I was homeless exactly one year, from March 2001 to March 2002. I'd known it was coming, and I even sort of welcomed the impending challenge(s), but I had no idea how long it would last, and how ill-prepared I was.
It had taken most of the previous year to chart my descent. I started New Year's Day 2000 debt free, owner of a thriving publishing company (Re-Visionary Press), in demand as a comic book creator, and with plenty of writing and art gigs from the Reader and elsewhere. My comic strip "Overheard in San Diego" had run weekly for around four years, I was renting a nice La Mesa house, driving a Le Baron convertible, and even found time for the occasional date. Sure, I was about to turn 40, and I'd been working six to seven days a week nonstop for nearly 20 years, but I enjoyed what I was doing and didn't really feel like I was missing out on anything.
Except maybe getting stoned. Sometimes, it seemed, the whole world was tripping the tab fantastic without me. Everyone was doing all these wild and exotic new drugs, and I was about the only guy I knew not going into or just getting out of rehab.
I had pretty well given up drugs and booze, other than periods of casual pot smoking, just before my 20th birthday. On February 7, 1980, wasted on massive doses of LSD and mescaline, I saw Pink Floyd debut their stage show for The Wall at the L.A. Sports Arena. If you can imagine what that was like, to be that epically wasted, at that tripped-out show, of all shows, you can probably understand why I came away thinking (once I could think clearly, maybe two days later), "No way am I ever gonna top that!"
My ensuing sobriety surely contributed to my relative success at getting things done over the next two decades, but meanwhile, most of my friends went in entirely different directions.
Fast forward to New Year's Day, 2000, and I'm thinking, "My life is pretty good. This'll do."
As if to teach me a lesson for being so smug and self-satisfied, a few months into the new year, I became very ill, with multiple ailments. A routine checkup turned into a "surprise" colonoscope procedure. Doc Tapscott didn't like what he found just inside the old back door, and next thing I knew his assistant (disconcertingly, female) was giving me a towel to bite down on while the Doc boldly went where no man had gone before.
Those rectal issues were growing more problematic when I woke up one morning to find my left testicle distended down to what seemed like my kneecap. I drove to the emergency room and walked in (leaning a bit to the left), thinking, "Great, I'll lose half a night's work sitting here." It was almost a week before I got back to my La Mesa home.
The testicular troubles -- unrelated to my earlier problems -- weren't resolved over my hospital stay, though I was out of immediate danger. Several follow-up medical procedures were required, but I was in too much pain to consider letting doctors tear at my body anymore, at least not for a while.
Just sitting hurt my groin like hell, and lying down in any position set off waves of sciatic nerve pain, the result of a botched operation that had nonetheless cost me $5000. I had let them cut me open after doctors told me I was hemorrhaging internally -- an all-new health problem -- and could die within hours. The true cause of the bleeding turned out to be a tear in my colon, non-life-threatening, and I now had a damaged nerve that caused shooting pains up and down one side of my body.
The left side of my scrotum was painful to the merest touch, and looked like something squeezed out of a busted Play-Doh Fun Factory. I tried to avoid thinking about, looking at, or utilizing that part of my body as much as possible.
I rarely got much sleep, and I didn't want to take pain meds. My '70s spree notwithstanding, I hated pills. Even mild painkillers made me vomit and left my head feeling as if Timothy Leary was sticking his hands into my skull and finger painting on my brain.
I wasn't naïve about post-'70s street drugs. Just inexperienced.
A girl I was dating, Olivia, smoked rock cocaine (okay, crack, but crack smokers never call it that; it's "rock," which somehow seems to carry less stigma...and guilt). I didn't know this at first, but she went to the bathroom an awful lot and would come back glassy-eyed and smelling funny. I had once dated a heroin-addict porn star, so Olivia's particular problem wasn't hard to figure out. Nor was it necessarily a date-killer.
I was sober, but I wasn't Wally Cleaver.
She was very open when I finally asked her about it, but I guess my reaction surprised her. I was in constant pain at that point and had heard coke was quite the painkiller. I asked Olivia to let me try it.
She was really reluctant, but I eventually wore her down. I watched with fascination as she melted an off-white Pez-sized rock into the Chore Boy scouring-pad copper stuffed into her stem-shaped glass pipe, which she kept caked inside with visible brown residue (it was a while before I found out why).
When I took that first hit and heard that crackling sizzle whence rock cocaine derives its nickname, all the pain that had been wracking the bottom third of my body suddenly -- magically -- vanished! The "buzz," though substantial and momentarily debilitating (double-wheee!), was only a secondary thrill. The instant pain relief was, well, magical. No better word. And I was off and running....
At first, I preferred to sprinkle rock on marijuana, which tempered the intensity of coke's effects. Around early 2001, however, I bought my own glass pipe at a liquor store, ostensibly a vial for single-stem roses, very popular among dopers (the vial, not the rose), along with a package of Chore Boys. I smoked every second or third day, mindful of the potential for addiction, which was something I hadn't really experienced, never having even smoked cigarettes.
I was winding down my publishing business, gradually abdicating as managing editor to S.S. Crompton, a creator who'd been working with us since the early '90s. I had far fewer things to do than previously, but money was still coming in, and several months' worth of accounts receivable were due to arrive before my income would drop. For the first time in my adult life, I had lots of time to myself, plenty of cash coming in, and a growing addiction to feed...you don't need Dionne Warwick's psychic friends to figure out what happens next.
Running out of money wasn't really a problem, at least not for a while. Especially once I decided to stop paying rent and let my landlord of nine years keep my two months' security deposit in lieu. All my work-at-home deadlines were still being met, and I was paying my other bills, but I consciously decided to strip down my life as much as possible. I figured I'd give up the house and crash with friends for a few weeks, maybe save up for a little studio apartment someplace where I could follow my increasingly smoky muse, wherever it might lead.
Either that, or I figured I'd die. Though now managing my pain, I did nothing about the underlying causes, and I was loathe to admit, even to myself, how sick I was. As long as I wasn't feeling it, I wasn't thinking about it.
Besides, if I was to die soon anyways, which seemed entirely possible, why not die with a stoned smile on my face? I'd been sober 20 years...for once, I told myself, convincingly, it was finally my turn to get messed up. I was tired of being the responsible one, the straight guy, the inveterate designated driver and sole voice of sober reason amidst a perpetually mind-altered mob.
I started packing my lifetime collection of debris for deep storage, had lawyers draft my will, and there was even this eulogy that I kept trying -- and failing -- to write for myself. It came as a surprise, though I suppose it shouldn't have, that I couldn't think of a single positive thing to say about myself or my life.
Up until that point, I'd always had my drugs delivered. All those dumbasses who get busted on Cops, they're usually spotted leaving crackhouses or tossing vials out the window when they get pulled over for a broken headlight. I was having $25-$50 worth of deliveries a day, sometimes more but rarely less, plus an extra $10 each time to cover cab fare, gas, and/or risk assessment.
Then, my main supplier's car broke down, and he asked me to come to him. The first time I found myself sitting in an actual crackhouse and "waiting for the man," as Lou Reed so aptly sang, I was in a Rolando apartment barren of furniture other than milk crates. Sheets and blankets were tacked over the windows, and an old TV set played hard-core porn with the sound off (or broken). I'd driven past the place a thousand times without ever once thinking "crackhouse."
My guy wasn't there yet, though his name had gotten me in the door. I was by far the smallest and whitest guy among seven or eight disturbingly twitchy dudes.
They had a bit of rock and were passing the pipe around; when it got to me, I declined. I'd never smoked in front of anyone besides Olivia, and I frankly wasn't jonesing. I could still go days without smoking and not miss it -- much -- other than having to deal with the pain and spending an inordinate amount of time sleeping.
I learned that when you're in a crackhouse and you turn down crack, you're automatically assumed to be a narc.
Later that day, several of the same guys jumped me alongside the 7-Eleven at 70th and El Cajon Boulevard, a block from my house on Amherst, dragging me behind a Dumpster. I have a missing back tooth from that beating. They stomped me so bad that I passed out through part of it. It hurt like hell, but not for long, because once I limped home, my elusive supplier finally arrived by cab. No hospital; I was so sick of doctors that nothing short of a severed limb could get me to see one.
Soon after the beating, I taped cardboard over several windows of my house, something my heroin-addict ex had also done, probably for much the same reason. Daylight, like everything else about the world outside, was scary, even painful, and definitely to be avoided. Not a good frame of mind for someone days away from becoming homeless. I found a more mobile supplier willing to make (now daily) deliveries to the house I was still packing up.
More and more, I dreaded venturing out. Ed McMahon could have been standing on my porch with a Publishers Clearing House camera crew, and I still wouldn't have opened my damn door -- not unless he had something to smoke and/or the correct lighter to smoke it with (durable torch style was preferred over fragile Bics, which Olivia claimed could explode).
The home deliveries were especially appreciated after my car got stolen. I woke up one morning to find it gone. I just stood there in the driveway, dangling the keys and scratching my head for a few minutes, trying to remember if I'd driven it to the corner store and forgotten. When it hit me that my beloved convertible was indeed missing in action and that I was sure to be evicted sometime over the next week or so, my loosely knit "plan" for temporary homelessness began to unravel.
It took two 24-foot rental trucks to get all my stuff into storage out in Spring Valley, at a gated place recommended by my old pal Timmy and a guy he occasionally worked with, buying and selling the contents of abandoned storage units. I paid two extra days for one truck, because I had no other way to get around. A few friends helped me empty the house, as marshals with eviction papers stood at my doorstep and my livid ex-landlord looked on from a nearby property.
Later that night, after midnight, I drove the truck back to the house to sneak inside and look around one final time. I had nowhere else to go.
After a long while of wandering aimlessly from room to empty room, in darkness for fear of alerting neighbors, I took out my cheapie pay-as-you-go cell phone and called my supplier to make one last house call. We did the deal in the rental truck, which I then parked in a nearby motel lot. I smoked away the rest of my first homeless night in the back of the empty truck, out of sight and, almost certainly, out of (my) mind.
I spent the first couple of weeks crashing in a garage behind a house just off Morena Boulevard. This had been converted by my longtime friend Duane into a kind of guest house. Duane was one of the few people in my life who rarely drank or did drugs. He knew the same could no longer be said of me; then again, he saw that I was still working at my 'puter every night, completing multiple freelance gigs and drawing weekly paychecks. I must've appeared, on the surface at least, still in control. My mobile supplier met me once a day at a nearby KFC, even after my Le Baron was found.
A friend drove me up near Oceanside to pick up the car at an impound lot, though she had to leave before the paperwork was finished. Other than a cracked steering column, the car was in about the same shape as before, though the battery was dead. A couple of impound guys volunteered a jumpstart. They hooked my battery to a charging machine and signaled me to crank it up.
Unexpectedly, all the dashboard indicators started going crazy, and there was a horrible noise, between a grind and a fizzle, and then a loud thump before the car stopped turning over altogether.
The impound guys laughed as they pulled the clamps off the battery and attached them to the opposite posts as before. They'd hooked it up backwards and apparently thought frying my car's operating systems was pretty damned funny. Once the car started, everything was going wonky before I even got it past the impound sentry booth. About four miles away, the Le Baron came to a smoking, shuddering halt. I used my cell to order a tow to the nearest repair shop. The phone battery held out just long enough to call Duane for a ride back to his guest garage.
Repairs weren't cheap, and I found myself borrowing money from Duane a few times to tide me over until paydays. This made me as uncomfortable as it seemed to make him, especially since, after I'd taken his cash, he was usually within earshot of the calls made to arrange another delivery at KFC. The computer I brought with me to work on was tying up his phone lines, and his wife seemed uneasy about the grubby, wild-eyed guy hiding out in their guest garage, tippity-tapping on a keyboard all night long.
At this point, I was also occasionally smoking heroin, usually with tin foil and toilet-paper tubes. Seemed to have the same painkilling effect as rock, but with physical and emotional aftereffects that I preferred to avoid unless there was absolutely no way to get ahold of my preferred smokables, all rocked and ready to roll me.
As soon as my car was running again, I determined to get away from Duane's. I wanted to protect our much-cherished friendship and avoid placing him and his wife in any dangerous predicaments resulting from my actions or those of my shady "associates."
I occasionally spent the night in an empty unlocked garage in the alley behind their house, lying across the cement floor on spread-out laundry. When a lock appeared on the garage, I slept in the back seat of my car, sometimes in broad daylight, under another makeshift tent rigged up between the front bucket seats and rear speakers. It got pretty warm under there some days, but that didn't stop me from brazenly lighting up and blowing my smoke between the seats and into the trunk, to avoid detection from outside.
I began sleeping on my supplier's floor, but that quickly proved problematic, especially after I could no longer access the Internet there, which was important for my weekly work assignments. It got worse when my car was stolen -- again -- from the driveway out front, and this time it did not come "home." I've always thought my supplier had something to do with this, as she had borrowed the car the night before it was never seen again.
Then cops showed up and went through the place, looking for one of the hookers who occasionally slept there. She'd skipped out on a court date. My pipe sat under a towel inches from where one cop poked around, but luckily, whatever gods watch over fools like me were smiling -- perhaps laughing -- at me.
The next day was September 11, 2001.
Believe it or not, the city's druggie underground was affected. FedEx, UPS, and USPS planes were grounded, halting countless drug shipments and money deliveries intended for drugs. Businesses all over the city were closed, including banks and check-cashing places. There was a dearth of available cabs.
You'd be amazed at how big a role cabs play in local drug distribution. Initially, I'd been shocked at how many cabbies turn a blind eye to deals done openly in the back seat. Often riders would duck and, out of darkened buildings, return or leave with their fists wadded and loosely holding drugs at the ready for tossing, if necessary. As I got to know more dealers, I found that several had their own licensed cabbies on a payroll of sorts, paying drivers in cash, drugs, or crack-whore favors in return for running them to and from drugs and druggies.
Someone later suggested to me that the cabbie shortage was because drivers were afraid of retaliation against anyone who might look Muslim. Sounds believable, but I think it's more likely that everyone just wanted to stay close to home. At least, those who had homes.
I left my supplier's place shortly after 9/11. Broke until payday, two days away, but with a toothbrush holder full of drugs and a box of Fig Newtons, I walked to a nearby park, close to Twiggs coffeehouse and overlooking Mission Valley. I had seen homeless people there often, relaxing in small groups on the grass and availing themselves of the dual Porta Potties.
As it got dark, and when nobody was looking in my direction, I hopped over the short metal fence overlooking the valley and made my way down into the bushes. The steep and lushly overgrown hillside, with no houses or buildings visible all the way down to I-8, seemed like a safe and private place to sleep. And, of course, to smoke. Safe, it was; private, not so much.
I'd heard of homeless "encampments," and that's what this was, though I had no way of telling how many people were marking territory in the vast overgrowth. Moving down the hill, I passed maybe a dozen people alone or in pairs, most settled down on spread-out blankets or cardboard, or simply parked on logs and large rocks. Everyone watched me warily but not threateningly as I passed. Most nodded in my direction, but no one spoke to me. Many eyes peered out from thick bushes that looked hollowed from within, terraformed into a sort of topiary tent.
One trailer-sized bush had what looked like a cardboard door, with a doorknob drawn onto it, and hung from twine "hinges" tied to the branches. As I further navigated the hillside, my environs became so surreal that I half expected to come across a gingerbread house, an enchanted wardrobe, or a tree house full of cookie-addict elves.
It was getting very dark. I tried not to stare in people's directions, so at first I didn't see any bottles or drugs. I found a comfortable-looking spot under a squat but thickly foliaged tree and sat down to absorb my surroundings. A half-dozen individual "camps" were spaced equally apart and comprised only one or two people.
Now, I could also see some drinking going on, and then there were flashes of lighters in the distance all around me. When I saw flashes repeatedly in the same spot, I figured they were smoking drugs rather than cigarettes. It didn't take more than 15 minutes before I felt okay about taking out my own pipe and lighting up.
As my eyes adjusted, I saw sparks going off constantly, up and down the hillside, like earthbound stars or stationary fireflies. I briefly worried about someone starting a wildfire, but it didn't stop me from dozing off on a surprisingly comfortable pile of leaves and tree needles. If memory serves (which it doesn't always), I dreamt I was Tarzan.
I woke up the next morning smelling like Tarzan's monkey.
My Fig Newtons were all eaten, and I still had 24 hours before I'd be able to grab my Reader paycheck at the office in Little Italy. My computer was still at my supplier's, so I could still work on it, though there was no Internet and I would have to hand-deliver my work to the paper. I went over there and tried to draw an "Overheard" comic strip that featured some of the things I'd heard my homeless neighbors talking about the night before.
There had been one fascinating philosophical conversation between two sober-seeming guys about what circumstances might justify stealing. They agreed that almost nothing short of saving a life could excuse theft, and I was awash with marvel that the bushes off Mission Valley seemed populated with citizens of higher moral caliber than most of the people I'd known before becoming homeless. Or at my supplier's, where I once saw a visiting prostitute cooking crack within arm's length of an eight-month-old in a stroller. I took the baby out for a walk. I'm still haunted with guilt and shame over not bringing the baby straight to the cops or a hospital. I wonder and agonize about that child's fate.
I had the damnedest time doing the comic that day. I'd never experienced a creative block before, but for some reason my hand wasn't in sync with my brain. I found myself overrendering spots that tore through the paper and having to redo figures and backgrounds that normally flowed from my pencil exactly as I pictured them in my mind. I grew so stumped that I cut bits and pieces from several older strips and pasted them together to cobble a new comic. Even my lettering was shaky.
It scared me to realize that my physical deterioration was now affecting my ability to work. Work was all that stood between me and oblivion.
That night, I slept in a parking lot stairwell near the Reader office so I could deliver the comic and grab my paycheck as soon as they opened the next day. Several other "Overheard" comics were Frankensteined together over the next few weeks, as my computer and I circulated among low-budget hotels around town, mostly along El Cajon Boulevard. At some, I could plug my computer into the phone line and access the Internet with my AOL account, but most had switchboards that kept me offline.
The Friendship Hotel in Hillcrest, which rented small rooms for $20, became a regular weekend haunt. I got a nasty case of athlete's foot there from the communal bathroom shower and was repeatedly hit on by gay male tenants, more than one of whom tried (and failed) to entice me with crack. However, there was a Jack in the Box next door and a nearby Kinko's where I could rent online computer time, so I liked the place.
Aside from "Overheard," I was writing for the Reader and landing occasional gigs in the comic-book biz, where I was surprised to find my talents -- such as they were -- still in demand. I couldn't save enough to get out of low-grade hotels, though, even after I teamed up on room rent with various prostitutes. I'd met some at my supplier's and others at the hotels.
It seems strange now to recall how casual I was about sharing a room with a woman who'd work the street for a few hours, buy supplies (condoms, Chore Boys, ciggies, snacks, perhaps a new unbroken pipe), and then join me to burn off the rest of our rental period with a Piezo (lighter). Some of my working roomies had their own cabbies-on-call. They usually paid for rides on their knees or backs, for which I occasionally had to depart the room for a while.
One hooker talked me into busing up to L.A. with her while she shot a porno, offering to "invest" the proceeds in smokables for us both. We stopped getting along almost as soon as we arrived, so I took off on foot to find a crash spot. With less than $40 in my pocket, I ended up in the woods behind the Hollywood Bowl. During my only other experience as an L.A. "street person," I climbed onto the roof of a restroom building to sleep. Unfortunately, the roof was covered in gravel and uncomfortable, so I moved down to the bushes. Unfortunately, again, I didn't notice the sprinkler system until it went off in my face.
Later, I found a fire-escape ladder behind the famed Chinese Theater and climbed up to the roof. The view of all the freaks on the Strip was amazing. I saw one guy running full speed down the sidewalk...backwards. He held up a mirror as he ran, so he wouldn't bump into anyone. I have no idea why he did it, but wow! Another guy would approach people and offer them something from his pocket. Some appeared to sniff at what was held in his hand, then they'd fall back against a wall or post, stunned. Every single person who took him up on the sample sniff handed him money, received a little package, and walked away with a decidedly perky spring to their step.
I decided to climb down after I noticed a taller building nearby, where someone stood on a balcony looking directly at me and talking on a telephone. He even pointed in my direction. It made me wonder if he thought the person on the other end of the phone could see what he was pointing at. I landed back on the sidewalk, took a bus into downtown L.A., and spent all but 50 cents of my remaining money to catch a late-night Greyhound back to San Diego.
Back in San Diego and still homeless, my cashless periods grew longer and longer. Several times at fast-food restaurants, I saw patrons about to throw away leftovers and asked if I could have the food on their tray. Nobody ever said no, and some would want to talk with me a bit (I had little to say).
I remember two women who looked at me with such concern and empathy. They offered to buy me anything on the menu, along with a drink. I said "Okay," and I said, "Thank you." If you're ever two days between meals and five days away from your next paycheck, see if you wouldn't do the same.
I never asked anyone for cash, though a guy once handed me $10. I didn't spend it on drugs. Most went to the cabbie who took me to a dude willing to front me a rock until payday. That was the first guy I ever saw pull a rock from inside his mouth, tightly wrapped in plastic. He handed it to me and explained that he carried his inventory that way in order to swallow the drugs if confronted by police. I was a little grossed out but took the rock nonetheless.
I told him I hoped it hadn't been hidden somewhere deeper and darker on his person, at which he grinned in a manner that still makes me shudder when I recall smoking every last crumb of that rock later. Though I only dimly realized it at the time, I had just about hit, er, rock bottom.
It's a marvel to me that I survived both my illnesses and my addiction, that I didn't end up in jail or dead, like most everyone else I knew then. I considered a lot of those people my friends, including the homeless and hotel-dwelling, including the most hard-core dealers, users, prostitutes, and pimps. I quickly learned to distinguish between real friends and the kind you get when you're the only guy with a lighter in a room full of crackheads.
I never did like the buzz. Real crackheads mocked me and told me how bad I was at being a crackhead. I would ask for the weakest stuff, and I hated smoking the pipe residue that most addicts consider the filet mignon of crack. It was too strong for me; I still had to work almost every day, and I couldn't with my brain melting out my eye sockets.
The only reason I was ever popular with fellow smokers was because I'd let my pipe get clogged with residue, whereas most users smoke the residue every day and never let it build up. I'd hand over a "dirty" pipe, with residue worth hundreds of dollars, and let them clean it out and smoke it up. I wanted nothing to do with the "pure" crack, which is what the residue is; the "cut" (usually baking powder) is burned off, and all that's left is unadulterated chemical buzzzz. Ah, the things I learned during my yearlong trip down Crack Street.
My parents on the east coast helped get me away from drugs and into recovery by asking me to help care for my ailing mom. As I stood in line to board a downtown bus at the beginning of the four-day trip, there was a pipe and a small amount of rock in my bag, which I later smoked in the bus restroom before tossing the pipe, still filled with smokable residue, into the toilet bowl.
I only had a few dollars in my pocket and a box of Boo Berry cereal given by my friend Duane, the guy with the guest garage, for munchies on the road. The next day, my fitful sleeping and bright-blue lips (from the Boo Berry) had some passengers convinced I was overdosing. By the time I got out East, I was almost wishing I had.
During my subsequent recovery, I finally addressed both my health and my addiction problems. I only relapsed once, a few months after that bus trip, and had such a miserable experience that I can honestly say I haven't had the urge to relapse since. My mom passed away while I was out there, but she got to see me sober again, and we were able to spend those final moments together, as a family, for which I'll always be grateful.
In March 2002, a year to the day after packing up my house in La Mesa, I unloaded those dusty belongings into a sprawling new rented home, with a built-on office, beautifully constructed and overlooking a lush canyon. There, I gradually rebuilt my creative career to the point where it became far more rewarding, if not nearly as lucrative, as it had been at the peak of my powers, before I -- willingly and willfully -- took that first hit off Olivia's pipe.
I guess I should be glad I was so bad at being a crackhead.