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Jul. 6th, 2006 @ 12:17 am of mice and men, part II: revenge of the steinbeck
Current Location: san francisco
I had dinner with two homeless guys outside a Jack in the Box today. One of them was named Keith or Ken or Alabama or Bum--he kept changing his mind about what he wanted me to call him. He's one of those drunken bums you see on every street corner, pointing a discarded fast food cup at passersby and mumbling incomprehensibly. The other was his gaunt, serious friend Nick, the kind of man who subconsciously takes after Douglas McArthur and takes long, thoughtful pauses between puffs of dirty cigarette butt. It wasn't particularly easy to make out what either of them was saying, but they seemed to welcome my company.

"Srr this," said Keith, showing me an extra-large soda cup with a grapefruit rind in it. "Izz disgusrnnng! Absrurrruly disgussrnnng!" He laughed so hard his beard shook; I had no clue what he thought it was so funny but I laughed along with him to humor him. "Prring fries in your drink, that's one thing--but this disgusrnnng!" I nodded stupidly.

One thing that people tend to forget about the homeless--especially the drunk, rambling kind--is that a lot of them used to be ordinary middle-class people. The prevailing mentality in pretty much every city I've been to has been that if you end up in a position where you have to beg people for food and rummage through trash cans for clothes, it's your own damn fault. Non-homeless people like to believe in a neatly just God, with the wicked on the streets and good God-fearing Americans in nice little townhouses. They don't like to deal with the possibility that they could be the guy sleeping under his coat in the park, or the old lady pushing her shopping cart of dirty laundry to the laundromat. It's so easy to typecast beggars and street people as addicts and whores; it makes it easier to justify ignoring them. (How do you ignore so many people? Or is that why you ignore them--because your conscience demands that you help them, though there are too many to help?) People do not give because they are afraid. They claim the money will go to booze or drugs, or that the recipients will become dependent on the generosity of others, or that taxes will go up. They offer excuses to clear their consciences, and do nothing.

"Sprr some change?" said Keith at one point during the meal, pointing his cup at me.

"Sprrtheact," chided Nick. The cigarette in his hands had already been smoked once, and despite Nick's efforts it refused to be smoked again. "Thisrfllaboughtchamrrrr, leavimaloone."

Keith reached into his cup and took out a dollar and twenty-seven cents. "I made sumpin today," he said, beaming.

"Congrzshuns, man, yrrzhrichest fuckin' man in San Francisco," said Nick.

"Thankyrsuh," said Keith. "Call me Alabama. Alabama. Sprr some change?"

But there but for the grace of God go you. (And there but for the grace of God went John Bradford, who coined that phrase--he became one of the very prisoners he sympathized with, and was executed.) Society has its cracks, and people fall through. And Keith and Nick are two such people. Yes, they probably made some shitty life choices at some point. Yes, they spend a good deal of their money on booze and pot. But this is a product of their circumstances, not the cause.

The streets of San Francisco have become a giant sanitarium. This is not Cleveland, where every beggar has a collared shirt and a carefully crafted pitch. The vast majority of homeless people I've seen here are gibbering wrecks. Most of them are in their late fifties, but look older. And it makes sense. This is a tough city to live in. Drama happens. People snap. They get too expensive to be taken care of, or their caretakers move on, and they get thrown out. And not all of them have family or friends, and the state can only take care of so many. For all of its purported left-wing politics, San Francisco has no mercy for the weak.

"It's cold," I said. I was wearing short sleeves.

"Wegessum beer affer this?" asked Keith--from the enthusiasm in his voice it was clear he was offering, not asking. "I like beer. Keeps me warm."

"Gnnabashit with yrr buck twenty-seven," said Nick. "Hvsome grass, Keith. Smokya warm." He fished a beer can out of his jacket and lit a lighter in a hole in the end. Smoke billowed out the other end. "Thrr cops, they never find out," he said. "Dn't trussem sellers. Growmahown." He gave the makeshift bong to Keith, and when Keith had smoked his fill, he offered it to me. I politely refused.

How much money do college students spend on booze and pot? We can afford video games and movies and wireless Internet, and yet we spend money on booze and pot. These guys could save enough money to eschew begging altogether and spend all their earnings on food and water, but even for the homeless this is a terrible way to live. People need their luxuries, and booze and pot are cheap. Harder drugs are another story--but they are always another story.

"So how long you been in this city?" I asked.

Keith scratched his beard. "Howoldrrya?"

"Twenty-one," I said.

"Twenty-one," he repeated, wonderingly. "Been too long. Too long."

"We're hardcore old-school," said Nick. His eyes creased gently, stretching the lines across his long, gaunt face--were it not for the beard, I could picture him as someone's uncle, flipping burgers at an outdoor barbecue. "Weenround forever."

Keith pointed his finger at me and opened his mouth, as if he were about to impart some of his age-earned wisdom, then promptly forgot what he was going to say and bit into his burger.

There's a strange sort of freedom these people enjoy. It's not true freedom--they have no homes, they have no dignity, and--let's be honest--in their current state, they have no hope of landing real jobs. (Would you hire two middle-aged men that never showered, had beards that hadn't been shaved since 'Nam, and could barely pronounce their own names? Yet where would these men find a shower? Or a place to shave? Can you turn back the years and make these men whole? Go on and judge them, I dare you.) I think of the sanitariums people close to me have been locked up in, and I think of the patronizing voices and the rigid schedules and the straitjackets, and I look at Keith, and I can't help but wonder. He is hungry, but he is free. And he has Nick to keep him company.

"Call me Moon," said Keith wistfully, looking up at the sky. "Lookit. Moon. Real pretty. Take a girl out here and lookitmoon, make her real happy."

"Uh-huh," I said.

"Stand up," said Keith. "Gnnagtstandupnlookitzmoon."

I stood up. "I don't see it," I said. Keith nearly fell over laughing.

"Sitdownnmnrrr," said Nick. "Zrrain't no moon tonight. Hesurrshittin' ya."

"Mnnrrrrrrgtchm mnrrrgt," replied Keith, still laughing. He wrapped up the remaining half of the burger I had bought him and offered it to me. "Yrrwnt? Ylookhngry."

"No thanks," I said.

"Savferlaterrr, I guess," he said, placing it at the edge of the table.
About this Entry
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Date:July 6th, 2006 09:49 pm (UTC)
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Even if you're having a hell of a time getting a job, it seems you're sure getting an interesting experience out of the deal.
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Date:July 7th, 2006 01:06 am (UTC)
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Date:July 7th, 2006 01:41 am (UTC)
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definitely an atypical education of sorts. but very valuable.
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Date:July 7th, 2006 03:44 pm (UTC)
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Date:July 7th, 2006 09:01 pm (UTC)
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Date:July 9th, 2006 11:46 am (UTC)
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You do all sorts of cool and unusual things. Get weird off-the-beaten-path experiences. And you write really well about those experiences. ^^ 我長大以後想要當你這種人. :3
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Date:July 10th, 2006 06:02 am (UTC)
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長大以後? 你已經十八幾歲,不是嗎?

Seek, and you shall find.
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Date:July 7th, 2006 04:58 pm (UTC)
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I'm curious, how did you approach them in the first place?
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Date:July 7th, 2006 08:57 pm (UTC)
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Keith was sitting on the street with a cup in his hands, and he asked me if I had some spare change. I told him I didn't, but asked him if he wanted anything to eat, and he said he would really like a double bacon cheeseburger. (A tip for if you ever become homeless, and are broke to the point that you are going hungry--always ask for food instead of money, because if you ask for money people will think you're going to spend it on drugs.) I couldn't afford a double bacon cheeseburger, so I got him a regular Big Burger and a cup of water, and a sourdough burger for myself. Nick came by a few minutes later, and we ate together outside the restaurant.