San Diego homeless talk about their moms

"She stabbed my father with a butcher knife"

Joe Strickland: "She used to read to me and buy me books. I wouldn't read 'em though."
  • Joe Strickland: "She used to read to me and buy me books. I wouldn't read 'em though."
  • Image by Patrick Daugherty

This is a spot quiz. Who is making the following statements?

You look too much like your father to be my child.

There is nothing for nice girls to do past midnight.

I'm not here to entertain you.

Am I talking to a brick wall?

Eat those carrots - they're good for your eyesight.

You had better wipe that smile off your face before I do.

Did you flush?

I worry about you.

You can be anything you want to be if you just set your mind to it.

You just have big bones.

What have I done to deserve such ungrateful children?

But you have a beautiful complexion.

Do you think money grows on trees?

As long as you live under my roof, you'll do as I say.

I hope someday you'll have children just like you.

Don't talk with your mouth full!

Do I embarrass you?

If you slouch like that, you'll get a hump in your back.

I'm not just talking to hear my own voice.

I love you.

Shamal: "She was from another generation, she was supposed to make it better for her kids."

Shamal: "She was from another generation, she was supposed to make it better for her kids."

If you guessed the Internal Revenue Service, you were wrong. The above quotes have to do with raising human beings — mom division. Repetitions required for successful implementation of one idea into the pubescent human skull — ten thousand times.

Being a mom has always struck me as a certifiably lousy job. Look at it this way: Say you have just graduated from San Diego State and are being recruited by IBM, AT&T, Bank of America, Boeing and somebody who wants you to raise a human child person. The raising the human child guy says the career requires 30 years of oversight, a lifetime of responsibility, hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenditure and pays nothing. If you do the job right, the human child person might forgive you for your efforts after 40 years and fix your front door when you become too old to remember your name.

Joseph Armstrong: "I guess she just cooked. Cook and watch us eat. That was the joy of her life right there."

Joseph Armstrong: "I guess she just cooked. Cook and watch us eat. That was the joy of her life right there."

Given those facts, what you would do? You'd run to a minimum wage job at Arby's and consider yourself lucky to have dodged that bullet. The real miracle of life is the miracle that any two adults would agree to be parents. But most people do. The amazing thing is that so many parents, in this case, mothers, do so well. They do well enough that the above homilies are recognizable to anyone who has read this far.

But not all of us can read this far.

"My right leg was busted."

At one in the afternoon, Glenn is drunk. He's hobbling down Fifth Avenue in downtown San Diego. There is something wrong with his right leg. Glenn seems young; I figure him for 35. He's tall, six foot three, lanky, has short dirty blond hair and a four-day stubble. Glenn wears a denim jacket and long pants on an 85-degree day. I put the afternoon's topic on the table, "Tell me about your mother. What kind of a woman is she?"

Richard Lore: "She used to read a lot. The poor thing used to read a lot. She had a part-time job."

Richard Lore: "She used to read a lot. The poor thing used to read a lot. She had a part-time job."

Glenn sits down on the sidewalk, leans against a building, "She was French and English."

"What sort of personality did she have? Was she funny, sad, bubbly, quiet?"

"She stabbed my father with a butcher knife when I was nine years old in Alabama. My

dad worked for Daniel Construction." The red glaze covering Glenn's eyes brightens.

"Did she kill him?"

Robert: "I just know that she was the daughter of Chief Sitting Bull."

Robert: "I just know that she was the daughter of Chief Sitting Bull."

Glenn looks down the street, regards a near-empty bottle of wine sitting on the curb next to a double-parked FedEx truck. "No. He went back to Saudi Arabia and worked for a petroleum corporation."

"What happened to your mom?"

"I saved her life in 1970 from a .22 pistol in Augusta, Georgia. She is alive today. She works in the Georgia civil service - 23 years of it. She makes $100,000 a year. She forgot that I saved her life in 1970 when I was 15 years old."

Glenn is studying the sidewalk crack in front of his right boot. I'm feeling a little dizzy from the abrupt time jumps. "Exactly how did you save her life?"

"She stabbed him in the back and he left her and she was grieving because she lost one of the best men to walk the face of the earth. He's dead now."

"How did you save her life in 1970?"

"I took the .22 pistol away from her."

"She was going to kill herself?"

"Yep. I threw her .22 pistol in the swamp and I left."

"You left home?"

"I left a couple of times."

"Okay. Try and remember when you were a child. Did your mommy play with you? Monopoly, Scrabble, that sort of thing?"

"I was molested as a child."

"Did she molest you?"

"Nope."

"Who did?"

"A stranger."

"Did she know that you were molested?"

"Probably, I don't know."

Glenn turns his attention back to the wine bottle. I am intruding. Time to wrap this up. "Okay, in closing, do you have any words for your mother on Mother's Day? Is there anything you would like to say to her, something forgiving, healing, something to close the old circle?"

Glenn looks at me for the first time. "Why?"

I move south on Fifth. Today is hot, a record breaker they say. This is a day that explains why people move to California. A block down the street on my right I spy a tiny man in his 50s. He looks leprechaun-ish, five foot four, red hair, red beard, carrying a black garbage bag over his shoulder. "Hi. Tell me about your mom." By now I understand that I don't need a long-winded introduction.

Edwin Lynn Hill replies, "It was $200."

I think for a long moment. "Was it stolen from you?"

"I was counting it and I was going to put it back in my wallet and somebody walked down the street. It was one in the afternoon, broad daylight. He just took it and ran. I couldn't catch him. I got no place to go."

"Do you know where Saint Vincent's is?"

"They won't let me in there. They have a waiting list."

"Let's talk about your mom."

"Hey, man. Do me a favor. Lend me a dollar, will you?"

I do. Worse, I don't have a dollar bill so I give him a five. This allows me to leave. I turn west on Island, walk down half a block into the radiant sunshine of a warm, wide, welcoming smile. The man looks Middle Eastern, has a black mustache, bald except for long wisps of black hair scattered here and there on his skull. I've got the routine now, "Hi, tell me about your mother."

The broad smile enlarges, a singsong voice replies, "My mother was a very nice lady. She was very beautiful — too much of a lady. Her parents did not let her go to school, but she was educated. She was a queen."

"Where did she bring you up?"

"I was born in the city of Irbil, north Baghdad."

"Iraq?"

"Yes. We call Irbil a gorgeous town. We're Kurds. My mother, uh, I always love her."

"Was she a housewife?"

"Oh yes, yes. My mother raised us. My father left and went with the Kurdish rebels. He went to fight for the Kurdish rights. My mother stayed and raised the kids. It was difficult for her to do. We were together five kids - my older brother, my older sister, then my younger sister, and brother."

"And she did all the cooking and cleaning and washing?"

"Yes, she did, but she was also sick. I realize that she was always sick. People from Middle East are always sick because of they eat too much pomegranate and sour things. She had an ulcer too. She was bleeding from ulcer. My mother was a nice lady."

"When did she die?"

"I am not sure if she died or if she is still alive."

"When was the last time you saw her?"

"It was in 1990 when all the Kurds went up to the mountains to get away from Saddam Hussein. President Bush was there. It was New Year's of '89 or '90."

I remember seeing that on TV. Kurds were fleeing into the mountains that border Turkey. I think Secretary of State Baker made a flyby. Not Bush, but my friend is close enough, "Did you see your mother on television?"

"I never seen her on TV. I only see her through the talking, through the wires."

"Through wires?"

"I never seen her since the day I left. I think it was "73 when I left. I was a very young boy."

"You know, when I think of my Mom I often have the memory of her coming in and waking me up on a spring Saturday morning in Houston, Texas. The light is streaming into the bedroom; the curtains are yellow and my mom is particularly happy. I was six years old. Do you have any favorite memory like that about your mom?"

"Uh, no. My mom was always forgiven. She did not do nothing never wrong to me. She was very innocent. She was from another generation, she was supposed to make it better for her kids. Look at me the way I live. I've been in college. I am from college. Been big before. I've been a small, rich, and poor, and look at the way I live."

I nod, ignoring for the moment his very dirty clothes. "What do you do now?"

"I am planning to go back to college. I want to be a teacher of electronics. To be a teacher of electronics in the highest techs."

"What's your name?"

"My name is Shamal, and my father is Monier Akrawi Sheriff."

"And you haven't seen your mother or any of your family since you left Iraq in 1973?"

"I have never heard anything about my family, my parents, ever since 1989, I was up on the moon once, a long time ago. And I have no idea no more. I became an American reborn native."

"You were up on the moon?"

"I was up there once with the rest of the Kurds."

"What were you all doing on the moon?"

"Trying to get together with other Kurds to help the country."

"On the moon?"

"On the moon."

"How did you all get to the moon?"

"That is a good question. Saddam Hussein destroyed some of the cities that the Kurds live in. He used chemicals. So I wrote a letter to President Bush when he became president after Reagan. I told him about Saddam Hussein, how he was using chemicals against the Kurds.

"I told him he should do something for the Kurds since Saddam is destroying them with the chemicals. Somehow Saddam finds out about this from the White House. I met President Bush in the airport. I was driving a taxi back then. That's how I ended up going to the moon. I knew that these things were related to each other little by little, you know."

"Going up to the moon was related... to what?"

"I was on the moon by the way of the UFO, up from Coronado."

"UFO?"

"Yeah. That was a different story. Yes."

"Got you. Let's stay with the moon for a moment. You're there with your countrymen to make things better for the Kurds. What exactly did you do while you were on the moon?"

"After I went up there, they asked me, 'What do you want?' I said, 'I want money first and I want a pretty wife and then I want my country.'"

"Did you get the money or the pretty wife?"

"I was supposed to get everything. Then Saddam Hussein made a deal with President Bush to work for him. Saddam said to Bush, 'If you just don't give nothing to this guy, I will do everything for you.' I know the president of Russia, the president of Japan. I know all the presidents."

Two blocks east, pushing a mature but not overflowing shopping cart is Joseph Armstrong. Mr. Armstrong's day wear features a baseball hat, black jeans, and a blue sweater. "Hi, what's your mother's name?"

"My mother's name is Stella." Armstrong has a pleasant bayou accent.

"Where did you grow up?"

"New Orleans."

"Ah, that must have been fun."

Armstrong and his cart are in the exact center of Island Avenue. He cocks his head, replies, "Yeah. It was all right. She was a great cook."

How can I get this guy out of the street? "Did Stella have a job?"

"Oh she worked with her mother, they both worked for a judge. They were domestics. Cleaning up."

"Did she do all the house work around your house too?"

"Her house and the judge's. She also did the best cooking around: gumbo, andouilles, fried chicken, pork chops."

Here comes a Ford Taurus headed right at us. I move a deep left, making sure that Armstrong and his cart came between me and the oncoming car. "What did she do forr fun?"

"For fun? I guess she just cooked. Cook and watch us eat. That was the joy of her life right there."

"How long would it take her to cook a meal?"

"Maybe an hour. Slow cooking. It's a different kind of meal, takes lots of ingredients some gotta be fried, some breaded, some minced. Like, for the gumbo, we gotta have the flour and the water and meat. For breakfast, we'd have greens, eggs, biscuits from scratch, pancakes from scratch."

The front comes within a hair of Armstrong's leg. He doesn't notice. The driver is unconcerned. "What was the discipline like?"

"She would talk a lot and at other times she would be quiet. Either on an equal basis. She went to church every Sunday, rain or shine. She is very spiritual."

"When's the last time you saw her?"

"Oh, I haven't been in New Orleans since 1992. I crave for her cooking and everything. She'd have me over for a big dinner and I'd just go sit down beside her. There'd be a freezer full of beer. But she's doing great. The judge left her a little money in his will."

A white Dodge van guns past us. I retreat to the curb, call out, "Is she the most important person you ever had in your life?"

"Well, one of the few I would say. I was real close to my grandparents and my great-grandparents. I had the pleasure of meeting them too."

I leave Armstrong in full possession of Island Avenue and walk to the corner of Ninth and Market. Before me is Mr. Joe Strickland. Joe is small, five foot six, has bright blond hair and beard, wears a T-shirt and shorts, and carries a canvas backpack over his shoulders. There's a bit of the imp about him. I inquire, using the same tone I use when ordering a washing machine gasket, "Where did you grow up and tell me about your mom."

Strickland doesn't blink. "Well, I guess it's Illinois. I was born in Indiana, but she was carrying me from Illinois. But that's just one mom that was happening before I was this age. It's kind of strange."

"What was her name?"

"Well, this one I don't know because they were twins, see," Strickland explains as if speaking to a particularly slow child.

"Explain twins."

"The mothers."

"Let's back up. You were born in Illinois, but you have two mothers?"

"There is a Lita Strickland and then there is a Viola. I don't know Viola's last name."

"They were look-alikes."

"Look-alikes. How did that work for you? Were you with Lita and then Viola and then back to Lita and so on and so forth?"

"Well, I really didn't know, you know, because I was a child. My brains weren't functioning."

"Let's try this. What is the first thing you remember?"

"The first thing I remember is them taking care of me, but that would be my other mother. My other mother was great. She was always helping me — making sure that I was able to do stuff and everything. I've had other lives, you know, but it just seems like I was passed around because I was so smart. But as far as being caring, loving, and kind, they were all that until they left me."

"What was her name, the mother that you remember?"

"The mom I remember. That would be even going back to being Jesus."

"Let's stick with this one life."

"With this one?"

"Yeah. Just this one. When did your mothers leave you? How old were you?

"Okay. Let's put it this way. I was born in Indiana. My mom went to Pennsylvania after Indiana because her parents lived there. And I went with her and I was still a baby. And then she took me to Indiana, I mean Pennsylvania. Then after that, we lived there for about five, six years and she went back to Indiana. And we lived there for five more years, and then she went back to stay with her family, her mom and stuff — that'd be my grandma and she was real nice too.

"We stayed there and got along real well in Pennsylvania. That's where I grew up. Then when I was 12 we moved down to Florida. we were a traveling couple, me and my mom because my dad passed away when I was about 5."

"What did your mother do in Florida?"

"She was on social security, see. She wasn't working or anything, we just lived there. She liked to be by the ocean. I lived 21 years with her there, and then we went to Oklahoma. In Oklahoma, we stayed, oh, maybe 15 more years. And then she was put in a retirement home, see? I left because I couldn't pay any rent and I came out here. But as far as my mom goes, she was pretty caring and loving, but then I found out that there had been other mothers. It's wild."

“Did she have any bad habits?”

“She smoked a lot, but I still liked her.”

“Did she read to you when you were a kid?”

“Oh yeah. She used to read to me and buy me books. I wouldn’t read ‘em though. I was too busy trying to play. I never bothered her, you know, as far she saying for me to get out of the house all the time, but she was still nice.”

“What were the evenings like? Say, after dinner, what would you do and what would she do?”

“Well, usually dinner was about seven o’clock. Sometimes I’d go to bed right after dinner; sometimes I’d watch TV for a long, long time.”

“What would she be doing?”

“She would be resting on the couch, smoking cigarettes.”

“What kind of disposition did she have?”

“I’d have to put her in mean and kind of angry disposition.”

“What did she do for fun?”

“For fun she’d go out with other ladies that she found, you know, mostly to have a couple of drinks. Go out and get guys.”

“Did she ever find boyfriends after your dad died?”

“Yeah. Yeah. That was it.”

“Did se seem to get along well with men?”

“Umm, not after an hour.”

“You were telling me about your past lives and other mothers. Of all the mothers you had, where would you put the Oklahoma mother? Near the top?”

“Well, she was a mother of a mother of a mother, you know. We’re talking very rich and high class and sophisticated as far as I can figure that out. But there was other mothers because I had brothers and they split up, see. They beat her up and just took a mother and left. That’s what another dad said. As far as complacent moms and dads and everything, you know, I can’t say.”

“When was the last occasion that you talked to your Oklahoma mom?”

“Three or four years ago.”

“And she was in a retirement home?”

“Yeah. That’s when they took her away. I came home and she was gone.”

“No note? No nothing?”

“Not really. A neighbor lady had put her in there. It wasn’t all that kind of loving and warm-hearted thing.”

“Was it like, ‘Get this crazy person out of here’?”

“I thought it was.”

“Are you going to call her this Mother’s Day?”

“Oh no, I don’t know where she is. I don’t know the phone number or anything, stuff like that.”

One last question and then out. “Do you ever think about her?”

“Not really. I try to keep away from it, you know. I don’t like to be bothered with things like that.”

Richard Lore has set up shop on the corner of Sixth and F. He’s a clean-shaven man, black mustache, black hair, around 30. Richard's wearing a clean shirt. "Tell me about your mother."

"In 1984, my two sisters declared me mentally incompetent because my grandmother and grandpa left me a lot of money. I was 4 years old. I did a lot of work. My house was loaded with federal equipment. In the ‘60s, they brought the two brother-in-laws into the family. As soon as I turned 18 years old this girl Christie dummied up the papers and then this Frank Simmons, this other brother-in-law, he knew some guy that lived a block from my house. They looted my house when I was a kid. Now that got me listed as a mentally incompetent so I walk around begging people. I've been trying to go to court since '91, but they killed three lawyers."

"They killed them?"

"Three lawyers. I lost three lawyers. I don't know what happened. They probably bribed them all. My mother died in '84, but we still hear her voice today, you know?"

"What kind of a mom was she?"

"She was a good mother. She was good."

"What did she look like?"

"She was good, but what happened was two guys walked into my mother's house when I was a kid and one of them shot my father in the- what area would you call this?" Lore points to his crotch.

"Genitalia."

"Well, they shot him in the genitalia. He couldn't get his little thing hard no more. So the mother was loyal to the husband, you know, but she, like, you know, wanted different sex favors from the kids, you know? And I couldn't accommodate her, you know, so she went a little crazy, you know, almost-bisexual, you know?"

"Where did you grow up?"

"By Kennedy Airport in New York City, but from '81 to '91 I was in a mental facility. My wife was feeding me Demerol. I married this woman. As soon as I had the receipts, she split. That's the last I seen of her."

"What did your mom look like?"

"She was five foot seven, black hair, built like those Dutch people, you know, heavyset."

"What kind of disposition did she have?"

"She used to read a lot. The poor thing used to read a lot. She had a part- time job. We were being threatened by voices constantly."

"Both of you?"

"My whole family. In the ‘60s, we were threatened a by those people who stole federal equipment. In the ‘70s, it wasn't that bad, but then the ‘80s were really bad. I was incarcerated for ten years and as soon as I got out, I couldn't even rent a room in New York. I'm being tormented by the people in New York because the range of the satellites is so long. I paid $20 million in the ‘50s for a camera. So, apparently they are not paying for any of my work; it's easier to declare me mentally incompetent. Actually, the wife wants my brain. They hypnotized me, two people's voices did, and they made me morbid."

"Let's get back to your mom. Did she work?"

"She worked. She had a part-time job at Montgomery Ward. She did a lot of reading. She was a housewife."

"What'd she do for fun?"

"Really not that much."

"Did she cook?"

"Yeah. She used to cook breakfasts and dinners. She was a good woman; like, she was always home for the father, but the father, after he got shot, he sexually couldn't satisfy the woman because he couldn't get an erection. So there was a lot of turmoil, you know. She died in '84, the poor thing."

"When was the last time you saw her?"

"We put her in the ground in Florida in 1984. That was the last time. I went to her funeral. I was still incarcerated, but they let me out for a little while to go to Florida. We put her in the ground then. That was the last I've seen of her, but I still hear her voice via satellite."

"What does she say?"

"Her voice is from a satellite. I own a $20 million camera."

"What does your mom tell you?"

"People are not my agents or affiliates of mine. My people were killed off by the time I was 14. So, I write for the shows on TV, but apparently I'm not getting paid."

"What was your mother's name?"

"Her name was Francis, her nickname was Millie. I lived in Millie's house. She was a good woman."

I say goodbye and cross the street, say hello to a mid-30s man. The man's color is ebony, the true dark black you see in equatorial Africa. The man smiles, showing blinding white teeth. He's wearing a long-sleeved wool shirt, long pants, stands as erect as a Marine. I place his accent as Nigerian.

"Where were you born?"

"Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is where I was born and raised, but my birth certificate says Woodrow, Missouri. I was raised by a black family. My name is Robert."

"What was your mom like?"

"She died at my birth."

"Have you ever met anybody who knew her personally?"

"No, I really haven't. I just know that she was the daughter of Chief Sitting Bull. The board of education told me that."

"Which board of education?"

"The one in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania."

"I see. Have you ever met anybody from your mother's family?"

"No, I haven't. I've never met those people." The man shows a look of resigned disappointment.

"Did you miss your mom when you were growing up?"

"I never knew her and I was raised by a black family."

"How did you feel about the family that raised you, particularly the person who was acting as your mom?"

"As I grew up I accepted them as my parents until I started studying, and then during the education, I remembered."

"Who was your father?"

"My father is Muhammad IV?"

"There's a German culture, right?"

"You bet, ask Poland."

"My father was a castle owner in Germany and went to Egypt."

"So your father is Arabic?"

"Yes. Egypt."

"And your mom was an American Indian and you were raised by a black family. How many people were in the family that raised you?"

"Three girls and myself and two friends."

"What did that mother look like?"

"She was five foot seven. She was a country girl that lived in the big city."

"Did she work?"

"She worked as a nurse's assistant."

"And when she came home at night, would she cook dinner?"

"When she came home I was out playing, right? I think she did the cooking until her daughters took over."

"What was her disposition like?"

"She was kind of mean."

"What would she do to be mean? Did she, like, yell at you or slap you?"

"I'd usually get extension cord whippings. It was a requirement — requirement."

"Something that had to be done?"

"For the board of education."

"Did she ever read to you?"

"Read? Oh, no. I had a television education before kindergarten."

"When was the last time you saw her?"

"Christmas 1993, in St. Louis, Missouri. I went from Pittsburgh to St. Louis, Missouri."

"How was the Christmas?"

"It was all right. Basic."

"Did you exchange presents and such?"

"I received a gift. I didn't have anything to offer her."

"Do you call her regularly?"

"No. I stopped contacting her. There is this, uh, political, uh, confusion. It will bear down on me more and more so I let them stay out of it."

"What is the political confusion?"

"Moscow entered the 1983-1984 Olympic games. Moscow had their concerns."

"Moscow?"

"Yea. They have their concerns."

"Does Moscow talk to you? Hold it, make that, how does Moscow talk to you?"

"Frequently. We used to play chess together. They knew I was there — in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania."

"Do you recall what you did on Mother's Day when you were a child?"

"Once I made her a gift. And one other time I got her a present and card. But then I asked for a vehicle from her husband."

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