Americans, Homeless in the Dry Wash of Ensenada

"You're a hard man to find." Glassy red eyes regard me with fear. The stubble-haired male, somewhere between 60 and 80, is buried deep in his sleeping bag. The brown cotton bag stinks of urine and decayed food as does the once cinnamon-colored overcoat currently in use as a pillow. The man's deeply tanned face is equally dirty and grimy as is his matted gray hair, beard, and mustache. He turns onto his hip, the bag falls aside revealing a red plaid shirt caked with the same mud and grime. At this moment we are in a gully, a quarter mile east of Boulevard Lazaro Cardenas, the main drag of Ensenada. The dry wash is deep; its bottom is 30 feet down from the surrounding roadways. It is wide; 100 yards across. And it is long; it runs from Ensenada Bay through downtown and on to the suburbs.

The man's head twists toward me. His first words reveal finely honed street smarts. "What do you want?"

What I want is the guts of his life, but that's a hard thing to hear from a stranger first thing in the morning. Instead, I smile and ask, "How about some coffee? I'll buy you breakfast."

Two red eyes attempt to focus for the first time this day. "Why do you want to buy me breakfast?"

Again, the derelict displays a remarkable clearheadedness. I soothe, "Tell me how you got here and I'll buy breakfast, anything you want. Deal?"

Unbelieving, deeply suspicious, but drawn to the possibility of free food, the man slowly, painfully crawls out of his sleeping bag. With an unsteady gait, he walks over to a nearby mesquite tree and relieves himself. His pants are so caked with muck, I can't tell if they're blue jeans or Carharts. Gray wool socks and black tennis shoes complete his ensemble. The man returns, rolls up his sleeping bag, ties it with twine, picks up the coat he was using as a pillow, and faces downtown.

This is a person in an unusual situation. According to T. Michael Bircumshaw, publisher of the Baja Sun (an English-language newspaper with offices in Ensenada), there are 10,000 Americans living in and around Ensenada, and 90 percent of them are illegal. To be legal you need to show $1000-a-month income and another $600 a month if you have a wife. A lot of Americans don't have that. Many more Americans are unwilling to go through the considerable effort of filling out the proper forms (which, by the way, is not one-stop shopping but a vocation that one plies for years, sometimes decades). But the point is, everybody has a place to go back to at night. Mexico has all the poor people it needs. If you are poor and foreign then ipso facto you are here illegally. Remember, to be legal you need to prove that grand-a-month income. An American who is homeless doesn't last long on the streets of Mexico. As soon as he is spotted by authorities, he is deported on sight, which is one reason why it's taken me two days to find this man, who is possibly the only homeless American in Ensenada.

My companion has a long, dry hack of a cough that lasts, uninterrupted, the half mile walk from the arroyo to Alfonso's, a downtown restaurant set next to what locals call "the park with the three heads." I select a table on the sidewalk, order two menus, two orange juices, two black coffees, and pleasantly inquire, "Do you like Mexico?" The mush of a face I first beheld has taken on form. The still-puffy fa ade reveals that it once was square. His eyes are green. A two-inch scar runs above and parallel to his left eyebrow. Beneath a scattering of yellow teeth is what was once a bulldog's jaw. What is most surprising is his voice. My tablemate speaks in a falsetto pitch laced with a Louisiana accent. "Mexico is all right," comes his laconic reply.

James W. Tredeau, 58, was born in New Orleans. He is the middle child of five children. His father worked on fishing boats Q nothing steady, but steady enough to keep a family together if not a house. When the rent wasn't paid the family moved. "Some years we'd move every 3 months," but always within New Orleans. Dad was away at least 6 months out of every 12. Mom never worked. "She drank vodka and watched TV." "Did she beat you?"

"No, she kept to herself." Tredeau does not erase the bitterness from his voice. An elderly waiter brings our juice and coffee, stands by for orders. Tredeau settles on pancakes. I go for huevos rancheros. While we wait Tredeau tells me he began ditching school in the fifth grade, dropped out during his sophomore year of high school. He joined the Navy at the age of 17 (that was 1955) and lasted two years of a three-year enlistment. "I never went back to New Orleans. I hate the place. I like the West Coast." Forty-one years, three tanker cars of alcohol, two wives, one child, two real jobs, and dozens of temporary gigs later, Mr. Tredeau and I lift our first cups of morning coffee. "How long have you been homeless?"

"After the second wife left things sort of fell apart. Didn't see no reason to work. To tell you the truth, I never liked it that much. I had a room up in San Francisco for a number of years. Nice place, had my own refrigerator and hot plate, color television, and got along with the manager. He had a drinking problem too. Sometimes he'd get on a binge and ask me to watch the desk at night, take a little off the rent for it."

The waiter arrives with our orders. Tredeau locks onto his food from 15 feet, follows it to the table, picks up a fork, and starts shoveling without once taking his gaze off the plate of steaming pancakes. He has left this time and place and is deep into another world. I attempt to bring him back. "So you were living in San Francisco. What did you do for money?"

"I had disability." This said with a stuffed mouth and green eyes still fixed onto his plate.

"Is that all?"

"Food stamps." The words slide out between chews.

"Sounds like a pretty good deal."

"Yeah."

"What happened?"

Green eyes wince at the prospect of bad memories. Just his luck that the very tip of the bad memory iceberg is struck so early in the morning. The high-pitched voice sighs, "I started drinking again." I feel his mind engage like a rusted, squeaking transmission trying to pull out of first gear. "People think welfare is easy; it ain't. You got to go to all those meetings, keep all those appointments. You got to do what they want you to do."

Drained from the sudden onrush of emotion, Tredeau returns to his plate, fishes a half pancake onto his fork, and forces the gob into his mouth.

"You lost track of the appointments?"

"Yeah."

"What happened?"

"They threw me out of the hotel." Tredeau is silent for three heartbeats, then says, all in a rush, "It was winter and raining like hell."

I grab a flour tortilla, drag an edge of it through an egg yolk. "When was that?"

I wait while Tredeau's corroded mind laboriously turns. "Four, five years ago."

Mr. Tredeau may have chosen an appropriate career path. It's clear to me that he should not consider any job that requires dealing with the public. As if trudging through mud, I push on. "What did you do then?"

"I went down to L.A."

"Where did you stay?"

"I slept in the bushes alongside freeways."

"Why not a homeless shelter?"

"They're crowded," munch, munch, "dangerous, got a lot of rules."

"Like not drinking?"

"That's one of them."

This guy does not have a single sharp edge to grab onto. I have no idea where to go, fall back on "Then what?"

"I went to Phoenix for a while, then up to Las Vegas." This, as well as everything else the man has said, is meant to placate his benefactor. Tredeau either has no interest in his story or long ago vowed not to tell it.

"There's always work in Vegas," I say.

"I guess so, but I wasn't there a week before they had me in jail."

"What for?"

Tredeau stops chewing. I am startled at this development. Using more affect than I've heard all morning, he declares, "Hell, I don't know. I was sleeping in an alley and they arrested me."

"We're you passed out?"

"I was sleeping." Suddenly my chum lets slip another emotion: a pout. What do I have to do to get him to talk? I try, "What brings you here?"

"Looking for my brother. I heard he was living around here." Tredeau has finished his breakfast, orange juice, and coffee. He's beginning to look more like a 58-year-old. Color and shape have returned to his face. I order two more coffees and prod, "When was the last time you saw him?"

"A long time, maybe 20 years." I have yet to make eye contact with my breakfast guest. Now that his meal is finished, Tredeau looks at the street or the tabletop. I carry on, "What makes you think he's down here?"

"I got an uncle, he lives in Bakersfield. He told me he talked to Ray on the phone, and that Ray was retiring around Ensenada."

"When was that?"

"About six months ago."

"Did your uncle have an address for your brother?"

"No."

"Anybody in your family have his address?"

"My parents are dead. I don't talk to the rest of them, except for Uncle Tom."

"How often do you talk to your uncle?"

"Not often."

Okay, bingo, I've had it. I rap on the table with my knuckles until Tredeau looks directly at me. Using a don't-fuck-with-me tone of voice I demand, "Tell me about your brother. Take a moment and think about it. What does he look like? How old is he? Were you close when you were kids? How tall is he? How much does he weigh? What kind of personality does he have? Is he funny or sad or boring? Is he married? Does he have children? What kind of work is he retiring from? Give me the complete picture." The last is said flat and hard.

A trace of fear has returned to Tredeau's now emerald eyes. Brain pulleys begin to groan. "His name is Jerome, he's two years older than me."

"Go on."

"We joined the Navy together. He stayed with it. He was an aircraft mechanic." Full stop.

I can't stand this. I decide to lunge at the core of it. "Look, you're homeless. You're homeless in Mexico. What do you make of that?"

Tredeau uncoils an expression of genuine puzzlement. Startled, I ask, "You are homeless, aren't you?"

"I'm looking for my brother."

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