you are gonna give someone a gift, give it freely, just like you would give a birthday present or a Christmas gift. Let the charities provide meals and socks and sanitary protection. I am not saying don’t give to people, just give without judgment. Ruthie has always given me the gift of autonomy and trust, and for that I can’t thank her enough. Best big sister a gutter dwelling, campground showering, ex addict could ever wish for. It makes me want to stay sober just to not let her faith in me go to waste.
Things that I always make sure I have on me to give just in case include sanitary napkins, individually wrapped clean masks and the occasional flashlight. A flashlight is one of those things that I could not have survived without when we were unhoused. Those headlamp ones are good from the dollar store, I had one red one which lasted a ridiculously long time. I mourned it like a friend when it gave up on me.
I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, I don’t want to discourage anyone from giving. I just wish I didn’t hear such dehumanizing gumpf from people. I wish people didn’t see people as objects to be disappeared, or looked down on, or treated as lesser or worthless or othered. I wish the second half of the sentence “there are too many homeless’ was followed with the word PEOPLE and then by the realization that as a city we can do something about this. More hotels, more shelters with fewer rules. Some better rent control. Landlords left places empty, with people outside on the street when the pandemic hit.
Lower rents with lower barriers to getting people into housing, and less fucking GREED! The guy that is sleeping outside in his tent is just as much a neighbor and part of the community as any other person. The fact that someone is a transplant to San Francisco does not make them any the less part of the City and its unique spirit. A transplant to San Francisco that lives in a shelter or the street does not love this city any the less. I do not love it less than some tech elite-ster. I adore the city because the city gave me a chance at a normal life, because however flawed provision is, that provision gave me a home, a chance to work, and the safety to do so without the constant and real terror of ICE. They scare me, I am not totally at ease, but I feel somewhat protected here and that is a good thing.
We walked in through the front door, closing it gently behind us, turning the lock and kicking off shoes. My leg is hurting like heck after the long walk, and I couldn’t get down to untie my shoe laces easily. The Boy watched me struggle and took my shoes off for me. How our roles are reversed! He pushed my glasses back up my nose and patted me on the head. “Love ya, ma..” He announced quietly and simply. Love is all that matters.
“We love seeing you both. I feel really appreciated.” said the Boy’s coach.
“You are a nice woman. The Boy is a nice boy” my landlord texted to me after I contacted him to make sure he was ok, and to reassure him the front gate was closed, after some drama last night involving an attempted break-in at our apartment building which he is also resident at. I am nothing special. The Boy is, but I am biased. Perhaps if people knew I was an ex addict, ex whore, long term homeless disaster then they would not give me the benefit of the doubt. I pass for one of you, at least most of the time. At least nowadays I look more civilized and less feral. There were days when I would have crossed the street just to not have to walk past myself. I am no more “nice” than most of the people who are still out there on the street. I just got given a chance, a lifeline, a hope. Give people a chance, they might surprise you.
Lou is singing Waves of Fear, and about how they attack in the night. I am scared that society will see me for the scum they have seen me as for most of my life and decide it wants me to disappear again too.
Will it ever stop?