San Diego It's one of those February mornings in San Diego when the sun doesn't break through the clouds until nine o'clock. The visible moisture on cars and plants will disappear soon, but downtown air retains a damp griminess. Driving east on Market Street, a few homeless people are starting their day. Most are carrying at least one bag, while a few push shopping carts. The carts are the small ones older people buy for trips to and from the store, not the supermarket-owned carts normally associated with the homeless. In fact, I count five abandoned supermarket shopping carts within one mile. A conversation with a homeless man makes it clear that supermarket carts are falling out of vogue.
"Silverfox," 52, pushes a new-looking, black grocery-shopping cart that he purchased at a swap meet. "These are the type that you see little old ladies pushing down the street." For a homeless man, Silverfox is dressed neatly, wearing a leather jacket, plaid shirt, brown trousers, and clean-looking shoes. His hair is neatly tied back in a ponytail. Besides the cart, the only thing that betrays his situation is a just-visible, yellowed undershirt. "I might be homeless, but I don't like to look homeless."
The cart has a twofold advantage. "It's a way to carry your stuff with you and not have to lug it on your back. And it's better to have this kind of cart than a supermarket cart, because those carts will get you a ticket or a fine or time in jail. It goes in spurts. For a few months they might not bother you, but if they see enough people with carts, they clean them up and take them away."
He describes his cart. "These would retail downtown for about 20 bucks. I got mine for $12. It's pretty new." His cart is neatly stacked with bags, blankets, a backpack, a loaf of bread, and an open grocery bag with a liter bottle of strawberry soda inside. A wooden cane is the only thing that sticks out. "I need support to walk -- that's why I have the cart as well as the cane. These are mostly personal items. I got some of my motorcycle magazines in there. I've got some clothes, a jacket, some beverage. Here's a towel, and I keep a change of clothes. The bread is for the ducks. I like to feed the ducks at Mission Bay Park. My daypack has some hygienic items and medications, pencils, pens."
Carts like Silverfox's are coveted items for homeless people, and he never lets his out of his sight. "Theft on the street is quite prevalent amongst the homeless. I've never had a cart stolen, but I've had property that I've tried to stash away stolen from me. I learned quickly that you don't leave it laying around."
Silverfox claims he has been homeless off and on for years, but his latest stint on the street has been since August 2000. "I came here from L.A. about a year ago last November. I'm trying to get my butt up off these streets. I'm what you'd consider chronically unemployable. I've held many jobs in my life, but none of them for very long. I'd either get fired or quit. According to the department of mental health, I'm eligible for SSI, but the SSI folks are saying, 'No, I don't think so.' I'm like a Ping-Pong ball right now."
Accompanying Silverfox is Louise MacLennan, 42. Homeless for the last year, MacLennan is as polite as Silverfox but exudes vulnerability. "We stay together and watch out for each other. My folks had a place out towards Lemon Grove, but I was not living with them when I became homeless. It was something in my family." An epileptic, MacLennan is hoping that she will qualify for disability. Silverfox says that even if he doesn't qualify, he wants to make sure that she is taken care of.
MacLennan's cart is identical to Silverfox's, except it looks much more worn and is patched together in places with silver duct tape. "I got mine at the swap meet too. Twelve bucks. But mine is older -- about five months old." A sleeping bag covers the top of her cart, held down by bungee cords. "I have two blankets, Styrofoam cups, another jacket, and a change of clothes." The grocery bags are more intriguing. "I have packages of sugar from Burger King this morning. The rest are aluminum cans for recycling."
She explains the duct tape and scratches. "A bus driver severely damaged it. It needs to be replaced. I've used a supermarket shopping cart, and I like this much better. It keeps the cops off your rear end. One cop said, 'You shouldn't have that.' Finally, I said, 'I'm going to get my own cart.' This is mine and they can't mess with it."
"Butch Cassidy," a homeless man with a supermarket shopping cart on Commercial Street, is afraid to share his real name. Graying, long-haired, and energetic, Butch, 58, deals with his circumstances by refusing to take anything seriously -- so much so that it is hard to discern what, if anything, he says is true. "I've been homeless about three weeks. I was evicted from a hotel -- two of them. They were owned by a conglomerate." He is afraid of the police seeing his cart. "People walk them away from the stores and refuse to return them where they belong. I walk them away from Ralphs downtown, but I take them back. If you're caught with one, there's a fine -- I think it's $271."
Today Butch has a cart that is obviously not from Ralphs or any other supermarket. The cart's body is blue plastic, and it is a bit smaller than the grocery-store model. "This cart belongs to squeegeeman -- the original squeegeeman who stands out by the freeway. I have no idea where he got it, but there's an ID tag at the bottom." No one would mistake Butch's cart as a home on wheels. It is overstacked with nothing but blankets and coverings. Some are wool (he points to a Mexican blanket and says it was "made by bin Laden in Afghanistan," then laughs). Other coverings include furniture pads for shipping and floor mats for vans. "These lay on the street for about five seconds, and the city comes around and throws them away. They don't pick them up. The trucks rolled in at the truck stop, and that's why I'm stuck with this stuff. I couldn't put it back because they're building this marvelous ballpark down here!"
Gregarious and generous, Butch says that the blankets are for other homeless people. "Some of it belongs to me. Some of it I saved from the city throwing it away. I didn't get up in time to put it where it belongs" (a reference to his hiding place). "I look at the tags, and some of them are 'DDT FREE' for nonpregnant women. The thing is, nobody wants blankets in the middle of the day. They only want blankets in the middle of the night. They'll throw them off in the morning. I give them to people curled up on the street who look like they need a blanket. Y'know, the homeless don't sleep at night. You could get set on fire! I love the Reader. People wrap themselves in the Reader just to stay warm on the street! Put more Readers on the street, we need blankets."
The longer I talk with Butch, the more absurd his comments get. "You've caught me on my last day of being homeless. I'm about to hit the high seas. I'll have to turn this over to someone else who will follow in my footsteps. I'm going south -- to Mexico, where Americans have rights!" He starts laughing.
Across the street from the ballpark construction site, at 11th and L Streets, Dale Fairfield is filling his supermarket shopping cart with bottles and cans. Fairfield, 55, is scrounging through a vacant lot so littered that it resembles a landfill. He describes his situation with resignation. "I used to work for St. Vincent's, driving a truck. I worked for a place over on University and drove a truck there. I became homeless about 30 days ago. I'm an alcoholic."
Fairfield's cart is rusty and has no supermarket's name on it. "I found it one day out by a recycle place. I've got plastic here. Plastic goes for about 42 cents a pound. I've got bottles. They go for 5 cents a pound. Cans go for 90 cents a pound. I just dump it in now and sort it all out later."
Except for the recyclables, the only personal-looking thing in Fairfield's cart is a lumpy trash bag held to the lower part of the cart by a bungee cord and two small matching pieces of brown canvas luggage in the folding section near the handles. The luggage is bound together by an old silk necktie. "This is my bedroll. Up here are my clothes, my shaving gear, my deodorant, my soap. I guard the cart all the time. I sleep with it. It's at my feet. If it moves, I move. Those people you see with the little grocery carts, they're getting a check. I don't get any check. I wish I could buy one of those carts, so the cops wouldn't hassle me."
The shopping cart has been Fairfield's for about a week. "I had another cart, but the police confiscated it from me. I found this one and have been using it since. The police harass us a lot. I got a ticket not too long ago just for sittin' here. I got several tickets now for open container, illegal lodging. It's not fair. I'm homeless. Where am I gonna go? I sleep here, across the street, at a furniture store. I sleep wherever I think it's safe." At the very moment he is condemning the police, two police on bicycles go past and wave to him, smiling. He waves back and says, "Hi, guys!" He then says that those particular police are "real nice people. They care and you can feel it. The bicycle cops are pretty decent. I like them."
Although Fairfield says that he plans to get off the street, he doesn't offer any serious plan. "I've been an alcoholic all my life. I'm dry right now. That's why I asked you for money! Y'know, there's a lot of pain out here, and the alcohol depresses it. If a person don't have anything else for themselves, the only resort we have to go to is alcohol, so we're able to go ahead and cope with the situation."
Thomas Aloysius Reid III is only too happy to explain why he prefers a baby stroller. Reid, 44, has been homeless since he was 18. "When they built the Gaslamp back up, there was a lot of people going through the Gaslamp with shopping carts. And the police can tell you to drop your shopping cart and empty it out or go to jail. So, if I got a shopping cart full of bottles, which I have done, I would have to empty it out or go to jail. I just saw two cops today take someone with a shopping cart and dump their shit all over the ground. Period. End of conversation, no ifs, ands, or buts. But with this, I can go anywhere I want to. Anywhere. They can't tell me nothin' about this."
Reid says that he found his stroller in a dumpster in City Heights. "Forty-Third and El Cajon. I walk all over town. I walk to the beach from down here [Imperial Avenue]. I got my whole house in here. This is my bedroll --" he has a furniture blanket tied with bungee cords -- "my shoes, clean clothes, toothpaste and toothbrush. I got my radio. I ain't got no liquor." He points to a canvas bag labeled Eddie Bauer. "That's my clean clothes. I change my clothes every day. I'm goin' to be movin' up, but I gotta take it one day at a time."