God's love for El Cajon Blvd dirtbag motels

Pray that Michael Douglas don't come back

"There are always doors open and tenants outside alone or gathering together,."
  • "There are always doors open and tenants outside alone or gathering together,."
  • Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.

In 1972, Tony Tarantino was a street evangelist. A thin, gentle kid of 20 with bushy reddish hair, he roomed with his older sister up the street from the Spring Valley house where Laura and I lived with a crowd of friends. Tony visited most every day while on his rounds to lead Bible studies at the homes of various believers and skeptics. People told us he used to play bass at Skyline Wesleyan Church, before he gave up music to concentrate on his Bible studies. For his devotion and humility, Tony was becoming a legend around San Diego amongst the converted hippies people called Jesus freaks.

“At the Hitching Post, there are 31 rooms, at least a hundred people, eight in a single two-bedroom apartment alone."

“At the Hitching Post, there are 31 rooms, at least a hundred people, eight in a single two-bedroom apartment alone."

That was a big year for me. A lottery released me from the military draft; I finished a master’s degree; I won a radio jackpot of several thousand dollars, and with that money Laura and I bought airplane tickets and Eurail passes.

Glen and Peggy Percival and their son Brian left Vancouver, Washington, five years ago, believing that God had prompted them to move south.

Glen and Peggy Percival and their son Brian left Vancouver, Washington, five years ago, believing that God had prompted them to move south.

We were gone a year and returned to find Tony as different as though he’d been possessed by a demon spirit or space alien. He’d been labeled schizophrenic. Between stays in a mental health facility, he returned to his sister’s place, loaded on medicine called prolyxin.

The Stagecoach was $20 per night.

The Stagecoach was $20 per night.

A doctor administered the drug by injection every two weeks. It was a downer so powerful that to stay awake, Tony drank coffee all day long. He paced or shuffled around our house and yard, his brow knitted as though in rapt concentration.

He often forgot about the coffee cup that hung by the handle on his index finger, so the coffee spilled and stained our hardwood floor if one of us didn’t notice and swab it up right away. When at last Tony remembered the cup in his hand, discovering it empty, he returned to the kitchen in hope of a refill.

He wandered through our house, leaning forward to gaze more intently at objects — a posed photo of the ten of us who lived in the three bedrooms, two sheds, and garage; a pole lamp; a spool coffee table; the sculpture of a guitar-carrying, hitchhiking hobo in winter. He mumbled words to songs, which became medleys as he confused the lyrics to a Beatles number with one by the Rolling Stones. “I can’t get no...something. Um, Don’t let me down...”

"The first month, they’re called ‘transients,’ and they have no rights. After 31 days we refund their motel taxes and the rent goes down a little."

"The first month, they’re called ‘transients,’ and they have no rights. After 31 days we refund their motel taxes and the rent goes down a little."

If a word escaped him, he usually replaced it with “something.” Once a temporarily homeless and unemployed friend lay recovering from the mumps on our couch. Tony marched to his side and said, “You need to do...” Tony froze and squinted, peered out the window at the vegetable garden, shook his head and stared at the floor and began to drift toward the kitchen, but he stopped. A minute passed before he turned, mumbled, “Something,” and wandered out of the room.

Our friend bolted up and exclaimed, “Hey, I thought that guy was loco, but he’s right on. I’ve got to do something!”

Tony seemed to act in response to sights and voices the rest of us couldn’t hear, yet he only once admitted hallucinating. He told me about a vision brighter than either dreams or reality, in which a platoon of Nazis entered his room searching for Jesus and grilled him for days.

Something he couldn’t remember spooked him so cruelly, he let his sister return him to the hospital. He stayed there for most of a year, then moved to a board-and-care home in an old motel on El Cajon Boulevard a block from the Hitching Post, which stands on a comer of Guava and El Cajon, on the strip of the boulevard that once served as the main entrance to San Diego from the east. Before I-8 existed, the strip featured a dozen travelers’ motels to the mile.

Through the mid-’70s, I worked for the county welfare department, assisting old fqlks, the physically disabled, and people like Tony with their Medi-Cal needs. There were so many board-and-care establishments, the honestly homeless were rare. Schizophrenics had social workers to guide them through the complex details of life, such as applying for services. The board-and-care people helped Tony earn a diploma from an adult high school. They helped him with nutrition and hygiene and to budget his spending money.

When politicians led by Ronald Reagan slashed mental health budgets and the board-and-care establishments closed, Tony rented an apartment with another schizophrenic. Tony received Social Security checks on account of his disability, but in the hands of a fellow whose logic and impulse control were impaired by hallucinations and the bombardment of random stimuli, a few hundred dollars paid monthly seemed to vanish before he reached the supermarket.

Tony’s roommate found other housing, probably dismayed because Tony joined record clubs, collected stamps, subscribed to Playboy, yet ran out of food by the tenth of each month.

Tony’s sister moved away. His parents were separated and long gone. He spent his days pacing University Avenue and El Cajon Boulevard, usually dressed as a gentleman in a thrift store suit, carrying suitcases.

I had moved on. To Iowa, then Arizona, then Northern California. I frequently visited San Diego, but my time got occupied with closer friends and relatives. I rarely saw Tony, and when I did, I passed him by. Even when I moved back to San Diego, I failed to renew our friendship because the few times I invited him for dinner and he came, Tony frightened my small children by speaking to phantoms.

Glen and Peggy Percival and their son Brian left Vancouver, Washington, five years ago, believing that God had prompted them to move south and use their gifts to save souls. Glen’s the minister of a small Pentecostal church, a mild but energetic fellow of 50 years.

They had no savings and no prospects for employment when they pulled into the Stagecoach Motel on the strip of El Cajon Boulevard street people call “the Gut,” escaping the culture shock of downtown San Diego, where the drunks, hookers, junkies, and gangsters were too plentiful for the sensibilities of small-town Christians.

The Stagecoach — a one-story motor court laid out like a horseshoe and painted several colors, as if the painters had run out of energy or paint — was $20 per night, the best rate the Percivals found, so they registered. They must’ve looked honest compared to other tenants, because in the morning the owner, Bill McKinley, came to their door and asked Glen, “You ever do any handyman work?”

“Yeah, sure.”

“How about your family? How’re they on domestic chores?”

“Darn good, plenty of experience.”

“You folks want a job, it’s yours.”

Police visited the Stagecoach regularly. Besides domestic disturbances and other fights, Glen recalls, “There was a porno-film operation. Right out our window we could see into a room across the court, because the drapes didn’t shut all the way.

“And there was an armed robbery. One of our tenants was a big black guy we hired to keep an eye on things at night, but these robbers disabled him and came running into the office carrying a .22 rifle and a .38 pistol, it looked like. We were asleep in back. It was about 1:00 a.m. Peggy got up and went out to the desk and found them there, two black fellows, one of them aiming the rifle at our night guard. They had led him into the office at gunpoint. The other man aimed his pistol at Peggy. Our guard followed their orders and started looking for the money, but it was under the mattress in our bedroom. We moved it around all the time. The guy with the rifle told Peggy to wake up her husband, so she walked into the back and he followed. After I got up, the gunman let Peggy go into the bathroom, and then the robbers began to get nervous, because there were other rooms in back and they seemed to know we had other family members and there might be another phone and the police might already be on the way. So they turned and ran.

“And there was a 16-year-old boy. His therapist, a man who was apparently also his lover, brought him to the Stagecoach. When I called the boy’s parents to ask their permission for him to stay there, they said it was okay, that they didn’t want him. We learned from other tenants that he was earning his rent by taking men into the room with him, even though I don’t think he was truly homosexual. It was just his way to get by.”

In April 1996, after a dispute with the Stagecoach owner, the Percivals moved two miles west on El Cajon Boulevard, where they had found a position managing the Hitching Post.

The Hitching Post looks as if it might’ve begun as a TraveLodge. Both two-story wings run parallel to El Cajon Boulevard. In daylight, there are always doors open and tenants outside alone or gathering together, smoking and watching cars pass as though one might bring a message or a windfall.

“At the Hitching Post,” Glen says, “I’m, like, the mayor of the village. There are 31 rooms, at least a hundred people, eight in a single two-bedroom apartment alone. Most of the trouble we have is domestic. We’ll have maybe four or five abusers there at once.

“I usually apply a three-strike rule. I warn them twice, then send them away, or call the police if I have to. But after 31 days they have tenants’ rights to due process. The first month, they’re called ‘transients,’ and they have no rights. After 31 days we refund their motel taxes and the rent goes down a little because we don’t charge taxes anymore, and if we want to evict somebody, it takes about a month by the time we file a petition to the court and the tenant gets served, and then there’s a court appearance.

“There's a tenant now, she got a job as a waitress at Heidi’s across the street, but she was a little too erratic and they let her go, just by cutting her hours until there weren’t any. About that time, she fell for a blind man who lives up front, and for a while they were getting along, but blindness creates special challenges. He’s insecure, and because he can’t see, he starts to imagine that she’s cheating on him or avoiding him. So with those feelings as instigators, arguments start, and let’s say he’s feeling bad about his actions and wants to apologize, he’ll go to hug her, and she doesn’t know what he’s up to, she thinks he’s attacking her, and she starts swinging.

“Another gal beat up on her man while he was in bed. They had a baby, and he waited until she was coming out the door carrying the baby and she couldn’t fight back, then he punched her around. I had I to stop that one. The man tried to justify himself. 'She started it. She was beating on me while I was sleeping.’

“When I hear a fight, or if one of the residents runs and tells me, I have to go and try to stop it. I always pray first and then trust that God will protect me. I’m no fighter.

“Not long ago, there was a lot of noise and screaming coming from upstairs. I had to go up there to make sure the woman was okay. I knocked on the door—I always do that, I won’t go over the threshold unless the tenant lets me in. The man threw open the door and yelled at me. 'This is the third time you’ve been up here. Last time somebody messed with me, I left him bloody in the parking lot.’

“I went home. If the screaming had continued, if I’d thought somebody was getting hurt, I would have called the police, but they quieted down. I prayed about what to do, and the next day I confronted the man and explained that it was my job to keep order and that I took my job seriously and that I wouldn’t let anybody get hurt if it was in my power. He was okay after that. Most people are reasonable, unless they’re drunk or on drugs or angry.

“You see, if you’re a Christian and you want to help people, you can’t very well kick them out or you’re giving up on them. But if they’re making the place into hell for the rest of the tenants, then you have to. The problem is — where do you draw the line?

“Not long ago, a young German man came and asked me, ‘Did you ever think somebody was watching you, parked nearby and staking you out?’ I suspected he was paranoid. Paranoia’s hardly uncommon around the motel. Two days afterward, the police showed up looking for him, but he had fled already. It turned out he was working at the Thrifty gas station down on University and selling drugs out of there. I heard from other tenants that he was from a well-to-do family over in Germany, but they weren’t giving him any of their money.

“There was a guy who got beat up by a gang, the side of his face was caved in, and he wouldn’t come out of his room, he kept it locked.

He wouldn’t even come out to use the washing machine. He washed some clothes in the bathtub and let the bathtub overflow, so the floor got soaked, the carpet all sopped. I found out about it from another tenant, and I had to call a service to go in and take out the carpet and dry the floor, or else it would mold. But the man was afraid, he wouldn’t let anybody in. I tried to talk to him through the door, but he didn’t answer. At last I had to call the police.

“The police came, and they tried to be reasonable but got no response. They called in to him that we just needed to detail the room, for his own good, because it’s unhealthy to live in a swamp like that. Finally, after several warnings they knocked down the door and jumped on him and pinned him to the floor, three of them with guns. And they arrested him, since he had outstanding warrants for minor things.”

Charlie Moreno is a La Mesa policeman with two years on the job. He says “Most of the calls from the Hitching Post are for domestic violence. Not long ago, we got a call. The lady had been drinking. Her man, who had attacked her, was gone already. I took a report, but what disturbed me, she had a defeatist attitude, like, ‘So what can you do anyway? You might as well go away, there’s nothing you can do.’ She was down on everything. On me. On the system. Of course, we get that attitude a lot, but this time it bothered me. I hung around trying to convince her that even though we can’t fix everything, at least with our presence there’s less of a chance that this guy will beat her again. I tried to assure her that we’ll offer all the protection we can. But she didn’t want to believe anything hopeful.”

Down the street from the Hitching Post, Pam — my future wife — and I were standing beside my car outside a bookstore in which I was a partner when Louise approached and asked if either of us had a cigarette or chunk of Nicorette gum to spare.

Louise was 48 years old, 5'7'', stoop-shouldered, and lanky. Her walk was a shuffle, her smile a leer with slightly bugged eyes and several missing teeth, her long wiry hair graying. She always wore baggy jeans, usually with a T-shirt. Long ago, she had sung and danced burlesque at the Hollywood Theatre downtown. She showed us her old modeling photos and rasped, "I could sing like a bird once upon a time, but the cigarettes ate my throat.”

She had two grown sons. The younger son, Hank, lived with Louise and her husband in the Hitching Post. Mother, father, son, and a pit bull shared one room with kitchenette.

Sam, the father, reminded us of the Treasure Island pirate Long John Silver, on account of his laugh and since he was a jovial charmer. Louise said all the women loved him, and he loved the women.

She wanted to quit smoking, both to save money and in the hope that her singing voice would return and once more she’d sing like Diana Ross. But how could a person quit smoking when so much of her time and energy got spent with hallucinations and contending with family antagonisms, which were hardly escapable since the three of them shared the one motel room. She suffered frequent, seductive visions of Jesus and Michael Douglas. She said, “Michael Douglas looks so comely, I wonder if he could be Jesus. Do you think Michael Douglas is Jesus?”


“Well, that’s good, ’cause I’m the bride of Jesus and He’s coming for me in a cloud, like the one up there — cumulonimbus —and He’ll carry me into paradise. There’s an island in paradise, and palms, a cave, picnic benches, a raft ride for kids.”

“That sounds like Disneyland.”

“Sure does!” she cackled.

Louise incessantly asked questions. She seemed to hunger after insights and grope for the Truth. She read her Bible, concentrating on the prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah, sitting on the bathroom floor when she woke up at 2:00 a.m., startled by shouts or bangs from the street, the parking lot, or adjoining rooms.

All her life, Louise had caromed from one cosmology to another. Her mom was a witch, she said, and her dad called himself the devil. He told her that when she died, he'd be on the judgment seat and sentence her to eternity with him in hell.

Louise and Sam had attended Pentecostal churches during their newly married years, through the era Christians call the Jesus movement, when Tony Tarantino was a street evangelist. The day we met, when we showed Louise around the bookstore, she asked if we could hold a certain Bible until the first of the month. We gave it to her, and soon she returned wondering if one of us might lead her in a Bible study.

Both Louise and Sam still professed belief in Christ. They attended counseling with the pastor of Christ Lutheran Church, around the corner from the Hitching Post, as a condition of Louise’s probation. She had gotten arrested for assault. She explained, “Me and Sam walked out of this bar. We only had a couple beers, but it was hot, and I was dizzy and Sam said somethin’ that made me mad, so I pushed him and he crashed. His bum leg gave out, so he crashed on the parking lot and a cop saw and ran over and grabbed me and I tried to make him let go. I got pretty wild” She cackled and grinned.

The court ordered her to Alcoholics Anonymous. Pam delivered her to meetings, but Louise refused to label herself an alcoholic, and she considered AA people snobs, contending they acted as though alcoholism had earned them a badge of honor.

Sam talked of moving his family out of the Hitching Post to some rural place. He had grown up in Dulzura, had family in Arkansas, and felt more comfortable outside the city. But as their little rusted pickup was both unlicensed and broken, they remained in the motel. They might’ve found a larger, cheaper place except not many apartments allow a pit bull, and houses were expensive. They barely managed the weekly rent of $230 for room five, one of the larger units by pooling their earnings and the Social Security checks to which Sam qualified on account of a physical disability and Louise received since she was diagnosed schizophrenic.

Room five is on the ground floor facing El Cajon Boulevard, a 10-by-15-foot space. We visitors noticed the pit bull; a single and a double bed; piles of gadgets that needed repairing; a cutlass, hunting knives, and a 9mm pistol—Sam had a fascination for weapons, being a country boy; a love seat wedged into the space between the door and a privacy wall that partitioned off the sleeping area; and an electric guitar and amplifier, which Sam used when composing and practicing the songs he’d been writing since the ’60s.

For 30 years, Sam had trusted that music was the magic that would break the curse under whose spell they had lived so long and set his family free.

Sam would’ve graduated from Mount Miguel High School except at age 16 he crashed a motorcycle on Highway 94 near his family’s Dulzura home. Recuperation took the place of schooL A few years later, he met Louise in a coffee shop near the Hollywood Theatre. She was a slinky Texan with an educated twang, plush tasty lips, and hypnotic eyes. Sam took her home and married her.

Before long, their sons were bom. Louise sidelined her show-biz career. Sam tried to provide for his new family. He worked as a carpenter and as a security guard, but a damaged spine and bum leg pained and frustrated him, and he couldn’t perform all he wanted to. He tried factory labor and mining in Colorado. Nothing lasted. He couldn’t stand long and he was too restless to sit. Neither could Louise support them. Between motherhood and hallucinations — of her father, of Sam with other women, of heaven and hell — she couldn’t hold any job.

Louise’s hallucinations flourished until her world became so cluttered she couldn’t be certain which of her acquaintances were demonic, which human, in the relative peace of a sanitarium, doctors experimented and discovered a combination of drugs that allowed her to divide real from illusory and turn to Sam and regain her boys, whom Child Protective Services had delivered to foster homes, as schizophrenics don’t usually make the best wives or mothers and Sam couldn’t always cope with the boys.

Pam hadn’t known Tony Tarantino until last year when we saw him at a bus stop on University and I introduced them. Pam admired Tony’s gentleness. Prompted by my stories ofTony the hippie evangelist leading Bible studies in communes, she suggested we invite him to church.

To the first few invitations, he said, “Now, let’s see.. .church is on Sunday.. .how about, maybe next month, um, that’s...let’s see, June. I want to go sometime, that’s for sure.”

But at last he agreed to go, and we began to pick him up most every Sunday at a bus stop on University and take him to an evening service.

He couldn’t sit still very long but would visit the rest room, step outside for a smoke, or write notes that made no sense to us, collages of jottings like— “Paula Abdul,” “Holy Spirit,” “You deserve a break today.” If the worship leader invited us to open the hymn book to a certain page, Tony might jot the names of the composer and lyricist amongst a bizarre collection of words and phrases. He often jotted notes on a cigarette, then stashed it in his pocket to smoke later. I wondered if he might imagine he were delivering messages into the sky. Too frequently he talked, mumbled, or yelled at apparitions. During one service, while the congregation sang, he stood and pointed at a singer and demanded, “Knock it off, and I mean it!”

A traveling minister had visited our church and presented a system for liberating people from the demons of their past. We asked Tony if he’d care to work through the steps.

“That’s for sure,” he said.

Around our dinner table, we assigned Tony to list his experiences with the occult, his addictions, any wicked or blasphemous recurring thoughts, people who had hurt him and he hadn’t forgiven, so he could pray for God to deliver him from influences and aftereffects. The only people he hadn’t already forgiven were the rock star Bob Seger and the kid in Berkeley who gave him his first hit of LSD, 27 years before. His hatred of Bob Seger he couldn’t explain. “I never met him, though, that’s for sure. Let’s see...one of his songs scared me, or something like that."

At the Hitching Post, Louise wanted to make things right for her family, and she believed God could help her, especially if she attended church and solicited guidance in studying the Bible. She attempted to lure Sam to church, but he had a catalog of excuses. For weeks he maintained that he didn’t want to leave the room unattended until after he had sold his gun.

When she told us about the gun, I said, “Make him get rid of the thing. If anybody gets shot, it probably won’t be the right person. Like, after my cousin’s ex-husband bought her a gun, they got into a fight and she popped him. And my uncle drilled his girlfriend’s husband and went to jail for ten years — in both cases, if the gun hadn’t been there, they would’ve probably just slapped each other around.”

Louise said, “He’s going to pawn it this week.”

Louise had gone to college in Texas. Though hallucinations might’ve perplexed her, she could still analyze and reason. In the Hitching Post — hiding out from family tensions; from the heavy metal songs out of Hank’s boom box, before it broke; from her husband’s snoring — she would sit in the bathroom reading the Bible she had selected from our bookstore, a children’s version she preferred on account of the illustrations, which made her laugh. She had a grand laugh, a cross between Snow White’s and the evil queen’s.

On Wednesday evenings, we had begun hosting a Bible study that met at Pam’s grandma’s house. We invited Louise and thought she’d feel welcome, as the others were hardly sheltered or snobbish. Joleen had spent years pursuing witchcraft. Lola’s husband currently resided in Soledad prison.

We were studying the process of becoming disciples. Pam read from Matthew, “Not what enters into the mouth defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man.”

Louise mumbled, “Or woman?”

“Right, man or woman,” Pam said, and turned to James 3. “The tongue is a fire, bridle and tame the mouth, speak...” Breaking in, Louise insisted, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test!”

“Louise,” Pam asked, “does that apply to what we were talking about?”

Louise cackled. “Even in that very hour He will give you words to speak.”

Though Pam was younger, Louise respected her as though Pam were the older sister. After the second interruption, Pam asked for silence, and after the fourth she commanded Louise to hold her cracks and queries for later.

For a minute, Louise sat primly, smirking, before she interrupted again. “Greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world.” She cackled. “God bless Michael Douglas.”

“Quiet, Louise, we’re trying to study God’s word.”

“God’s word, all right. Whoever sacrifices a bull is like one who kills a man, and whoever offers a lamb, like one who breaks a dog’s neck.”

“Louise, you can’t stay in here if...”

“Was your prostitution not enough?” Louise hollered. “You slaughtered my children and sacrificed them to the idols.”

Joleen volunteered to take her outside, to listen and pray that God would rid her of the insubordinate spirit. Probably because she could smoke outside, Louise said, “Yeah, let’s go”

The rest of us prayed that Joleen would succeed, and for ten minutes we tried to continue the Bible study, but Louise’s interruptions had left us distracted. After Joleen brought her back, Louise sat making prissy and sour faces until the study broke up.

I drove Louise to the Hitching Post, while Pam and the others discussed the evening and all except Pam insisted that Louise shouldn’t join us, at least not until she had been exorcised. They contended we weren’t meeting to practice deliverance or therapy, but to learn from the Bible, as leaders in the church. How could we study with her intrusions and in the presence of her demon spirit? And Lola prophesied tragic consequences if we continued hanging out with Louise. She said, “A vision came to me, a red signal light, a warning!”

But Louise was our friend and neighbor, seeking God and deliverance, so we stuck by her. The group returned to Grandma’s.

In fall, when the rains came, Tony called regularly from a pay phone at Mac’s Market on University in hopes that I’d offer a refuge for the night, a futon on our floor.

His living arrangements were mysterious. He told us his sister had returned to El Cajon and that he stayed at her place. He claimed she dropped him off in La Mesa every morning and picked him up late at night, him and his two or three suitcases and one or more trash bags packed with snacks and note-taking paraphernalia. His baggage would multiply until moving it required several trips. Along University, he might walk 20 yards carrying two suitcases, return for another suitcase and a trash bag, and return again for the last two bags. Frequendy, his baggage got stolen or otherwise disappeared and he claimed it was at his sister’s house.

Whenever rains came, Tony maintained that his sister had gone to L.A. and she wouldn’t let him stay at her place alone. As he wouldn’t give us his sister’s phone number or allow us to take him to her place, and from the looks of his clothes and the bags he carried, we suspected he slept outside in some lair he chose to call “my sister’s house.”

On many wet nights, Tony stayed with us, but I preferred to keep our home for ourselves. Pam and I were newlyweds. Besides, Tony smelled like a heap of tobacco, and he was implausibly slow. Pam and I liked to zip around doing several chores at once, while Tony might use minutes to complete a sentence, a half hour to repack his suitcases. He sat down to Thanksgiving dinner at 5:00 pm and rose from the table at 10:00 pm, not counting a couple dozen trips outside for a smoke.

But Tony wanted to attend Sunday morning church with Pam, me, and Sam. No Louise anymore. This was after the tragedy.

So we made arrangements for Tony to spend Saturday nights with Sam at the Hitching Post and for Sam to take charge of getting himself and Tony ready for us to pick them up at 10:00 a.m. Sam had an extra bed and a longing for company, now that his wife and son were gone.

Louise said it was Pam’s friendship that ridded her of hallucinations. She called Pam her best friend, and Pam returned the compliment but wouldn’t take credit for expelling the hallucinations. For that deliverance she credited Louise’s prayers. Anyway, no longer did Louise see or hear phantoms or Michael Douglas; her mind was quieter and more obedient, and her confidence had risen so dramatically, she decided she could give up smoking.

On Sunday morning, we picked her up at the Hitching Post and drove to Faith Chapel. She sat on the bottom floor, far left section with Pam and me. During a worship song, she said, “You think if I don’t smoke my voice will come back like it used to be?”

“You bet. God heals,” Pam said.

“I used to sing like a bird. Neighbors heard me singing and came to ask which radio station was on.”

“Maybe you’d want to join the choir.”

Louise grinned and cackled. “I could do a solo, after I buy a red dress with matching gloves.”

Pastor John announced that on Halloween the church would turn its parking lot into a neighborhood of vehicles out of which volunteers would offer treats and puppet shows, giving children a safe and wholesome alternative to Halloween’s traditions.

The music pastor invited us to the altar, while the choir sang, “I will come and bow down at Your feet, Lord Jesus. / In Your presence there is fullness of joy.” Louise hustled to the altar. Pam and I followed and seconded her prayers — for God to help her quit smoking and for Jesus to find her beautiful, because all she wanted to be was His spotless bride.

The sermon began with James 1:22: “Do not merely listen to the Word and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.. .the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does.”

Pastor John had recently visited Calcutta and witnessed starving people on the same streets with healthy cows. He used the picture as a metaphor of our country, where so many are starving spiritually while all around them, in bookstores, grocery stores “...is the Word of God, in which is everything they need to know about living a life full of meaning, of joy, of hope, vitality, and strength.

“But just because you have a Bible doesn’t mean you’re going to be blessed by it. You have to do what it says.” He advised that, according to James, we must listen to God humbly and pay close attention, with our minds and hearts quiet and open because we’ve cleansed them of moral filth by confessing our selfish actions and attitudes and asserted our faith by laying claim to God’s promise of blessing. Then, we should reflect upon and review God’s word and respond. “Jesus said, ‘Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.’ "

While the ushers prepared us for communion, we sang, “Purify my heart, / let me be as gold and precious silver.... Purify my heart, / cleanse me from within and make me holy.”

Between the sermon and the song, Louise had excused herself for a trip to the restroom. We supposed that meant she was sneaking outside for a cigarette, but soon she reappeared, waltzing her long strides, her feet rising almost into a goose step. Only she had entered the wrong aisle. She gazed around and when she didn’t see us, she took a vacant seat beside an elegant woman. The vacant seat belonged to the woman’s husband, an usher. From the couple’s dress and demeanor, and their car, I suspect they were among the congregation’s wealthiest.

Before communion, the pastor urged us to pray for someone in a seat nearby about a specific request the person might have. The elegant woman asked Louise what in particular she could pray about. Louise said, “You could pray that Michael Douglas don’t come back, and that Jesus will find me comely, and that I can quit smoking.”

The woman laid her hands on Louise’s shoulders and prayed We took communion. Louise walked out of church with a buoyant step and asked us, “The Holy Spirit’s gonna stick with me, right? He’s gonna help me kick this evil nicotine and get my voice back, so I can sing with the angelic choir in the heavenlies, where little cherubim and seraphim kiss my feet and anoint them with myrrh?”


“You bet.”

After we dropped her at the Hitching Post, I sorted through junk I had targeted for a garage sale and found a tape recorder that used to belong to my son. Louise and family had several tape players, all broken. Louise wanted to listen to tapes of gospel music and to a message by Billy Graham for which she had sent away. Billy Graham was a hero of hers. She had lately written him asking about his health, because she’d heard he was sick. Every day she asked the mailman if he’d brought her a letter from Billy Graham.

When we picked her up for the evening service, I gave her the recorder and a few gospel tapes. She grinned and made a little jump, clapped her hands, and promised to give me something in return when her next SSI check arrived.

My cousin Patti rode to church with us. Patti’s 40-year life had been at least as circumscribed as Louise’s was experienced. Patti had never smoked, drank, cussed, or engaged in a single outbreak of wanton behavior. She advocated pure and healthy living and got especially excited about Louise’s vow to quit smoking.

In the car, Louise said, “Only two cigarettes, all day long.” She cackled.

Patti sat beside her in the back seat, grinning, and promised, “With God’s help, you can quit smoking or anything, as long as you have faith like a mustard seed.”

We drove to the market on University Avenue where Tony always waited for a ride to Sunday evening church, but the clerk said Tony hadn’t shown up that day.

Louise folded her hands on her lap and wriggled in her seat. “You think heaven’s as fun as Disneyland?”

Pam said, “Oh, it’s a billion times better.”

Louise appeared to meditate upon that prospect. Over the past weeks, she had increasingly obsessed about heaven, asking our assurance that she would go there and prophesying that every saint and angel would be comely, especially Jesus. “In heaven. I’ll be restored, won’t I? New teeth, and not a wrinkle, and my father won’t be there, and He will say to the goats, 'Depart from me, you evildoers, I know ye not,’ and the chaff will bum and the wheat will sprout, and Jesus will love me especially, right?”

“He’ll especially love everybody there,” Pam said.

“Even me, right?”

I said, “That’s for sure.” Pam leaned over and kissed my cheek. “Aw, you’re starting to talk like Tony.”

The youth pastor and a group of his teenagers led the music. I thought about my kids, feeling blessed and relieved that they’d survived and grown through some terrible years. Louise sat frowning. Her hands gripped her knees. I wondered if she might be recalling her sons when they were teenagers, kicked from her custody to foster homes and back.

The church kids sang, “There’s a fire burning, falling from the sky, / awesome tongues of fire, consuming you and I. / Can’t you feel it burning, burn the sacrifice? / Come burn over me.” All through the song, Louise’s eyes bugged, and she pounded fists on her knees. When the youth pastor invited us to hug somebody, Louise hugged me, Patti, Pam, and two women in the row behind us. She might’ve hugged everyone in the sanctuary if the sermon hadn’t interrupted.

Pastor John talked about Satan. “The bad news is, we do have an enemy. The good news is that in Christ we have the authority to keep the enemy at bay until his final defeat. So, who is Satan?”

He explained that Satan isn’t the red-skinned, fork-tailed goon of myth, but an angel, fallen on account of his pride, whom Ezekiel calls a guardian cherub. A master of deception, so that even now he can still present himself as an angel of light. Lies are his weapons, through which he attempts to imprison unbelievers in the dark, to render believers ineffective, and to subvert God’s plan to call all people to Himself. “Satan is not God’s equal,” the pastor assured us, “but a created, finite being, neither omniscient, omnipresent, nor omnipotent. Only the prince of this world, not the king.” For the first time in the dozens of services she attended with us, Louise didn’t break for a trip to the restroom, though she bounced on the seat like a little girl might and twiddled her thumbs or clenched the backrest of the pew in front of us. She listened most intently while Pastor John reminded us of the assurance from Peter and James — that as we resist the devil, he will flee — and offered suggestions for resisting. We need to recognize the power of repentance, practice forgiveness, call upon the power of Christ, live obediently, and put on the armor of God — the belt of truth and breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.

The final song Louise sang heartily, in a raspy, hesitant voice but loud and right on key. The moment the pastor dismissed us, she bolted. We found her outside the entry. Darting from one person to the next, she asked, “Do you have a cigarette I could mooch?” To each “No” or “Sorry” she replied sincerely, “Good for you.”

I drove to the Arco on Campo and Bancroft for gas. Louise would’ve rushed into the mini-mart and bought a pack of Winstons except Patti pleaded and Pam cajoled until she relented. Still, while I pumped gas, she roamed the station asking customers fora smoke. Patti tagged behind, nagging at her, clapping whenever somebody turned down Louise’s request. Patti urged, “Now, Louise, you’ve done so good, just hold off, pretty soon you won’t want one anymore.”

That night, Louise might’ve smoked a cigarette or two, but not enough to satisfy her craving. She stayed up, sitting in the bathroom, reading her Bible, wired from nicotine withdrawal and the effort required to keep away from Sam’s Pall Mall straights.

Hank had connected the tape recorder I gave them to larger speakers from a broken stereo system. He played heavy metal. Louise hardly slept. In the morning, she walked to Vons for cigarettes, but at the last moment steeled her will and didn’t buy any.

In the motel room, she tried to nap, but the stereo blasted. Sam walked the pit bull and worried about money. It was midmonth. Their checks were nearly spent and the weekly rent was due. He could sell the truck for a few hundred even though it sat broken down outside the room, but to sell it might take weeks. Besides, he still hoped to repair it. If the truck ran, they could leave the Hitching Post and camp in the mountains until they saved money for first and last months’ rent on a house.

There wasn’t much left to pawn. Only his guitar and amplifier, and his pistol. He bought a couple of six-packs and carried them home, and he and Hank started drinking. Louise didn’t join them. Beer would’ve made her crave a cigarette.

It was early afternoon when she dozed, her head elevated on pillows because of the goiter that caused her to choke whenever she tried to lie flat.

Sam and Hank — on the love seat beside the door, a few yards from her, on the other side of the partition — were debating where to get rent money, what to sell. The truck, amplifier, gun.

Afterward, Sam didn’t remember why Hank picked up the gun.

The love seat fit tightly against the west wall, between the door to outside and the divider that separated the entryway from the sleeping area. The divider extended four feet out from the west wall.

There was only one shot, at nothing and for no reason. Accidental. A single bullet etched a clean hole in the dividing wall and struck Louise on the left side of her head, above the temple. She didn’t even scream.

When Hank saw and understood, he sat mutely, head in his hands, until the police led him away.

The following Sunday, Sam accepted our offer of a ride to church, where we and the pastors and Louise’s acquaintances, including the elegant woman with whom she had taken communion, all prayed for Louise, who lay hospitalized in intensive care at Sharp Memorial. Her long hair was shaved, her head bandaged, eyes glazed. Her mouth still quivered the way it used to, as if to make room for a cigarette.

Every day Sam watched the video he’d recorded from TV news, of paramedics rolling her to the ambulance, her head already bandaged, her left arm twitching. Every couple of days, we taxied him to the hospital, sat beside Louise, and observed her lips flap and her arm twitch.

Her vital signs stabilized, and the doctors assigned her to Edgemoor Geriatric Hospital in Santee. She’s still there, a year later. She can sit up, eat from a spoon. A physical therapist pushes her in a wheelchair to the workout room and urges and aids her through lifting and standing exercises, at least enough so that her body doesn’t wither. The last time we visited, she was gaping at the television, at Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot.

Tony’s in better spirits, and after lots of prayers and recitations of Psalms, he rarely hears voices. We’ve taken him to the dentist. Since he hadn’t seen a dentist in eight years, his front teeth had rotted. The dentist petitioned Medi-Cal to pay for a full set of crowns instead of removable bridgework, which Tony would probably lose, as he used to lose a suitcase every week or so when he left it outside a Jack In The Box or 7-Eleven and kids or pranksters stole it.

He still claims that his sister picks him up around 11:00 each night, takes him to her place in El Cajon, and returns him to La Mesa around 11:00 every morning. But he won’t give us his sister’s number or address, and we’re certain he sleeps in an alley or under a bridge, or in some ditch sheltered by a roof he fashioned out of scrap plywood, or beneath the stars on a hill where wild dogs breed.

He doesn’t mumble anymore and rarely takes notes on cigarettes before he lights up, and he’s consolidated his gear so it all fits into two thrift shop Samsonites, and he rides the bus frequently, to Vons and Grossmont Center.

We’re keeping our eye out for an old trailer, so that before winter he might be able to rent a space and still have enough money to get through the month, which he certainly couldn’t if he rented a room at the Hitching Post or one of the other old motels along El Cajon Boulevard. At $149 a week for a single, the rent would consume every cent of his monthly SSI check Last week he made a list of prayer requests — for Christian fellowship and a trailer and the ability to attend church more often, for restraint in spending, and for hope.

Pam and I coach him on budgeting, though we understand that it’s hard to learn to postpone gratification when there doesn’t seem much to life except today. Tony believes in God, but the kind of faith that heartens us every moment can be elusive.

Pam and I have watched prayer chase his demons away. We’ve hoped that friendship would help him break the habits of fright and self-absorption that years on the streets have formed. We used to daydream that once again he might become an evangelist.

But first he needs a home. I wish a church or charity would purchase one of those old motels like the Hitching Post and help support it with donations and restrict the place to people who abstain from violence, and lower the rent to about $200 a month, and make one of the rooms a soup kitchen and another a recreation room, and hire a social worker to deliver the residents to doctors or court or AA and give them a frequent nudge in profitable and independent directions. People get lost, so people need guides to help them find their way, especially with the storms approaching.

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