We don’t see each other much, and we’ve maintained the loosest of contacts over the 30-plus years we’ve known each other. I hadn’t heard from him for about 3 years when he called me last August.
Well, it’s finally come,” he said, almost brightly. “I’m homeless.”
“Come again?” I said.
Scott and I first met 33 years ago when he replaced my then-girlfriend in a shared house. She moved on to San Francisco, and I moved into my bread-truck home where I paid a minimum to friends to park outside and use their shower. (Can you say “hippie musician”?) Scott has always been a self-deprecating sort of fellow, mild mannered, and a bit loony. Great company.
He later moved in with a girl in our circle of friends, and they split up after he went to Colorado and learned massage therapy with a Far Eastern bent. Little by little we lost contact. He moved to Calistoga and did massage for a fancy spa. Then he tried and discovered that he liked crystal meth. What he didn’t realize until quite recently was that he was bipolar, and when he was up, he went way up. You know the down side.
About ten years ago he called me. He had moved back down to Oceanside and was living with his mother. She was retired and slowly failing, and he was her nurse for a long, long time till she passed away three years ago. In the seven intervening years he had only called once. But it was just the same as it always had been: he dropped a few names, I busted his chops, we laughed and swapped stories.
When his mom died, Scott decided that he wanted to re-pursue his dream of being a musical performer. He played OK guitar, and rudimentary piano, and he’d saved a bit of money living with his mom, so he wanted my advice on keyboards and PAs to buy. I guided him in a certain direction and found that he pretty much didn’t take my advice. Later on, I realized that he would always agree that my advice was sound and then never take it.
Back to last August. “What happened?” I asked.
“Well,” he said, “I just got kicked out of a halfway house here in south Oceanside ’cause I’m not going to put up with their crap anymore.”
“And I’m going to go down to my brother’s house and get my stuff. Could you store it for me for a while?”
“Sure. What stuff?”
“Oh, the Korg and the PA,” he said casually. “They’ve been in my brother’s garage for the past three years.”
“What about New Orleans?” I asked. “How did that go?”
After Scott had listened to my advice about a keyboard, he’d gone down to Guitar Center and been talked into spending about $1700 more. He’s like me when it comes to keyboards — we want to plug it in, hit a few buttons, and play. Neither of us has the desire or ability to fool around with a lot of directions written by Japanese engineers or use MIDI (computer stuff). We both started on regular pianos, and we’re both technologically challenged. He doesn’t even know how to operate email. So for a keyboard, I’d recommended something simple to play costing about $700. Instead he bought the most expensive, hardest-to-understand thing down there.
He did follow my advice about a PA and bought a nice Carvin, an all-in-one four-channel mixer, amp, and speaker. So with that and a couple of mikes he could at least play amplified. As far as the keyboard was concerned, he never found out how to program it to play anything other than what came up when he pushed “on”: basic piano.
After one amplified gig, he decided that he was going to go to New Orleans and visit some of his relatives. He indicated that his mom had left him some “bottom land,” and he was concerned that his uncle might try to rip him off via the sand and gravel that could be mined there. He moved out of his apartment and stored his stuff in his brother’s garage.
“I never made it to New Orleans,” he admitted sheepishly.
“What the hell?” I was flabbergasted. “Where’ve you been all this time?”
“Oh, around here,” he said. “I worked as a swing-shift maintenance guy at that motel over by you for a year and a half. But my knees started hurting me so bad that I gave that up. I went on disability for a while and had a couple of bad spells with meth and this girl I should not have spent any time with. You know.”
“Mmm hmm. So you worked for a year and a half. Does that mean that you’ve been off work that long, too?”
It turned out that he had. He had been on physical disability but had failed to follow up on any “regrooving” — training for some new position where he didn’t have to be on his feet much. His money had eventually run out, and he’d run into a few days without food or shelter. About six weeks before this particular call, he’d checked himself into a psychiatric clinic declaring that he was suicidal.
“They won’t put you up unless you say you want to kill yourself,” he said. “I really don’t want to,” he confided, “but after a while you learn to play the game.”
It turned out that his bipolarity had been diagnosed about six months before, and he was on medication. Of course, since he was unemployed, Medicare was picking up the bill for the docs and the meds. He was still having a lot of trouble with his right knee — he thought he’d probably need surgery. The state had judged that he was now mentally disabled. Unfortunately, it would not give him enough money to really live on — only $800 a month. Enough to stay in a halfway house in a more or less structured environment.
“I can’t live there anymore,” he said. “It’s run by two old Russian women and they’re tyrants, czars I guess you’d say. They won’t let you have a lady friend over, they take advantage of all the people over there who don’t really know what they’re doing, and they’re just in it for the money. I called the cops on them, and Social Services is going over to investigate.”
“So where are you going to live?” I asked.
“Not sure for now,” he answered. “But don’t worry about me. I can take care of myself.”
I made arrangements to pick up and store his stuff. After that is when the real lunacy began.
He started out staying in a Motel 6 with a friend he had met at the halfway house. With only $800 a month coming in, we both knew that he couldn’t live in a motel for long. He lent his friend one of his guitars for a while, and he did something that after a few incidents annoyed my wife and me — he brought his friend over to our house.
“I don’t want any strangers in my house,” my wife said, adamantly. “A lot of those people have problems with drugs.”
“Yeah, I know,” I said. I brought up the subject with Scott.
“A man’s gotta have friends,” he replied. “This guy’s all right — you’ll see.”
Well, after the guy disappeared with Scott’s guitar, we both saw. “I guess you were spot-on with him,” Scott admitted. “I’m surrounding myself with the wrong kind of people, and I guess I don’t always make the best decisions.”
By now, Scott had met with the Social Services people about the czarist regime and had moved out of the Motel 6. He went to stay with his dad for a couple of days. The problem was that his dad was just as bipolar as he and was furthermore in a lot of pain from some relatively ineffectual hernia surgery from 18 months earlier. After his dad had broken up with his mom, he had never called or gone to see her, not even when Scott was living with her or through her long downhill slide.
“My dad’s a hateful, bitter man who thinks I’m worth less than shit,” Scott explained.
I wasn’t too hopeful about what would happen between Scott and his dad this time around. It only lasted 36 hours. Scott was back on the streets without a nickel to his name. He called his brother, who owns an $800,000 house in Oceanside, and asked him if he could stay with him for a day or two. His brother said “yes” and then mentioned that he’d been diagnosed with cancer and he might need a stem-cell transplant. The doctor wanted to run some tests on Scott and see if he would be a compatible donor.
“Is this the same brother that wouldn’t lend you $50 the last time you asked him?”
“I only have one brother,” Scott said.
Well, Scott is as soft-hearted as he is soft-headed, and he agreed to go through the tests for his brother’s sake. In the meantime, he wanted to know if I wanted to buy any of his musical equipment. I really didn’t have any use for it but offered to try to sell it for him. Long story short, after about a month of eBaying it, I netted him about $800 for the keyboard and the amp. This money I parceled out to him over a period of a few weeks. I did this for two reasons: so he wouldn’t spend it all at once (a tendency he has, a sort of “Friday night rich” mentality); and eBay, when you first start out, doesn’t let you withdraw everything from your account right away — the limit is $500 a month.
Through his homeless shelter and mission contacts, Scott managed to pick up an old Ford Mustang and an RV. The Mustang ran OK, but it burned oil. The RV didn’t run at all, but it was virtually free: Scott got it for about $75. It was like an oversized van with a sleeper over the cab. He had to do a little work on it, and the inside was so filthy I was sure it was disease-ridden (I wouldn’t go in). Scott had visions of camping out for $15 a night somewhere or else parking it out in Vista on some side road in the hills. These ideas were pretty much pipe dreams, because he had nothing but trouble with it.
He was driving with one of his “friends” in Carlsbad one night. He didn’t wait at an intersection long enough, pulled his Mustang out into the street, and was smashed by someone coming faster than the speed limit but who had the right of way. The cops and the insurance adjuster agreed that Scott was at fault, and they paid off the other driver’s claim. The Mustang still ran, but the doors wouldn’t shut properly. Scott decided to park it on a side street for a few days and live and drive around in the RV.
He had gotten the RV running a bit with a new battery. It wouldn’t lock properly though, and he was worried about losing the few possessions he had left, especially his remaining guitar. I went over to the hardware store and got a new deadbolt, which I got to work on the door after an hour of intense wrestling. So now he felt pretty safe in it, and he drove it down to Carlsbad Beach State Park. He stayed there a few days, then drove down to Encinitas for something with another of his “friends.” Uh-oh. The RV stalled in the middle of the intersection of Encinitas Boulevard and Coast Highway. It had no reverse, so by the time Scott got it restarted, he couldn’t manage to get to a parking spot, as the vehicle weighed so much. I told him later that he should have kept begging till he got about ten guys to help him or at least called me so I could try to push it with my truck, but reason doesn’t figure into a lot of his decisions. He left it. It got towed away. It was impounded.
Scott went to live with his brother for a while. The tests had come back, and his blood was compatible, so he figured, “This guy’s getting my stem cells, he’ll be happy to put me up.” (I had thought that Scott would be giving bone marrow for the transplant, but it turns out that he gives stem cells from his blood in a similar medical scenario.) This lasted only one day. Scott’s brother’s wife Lucy turned on him viciously. She accused him of using them and being a loser with no prospects for the future. Scott and she got into a shouting match, and Scott was back on the street. Again he asked his brother for a $50 loan till his next disability check came in. Again his brother refused.
“He said they had a lot of bills to pay and he couldn’t afford it right now,” Scott told me.
“What bills?” I asked.
“Well, it seems that Lucy’s dog got sick and needed a $4000 operation.”
I became furious. “You mean he can pay $4000 for a dog’s operation, but he can’t give his brother, who’s about to save his freaking life, $50?”
“Apparently,” Scott answered, quite calmly, I thought.
“If I were you,” I advised, stupidly thinking that any advice I gave Scott would be treated differently from the advice I’d given him before, “I would tell him that before I give him the transplant, he needs to come up with $4000 for you. You have no money; you need a down payment on an apartment; you need a chance to get back on your feet. With $4000 you could make all of this happen. You should tell him that you should be at least as worthy as his freaking dog.”
“I’ll think about that,” Scott said. His tone was the one he always uses with me: believable.
At this point I should say that Scott really was trying to get back on his feet. He had several ideas on how to make money; he was keeping a notebook outlining the things he had to do each day to keep his life on track; he was looking around for opportunities. None of these ideas eventually worked out, but he did try.
I had offered to put up some money for him on a monthly basis if he was serious about finding a job and settling down. This might not be as foolish as it appears on the surface. I wouldn’t give him money under any other circumstances, so it wasn’t as if I was throwing it away, and I would only pay it directly to the landlord. Scott thought about it but politely turned me down. “I’m still planning on going to Louisiana,” he said. “So I don’t want to make any commitments to stay anywhere for more than a month or two.”
With that in mind, he had two ideas to make some dough: massage, or driving a cab.
“So my brother says I can stay on his boat for a little while,” he said the next time he called. “He’s got a boat down in Oceanside harbor.”
“That’s cool,” I said. “Why weren’t you staying on it before?”
“It’s technically not legal,” he admitted. “You have to have a permit to live on the boat — it’s an extra $75 a month.”
“That wouldn’t be hard for you with $800 coming in.” I was thinking, Hey, this could be an answer to Scott’s problems.
“There’s a six-month waiting list,” he said. “My brother says it’s usually no big deal as long as you don’t make a big fuss. He and his new wife lived on it for six months before they moved into their house.”
So now he needed help getting his stuff out of the RV and into his brother’s boat. I have a truck, so we drove on over to the impound lot, where the very nice man on duty let us take our time going through and getting out his stuff. I was amazed that the watchman let us in: Scott didn’t have his driver’s license. In the three months since he’d come back into my life, he’d lost his license twice. Now he was sure it was there in the RV, so I waited with the watchman while Scott rummaged around in the still-uncleaned RV. The place was a bacterium paradise. I peeked my head in the door once or twice, but no way was I going in. I’d had pneumonia a couple of times and didn’t relish going through that again.
It took about 45 minutes, and when I saw the junk that Scott went through, the pitiful things he’d kept, it really saddened me. He was 57 years old and had nothing of value except his guitar — and that was worth about $125. We packed up the truck and left the RV behind: good riddance. We drove down to the harbor and unloaded the four boxes, three bags, two laundry baskets, and guitar — all he owned. He had plenty of time, so I let him transfer the stuff into the boat on his own.
Two days later, I got a phone call. “They kicked me out,” he told me.
“What the hell are you talking about?” I asked. “You said that no one cared as long as you didn’t raise a ruckus.”
“Apparently I raised enough of a ruckus to piss off one son of a bitch,” he said, bile in his voice. “I was playing guitar down by that coffeehouse there — in a public area — and that asshole manager said that if he caught me playing around there again he was going to call the cops. So I said, ‘Go ahead, this is public property.’ Well, he called the cops on me.”
“But they didn’t know that you were living on the boat, did they?”
“No, not then. But they came, and I told them that the manager was bugging me for no reason. Then they asked me my address, and I gave them my brother’s. Then they called my brother’s house, and his wife told them I didn’t live there.”
“Don’t you think that these confrontations you’re having are not only at least a little your fault but that they’re also doing you harm?” I said.
“Not at all,” he maintained. “That asshole had no right calling the cops on me, and I’m going to be right back there on Saturday night, busking for a living.” He paused. “You do know what ‘busking’ means, don’t you?”
Scott loved these little word games. I said, “It means opening your guitar case and letting people throw money in it, right?”
“Um, yeah,” he admitted, a little deflated that he couldn’t show off his knowledge. “Well, I usually make about $40 on a Saturday night, so I’ll be back there this weekend. The lady that manages the restaurant right near where I play likes my music. She gives me free coffee and a sandwich or something, so that asshole can go to hell!”
As much as I was hoping that Scott was the victim in all these dealings, I was beginning to think that he enjoyed the confrontations. My son told me that he’d dealt with a lot of tweakers — meth users — before, and mostly they wear out their welcome at their families’ by badgering them for money or stealing stuff and pawning it — like that.
“Man,” I told Scott, “all I know is that you’re starting to make a habit of burning your bridges. Now you can’t use your brother’s boat, you can’t stay with your dad, and you can’t go back to that halfway house. Now what? You don’t have enough for a motel.”
“I’ll go back to my brother’s and see if he can lend me some money,” he said. “I still have my bus pass” (the one piece of advice I’d given him that he’d followed was getting a monthly bus pass) “so I can take the bus there.”
The next morning Scott was knocking on my door at 6:30. My wife answered, as I was asleep. She got him a hot cup of coffee — he was freezing and wet — and he started thawing out at the table.
He’d gone to his brother’s house, and the wife and he had gotten into another shouting match, and he’d left. He had caught a late bus, but it was raining, and he got soaked as he worked his way up to the Carlsbad church where he’d gone for aid before. There was no one around to let him in or get him some help, so he slept on the landing, out of the rain but not the wind.
We got him fed and dried out. He showered. We talked. I was giving less and less advice — what was the use? — but I did help him prioritize his next few days. His car and RV were both barely drivable and in one impound or another. It was going to be another day or two before his next disability check came in. I had sold his amp, so I had $100 to give him. It lasted two days. (I later sold his keyboard for $625, and that money helped. But Scott went through pocket money like it was bus fare, whether it was $10 or $500.)
“What happened to the $100 I gave you two days ago?” I asked.
“Well,” he said, “you know I’ve been wanting to start up my massage business again.”
“Well, so when I was over at the Main Attraction in Oceanside [a strip club] two weeks ago, I bought a lap dance from a really sweet girl named Wendy who just moved here from the Midwest.”
“You spent money on a lap dance when you don’t have enough money to pay rent?” I was incredulous.
“Yeah,” he answered. “Steve, I don’t get to meet a lot of people that I can trust or get close to. You saw what happened with those people I met at the shelter. They’re always looking to take you for a ride. All Wendy did was climb on my lap, smile in my face, and rub her body, very expertly I might add, against mine.”
This was the first time that a very singular thought about this whole situation occurred to me: Scott had to be lonely as hell. I was his only real friend, and everyone he came into contact with apparently cared nothing for him. His mother was dead; his father despised him; his only brother seemed to want him only for his stem cells; his sister-in-law hated him. Support system? Nothing. Of course he’d spent money on a lap dance: how else was he going to get some female companionship?
“OK,” I said, “so what does this have to do with massage?”
“Well, I found out that Wendy gets real tired and sore by the end of the night, with all that dancing. So I figured I go over there, get another lap dance, and then see if she could spread the word to the other dancers about how I give great massages at very affordable prices. So I got a motel room and went over to the club and bought another lap dance. But I couldn’t get any of the girls to come over to the hotel for a massage, so there goes another good idea.”
The next idea was for Scott to try to get a job with a cab company. He figured that not only would it get him some dough, but he could use the car to run a few errands while he was on the clock. His brother had entered the City of Hope in the L.A. area, getting ready for the stem-cell transfer. Scott was to go up in a day or two but meanwhile had the use of his brother’s house — the sister-in-law would be spending most of the time up in L.A., too — so he called a couple of local cab companies. He managed to land an interview and was driving a cab in just two days.
The cab company was really low class. The cars were relatively beat up, and there was no office as such. The cabbies would pick up their cars in the parking lot of a local restaurant and drive them for either a 12- or 24-hour shift. They would then give them to the next shift drivers. The deal was that the cabbie paid the company $80 for the use of the cab, and any money he made over that was his pay.
Scott, being low man on the totem pole, started with a couple of 12-hour day shifts. There aren’t many people in need of cabs during the day. He went from 4:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. and barely made $40 the first day, more or less $3 an hour. After a few days of this, he decided to go for a 24-hour shift, figuring that he’d pick up some tipsy bar folk and make money that way.
The by-now-inevitable phone call came the next morning. “He called me and said he was going to kick my ass!” he screamed into the phone.
“Who?” I asked.
“The cab company manager. He gave me a piece-of-shit car that broke down with a bad battery. Then I called him and he wouldn’t even come over and give me a jump. So I left the car where it was, and he called me and accused me of stealing the car when the piece of shit wouldn’t even start! I told him it was his fault ’cause he gave me a crappy car and he threatened to kick my ass! So I called the cops and told them that he’d threatened to assault me.”
“You called the cops?” I asked.
“Hell yes,” he said. “He threatened me. If those cops can come when someone calls them on me, they sure as shit can come when someone is coming after me.”
“Don’t you think you’re kind of burning another bridge?” I asked.
“I don’t give a crap! That company is worthless! The cars are pieces of shit, the money thing is all screwed up, and the guy is a tyrant. His dad was real nice — he’s the one who started the company. But the son is an asshole. I can’t work for them.”
I had bought Scott a secondhand bike for getting back and forth to the restaurant parking lot for the cab job. With that, and his bus pass, he still could get around all right. Money came in every two weeks, but only $395, and it was gone shortly after arrival. He wasn’t using any meth. But he was still a soft touch to anyone with a hard luck or convincing story. One of his friends sold vitamins — $125 for a month’s worth. You know where this is going. He bought a month’s worth and had ordered another for later. He hadn’t wanted to let his friend — a lady — think he couldn’t afford it. He’d given someone $10 because he liked the way they played guitar. He was incorrigible.
Scott went up for the stem-cell transfer. I tried to convince him to hold out for the $4000, but it was no use. “Steve,” he said, “he’s my brother. Even if he doesn’t give me another penny the rest of his life, I can’t say no.” The procedure went well. Scott had a nice room up there for about a week, and he took full advantage of it: he took walks through the nearby horse country; he enjoyed unhurried meals with a new L.A. Times to read; he talked with the nurses and doctors in his charming albeit name-dropping way. It was quite therapeutic for him.
His brother gave Scott his truck to use for a while. He drove it down to Oceanside and within a day had misplaced the keys, causing his sister-in-law to have to come back down from L.A., where she had remained with her husband after the procedure. She used her key to move the truck before it was towed from where Scott had parked it. She accused him of being too irresponsible to have it, and she had him leave it at her house. She went back to the City of Hope. Scott stayed at that house with his niece and nephew for one more day. Then the sister-in-law called from L.A. and told him that she wasn’t comfortable having him stay there and she wanted him out by morning. He called me and apprised me of the situation. While we were talking, he was periodically interrupted by his nephew, who was yelling curses at him and calling him names. Scott was responding in kind, and it was not an exchange I wanted to be in on. I told Scott I’d be over with the truck in the morning.
I got there about 8:00 a.m., and Scott was separating his things from his trash on his brother’s driveway. The sad array of belongings had shrunk even further. He was very tense and very preoccupied, but he managed to be nice to me and worked steadily through his chore. After a few minutes, his nephew and then, later, his niece came out. With unmasked anger, they spewed venom at him, cursing him and calling him names. They were quite good-looking twentysomethings, but the anger contorted their faces and they reminded me of skinheads in their fury. He was very shaken by their hatred, and I took over most of the task of getting the stuff into the truck. I wanted out of there, so I told him that I’d meet up with him down at the Oceanside train station, as he needed to get down there and unload a locker. He still had his bike and could use that to get there. I’d loaded his half-a-pickup’s worth of possessions and was about to leave when a police car pulled up. The cop got out and asked me a few questions, including my name, and he looked at my license. Since my name is on the side of my truck, I was wondering what was up. He talked to the niece and nephew and then said to me, “Oh, I thought you were Scott .”
So the sister-in-law had called the cops on Scott. She didn’t feel that he should be living in her husband’s house, even though Scott had saved her husband’s life a week before. No matter how controversial Scott might have been, and no matter how many times he had failed in his endeavors, there couldn’t be someone so mean as to do this to him, could there?
“So, I can go?” I asked.
“Yes, sir,” he replied. He turned to the niece and nephew. “Is Mr. _ giving you any trouble about leaving?” he asked them.
“I’ll catch up with you later, Scott,” I yelled over. “Hang in there. I’ll see you at the train station in an hour and a half.”
I caught up with Scott at the prearranged time, and he seemed in fairly good spirits, all things considered, and there was a lot to consider: he was homeless, and practically penniless; he had a bad left knee and could barely walk; his mother was dead; he had been rejected roundly by his only living relatives and their kin; he’d been badgered by the police. With his luck, I was surprised they hadn’t arrested him.
“Where to now?” I asked him, loading up the stuff that had been in the depot locker.
“We’ll put that stuff in your storage, if that’s OK with you,” he said.
He got himself up into the truck and we left.
“You know, Steve,” he said, “this could have been one of the most depressing days of my life. But it isn’t. And you know why?”
I hadn’t a clue.
“Because I can hold my head up high and say I did the right thing. I saved my brother’s life. His bitch wife can scream at me all she wants — God knows she’s got my brother wrapped around her little finger — but she can’t change that fact. I admit I was feeling a little down here at the train station. But I sat in the sun for a few minutes and tried to connect with the universe — kind of a Buddha thing — and I started to feel better. Then a girl came by and asked me if I knew the way to Mariposa, the clubhouse that helps guys like me. She was a cute little thing, and she’d just gotten off the bus from the Midwest. And I was so happy that I could tell her how to get there: what bus to take and when they were open. She gave me a great smile, and that really picked me up.
“You know,” he went on, “I’ve been building up to this day for a long time. And now that it’s finally here, it’s not so bad. After we drop off my stuff, I’ll take my guitar and go down to a sunny park somewhere and play a little. And someone will come up and start talking to me; and before you know it, everything will look a lot better.”
“Where are you going to stay tonight?” I asked.
“Oh, probably the shelter. Or maybe I’ll just roll out my sleeping bag in the bushes somewhere. As long as it doesn’t rain, I’ll be fine.”