Friday, June 12, 2009

The condition and social category of people who lack housing

I like walking around cities at night time. Sometimes when I can't sleep and it doesn't seem like suicide there's nothing nicer than a slow walk when it seems like everything is closed. And even the weather has been turned off. I've spent a lot more time in cities in the past year than ever before and I've noticed this about myself. I came back from a theme park yesterday, a little sunburned and well thrown around the place but exhausted, overtired even, and I couldn't sleep. I went out for a walk thinking I'd get something nice to eat. A little treat from the late night eateries of San Francisco might be just the ticket. But when I got to one it didn't seem right. So I kept walking. And when I got to the right one I kept walking still.

The doors have been closed but all the stores keep their windows lit around Union Square. Saks, Neiman Marcus, Macy's even a Louis Vuitton and I'm walking past slowly just enjoying the still air and the chatter around me. I realise I've walked too far when I start seeing homeless people in groups of greater than three. At least I do when I notice that the only people on the street at all are homeless. So I turn back towards something a bit more central. There's no intimidation or even interaction, it seems this late that even a lot of them quit for the day and stop begging (some - but not most) but it's probably for the best.

As I was waiting behind the security locked door of our hotel for a sushi delivery boy the other night - this was around 11pm - a guy limped up the steps outside. He looked at me through the glass. He saw me but continued as if he didn't. We didn't acknowledge each other, he regarded me as he would have a lamp or a couch inside. (I ran a little matinee in my head wherein he started snarling at me, leapt through the glass like a crazed animal and pinned me to the floor wondering whether he'd use the knife in his back pocket or just tear me to pieces with his teeth - but underneath, on the surface I was implacable) He sat down in the corner of the little vestibule and removed a few items from his pockets. His jeans were torn as was his shirt. His back was to the window and I could see on the back of his neck some bruises and unhealed scars. I couldn't see what he'd taken out until he moved his arm a little - and I didn't want to look too closely lest he perceive my intrusion - and wrapped it with his belt. He had cooked some heroin in the short while he'd been fussing on the ground outside and now injected it right into the most prominent vein in his left arm. I thought he'd be here for the night. I was thinking about calling the delivery place and telling them that the whole thing was off, that it wouldn't work, there was an unforseen obstacle, we'd have to reschedule. This hotel was unreachable for the night. But then he got up. All he left in his wake as he limped up the hill outside was a flourescent orange lighter, dismantled.

This scene kept repeating through my head as I walked. I saw a woman earlier, well dressed, really, a nice hat, like a bowler for a lady, with a little flower on it, a nice coat, dark blue, with a brooch on the lapel. She held a starbucks cup out and had an eager longing on her face. I couldn't understand that, I still can't. It struck me like a Magritte painting. Things I've seen before but their position altered, their roles corrupted. Her face and the little tableau outside our door hanging behind my eyes when I get back to Union Square, and within one block I've been asked for money in a number of different ways.

"Can I have a lucky penny? Hey a lucky penny, come on I'll catch it." A man says as he waves his cup from a short distance.

"How about some money for a war veteran? Can I get some dinner, hey how about it?"

"God bless you sir, God bless you." This is uttered as I approach. "Thank you sir, goodnight and God bless you." As I walk away.

A sign that says " Why lie? I need a beer."

A transexual in denim hotpants and a tattered coat, torn nikes and blue lipstick asks me if I can help her out with a dollar to make bus fare. I give her two dollars. She holds it in front of me and looks in my eyes and says "Can you help me with this?" "That's all I got," I say. "No," she says, "can you help me with this? Can you afford it?" "It's all yours," I tell her and she marches off proud, her shoulders back a little, this awful tumbleweed. She swaggers off and in the distance I see small groups part for her to walk between. She owns the street and walks through those people like they're only there at her pleasure.

Further down a man, who is out of his mind, he's black too I should mention, most of them are, is standing on an upturned milk crate. He's not moving and the ubiquitous coffee cup is in his outstretched hand. He's trying to do that thing he's seen street performers do. He's standing still, pretending to be a statue, and he will move for a tip. He can't tell that he's swaying dangerously. There's a cavalier look on his face, one that says, I know, I've cracked it, those other guys would have never thought of that. That's why I'm on top of the heap. Or at least the milkcrate.

And then outside a late night bakery and coffee shop a woman, maybe 65 years old crashes into a set of chairs. She's wearing anachronistic clothing, a tweedy coat and a light orange scarf. She too has a brooch and I move to help her up before I realise that her heavily made up face shows signs of, at best, heavy drinking. People that were moving to help her stop as they realise she's another member of San Franciscos homeless... what? Community? Neighborhood? Party? A cafe worker helps her up with an exasperated look on his face. She stumbles further down the street and resumes begging. As I approach I recognise something in her face, something quintessential to a woman of that age, and a flash that takes only a few seconds shows me the faces of all the women of that age that showed me kindness once. A grandmother, a neighbour, a babysitter, a teacher and it's locked in a terrible satire of the way such a face should look.

Have you ever been shopping (or drinking) for so long that one of your pockets gets uncomfortably full of change? Well that had happened to me that day. A ball of coins had jangled annoyingly against my leg the whole walk that night and I felt miserable for having such a problem as I emptied it into this lady's cup wondering if I had to be here any longer than a holiday, could I take seeing this all around me everyday?

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