The only time I feel truly safe is when I am invisible. On the road, blending in with the trailer livers, the rail riders, the freaks and wannabe wizards, the kratom eaters, the trail walkers, the wildlife spotters and the people who spend entire winters never getting down to the very last layer of clothing. I spent months in bra, vest, tee, sweater, jacket number one with hood – light, and jacket number 2, heavy and waterproof. I dressed the Boy in similar. There is a photo of him in the snow, seven years old, mouth open in wonder, wearing enough layers to look like the Michelin man. Happy….and cold.
The thing is when you are living outside, in a truck, a tent, an RV which is leaky and has no heat, you never really get warm. Your bones stay cold. Sleeping outside with no tent is worse, in winter there is nothing you can do to truly get warm. Hot drinks. Layers. Running hands under hot water in the restrooms you get thrown out of. Nothing actually warms a body up unless a hot shower can be found. Tepid showers make it worse. Finding a hot shower was my obsession for years. I would go into outdoor shower blocks, so cold that forcing yourself to remove your clothes takes considerable psychological discipline. I used to tell myself that the quicker I got undressed the faster I could be under the water. Turning on showers and letting them run until they got as warm as possible, judging them lacking or not, and jumping under was a crap shoot at the best of times.
Some campshowers are of a fixed temperature, which is fine for tourists in summer who need to wash off sand or lake water, but not great in November if you are living out there and haven’t been warm in a month. Some are variable, but never really get warm. In that case a judgment call has to be made: feeling clean, or being warm. I would always go with clean. It is just me. I’d throw myself under the freezing water, soap my hair, quickly wash my body, shivering and shaking, I’d dry myself on rough brown paper stolen from the toilet block, throw my clothes back on and run back to the tent or the camper, wrapping myself in blankets and crying. Don’t even ask me about the pandemic months of 2020. The showers and camps closed. I washed in a bucket. Sometimes clothed and outdoors, sometimes in Billy’s camper bathroom.
Being invisible takes work. Don’t stink. Make sure everybody looks reasonably clean and well cared for. Clothes would get washed twice a year at most. It is easier and cheaper to buy new socks and underwear (worn for a week, and lined with panty liners), than to wash them. Washing clothes is not something we had money for. We barely could afford to eat and put enough money in the tank to move around. Don’t make noise. Wrangle Billy if he gets drunk, and obnoxious. I never physically recovered from that time in Fergus. Carried him back to the camper about two miles, with him trying to start fights and refusing to take any weight on his own feet. Bastard. I needed my invisibility and he risked it and never said sorry for things he invariably could not remember.
Keep the kids quiet. I always had to keep the boy so quiet he is the quietest spoken teen boy I have ever met. Quiet, contained, moving around, never staying in one place long enough to be a part of the scenery, or if it is impossible to move around due to gas or solenoid or battery, stay silently pristine and make sure you have rolled to a part of the lot that is out of the way.
Invisible, faceless, voiceless. Safe.
I was a ghost, a non person: no identification, no story, no life, no impact. No one to help. After all, if no one can see you, how can they help you? Invisible. Disposable. Drowning. It is worse on the sidewalk with nothing to your name, and no shelter to hide. That is why we stayed rural – it was easier to hide. Hide from Pig, hide from people who I correctly didn’t trust to help me, hide from the cops who would move you and move you and move you on until you had no way of moving and just needed to rest.
Shame on those people with uniforms on, the little nazi security guards with their bad attitudes and stinking breath, banging on windows, telling ya to git. Shame on the cops. Shame on them. On the road, there comes a point that driving further is simply dangerous to everybody. Why can’t these people understand that letting people rest, that providing the basics of life – water, bathrooms, showers, the ability to shelter – if good for everybody. Why is there a culture of punishment towards the poor and the unhoused? Junkie kicking is a sport society should have grown out of. The straight world is one bad injury and a script for oxy away from hanging out on the corner trying to score some illicit pressed pills.
The family had a word for this necessary invisibility which was risked every time I opened my mouth. “Low Profile”. The sheer amount of fights the creed of low profile caused would rival any kami fights between rival acolytes of warring Gods. You see people who don’t exist face abuse that cannot be named and called out. I languished in inoffensive, safe invisibility and still managed to draw attention. Sometimes it would be a whey faced uber right winger who wanted to know where my babies were ‘from’. Sometimes they would demand to know when we were ‘going back to’ where we were ‘from’. My responses varied from snappy and cute to downright ridiculous depending on my mood. I am not naturally reticent. I am not a natural born invisible woman. I don’t blend in. I stick out like a sore thumb from beating down the nail that sticks out that is my life, and missing and hitting myself instead. “Riverside, California”, I would answer. “It’s near Los Angeles”. Which had been a starting point of sorts in ways I don’t care to explain. “Timbucktoo. Wonderful place to visit in January if you ever find yourself in that part of the world!” A little closer to home…”My grandparents are Eastern European.” I didn’t always succeed. Sometimes they would be greeted by the real me. The one that hadn’t had to squash herself down to survive. “Listen you motherfucking fascist racist small-town little cunt, you address my babies ONE more time, you say one more word to either of us, and I swear you will regret it. What right have you got to hassle us? What makes you think you are fucking immigration police? What makes you think that browner skinned babies do not belong in this country you stole? You are not from here, sweetheart. You are Eurotrash just like me, so simmer down, wind your neck in and fuck the fuck off…and when YOU get THERE..keep going baby…” Once I had worked myself into a decidedly non low profile froth, shouted down the offender and had to be rescued by Billy with his hand on his jacket pocket, shaking his head and getting a firm grip on my belt loops as I struggled to get free. “Detroit. Honey. Darling. Low. Profile.”
He was correct of course. It was not sensible. The people who demanded to know what language my child was speaking to me. The people who demanded to know what we were saying (very rarely “look at that woman, mama, she has no pants on.”…”Oh she DOES, darling they are just very short.”…”I’m too young to see that mama..my eyes burn!” Promise), the people who wanted to know my babies racial heritage, the people who wanted to know where my ‘home country’ was, the people who wanted to know how long and why and where when all those questions were dangerous for me to answer, since I was hiding from a man who, if he found me, was going to kill me. My response to this attempt to remove my invisibility was not always polite. Sometimes it bordered on verbally violent. None of the dull brained xenophobes ever understood why.
You see, it got to the point where invisible, faceless non-personhood, was going to kill me, and destroy my Boy. I had to make that jump. Make that jump after people hurt me, after the people I asked for help from destroyed me, after everything I was going to have to trust. I don’t trust. That is why I alive and dirtying this page.
So here I am. If anyone asks me now, I give them a vague answer. Sometimes the wrong one, inorder to protect myself and that kid. If people ask where I am from, I say “San Francisco, I live downtown.” If they push it and demand to know details or try guess at my heritage or my son’s, I give them a smile, and tell them that is not appropriate. I can do that now – I am not outside, I am not in a state that treats people like me in a way that is dangerous and potentially devastating to my right to a family life, I am not cold to the bone, I am inside. I have a bed. To ask that of me back then, was simply too much to expect.
I showed my face briefly to people that I am starting to try and trust. I made myself talk, not just type. Hands shaking, voice trembling, unnaturally shy, I forced myself into poking my head above the parapet. Dylan’s Black Diamond Bay, from the Desire album playing in my head. “Up on the white veranda, she wears a necktie and a Panama hat, her passport shows a face from another time and place, she looks nothing like that. And all the remnants of her past are scattered in the wild wind..” he sings about a faceless woman in tropic drag, about gambling rooms and gambles that are taken and rejected, and so inadvertently writes my life. I look nothing like that woman from ten years ago, even if I still had a passport to compare. My hair is shorter, my face is older, I am less soft, more angular, more knowing, less defeated, more disappointed. Sadder. It is too late for hope. Now is the time for desperate hard work and action. Now is the time to see what is left to wring out of life, to climb into from the poisoned nest I ran from, and then ran again.
My name is Detroit. I am from San Francisco. I need a thin black necktie and a panama hat, woven fine and made from Ecuadorian rushes, in order to feel as if the sentence is complete. I don’t know if “The loser finally broke the bank in the gambling room.” I have taken so many gambles recently – with my fragile safety, with my broken mind, with this body that hurts all the time, that I fear some of them might cost me everything I have. I hide in the fog, I live in the windows and the spaces that I hope no one will notice me, and that I might be allowed to stay with the boy in this sweet apartment. I don’t have a white veranda. I am not on Black Diamond Bay. I have another Bay to walk around wishing for colder weather now I am spoilt and inside an apartment. I suppose an earthquake isn’t out of the question. There are no volcanos here to start spewing lava onto the landscape, and Walter Cronkite has been dead a while now, but Dylans’ song still sounds like prophecy. Please no more disasters. I am tired.
It is a sign of his genius that Dylan can make his songs feel immediately relatable. We know we are Just like his woman, that we are beaten down like Hurricane, or left hoping that the world doesn’t explode. Other news sellers may have taken Cronkite’s space, filled his shiny shoes. Just as it always is. Except Dylan is irreplaceable. His humanity remains intact. His incisiveness never fades.
I will just hide here in the fog, keep the curtains drawn and drink in my invisabili-tea. Sara fades into earshot…”I can still see the shells fall out of their hands as they follow each other back up the hill” Dylan sings…It is all desire, of one breed or another.