Day 22 Of My Winter Break…
As I wait to hear from the Fulbright committee about my application to do “in-depth journalism” (a label that I wouldn’t readily use to describe any work that I’m capable of doing at this point) in rural China, the challenge that looms most daunting is that of the interview. I’ve never really conducted interviews like the ones I’m proposing to do in China, and I thought I could use some practice. In China I will be interviewing villagers about their lives and their opinions on migration, urbanization, Chinese society, as well as their feelings about their private life. My concerns lie in my ability to engage them in conversations in such a way that is both non-invasive and insightful, non-exhausting and exhaustive. This can I only be done, I think, over a long period of time, and with adequate trust on the part of the participants. I could, however, replicate a first interview (the hardest, I predict) with people who I am not necessarily comfortable speaking with. This is how I came to the idea of speaking with homeless people. I would find them on the street, or in a park, and try to spark a conversation. Afterward, I’d give them some money for their trouble, and not feel that I was exploiting them. Below is an account of my encounters with two men affected by homelessness in San Diego.
I thought a lot about ways I could approach people that would balance truth with the desire to come off as both purposeful and respectful in my self-assigned mission. I finally landed on an opening line that sounded appropriate: “Hi, my name’s Simon. I’m a student at San Diego State University (true) and I’m doing a project (half-true) that involves speaking with people affected by poverty in San Diego.”
It took me a while to decide on “people affected by poverty.” I wasn’t going to a homeless shelter, so I couldn’t say “people affected by homelessness” because I simply could not know. I was walking the streets of downtown San Diego looking for people who looked destitute, and judging based on the most superficial criteria imaginable.
Acknowledging my flawed system of finding participants, I wanted to be as ambiguous as possible in my explanation of why I approached any given individual. At the same time, I didn’t want to lie to them — perhaps out of a naive or overly self-conscious sense of truth. That’s how I landed on “people affected by poverty.”
I parked my car on the edge of Balboa park at around 10:30am because I had seen a few people there before who looked like they were homeless, or otherwise impoverished. I immediately spotted a short, hispanic-looking man camped out on the grass and parked my car. He appeared to be folding his bedding — some orange and purple blankets — and organizing socks strewn around his patch of grass. He had a large black suitcase with some clothes, Bibles and a knapsack beside him.
I approached him, said hi, and was happy to hear him return the greeting. Then I gave him my opening line, to which he replied, “I’m not affected by poverty.” Dammit, I thought. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have assumed that you were.”
“What is it you wanna know?” he asked me. I was nervous. Off to a bad start.
“I want to know about you,” I said clumsily. “I want to know your story.”
“My story?” he said incredulously. He never stopped moving since I’d approached him, walked onto the grass next to his blankets and squatted awkwardly in an effort to make myself shorter than him. He was collecting socks scattered around his blankets, taking things out of and putting things into his suitcase.
“The problem is that people are adulterers, man. People are adulterers to children. They don’t hear God. God’s name is Jehovah.”
He talked for with me for some time about God and the sins of “people.” He was wearing a sleeveless sweater V-neck and shorts. He wasn’t fat, but when he lifted his arms I saw that the shape of his stomach was strangely contorted, like a snake was coiled around his abdomen.
I felt that I should let him talk because he was doing me a favor by speaking to me — some kid who wanted his “story.” In a way, he was giving to me, safely coded in a sacred, shared language.
Then he took out his knapsack from his suitcase. Its apparent weight and bulge made me curious, and slightly tense. I understood the potential danger of approaching people who may be intellectually or emotionally unstable, and asking them to tell me about their life. But I was confident that being in a public park would mitigate the potential for being attacked.
I asked him if like San Diego. He said, “God’s in San Diego,” and continued to condemn the wickedness of “people” who do things only for themselves. I wondered if he was referring to me. After all, I was imposing on him to get some material for a “project.”
Finally he opened his knapsack and took out a pair of pliers with a red handle. My tension rose. He continued to reprimand selfishness and extol Jehovah’s teachings. Then he took out a large rock, and then another one. I started to imagine how he could attack me with two large rocks.
“What is it exactly you’re doing?” he asked me suddenly.
“I’m just talking to people in the neighborhood,” I said, trying to avoid any possible offense. “I’m just collecting peoples’ stories.”
He blew his nose loudly into a sock, which he then used to polish a worn pair of black dress shoes.
“Are you gonna stay here all day?” I asked in an effort to understand something concrete about his life.
“Yeah, I’m gonna exercise,” he said to my surprise.
“Exercise your mind and spirit?” I asked, gesturing to his many Bibles.
“I lift rocks,” he said, looking at me for the first time in our conversation. I noticed his teeth were crooked and gapped. His eyes were long and not so much sad as disappointed. Disappointed, perhaps, in the “people” who had contributed to his misfortune. They communicated a reluctance to expect anything more than a few dollars. He did not seem to possess a particular desire to share his story, nor any illusions that doing so would amount to anything but a loss of his time and energy.
I gave him a dollar and he said “God bless you.” For what is, I think, the first time in my life, I replied, “God bless you too.”
I didn’t walk far before I found another man who looked like he was homeless. He seemed to me at the time to be the quintessential homeless man. I first saw him from the back — a camouflage lump, capped with a mop of dirty grey hair. He was the elderly homeless man who doesn’t frighten, who exists in the periphery of sight and smell, whose presence or behavior you wouldn’t likely recount to a friend later that day.
I approached him more timidly than I had the first man. I made eye contact, smiled, nodded, he nodded back and asked if I had anything to eat. I said, “no, I’m sorry.”
“It’s hard out here, man,” he said.
“Where are you from?” I asked him, happy that he’d given me an opening.
“I’m from Crest. Not Hillcrest. You know El Cajon? Crest over by El Cajon.”
“And what brought you out here?”
“They brought me in an ambulance. But it’s hard out here. Crest was much better. Everyone knows me over there.”
A plane rumbled loudly overhead. His eyes were bloodshot and foggy. He had a long white beard. I asked if I could sit down. He said yes.
“Why were you in an ambulance, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“My legs are torn up. I crawled halfway here from Scripps Mercy.” He motioned towards his legs. His jeans were very dirty and the one leg was locked-out in front of him. He shook badly.
“Is that why you can’t work?” I asked, trying to sound more sympathetic than judgmental.
“I can walk from about here to the other side of the street.” The distance he referred to was about fifty meters. “I just don’t like to impose myself on people, you know? It’s a matter of pride. It just took my pride away.”
“And that’s why you’re out here?” I asked, trying to avoid using the word “homeless.”
“Well, I have no family.”
Tom was born in San Diego to a family that would disband soon after. His father was “in the service,” which apparently kept him away, and his mother moved to Oregon. Tom grew up with his grandparents, who seem to have been a strong presence in his life. They died when Tom was 8 — he recalled the exact date without any hesitation — and he went to Oregon to live with his mother. He didn’t have much to say about his mother, except that she was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and couldn’t continue taking care of Tom after some years. He moved back to San Diego to live with his dad and step mom who was unkind to him, and who he had considerable contempt for:
“I left the bathroom light on and she’d make me stay in my room for two weeks. That’s not right.”
“So did you leave?”
“Yeah I left to Missouri and raised chickens. I had thousands of chickens. A huge coup,” he showed me how big his coup would be if it were transported in front of us.
“I made $150 a week doing that. My mom and my brothers and my cousins all came to live in my house.”
Tom moved lucidly from one scene of his story to the next with what may easily have been mistaken for ease, if not for his shaking and the pained look on his face. I was constantly searching for signs that he did not want to speak with me, but he seemed to enjoy telling his story, so I listened.
After a few years raising chickens, Tom moved to Washington state to work on tractor trailers and other vehicles with his “great cousin-in-law.” In an incident that I did not ask him to elaborate on, he assaulted a cop and put in jail for two years. I asked him if he was in a protest, and he replied that he “just doesn’t like cops,” with a little chuckle. “Alright,” I said with an affirmative smile and nod.
When he got out of jail, Tom moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma to work for Montgomery Ward building bridge beams. Some years later he got married to his best friend’s sister and they moved back to Missouri, to a city called Branson. Branson lies at the bend of a thin, winding lake named Lake Taneycomo. It was on this lake that Tom says he became a pirate.
“Excuse me? Did you say pirate?” A large plane had just passed and I wasn’t sure I’d heard him correctly.
“Yeah, I was a pirate,” he chuckled again.
How he came to rob large ships on Lake Taneycomo is unclear. When I asked him about his pirate days, he told me that he and his pirate crew would sail out on a small boat, jump aboard larger boats, brandish weapons and demand gold. Why gold, I’m not sure. What commercial ship would carry gold when it’s traveling domestically on a river? It’s one of the details that makes me doubt the truth of his story. But it only got more farfetched.
So they’d jump aboard this ship and demand gold. Tom described it like this:
“We’d say: where’s the gold?! And a small boy would bring it to us in a sack. Sometimes when they didn’t have gold, they’d fill the sack with rocks and then give it to us. When they didn’t have any gold, I’d say: I’ll take her!”
“Excuse me? You took what?” My sympathy came to a halt.
“I’d say: I’ll take her! A girl. I wasn’t as ugly as I am now. We’d take her on the boat and bring her back to shore.”
I didn’t ask about this. If he was lying, which I suspected he was, it was a distasteful lie. He said that being a pirate was not compatible with married life, so he quit.
The rest of his story remains vague to me. He hitchhiked across the country and found himself back in San Diego county. At some point he was hospitalized because he needed to have cartilage taken out of his legs — a cause and effect of his inability to walk, I assume. His stay at the hospital was not an enjoyable experience for him because of the large amount of Asian staff there. He told me that he doesn’t like Asians. When I asked why, he told me that there are so many of them that they’ve lost any sense of human compassion.
“There’s an abundancy of people over there,” he said. “How can they care for one person? I know we’re all from other continents, that’s fine. We all came from Africa and Asia.” He understood that he wasn’t being particularly fair to Asians by discriminating against them, but he disliked them nonetheless. His dislike seemed like more of a reflex than a rational decision. I wonder if he recognized that I’m half Asian.
Tom asked me what I did, and I told him I was a student at San Diego State University. He asked what I studied, and I told him literature. He told me that he went to a community college in San Diego — he doesn’t remember the name — and took classes in sociology and psychology, among other subjects.
He asked me where I was from, I told him upstate New York. He said he’d been to New York City once for a wrestling tournament. This sparked my interest, and I asked him about wrestling. He said he’d taken 2nd place in a high school national wrestling competition.
“That’s very impressive,” I said.
I asked if he was religious and his was the classic modern moral-vacuum crisis-of-belief answer: “God is just a word.” He believed that good and bad were relative, that people should do what they please to a reasonable extent, that the key to living a good life is balance.
When I got home I did some research on pirates in Lake Taneycomo, and found out that a popular tourist attraction involved a mini-cruise across the lake, and part of the entertainment was an attack by a band of fictional pirates. Tom, I assume, was one of those actors who jumped on board the cruise ship and scared the children senseless. That is, until they discovered it was all a farce and cracked-up laughing alongside their one-eyed, gold-seeking captors.
Tom told me that he was going through withdrawal. He was an alcoholic, and the day I spoke with him marked a week without drinking; not by choice, but by necessity. He told me that more people die from alcohol withdrawal than from heroin withdrawal. Tom also has Parkinson’s. The only thing he had besides the clothes he was wearing was a plastic water jug. Each time he brought it to his lips he trembled so much that I thought he was going to splash water everywhere.
He said he could go back to Crest if he could just get to the trolley. My car was parked a few feet away, and I thought about taking him. I thought about the smell, the lice, the germs; the idea that I could let those things stop me from helping this poor man disgusted me. But in the end, I didn’t give him a ride. Instead I gave him $3. It was easier for me. And yet, looking back, I regret not giving him that ride.
I hope to, at some point, have more time to collect stories like Tom’s. When we assume, guess, or imagine another person’s story based on superficial evidence, it is more than a disservice to them and ourselves — it is prejudice. Prejudice has given way to countless injustices, and it is only through understanding the story of an individual that this tendency can be countered. A homeless person invites a host of negative prejudices by virtue of his/her presence, and these prejudices manifest themselves in everything from petty disrespect to violence. For this reason, it is imperative that their stories are heard.