Think Of The Homeless

There are over 30 million Americans who live on the streets of our nation. Can you consider giving something to a shelter near you? Your fellow human beings need socks because they walk everywhere. Food and shelter are great too, if they will take them. So please give.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Reviews by Hubie Goode: No Going Home, An Interview With The Homeless

No Going Home

An Interview With The Homeless

Seven days ago a man known only as “John” walked out of a court hearing for trespassing on railroad property so he could return to his “area” and feed his stray cats that roam the neighborhood in a tree lined area of Northridge in the San Fernando Valley.

“Cats have no reason to be hungry,” explains John, who although a foreigner, speaks English like a college professor. “Cats love their life, like people should. They never worry about not being better than they are. They’re cats. Its enough.”

Only a few hours ago, during the usual scorching heat of the valley, John had sat in his tent near a lonely stretch of railroad, quiet and weed riddled, listening to the news on the radio. The radio blasts its report across the seemingly forgotten stretch of rail tracks which seem almost forlorn by any train that may have once come this way. The radio reports on the death of a famous star, John looks off into the distance at the rails that go on and on and seem to only come together somewhere at the bottom of the crest of mountains that surround the entire valley.

“Jeeze, that’s so sad,” he finally chokes out in a light whisper. “We were born on the same day. He dies, and I’m still here.”

As the sun sets and the heat of the day begins to abate, there is a brief respite as gentle breezes begin to announce the oncoming cool of the desert night. He quickly forgets the harassment of the legal system and the death of a famous person as kitty cats begin to seemingly show up from some hidden dimension that they alone are aware of.

John has an old blue mountain bike that he attaches three or four old plastic grocery bags to in which he loads lots of cat food. He generally walks the bike, every night, for about six or seven hours, up and down the back streets of Northridge giving to the only creatures he knows that ask for nothing, demand nothing, harass him about nothing, they just simply “are”.

I offer to give him a ride around the streets instead, my only real contribution I can handle myself at the moment, and John agrees. “Thanks, it makes it easier, “ he tells me with sorrowful eyes that have spots and specks in their white areas that move me to distraction. Though I never mention it.

He sits next to me in my car, ripe as a trash can full of fruit left out in the midday sun and it’s all I can do not loose my lunch. It’s not a revelation I am proud to admit. He wears a long coat, which once had stuffing inside of it that made longitudinal puffs from head to toe, but now only bares tears and curious burn marks where long lost stuffing once found its own type of liberty long, long ago. He has on a green suit coat and grey slacks that do little to hide the complete lack of any leg volume beneath their obviously smeared fabric patterns. Beneath the coat is a v-neck t-shirt that has not been washed in so long I hate to even make a guess as to its current age. He is bald except for a ring of wild white hair around his crest, but the hood of his puffy coat is functional enough to help with the cold of the evening.

It’s rather late in the night when we return to the car after a cat feeding episode and I absent mindedly turn on the car radio. In the disk player is an old Stephen Curtis Chapman album I still like, and the song His Eyes has just begun. John stares straight ahead, he seems fixated on the lyrics.

His eyes are always upon you,
His eyes never close in sleep,
And no matter where you go you will always be,
In his eyes.

The song ends and John seems shocked and saddened. “I haven’t heard that song in a long, long time.” He wistfully morns. “I hear lots of hateful stuff on the radio these days, lots of deep dark voices that really can’t sing. The beats drive me crazy. Just crazy. Why don’t they play more songs like that one anymore?”

He seems concerned with lots of trivia about the world and his own life, much to his own distress. Whether he realizes this or not, is hard to say. Right now he seems very far away from concern over the legal fight with the railroad that wants to kick him out of his makeshift home near the tracks.

The Valley has an unusual way of marking the haves and have nots in that there is a literal “temporal” shift in neighborhoods the further east you go toward the Santa Susanna mountains. Glossy malls and chain stores give way to sudden influxes of small business stores like laundromats and carnecerias. John lives behind a store just over the tracks in a neighborhood that seems to be still reinventing itself, even after all this time since the destructive earthquake of 1994.

On another day, one where the temperature is some 90 degrees plus with no humidity, John tells me he has already fed the seagulls and pigeons, something he does twice a day. His radio is once again blaring the news across the stultified railroad tracks, solitary and cut off from the daily movement of the teaming populace only about 50 yards away at most, yet his home is largely invisible to the daily grind. He turns the radio off and offers me some boxed cookies from the 99 cents store and some fruit juice, the bottle is marked with something like tar and seems to have been kept in a trash bag. I ignore my natural revulsion and appease him, though inwardly I wish I had not.

“I receive a monthly welfare check,” he tells me between cookies. “I get 200 dollars a month, and food stamps.” He continues matter of factly, with little sign of remorse or self effacement. I can’t help but cringe inwardly as I remember my own figures for living requirements here in Los Angeles, those requirements that run along the costs of $3000 a month just to live here comfortably.

“I’m gonna get a job someday,” He tells me. “A man’s gotta work.”

He stares at the cookies in his hand as if they might suddenly jump from his grasp if he doesn’t keep and eye on them. He gets up and grabs an old plastic bathroom stool so we can get out of the sun and sit inside of his tent which he bought at a local store for around $100 dollars. A thick tarp has been thrown over the tent, which is necessary for reflecting the valley’s harsh midday sun. Unfortunately, John has chosen a spot to live on that is cement in every direction. Cement that turns into a baking sheet in the day and an ice trey at night. Nearby there is a railroad spur used at one time to supply goods to local businesses. There are no trees to provide him shade. There is only the long, torturous railroad track that stretches out to forever, visually bobbing and weaving in the afternoon heat, and seems to call to anyone who might pass by to join it in its dissolution.

Inside John’s tent he has a large stained up mattress and a small cage for his cat named Desiderata. He tells me the definition of the word means, “those things desired or wanted.” I don’t mention that I am quite familiar with the term.

Little multi-colored car fresheners shaped like Christmas trees hang openly all over the interior of the tent. On one wall there is a sheet of paper on which is written a poem that has faded with the sun’s rays. I ask him what the poem was since it is now impossible to read.

“It’s something I once liked a lot,” he tells me. That’s all he volunteers.

There are also small Christian crosses and American flags decorating the tent walls with a dizzying randomness. “I’m religious,” he tells me as he gestures to the crosses. “I would rather die hungry than steal.”

The interior of the tent is stacked with his belongings. He literally lives among his possessions. He shaves every day and has a makeshift shower with a gas can that hangs from a support bar that has little holes poked in it to create a shower effect. Not surprisingly, the gas can is bone dry and pushed back toward the rear wall. There is a narrow flood control channel with tumbling water a few yards beneath the small concrete bridge way where he lives, and I can only guess where the facilities are.

He tells me he doesn’t use drugs, he only smokes. He buys the cheapest smokes on sale, and he has made his own filter out of plastic straws and old cigarette filters. He can’t stop smoking even though his father, whom he seems to imply was abusive, always hassled him about it.

John is the fourth child of 11 who once lived somewhere between Jordan and Damascus, he’s not quite sure anymore just where it was or what the town was called. All he can tell me is that his family fled the area during the Six-Day War.

“You know those old Vietnam films you see with all the helicopters? That’s what it was like, complete pandemonium (his word). Tanks and helicopters were shooting at everyone. Everyone was running.”

He learned to speak English in school but didn’t have much stomach for studying. “Besides, my father wanted me to work.” He says with a long breath.

He left school surprisingly, at the seventh grade, and got a job as a cement mixer. He made about $6 dollars a week. “We needed to help my dad,” he explains. “ It was important to support the family. We got sixty cents a week for ourselves, but that used to last a week.”

The 70’s were a turbulent time, but John was a kid with kid concerns. He could then buy a Pepsi with three cents and a pack of cigarettes with the same. When caught smoking he would be beaten and kicked out of the house. He would go to special places in the town where he could meet other kids who had also been banished from the house. Many of the kids in his forgotten land were victims of abuse in the home.

Sometimes these kids would organize and sneak back into their own homes to rifle through the food stores or take some of dad’s money. They would all then go hide someplace and smoke all night.

John says his mother was a good hearted woman who used to feed stray cats. His brother met an American girl and moved to New Jersey, then his brother sent for him to come and live here in America with him.

“That was 1976,” he says, nodding with solicitous affection. “The whole world was different then. That’s when America was truly America.”

more on this next time

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