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Panhandled at the Sav-on drugstore near Mission Valley

Bamboozled by compassion

We had set money aside to tithe to our church, so that month, we could spare it. I wanted to get Bonnie some medical care for the unborn baby she might be carrying.
  • We had set money aside to tithe to our church, so that month, we could spare it. I wanted to get Bonnie some medical care for the unborn baby she might be carrying.
  • Image by Greg High

She stood amid the streaming rows of traffic at a congested intersection. Ripples of heat distorted my vision as I craned my neck out the window of my car. Bonnie held out her ragged cardboard sign. Large black strokes pleaded “Homeless with children. Please help.” Bonnie was dressed all in black, as if mourning her life. Her faded black T-shirt and pilled, threadbare sweatpants hung on her spare frame. I pulled over and rummaged for change. I had only two quarters in my pocket, but Bonnie seemed eager to procure them. Her speech was rapid-fire. She revealed that she had been homeless since December 1998 with two small children under her wing. Then she played me like a fiddle.

There I discovered that Bonnie had lost her son Jacob after the enchilada incident.

There I discovered that Bonnie had lost her son Jacob after the enchilada incident.

When I first saw Bonnie, I was reminded of the parable of Lazarus the beggar and the rich man: The rich man feasted every night while Lazarus lay outside his gate, hoping to be fed scraps from the table. Lazarus died and was carried off by the angels to the bosom of Abraham. Likewise, the rich man died but was sentenced to eternal fire. In his anguish, he pleaded to Abraham that Lazarus be sent to warn his brothers to change their ways lest they receive a similar fate. “No,” came Abraham’s reply, “they have Moses and the prophets to tell them.” I wanted to get Bonnie’s story, not because I was a holy person but because I feared that I was like the rich man in need of warning. She agreed to meet me the next morning.

Bonnie called, looking for me, and asked me to come see her in her usual panhandling spot when I got home.

Bonnie called, looking for me, and asked me to come see her in her usual panhandling spot when I got home.

We met at a Sav-on drugstore near the Mission Valley intersection where she panhandled. She wore the same dingy black clothes as she had worn the day before and clutched the same worn cardboard sign. She told me she had a 16-month-old son, Jacob, and a 4-month-old daughter, Sara. They were at a baby-sitter’s, since checkout time had come and gone at the motel room she had rented the night before.

“I just want it to be over."

“I just want it to be over."

She said, “I’m originally from Las Vegas. I lived there with my parents. My dad was on Social Security; he was disabled. He had back trouble, and later, terminal lung cancer. My mom was a housewife. Dad’s dead now. That’s what brought me here.”

How?

“When I was younger, I did some things I shouldn’t have done: partying, drugs. And, well, I was with this girl in a motel and she beat and robbed a guy of his watch. I got out of there quick, but I was the one that got caught. Since I didn’t turn her in, I got a conspiracy charge. I’m no snitch so I ended up taking the blame. They gave me probation, but at the time I was a brat. I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to do and I never completed my probation and ended up doing two years in prison. It wasn’t too bad. It was almost like being at home except I couldn’t go out the gates. My father died two days before I got out. Hospice paid for my trip to the hospital, so I got to see him. He died the next morning. That was real hard.

“We were pretty close. I used to be close to my mom until she met this guy. What happened was, the father of my kid — Clyde — his dad is married to my mom. Clyde and I were dating a long time ago, and I introduced my mom to his dad, Harry. She left my dad for him. We were really tight until she got involved with Harry. She left my dad when I was 20 but was having an affair with Harry since I was 17. That’s when I started doing my thing. I started partying, because I knew they were having an affair. I wanted to tell my dad. I was hurting, but I didn’t know how to confront them. Like I said, she left my dad when I was 20; she disappeared. Me and my dad stayed in Las Vegas, and I guess my mom came here to San Diego.”

Bonnie was released from prison when she was 25. “When my father died, my mom showed up at the prison with all my stuff, without even asking. She goes, ‘I’m bringing you home with me.’ And I’m, like, ‘Why?’ ‘I want to give you a fresh start, a new life.’ I went with her to San Diego, and when I called up my boyfriend Clyde, I found out he was already here.

“We hooked up again, but my mom didn’t like Clyde. I thought she did, but when we started up again, she started not liking him. And Clyde’s dad doesn’t like me. He smoked pot; he’s a bit of a shady character. It’s kind of funny; my mom’s married to Clyde’s father, yet she doesn’t like Clyde. So she threw him out, kind of threw us out of the apartment.” That was December of ’97.

After getting thrown out, Bonnie and Clyde headed north to Hollywood with stars in their eyes. The stars lost some shine after they spent a few nights on the streets while trying to hook up with friends. “We stayed in a shelter for a couple of days. I had to look through a phone book to find my friends. I would panhandle to get a little money to eat. They feed you awful at the shelter. It’s like you’re eating Gravy Train dog food. It’s real bad. I’m not picky; I can pretty much eat anything, but that stuff was bad. The lunches were good, because they gave us baloney sandwiches, but dinner was some gravy stuff, slop. They gave us rice with some meat gravy stuff and it was disgusting. But there were times when we would just eat it.”

Shortly after they moved in with Bonnie’s friends, says Bonnie, Clyde had a fling with one of the women living there. Hurt and angry, Bonnie had a fling of her own. “I took off and stayed with this guy I knew. It was pretty much just a one-night stand. It was a payback thing.” Shortly after that, Bonnie’s mom caught up with her and offered the couple another chance to live with her and Harry in San Diego. Familial tensions prevailed, however, and Bonnie and Clyde were thrown out again.

This time, they made their way to South Dakota, Clyde’s home state. They lived with friends again, until they got on their feet. “We got jobs telemarketing and an apartment. It was cheap. You pay $290 to move in, only $190 a month to live. Things were good, but I started to feel funny. I thought I might be pregnant, and sure enough, I was. We both knew it might not be Clyde’s, but he said we were just going to deal with it, and I said cool.” But Clyde’s love life continued to haunt them. “His ex-girlfriend kept banging on our door, trying to start trouble. So I called my mom and told her I was pregnant and asked if I could come back. She said, ‘If you’re pregnant, you’re definitely coming home.’

“My mom, she played the part with me and stuff. She says she loves me, but since she’s been with Harry, she puts him above me. I don’t know if she means to or what. I let her be in the delivery room, and I don’t like Harry, but I let him be in there. But we made him stand back so he couldn’t see nothing.” Bonnie’s first child, Jacob, was born in November 1998. Then came the enchilada incident.

Jacob was three weeks old. Bonnie and Clyde were living under their parents’ roof. Clyde was trying to do right by them through a new job at 7-Eleven. Bonnie basked in her new role as a mother. “My mom told me to cook for her — enchiladas. I said, ‘Mama, I have the baby. I’m going to take care of the baby now. If you could wait until Clyde gets home, I’ll leave the baby with him and cook the food.’ I didn’t want to cook. I didn’t want to do anything except stay in bed with my son. This was my first kid, so I was real protective. I didn’t even go to the bathroom without taking him with me. Her husband said I was just lazy. I yelled, ‘I’m not lazy! I’ll go wash the dishes!’ And I would carry Jacob with me, even if it would take me forever to wash them.

“I told my mom I had to pick Clyde up at work. I forgot to tell Clyde that my mom wanted me to cook. He was crabby; he had just worked a ten-hour shift. When we got back, she asked me to cook for her. I asked Clyde to watch the baby. I told him, ‘The baby’s asleep, he’s been fed, can you please watch him while I cook for my mom?’ He said, ‘Your mom has been home all day. Why the heck can’t she cook for herself?’ That was true, but my mom’s the type of person who likes people doing things for her. Well, my mom comes in and yells, ‘You son of a gun; I heard what you said.’ She just went off.

“They got into a big old fight. She called the cops and told them, ‘Clyde hit me,’ and all this crap.” The police arrived, and then came the litany of he-said–she-said. “She wanted the cops to throw him out, put him in jail. I told the cops the whole story of how she wanted me to cook the enchiladas and how Clyde made a statement and she don’t like him and she’s messed up. Then my mom said, ‘Look, Clyde’s out there talking to the other officer, and your partner is laughing at me.’ The cop then said, ‘You say my partner is laughing at you. You don’t even know what they’re saying. I think you’re rapped in the head and you’re trying to control these kids. Everything you say is “My daughter this,” “My grandson this.” You want Clyde out of the picture so you can control them. You call me again, and you’re going to jail.’

“Well, she called again that night. She was bothering them for stuff that was not important, stupid stuff. They came. They sent her to her room and us to our room. The cop said, ‘No more fighting. Bonnie, if they harass you again, you call me, and your mom’s going to jail.’ So we left it at that.

“Later that evening, I picked up the phone to make a call, and I heard Harry on the phone, calling Child Protective Services [cps]. I was, like, ‘Oh shit, they’re going to take the baby.’ I went to talk to them and Harry said, ‘Never mind, I’m not going to call on you guys.’ We dropped it off there that night. The next morning, cps was at my door.

“Harry called, but he said he didn’t. The cps lady made me take off all my son’s clothes, because supposedly, Clyde had hit me and the baby. That’s what Harry told them, which is a lie. They took pictures of my son and me. I started being smart and sarcastic, saying, ‘I got beat up pretty badly.’ She said, ‘Yeah, it looks like you got beat up.’ She was nice. She wouldn’t say who called cps but said it was someone in the state. So right then, I pretty much knew it was Mom and Harry.”

After the initial exam, the social worker did a more thorough check. “They asked to see Jake’s room. I showed them where he was staying with us. Then I showed them all the diapers, the formula, his clothes. She asked if that was all the clothes I had. I said, ‘Yeah, but here is my first welfare check with Jake.’ I was getting 400-something, but they raised it to $611 when he was born.”

The social worker left, and the uprooting began. Harry and Bonnie’s mother, Stella, moved out, leaving Bonnie and Clyde holding the bag. “Two days after the cps visit, Mom and Harry are packing up and moving out. The rent was $985 a month. I was getting $611 from my welfare. I gave my mom $450 for our half of the rent. The rest of my check was for my son. Clyde had just started at 7-Eleven, and his check was to go to food, electricity, and the baby.

“Two days after our parents left, the rent was going to be due. Our folks bailed out on us. The landlady moved Mom and Harry to a smaller place for $785. I asked if she would do the same for us; she wouldn’t. She was totally rude with us, and she took our part of the deposit that we put down on the apartment and gave it to my mom. We got served with a notice. The landlady told us we had to be out in two weeks unless we came up with $985 for rent, but I said, ‘We have 30 days. I’m not going anywhere with my son in two weeks. Take me to court.’ Clyde got his check on Thursday, but it was only around $130.

“Then my mom called 7-Eleven and got him fired. Clyde lied on his application and she told the boss that.” According to Bonnie, her mother had an ax to grind. After she got Clyde fired, she went after Bonnie. “My mom called the welfare on me. You see, I hadn’t reported Clyde’s income yet. I was waiting for him to get settled in. I remember he had a job once for five months, and the next thing I knew, he quit. I wanted to make sure he’d stay before I quit the welfare, because it takes a while to reapply.

“My mom told them what I did and they cut me off. They told me to reapply in six months. They sent me a letter with information plus CalWorks, because Clyde didn’t go to his classes. He was on the welfare too. You’re supposed to go to classes when you’re on the welfare with CalWorks. When I called, they said, ‘Clyde is working and you’re not reporting it to us, plus he didn’t go to his classes.’ So we got sanctioned.”

Bonnie reapplied when she got pregnant with her daughter. “I did the paperwork, got my interview, and explained my situation. The social worker said she would talk to her supervisor and send me the paperwork in the mail. I told her to send it to my mom’s address. But the form said I was denied. I appealed it, but to this day, I still haven’t gotten it.”

The 30 days came and went. Clyde had no job, and Bonnie’s welfare had been cut off. The ax came down. They left like refugees, with only the clothes on their backs and carrying their prize possession, Jacob. “I called my mom, and we asked her to get the baby’s crib and clothes so they wouldn’t be thrown away. She agreed, though moving back in was and is out of the question.

“We’ve tried, and she won’t do that. Her husband doesn’t like me, doesn’t want me there. She has given me money, but not lately. For the last eight months, she hasn’t given me nothing,” though she knew Bonnie was homeless with children. “I said, ‘Don’t do it for me; do it for the kids,’ and she’s, like, ‘I cannot.’ Not to be mean, but she’s getting Social Security now. She gets about $400. She says $400, so let’s say about $500 a month from her check. Her husband gets $1000 a month, plus another $200 from the VA. Her roommate gives them another $500. Look, I’m not counting your money, but for your grandkids, you figure you could put something out to help them. I’ve asked, ‘At least take them in for me until I can get a job,’ ” and the answer came: no.

“But, finally, I’m afraid to leave them there with her. I would want to write a contract saying she couldn’t take them away from me and say I was bad to my kids, because then I’d never get them back.”

Returning, then, to the day of eviction: “We didn’t know where to go; we ended up sitting outside a Vons. I was crying. This woman saw that we had a small child and offered to help. She got us a room at the Value Inn for one night. That is when I got the idea to panhandle for the money to pay for a room.”

Bonnie was safe for the night, but the floodgates had been opened, and it would be up to her to keep the family afloat. “Getting Clyde to look for work is hard. Once he has a job, he’ll stick to it; it’s just getting him to go out and look for it. He hates to look for work. He doesn’t do drugs or anything. He doesn’t drink. I just think he’s had all these different girlfriends that have taken care of him. At first, I would let him stay with me because he would help with my son.”

However, as we skip ahead to a year later, a second baby to feed, and an endless string of one-night stays in cheap motels, Bonnie puts her foot down. “When I get a motel for the night now, he can’t stay with me. I’m not trying to be mean, but he has to help me support the kids. My kids I will support, but I’m not going to support my man. I have to just take care of my kids. If it were me I wouldn’t care to sleep outside, but I have to get a room for my kids.

“After being with him steady for two and a half years now, I know he’s the type of person that if you support him, he’ll never get off and do anything on his own. Now, we’re still friends. We talk and communicate about the kids. He helps me. We walk together, and he watches my back [when I panhandle]. If it’s raining, I let him stay in the room. I’m not that mean.”

Bonnie begins to speak as if I were Clyde, as if in a trance. “The only thing I’m concerned about right now is my kids. Not to be mean, but if you love me, you’re going to get a job, you’re going to stick with it and help them out.” She comes back to me. “I love him, but I love my kids too. I can’t have my kids on the street because Dad don’t want to help out. I get angry because I’m so frustrated from all day seeing my son hurt, my kids hurt. The baby may not cry, but she’s feeling all upset; she is having to put up with all this change. And my son — looking at him, I know he’s going through it too.

“Clyde would come back to the room and he didn’t care. He’d just be boss and lay in bed and wouldn’t help or anything. I’d jump on him. I’d shout, ‘I’m tired of this! I have to do all this on my own, and the kids cry and you get mad! It’s bad enough I have to come out here and panhandle! You have no reason to complain! You don’t do nothing all day! You just sit down while I panhandle, and if we don’t have a baby-sitter, you sit down and watch the kids while I have to do that. Our kids are the ones that suffer, and when they cry you get mad. Deal with it.’ We got into a big old fight and I threw him out and said, ‘Don’t come back until you have a job.’ ”

She softens. “He does spend time with the kids. He can come see them. He just doesn’t sleep there. I hate to be hard, but I’ve been with him long enough to know that if I don’t put my foot down, he’ll keep letting me support him and we’ll stay homeless forever.”

Couldn’t Clyde panhandle? “He can’t do it. He tried once and only came back with a dollar. But it is kind of hard holding a baby and keeping a little boy entertained, so I give him credit, because he has done that.” If he’d get a job, might you get married? “Yes. He is a good father. Most men would have kicked my son to the side because my son’s half black and so obviously not Clyde’s. Most men would say, ‘He ain’t mine; I’m going to treat him crappy.’ He doesn’t. He loves them; he’s there for them. Sometimes, we go through two- or three-day periods where Clyde don’t come, and in those two- or three-day periods I know Jake is looking for him. And when he does see him…he is so happy.”

Is he there for you? “Sometimes he’s there for me. I mean, he helps out with the kids. Those times when I’m stressed, he’ll watch my back when I’m out there panhandling. I wish he could just get a job. If someone gave him a job, he’d do it. There were times when I was staying at a motel by Home Depot. I’d panhandle out there and sometimes people would ask, ‘Do you know anybody that could come and help me move furniture?’ I’d get Clyde, and he would do the work and get the extra cash. He’ll do stuff like that, but getting up in the morning to turn in applications, go looking, and do interviews is the hard part. When he worked at 7-Eleven, he had to work mornings. He would go every single day.”

We take a few steps back in time, to when Clyde was in the picture (and in Bonnie’s bed) on a more permanent basis. Bonnie tells me that at first Clyde would hold her son when she panhandled. She would have Clyde hide out or stand away from her, for fear of someone calling the police or Child Protective Services. “A person did call the cops on me once. They said, ‘You can’t be out here with your kid. It’s not good for him. It’s cold out here. If I see him out here in the cold, I might have to call cps and let them investigate and put him somewhere safe.’ ”

Though she fears Child Protective Services, other agents of Big Brother have been kind. “The trolley cops are pretty cool. Sometimes I hop the trolley when I don’t have enough money for a ticket, and as soon as I see the trolley cop, I’ll explain to him my situation. Most of them know me. They’ll let me slide. And sometimes there is no trolley cop, and you can pretty much ride all day. But some will give you a citation. I’ve gotten two citations; with one, I went to court. The other I just threw away.

“In general, I’ve never had trouble with the cops in California. They’re nice. Maybe one or two have told me not to panhandle, but 99 percent of them have been very patient, and they have worked with me. One cop made me feel good because he said, ‘I’m not trying to be an ass, but it is too dangerous to panhandle in this median. If you’re going to do it, do it on the sidewalk.’ ”

I wonder if she’s ever tried to do anything besides panhandle. “It’s hard for me with no address. I go put in applications, but I don’t have a good record, and I have to make sure my kids have a place to stay. I put in what applications I can, go hustle for the kids, find a room. It’s a back-and-forth thing. I had a job at McDonald’s, but it was hurting me. I got that job not too long after we became homeless. Then I went and applied for school. I figured I could get a grant, and that would help me out. I wanted to get a better education for my kid. I would go to class in the morning and get out around 11:00. Then from 1:00 to about 3:00, I would panhandle to get $45 for the night. As soon as I got the room, probably around 4:00, I had about five minutes to dress and run to work. I’d get off around 2:00 a.m., go home, and sleep.

“I did it for about a month, but it was too much. They didn’t fire me, but I ended up having to quit. I told them, ‘I have to pay for my room every day, and your check is helping out, but only for a week.’ I was making $4.75 an hour. My check was two-something. It paid for two or three days plus food. It was so expensive where I was staying. Three days was about $150, and then I spent $40 on food. I would still panhandle for extra money. I told my boss about panhandling — he knew I was homeless — and then how I had to come to work. He asked, ‘Why doesn’t your man panhandle?’ I laughed, ‘Yeah, right. Even if he did, he’d come back with a quarter, or a dollar, if I’m lucky.’ I got tired of it, because I was doing too much at once.”

Bonnie became pregnant shortly after her stint with McDonald’s. She hoped that with a new baby, the government would come to her aid and her welfare would be reinstated. However, Uncle Sam wouldn’t reach out with checks for at least six months. Bonnie informed me that she couldn’t apply for welfare for her unborn child until she was six months pregnant because “some women would apply and then get an abortion but continue to receive a check, or an increased check if they were already on welfare.” She did, however, qualify for Medi-Cal. “I was out panhandling, and I ran into my mother’s roommate. She goes, ‘You need prenatal care,’ and her doctor ended up seeing me. He worked up in Grossmont. He billed Medi-Cal. I’d have to get there once a month. I’d get on a bus to get there, plus I would have to make money that day to pay for a room. Those are the days it would usually take me longer because I had to go see him, but I got money faster when I was pregnant.”

The flip side to getting money faster was that Bonnie now represented a greater social evil than her mere homelessness. People felt her sexually irresponsible. Now she was bringing another person into the world to share her desperation. “I got called all kinds of names. People would shout, ‘How come you don’t get an abortion? How come you don’t get a job?’ This one girl drove by and said, ‘If you’re such a good mother, you’d have a job. I shouldn’t support you.’ ”

As Bonnie’s second child grew in the sanctuary of her womb, Bonnie turned to the downtown shelters for sanctuary for herself and her family. “They have family rooms, which are private rooms you can stay in with your kids. I’ve tried to get that but haven’t been able to. I got my name put on the list. I talked to the ladies at the front desk, but they kept putting me off. You pretty much have to have a connection with somebody to get in there, and I haven’t got one. I’ve talked to one other homeless lady that got in there. She told me to go talk to Father at the church, but every time I go, I can never reach him. They gave me a number, and I keep calling and calling, but he has no way to call me back, and he’s the only one who can put me in the system.

“They did offer me a cot to be on for the time being, but I have a baby. How am I going to sleep on a little cot like that with an infant? In a motel, the baby can sleep at my side on the bed. Even when I had a crib for him, he never slept in it. I would keep him with me. It’s easier when they cry and want to be changed and bottle-fed. You just reach over. Both kids sleep in bed with me now.”

The shelters also made Bonnie nervous. “When we first went down there, I had all kinds of guys seeing me. I had my son with me and I was pregnant, and they were asking me if I wanted to buy drugs. They don’t even know me and they’re offering drugs to me. I’m looking at these guys, thinking, ‘You have nerve to even ask me that with my kid here.’ And I don’t even do that. I almost turned around, but Clyde was, like, ‘Be cool, come on.’ I walked through the drugs outside, and when I got inside, I didn’t like what I saw. They say they don’t have drugs in there, but that’s a lie, because they do. I mean, I’ve seen all the people that were in there. It’s all drugs. They’re hiding it, but one lady, I seen her with her kid and it was totally obvious that the girl was tweaking. I’ve been around that sort of thing when I was young, because I had my faults.

“I thought the shelter was scummy. I can’t take my kids there. I’d rather hustle and get a motel where I know my kids are in a clean, safe bed, in a room. The shelters are dirty; I don’t like them. I walked through the drugs and I got inside and they told me they would give me a cot. I’m not going to sleep on a cot with my son. And the food, and the kind of people that hang out there — I mean, I’m homeless, but the people that were there, it was disgusting.” Bonnie spoke with such vehemence that I asked if she had ever actually stayed in a shelter. “No. I’ve never stayed in there.”

Bonnie and Clyde left the shelter, and Bonnie continued her daily routine of panhandling and motel-hopping until she was about five or six months pregnant, at which point, she made one more attempt to claw her way out of this seemingly endless cycle. Bonnie and Clyde bought a tent. “I panhandled for so long, and I got to the point where I couldn’t do it anymore. I was getting tired. The tent was kind of small, meant for two people. Clyde stayed with me there, so my son would lay on top of me when we slept. We lived there almost three months.”

The tent was set up on a hill overlooking the 94 freeway. “Clyde would push me up the hill with my son. It was scary at night in the tent with a little boy, so I needed Clyde there. Anybody could have come up the hill and attacked us. We had air mattresses, and little battery fans when it was hot. We were close to a Del Taco and we would clean up in the bathroom there. I didn’t have to stay out and panhandle for as long — just long enough to get money for food, $20 or $30.”

The tent chapter ended as Bonnie reached her eighth month of pregnancy. “I was getting too big to climb the hill, and then we came back one day and the area where the tent had been was all fenced off. The tent was gone. We climbed through, and I was, like, ‘Oh, God, no. Don’t tell me this. This is our home.’ It had all my son’s pictures, a lot of his clothes. Everything was there. I thought nobody could see it, but one of the cops must have seen it.

“We were trying to save for an apartment. It was hard, because when I got to a point where I thought I was doing good, my kid would need something like diapers, or we would need food. I couldn’t get the money saved. Sometimes, I wish that instead of giving me money, somebody would say, ‘Here’s a job.’ ”

No passersby offered jobs, however — only spare change. Bonnie spent the last month of her pregnancy as she had spent the last nine months of her life: hustling for the rent and the most basic supplies of domestic life. Then came the contractions on the freeway. “They were mild ones. They weren’t too bad. I thought maybe they were regular contractions from stress, the heat, and being tired. I asked Clyde to hold the sign; I said I was having contractions on the freeway.

“At first, he said, ‘We just need a few more dollars. Just sit down and relax. Just sit on the ground and hold the sign.’ I looked at him and I was, like, ‘That’s pretty messed up. I could be having our daughter right now.’ He got the sign. He held it. He finally did it, though I had to get up to go get the money [when it was offered].

“We got enough money, went to the motel, and went to bed. About five in the morning, they hit me real hard; I mean sharp. I smacked Clyde and said, ‘Call the ambulance! I’m going to have the baby!’ He goes, ‘Serious contractions?’ They were 20 minutes apart then. He was crabby. I said, ‘Why are you so crabby? All you do is sit all day!’ He turned on the light and said, ‘If it ain’t the baby, I’m going to be pissed off at you!’ We got to the point where they were three minutes apart. He called the ambulance and apologized. My water broke in the ambulance. I asked the nurse at the hospital for an epidural. She said, ‘Sweetheart, the baby’s head is right there. You’re not going to make it to the epidural.’ I had my daughter Sara at 6:28.

“They let my son Jacob stay in the hospital. I begged them. They knew our situation. I told them there was no place for my 12-month-old son to stay, so he has to stay with his mama. They had me see a social worker, and I was, like, ‘Oh my God, I hope they don’t try to take my kids from me.’ But the social worker worked with me. She said, ‘They really can’t take your children because you’re homeless. It’s mainly if you’re using drugs or if the kids are sleeping outside.’ She gave me a list of some shelters, Salvation Army, same old stuff that I’ve been through. I said, ‘I’ve been through this before, but I’ll call again.’ ”

Bonnie and the two children stayed in the hospital that night. The next day, for the first time in the history of their homelessness, Clyde came to meet Bonnie with money in his pocket. “I don’t know how he did it. He told me he knew I was coming out of the hospital and I would need a room. He said, ‘The room’s paid for,’ and he had tears in his eyes.”

Bonnie and I delved into her daily routine. I was curious to know how this subculture “supermom” juggled domestic duties without the benefit of a home or a job. She explained how she had gotten a break from a friend. “I was out panhandling, and an old friend of mine, Sally, saw me. She said, ‘I heard about your situation. Let me know if you need help with baby-sitting for the kids.’ I said, ‘Could you take them now? I need to make money for a room, and I’m worried about cps. Clyde is hiding there behind the stairs with them.’ She had grandkids, so she went and got a car seat and picked them up. She lives in the College Area. She says, ‘They’re babies, they’re no hassle for me.’ She doesn’t work; she’s on Social Security. She says the kids keep her company. Sometimes she does it for free, other times she charges me $10 a day.

“I take my kids over to her apartment on the bus around 11:00. That’s what time we have to be out of the room. I get a different room every night. I was staying at the Value Inn by Home Depot, but it was getting too expensive for me. It was $42 on weekdays, and $45, almost $50 with tax, on weekends.”

She used to work the intersection of El Cajon Boulevard and the 15, a good, high-traffic area. “I’d have Clyde hold our son. At first, he’d say he was looking for work, and I’d have to hold my son and the sign. But he never did look for work. He lied. So I would just have him hold the baby.” Now, with the freeway going through, she’s moved to a busy intersection in Mission Valley.

“I usually go for $60 a day, but it depends. People give me dollars, quarters. Some give me fives and tens. Every once in a while, I will get a twenty. Yesterday, I was out here for only an hour and a half. I was surprised; it usually takes me about three hours. Sixty dollars pays for the room and food. Sometimes, if the kids need diapers, I need to make extra money. I get diapers at Target, because they’re cheaper. I go to Grossmont mall for them. Formula I get through wic at the last week of the month. They give me eight cans per each kid. I tell them I’m homeless, and so I pick it up.

“Now I’m staying at the El Cajon Lodge. It’s a relief, because the rooms are only $35.50. So it makes it easier. And if the kids have food and whatever they need, I just have to worry about feeding me. These days, I’m going to Hometown Buffet, because you can eat as much as you want. I just eat my lunch there. I take little baggies in and sneak food out so I can have dinner later. I take my kids there, because my son likes macaroni and cheese; for the baby, I just need formula. I try to go every day; the only time I can’t go is if I make my money too late — after 3:30 — because the dinner price is almost ten bucks and lunch is just $6.14. So if that’s the case, I’ll just go to sleep, or, if I have enough, get fast food like a bag of McDonald’s 29-cent hamburgers. Or a little chocolate and a bag of chips.

“You can tell I’m thin. I’ve always been thin. I’m a little thinner now. I only weigh 86 pounds, but I’m okay. It’s kind of hard, but my main concern now is my kids eating. My son is getting bigger. He eats regular food, but he still drinks the formula, so I have to buy some on my own.”

Every day poses the question anew: will I make enough for the room today? The answer has not always been yes. “Sometimes, When I first saw Bonnie, I was reminded of the parable of Lazarus the beggar and the rich man: The rich man feasted every night while Lazarus lay outside his gate, hoping to be fed scraps from the table. Lazarus died and was carried off by the angels to the bosom of Abraham. Likewise, the rich man died but was sentenced to eternal fire. In his anguish, he pleaded to Abraham that Lazarus be sent to warn his brothers to change their ways lest they receive a similar fate. “No,” came Abraham’s reply, “they have Moses and the prophets to tell them.” I wanted to get Bonnie’s story, not because I was a holy person but because I feared that I was like the rich man in need of warning. She agreed to meet me the next morning.

We met at a Sav-on drugstore near the Mission Valley intersection where she panhandled. She wore the same dingy black clothes as she had worn the day before and clutched the same worn cardboard sign. She told me she had a 16-month-old son, Jacob, and a 4-month-old daughter, Sara. They were at a baby-sitter’s, since checkout time had come and gone at the motel room she had rented the night before.

She said, “I’m originally from Las Vegas. I lived there with my parents. My dad was on Social Security; he was disabled. He had back trouble, and later, terminal lung cancer. My mom was a housewife. Dad’s dead now. That’s what brought me here.”

How?

“When I was younger, I did some things I shouldn’t have done: partying, drugs. And, well, I was with this girl in a motel and she beat and robbed a guy of his watch. I got out of there quick, but I was the one that got caught. Since I didn’t turn her in, I got a conspiracy charge. I’m no snitch so I ended up taking the blame. They gave me probation, but at the time I was a brat. I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to do and I never completed my probation and ended up doing two years in prison. It wasn’t too bad. It was almost like being at home except I couldn’t go out the gates. My father died two days before I got out. Hospice paid for my trip to the hospital, so I got to see him. He died the next morning. That was real hard.

“We were pretty close. I used to be close to my mom until she met this guy. What happened was, the father of my kid — Clyde — his dad is married to my mom. Clyde and I were dating a long time ago, and I introduced my mom to his dad, Harry. She left my dad for him. We were really tight until she got involved with Harry. She left my dad when I was 20 but was having an affair with Harry since I was 17. That’s when I started doing my thing. I started partying, because I knew they were having an affair. I wanted to tell my dad. I was hurting, but I didn’t know how to confront them. Like I said, she left my dad when I was 20; she disappeared. Me and my dad stayed in Las Vegas, and I guess my mom came here to San Diego.”

Bonnie was released from prison when she was 25. “When my father died, my mom showed up at the prison with all my stuff, without even asking. She goes, ‘I’m bringing you home with me.’ And I’m, like, ‘Why?’ ‘I want to give you a fresh start, a new life.’ I went with her to San Diego, and when I called up my boyfriend Clyde, I found out he was already here.

“We hooked up again, but my mom didn’t like Clyde. I thought she did, but when we started up again, she started not liking him. And Clyde’s dad doesn’t like me. He smoked pot; he’s a bit of a shady character. It’s kind of funny; my mom’s married to Clyde’s father, yet she doesn’t like Clyde. So she threw him out, kind of threw us out of the apartment.” That was December of ’97.

After getting thrown out, Bonnie and Clyde headed north to Hollywood with stars in their eyes. The stars lost some shine after they spent a few nights on the streets while trying to hook up with friends. “We stayed in a shelter for a couple of days. I had to look through a phone book to find my friends. I would panhandle to get a little money to eat. They feed you awful at the shelter. It’s like you’re eating Gravy Train dog food. It’s real bad. I’m not picky; I can pretty much eat anything, but that stuff was bad. The lunches were good, because they gave us baloney sandwiches, but dinner was some gravy stuff, slop. They gave us rice with some meat gravy stuff and it was disgusting. But there were times when we would just eat it.”

Shortly after they moved in with Bonnie’s friends, says Bonnie, Clyde had a fling with one of the women living there. Hurt and angry, Bonnie had a fling of her own. “I took off and stayed with this guy I knew. It was pretty much just a one-night stand. It was a payback thing.” Shortly after that, Bonnie’s mom caught up with her and offered the couple another chance to live with her and Harry in San Diego. Familial tensions prevailed, however, and Bonnie and Clyde were thrown out again.

This time, they made their way to South Dakota, Clyde’s home state. They lived with friends again, until they got on their feet. “We got jobs telemarketing and an apartment. It was cheap. You pay $290 to move in, only $190 a month to live. Things were good, but I started to feel funny. I thought I might be pregnant, and sure enough, I was. We both knew it might not be Clyde’s, but he said we were just going to deal with it, and I said cool.” But Clyde’s love life continued to haunt them. “His ex-girlfriend kept banging on our door, trying to start trouble. So I called my mom and told her I was pregnant and asked if I could come back. She said, ‘If you’re pregnant, you’re definitely coming home.’

“My mom, she played the part with me and stuff. She says she loves me, but since she’s been with Harry, she puts him above me. I don’t know if she means to or what. I let her be in the delivery room, and I don’t like Harry, but I let him be in there. But we made him stand back so he couldn’t see nothing.” Bonnie’s first child, Jacob, was born in November 1998. Then came the enchilada incident.

Jacob was three weeks old. Bonnie and Clyde were living under their parents’ roof. Clyde was trying to do right by them through a new job at 7-Eleven. Bonnie basked in her new role as a mother. “My mom told me to cook for her — enchiladas. I said, ‘Mama, I have the baby. I’m going to take care of the baby now. If you could wait until Clyde gets home, I’ll leave the baby with him and cook the food.’ I didn’t want to cook. I didn’t want to do anything except stay in bed with my son. This was my first kid, so I was real protective. I didn’t even go to the bathroom without taking him with me. Her husband said I was just lazy. I yelled, ‘I’m not lazy! I’ll go wash the dishes!’ And I would carry Jacob with me, even if it would take me forever to wash them.

“I told my mom I had to pick Clyde up at work. I forgot to tell Clyde that my mom wanted me to cook. He was crabby; he had just worked a ten-hour shift. When we got back, she asked me to cook for her. I asked Clyde to watch the baby. I told him, ‘The baby’s asleep, he’s been fed, can you please watch him while I cook for my mom?’ He said, ‘Your mom has been home all day. Why the heck can’t she cook for herself?’ That was true, but my mom’s the type of person who likes people doing things for her. Well, my mom comes in and yells, ‘You son of a gun; I heard what you said.’ She just went off.

“They got into a big old fight. She called the cops and told them, ‘Clyde hit me,’ and all this crap.” The police arrived, and then came the litany of he-said–she-said. “She wanted the cops to throw him out, put him in jail. I told the cops the whole story of how she wanted me to cook the enchiladas and how Clyde made a statement and she don’t like him and she’s messed up. Then my mom said, ‘Look, Clyde’s out there talking to the other officer, and your partner is laughing at me.’ The cop then said, ‘You say my partner is laughing at you. You don’t even know what they’re saying. I think you’re rapped in the head and you’re trying to control these kids. Everything you say is “My daughter this,” “My grandson this.” You want Clyde out of the picture so you can control them. You call me again, and you’re going to jail.’

“Well, she called again that night. She was bothering them for stuff that was not important, stupid stuff. They came. They sent her to her room and us to our room. The cop said, ‘No more fighting. Bonnie, if they harass you again, you call me, and your mom’s going to jail.’ So we left it at that.

“Later that evening, I picked up the phone to make a call, and I heard Harry on the phone, calling Child Protective Services [cps]. I was, like, ‘Oh shit, they’re going to take the baby.’ I went to talk to them and Harry said, ‘Never mind, I’m not going to call on you guys.’ We dropped it off there that night. The next morning, cps was at my door.

“Harry called, but he said he didn’t. The cps lady made me take off all my son’s clothes, because supposedly, Clyde had hit me and the baby. That’s what Harry told them, which is a lie. They took pictures of my son and me. I started being smart and sarcastic, saying, ‘I got beat up pretty badly.’ She said, ‘Yeah, it looks like you got beat up.’ She was nice. She wouldn’t say who called cps but said it was someone in the state. So right then, I pretty much knew it was Mom and Harry.”

After the initial exam, the social worker did a more thorough check. “They asked to see Jake’s room. I showed them where he was staying with us. Then I showed them all the diapers, the formula, his clothes. She asked if that was all the clothes I had. I said, ‘Yeah, but here is my first welfare check with Jake.’ I was getting 400-something, but they raised it to $611 when he was born.”

The social worker left, and the uprooting began. Harry and Bonnie’s mother, Stella, moved out, leaving Bonnie and Clyde holding the bag. “Two days after the cps visit, Mom and Harry are packing up and moving out. The rent was $985 a month. I was getting $611 from my welfare. I gave my mom $450 for our half of the rent. The rest of my check was for my son. Clyde had just started at 7-Eleven, and his check was to go to food, electricity, and the baby.

“Two days after our parents left, the rent was going to be due. Our folks bailed out on us. The landlady moved Mom and Harry to a smaller place for $785. I asked if she would do the same for us; she wouldn’t. She was totally rude with us, and she took our part of the deposit that we put down on the apartment and gave it to my mom. We got served with a notice. The landlady told us we had to be out in two weeks unless we came up with $985 for rent, but I said, ‘We have 30 days. I’m not going anywhere with my son in two weeks. Take me to court.’ Clyde got his check on Thursday, but it was only around $130.

“Then my mom called 7-Eleven and got him fired. Clyde lied on his application and she told the boss that.” According to Bonnie, her mother had an ax to grind. After she got Clyde fired, she went after Bonnie. “My mom called the welfare on me. You see, I hadn’t reported Clyde’s income yet. I was waiting for him to get settled in. I remember he had a job once for five months, and the next thing I knew, he quit. I wanted to make sure he’d stay before I quit the welfare, because it takes a while to reapply.

“My mom told them what I did and they cut me off. They told me to reapply in six months. They sent me a letter with information plus CalWorks, because Clyde didn’t go to his classes. He was on the welfare too. You’re supposed to go to classes when you’re on the welfare with CalWorks. When I called, they said, ‘Clyde is working and you’re not reporting it to us, plus he didn’t go to his classes.’ So we got sanctioned.”

Bonnie reapplied when she got pregnant with her daughter. “I did the paperwork, got my interview, and explained my situation. The social worker said she would talk to her supervisor and send me the paperwork in the mail. I told her to send it to my mom’s address. But the form said I was denied. I appealed it, but to this day, I still haven’t gotten it.”

The 30 days came and went. Clyde had no job, and Bonnie’s welfare had been cut off. The ax came down. They left like refugees, with only the clothes on their backs and carrying their prize possession, Jacob. “I called my mom, and we asked her to get the baby’s crib and clothes so they wouldn’t be thrown away. She agreed, though moving back in was and is out of the question.

“We’ve tried, and she won’t do that. Her husband doesn’t like me, doesn’t want me there. She has given me money, but not lately. For the last eight months, she hasn’t given me nothing,” though she knew Bonnie was homeless with children. “I said, ‘Don’t do it for me; do it for the kids,’ and she’s, like, ‘I cannot.’ Not to be mean, but she’s getting Social Security now. She gets about $400. She says $400, so let’s say about $500 a month from her check. Her husband gets $1000 a month, plus another $200 from the VA. Her roommate gives them another $500. Look, I’m not counting your money, but for your grandkids, you figure you could put something out to help them. I’ve asked, ‘At least take them in for me until I can get a job,’ ” and the answer came: no.

“But, finally, I’m afraid to leave them there with her. I would want to write a contract saying she couldn’t take them away from me and say I was bad to my kids, because then I’d never get them back.”

Returning, then, to the day of eviction: “We didn’t know where to go; we ended up sitting outside a Vons. I was crying. This woman saw that we had a small child and offered to help. She got us a room at the Value Inn for one night. That is when I got the idea to panhandle for the money to pay for a room.”

Bonnie was safe for the night, but the floodgates had been opened, and it would be up to her to keep the family afloat. “Getting Clyde to look for work is hard. Once he has a job, he’ll stick to it; it’s just getting him to go out and look for it. He hates to look for work. He doesn’t do drugs or anything. He doesn’t drink. I just think he’s had all these different girlfriends that have taken care of him. At first, I would let him stay with me because he would help with my son.”

However, as we skip ahead to a year later, a second baby to feed, and an endless string of one-night stays in cheap motels, Bonnie puts her foot down. “When I get a motel for the night now, he can’t stay with me. I’m not trying to be mean, but he has to help me support the kids. My kids I will support, but I’m not going to support my man. I have to just take care of my kids. If it were me I wouldn’t care to sleep outside, but I have to get a room for my kids.

“After being with him steady for two and a half years now, I know he’s the type of person that if you support him, he’ll never get off and do anything on his own. Now, we’re still friends. We talk and communicate about the kids. He helps me. We walk together, and he watches my back [when I panhandle]. If it’s raining, I let him stay in the room. I’m not that mean.”

Bonnie begins to speak as if I were Clyde, as if in a trance. “The only thing I’m concerned about right now is my kids. Not to be mean, but if you love me, you’re going to get a job, you’re going to stick with it and help them out.” She comes back to me. “I love him, but I love my kids too. I can’t have my kids on the street because Dad don’t want to help out. I get angry because I’m so frustrated from all day seeing my son hurt, my kids hurt. The baby may not cry, but she’s feeling all upset; she is having to put up with all this change. And my son — looking at him, I know he’s going through it too.

“Clyde would come back to the room and he didn’t care. He’d just be boss and lay in bed and wouldn’t help or anything. I’d jump on him. I’d shout, ‘I’m tired of this! I have to do all this on my own, and the kids cry and you get mad! It’s bad enough I have to come out here and panhandle! You have no reason to complain! You don’t do nothing all day! You just sit down while I panhandle, and if we don’t have a baby-sitter, you sit down and watch the kids while I have to do that. Our kids are the ones that suffer, and when they cry you get mad. Deal with it.’ We got into a big old fight and I threw him out and said, ‘Don’t come back until you have a job.’ ”

She softens. “He does spend time with the kids. He can come see them. He just doesn’t sleep there. I hate to be hard, but I’ve been with him long enough to know that if I don’t put my foot down, he’ll keep letting me support him and we’ll stay homeless forever.”

Couldn’t Clyde panhandle? “He can’t do it. He tried once and only came back with a dollar. But it is kind of hard holding a baby and keeping a little boy entertained, so I give him credit, because he has done that.” If he’d get a job, might you get married? “Yes. He is a good father. Most men would have kicked my son to the side because my son’s half black and so obviously not Clyde’s. Most men would say, ‘He ain’t mine; I’m going to treat him crappy.’ He doesn’t. He loves them; he’s there for them. Sometimes, we go through two- or three-day periods where Clyde don’t come, and in those two- or three-day periods I know Jake is looking for him. And when he does see him…he is so happy.”

Is he there for you? “Sometimes he’s there for me. I mean, he helps out with the kids. Those times when I’m stressed, he’ll watch my back when I’m out there panhandling. I wish he could just get a job. If someone gave him a job, he’d do it. There were times when I was staying at a motel by Home Depot. I’d panhandle out there and sometimes people would ask, ‘Do you know anybody that could come and help me move furniture?’ I’d get Clyde, and he would do the work and get the extra cash. He’ll do stuff like that, but getting up in the morning to turn in applications, go looking, and do interviews is the hard part. When he worked at 7-Eleven, he had to work mornings. He would go every single day.”

We take a few steps back in time, to when Clyde was in the picture (and in Bonnie’s bed) on a more permanent basis. Bonnie tells me that at first Clyde would hold her son when she panhandled. She would have Clyde hide out or stand away from her, for fear of someone calling the police or Child Protective Services. “A person did call the cops on me once. They said, ‘You can’t be out here with your kid. It’s not good for him. It’s cold out here. If I see him out here in the cold, I might have to call cps and let them investigate and put him somewhere safe.’ ”

Though she fears Child Protective Services, other agents of Big Brother have been kind. “The trolley cops are pretty cool. Sometimes I hop the trolley when I don’t have enough money for a ticket, and as soon as I see the trolley cop, I’ll explain to him my situation. Most of them know me. They’ll let me slide. And sometimes there is no trolley cop, and you can pretty much ride all day. But some will give you a citation. I’ve gotten two citations; with one, I went to court. The other I just threw away.

“In general, I’ve never had trouble with the cops in California. They’re nice. Maybe one or two have told me not to panhandle, but 99 percent of them have been very patient, and they have worked with me. One cop made me feel good because he said, ‘I’m not trying to be an ass, but it is too dangerous to panhandle in this median. If you’re going to do it, do it on the sidewalk.’ ”

I wonder if she’s ever tried to do anything besides panhandle. “It’s hard for me with no address. I go put in applications, but I don’t have a good record, and I have to make sure my kids have a place to stay. I put in what applications I can, go hustle for the kids, find a room. It’s a back-and-forth thing. I had a job at McDonald’s, but it was hurting me. I got that job not too long after we became homeless. Then I went and applied for school. I figured I could get a grant, and that would help me out. I wanted to get a better education for my kid. I would go to class in the morning and get out around 11:00. Then from 1:00 to about 3:00, I would panhandle to get $45 for the night. As soon as I got the room, probably around 4:00, I had about five minutes to dress and run to work. I’d get off around 2:00 a.m., go home, and sleep.

“I did it for about a month, but it was too much. They didn’t fire me, but I ended up having to quit. I told them, ‘I have to pay for my room every day, and your check is helping out, but only for a week.’ I was making $4.75 an hour. My check was two-something. It paid for two or three days plus food. It was so expensive where I was staying. Three days was about $150, and then I spent $40 on food. I would still panhandle for extra money. I told my boss about panhandling — he knew I was homeless — and then how I had to come to work. He asked, ‘Why doesn’t your man panhandle?’ I laughed, ‘Yeah, right. Even if he did, he’d come back with a quarter, or a dollar, if I’m lucky.’ I got tired of it, because I was doing too much at once.”

Bonnie became pregnant shortly after her stint with McDonald’s. She hoped that with a new baby, the government would come to her aid and her welfare would be reinstated. However, Uncle Sam wouldn’t reach out with checks for at least six months. Bonnie informed me that she couldn’t apply for welfare for her unborn child until she was six months pregnant because “some women would apply and then get an abortion but continue to receive a check, or an increased check if they were already on welfare.” She did, however, qualify for Medi-Cal. “I was out panhandling, and I ran into my mother’s roommate. She goes, ‘You need prenatal care,’ and her doctor ended up seeing me. He worked up in Grossmont. He billed Medi-Cal. I’d have to get there once a month. I’d get on a bus to get there, plus I would have to make money that day to pay for a room. Those are the days it would usually take me longer because I had to go see him, but I got money faster when I was pregnant.”

The flip side to getting money faster was that Bonnie now represented a greater social evil than her mere homelessness. People felt her sexually irresponsible. Now she was bringing another person into the world to share her desperation. “I got called all kinds of names. People would shout, ‘How come you don’t get an abortion? How come you don’t get a job?’ This one girl drove by and said, ‘If you’re such a good mother, you’d have a job. I shouldn’t support you.’ ”

As Bonnie’s second child grew in the sanctuary of her womb, Bonnie turned to the downtown shelters for sanctuary for herself and her family. “They have family rooms, which are private rooms you can stay in with your kids. I’ve tried to get that but haven’t been able to. I got my name put on the list. I talked to the ladies at the front desk, but they kept putting me off. You pretty much have to have a connection with somebody to get in there, and I haven’t got one. I’ve talked to one other homeless lady that got in there. She told me to go talk to Father at the church, but every time I go, I can never reach him. They gave me a number, and I keep calling and calling, but he has no way to call me back, and he’s the only one who can put me in the system.

“They did offer me a cot to be on for the time being, but I have a baby. How am I going to sleep on a little cot like that with an infant? In a motel, the baby can sleep at my side on the bed. Even when I had a crib for him, he never slept in it. I would keep him with me. It’s easier when they cry and want to be changed and bottle-fed. You just reach over. Both kids sleep in bed with me now.”

The shelters also made Bonnie nervous. “When we first went down there, I had all kinds of guys seeing me. I had my son with me and I was pregnant, and they were asking me if I wanted to buy drugs. They don’t even know me and they’re offering drugs to me. I’m looking at these guys, thinking, ‘You have nerve to even ask me that with my kid here.’ And I don’t even do that. I almost turned around, but Clyde was, like, ‘Be cool, come on.’ I walked through the drugs outside, and when I got inside, I didn’t like what I saw. They say they don’t have drugs in there, but that’s a lie, because they do. I mean, I’ve seen all the people that were in there. It’s all drugs. They’re hiding it, but one lady, I seen her with her kid and it was totally obvious that the girl was tweaking. I’ve been around that sort of thing when I was young, because I had my faults.

“I thought the shelter was scummy. I can’t take my kids there. I’d rather hustle and get a motel where I know my kids are in a clean, safe bed, in a room. The shelters are dirty; I don’t like them. I walked through the drugs and I got inside and they told me they would give me a cot. I’m not going to sleep on a cot with my son. And the food, and the kind of people that hang out there — I mean, I’m homeless, but the people that were there, it was disgusting.” Bonnie spoke with such vehemence that I asked if she had ever actually stayed in a shelter. “No. I’ve never stayed in there.”

Bonnie and Clyde left the shelter, and Bonnie continued her daily routine of panhandling and motel-hopping until she was about five or six months pregnant, at which point, she made one more attempt to claw her way out of this seemingly endless cycle. Bonnie and Clyde bought a tent. “I panhandled for so long, and I got to the point where I couldn’t do it anymore. I was getting tired. The tent was kind of small, meant for two people. Clyde stayed with me there, so my son would lay on top of me when we slept. We lived there almost three months.”

The tent was set up on a hill overlooking the 94 freeway. “Clyde would push me up the hill with my son. It was scary at night in the tent with a little boy, so I needed Clyde there. Anybody could have come up the hill and attacked us. We had air mattresses, and little battery fans when it was hot. We were close to a Del Taco and we would clean up in the bathroom there. I didn’t have to stay out and panhandle for as long — just long enough to get money for food, $20 or $30.”

The tent chapter ended as Bonnie reached her eighth month of pregnancy. “I was getting too big to climb the hill, and then we came back one day and the area where the tent had been was all fenced off. The tent was gone. We climbed through, and I was, like, ‘Oh, God, no. Don’t tell me this. This is our home.’ It had all my son’s pictures, a lot of his clothes. Everything was there. I thought nobody could see it, but one of the cops must have seen it.

“We were trying to save for an apartment. It was hard, because when I got to a point where I thought I was doing good, my kid would need something like diapers, or we would need food. I couldn’t get the money saved. Sometimes, I wish that instead of giving me money, somebody would say, ‘Here’s a job.’ ”

No passersby offered jobs, however — only spare change. Bonnie spent the last month of her pregnancy as she had spent the last nine months of her life: hustling for the rent and the most basic supplies of domestic life. Then came the contractions on the freeway. “They were mild ones. They weren’t too bad. I thought maybe they were regular contractions from stress, the heat, and being tired. I asked Clyde to hold the sign; I said I was having contractions on the freeway.

“At first, he said, ‘We just need a few more dollars. Just sit down and relax. Just sit on the ground and hold the sign.’ I looked at him and I was, like, ‘That’s pretty messed up. I could be having our daughter right now.’ He got the sign. He held it. He finally did it, though I had to get up to go get the money [when it was offered].

“We got enough money, went to the motel, and went to bed. About five in the morning, they hit me real hard; I mean sharp. I smacked Clyde and said, ‘Call the ambulance! I’m going to have the baby!’ He goes, ‘Serious contractions?’ They were 20 minutes apart then. He was crabby. I said, ‘Why are you so crabby? All you do is sit all day!’ He turned on the light and said, ‘If it ain’t the baby, I’m going to be pissed off at you!’ We got to the point where they were three minutes apart. He called the ambulance and apologized. My water broke in the ambulance. I asked the nurse at the hospital for an epidural. She said, ‘Sweetheart, the baby’s head is right there. You’re not going to make it to the epidural.’ I had my daughter Sara at 6:28.

“They let my son Jacob stay in the hospital. I begged them. They knew our situation. I told them there was no place for my 12-month-old son to stay, so he has to stay with his mama. They had me see a social worker, and I was, like, ‘Oh my God, I hope they don’t try to take my kids from me.’ But the social worker worked with me. She said, ‘They really can’t take your children because you’re homeless. It’s mainly if you’re using drugs or if the kids are sleeping outside.’ She gave me a list of some shelters, Salvation Army, same old stuff that I’ve been through. I said, ‘I’ve been through this before, but I’ll call again.’ ”

Bonnie and the two children stayed in the hospital that night. The next day, for the first time in the history of their homelessness, Clyde came to meet Bonnie with money in his pocket. “I don’t know how he did it. He told me he knew I was coming out of the hospital and I would need a room. He said, ‘The room’s paid for,’ and he had tears in his eyes.”

Bonnie and I delved into her daily routine. I was curious to know how this subculture “supermom” juggled domestic duties without the benefit of a home or a job. She explained how she had gotten a break from a friend. “I was out panhandling, and an old friend of mine, Sally, saw me. She said, ‘I heard about your situation. Let me know if you need help with baby-sitting for the kids.’ I said, ‘Could you take them now? I need to make money for a room, and I’m worried about cps. Clyde is hiding there behind the stairs with them.’ She had grandkids, so she went and got a car seat and picked them up. She lives in the College Area. She says, ‘They’re babies, they’re no hassle for me.’ She doesn’t work; she’s on Social Security. She says the kids keep her company. Sometimes she does it for free, other times she charges me $10 a day.

“I take my kids over to her apartment on the bus around 11:00. That’s what time we have to be out of the room. I get a different room every night. I was staying at the Value Inn by Home Depot, but it was getting too expensive for me. It was $42 on weekdays, and $45, almost $50 with tax, on weekends.”

She used to work the intersection of El Cajon Boulevard and the 15, a good, high-traffic area. “I’d have Clyde hold our son. At first, he’d say he was looking for work, and I’d have to hold my son and the sign. But he never did look for work. He lied. So I would just have him hold the baby.” Now, with the freeway going through, she’s moved to a busy intersection in Mission Valley.

“I usually go for $60 a day, but it depends. People give me dollars, quarters. Some give me fives and tens. Every once in a while, I will get a twenty. Yesterday, I was out here for only an hour and a half. I was surprised; it usually takes me about three hours. Sixty dollars pays for the room and food. Sometimes, if the kids need diapers, I need to make extra money. I get diapers at Target, because they’re cheaper. I go to Grossmont mall for them. Formula I get through wic at the last week of the month. They give me eight cans per each kid. I tell them I’m homeless, and so I pick it up.

“Now I’m staying at the El Cajon Lodge. It’s a relief, because the rooms are only $35.50. So it makes it easier. And if the kids have food and whatever they need, I just have to worry about feeding me. These days, I’m going to Hometown Buffet, because you can eat as much as you want. I just eat my lunch there. I take little baggies in and sneak food out so I can have dinner later. I take my kids there, because my son likes macaroni and cheese; for the baby, I just need formula. I try to go every day; the only time I can’t go is if I make my money too late — after 3:30 — because the dinner price is almost ten bucks and lunch is just $6.14. So if that’s the case, I’ll just go to sleep, or, if I have enough, get fast food like a bag of McDonald’s 29-cent hamburgers. Or a little chocolate and a bag of chips.

“You can tell I’m thin. I’ve always been thin. I’m a little thinner now. I only weigh 86 pounds, but I’m okay. It’s kind of hard, but my main concern now is my kids eating. My son is getting bigger. He eats regular food, but he still drinks the formula, so I have to buy some on my own.”

Every day poses the question anew: will I make enough for the room today? The answer has not always been yes. “Sometimes, it takes forever. One day, I only made seven bucks. It was a slow day; I would just get a little change here and there. I couldn’t make nothing. I stood out one night for 24 hours. I ended up sleeping at Circle K because I had tried and tried and I just could not make the money. I had to pick the kids up from the baby-sitter’s house; she couldn’t keep them that day. It started to pick up when I had them with me. People asked what I was doing out there with kids. I didn’t want to say anything, because I was afraid they would call the cops, but some people ended up giving me change. My son was so tired, and when they’re tired, they’re crabby.

“I finally got the room at ten o’clock in the morning. I didn’t eat that day. I just thought, ‘I’m so tired; I just want to be with my little boy.’ I put the baby to sleep; my son was the one I needed to comfort that day. He was having a hard time, really crying and crying. Finally, I got him to sleep and we went to bed the whole day.”

Bonnie looks worn. I peer down at her ragged clothes. She notices me looking. “I’ve been trying to get a change of clothes. Before my second child was born, when I had extra money, it wasn’t hard. But now I have two babies. Then I could just go to thrift stores and buy a change of clothes. It’s usually too hard to carry clothes, so I’d just throw the old ones away. Now I just wash them in the sink if I can. If I have Clyde with me, I’ll send him to get baby soap and send him to a Laundromat with the kids’ clothes, because my son has sensitive skin.

“If I can, I like to shop for my son’s clothes at Mervyn’s. I don’t like to get used clothes for them, though I accept anything that people give me. Friends have given me clothes; I just take them to the Laundromat and wash them really good. But I usually try to get them new clothes. I say to myself, ‘I’m their mama; they have to look good.’

“Last Monday we had, like, 50 bucks extra. We could have paid for another night, but Clyde told me to buy myself something nice to wear. I said, ‘No, no, no. The kids don’t have new outfits.’ I just had to go shopping. I’d seen outfits at Target and Kmart. My son’s at the age where he knows when things are for him. He’ll start pulling it out of the bag. At Grossmont Center, there’s a place where they sell things for little kids. I took the bus there. We used to hang out at that mall because there is a pet store. I like to play with the dogs, and my son’s old enough now. He loves animals. At the kids’ store, I got him a tux and her a dress. Clyde said, ‘Bonnie, we need food and cigarettes.’ I told him I was sorry, but the kids have to have clothes. I guess fathers are different. He thinks we need to save money, but I said, ‘I don’t care. They need it, and even if they don’t need it, I feel they need it.’ ”

I wondered if Bonnie’s desperate attempt to provide her children with a material absurdity like formal wear in the face of their poverty was an effort to quell her guilt about the near-total absence of the domestic tranquillity children crave. Was this a sign of something out of balance or a panacea she gave herself to get through the day?

We plunge into her interior life. The pity of strangers keeps her body going, but I wonder what animates her spirit. “I do believe in God, but I’ve also gotten angry at God. ‘You say you won’t give us more than we can handle, but how much more do You expect me to take?’ I feel humiliated holding that sign. It’s embarrassing. People are so down on you. They call me ‘homeless,’ ‘bum,’ ‘scum.’ They say, ‘Get a job!’ ‘Get on welfare!’ If they only knew my situation. It seems that if it’s just me, then okay, but You’re making my kids suffer here.

“The other day, this guy told me to get a job. I was rude to him. He had a business truck, so I said, ‘Do you own a business? Maybe you could hire me and my man?’ He goes, ‘I ain’t gonna hire no homeless scum.’ I said, ‘Exactly. Now you know why we don’t have a job,’ and I walked off. I was pissed. He just looked at me; he didn’t know what to say.”

But the brave front is run through with cracks. “That time we slept outside Circle K, I got so frustrated with myself. Seeing my poor son and daughter hurt like that. I felt worthless, like just letting my mom take the kids and ending it all. I was so tired of it. Maybe my mom could give them a home and a life that I couldn’t. But I love my kids too much to do that. They give me strength. I thought, ‘I’m not going to end my life. I’ve got to be strong for them. I’m not going to give up. I’ve just got to keep trying and trying.’

“And I think God helps out. One lady saw me out there panhandling and paid for two nights. I was surprised — a hundred bucks. And there was a time when we were starving and the baby needed diapers. I just had my son then. I was crying, the baby was crying. He was scared, because he sees these cars coming and me going to them. I was scared, because anybody could just grab him. I was, like, ‘God, you have to help me. I’m tired of this.’ And some guy just pulled up in a station wagon and handed me a hundred-dollar bill.

“I called Clyde up. We had a free voice mail through CalWorks. I told him I got a hundred bucks. Of course, he tried to accuse me of doing other things to get the money. I was, like, ‘Whatever. You think I would jump a trick with my son there? I would never do that.’ He apologized and we got the room and my son’s diapers.”

By this time, what with his laziness, his behavior during the labor, and his accusations about the $100, I was thinking that Clyde was a real piece of work, a real peach. I almost choked on the pit when Bonnie revealed to me she thinks she might be pregnant again. “I’m not sure, but it looks like it, because my stomach is getting big. I’m eating a lot more, and I can normally go without eating. I’m real tired. I usually play with my son, but I’ve been real drained lately. I should have had a period by now.

“Me and Clyde got together one night. I was on the pill, but I don’t think I gave it enough time. Clyde didn’t have no place to go that night. We’re not broken up. It’s been hard on him — you can’t have relations for the first three months after the baby. I let him in one night. My kids were asleep on the bed. We got a little blanket and laid on the floor. We slept together that night and that’s when I got pregnant, if I am. I hope I’m not; not that I don’t want it, but I just don’t need another baby right now.

“I don’t believe in abortion. Adoption would be hard, since I already have two kids. If I didn’t, it might be a lot easier. But I know how beautiful they are. I think it would be hard to give the baby up.

“If I am pregnant again, and I get on welfare when I’m six months, I’ll save the checks. Instead of paying weekly at a motel, I’ll save them, not even cash them, so we can get an apartment. It’s expensive, like seven, eight hundred to move in. I’ll just panhandle for the room every day, and when the checks add up, we can get an apartment. If I can do that, I know we’ll be okay. That gives us a chance to get a job. I won’t have to worry about rent, just food. I hate to say getting pregnant would be a blessing, because people would think I was using my kid for welfare, and it’s not that. I don’t like that, but it might help get me off the street.

“I don’t want to be on welfare. Once I get a job, I’m going to get off, because I’d rather work. I’d much rather people pick me up and let me clean for them instead of giving me money. That’s the way my mom raised me. But now, I need the welfare. We used to call people like that welfare mothers. They just keep having kids to get the check. If I am pregnant this time, I’m going to get my tubes tied. I think three kids would be enough.”

As Bonnie poured out her heart to me that morning, her humanity seeped under my skin. I felt like I had pried open her life story and ransacked it. I couldn’t just say, “Thanks, good luck with your begging today.” I’m a mother of two myself, and as each new disaster reared its head, I couldn’t help imagining myself in her place. I’d intended to give her a bit of money for her time (which I did, $45 cash for the room that night), but now I felt I should do more. I gave her my card, with my home phone number on it. I thought she could use some sundries, so we slipped into a nearby Wal-Mart. We got two jumbo packages of Pampers, one for each child. Bonnie pondered the baby food, slipping out a nervous “Thank you” after each jar she placed in the cart.

“Get as much as you want.”

“Are you sure?” squeaked Bonnie.

“Yes.”

She bought eight small jars. “How about something for you, something like shampoo and conditioner?” She grabbed the 99-cent shampoo and conditioner from Alberto VO5, again mumbling, “Thank you. Thanks so much.” Sensing that she didn’t want to ask for anything in particular, I suggested toothpaste, a toothbrush, and deodorant. The total came to $53.80. We loaded the bags into my car. Again, she thanked me and said this was a big help with the kids. I wanted to do more. I offered an extra stroller that I had back at my house and a ride to the motel. I knew the stroller would come in handy to me down the line, but for Bonnie, it might be the donkey that carried her out of Egypt.

We drove back to the drugstore where we had met. Bonnie’s eyes scanned the sidewalk as we drove. She was hoping to meet back up with Clyde after our interview. She spied Clyde and motioned him over. She asked if he could also ride to the motel. I was taken aback and made a bit nervous. A strange man wasn’t part of the deal. Clyde was unshaven, clad in a loose-fitting tank top and torn acid-wash jeans. He slumped as he walked. My initial thought was “shifty.” I thought she’d said she was putting her foot down. But I didn’t want to become judge and jury after only knowing her two hours. I agreed.

My brow was knit and my heart beat a little faster as we drove to my house to get the stroller. I didn’t feel I could rescind my offer, though I hadn’t planned on bringing a man to my house alone. Once we arrived, I gathered the stroller and quickly loaded it into the car. As I was getting ready to leave, my husband Matthew pulled up with his visiting mother and our two children. My three-year-old cheered excitedly. My ten-month-old whimpered in anticipation of Mommy. My husband and mother-in-law stared at me wide-eyed when they saw Clyde. Had I just defiled the temple, committed a ritual impurity? I’d never intended to bring a strange woman to our house, let alone a strange man. The offer of the stroller had just spilled out of me.

I hurriedly explained the situation to Matthew and pulled out of the driveway in an attempt to purify the situation. I deposited Bonnie and Clyde back at the El Cajon Lodge, where she had been staying. Bonnie said she wanted to get the room and put the diapers and such in there so she wouldn’t have to carry them with her when she picked up the kids from the baby-sitter. I showed them the ins and outs of the stroller. Bonnie smiled and seemed genuinely happy for all my help. I pulled away, breathed a sigh of relief, and felt philanthropic.

That night, I lay on my king-sized, pillow-topped mattress and ruminated. I became consumed with thoughts of Bonnie. Every time I let my limbs go limp and sink into the mattress, guilt would wash over me, and they would tighten again. How could I rest on this lavish bed when she might be sleeping in front of Circle K with her kids tomorrow? I had so much: a wonderful marriage, a house, food, and money for eating out and going to movies. She had so little. It seemed all social safety nets had failed; Bonnie had slipped through the mesh.

The next day, the calls began. I was out with my mother-in-law and children, shopping for flowers to plant (my guilt would subside when I was not alone with my thoughts). Bonnie called, looking for me, and asked Matthew, who took the call, to send me to come see her in her usual panhandling spot when I got home. He said he didn’t know when I would be home; it might be several hours. Quite serendipitously, I bumped into her in the early evening while pulling into the garden department outside Home Depot.

She was panhandling, but something was different. She had a brightness to her. She wore hot pink nylon jogging pants, and her hair bounced on her shoulders as she walked toward me. As she drew closer, I noticed she had on makeup. Before she said anything to me, I hugged her and gave her $35. She thanked me and said she’d had trouble making the room money that day. She admired my children, and we chatted about hers. I hugged her again and she headed back toward the trolley.

We noticed her lean into a car and point down the street. My mother-in-law commented, “Imagine that. Asking directions from a homeless person.” She also noticed Bonnie’s refreshed appearance. “Maybe she just needed a little attention from someone. That gave her the motivation to care about herself and her appearance. It’s a beautiful thing, what you did.” The philanthropic spark within me was fanned. I smiled. We picked out flowers cheerfully.

When we got home, Matthew met me with a wrinkled brow and told me Bonnie had called. I recounted our meeting and opined that it was surely God’s Providence, since she hadn’t gotten the money for the room yet.

As we ate our In-N-Out burgers that night, my guilt bubbled up. What was Bonnie going to eat? Should I have given her more money? I choked down the rest of the burger. That night, I was again consumed with thoughts of Bonnie. I ran different scenarios through my mind, trying to find a way out of her dilemma. Maybe she could stay with us. We had an extra room. No good. Too imprudent. I didn’t really know her. Could I pay her rent? I didn’t think we were $700 to $800 flush. My mind continued to race.

The following day, I had an opportunity to relieve my guilt and retrieve my restful nights. Bonnie called and asked if I knew of any jobs where she could make some fast cash.

“No. Why?”

“Well, I have an opportunity to get an apartment. Do you remember me talking to that lady in the car yesterday at Home Depot? She gives me change sometimes, and this time she told me she has a studio apartment for rent. It’s in El Cajon. She said she would cut me a break since I’m homeless. It will only be a $50 deposit to move in and $250 a month for rent. She said that if I give her the deposit and half the month’s rent, she will let me move in right away and pay the rest of the rent by the end of the month. I can certainly make that panhandling, if I haven’t found a job by then.”

“Let me discuss it with my husband, and I’ll call you back.”

We discussed the matter later that evening. We felt this was an opportunity to really help someone in need, a corporal work of mercy. We had set money aside to tithe to our church, so that month, we could spare it. I also wanted to get Bonnie some medical care for the unborn baby she might be carrying. My husband and I are pro-life; we decided to put our money where our mouths were.

I called Bonnie and gave her the answer she was hoping for. Matthew and I loaded the children into the car and hit the local atm. I added an extra $25 for utility hookup. The new twenties felt crisp and hopeful in my hand. We drove to the seedy motel where they were staying. The children fell asleep on the way; I was glad. My husband stayed in the car with the kids while Bonnie let me in. The place was dingy and cramped, but clean. The TV glowed and hummed. Clyde was there too. Bonnie looked at me, then shot a look at Clyde. “Good news!” he smiled. “I got a job today. It’s just day labor, digging ditches and such, but it’s pretty much guaranteed if I show up. The only thing is I have to be there by 5:00 a.m.” Bonnie chimed in, “He came back with a job, so I let him in.”

I was pleased by the news. It seemed things were looking up. I told Bonnie that I also wanted to take her someplace to get assistance with her possible pregnancy. She was grateful. She then told me her mom had taken the kids for the night to give her a break, that her mom was happy at the news of the possible apartment. We made small talk about the kids. Bonnie showed me pictures of her kids.

As I prepared to hand Bonnie the stack of twenties, Clyde shot up and disappeared into the bathroom. He seemed embarrassed, as if he couldn’t bear to watch my charity. I took it as a favorable sign. I explained that we were glad to help but that we did not have an endless supply of money. (My cup overfloweth, but I still had to pay the wine server.) Bonnie thanked me profusely, and we embraced. I asked her to keep me posted and said I would make an appointment for her at the crisis pregnancy center for later in the week.

Matthew’s face was as stone when I came out. His eyes were pasted to the blue door of the motel room that I had just come through. “You were in there forever. I was praying you weren’t dead.” He told me he had been straining to hear a possible scream. He’d been having macabre visions. We drove home. That night, in bed, I felt elation. I had never given so much money to one person before. I wondered if the sheer quantity would make a qualitative difference in Bonnie’s life.

Three days passed peacefully. My usual activities of preparing meals, cleaning, and organizing activities for the children proceeded apace. Then, on Monday morning, Matthew brought me my coffee in bed, as is our morning routine, around 8:00 a.m. As we cuddled, the phone rang. “Honey, it’s Bonnie,” he informed me, in a sing-song, irritated tone.

She chatted with me about minutiae before she came to the point of asking for money. I was beginning to become accustomed to this as her standard modus operandi. “Dee-Dee, the woman who is going to rent us the apartment, came and got the money. She met my kids. She said that since I have kids, she is going to put new carpet in the place, and so it will be a few more days before we can move in. Clyde has been going to work to pay for the room. The manager here was letting us slide until 4:00 p.m. when Clyde came home from work, but he says the owner is here now, and we have to pay by checkout or we’re out. Do you think you could loan me the money for the room until Clyde comes home from work?”

I agreed to come by at 10:00. I dressed, fed the kids, and loaded them up for another trip to the motel. Bonnie popped out of the room as soon as I pulled up and jumped into the car. We talked about the apartment situation. “The lady, Dee-Dee, came in and read the Bible with me. She met the kids. I gave her the money. I asked her for a receipt, but she said she hadn’t brought her receipt book. She said, ‘Don’t worry, you can trust me.’ I said, ‘Well, if you rip me off, it’s my kids, not me, that you’re hurting.’ But I’m sure she won’t. We read the Bible together.” I reassured her — and myself — that it would work out. I handed her $35. Bonnie said to come by at 4:00 p.m. to get the money back from Clyde. I had made an appointment for her at the Pregnancy Care Center for the upcoming Friday. I told her I would get it when I picked her up for the appointment. “Give me a call when you get into your new apartment so I’ll know where to find you.”

As we drove away, my three-year-old asked, “Who was that?”

“That’s Bonnie, another mommy I’m trying to help.”

A day passed without a crisis call from Bonnie. Wednesday afternoon, the phone rang. “I just wanted to let you know I’m in another motel. On Monday, when I went to pay for the room, the manager said I was kicked out. Apparently, Clyde went off on him for not letting us slide with our payment until 4:00. Even though I had the money, he said I was out. We’ve found another place. It’s the Midtown Motel, room 17. It’s not too far from the old place. It’s much nicer; it has a little fridge and a bath. It makes it easier to wash the kids. The other place had a closet for a shower, and not a bath. It made me claustrophobic. It’s $44 a night here.

“The good news is, my mom has agreed to take the kids for a week. She’s taking them to Vegas with her to see some other family while I get this apartment thing settled. Dee-Dee is supposed to call me at the old place. I left our new number with the manager, but I don’t know if he’ll give her the message. But she does have my voice-mail number. I’ve been calling her cell phone for days, but I keep getting a busy signal.”

I told her to persevere and that I would see her on Friday at 11:00 to take her for her 11:30 appointment at the Pregnancy Care Center. “Can we go later, so I’ll have time to panhandle for the room? I never know if Clyde will go to work or not.”

“I’ll pay for the room that day, because I really want you to go to this appointment, and it’s already scheduled.” This was the second time Mom had taken the kids, the same Mom who was letting her daughter beg on the streets just miles from where she was living. Why the change of heart? I thought it odd.

I showed up at the Midtown Motel on Friday at 11:00. The building was a soiled white with turquoise doors. Clyde waved from a balcony while Bonnie ran down to greet me. I had my ten-month-old with me, in case he needed to nurse. Matthew was watching over our other son at home. “Come see the room. It’s nice.” I felt trepidation — though I wished I didn’t — as I ascended the stark concrete stairs, my cherub in my arms, to number 17. The room had all the extras Bonnie mentioned, but they did not rid the place of its tawdry feel. Bonnie’s face fell as she reported that she still hadn’t heard from Dee-Dee. Clyde looked especially dejected. I gave them a pep talk and told them to keep hope. “Maybe this will happen, or maybe it isn’t what God wants for you two. You have to persevere.”

Bonnie recounted the receipt story for me again. I told her that I didn’t blame her, that I understood how she didn’t want to push it, since Dee-Dee was supposedly giving them such a break. I suggested that she keep trying to call Dee-Dee.

We headed down the stairs. Clyde asked us to call with the results. When we got to the car, I noticed that Bonnie looked a bit peaked. She thought she was getting the flu, or maybe just a cold. I asked why Clyde wasn’t at work. “He didn’t want to go, because he wanted to find out the results of the test right away.”

“That’s no excuse. You could call him at work.”

“I know, but he don’t always listen to me. I can’t make him go.”

“I think you need to reevaluate this relationship. Even though he’s working now, he’s still not dependable.” Bonnie just stared down at her hands as we drove off.

I sat in the child-friendly waiting room while Bonnie met with a staff member and took a pregnancy test. Bonnie asked if I could come in, but the staff preferred to meet one-on-one. My son played with Fisher-Price toys while I leafed through some literature on sexually transmitted diseases. Ten minutes later, the staff member invited me back to talk with Bonnie. “I’m not pregnant. Thank God. I explained my homeless situation to the lady and she’s getting me some clothes and diapers for the kids.”

When the lady came back, she offered to set Bonnie up with a counselor. “That would be good for me and my husband.” Bonnie and Clyde were not married, but I assumed Bonnie used that term because she was embarrassed. I asked if the counselor could help resolve the welfare situation or hook them up with a job-training program. She said the counselor had numerous resources, and we set Bonnie up for a Tuesday appointment. “That’s good,” I said, “because your mom has the kids until Wednesday.”

Bonnie seemed relieved and pleased with the treatment and help given her at the center. When we got back to the motel, I encouraged her to keep the appointment. The center was just a couple of miles from the motel, so she thought she would have no problem getting there.

As I looked at Bonnie’s face, my feelings grew more tender toward her. This object of charity had a countenance. I hated to see the ax continually teetering over her head.

“If I pay for two nights on my credit card, will you still go out and panhandle to get ahead?”

“Oh, yes. And if Clyde goes to work, then we might be able to save a bit.”

Bonnie decided not to tell Clyde about my paying for the room; she was afraid that it would sap his motivation to go to work. I told her it was her decision, she knew him better than I did. She got out of the car, and I traipsed over to the motel office with babe and credit card in hand.

“I’d like to pay for room 17, two nights in advance.” I thought I caught a glimpse of a smirk fading behind the attendant’s bushy mustache as I signed the $88 charge. I felt the eyes of a greasy-shirted motel resident leer at me from behind. I chalked it up to paranoia born out of an uncomfortable locale and left.

Two days later, at 2:00 a.m., Matthew ventured to that uncomfortable encampment. My tender philanthropic feelings were prodded into true charity — willing another’s good before your own, or your husband’s. Bonnie called at 1:00 a.m., crying. Dee-Dee had called and said the apartment was not going to work out. Turned out the apartment building was her sister’s, not hers. Her sister wasn’t willing to let it go for such a low rent. “Dee-Dee told me she would meet me at the motel to give me back the money between nine and ten. But she never showed up. She ripped us off. The manager says we are $20 short on rent, and if we don’t give it to them soon, we will be kicked out.”

I was too groggy to process the information quickly. “Let me talk to Matthew and call you back. The baby has woken up, and I need to get him back to sleep.” After my head cleared and the baby went back down, I fumbled through my receipts and realized the room had been paid for through Sunday. I called Bonnie back and asked if I needed to bring the receipt down to show that the room was paid for. The truth came out. “Clyde just confessed to me that he borrowed $20 off the room on Saturday for food and cigarettes. He thought he would work Sunday to make up for it, but they didn’t have any work for him that day. I didn’t know he did that.”

Matthew and I went back and forth. “They are adults, and they don’t have their kids with them,” he said. “They can go to a shelter.”

“They’d never get in at this time of night. I think this is Christ asking us to give even when it’s inconvenient.” I called Bonnie back to see if I could call my credit card number in to the office. She had Clyde run down and check. “The manager says the office is closed. They won’t run any cards.”

“Matthew will be down in 20 minutes,” I replied wearily. I hated to send him — he was sick — but I didn’t feel entirely safe going down there in the wee hours by myself, and someone had to stay with the kids. I lay awake, waiting for his return.

An hour later, he stumbled through the bedroom door. “That was terribly uncomfortable. Bonnie asked me to talk to Clyde about being a man. You were always the one who did the talking to them, but now I’m being dragged into it. I never think of the right thing to say at the time, especially at 2:00 a.m. Clyde talked about how he hated the thought of working for minimum wage, how, when he thought about working at McDonald’s, all he could see was an endless stretch of years spent flipping burgers. I told him that I sympathized but that it might be best if he swallowed his pride and swallowed some shit for a couple of years. That things might improve in ways he couldn’t foresee. Of course, on the drive home, I thought of a million things to say.”

I kissed Matthew and whispered, “You did a good thing.” We sank back to sleep. Later that morning, at a more reasonable hour, Bonnie called and asked if I would come talk to her. Matthew had woken up earlier and spent some time composing a letter for Clyde. The gist of it was that Matthew could see that Clyde was a proud man but that maybe he could work on taking pride in things like putting a roof over his family’s head and food on their table, like making sure his beloved didn’t have to humiliate herself by begging on the streets. It was a kind letter, one that tried to meet Clyde where he was; I was glad Matthew wrote it. I brought it with me, along with my kids, on yet another journey to the Midtown Motel. My tender heart was beginning to firm up.

“I’m a bit upset about last night,” I said to Bonnie. “The room was paid for, and as far as I’m concerned, Clyde stole money from me by borrowing off the room. Further, we had a deal. You were supposed to go out and panhandle to try to get ahead, and Clyde was supposed to go to his day-labor job.” I caught myself and stopped my tirade at the thought of its partial absurdity. As if panhandling were an acceptable way to live. I softened. What a lousy thing to have to do. Of course she doesn’t go if she doesn’t have to.

Bonnie blurted out, “I was lazy. I should have gone. That’s my bad. I was just tired, and I thought Clyde would go to work.” She began to cry. “I just want this to be over. I want out. I was watching Star Trek last night, and at the end of the show, the lady lets her man go because sometimes, if you really love someone, you have to let them go. It got me thinking. I have a friend, Therese. She said I could come live with her. She’s a real Christian. Clyde can’t come, and I’ll have a curfew. I can only talk on the phone with him. She’ll watch the kids while I go put in applications. She’ll pay for food and rent, but I have to look for a job every day. She offered me this when I was five months pregnant with my daughter, but I said no, because I didn’t want to be away from Clyde.

“I called today to see if the offer is still good. She said yes, but I have to give her $150 to move in, to show her that I’m committed. I should have told you about her before, but I really wanted the apartment thing to work out so I could be with Clyde and we could be a family.”

I didn’t offer to give her the money. I paused. “I think the Therese thing is a great idea. I don’t think you have a healthy relationship with Clyde if he’s lying to you. Do you think she’d let you give her half today and the other half tomorrow? You could go panhandle today, give her what you get, and give her the rest tomorrow.”

“Well, maybe.” The crying increased, and Bonnie spoke through the quick bursts of air she inhaled through her nose. “I just want it to be over. There’s this guy who owns a dirty-book store close to where I panhandle sometimes. He’s invited me back and offered money if I, you know, have sex with him.”

I swallowed the saliva that had accumulated in my mouth and sighed. “Well, you know, Bonnie, that kind of behavior is a temporary solution to the problem. It’s destructive to you and will damage your soul, not to mention the possibility of aids, or VD, or pregnancy. You would probably loathe yourself so much that you would stop caring about everything, including your kids. There are other ways.”

Bonnie settled down a bit. “I have a Walkman my mom gave me, and Clyde has a nice BB gun from his dad. Will you take me to a pawn shop to see what I can get for them?”

“Sure. Also, I have this letter from Matthew for Clyde.”

She scurried up to the room. My children were restless. She returned carrying a Marlboro duffel bag. I stopped at a gas station to search the Yellow Pages. Naturally, the pawn-shop page was torn out. I drove down the main street, assuming I would run into one — liquor stores and pawn shops seem to be a staple in this part of El Cajon. A few miles down the road, we spied one. Bonnie sauntered in. She had done this before. She came back out to the car. “They only want the radio, not the BB gun. They’ll give me ten bucks for it, but I don’t have any I.D. Will you sign for it?” I agreed. Bonnie stayed in the car with my kids.

The store was packed with the semiprecious bits and scraps that desperate people had squeezed out of their lives. I showed my driver’s license, gave my thumbprint, and was handed a ten. I felt dirty as I left. The children chirped when they saw me return to the car.

I drove Bonnie back to the motel, and she asked for a ride to Therese’s later. “I’ll take you now. You can give her the ten and try to give her the rest later today and tomorrow.”

“I want to talk to Clyde first and say good-bye.”

“I’ll call you later.” I whisked my children off, eager to take them into a healthier environment. We went to a friend’s house for a play date. Things seemed normal for a few hours.

When I got home, I was anxious to tell Matthew about the new development. He already knew; Clyde had called him. “Clyde spent about five minutes stuttering and mumbling before he came out with it. He was deeply touched by my letter and wants to do what’s best for Bonnie and the kids. He’s never asked anyone for money before. He sold his gun for $50 and asked me for the other $100 so he can send Bonnie to Therese’s.” This was a change of pace. Clyde had never asked for anything and had seemed uncomfortable when we provided for them. I thought this was normal, considering we were making up for his lack, doing what he couldn’t. He was full of misdirected pride. He wouldn’t beg, but neither would he flip burgers.

We discussed the matter and again decided we were being offered an opportunity to give when it wasn’t convenient or comfortable. We also thought it would be better for Bonnie and Clyde to be apart. Matthew took Clyde the money and asked for Bonnie to call me when she got to Therese’s. Clyde had tears in his eyes and asked Matthew not to let Bonnie know where the money came from.

That evening, I called room 17. I hadn’t heard from Bonnie and was eager to know if she was at Therese’s place. A strange man answered and then handed the phone to Clyde. “Bonnie’s gone to Therese’s. I asked her to call you.” His tone was high-pitched, jaunty.

“How was your parting?”

“It was fine. We still love each other. This is just best.” Again, the words had a whimsical edge. I hung up and told Matthew, “Clyde’s either emotional or high.”

He sounded weird, but Matthew and I didn’t care. We felt relief. We thought the saga, the constant interruptions in our life, were over. This had been a physical and emotional sinkhole for both Matthew and me. I’d done most of the running around and provided the shoulders to lean on, but Matthew had felt the void of my absence — not only when I was gone, but when I was home as well. Anytime when I wasn’t engaged with chores or children, I was thinking about Bonnie. Most of our conversation was about her and her predicament.

Bonnie called around 10:30 the next morning. “Are you at Therese’s?”

“No, I’m at the hotel with Clyde. We’re waiting for this guy Mike to come buy Clyde’s gun. He’s got $100 to send me to Therese’s. I don’t know where he got it from, but I know Mike’s not going to buy the gun. He doesn’t have any money, and he hasn’t shown up yet.”

I offered to bring the money. By this point, I just wanted it to be over. Matthew was irritated. “Clyde just plain lied to me.”

“Well, he probably thought he had it sold,” I fumbled, trying to calm him. “Let’s just get Bonnie to Therese’s.” I told Bonnie I’d be down in 20 minutes. She told me she’d send Clyde down for the money, because she looked like crap and she was still feeling sick. That sounded odd to me. She had never looked that great when I saw her.

I got there, and Clyde ran down to meet me. His eyes were red, his nose puffy. I gave him a stern look. “I think when you sell your BB gun, you should make sure you give Matthew the money. That would be an appropriate gesture.” He nodded. I cross-examined. “I thought you said Bonnie had gone to Therese’s last night.”

“Well, I thought she had. They just went to the store and talked. Therese wanted the whole $150 before she would let Bonnie move in.” He thanked me and gave the hood of my car a rap with his knuckles as he headed back to the room. He came back down with Therese’s phone number. “Bonnie says she won’t be there until after five. Give her a call then.”

“You know, Clyde, Bonnie has an appointment at the Pregnancy Care Center today with a counselor. I want you to encourage her to go, even if she’s feeling sick.” He nodded.

I didn’t call. I didn’t want to check up on her. I wanted my life back. I didn’t want to find out there was another hitch. Three blissful days passed without a word from Bonnie. On the fourth, she called. “I’m calling from the motel. Therese has gone out of town to see her mom. She said I could stay at her place or here with Clyde. My mom is going to keep my kids for me for a while, until I get on my feet.”

This is exactly what Bonnie told me her mother wouldn’t do before. Why the change of heart? Bonnie thought she had an answer. “I’ve got the feeling she wants full custody of them right now, now that they’re there. I think she’s going behind my back now to the courts. I don’t know if I’m right or wrong, but I’ve got the feeling that she’s trying to do something to take them away from me for good. I think she just wants to take them from me, to keep them for herself. I love my mom, but I think she’s kind of lost it. Because she gave her first daughter up for adoption, and I’m not what she wants me to be, I guess; I’m not the perfect daughter. I think she thinks my kids are her kids, and now she wants to keep my kids and raise them as hers.

“Clyde is doing good. He’s going to work every day and keeping up the room. His boss knows about our homeless situation. He’s picking him up every day for work. He says the first day Clyde decides not to go, that’s it, he’s fired. The boss is calling it tough love. When do you want to meet for a follow-up interview for your story?” I told her I’d call and let her know.

The next day, Bonnie called me and asked if I knew anywhere to get food. “I’ve been calling the food pantry, but they say they won’t have anything until the end of the month.”

I asked pointedly, “Is there any food at Therese’s?” but it sailed over Bonnie’s head.

“She’s out of town.”

“I don’t know El Cajon. I guess you’ll have to look through the Yellow Pages some more.”

Later that evening, I felt a weight in my stomach. I wanted to order her a pizza. I called to see how she was. “I’m fine. My mom brought some baked potatoes by, and I’m getting ready to take a bath.” The weight was lifted but returned the next day, this time on my shoulders. A collect call came around four o’clock. Bonnie was upset. “I went back to Therese’s today and she kicked me out. She’s letting her boyfriend move back in, and he doesn’t want me there. She can’t give me back the money, because she gave it to him.”

It seemed the good Christian friend Therese was a turncoat. “Can you lend me $30 for the room? I’ve only made $14 panhandling. I’ll pay you back tomorrow.” I went to meet Bonnie, with the intention of calling Therese. I felt she had a moral obligation to return the money. When I met Bonnie, she had beat me to it. “I told her, ‘That’s messed up what you’re doing to me.’ Therese said, ‘I know. I was just mad because of the fight with my boyfriend. I’ll give you back half in two days.’ ”

Bonnie suggested I could pick the money up from Therese in Clairemont. “I’ll let you take care of that, Bonnie. I have a lot of work to do this week.” Bonnie pleaded her case for the $30, telling me that Clyde’s boss said he would pay for the room. He’d give Clyde extra money, and in turn Clyde would give that money to Bonnie to give to me. I agreed, just to see if I would actually be repaid. We planned to meet the next day for a follow-up interview, and to get my money back, at 2:00 p.m.

The next day, I made arrangements to have a sitter for my kids and trekked down to room 17. No one was there. I drove to Bonnie’s usual panhandling spot and found her. She apologized. “I lost track of time. Is it two already? Clyde’s boss picked him up for work this morning, but I was asleep, so I didn’t get the money. But Clyde is supposed to meet me here after work and bring the money then.” We chatted a bit. I told Bonnie I was going to give her $20 for her time, so she only owed me $10. She gave me two fives. When Clyde showed up, he had only $17. Bonnie was upset. A fight broke out.

“You were supposed to come back with the money.”

“Well, the boss only gave me $25. He said I was already into him for $70, so I couldn’t ask for more. I got a Coke and cigarettes with the rest. I was thirsty.”

“Whatever, Clyde.”

He stormed off. Bonnie gave me a pleading look. “Will you please call tonight?” I nodded assent. My children went to bed early that night. Matthew was in his home office, working late. Bonnie called me. She sounded low, and really sick. “I just hustled for the rest of the room money today. I told Clyde, ‘I’m hungry, but I’m not going to panhandle anymore for you.’ We’re out of toilet paper. They only give us two every few days. We used one up, and I used the other one for my nose with this cold. They won’t give us any more. I need someone to talk to.”

I couldn’t bear the thought of them not having toilet paper. I drove down to the motel with a care package: toilet paper, a box of tissues, cold medicine, Advil, and leftover pork tenderloin and potato pancakes. Bonnie’s “Thank you” had a heaviness to it. She told me she thought Clyde was cheating. She got a call from a woman at the plasma donation center, looking for Clyde. “I told her off, because I knew it was just a cover. Clyde hasn’t donated since we’ve been at this place, so she couldn’t have gotten his number from a file.”

She went through half a box of tissues talking of past boyfriends, her father’s death, and life now. It was clear she was a deeply damaged woman. She shook as she cried. I was comforting but strangely unmoved by her breakdown. “Bonnie, I think it’s time for you to go to a shelter. Now that your mom has offered to keep your children until you get back on your feet, you can make a fresh start. St. Vincent de Paul is one of the best homeless shelters in the country. They really help people turn their lives around.” Bonnie agreed. I told her I would call to find a place for her tomorrow and asked her to call me when she was ready to be picked up.

Early next morning, I called several shelters. None had a vacancy at the time. One said that Bonnie would have to call herself at 5:00 p.m. to see if there was anything. St. Vincent de Paul was, however, taking reservations for its four-month short-term program starting on a Saturday — just ten days away. The program required that participants take a TB test and do five hours of chores a week. There were many counselors and job-training programs available. The receptionist I spoke with urged me to have “my homeless friend” call early on Saturday morning, because the program filled up quickly.

Bonnie did not call that day until 5:00 p.m. She asked for $20 for formula for her kids.

“I thought your mom had them.”

“She does, but she’s asking me for the money. I want to give it, because I don’t want her to have anything against me if she decides to try to get custody. There’s a gal staying in the room next to us who says she’ll lend me the money to pay you back tomorrow.” Bonnie put some strange woman on the phone who said hello. I repeated Bonnie’s statement, and she said, “Yeah.” Bonnie got back on.

“Bonnie, I can’t help you here. Your mom can take care of it. We’ll talk later about the shelter situation.”

Later that night, I called. Clyde answered. We had a heart-to-heart. He shared all his foibles and failings with me. I made a connection with him, got a sense of his humanity. He told me he was a recovering alcoholic and drug user. He didn’t want to go to the shelters for fear of facing those demons again.

“Surely there are no drugs in the shelter itself. I mean, the people that run the place aren’t dumb.”

“Yeah, but it’s San Diego’s finest down there, and I’m sure the people selling outside are residents, or at least some of them. I’ve got my own problems. I don’t want to get involved with anyone else’s. The only good thing about this shitty situation is that Bonnie and I are still together.” I wasn’t sure what to say but told him I was glad we talked.

The ring of the phone became an ominous noise in my home. Every time it sounded, Matthew and I looked at each other and wondered if it was Bonnie. Matthew was in the shower when one of the last calls for money came. This time, there was no stammering warm-up. The first words out of her mouth were, “I hope you don’t say no, but I’m asking for money for the room and $20 for formula. Clyde lost his job. His boss came to get him as usual at 5:00 a.m. We let him in the room. Clyde went to use the bathroom, and his boss solicited me for sex. Clyde heard him and came storming out, pissed off. The boss said he was only joking, but Clyde went off. The boss said, ‘If you can’t take a joke, you’re fired,’ and left. I’m feeling really sick. I don’t want to go out today, but I’ll go out for the next three days and give you 20 each day until you’re paid back.”

“Let me discuss it with Matthew and call you back.” I didn’t tell Matthew until after breakfast was finished. I wanted him to have a peaceful meal. “When does it end?” he asked upon hearing the news. “We’ve said ‘No more’ to ourselves several times now.” We called Matthew’s parents for advice. Matthew’s father suggested talking to someone at Catholic Charities, because they were experienced in dealing with these kinds of situations. He thought they could give us advice on how to handle it and would probably take on the case. Then, Bonnie and Clyde could get spiritual guidance as well. If Bonnie and Clyde refused to go, then we might have grounds for cutting them off, thinking that they did not sincerely want to get out of their situation. My mother-in-law said, “I think you guys are into it for a few more motel nights.” I thought this was good advice. It gave us direction.

I brought the money to room 17. Clyde let me in; Bonnie was asleep. Clyde tried to wake her, but she was out cold. The cold medicine she had taken to relieve her symptoms had knocked her out. “Here is the money Bonnie asked for, and a book of spiritual poems.” (Bonnie had mentioned to me once that she wrote poetry. I wanted to feed her soul.) I told Clyde something was going to have to give, that we couldn’t keep paying for their room every night. “It would add up to more than the mortgage payment on my house.” I left hopeful.

Bonnie called later that evening and asked me to come and see the kids. Her mom was bringing them by for a visit, and her mom wanted to meet me. I didn’t feel as if I could say no — even though it would be taking away from my family time — and besides, I was curious to see her progeny.

Matthew and the kids came with me. We pulled up to the motel at 8:00 p.m. Matthew and the kids stayed in the car. I felt uneasy when I entered the room. Harry and Stella were there with little four-month-old Sara. She looked like Clyde. Stella hugged me and thanked me for all the help I had given Bonnie. I asked where Jake was. Bonnie said he was with Clyde’s mother in South Dakota for a visit. “She’s watching him for a while because my mom hurt her foot and a toddler would be kind of hard on her.” It seemed queer to me that Clyde’s mother would come all that way to help out with Jake, yet didn’t care if Clyde slept under a bridge.

Sara cooed. Bonnie and Stella fawned over her. Stella inquired about my kids. “They’re in the car with my husband.” She wanted to meet them. We descended the concrete stairs; Harry came too. Stella picked up my three-year-old and gave him a hug. Clyde watched us from the balcony. Bonnie called Stella back up to the room. Matthew made awkward conversation with Harry. Stella came down to say good-bye. She explained that she and Harry were on a fixed income and couldn’t help Bonnie and Clyde any more than they were presently. She gave me another hug.

Matthew and I left. We thought it bizarre that Bonnie’s mom felt so comfortable around me. We detected no shame in her over the fact that we had been providing for her daughter and grandchildren instead of her. But we were strangers to their world and didn’t feel competent to account for their behavior.

(I had gained some sense of that world through my countless visits to the motel, but I still didn’t understand it. It was as if a multigenerational brownstone had been turned upside-down. The residents composed a motley, ragged community; the glow of the TV filled each room’s curtains. I remember stone-faced children playing ball in the parking lot, a disgruntled teen in a car cursing out an elderly man, what looked like aging hookers passing in and out of doors. It seemed a bizarre cottage industry had sprung up. Each resident paid his $44 a night.)

I remember the next day through a haze of chicken grease and phone calls. I was trying my hand at a new recipe from Saveur — Rao’s Famous Lemon Chicken out of Rao’s Italian restaurant in New York City. It was to be for Sunday supper, an event that Matthew holds in high regard. The chicken was broiling blissfully when the first call came. It was Clyde, wondering if we’d heard from Bonnie. It was 4:30, and he had thought she’d be back from panhandling by now, because she had left at 11:00 that morning. We hadn’t heard from her all day.

I told Clyde I’d send Matthew to drive by her usual spot. Matthew left, kids in tow. I added the parsley to the lemon sauce and steamed the rice. Matthew returned — he hadn’t been able to find Bonnie. I started blanching the broccoli. From that point on, I tried to execute my usual synchronized timing for my three dishes, but we were barraged with phone calls from Bonnie, Stella, and Clyde.

Bonnie was in jail, she told us. It was Stella’s fault; a long time ago, a warrant had been issued against Bonnie for disturbing the peace, and Stella had never dropped the charges. No, it wasn’t Stella’s fault; it was a warrant for foul language. Could we take Clyde down? Could Bonnie leave her day’s earnings in my name for Clyde? Could we take Clyde back to the room? Could we do it soon? The manager was waiting for the money, threatening to put a lock on the door of number 17.

The chicken was tasty, the rice was fluffy, but the broccoli was waterlogged. I didn’t take it out in time. Matthew and I weren’t going anywhere until we were through with our dinner. When we finished, we went to pick up Clyde. He was sitting on the curb outside the motel. “They kicked me out and put a lock on the door. I can’t get my stuff until I pay.” We took Clyde to the women’s detention center. Bonnie signed over her $27 in my name and not Clyde’s because she was afraid Clyde’s name was on the warrant and he would get thrown in the can also. We never saw Bonnie, only officers and clerks. Her bail was set at $10,000.

We took Clyde back to the motel. He hoped that if he gave the manager the $27, he would be allowed to get his stuff out of the room, and asked if we could then take him to Harry and Stella’s, go to their door with him, and ask if they would let him stay. The plan fizzled before it got started. They wanted payment in full. Clyde’s eyes welled up. “Let’s just pay for him, Matthew, so he can get his stuff and we can take him to Stella’s.”

I told Clyde about the time for making reservations at St. Vincent de Paul’s homeless program and asked if he wanted the phone number. He said he would check it out. Then he said, “Well, there’s no sense wasting the room if it’s paid for. I hope you will let me do some work for you sometime. I’d give you the $27, but I’ll probably need it for food.” We didn’t want the money. As of the next day, he was going to be on the street.

I went to the office to pay for the room on my credit card. A phone call came in for room 17, and the manager asked me if I wanted to take it. It was Stella, reconfirming that it was not her fault that Bonnie was arrested. She had called the jail and been told that Bonnie was in for foul language and grand theft. Clyde came into the office, and I handed him the phone. His jaw dropped. “Grand theft? Man, oh man, what has Bonnie done?” As I walked back to the car with Clyde, a skinhead punky type asked Clyde in a singsong tone if he was staying. Clyde gave him an exuberant thumbs-up. “Yeah!” He sounded like a different person. His complete change in tone was disconcerting.

When we got home, Bonnie called from jail and asked if Clyde could stay with us for a few days until she was out. I gave no answer. Later, Clyde called and asked if we would come down to the motel tomorrow and pick up his stuff and hang onto it for a while. I gave no concrete answer and told him to call back tomorrow. Grand theft? My suspicions were aroused. The Bonnie I knew was not the type to commit theft. She just seemed to have rotten luck. I had a friend do some legal research for me.

I arose the next morning before sunrise in order to make it to Courtroom 5 of juvenile court in Linda Vista. There I discovered that Bonnie had lost her son Jacob after the enchilada incident. I saw Stella there with Sara and comforted her. She told me that she had had custody of Sara since birth. As I listened to the lawyers and the caseworkers outside the courtroom, it became clear that Bonnie had never had custody of Jacob either, except for the first three weeks of his life prior to the enchilada incident. Now, Jacob’s foster mother was fighting for custody of the 17-month-old boy.

The scales fell from my eyes as I left the courthouse. The small holes in the countless stories yawned wide before me. Looking back, I can’t believe that I didn’t see what was right in front of me, but it’s different when you’re in the spider’s web and not hovering above it in memory. I remembered things that should have tipped me off: There was no child paraphernalia in the room when I brought her the $200 for the apartment. Clyde’s nose was puffy and his eyes were red when I brought the last $50 for Therese, and I’d seen enough stoned people in my day to wonder. Several times when I called, it seemed as if another person had answered. Bonnie’s tone was shrill but melted like butter when she found it was me calling. Her stay in Therese’s Christian refuge-turned-shackup was spotty and sporadic. And countless other inconsistencies.

Bonnie called that afternoon to ask if we’d heard from Clyde. I told her I had been to court that morning and found out the truth — that she had never had the children. She began to cry and said she had lied out of shame. “I didn’t want to admit that I had lost the kids. It was as if I was living in a fantasy world. I tried to drop hints, to let you know.” I think her nose grew longer with that last statement. I remembered her constantly making references to the children. Several instances sprang to mind: “Remember that pink dress I got at the Pregnancy Care Center? It looked so cute on Sara!” “I’m tired today, because the baby kept me up last night.” And this one in particular: she had said she had a paint kit she worked on with Jake. I remember seeing it in the room and thinking, “She does that with Jake? Isn’t it a bit advanced for his age?”

I went to Bonnie’s court hearing three days later. The records room showed that the warrant had been issued for failing to serve community service hours after a petty theft charge was dismissed. It also showed an abusive language charge, which the clerk told Matthew was usually the result of a reduced prostitution charge. There was nothing about grand theft.

Bonnie’s case was running very late. I left. I saw Clyde outside the building. He was slumped, smoking a cigarette. He gave the same sort of excuse Bonnie had given. “We wanted to tell you the truth. We were just ashamed to admit we had lost our son. It’s hard to explain. We lost him over a stupid plate of enchiladas.” Looking back to Bonnie’s version of the enchilada story, the one in which her mother wreaks such havoc and Child Protective Services walks away empty-handed, I have to wonder what Stella’s version would sound like.

A few weeks later, Bonnie left a message on my machine telling me she didn’t want the story printed, claiming I should have known she was lying, and accusing me of helping her monetarily only because I wanted to puff up my story. If I was her friend, she warned, I would report only her original story.

Another two weeks passed. I had scarcely thought of Bonnie. I went out to the park with my children. I returned to find this message on my machine: “Hi, it’s me, Bonnie. I was just calling to see how things were. I just wanted to let you know I’m pregnant again — finally.”

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Comments

~ I have fallen victim to other peoples' lies about their lives as well. I set out, like this author, to help...first I would give In'N Out to a panhandler near my home in PB. Then I would hand a ten dollar bill along with the meal. Soon, I became to wonder what brought this person to being homeless. My story reads almost like the authors. I began to give money for more and more outrageous sounding stories. The lies were not easy to discern until I removed myself from being this persons ad hoc case manager and ATM. It hurts because when you are helping someone in this situation, and you truly are doing it from a good place, it sucks when you find out you were not really valued for more then what you could do for that person financially. (When they do not do anything to seemingly better their situation) In my case the person suffers from Bi-polar disorder and would not stay medicated. That is their choice, but I couldn't be the one that was depended on. I have my only family to worry about. I just felt used when I took my friend out to eat, let them buy a meal for later, only to hear the person had made a bet earlier in the day that not only would I buy them a meal, but they would buy "the most expensive thing on the menu to take home, and she won't bitch."

DONE.

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