Writer spends time on street, in rescue mission, at Hare Krishna temple

Notes from a vagrant

I decided to enjoy my evening repast near the fountain at Horton Plaza. I wondered where I should sleep this night.
  • I decided to enjoy my evening repast near the fountain at Horton Plaza. I wondered where I should sleep this night.
  • Image by Robert Burroughs

The challenge was simple: I would take only the clothes I wore, without a change. I would carry with me no money, nor anything that I might pawn. 1 would stay away from my home and the homes of my friends, and would have no contact with anyone I knew for seven full days. Many people — the destitute, alcoholic, disenfranchised — were able to live this way; but the question was, could I? '

"The plasma centers mark their donors’ hands with a liquid that shows up under the light, so we can tell how long it’s been since you last donated,”

"The plasma centers mark their donors’ hands with a liquid that shows up under the light, so we can tell how long it’s been since you last donated,”

Monday, July 14

I wore a blue knit cap, a red-plaid lumberjack shirt, a red T-shirt, straight-leg Levis with a hole at the left knee, a pair of white gym socks under dirty, white sneakers, and a faded denim jacket. This is what I carried: three packs of cigarettes, three small notepads, one Bic ballpoint pen, and a bedroll made from a surplus army blanket and four feet of nylon rope. The jacket, cigarettes, and notepads were rolled into the blanket, which was tied at either end with the rope and slung over my shoulder. Thus armed, I closed the front door behind me and marched from my home in Golden Hill, down the west-facing slope, toward downtown San Diego.

City Rescue Mission. You were required to arrive ten minutes early in order to hear a short sermon.

City Rescue Mission. You were required to arrive ten minutes early in order to hear a short sermon.

At the comer of Fourth Avenue and E Street a large man with food on his chin was enthusiastically talking to himself. He squinted at me suspiciously, wobbled in my direction, and asked, “Man, can you lend me a quarter?”

“Brother, I was going to ask you the same thing.”



He let slip a slightly boozy giggle, then asked, “Oh well, how about a smoke?”

I gave him one and offered a match.

An ad in a local paper said the Hare Krishnas in Pacific Beach offered free evening meals.

An ad in a local paper said the Hare Krishnas in Pacific Beach offered free evening meals.

“Guess who I just saw over on Fifth?” he continued. “Michael Jackson. You know, the singer. Like, he told me he’s down here to express his heart to some girl.”

“You mean he’s just walking around town?”

“Yeah, it’s weird, I know. Usually he just lets me see him, but I guess he's going to start letting you all see him.”

I walked the two miles to the beach and slept on my blanket.

I walked the two miles to the beach and slept on my blanket.

We parted and I continued walking until I reached the City Rescue Mission on Fifth between Market and Island streets. It was only ten-thirty in the morning, but lunch was served at eleven, and if you wanted to eat, you were required to arrive ten minutes early in order to hear a short sermon. The mission chapel was a large, brick-walled auditorium with about 200 folding chairs in neat rows. There was a raised platform at one end of the room, surmounted by a podium for the preacher. There looked to be close to 200 men inside — a full house.

An uncombed young man sitting across the aisle from me scratched lazily at the clump of beard that grew only under his chin. In his lap were several religious books, which he shuffled from bottom to top in a stuporous, dreamlike motion. He turned to a middle-aged man behind him — a man with a butch haircut and a short beard — and asked if he had any matches. “Yes,” came the curt reply, as if the question had been an insult. “I have matches.” The younger man turned back in his seat and mumbled, “Okay.” End of conversation. An old man, in his sixties, perhaps, shuffled into the chapel and sat next to the young man with the odd underchin beard. The old man wore lime-green, felt bedroom slippers without socks. Both feet were hideously swollen, with open, running sores and dirty, pus-filled blisters. There was a muted muttering among the men in the chapel (there were only two or three women inside) until a man walked to the podium and began to speak.

The minister wore jeans and a sports shirt, and read a passage from the Gospel according to Mark. He drew an analogy about how all of us probably should have been dead by now (“I myself should have been dead seven times that I can think of,” he said) except that we are little seeds of God who grow up to be big trees so that the birds might rest in our branches. As he spoke, the man with the butch haircut began meditating, touching the thumb and forefinger of each hand together and laying the backs of his hands in his lap with his other fingers extended. He began to mumble, and seemed to be chanting. "Ho nam rrtyo renge kyo.”

After the sermon, an usher let the men file out of their seats one row at a time. It surprised me a bit how patiently everyone waited their turn. Our bedrolls were left behind in the chapel as we filed into the dining room. The first men were hard fast at eating by the time the last of us entered the room, with its long tables and folding chairs. There were two men with Mohawk haircuts sitting across from me, one of whom was obese and wore a leg brace. To expedite the meal, the food had been served before we arrived in the dining room. On the table in front of each man was an aluminum cup of water, an aluminum bowl of mustard-colored soup, three rolls, and a glazed donut. The soup — a vegetable broth of sorts — was very peppery, and after one swallow, I coughed until tears rolled down my cheeks. The dinner rolls were hard as concrete. As I bit into one of them, I realized how the many toothless men about me might have gotten that way. The donuts were a little better, although they were doughy. All in all, the water was best. I left the table with my bowl, cup, and spoon and dropped them in a bucket of sudsy water by the door, then retrieved my bedroll from the chapel and set out to make some money, somehow.

Perhaps the surest way of earning some cash, I thought, would be to sell my plasma, although I had never done so and hadn’t the faintest idea how one went about such things. At the comer of Market and Sixth, at the Episcopal Community Services building, a few rumpled men were leaning against the brick wall on the sidewalk. One of them directed me to the San Diego Plasma Center at Tenth and F. where I arrived a few minutes past noon. My signature was added to a list handed me by the receptionist and I took a seat in the waiting room with five others. My name was soon called and I entered a section of the waiting room partitioned on three sides by movable walls. A nurse, who never looked me in the eye, had me store my bedroll under a table, then asked a few questions about my general health. She weighed me. took a Polaroid snapshot of me, and waved a hand-held fluorescent light over my outspread hands. “All the plasma centers mark their donors’ hands with a liquid that shows up under the light, so we can tell how long it’s been since you last donated,” she said. “Is this your first time?” I told her it was, and she said, “You can only donate twice in one week, and you have to wait at least two days between donations.” (It was at this point that I was struck by the inappropriateness of the terms “donor” and “donation.” I soon learned that they are commonly used words in the plasma-for-sale industry.)

Presently six other donors and I were called into the main room of the clinic, where we sat at a counter that resembled a soda fountain. Each of us handed our charts to the technician. At this station of the operation we were to have our blood checked for impurities, as well as to have our blood pressure and body temperature recorded. The technician began three men to my right and pricked the middle finger of the first man, squeezing blood into a tiny tube. He dabbed the bloody finger with a cotton ball, then did the same to the next man. As he headed toward me, I looked at the clean-cut, blue-eyed young man next to me, who read the question in my eyes. “Sometimes it hurts good,” he said, “and sometimes it hurts bad.” His name was Tony, a drama student at City College. Although he was not forced into selling plasma to avoid starvation, he had developed a philosophy about his donations, a rationalization for the ghoulish practice of selling his body fluids. “I pay money to buy food to put into my body,” he explained, “so doesn’t it seem fair that my body should be doing its part to bear some of the cost?” Before I could answer, there was a sharp sting in my finger, then a thermometer was jammed into my mouth. The technician worked his way back down the line taking pulses and reading blood pressures. He strapped the pneumatic pressure meter around my upper arm, checked the measurement, and removed the device. I looked at my arm and saw something squirming. It was a body louse.

Two of us were told to go to the toilet for urine samples. I spilled some of mine over the edge of the cup and received an irritated look from the urine analyst, a man in a white lab coat. The other donors were allowed to go through with the process, but I was made to return to the technician for a larger blood sample, because I was a first-timer. He slipped the needle into the crook of my left arm, filled a tube with blood, then sent me back to the reception area, where I waited forty-five minutes to see the doctor.

The doctor, a bored-looking man with a thick beard, invited me into his examination room. He asked me the same questions about my health that the nurse had asked me earlier, then directed me to disrobe entirely and to drape my clothes over the back of a folding metal chair. On the examination table he listened to my lungs and heart, then told me to stand. He asked me what I thought of the Republican National Convention, and told me to turn in a circle. I did so, offering my opinion about Ronald Reagan in the process. The doctor pronounced me fit enough to sell plasma, told me to don my clothing, and sent me back to the waiting room.

My name was called after a thirty-minute wait, and I entered a large room furnished with thirty-two recliner easy chairs, most of them occupied by people with tubes running from their arms. I was led to an empty chair, where a male nurse prepared my arm for the needle. “Will it hurt?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said, grimly.

Before he stuck me with the needle, I took in the surreal surroundings. Men and women lounged lazily in the chairs, reading magazines or dozing, while hung above them were gurgling bags of blood. Selling plasma differs from selling whole blood in that, in the former, the plasma and the blood are separated, and the red cells are then returned to the donor. In this way, the body is not as weakened as it would be if the blood cells were not returned.

The bearded nurse held the needle in front of me; quite a large needle, I thought, rather like a cabinetmaker’s nail. The nurse gripped a pneumatic pressure gauge around my upper arm and put a rubber ball in my right hand. “Squeeze that,” he said. “Let’s get a good vein to pop up.”

He found a vein he liked and slipped the large needle under the skin. It was only mildly painful, and after he taped the needle in place the pain turned into a dull sensation of pressure. He told me to continue squeezing the rubber ball. “The muscle action helps the blood flow faster,” he said, “and the faster it flows, the sooner you’ll be finished.” I began to squeeze rapidly.

When the plastic bag that hung below the arm of my chair was filled, a different nurse disconnected it from the tube, while leaving the needle in my arm. Ten minutes later she returned with the blood, the wheat-colored liquid called plasma having been separated, and hung the bag on a rack above my head. The blood and a saline solution were connected to the needle and tube coming from my arm, and I felt a prickly warmth tickle its way through my body. After the blood and saline solution had emptied into my blood stream, the procedure was repeated. When I had filled a second plastic bag, another nurse collected it for the separation of the plasma.

It had taken nearly four hours to complete the process and I was anxious to be done with it. A nurse finally removed the needle from my arm and taped me up with a cotton ball and some masking tape; however, she did a very poor job of it. I carried my chart out to the receptionist to get my payment, but before Ireached her, I felt a wet warmth all over my right forearm — it was drenched in blood, with more of the thick, red liquid oozing from the poorly bandaged wound in my vein. The receptionist threw several Kleenexes at me and screeched, “Get back in there! Go see the nurse!” The nurse who had wrapped my arm was very apologetic, and set about to re wrap me. She did such a splendid job of it this time, though, that I had to remove the new bandage fifteen minutes later, as it was so tight that it restricted the flow of blood to my hand, which soon became puffy and swollen from lack of circulation.

After my arm was retaped, I returned to the receptionist, who had me sign a receipt. I retrieved my bedroll and she handed me a green bill, folded in half. I unfolded it and slipped it into my pocket. For more than four hours of my time, and who knows how much plasma, my payment was a ten-dollar bill.

Later that afternoon, around five-thirty, I found myself near the county courthouse at Broadway and Union, where 1 noticed some sort of commotion. A number of protest marchers were parading on the sidewalk. Scores of sheriff’s deputies and police officers — many in plain clothes with telltale walkie-talkies bulging in their back pants pockets — patrolled the area for several blocks in all directions. Someone handed me a flyer which said the marchers were socialists who were protesting the installation of Ku Klux Klan leader Tom Metzger on the county Democratic Party central committee. I leaned against the wall of the Can-Can topless a-go-go bar and watched the spectacle.

Two riot-helmeted deputies approached me. “May we see you a minute?” one of them asked. I said of course they could. The second one said, "Over here, please," and walked to a parking lot on the north side of the building, away from the crowd.

“Are you with them?” asked the first cop, indicating the protesters.

“No, sir.”

The second cop ordered me to unwrap my bedroll. My blanket and rope were tied so securely, however, that I really didn’t want to bother, but when I began to object, the second deputy commanded, “Open it!” They poked around the folds of the blanket and the pockets of my jacket, and were joined by four other officers. “What do we got here?” said a newly arrived officer.

“You from around here?’’ asked another.

“From L.A.,” I lied, rolling up my blanket with the second cop’s unspoken permission. I knotted the rope into a sling and hooked the bedroll over my shoulder. I faced the six cops, all of whom were staring at me. “Get the hell out of here,” said the first cop.

The sun began to slink behind Point Loma and I followed Broadway down to the waterfront. Under my sleeve I could feel a trickle of blood down my arm. I sat on a curb along the harborside promenade near the Star of the Sea Room restaurant and exposed the spot where the needle had been. The tiny Band-Aid with which I had replaced the larger bandage this afternoon had come undone, and I had inadvertently torn off the fresh scab. As I tried to reapply the Band-Aid, a woman — a snappily dressed tourist-type in her late thirties — and a ten-year-old girl passed in front of me. “What in heaven’s name happened to you?” she asked me, observing the mess on my arm. Then she changed her tone from one of dismay to one of admonition. “Did you sell blood?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You didn’t have to do that.”

“No ma’am, but I was broke.” Meantime, her daughter was jumping beside me, yelling, “What’d he do, mommy? What’d he do?”

“He sold his blood, honey. For money.”

I was about to ask her for a quarter when her husband walked by, looked at me with mild interest, and continued on. The woman and child hurried to join him. As they scurried down the quay, I heard the woman’s voice filter back to me. “Oh, nothing. He just sold his blood,” she explained to her husband. “That’s all.”

At around nine o’clock I ventured to the Popular Market at Broadway and Twelfth, where I bought some Farmer John-brand liverwurst and a small box of Uneeda biscuits to eat and a plastic jar of Happy Time grape drink to wash it down. Total cost: $1.57. I decided to enjoy my evening repast al fresco near the fountain at Horton Plaza. While munching on the food, I wondered where I should sleep this night — the park or an all-night theater. Considering that I wanted to conserve as much money as possible, I decided on the park.

But before I could plunge a second Uneeda biscuit into the tube of liverwurst, an ambulance pulled up to Jumbo's Snack Shop at the comer of Fourth and Plaza. Within seconds, four wailing police cars arrived. I shoved the food back into the bag and hurried over to see what the trouble was. There was a crowd of some fifty late-nighters, and I squeezed my way up front. There on the spit-stained sidewalk a blond, teen-age boy was lying on his back, a gaping stab wound in his exposed chest allowing the blood to gush out onto the concrete walkway. Next to me were two teen-age boys, both quite agitated. “But man, I don’t have no ID,” said the smaller of the two to the other. “What am I going to tell them?”

“Give ’em a phony last name,” said the second boy.

Just then a policeman grabbed the first boy’s shoulder. The boy did not hesitate one second before squealing an appeal. “Man, I had to stab him,” he said to the policeman. “He was gonna stab me first, man. I had to stab him.”

A girl with shoulder-length blond hair rushed up behind me, put her hand on my back, and peeked over my shoulder. “It’s Chris!” she shrieked. “Oh my God! It’s Chris! It’s Chris! They stabbed Chris!” My appetite having trickled away down the gutter with the blood from Chris’s stab wound, I walked south on Fourth Avenue to the Barbet Saloon. There I ordered a forty-five-cent beer and further contemplated my sleeping arrangements. Now I was leaning more toward the all-night movie house. Less than twenty minutes after the barman had pulled my draft, the same group of teen-agers that had been hovering around the wounded boy on the sidewalk passed by the doors of the Bar-bet. Moments later there were shouts and screams outside, and several of us drinking in the bar ran to the doorway to investigate. Two more teen-age boys walked past us, and one of them covertly slid a razor-blade paper cutter down the front of his trousers, as if to hide the makeshift weapon. Behind them, another boy held the tattered arm of his shirt where he had been cut. He was screaming obscenities between screeches of pain. The bartender came up from behind me and gently pulled me back into the bar. The doors swung closed and were locked tightly. “Last time this happened,” the barman said, “they brought the fight right into .the bar. But no more. Not this time

Tuesday, July 15

I first saw the feet of Officer J. Teffy at five minutes past seven this morning. He greeted me while I still slept. “Get up!” he shouted.

When I heard his command, I quickly jerked myself into a standing position — so quickly, though, that I tripped over my own feet and nearly toppled onto the wet grass in front of him. “Oh God,” I worried to myself. “Now he’s going to think I’m drunk.”

But perhaps I should retrace my steps of the previous night. After finishing my beer at the Barbet, I went to the Balboa Theater, which was featuring Airplane, Up in Smoke, and Meatballs. The ticket cost $3.50 — a good portion of my plasma earnings — but I found solace in the fact that the films were to be screened “all night,” according to the marquee.

The back row seemed the best place to sit, because I would be able to rest my head against the rear wall. Sleep came and went, interrupted by fits of wakefulness. Besides the crashes and booms from the film soundtracks, there were other disturbances. The easy-listening music played during the intermissions, for instance, was far too loud. Two teen-age girls, one of whom held a crying infant, chattered incessantly. Sitting two rows behind them were three rummies who kept shouting at one another and dropping the bottles of booze they had sneaked inside. Also, a little old man whom I christened Mr. Broken Neck (because of the way his head drooped at a right angle to his body) snored excessively. The broken-down seats themselves were an impediment to sleep. I squirmed all night in an effort to get comfortable, but to no avail. My neck hurt. My shoulders tightened up. The small of my back ached. And a throbbing pain at my temples tortured me. Even so, I had begun to drift off into that nether world of almost-sleep when the house lights came on and an usher began shaking the less wakeful among us. The show, it seemed, was over.

In the lobby, the clock read 4:35 a.m. Mr. Broken Neck came hopping out of the theater as if he had slept on a king-size waterbed. In his arms he held a paper bag filled with his possessions. He came onto the sidewalk and looked at the news racks with the morning papers; his bent neck was at just the right angle to read the headlines without stooping. He began to whistle “Tie a Yellow Ribbon.”

It being such an ungodly hour, Balboa Park seemed a likely haven to catch a few hours of solid sleep before the sun came up. On my way there, I picked up a cardboard box from a trash heap for later use. Once at the park I walked across the damp grass to a place called Marston Point, just east of Sixth Avenue overlooking Interstate 5. The cardboard box, once it was torn flat, made a fine mattress against the dew on the ground. I spread out my bedroll, pulled my watch cap over my ears, snuggled down under the blanket, and fell utterly, completely asleep. It was all too soon after this that I was greeted by the policeman.

Credit must be given to Officer Teffy; somehow, he had managed to drive his patrol car right onto the grass, within three feet of my sleeping form, without my having heard him. Immediately I pleaded innocent of a sort. “I haven’t been here all night,” I protested. “I was at the Balboa movie theater and it let out at four-thirty, and I was just resting here until the sun came up, really, and. ...”

“Oh, bullshit!” Teffy snarled. “You were here all night, and don’t try to tell me anything different.”

“I said I slept in the theater all night, and that’s where I was.”

“Let’s see some identification,” he ordered.

I couldn't tell if he believed me or not, but handed him my driver’s license anyway. He ran my name over the police radio to check for outstanding warrants. The response was negative. “You still live at this address?” he asked, glancing at my license.

I said I did not, that I lived in Los Angeles, and that I had come to San Diego to visit a friend who no longer lived here.

"I’m not sending you to jail this time,” he said, giving me back my ID card, “but I’ve entered your name into a computer so that if any other officer stops you for sleeping in the park, the information will be on there that you received a warning from me." He paused for effect, then adopted what must have been a well-rehearsed, ferocious glare. "We don’t allow this kind of shit in this town. Now get out!”

He climbed back into his cruiser and drove away while I rolled up my gear and stumbled sleepily to a picnic bench. I pulled out the crackers and liverwurst from the night before and spread them out before me; it was then that I realized what a dismal breakfast it was going to be.

After eating, it came time to determine how I should spend my day. By now I recognized that one of the hardships I faced — although it might not sound like a true hardship — was coping with boredom; there are a lot of hours in a day, and when there is no work to be done, no task to be accomplished, there is the question of how to fill the hours (without at the same time emptying the pocketbook). As long as one was destined to be bored, one might as well be bored in a pretty place. I opted for the beach. Besides, an ad in a local paper said the Hare Krishna sect in Pacific Beach offered free evening meals to the public. Pacific Beach it was to be.

I caught a ride at the First Avenue on-ramp of the northbound lanes of Interstate 5. The driver took me to Garnet Avenue at the eastern border of Pacific Beach, and dropped me off with a wish of good luck. I walked the two miles to the beach and slept on my blanket, which I had spread out on the sand next to the seawall. As it was not yet nine-thirty, the shadow of the seawall extended over me and the air was cool and slightly breezy. In less than an hour, though, the sun had risen above my shadow-shelter and beat down directly on me. The heat became too much, dressed as I was in my long pants, so I refolded my blanket and headed north along the boardwalk to a sidewalk oasis of grass and palm trees, in the shade of which I slept for several hours. I was very, very tired.

When it came near six o’clock, I walked east on Grand Avenue to the 1000 block, where I arrived at the local headquarters of the Center for Krishna Consciousness. I was met at the doorway of the two-story structure by a man dressed in saffron robes. His skull was shaved, save for a circular patch of hair on the crown of his pear-shaped head. I asked him if this were the place where free meals were served. “This must be it,” he said, a hint of the streets in his voice. “I eat here all the time.’’

Dinner comprised a peppery soup (far too reminiscent of the rescue mission soup for my liking), a green salad, rice, and a watered-down lemonade referred to as nectar. I gobbled it down like a starving man.

Because I had nothing else to do after the meal. I accepted an invitation to dance and chant with the temple devotees. After forty minutes of singing the Hare Krishna mantra, though, I had had enough and was ready to leave. But before I could slip out the door, one of the devotees told me that if I needed a place to sleep that night, I could stay at the temple’s guest house. I humbly accepted, and slept that night on a bottom bunk with a bare wooden board for a mattress.

Wednesday, July 16

A devotee entered the bedroom at four o’clock this morning. “Mark,’’ he whispered. “Get up.”

For a confused moment I had forgotten where I was. The devotee handed me a towel in the dark room. “Take a quick shower,” he said. “The others have been awake for an hour.” (The devotees rise at three o’clock every morning to chant and dance. They allow their guests to “sleep in” until four.)

The shower spouted only cold water, but it felt good and invigorating, nonetheless. I returned to the bedroom and noticed that I had a roommate who had slept the night in the top bunk above me. I had not heard him arrive last night. His name was Bob and he wore his hair in a crewcut. We spoke to each other on the short walk from the guest house to the temple, and he said he had only recently arrived in San Diego, by bus, from Wilmington, Delaware. Upon his arrival, he had teamed up with another traveler and together they had gone to Mission Beach to go swimming, but not before hiding their backpacks, including their money, in some faraway bushes. In the course of their afternoon swim, they became separated. When Bob returned to the hiding place, both packs were missing and his friend was not to be seen. For two days he had wandered around the city with only the clothes he had worn to the beach. It was in that condition he had found his way to the Krishna temple not long after me.

Bob and I joined the chanting devotees, but then sat against a wall, away from the rest, and talked some more. "What would you do in my position?” Bob asked. “It’ll cost me $96.50 to get a bus ticket back to Wilmington.”

He could hitchhike, I suggested, mentioning that it was not uncommon for people to offer travelers meals and beds for the night. He seemed to consider this. “You could also sell your plasma and work up some money that way,” I said. “They give you ten dollars.”

He was obviously confused by his situation, unwilling to come to a decision. The fact that he had spent time in seven mental hospitals (as he had confessed earlier) may have had something to do with this inability to decide his plans. I left him in his confusion and told a devotee named Parickus that I was going to leave. Parickus followed me outside and said I could stay as long as I wished. Bob trailed us onto the sidewalk outside the temple. I begged pardon and left them both to reclaim my gear in the guest house. When I walked outside again, preparing to leave. Bob and Parickus were talking on the front lawn. I sat down next to them and listened. ‘‘And let’s say if I got married,” Bob hypothesized. ‘‘You mean you guys would take care of everything?”

“Everything would be taken care of,” assured Parickus.

“Food, a place to live, everything?” “Everything.”

The doubt in Bob’s voice was gone. He seemed ready to grasp at the offer and cling to it. I doubted very much that he would soon return to Wilmington. I interjected my good-byes to them both and walked back toward the beach.

Once again I faced a completely unstructured day, my only obligation being survival. Whimsically, I decided to take a walk, and headed north toward La Jolla. Soon I was on Camino de la Costa, a road of mansions that meanders along the coastline near Bird Rock. For lunch (a lone orange) I stopped at Scripps Park near La Jolla Cove. Up the bluffs below UCSD I walked, and down Torrey Pines Road into Del Mar. Past the race track, through Solana Beach, I continued onward. As the sun began to slip away, I found myself near the San Elijo Lagoon between Cardiff and Solana Beach. There was a Von’s grocery nearby, where I purchased three elephant-heart plums, two bananas, a box of vanilla wafers, and a plastic jug of lemonade.

The wind was rising from the southeast and the clouds trooped in from over the ocean. I took my bag of food to a small neighborhood park on the lee side of the coast highway and scouted about for a practical spot to camp. My legs were in agony from the marathon trek, and I sat on a park bench to rest. On a small hillock across the park sat a young woman who kept staring at me. She looked to be about twenty years old, and wore her dark brown hair cut long below her shoulders. Soon she stood and came up to me, acting as if we were old friends. Her name, she said, was Lisa, and she was a teacher at a progressive day school for children. “What are you doing?” she asked.

“Looking for a warm place to sleep tonight,” I replied. “Probably right under that picnic table over there, to keep the dew off me.”

We talked for another five minutes before she proposed, “You can come sleep on my couch if you want.”

No one could have accepted her offer more graciously than I. It was by then seven-thirty and she was supposed to have been at a meeting of her women’s support group. Would I wait for her, she asked? She would be back around nine to fetch me.

For more than two hours after she left I sat in the darkness, hoping every passing automobile would be hers. But as the night sounds settled in and the fog poured itself over the highway, I began to grow tired and sleepy. I lost hope that she would return. She was not coming back.

When my doubts had turned from fear to certainty, a car pulled up and a woman opened the driver’s door. As I bounced up to the door with a big smile on my face, she looked at me solemnly. “You have to promise me something.” she said. "Anything,” I offered.

“You have to promise me that you’re not some kind of crazy man or anything. ” Her house, which she rented with two professional men, was phenomenal — a brand-new $300,000 home in the hills of Cardiff, with a spectacular vista of the wide Pacific. It had four bedrooms, three stories, two fireplaces, and five bathrooms. From here on it was like something from a dream. She made me coffee and fed me cheese and crackers. She gave me a back rub, and I returned the favor. We lay down on the sofa together and kissed, but then she went upstairs to her room to sleep, leaving me alone on the couch. Honest.

Thursday, July 17

There was breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast and jam, fresh cantaloupe, and hot, black coffee. There was a shower — long and hot. There was a good-bye, and I was at the freeway on-ramp, catching a ride south, back to San Diego.

The man with the slicked-back hair, who was coming toward me on E Street, had the same tattoo on both forearms: a bloody knife with scrollwork twisting around the blade. On the scroll was written the motto “Born To Raise Hell.” He asked me for a cigarette and some change. “Man,” I replied, “I’m on my way to sell plasma right now to work up some money. I can give you a smoke, though. How come you don’t come with me down to the plasma center? Did you already donate twice this week?”

“They won’t take mine,” he said, lighting the cigarette. He stifled a cough and pushed back a greasy strand of hair that fell across his brow. “I got a bit of a liver problem, and they’re pretty particular about your health, so they don’t want my blood.”

Later I stood in line at the Episcopal Community Services, where a lunch was served at noon. There were forty or more men in line, all of them waiting patiently, with very little conversation. A fat, bearded man sitting next to me explained that he had been in an alcohol detoxification program at the Alcoholic Rehabilitation Center at Twelfth and Island streets. “I just finished with the three-day program,” he said. “Now they got a seven-day program, and I go to that on Monday. After that they’re gonna put me in a halfway house someplace. When you’re in the detox program they give you a place to sleep and they feed you, too. You have to attend a couple of A.A. meetings a day, but hell, the coffee’s always out for you, and so’s the peanut butter and jelly, and there’s always juice if you want it. I can take you there if you want. Maybe you can get in. You got to have a drinking problem, though. You don’t look like* you got a drinking problem. You got a drinking problem? I do. I got a bad drinking problem;”

While he spoke to me, two old men, dressed raggedly, and both quite intoxicated, carried by garbage bags filled with aluminum cans. One of them, the older of the two, was yelling at the other. “Don’t you be walking away like that from me!” he shouted. “Don’t you be walking. We in this together. We got to gel us some money.” As the younger man increased the distance between them, the older one began to scream at the top of his lungs. “Do you like this life you be living? Do you like it?” Everyone in the soup line was watching him now. “Do you even want to be on this earth? Hey! I’m talking to you! Do you even want to be on this earth? Answer me!”

The chow line began to move, and me with it. We entered a suite of offices were directed to make a sharp right turn into a doorway that led past a kitchen. There were several elderly ladies standing behind large pots, holding ladles and serving the food onto paper plates. The meal consisted of a hamburger-vegetable stew, white bread, canned apricots, and a green salad. The line continued out to a parking lot behind the building, where picnic tables had been arranged for us. Everyone seemed to agree that the food at the community service center was far superior to that served at the City Rescue Mission. As we ate, two men were shouting at each other from across the tables. One of them wore a blue wool cap. and the other was dressed in an army fatigue jacket, like a soldier. “The economy!” cried wool cap. “The economy! What the hell do you mean, the economy? President can’t do nothing ’bout it. He is the representative of the poor man. and that’s all!”

“The president can declare war for ninety days,” said soldier. “That’s what he can do. ”

“He can’t do nothing! ” exclaimed wool cap. “He got to first tell them senators and congressmen before he can do anything. He can’t even wipe his ass without asking permission. Hell, man! Why you think we eating in slop houses like this?”

“He can declare war for ninety days.” Wool cap was becoming quite upset. He said, “You don’t know nothing, nigger. You is an uneducated fool! You know what? I believe you is an Indian from Mississippi! That’s what you is, sucker. You don’t know nothing.”

“The president can declare war for ninety days.”

Wool cap was completely beside himself in anger; his voice was now a high-pitched squeal. “The president can’t do nothing!” he insisted. “He can’t even whup me. He is a punk! I was in Korea for four years. I ought to know what the president can do or not.”

“Roosevelt did it,” said someone else I couldn’t see.

“Screw Roosevelt!” shouted a young man on my right, who had USMC tattooed on his right forearm. “He’s dead! Anyone who was ever any good is dead!”

My lunch was turning into a poor man’s version of the Mad Hatter’s tea party. I stood from the table and walked to the plasma center. I needed some money.

The procedure was much more expeditious this time around; it took me only two hours instead of the previous four. I didn’t have to go through the physical examination this time, nor the blood and urine tests. But the main reason things went so quickly was that there were so few donors this afternoon. As I learned from a nurse’s aide, most of the regular donors come in on Monday and then again on Wednesday. Because it was Thursday, I was almost immediately seated in one of the large recliner chairs.

Although the process was completed more quickly, the actual business with the needle was much more painful. A certain amount of discomfort has to be expected, but this time it felt as if the needle was not positioned correctly in my vein. Rather than complain, however, and have the nurse reinsert the needle. I let it pass.

As my blood filled the plastic bag hanging beside the chair, I was overwhelmed at the ghoulishness of it all, this exchanging of my precious life fluids for dirty pieces of paper — blood money, quite literally. Even so, I knew I could do it again and again ... if I had to. I walked into the daylight ten dollars richer.

At six o’clock I checked into the City Rescue Mission to get a bed for the night; the clerk behind the counter assigned me bed number seven. (The mission allows any man to sleep in the upstairs dormitory for five consecutive nights a month for free.) My bedroll was checked into the administration office and I waited with the other men on the sidewalk until the evening worship service began. The schedule of events was to go roughly like this; prayer service, seven o’clock; dinner, seven-thirty; smoking break, eight-fifteen; showers, eight-thirty; bed check and lights out, nine o’clock.

Everyone stood outside the chapel doors copping a last cigarette before the service began. The people milling around me were becoming individuals, rather than the anonymous crowd 1 had first observed. There was a short, smiling man in his fifties, who, when he checked into the mission for a bed, acted more like a happy conventioneer at an Atlantic City hotel than a penniless indigent. Standing next to me on the sidewalk was a splotchy-faced, foul-smelling man in his forties who was hanging around with a slender, effeminate man who lisped; they were a couple-about-town. An elderly man with a smoke-stained beard, a fleshy nose, and blackheads marring his facial skin gurgled from deep within every time he breathed — pneumonia, I thought. Another old man walked past — hobbled past, actually — and was racked by a series of violent, consumptive coughs. There were several clean-looking men in their twenties who did not seem to belong there. They were shy, defensive, and uncommunicative.

Just before the service began, an excited whisper ran among the men; “Chicken night,” and ‘‘Chicken day,” and “Chicken Thursday,” the whispers said. What they meant was that it was the third Thursday of the month, the night when the Otay Baptist church gave the sermon and prepared the food: chicken, potato salad, and jello — hallelujah! The dinner’s reputation had grown over the years, so that everyone on the street was aware that the third Thursday of every month, for the past twenty years, was Chicken Thursday with the Otay Baptist Church. The meal has become so popular over the years that the rescue mission staff locks the doors promptly as the service begins, and no latecomers are allowed in.

The service passed quickly enough, with well-scrubbed Baptists giving wholly inapplicable testimonies of their faith. (“Sometimes it gets hard,” said one well-meaning Baptist, “when we have to get up in the morning and go to work, take care of our families, and find the time in our busy days to visit friends and relatives.”) Most of my dining companions ate the chicken dinner as if it were the best thing they had ever tasted in their lives. After the meal we were given time to smoke a cigarette.

When we were called back into the chapel, we all took seats. There were fifty-seven of us, and we lined up at the rear exit as our bed numbers were called off by a mission worker. We were then marched out the door like a line of convicts and taken through a series of alleys and stairways to the dormitory shower room. I’m not the sort to get nervous undressing in front of others, but I did not want to see these other men naked. I was truly afraid I might vomit. We undressed and put our clothing in a wire basket; each of us had our own basket with our bed number printed on it. The baskets were handed to an attendant who stacked them on shelves. The men around me were a disheartening bunch: fat, skinny, tattooed everywhere, coughing, sniffling, smelly, farting, uncombed. We stood in our line and marched to the shower room, which had only ten shower heads. I was in the first batch to enter, and found that the water was scalding hot. Despite the pleas of the bathers, the shower attendants would not change the water temperature and we had no choice but to bathe as best we could. A sign on the wall of the locker room said “No Shower, No Bed.”

A towel was thrown at me by an attendant as I stepped out of the shower. 1 dried myself and was anxious to get hold of my belongings, especially because I had a crisp ten-dollar bill in my wallet. But when I asked for my basket, the attendant behind the counter threw a nightshirt at me and said, “Your stuff stays here.” The linen nightshirt felt foreign to my body, and I tried to adjust it as I searched for my bed in the hall-like dormitory. Even in this crowded room I felt utterly alone. “Okay, gentlemen,” said an old man who worked for the mission and whose job it was to instruct us on mission policy. “No talking after the lights go out. Wake-up time is six-fifteen. Goodnight, gentlemen!”

Friday July 18

The oatmeal was watery and tasteless, but it was hot. We were let out onto the streets at six-forty-five. I left my gear stowed at the mission because I planned to sleep there again this night. At the southeast comer of Fifth and G, I was stopped by a filthy man carrying something that looked like it was once a sleeping bag. '“Got a cigarette, bud?” I gave him one, and he continued talking. “You ain’t going up there, are you?” He pointed toward Broadway and, I assume, Horton Plaza. “If you are, you better not. The cops are hauling everyone away. They must have took in fifty last night. And those guys wasn’t doing nothing, just sitting on a bus bench. Hell, they was using taxis to haul ’em away in. Didn’t have enough police cars. Yellow cabs!” “Were you sleeping up there?” I asked. “Oh, no, bud. There’s this parking building up the street here with no attendant, and I just climbed the stairs and slept in a parking space.”

I told him about my run-in with Officer Teffy at Balboa Park.

“No, no, bud,” he laughed. “You got to hide out where they can’t find you.”

I gave him a couple of cigarettes and wished him luck. As he left he asked me a final question. “Hey, bud. How come you look so clean?”

I had lunch at noon at the Episcopal Community Service center — stew and corn on the cob — and went to Horton Plaza to sleep. For some reason, I was exhausted. Come to think of it, I had been exhausted all week. As I lay down against a palm tree in the plaza, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Gregory, a smiling man in his mid-twenties who was wearing purple, pleated pants, a purple disco shirt, and a pair of purple jazz shoes. Gregory had spoken to me last night at the mission, where he had hoped to get a bed for the night. He had lost his wallet, though, with his identification papers, and so could not stay at the mission, since they demanded ID. “So you know what I did after I left that place, man?” he asked rhetorically. “I was walking up by the freeway and this chick stopped me and asked me did I need a ride. Man, she took me home and tired me out. Yeah! It was fabulous. She say she don’t want me to go. She wants me to stick around for a few days. She say if I do, she buy me a bus ticket to Oakland. She is a. . .what you call it. . .a saleswoman, at a clothing store. She going to give me a suit; I think a three-piece job. I already picked it out. But man, I can't get mixed up with this lady. I’m married, y’see, and my wife is in Dallas. In fact. . . .” He pulled from his pocket a greeting card which said, Hope You’re Feeling Better. “This is for my wife,” he said.

“She sick?”

“No, but I just want to send her a card ’cause I been gone three months now. Say, you know how to write good? Got a pencil?” He handed me the card. “See, my writing’s not real good. It’s kind of messed up. Tell her that I’m trying to find a job and that I’ll send for her and the baby when I find one, and that I'm going to Oakland to look there ’cause they ain’t no work in San Diego. And tell her to stay in touch with my momma.”

I wrote the message as best I could and signed his name. I handed him the card so he could read the message, but he pushed it back. “You read it to me, man” he said. “The sun’s too bright and it makes my eyes tired. Do you ever get that? What’d you write?”

He listened as I read the note.

“That’s fine, man. That’s fine. Listen, man. That chick I met, -I think I can get some money out of her, and if I do. I’ll buy you some food tomorrow. You gonna be here in the plaza? All right, blood. Take it slow. ”

Saturday, July 19

I cannot finish the week. I am tired of it all and I want to go home. At the mission last night there was a young man in his late teens from Dover, Delaware, who was shocked and scared when he had to undress in front of the other men in the shower room. “You gotta be kidding me,” he said over and over again. “You gotta be kidding.” He was absolutely frightened.

And there was Mr. Atlantic City, the dapper man who looked as if he were at a convention; he was kicked out of the mission last night for being drunk. They found he was intoxicated when it came time to march up to the dormitory and he could barely stand. Two mission workers approached him, and he must have known they were going to kick him out, because he tried to run to the bathroom, where, I suppose, he was going to hide. They tossed him out onto the sidewalk, drunk, at eight-thirty, with no place for him to go.

There was also a man who must have been in his eighties. He could barely walk. One of the attendants had to bathe the old guy because he couldn’t stand in the shower by himself. When the attendant led the old man into the dormitory, someone yelled, “Oh God, it’s the crapper again.” Someone else asked what that was supposed to mean, and the first guy said the old man “crapped in his bed last time he was here.” What, I asked myself, is such an old man doing here? He should be in a nursing home, or surrounded by generations of loving children, sitting by a fireplace and smoking a pipe — not losing bowel control in a rescue mission, for God’s sake.

After I had finally made my decision to return home. I was elated. I picked up my bedroll from the mission office and headed east on Broadway toward Golden Hill. I found myself walking faster, and soon I was trotting, carrying my bedroll in my arms. I ran the last two blocks to my house, hopped up the porch steps, and entered the front door. The first thing I did was draw a hot, soapy bath. It was wonderful.

Share / Tools

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • AddThis
  • Email

More from SDReader


Log in to comment

Skip Ad

Let’s Be Friends

Subscribe for local event alerts, concerts tickets, promotions and more from the San Diego Reader