Homeless for the Holidays

The Hyperion Chronicles

#330 Homeless for the Holidays

His eyes glaze over and he looks up at…what…I don’t know. His expression is…not lost…but traveling. In his mind I could see him taking a journey back…to places I’d never been, things I’d never seen. He stays there for some time, and then he opens his mouth and begins to speak.
-December 25, 2002

I first decided to do this about a week before. I was home alone for the month, and much like now having a lot of trouble walking. Getting to my immediate family was a luxury that wasn’t going to happen, and while there was extended family not far way who would have been more than happy to come get me, instead I isolated myself. Go figure.

I knew a little about the periphery of my neighborhood homeless population. I’d take long walks—when I could walk properly—late into the night and often run into several old mainstays. I was extremely curious about these guys and decided to spend Christmas with a few of them, hoping to see the world through their eyes and what made them tick.

The day started off a little bit after 7. I had a small tape recorder with me, and my pen and notebook. I left my wallet at home. It’s not like that would have made a difference money-wise, but I didn’t want any identity today.

I found Jesse in the same place I always found him, up against an abandoned building. Jess was a black man once, although now his skin was sallow and yellowed. Jesse had short thick hair and a coarse beard, both shot through with white and grey. Jesse wore Army fatigues—from the ‘70s, it looked like—and he was missing the small finger on his right hand.

Jesse smiled a lot, although I wouldn’t necessarily call him a happy person. The smile was more wolfish than anything else. Jesse would talk your ear off about anything and made just enough sense for you to realize there was an extremely intelligent man buried inside him. For the most part Jesse liked conspiracy theories and talking about how things used to be. (In some ways this sounds like every old person you’ve met, and in some ways it was, but the crazy homeless version)

Jesse and I knew each other by name. One of the things I liked about him was that he knew all about the origin of my name, and would frequently lecture me on it. Once, when Jesse was really drunk, he came close to saying he’d been around back with the Titans of Greek Mythology, but I could never get him to repeat it.

With Jesse were two guys I had only seen before: Jim and Black Jim. Jim was at least as old if not older than Jesse (I’m guessing mid-sixties, although the years are hard on those guys so it was hard to tell). Jim was extremely dark and he wore all dark clothes so that—and I don’t mean this flippantly—sitting in the shadows he could almost literally disappear. Jim never spoke. I knew this because Jesse told me, in his running commentary on anything and everything.

Black Jim was a white guy. When I heard his name I vowed to get to the bottom of it before the day was over. Black Jim wore a blue jean jacket and white painter’s coveralls. They were the dirtiest shade of white you have ever seen. In fact: I wouldn’t have known they were white if Jesse hadn’t mentioned it. Black Jim was quite a bit younger than the others, no more than early 30s. He was a big guy with greasy brown hair and talked slowly. At first I thought he was a bit retarded, but later I found out he’d been hit in the head by his brother-in-law on Christmas several year ago.

So there we were. Jesse knew I was coming, and took it all in stride. Black Jim seemed uncomfortable at first, but warmed to me once he ascertained I wasn’t there to hurt him. Jim said nothing, but as I mentioned earlier, this was not an out-of-character response.

At first I tried to ask questions. Did they have anywhere to go? Why were they here? How long had they been there? Things like that. Jesse answered readily, as did Black Jim when he got used to me, but after a couple of hours I soured on this approach. I felt like I was a journalist, come down to Skid Row to interview the bums for a human interest story. I wanted to—as much as possible—immerse myself in what it meant to be homeless on this day, so after awhile I gave up the interrogatory questions.

I did learn stuff, though. Jesse had been in the army. At least, I think he had. The thing with Jesse was, he had two or three versions of every event, and sometimes you had to sift through. This part seemed legit, though. Jesse told me he’d won the Purple Heart in Vietnam on account of his finger getting blown off by a grenade. I asked to see the Purple Heart but Jesse said he’d long since sold it.

I gave it to a girl,” he said, “when I couldn’t pay her.” Jesse gave his wolfish grin. “A few days later I discovered that she too had not been forthcoming about her situation. I felt like I should have gotten the Purple Dick.”

Jesse cackles at this and Black Jim laughs too (That was the way he talked, both the sophisticated vernacular and the vulgarity.) The line had the air of one he’d used many times before and I’m not sure it’s true, but it was funny and I joined in the laughter.

Black Jim’s story is more muddled. He was living with his sister and her family. Something happened with a daughter. I can’t figure out if it was just an accusation or something real. I don’t think Black Jim knows either. He was on a lot of drugs at the time, he tells me. Anyway, the husband beat him pretty good, and threw him out on the street.

Black Jim tells me he tried to clean up several times, but could never knock the habit, and finally just gave up. He sounds sad, but distant-sad, like you might feel for a tragedy you see on the news. You shake your head and wonder how these things can happen, but you don’t lose sleep over it. That’s how Black Jim is about his own life.

I asked Jesse why never tried to get a regular job and live like the others. He’s scornful, He doesn’t mind work, he tells me, but in a white job you have a paper trail, and that’s how the government finds and controls you. I’ve lived with a lot of paranoia in my day, but Jesse has me beat hands down. Either that or he just thinks it sounds good. Sometimes when Jesse says something, I get the feeling it’s new to him too and he’s trying it on for size to see if he likes it.

About 10:00 we amble over to one of the hotels that surrounds us. Jesse explains to me that this is when the hotels throw out their breakfast food, and that often the food is still hot and fresh. I knew just a little bit about this life, enough to know I know nothing.

But Jesse does. He takes me to the spot, quiet now; cautious. After a bit of Recon Jesse says it’s safe and we move quickly. He pulls open the lid and there are bags of food. It actually smells good, which I never thought I’d say about dumpster fare. The food is obviously excess from breakfast, and hasn’t been touched. We take back bacon, sausage, biscuits, some eggs and pancakes. To be honest: it’s better than I’ve eaten in nearly a month.

When we get back Jesse divides the food between the four of us. Jesse very seriously tells me that if you know what you’re doing around here, you can eat well most days. Sometimes, he says, it’s not the excess, but the scraps, but on those days it’s better to go hungry.

“To eat this food here is clean and good. They just made too much. But you don’t want to eat other people’s garbage.”

It sounds funny seeing as how we pulled this food out of the dumpster, but I understand what he was saying. This food we had was wrapped up and tossed, but other than the location we found it in, it’s wonderful. I couldn’t afford to go inside and eat it.

I ask the other guys if they ever have gotten so hungry they eat the scraps. Black Jim says, “You don’t want to do that. This way, it’s like we’re scamming them. Otherwise you’ll lose your self-respect. If I’m that hungry I’d rather eat at the soup-kitchen.”

Ah, the soup-kitchen. This is a subject of much animated debate amongst the guys, and it seems like we talk about little else for the next two hours. At one point another couple of guys came by and they started talking about it too.

The general consensus is that the guys don’t think much of those places. For one, the people there treat the guys like they are bums. I know that sounds strange, but you have to understand, in their own way, these guys are fiercely proud. It is pride more than anything that makes them believe they can survive out here. (Well, pride and alcohol.)

The way Jesse and this other guy I never got the name of explain it, it’s not that they don’t appreciate the meal. “It’s just, they never let you forget who you are and who they are.” The guy says. “It’s like you’re getting a meal because they’re so damn wonderful.”

The guys seem especially caustic towards Thanksgiving and Christmas, when, Jesse says, “All these rich white kids come down from on high to do their good deed for the year.” I squirm, as I have helped with meals on the last few Thanksgivings and a couple of Christmases. (I also should explain that these guys use “White” to mean regular people with money and jobs. Half of these guys are white or Latino, but “White” is almost a class designation.)

Nonetheless, the guys all decide to go to a local place to get a Christmas meal. I kid them a bit, after hours of them trashing it, but they want to see the “Christmas Hos.” This is their term for the girls who only work there on holidays. Plus, Black Jim claims, the Christmas meal is actually pretty good.

I was a bit nervous about fitting in at the soup-kitchen. I’d gone out of my way to wear old clothes and leave my watch at home, but I still figured I’d be called out as a fraud. Jesse tells me not to worry: “The guys are too busy eating to care about you, and the workers don’t really look at you. You’re just another mouth to feed.”

We get to the place and I can see what the guys mean about the Christmas Hos. Some youth group is here, and most of the girls are gussied up like they’re going to a dance. I have never wanted to slap a group of women so hard.

The guys, for their part, are acting like it’s a peep show, openly ogling the girls, in their well-filled-out Christmas sweaters and blouses. The girls whisper to each other and act repulsed, but from my perspective, most of them seem to enjoy the attention. The youth group boys seem happy too because by comparison they now look like prime catches.

The whole meal thing creeps me out. Not only do we have the circus that is these high school girls, but the meal is really good. I mean, REALLY good. I don’t know what I was expecting, but not this. All the times I’ve helped I never ate the food. I told myself it was because the food was for the homeless people, but I think part of it was that I felt the food was beneath me. I feel ashamed about that now.

Afterward we head back. The others have gone separate ways and it’s just Jesse and Jim and me. Black Jim has disappeared, and when I ask Jesse about it he just grins knowingly. This is when I learn the origin of “Black Jim,” but it’s not something I can share here.

We return to the same perch as Jesse starts talking about all the Christmas Hos, and which one looked the best. I try to be congenial, but I’m still disturbed by the whole thing. Black Jim shows up a while later, with two bottles of Wild Turkey and a huge smile. I can’t help but shudder.

It begins to grow dark, and with the twilight comes more somber conversation. Part of it is the cold, and part of it is the some things are only talked about in the light of day, and some are only whispered about under cover of night.

Black Jim finishes an entire fifth of whiskey in under 20 minutes. Even for a hard-core alcoholic that’s enough to get anyone stoned. He starts bellowing a little bit but soon quits talking and just stares at nothing. Jesse and Jim share the other fifth more judiciously, knowing it has to last the whole night.

It occurs to me I haven’t given you the full picture of just how big a part alcohol plays. Every single guy I ran into was either drinking, drunk, or I could smell alcohol on them. When I showed up that morning Jesse and Black Jim were downing some Bartles and James wine coolers and Jim was sipping on some Boone’s. It’s like that everywhere.

Anyway, As the night grows around us Jesse starts talking wistfully about childhood. Best I can tell, he came from a huge family, and there was never enough. Still, for the first time all day, Jesse doesn’t seem bitter, more fond of the old days. I feel like I should share too, but I don’t have any street cred here. I mean, what do I say? “I didn’t get the hydrofoil one year. I have suffered.”

Finally I start telling them about Dorsey Christmas, which is my mom’s side of the family. It’s a great story (one I’ve been banned from telling here), full of colorful characters and warm memories. Jesse is howling and Black Jim comes out of his reverie to laugh a bit too. Even Jim shows some emotion, and stirs. Jesse looks over at Jim, surprised.

His eyes glaze over and he looks up at…what…I don’t know. His expression is…not lost…but traveling. In his mind I could see him taking a journey back…to places I’d never been, things I’d never seen. He stays there for some time, and then he opens his mouth and begins to speak.

“I was born in Mississippi,” Jim begins. His voice is soft, cracked from age and disuse. He pauses to cough and take another sip. Finally, Jim begins again. “We lived in the backroom of the feed store.”

Jim pauses again, takes another long drink. While this happens, a cop car rolls by. Instinctively all the guys tense up, watchful eyes and the verge of movement everywhere. Even when it’s long past they sit still, waiting to see if their night will change. By the time they calm a bit Jim is back to the stoicism he’s displayed all day, and I gather that’s all I’ll get.

I’m frustrated, because it seems like there is a well of emotion waiting to come out. However, Jesse is impressed we got this much, and tells me to be grateful. I guess I am. It seems like much meaning was conveyed, even though Jim didn’t really say anything. I guess you had to be there.

It’s getting time for me to leave. I don’t really want to, but at the same time I do. I get up, and realize that I’d forgotten what pain was. I dance around like an Indian trying to restore feeling in my leg while Jesse laughs like a hyena.

I thank the guys and take off back home. Reflecting, I realize I learned a lot and I learned very little. I still have no idea what it really means to be homeless, and why these guys chose it, or had it chosen for them. I came close several times to grasping some sort of truth, only to have it slip through my fingers.

I guess I can say I spent a day amongst them, for what it is worth. I don’t feel like I should get a badge or anything, and I don’t feel like I accomplished much, but then again, I don’t think those guys ever feel like they accomplish anything either.

I guess I fit right in.

December 24, 2004


Unknown said...

I was waiting for this one. It is very touching. Thank you for sharing it with us again.

Alexis-Rueal said...

You have painted a tale that is eloquent and moving on many different levels. Amazing post...

Debbie O said...

Wonderfuly presented as only Hyperion can do. A very thought provoking piece.