Labyrinth of the Radiant City, Part 1

A seeker walks with San Diego's homeless

Suicide bridge, near El Prado. Al grabs the scruff of my neck and shoves my head far over the railing. The view below seems to drop straight down to Hades.
  • Suicide bridge, near El Prado. Al grabs the scruff of my neck and shoves my head far over the railing. The view below seems to drop straight down to Hades.
  • Image by Robert Burroughs

A Sunday evening in April. Traveling north on foot from that section of San Diego called Little Italy. My destination is Balboa Park. My goal is to seek out and live among San Diego’s homeless. Another goal is truth. The one absolute. And honesty. If I am to pry into the affairs of these modern-day Misirables, invade the world of people whose lives are invaded without end, I must have a noble cause. My efforts cannot be for the sake of further parading before the public eye the disadvantages of the disadvantaged.

The homeless are easy to spot roaming downtown streets: slow, aimless gait; dirty, unkempt appearance; frayed, shabby clothes; life’s possessions rolled into a sack.

The homeless are easy to spot roaming downtown streets: slow, aimless gait; dirty, unkempt appearance; frayed, shabby clothes; life’s possessions rolled into a sack.

If I am to arrive at truth then I must suffer the same indignities, endure the same afflictions. So, with my meager provisions I now walk the streets. As of this evening I, too, am homeless.

Ascending Laurel Street’s steep hills I can feel the blackness of night. Though I have the stars for company, I’ve no time for stargazing. The constellations can’t help, unless they can direct me to a safe sleeping place. I must turn to the immediate world if I am to meet my immediate needs.

“Sorry I missed your graduation. Sorry for missing a lot of things....” When we finish the letter, the old man asks me to read it. Then read it once more. He gives me his son’s address.

“Sorry I missed your graduation. Sorry for missing a lot of things....” When we finish the letter, the old man asks me to read it. Then read it once more. He gives me his son’s address.

I climb farther up Laurel. Lights are going off in homes. People are preparing for bed. I am too.

I can’t see but can smell jasmine. A breeze carries the scent sweet and strong to my nose. There’s comfort in that. A sensual pleasure. Familiar to me, the smell of these flowers.

On Sixth Avenue I slow my pace. The cold air and fragrant jasmine have broken my concentration. I’ve lost my bearings. I continue up Sixth, unsure. A man emerges from behind a palm. He’s 50 yards ahead of me, walking in my direction. His step is more deliberate than mine. He knows where he’s going.

I cross the street. Quicken my step. The most primal instinct kicks in. Survival. Don’t show fear.

The stranger trots to my side of the street. Is he homeless, too? omo Quarens. The seeker and the sought.

All right, assess the situation. He may only be going for a late evening stroll. I might even ask for directions. No. Say nothing. Keep walking. Give him wide enough berth to get by. No eye contact. And show no fear.

He’s walking faster now. Arms swing vigorously by his side. Seems edgy. Anxious.

We draw closer to each other. Why does he keep looking behind him? Quick turns of the head. What’s back there? Should I cross the street again? Too late. We’re going by each other now. A chill runs through me. Nothing happens.

I rub my brow, relieved. Maybe I should have said hello. I take one last peep at the man, and at that moment he glances at me over his shoulder. We both spin around and continue on our way. I hear his hurried footfall.

Before I can form another thought, a hand plunges out from a bush. I feel a tug at my arm. Another man. He’s got hold of my bag. He’s trying to yank me into the bushes.

“What do you want?” I scream. He grips my bag. A tug-of-war begins. “What do you want?” It’s obvious what he wants, stupid. He gets two hands on the strap, pulls harder. “Let go! Let go!” I yank with all I have, and the contents of my bag spill to the sidewalk. The man releases the strap and scuttles behind the bushes.

God!

I sit on my haunches and gather my things. One eye on the sidewalk, the other on those bushes. I feel ill-prepared for this venture, though I’ve lived on the streets before. In New York City. With dangers all its own. I nevertheless survived.

“Hey!”

I am startled by the voice of yet another man. Is a parade going on that I’m unaware of?

“I saw what happened, man,” the voice says.

He’s wearing tennis shoes and army fatigues, this new stranger. His clothes are rumpled, as though they’ve been slept in many a night. And perhaps have not been washed as long as they’ve been worn. The odor his clothes emit is like a slap in the face. He stinks.

My eyes move from the new stranger’s ankles to his head. An unkempt beard covers the greater portion of his free. Long, stringy brown hair hides most of the rest. From my crouched perspective, my eyes are level with the sleeves of his camouflage-green shirt. They’re rolled up to the elbow, exposing a number of tattoos. He has a good many images for such thin arms. A long-stemmed rose with the names of three women beneath. Each name crossed out except “Mother.” On the other arm, a hooded grim reaper. A topless girl in a grass skirt. The tortured face of Jesus Christ, crown of thorns and supplicating eyes.

I exhale and try to guess what he wants, this Beetle Bailey gone astray.

“All I have in here are books,” I say and open wide my bag for the man to see. “A couple pencils. A toothbrush. Deodorant.”

“You don’t have to make an inventory.”

“Old Spice. Little less than a third of the bottle. Some dental floss. Half an onion bagel. A fingernail clipper...”

“I really don’t care what you got in that bag, man.”

“Thought I’d save you the trouble of searching me for things I don’t have.”

“Unless you got a cigarette,” the stranger says, “then you ain’t got nothing I want.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah, man. lust checking to see if that boy took more than your goods, you see? You’re lucky he ain’t done more than he did.”

“Yes. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, though,” I say. “I was told it’s not so safe out here at night.”

“Then what ya doin’ out here?”

“Heading for Balboa Park.”

“Man, are you lost. The park’s way back over there. You’re in what we call the loop. It ain’t even that safe in the daytime. Just blow into town?”

I nod. Maybe he’ll help me, this smelly stranger.

He shakes his head and says, “Tell ya what. Since you don’t seem like such a bad dude, I’ll let you tag along with me to the park. I’m heading that way myself.”

“Thank you very much.”

“Got a cigarette in that bag?”

“Sorry. Don’t smoke.”

“Damn!”

In the time it took us to get from Sixth Avenue to the park’s outer perimeter, my new friend managed to squeeze in the better part of his life’s story. His name is Al. He took up residence at Balboa Park some five years ago.

“Last gig I had was with the merchant marines,” he’s telling me as we drift onto a stretch of road that leads into the heart of the park, and the heart of darkness. El Prado. “Made damn good money, too. Till I got shitcanned. Got caught bringing dope in from Germany. Didn’t do no time, though. First offense. But got throwed out of the union. Oh, here we are,” he says, making a sweeping motion with his arm like a game show model introducing the contestant’s prize. Suicide Bridge.

“Oh. Pretty ominous. Are we actually high enough off the ground for someone to die from a fall?”

“You tell me,” Al says, and grabbing the scruff of my neck, he shoves my head far over the railing. The view below seems to drop straight down to Hades. I can hear the whirr of traffic from the highway.

“How’s the view?” Al lets out a terrific guffaw and yanks me back over the railing. “I love doing that to greenhorns. Christ! Look at you. You’re whiter than Casper.”

“I...uh....”

“Loosen up, will ya? Now you know why it’s called Suicide Bridge.”

“I suppose I should be grateful.”

“You’re a funny boy, Davy,” says Al, and another burst of his laughter bubbles up into the cool night air.

For a man without a home, Al has a peculiar sense of humor.

Farther along El Prado we cut through what seems to be the center of Balboa Park. There’s not enough light for me to enjoy the architecture and horticulture that I sense dominates our immediate vicinity. As we probe deeper into the park, new sounds floating to my ears make me feel we’ve entered the thick of a rain forest.

A tremendous howl penetrates the darkness, echoing over all the other night sounds. It’s enough to make me recoil as another ripple of laughter gurgles up from Al’s lower regions.

“My God. I’d hate to run into whatever canine could produce such a noise.”

"That ain’t no dog, man,” Al explains. “That’s Mike. Clearing out his cords. That’s his way of saying nighty-night to all his park pals.”

We bear off the paved road around into the cover of an archway that runs parallel to El Prado. At the end of this archway Al stops me.

“Tour ends here, man. Gotta go-”

“Where shall I go? I mean, got any suggestions where I can stay for the night?”

“Just find a bench and park it. I’d take you with me, but I hang with a couple of buddies. Just us three. That’s the arrangements we got. Go for them bushes if you’re nervous. And don’t flash your goods around,” Al instructs me. “Somebody might conk you over the head, steal your Old Spice,” he says, and begins to chuckle again.

“What about the shelters? Maybe I should search for one tomorrow.”

“Shelters rot. Myself, I never do shelters.”

“Why? Are they dangerous?”

“No more dangerous than being out here. Too many fucking rules. They tell ya when to shit. Tell you when to sleep. How long you can stay. On top of all that there’s a fucking curfew. It’s worse than being in the Boy Scouts. Ain’t worth the load of crap you gotta put up with just sos you can sleep on a mattress stuffed with roaches.”

Al starts for a path that winds away from the archway entrance. He stops and faces back toward me a moment. “Look. If you run into any shit out here that you can’t handle, wait by the bridge in the morning.”

“The one with the view?”

“You got it, Davy. I go over it every day. Early. If you ever wanna find me, that’s the way to do it. Just hang loose on the bridge till I come by. All right?”

“Okey-dokey. Thanks.”

“No problem. You should be fine.”

Al heads down the path, his figure engulfed by shrubbery.

I venture to the end of El Prado and reach a large open area. A pavilion. To my right is a good-sized building. At 12 o’clock, a fountain. And to my left I notice benches. Unoccupied. They’re also out in the open. I’ll be visible. Exposed. A target, perhaps. What difference does it make? I’ve been a walking bull’s eye all night. Guess I’ll take the bench. Seems more inviting than a bush. And I’ll have that fountain to look at.

On the bench I realize how unprepared I am to sleep out here tonight. Temperature has dropped some ten degrees in the past hour.

I recheck my bag. See if I’ve lost any belongings during my struggle with the faceless stranger on Sixth Avenue. Everything appears to be there. All my necessary toiletries. My Merriam-Webster dictionary. Legal notepads to record in words my observations. A sketch tablet to record observations in pictures. Pencils. Most of all I have my books. At least those I could carry without hindering my mobility.

Mr. Tolstoy has survived our attack. And Ms. Dickinson. Hemingway. And Mr. Thoreau. I wonder if Thoreau had a bench handy at Walden Pond?

All I can do now is stamp the cold from my feet and rub my arms.

Through an early morning haze I see sun rising. A dull orange disc, its persistent light permeating a receding darkness and a coldness that straggles close behind. C’mon, damn you. Warm things up down here. I can still see my breath.

I slap my hands against each other. Over and over. Applause for the sun’s pending warmth. I blow into my hands. Rub them together.

I stretch and yawn. Gather my things and head for that marvelous fountain. My only company last night. Think I’ll draw it now that the light has arrived.

I am about to put my first mark to paper when I glimpse in the corner of my eye somebody sleeping by a large tree a few yards up from the fountain. A young man sleeps in boots and hooded sweatshirt, by his side I see an empty bottle of liquor.

I decide to forego the fountain for a living subject and hurry to draw the young man before he awakens. He’s curled up in a curious fetal-like position. And the way his arms are draped around that tree, one would think he was embracing his lover. Or his mother?

The young man wakes up. His hand drifts from the tree to the bottle. From one comfort to another. His eyes flutter open, and the sight of me standing there makes his brow arch.

“I’m just admiring the trees. A lot of varieties in this park,” I say.

“You’re telling me,” he says and his face brightens a bit. “And I know every one of ’em.”

“I like that oak tree,” I say and point to the young man’s nighttime companion.

"What oak tree?”

“The one you’re leaning against.”

“That’s not an oak, you mo-mo. It’s a magnolia,” he says and begins to rub his eyes with the palms of his hands. He grimaces disapprovingly at my ignorance and starts stretching his arms.

“Magnolia, huh? Are they indigenous to this area?”

“Been brought here. Originally come from the Southern states. Where it’s more humid, you know?”

“How ’bout that one over there?” I’m pointing again.

“What about it?”

“What species is it?”

“Eucalyptus. Comes from Australia.”

“And that one over there. Palm tree, huh?”

“You ask a lotta questions, you know that? But, yeah, it’s a palm tree. They were transplanted here, too,” the young man says with some authority and rises to his feet. “Come from the Pacific Islands.”

“You seem to know your trees.”

“That’s ’cause I’m a treeologist,” he informs me, and pats out the wrinkles from his sweater. “Well, I’m outta here.”

“Thanks for the tree lesson.”

“If you wanna see some terrific oaks and sycamores, head for the canyons. They’re loaded with ’em.”

“Okay. Thanks again.”

The young man shuffles toward the boulevard to the east.

Heading west on El Prado. Wonder if I’ll run into that man who helped me out last night. Al. I could benefit from his street savvy.

Food and shelter are the imperatives. So I’ll search for a shelter today.

As I move nearer the end of the Cabrillo Bridge two uniformed park officers amble by on horseback. Without warning they quicken the pace to a near gallop, their yard-long batons slapping rhythmically against the flanks of their mares. They brush my side as they veer around me. I hug the bridge wall, and one of the horses snorts loudly, as if in warning to stay clear. I’m nearly swiped by a swinging mane.

Slowing their gait back to a trot, they bear off the road and start down a path on the north side of the bridge. They negotiate their way down the steep grade of this woody bluff with great skill. One of the horses neighs.

My curiosity piqued, I attempt to follow. When I arrive at the head of the path the officers had taken, a voice from behind calls to me. “I wouldn’t go down there.”

I stop and search out the source of this warning. A woman is lying on her side near the edge of the woods. “Not unless you wanna get into something you shouldn’t get into.”

“What’s going on?”

“Never mind. Just listen to me.”

“Okay,” I say and step up close to the woman. She’s wearing jeans almost worn to the skin. And a matching denim jacket that’s in much the same condition. She pokes her hand into a brown paper bag and plucks out a peanut. She gently lays it on the grass, arm’s length away. She barely puts the peanut down, when a squirrel moves up to her, though hesitantly. The creature pauses a moment, peers cautiously around with sharp jerks of its head, then snatches the peanut from the ground.

“Oh. Look at that.”

“Hey! Back off, lummox. You’ll scare her away.”

“Sorry.”

We quietly watch the squirrel enjoying its breakfast, listening to its curious gnawing sounds.

“I was hoping to bump into a friend of mine.” I finally break the silence.

“Good for you.”

“He stays here in the park.”

“Oh, yeah.” She seems surprised that I might be acquainted with one of her own. “I know most of the boys in the park. What’s his name?”

“Al.”

“Don’t know him.”

“Just met him last night. Awfully nice guy. Saved my life. He was wearing army fatigues.”

“Do you know how many guys In this park wear army fatigues?”

“No.”

“More than I can count. It’s like a frigging military base here.”

“I was really hoping to meet him,” I begin to explain. “I ran into some trouble last night. Got mugged. And I was trying to avoid...”

“Wait a minute.” She interrupts before I can finish. “I don’t wanna hear it,” she says and cuts a horizontal slash through the air with her hand. “You ain’t gonna get no sympathy from me. I’m a street person. Live right here in the park. Seen it all these last four years. Far as I’m concerned, sympathy’s a word that falls between shit and syphilis. Now what is it you’re really looking for?”

“Actually, I’m trying to get to one of the shelters.”

She tilts her head to me and her hard dark eyes seem to soften a little. Just a little.

“Tell you what. You seem like a decent guy. I’ll show you where to go.”

After she gives me directions to a shelter on the southeast side of town, I pull a crumpled dollar from my pocket.

“Here,” I say and hold out the dollar. “Buy some peanuts for the squirrel.”

She contemplates my offer with a curious stare, then lays down another peanut for her friend.

“Darling, you seem like you need it a lot more than me. Keep your money.”

I lay the dollar at her feet and start back up the hill.

On San Diego’s waterfront. The harbor on one side and Harbor Drive on the other. I am taking the scenic route on my way to a homeless shelter. One that woman with the squirrel has steered me to. “Check out St. Vincent de Paul’s,” she’d suggested. “Least you’ll get is a meal. Hang around and they’ll hook you up with a cot at one of the shelters. If that’s what you want.”

“How come you don’t go there yourself? To one of the shelters.”

“Too many fucking rules. Out here in the park, ain’t got no rules. ’Cept the ones I make myself. Like it better that way.”

“I see.”

“And one more thing.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Stay outta the canyons.”

“You mean, like where those park police were riding to?”

“That’s right. And I’m talking ’bout the ones out west, too. Keep away from them. ’Specially at night.”

“Why?”

“Christ! You’re fulla questions. Because they’re bad places. That’s why.”

“Oh.”

“The coyotes will get you.”

“I thought they mostly stayed in the desert or the mountains.”

“Not them coyotes, dummy. I’m talking about Mexicans. Illegals. A lot of ’em hide down there.”

“Oh.”

“They’ll rob you. Take all your shit and worse. Stay outta the canyons.”

Walking south on the Embarcadero, I stroll by the Berkeley and the Star of India.

The good smells that escape from a nearby restaurant remind me I haven’t eaten since the day before. I remember the onion bagel half I’ve tucked away in my bag, and I rummage through till I find it. It’s three days old. But I really don’t care.

Getting closer to the navy’s docks. I’m about to start gnawing my breakfast when I spot someone heading toward me. An older woman in ragged clothes, poking her head in trash cans that line the boardwalk. Street folks call it “canning.”

The old woman pulls her head from the trash can, a little golden nugget held tight in her hand. A soda can. She tilts it upside down until the remaining contents drip to the ground, then tosses it into her shopping cart and moves to the next receptacle. She seems delighted with her progress. Smiling a toothless smile.

On a bench farther along the boardwalk, a man sleeps in the shadows of a Navy service ship. Displaced. He’s flat on his back with his arm over his eyes. A sign is propped atop his chest. In bold black letters it proclaims: HUNGRY HOMELESS VIETNAM VET WILL WORK FOR MONEY OR FOOD.

The parade of morning joggers seems oblivious to this man and his sign. The man seems oblivious to them. An unspoken understanding.

Traveling east on Broadway now. Most of the pedestrians are dressed smartly. Hurrying to office buildings. Sauntering among them are the urban nomads, makeshift arrangements forever at the ready. New York City’s Bowery bums refer to street living as “holding the banner.”

The homeless are easy to spot roaming downtown streets: slow, aimless gait; dirty, unkempt appearance; frayed, shabby clothes; life’s possessions rolled into a sack.

The humaneness of these faces! Emaciated, painful expressions. Faces that tell all their misery and bear marks of daily suffering. And if you happen to glance into their eyes you’ll see relinquished hopes, passions bludgeoned, opportunities forfeited, misfortunes endured, and perhaps worst of all, surrender and resignation. In spite of all the hardships thrust upon them, there still exists, if you look closely enough, a flicker, the tiniest spark of life in their eyes. Something that won’t allow them to give up.

By the fountain at the entrance to Horton Plaza, a young girl comes straight up to me. “Got any change you can spare? It’s so I can get something to eat.” I automatically shove my hand in my pocket and hand her two quarters.

A few blocks to the east, by the bookstores and restaurants, barbershops and shoeshine stands between Sixth and Eighth, a man sits alone on the ground inside the doorway of a convenience store. He holds out an empty Styrofoam cup as he tries to get more comfortable, tucking a leg under his buttocks. The other leg he extends out the doorway onto the sidewalk. With his free hand, he removes a large bandage that’s wrapped down from the ankle of the extended leg. And when he peels off the last bit of cloth, I see a stump where once was a foot. One can never look overly pathetic when soliciting the sympathy of the unsympathetic. I give him a quarter.

As I move to 12th in the trolley line’s direction, I cross the path of yet another beggar. This time it’s an elderly lady. She sits in her wheelchair, staring at the shoe box by her feet, bags holding her possessions secured to the sides of her little chariot. She says nothing. Her face shows no expression. I’ve run out of quarters, so I drop a dollar in her shoe box. Her gaze never leaves her feet.

Past the 12th and Imperial transfer station, I walk the last two blocks to my destination. The St. Vincent de Paul Center is inviting enough, with its soft pastel stucco exterior. And the large crucifix atop the turret at the front entrance. Does this rood still have dreams?

I join men in a line that leads inside. As I am about to put down my bag, a security officer pokes my arm with a rolled-up newspaper and says, “That’s the cripple line. You wanna get in that one over there.” And he points with his paper to the entrance of a makeshift courtyard. Actually, a converted fenced-in parking area.

“Thank you.”

Inside this rectangular courtyard my eyes follow the length of the food line. Maybe 200 people waiting to be fed.

The people who fill this courtyard would seem familiar even to the most casual observer. They’ve been among us for centuries. Even in the greatest art they can be found, emerging from the coal mines of a Zola novel, reaping the season’s harvest in the lonely field of a Millet painting, in any number of works by Van Gogh, who depicted the downtrodden with more compassion and understanding than any other artist.

I am reminded of the studies he made of miners returning home at the end of a day’s work. “The men from the depths of the abyss,” I believe he called them in a letter to Theo. “De Profundis, the miners in the black coal fields...those who work in the darkness of the earth.” In another letter Van Gogh spoke again of the darkness, saying, “One of the bases of essential truth, not only in the Gospels but in the entire Bible, is through the darkness to the light.” The least among us.

The reception line hasn’t moved these last 15 minutes. It resembles a sleeping snake, long and winding, inert. Few of those waiting engage in conversation. Most stand with eyes downcast, anchored to the earth by the weight of all they carry. No room in the clouds for their kind.

All types stand here, waiting. Every race. Hispanics, Africans, Southeast Asians, Europeans. Tall, short. Some obese, others so thin they look like they just stepped in from Auschwitz.

At line’s end stands the biggest man here. What a sequoia might be if trees were mobile. His body intercepts the sunlight, and I step into the ample shadow and feel some relief from the stuffiness and heat. Arms length from the man’s massive back, I inch my way closer as he blows a breath of frustration through his lips. From my point of view, he bears an amazing resemblance to the male dominant of a family of silver back gorillas. Except he’s a bit hairier.

Thick muscles push the seams of his T-shirt to their limit. He’s completely bald. A large gold ring dangles from his left earlobe. Mr. Clean without the pleasant disposition.

I step closer to Mighty Joe Young and tap him on the shoulder. “Pardon me,” I say, fumbling my note pad and pencil. My pad falls to the ground and I stoop over to pick it up. On my haunches now I glance up and notice he has spun around. He drops his gaze on me penetrating, menacing. He’s in a bad mood. “Can you tell me if this is the food line?” I ask. His brow lifts. Then he snorts at me and faces back around.

After spending 20 minutes in the line without moving, I begin to understand the frustration of the big gentleman in front of me.

More people enter the courtyard. Most everyone here seems immersed in his own world. Some escape into a novel. Others read newspapers or magazines. Few talk. Most keep to themselves. Again, eyes downward. Thoughts perhaps preoccupied with the coming routine. Their future? Or some concealed beyond. A place to eat. A place to sleep. A place to eat again.

Two black men file in behind me. They’re older, in their 60s. They belong together, these two. Each wears mismatched shoes. Their clothes are ragged, frayed transparent. One folds his arms across his chest as if he’s protecting a life’s secrets. A bowler tilted on an angle sits on his copper head. He stands with his eyes fixed in the middle distance while his companion chatters without interruption.

The other man, a chain smoker, is animated. His arms swing about wildly and enliven what he’s saying. The quiet one calls his noisy companion “Uncle Remus” and nods every few seconds while Remus becomes increasingly absorbed in his own story. The deeper he gets into his tale, the more vigorously his arms flutter, like some hyperactive traffic cop at a busy intersection.

Boxing is his topic. Remus was a lightweight. He fought the amateur circuit in Louisiana in the ’50s. His quiet friend nods again and again. He's heard this story before.

“Hey! Lemme tell ya. What I go and did to that boy. Ooo! It was a ugly sight to behold, that boy’s face when I finish. I had to beat him. Bad. Shut him up. Him flappin’ them big gums a his, braggin’ about how great New Orleans are. Thumb his nose at me ’cause I’m from Baton Rouge. Shit! I show him, though. Hey! Took him down in the fourth.”

“And you knocked him out with a rabbit punch.” The quiet man attempted to carry on the story while Uncle Remus paused for breath.

“No, man. You got it all wrong.” Remus starts beating his imaginary opponent with flailing punches, his fists cutting the air, short swift blows. He’s bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet now, and his punches come more rapidly and with greater power. He’s 24 again. Agile. Dreams still intact. “I popped that mother like a speed bag,” he continues. “Hey! First a jab to the bread box. Like this. Then a upper cut. Real hard. See?” He drops his arm down below the waist and holds it there. A prolonged pause to augment the drama. “Then come the haymaker.” In a wide swinging motion, Uncle Remus’s fist lunges toward an unintended target. Me.

I lose my balance and jolt forward, the top of my head smacking dead center into the base of the giant man’s back.

“Someone’s gonna die!”

Mighty Joe Young swings around, and before I can straighten up he’s got one of his great paws at my throat. I feel my esophagus compressing in his grip.

“You’re trying to cut in front.”

“No, no...” Gurgle.

“Don’t bullshit me,” he snarls and brings his fist to my chin. Across his knuckles are tattooed four letters; O-U-C-H! Exclamation point on his thumb. “You’re fucking with the wrong man.”

“I...I...not...”

He’s got me on the tips of my toes now. His eyes narrow to crescents and sweep over me suspiciously. “You ain’t a Jewboy, are you?” he asks, and the glint off his gold earring makes me squint.

“No...I’m not...” To prove my lineage I would gladly dangle my uncircumcised part before his eyes if he’d just let go of my throat.

“Jew bastard fired me. Now I gotta come here to eat. Stay in some shithole on Eighth ’cause a some pipsqueak bastard Jew. Made me lose my job. Kinda look like you, too, Jewboy. Tryin’ to cut in front.”

Panic overcomes me. Restriction of blood flow to the brain. Should I pretend to suffer a coronary? Tell him I have a black belt? Fake a convulsion? It’ll all be moot soon. I’m feeling dizzy. Fading. Need oxygen. Think my colon’s about to give, too.

“Hey, man, leave that boy alone.” It’s Uncle Remus.

“Shut up, nigger.”

“We all nigger in this place. Hey!”

“Shhh.” The quiet man with Uncle Remus makes a desperate tug at his companion’s elbow. “Hush, you ol’ fool.”

Mighty Joe shifts his gaze from me to Uncle Remus then back to me again.

“Ehh! You ain’t worth the three seconds it’d take me to rip your face off,” he says, and releases his grip on my throat.

Nearly two hours in line, and we finally rush through the doors into the dining area. A basketball court transformed for a greater purpose. There are few seats available as I snake through the rows of tables.

I find a place to sit.

After yet another half-hour wait, we are close to getting fed. A dozen or so shelter employees emerge from a back room and gather at the front of the hall. One calls for silence and everyone complies. Then henna-haired woman steps forward. She clears her throat, pauses, then offers a prayer. A litany of thanks. Her prayer ends with “Amen,” and the street folks reply in an enthusiastic chorus. “Amen!” Then we all break into applause.

Most everyone is hunkered over trays of food now. The meal for this day; two cookies, one half a banana, a bagel, salad, and the main course, chicken stew.

Before leaving the dining area, I speak with a shelter worker about finding some place to stay.

“I slept in the parks last night,” I tell the employee. “I was hoping to avoid that tonight.”

“Go to the front lobby,” he instructs. “At the desk and they’ll tell you how to get a referral for temporary emergency shelter. They’ll set you up for the night.”

Inside the reception area, I step into a tiny lobby and am greeted by a smiling bronze bust of a cleric with a crucifix held out in front of his heart. I read the plaque beneath the bust. “Reverend Leo T. Maher. Bishop of San Diego. Whose preferential option for the poor made these centers possible.”

I step into line behind a young black man. Long rotelli dreadlocks jet out from beneath a skullcap squeezed onto his head. His attention is buried in a book he’s reading aloud to himself. “Revelation is the disclosure of the soul,” I hear him say but doubt my ears at first. It sounds familiar, what he’s reading, though I’m too surprised to make a connection. “The soul is the perceiver and revealer of truth.”

“Hey!” I blurt out. “What you’re reading. That’s Thoreau.” All heads turn to me and I feel embarrassed. The Rastafarian lifts his eyes from his book, too. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to disrupt your reading. But that book. It’s Thoreau, huh?”

He smiles and shakes his head. “Emerson,” he says. “From one of his essays. ‘The Over-Soul.’ ”

“I’m surprised to hear Emerson in this place.”

“I really don’t read too much of it myself,” he confesses. “Philosophy.”

“Why not?”

He thinks a moment then says, “Leads to too much introspection. Makes you heavy on your feet. Out on the streets, better to be light on your feet.”

He smiles and goes back to his book.

Another man steps into line. He introduces himself. His name is Paco. Latino, American born, just returned from Mexico.

“I ain’t going back there,” he’s telling me, “’cept to visit relatives. That’s all.”

“I suppose there aren’t many opportunities in Mexico.”

“And there’s a lotta scams going on, too. I just got screwed myself. Big-time.”

“What happened?”

“Got recruited to work a ranch a couple hours east of Tecate. Hired on to do the planting. Melons, cantaloupe, corn, tomatoes. Spent eight weeks down there. All of us crammed into this tiny bunkhouse. Myself and this Mexican family. Nine of ’em, including grandma. The bunkhouse was a real dump, too. Pitiful. No running water. No lights ’cause we had no electricity. Piss-poor conditions. And the grandma got sick real bad. And here we are out in the middle of nowhere. Thought she was gonna die.”

“What happened?”

“Oh, she came through it somehow. Tough of lady. She coulda croaked, though. Boy, did we work our butts off. And when we finished with what we were supposed to do, the bastard that owned the ranch decided he wasn’t gonna pay us. That’s why I’m here now. Hoping to get back on my feet.”

“What happened to that family and their grandmother?”

“When I left them, she was up on her feet and all. They were planning to head back to the mountains they came from.”

“Amazing.”

“And the owner of the ranch has big bucks. Real wealthy. He’s a Mexican. Has a great big mansion in La Jolla.” Paco shrugs his shoulders. “Whatta ya gonna do? Shit happens. Life goes on.”

My turn at the reception counter finally. I ask how to arrange a place for the night. Somewhere to sleep. The woman behind the counter answers automatically. She’s heard the same question ten thousand times but still manages an encouraging smile.

“Come back at five,” she tells me and holds out a card that lists city social services. “We’ll have a free phone set up, and you can call that number,” she says and circles a referral number on the front of the card.

Later that evening. The sun drops below the offing of the Pacific. I can’t see it, but I imagine how lovely it must look. I’m back at Balboa Park.

Too late to return to St. Vincent de Paul’s. I decide to stay here for the night.

Find myself on the Prado once again as twilight slips into dusk. Verging upon the Cabrillo Bridge, I walk by the spot where the horseback officers sidetracked onto the path early this morning. Just then I see a figure step from that same path. A dark-skinned Mestizo. He watches me closely. Before I can decide if I should approach him or walk away, a woman joins him, carrying a little girl piggyback, with two little boys clasping her long skirt.

All emerge slowly and with caution, each barefoot step imprinting the ground.

Curiosity vaults to their eyes, though something seems lacking. Especially in the children. I find them all too quiet. Almost sedate.

I recall what the squirrel woman said earlier that day. Her warning about illegals.

I raise my hand in a friendly greeting and smile as I walk up to this family of the woods. Hope they speak good enough English.

“Hello. Gonna be another cold one, huh?” The dark man tilts his head toward his wife. Then back to me. He giggles nervously but says nothing.

“I stayed here last night. On a bench by the fountain. Got awfully chilly. But the fountain was nice.”

The man and his wife glance at each other again.

“No speak English,” the man says and smiles anew.

“You’re probably migrant workers, huh? Maybe even illegals. Could life in Mexico be so desperate that you’d bring your family up here just to sleep in the woods?”

“Mexico,” he repeats, and nods enthusiastically.

“Well, you don’t speak English. I don’t speak Spanish. Estce que tu parle Francais?”

More nervous giggling. I’ve run out of languages.

“I’m sorry,” I tell them, hold out my arms and shrug my shoulders. The universal declaration for giving up.

Nothing I can do, I decide. I give them a goodbye nod and a wave then start back up to the Prado.

Ascending the grassy slope that leads to the paved road I glimpse them over my shoulder. They’re watching me still. The father waves to me. He’s smiling again.

I sigh and trudge back down the hill. “Have you had something to eat today?”

The man pantomimes the very gesture I made moments before and shrugs his shoulders, too.

“You know? Food. Eat.”

“Ah, si.” I think he understands.

“Have you and your family eaten today? Food?”

“No food,” he shakes his head. “No food.”

“You haven’t eaten?”

“No food.”

I slip a hand into my pants pocket. I know how much I have left. Twelve dollars and a couple dimes. Not a lot I can buy with that. Especially for a family of five.

“Tell you what. Think I can get you all a little something for dinner.”

“No food.”

“Wait right here. I’ll go to the store, lust up the street. Get you folks something to eat. Won’t be that much. But something.”

“No food.”

“Yes, I know. Just wait here. Be back in ten minutes.” I hold out both hands, palms out, my fingers spread. “Ten minutes. And I’ll return with a little something for all you to eat.”

“No food.”

There’s a 7-Eleven not far from the park. Hurrying to this convenience store, I am fueled by the prospect of performing a charitable act. But two irreconcilables jostle within me: the desire to help this family and the desire to maintain the correct motivation. I am questioning my true purpose here.

Am I trying to feed these people so that I may feed my own inner needs? Save my soul through good deeds? Does the underlying selfish motive pollute the intended kind act? At least they’ll be getting something to put in their empty bellies. That’s reason enough. I’ll have to wrestle with my demons another time.

At the 7-Eleven. Not much to choose from. Fritos and Coke won’t cut the mustard. Maybe chicken breast sandwiches will do. One sandwich each. And two quarts of milk. It’s all my budget allows.

On my way back to the park I break into a sprint. My reasons still are twofold. To feed those hungry Mexicans, of course. And again, to feed myself. I imagine the father shaking my hand, grateful to have food for his family. His children gather close around me, their ministering angel. Mama hugs me. They get their food. And the illusion of relief. That’s not part of the bargain. Could be more cruel than their starving.

At Balboa Park again. Could I be at the wrong site? I’m not. This is the spot where I left them. I scan the area, but there’s no trace of the Mexican and his clan. It’s quite dark now, and I can hardly see my way back to El Prado, let alone what may lie in the blackness of those woods. I’m sure they’re in there somewhere, hiding. I feel cheated. Why couldn’t they wait?

As I swing over the Cabrillo Bridge, a Border Patrol car whizzes by me, rooftop bubble splashing a rotating wash of red and blue light over the surrounding trees. I’m thinking of that smiling Mexican and his family. Clinging to the hope that a meal might have been forthcoming. Was I too slow?

Returning to the bench across from the fountain. Same one I slept on, or rather sat on, the night before. Probably will be by myself again. Just my thoughts and that fountain.

A strong breeze lifts and carries to my ear the sound of men talking. I listen to the murmur of these voices against the calls of birds and the soughing of branches. I recognize something familiar about one voice. The one doing most of the talking. Deep in the midst of a boxing story.

I’m standing just off of the Prado, near the side of a building where the woods slope at a steep angle into a thicket of shrubbery. The voices draw me closer to the edge of the precipice, and in the darkness I lose my footing and tumble downhill. When I finally stop rolling and sliding, I find myself stomach-down at the feet of two black men. A cloud of cigarette smoke is directed over my head.

“Ooo! That some kinda tumblesault you take. Hey!”

Though I’m jostled I realize whose feet are before me. Uncle Remus and his silent sidekick from St. Vincent de Paul’s.

“Wait a minute. I know that boy.”

It’s Uncle Remus again. “He the one whose life I save this morning.”

“You all right, son?” the other man asks and bends over to take me by the elbow.

While the man helps me to my feet, Uncle Remus retrieves my bag.

“Here you go, boy,” Uncle Remus says and hands me my things. “You tryin’ to kill yourself, you’re doin’ a bad job of it.”

“Might I sit down? I’m a little disjointed.”

Uncle Remus sniffs at the air as the two of them crouch down across from me. “Smells like chicken. Damn! It smell just like chicken.”

I open my bag. Gesture an invitation to the sandwiches. “Too many there. Can’t eat them all. Please help yourselves.”

“Boy, that was somethin’ else this morning. Me pluckin’ your hide outta the jaws of death.” Uncle Remus is gloating as he unwraps his sandwich. “Literally save your ass. That’s a mean mother you messin’ with. Crazy. Genuine grade-A psychotic. Shit! Woulda killed you twice hadn’t I step in.”

“Here, have a sandwich, son,” the quiet man says.

“Actually, I need to go to the john. All the buildings around here seem closed. And I really have to go.”

“See that bush over there?” Uncle Remus asks and his lips spread into a broad smile. “That’s the place to go. Welcome to the great outdoors.”

Afterwards, I remove the wrapper from one of the chicken sandwiches I bought for that Mexican family. The guilt I feel doesn’t go well with chicken.

I offer my two friends some milk. They seem happy for the food. I’m happy for the company.

“You know, Remus,” the quiet man says to his friend. “Been meaning ta ask you. You’re leaving tomorrow. Ain’t probably never gonna cross paths with you again.”

“Prob’ly not.”

“After five years here in the park with you, I gotta know one thing.”

“What’s that?”

“How you come by that nigger name, anyhow?” asks the quiet man.

“Remus! What a name for an ol’ nigger like me to have. But I have to be honest, my mother had to be one dumb bitch to give me Remus for a name. But to answer your question, I dunno. Never got chance to ask her. Never met the bitch!”

A silence ensues as we eat our sandwiches. That Mexican family invades my thoughts once again.

“So, you’re leaving San Diego, huh?” I ask, ending the momentary quiet.

“That right, man. First thing tomorrow mornin’ I’m on the bus. Been savin’ my general relief check for three months now,” Uncle Remus continues, “Just so I can go live with my sister. She back in Shreveport. Say she’ll put me up. Gimme a place to hang my hat till I get employed. Hey! Anythin’ better than livin’ in a park. Pass the milk.”

“Yeah, it’s sure gonna be easier to sleep nights ’round here,” the quiet man says and hands his friend the milk. “Won’t have to listen to no more of your jabbering,” he’s telling Remus. “Worse than being married.”

“Shit! You love to hear my stories.” Remus lights another cigarette, draws deeply.

“And that smoke. Always lighting up them cigarettes. Sure ain’t gonna miss that neither. Ain’t gonna miss a lotta things.”

“Maybe you should leave here, too,” Uncle Remus suggests. “Go back to them Bowery bum chums of yours you always sayin’ are so great. Hey!”

“Maybe I will go back. Eighteen years is a long time to be away from home.”

“I lived there a short time,” I say. “Stayed right in the Bowery.”

“Ain’t no place like it in the world,” the quiet man says, smiling in fond remembrance of times back home.

Ugly images of the Bowery ooze into my brain. Dirty Bowery streets and the reigning squalor, all those grimy flophouses and filthy all-night cafes, dilapidated warehouses, greasy hamburger joints, and gutted dwellings.

“So tell me, man,” Uncle Remus says, stabbing the night air with his cigarette. “He always bendin’ my ear, tellin’ me how great the Bowery are. We talkin' paradise? The Virgin Island? Or what? Hey!”

I look at the quiet man, still smiling, remembering old times. “Well, the Bowery is as unique a place as I’ve ever been to,” I tell Remus. “Nothing like it in the world.”

“See, man. What’d I tell you?”

Uncle Remus exhales his smoke and shapes a suspicious cloud. “Why you leave, anyway?”

“Two reasons. Concrete and palm trees. In New York, too much concrete. No palm trees.”

“How about you?” I ask Remus. “Why’d you move out here?”

“Well, you see, when I was livin’ in Baton Rouge, I come home from work one day and find a letter waitin’ for me. Open it up, and it says. Greetings, boy, your ass’s been drafted. Went North first. Canada. Not many brothers livin’ in T’ronto back then. Bad place for me to hide. So I came down here.”

“And after all these years here,” I say, “you’re finally returning home. Must feel good.”

Remus puts out his cigarette in the wet grass. He pauses. A look of contemplation precipitates the widening smile. His lips pull back displaying tobacco-stained teeth. “Feel real good. Yeah.”

Another silence hangs over us. Tomorrow Remus returns to his family. His quiet companion loses him. I feel sorry for the one left behind.

That night the three of us stay together at a site not far from where I tumbled into the thicket. Wonderful to not be alone. To be in the company of others. Comforting. And actually manage to get some sleep.

When I awake in the morning, my two friends are gone. With a yawn, I get up from my bed amid juniper and sheep laurel. Still in possession of this morning, the evening cold clings to the new day waiting until the sun decides what it should do.

My itinerary for today? Food and shelter.

Noon. Back at St. Vincent’s for another meal. On my way to the reception courtyard, I walk by the cripple line. Same faces as yesterday, except for one gentleman at the line’s end. An older fellow with a beard that drops from his chin and hangs over his chest in a hairy mass of negligence. Has an old wooden cane to help him move along. Seems like more of a hindrance than a help, his little piece of stick. As he slowly lurches ahead a few steps, his back curves into a grotesque arch. Like a birch bending in the wind.

He inches ahead, and the grimace that comes to his face distorts the blank look he had moments before. There’s an overall dignity about him that rises above his obvious pain.

The old man seems as though he’s about to explode standing there. Or implode. Like Lear in the storm scene.

Across from me a small group of men separate from the line. They’re leaning against a picket fence, handing a brown paper bag from one to the other. No words are exchanged as each takes his turn drinking.

Another man preaches to us. Marching up and down the line. Warning of the world’s impending destruction. Armageddon’s just around the corner.

A woman wearing a plastic bag on her head fans herself with a hubcap from a Buick. Curses gush from her mouth, directed at no one and everyone.

A conversation between four young Latinos slams to a halt when a transvestite appears and propositions one of them.

Two men stand over an old wino who’s passed out on the ground.

“Looks dead,” the first man says.

“Nah.” The other man waves away that possibility. “Too white to be dead. If he were dead he’d be blacker than a charcoal briquette.”

“We should wake him.”

“Can’t,” the second man says. “Ain’t got no whiskey. Only thing that’ll wake him is the smell of booze.”

“If he ain’t dead, he might as well be.”

“Let’s take his sneakers, then.”

“I want his belt.”

A woman sucks a last drag from her cigarette before she throws the butt on the ground. A fellow standing next to her picks up the butt, inspects it, then draws the final puff.

A young man in his 20s tells his sad story to the lady next in line. Four years on Chicago’s commodities exchange. Prestigious firm. Made good money. Moving up in the ranks. Then his wife dumped him. Took the kid. Took his possessions. Took his dignity. He started drinking. Lost his job. His home. Ended up on the streets.

“Worse thing about it all,” he says to the lady, “is that I can’t see my girl. You see, I got so mad at her, my wife, that I whacked her one day. Didn’t mean to. Next thing I know she’s got a restraining order issued against me. Boy, that didn’t help much during the divorce proceedings. She got custody of our girl and I got threatened with a couple years’ probation if I ever go near them. Not getting to see my girl... “ He shakes his head and stops a moment. “It was just too much for me to cope with. Too big a load. So I hit the bottle hard. Been in this hole ever since. And now I’m in too deep to climb out.”

Two men argue over cigarettes. Threats are made. Then they grab each other by the lapels. A shoving match begins. Three security officers converge. Throw the two men out.

Everyone spits. The courtyard’s true function is to serve as an enormous outdoor spittoon. Everywhere I turn I see this incessant spitting. As though these people are trying to purge themselves of the bile of their own existence.

After an hour and a half, the line moves toward the dining area. Inside now. Ritual’s the same as yesterday’s.

A sign above my table tells the dining room’s capacity: 174. There’s at least twice that number waiting outside.

The meal tastes good and filling. Just as it was the day before. As probably is every day.

Leaving the dining area, I notice the old fellow I saw in the cripple line on my way in. The one with the walking stick. As he reaches the front lobby, he tries to rest his worn body on the street curbing. But he has company. Some kids circle him. Taunting him. Tapping him on the arm as they run past. Feigning to take his walking stick. He raises his hand in a threatening gesture. They don’t seem too intimidated, those boys, and continue to taunt the old man.

“Hey! Knock that off,” I yell at them. “Stop that.”

The boys turn to me then back to each other, conspiratorially. When I approach, they laugh and run off behind the building.

The old man nods. He pulls out a soiled handkerchief from his shirt pocket and wipes the sweat from his forehead.

“Woulda poked one with my stick,” he says. “But I didn’t want to hurt any of ’em. Name’s Ted.”

“Hello, Ted. I’m Dave.”

The old man holds out his hand for me to shake.

“You’ve got the hands of a working man,” I tell him. His lips break into a smile for the first time. “Reminds me of my father. Was an iron worker. Heavy construction. Mostly drove piles.”

“I worked on the water. Used to earn my living fishing tuna. On a boat out of San Pedro. Did it for years. Until I hurt my leg.”

“That happen on the boat?” I ask and indicate his lame leg.

“Happened on a trip not far from here.”

“Guess that’s dangerous work.”

“It’s risky. But if you’re on the ball good chance you’ll never get hurt. One day I wasn’t on the ball. This happened,” he says, and points to his bad leg. “Never fished again.”

The old man sighs. He seems far away for a moment. As though he’s remembering his accident. He’s probably mulled over that error again and again.

“Miss it much? The fishing.”

“Nah. Miss the money, though. Miss my family, mostly.”

“They still in San Pedro?”

“No. Got a boy in San Francisco.”

“Ever hear from your son?”

“Not in a long time. I was just a kid myself when my boy was born. Eighteen years old. Wasn’t ready to be a father. Last time I saw him was on the boy’s 16th birthday. That was 14 years ago. Matter a fact, it’ll be 14 years day after tomorrow. That’s my son’s birthday. I call him once in a while. When I have the change to spare.”

“Oh, so you do keep in contact.”

“Not really. I never talk. Just call. When he picks up the phone I don’t say nothing. I listen. But never talk.”

There’s another pause and the old man’s eyes begin to moisten.

“I don’t mean to be out of line. But you know, maybe you should talk to him someday.”

“Can’t do it. Too many broken promises. That last time I saw him, way back on his 16th birthday, the kid made me promise I’d be there for his graduation the following year. Never made it. To that or anything else.”

“That’s too bad.”

“Found out he moved to San Francisco about ten years ago. Been calling him ever since. But that’s all.”

“Won’t you ever talk to him?”

“What’s the point? He’ll just hang up before I have the chance to explain things. Has his mother’s temper.”

“Ever consider writing him? Sometimes that’s the best way.” The old man sighs again. Then starts tapping his cane on the curb.

“Don’t know how to write or read. Never learned. Never went to school.”

“Oh.”

The old man stops tapping his cane just then and gives me a long, hard look.

“You write the letter for me?”

“Huh?”

“If I tell you what to say, would you write my letter for me?”

“Sure. Why not?”

“You gotta use my words, though.”

“Of course. I’ll write it just as you say.” I take out my note pad and a pen from my bag. And the old man and I start composing his letter right there on the curb.

“Dear Bob,” he begins.

“Sorry I missed your graduation. Sorry for missing a lot of things....”

When we finish the letter, the old man asks me to read it. Then read it once more. He gives me his son’s address. Some change for an envelope and postage. And I head to the post office with my charge.

On my way downtown I realize the man’s true age. Said he turned 18 just before the birth of his son. Son’ll be 30 day after tomorrow. Which makes that worn-out, weary old man a mere 48.

After I mail the old man’s letter, I walk down Broadway. My destination. Seaport Village and the Embarcadero Marina Park. A lot of street folk camp out in that park, I hear. So I should have no trouble bumping into a few.

Near the corner of Seventh and Broadway, a middle-aged man approaches me. He reeks of cheap wine and urine and sweat. Blood-caked wounds cover his face and the side of his neck down to his shoulders. “Got any spare change for something to eat?” The inevitable question.

I reach into my pocket and am about to hand over whatever I can when I stop.

“How ‘bout if I buy you something?” I suggest and look into the window of a Chinese restaurant beside us. The menu that’s taped to the window informs me there’s nothing there for a street person’s budget. So I opt for the market three doors down.

“Milk okay?” I ask the man as we step up to the store’s front door.

The man nods.

“Wait here. I’ll get you a quart.”

As I enter the store, a woman summons me.

“Excuse me, sir. You’ll have to leave the bag here,” she says and motions to the floor at the end of the counter.

“Leave my bag?”

“Right here,” she says and points more emphatically to that spot near the counter.

“I’m only going for a milk. Won’t be two seconds.”

“Here, please,” she repeats and points once again to that same blasted spot. A woman enters the store at that moment, another customer, and she’s passing by us with her large sacklike bag looped over her shoulder.

“I was in here only yesterday,” I let the employee know. “Walked right by your security person, whatever he is. I had this very bag with me and nothing was said. Have you suddenly adopted new policies for your shoppers?”

“Look,” the woman tells me and signals to someone at the back of the store. “Leave the bag here or shop some place else. We’ve had enough problems with you people. Always ripping us off. Now put down the bag or just leave.”

I blow out a breath of exasperation then blow out of the store. Defeated. And without the milk.

Never did get to buy that beaten-up man his milk. My confrontation with the contentious store lady must have scared him away.

Walking the streets of downtown on my way to Embarcadero Park, I see many of the same faces that I’ve passed in recent days. It seems the more industrious street folk are out in full force this afternoon. The ones pushing shopping carts filled with returnables and other things. They’re all over downtown with rattling cans and clinking bottles announcing their arrival. I see one man trying to extract coins from a parking meter, oblivious to the meter attendant four cars away. Another is trying to jimmy open a parking lot deposit box.

I rest on a bench facing a tiny watery enclave in a shadow cast by the Hyatt-Regency. In front of me is a flotilla of sailboats and yachts. A racing boat or two.

But I’ve not much time for daydreaming. The sun is slipping behind Coronado. Dusk is not far off. I don’t want to spend another night outdoors. Have to make the shelter’s evening curfew before they lock their doors.

A man walks by. Judging from the way he’s dressed I’d guess he’s on his way to one of the yachts.

“Excuse me, sir,” I call out. “Would you have the time?” He pulls back his shirt sleeve and exposes a Rolex. The solid gold band, diamond-studded, reflects the sun’s light and the man’s standing.

I can’t help wondering what that watch cost. Its true worth. Moreover, the things that I could buy with the money he spent on that Rolex. I start to form a list. First, new shoes. Sneakers, I think. They wouldn’t have to be expensive. They need not even be brand new, the sneakers I’d buy. As long as they bore no holes and satisfied the demands of my two bunioned feet. I would be quite content.

Perhaps I’d get clothes, clean and not so ill-fitting as the rags I wear. It’d be nice to walk one block without having to hike my pants back over my waist.

I suppose what I’d most want to buy with that Rolex watch windfall would be a night in a decent hotel. One blessed night with a comfortable bed. And my own bathroom. To not share a toilet and shower with 200 others, the way it exists in most shelters. And the option to sleep alone or with whom I choose. Not on a cot in a dark hall with 300 strangers.

When my mind at last returns from its musings, the well-dressed man with the Rolex is gone.

A short distance from Seaport Village, I’ve finally arrived at my destination. Embarcadero Park. It’s a pleasant enough park, with rolling greens and wide open spaces. The view of San Diego Bay. I can see why people like to come here.

I’m sitting on yet another park bench, watching the sun sinking farther below the horizon. The world drifting away from the sun. A girl sits next to me then. Sullied clothes. Knapsack stuffed with her things. Lacking food. Lacking sleep. Lacking every comfort most people take for granted.

She reaches behind us and runs her hand over the bark of a eucalyptus tree. Branches rustle gently. The aroma of leaves mingles with the scent of an elegant perfume. My nose crinkles. I notice a Cosmopolitan magazine jutting out from beneath her knapsack flap.

She sits back deep into the bench with a sigh and watches the setting sun. I don’t know what to say. We sit in silence. Watch another day meet its end.

“Got any spare change?” she finally asks.

“Sorry.”

“Haven’t eaten since last night.”

“I’m really sorry.”

“Not as sorry as me,” she sighs and gazes down at her feet. After sitting together a long while, without conversation, the girl buries her face in her hands. Tears steal through her fingers.

I feel awkward and wonder if I should leave her alone in her torment. I stay and say nothing.

When she finally stops crying, we start talking. I try not to interrupt as she tells me her story. Sixteen years old. Got here two days ago. Been staying in the parks. A runaway from Oakland. Father slaps her around. Especially after he’s had too much to drink. Boyfriend got her pregnant. Not even really a boyfriend. Just someone she met at a party.

“I can’t go back there,” she’s telling me. “How could I explain it to them?” She begins to sob again.

I want to tell her to go home. Work things out with her parents. No matter how difficult and painful that might be. I want to tell her what she should do with her unborn child. At least, what I think she should do. But I don’t.

All I can do is tell her where to find a shelter for the evening.

I do.

She nods and wipes her eyes dry on the sleeve of her blouse. Before she leaves, I give her the money she asked for initially. A couple dollars. She promises to head straight for the shelter.

As I prepare to leave the park and head for a shelter myself, I witness a knife fight of sorts between two homeless men. Eight others encircle the two men fighting in a secluded area of the park. Only one brandishes a knife. The older of the two. The other has no weapon, only his fists and his youth.

The movements of the two fighting men are clumsy. Slow. Uncertain. It’s frightening yet nearly comical.

Fight doesn’t last long. Ends when the younger man disarms the other. Then tosses the weapon into the bay. Not a punch had been thrown. Turns out the knife was actually a stick with a nail at the end.

The crowd disperses. No one seems disturbed by this confrontation. Or surprised by its outcome.

It’s too late to go back to St. Vincent de Paul’s now. I’ve missed the curfew once again. Another night on the streets.

A tree at the outer edge of the park looks remote enough to be a safe refuge for tonight. I rest my bag atop its roots, woody anchors pushing down through the earth. Leaning back against the tree with a breath, my body feels heavy this evening. I wonder what kind of tree this is. That young man I met at Balboa Park would probably know. That treeologist.

A gust blows off the harbor and brings to me the smells of the ocean and the chill of the night. I’m cold and my sweater does little to shield me. My stomach’s growling. The noontime meal at St. Vincent’s seems so long ago.

A railroad train’s approaching. I hear wheels grind on the nearby tracks. A welcomed distraction. Its whistle blows, echoing over the park. My mind wanders and imagines what places that train could take me. Far away from here. Away from the cold and the hunger. The loneliness.

I close my eyes then and try to sleep.


This is a two-part story. Continue reading.

Jump to part 2

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