Behind a portable toilet there seemed to be an excellent hiding place. Not for me, but for my stash. My stash included, a section of solid cardboard, a light grey painters sheet, two plastic bottles, both empty, an old toothbrush, a couple of tin cans, again, both empty, and a pen. I also had managed to scrounge some plastic bags to make life easy when it came to carrying this ‘gear’ around town. My clothing consisted of, a dark blue coat, which I believe, was in fashion and also new around 1970, three sweaters, all with holes, all unwashed for years, a tee-shirt, newish, only because it was an undergarment and no one could see it, underpants, just like that shirt, fairly new, pants that were too large, held on to my waist by some string and a little duct tape, and shoes, without socks, that I’d retrieved from a Goodwill stand before leaving for the city. I also had a scarf, more like half a scarf, and some torn gloves, which I kept in one of my coat pockets. My money, the money I managed to collect on a daily basis, was safely tucked away, or so I believed, in one shoe heel, which, just by good fortune, was loose and able to be spun in and out around 90 degrees, creating a cavern, suitable for dollar bills but not loose change. I was dressed to kill, though not any human being, dressed to kill time, the most important way anyone who is homeless can possibly dress. This was San Francisco and this was not going to be pretty. I was shit scared, had no money, and no food. I had no place to shelter, no friends and no way out. I was in for the long run, a week (a small sacrifice for someone just pretending to fit in), which is what I’d promised my self I would do, and there was no way on earth that I would give up before that week was over.
Upon arrival in the city of San Francisco, I was penniless, a deliberate ploy. I had taken enough money to hop on a train from San Jose, leaving all my worldly possessions and comforts at home. I had told no one, not even my family or business partners, where I was going, and now, having just stepped off the train at the Embarcadero, it was 4 30 PM and I was hungry, frightened and very undecided as to whether I should go straight back home to my warm bed, or, just plod around the streets of San Francisco for one night just to see what happened. The emotional drain that this decision placed on my weary mind, was, to say the least, exhausting. It would be very easy, even without money, to skip the barrier in the station and head home to a warm bed, food, and all the other things that we, normal people, expect and take for granted. On the other hand, how was I supposed to write my book about homelessness in America if I, Alan Zoltie, had never experienced what it was actually like to live on these streets? So, with courage in tact, and a brave face, I headed towards Fisherman’s Wharf, where at least I knew there would be lots of people, both homeless and regular, and that I could try to assimilate with those who were about to become my new friends and those who were going to look down upon me as a nuisance, a vagabond, a panhandler and probable scum of the earth. This was life, my chosen life, but for most, this was just life and a way of life I was about to embrace, if only for a short period of time. My nerves were tingling and I desperately needed to take a crap. Now, under normal circumstance, I would have just walked into the closest hotel, found a bathroom and done my business. Not now! I had no idea what was supposed to happen, so within minutes of leaving that station, my task of surviving without anything other than my guile and wit, had begun.
When you walk along the Embarcadero, you follow a path that parallels the Bay. There are so many tourists and locals using this path for walking, jogging, skateboarding and sightseeing, that sometimes, depending on the time of day, it can be hectic to the point of distraction. It’s difficult to avoid this onslaught at the best of times, but when you are being depicted and seen as a homeless person, no one seems to care about you other than to avoid you like the plague. It made for a very interesting first observance. Instead of people just brushing past me as they normally would, they seemed to go out of their way to give me a wide berth, trying hard to look away, trying hard not to notice me and trying even harder to make sure they got past me without my asking them for cash. I suppose in a city that’s filled with people who looked like I did, all the normal people are so used to that outstretched arm looking for a hand out, so why wouldn’t they try to get by without paying? I couldn’t blame them, and I had acted in exactly the same manner for many years when I was just a tourist or visitor for the day. I was instantly struck by the manner in which I’d become a leper. I must have exuded that frightening glow, you know the one that every homeless person has, dressed in old smelly clothing, unshaven, no possessions, and a glassy-eyed stare that says ‘feed me please’! I had to get to a bathroom, and was on the verge of crapping my pants, when suddenly, and without warning, I was tapped on the shoulder from behind. I was startled, and immediately froze to the spot. I slowly moved my head to the right and behind, only to see an enormous lady, dressed all in pink, about 5 feet tall, with no shoes, and a hat the size of a beach umbrella, looking up to me and still with her hand raised after banging my shoulder to gain my attention. She must have weighed 200 lbs, at least!.
“What do you want?” I asked
“You’re not from this section?”
“This one. What you doing here?”
What do you mean, what am I doing here? I need a crap. Where do I take a crap?’
She was obviously a panhandler, and homeless, but this was a chance to get started and be moved along in the right direction. I hoped!!
“You need a crap? How much you got on you baby?”
“Nothing, I just got here”
She studied me in an interesting fashion. Her nose was sniffing me as she looked me over from top to bottom. It was like a dog checking his master. Making sure I was safe, making sure I was friendly and checking my credentials without uttering one single word. When she finished, she began talking again.
“Why?” I asked. She was off. There was no second chance here, and following my gut, I decided to walk in pursuit. She was quick, shrewd and obviously street savvy. She was marching at the speed of two short legs, towards, who knows where, but I knew that if I didn’t go with her, I would probably crap my pants before getting the chance to find a place to do it legally, and there was no way I wanted to spend my first night in Jail. Although the thought of doing so was tempting only from the standpoint of getting a bed and a meal. No wonder our system is all fucked up!
Have you even thought about what it would be like to be rejected by all of society just because of the way you look and the situation in which you find yourself? Down on your luck, no money, no home, no food, no respect? Well put all of these together, and that’s what being homeless feels like. You are hated, disrespected, trodden upon and looked down on by everyone, including innocent little kids! People hate you. Well, most people do. They know you have nothing and they just ignore you, they won’t look at you and they often refuse even to come within 10 feet of where you walk. I’s incredible how things change when you have nothing.
Pinky, which is what we will call her, led me to the back of a fast food place near Pier 39. She suddenly stopped, looked at me, again with her nose, and said quietly,
“Go in there, take a dump, and do your best not to make a mess”
I looked, hesitated and made a move to open a wooden door. The door had a padlock wich was broken. Inside, the stench was unbelievable. Somewhere between stale urine, shit and rotting food. I closed the door, sat, released my bowls and automatically looked for paper to wipe my bum. Of course! Silly me, there was none. I really didn’t know what to do, other than put my pants back on and walk out. I was disgusted, screwing up my face as my underwear touched my skin, but this was my life now, and there was no way out. I opened the door and exited into the daylight, but ‘Pinky’ had vanished. Gone! What was I supposed to do now? I felt good that my bathroom experience had gone without a hitch, but now I needed food, a place to stay and some money. I wasn’t sure where to start, but I made my way up to the wharf, sat on the cornerstone of a monument, and thought about my next move.
One thing that kept entering my mind while I sat on that stone watching the seagulls and listening to the sea lions performing their vocal prowess on wooden floats that had become their second homes after all these years, was that if I was hungry, and if I couldn’t beg for food, then with some cash, I would be fine. I only needed $1 to get anything of the $1 menu at McDonald’s, and unlike a lot of the other homeless people who seemed to be mulling around, I didn’t have a drink problem, drug issue or a need to blow my cash on cigarettes. Every penny I could make would go towards food. With all that said, I was very nervous about even trying to beg for money. I had never done that before, and one cannot just stick out a hand and say ‘lend me a dollar pal’. It doesn’t work like that. It takes courage and a certain amount of chutzpah! I had to continually practice inside my own mind and heart. I was taking other people’s hard-earned cash, and if I was being totally honest, it was just as easy for me to go home, not take their money and feel good as it was to be sitting here contemplating hunger and the thought of continual rebuke from those who passed me by, ‘loaded’ with cash! And if they did pass me down a bill or two, then what? Would I get served at Micky D’s, or would they treat me like the dirty, smelly, unwanted mess I really was? There was only one way to find out. Try it!
“Can I borrow a dollar?” My first attempt, said in a broad Glaswiegen accent, and sounding pathetically quiet and subdued. My hand outstretched, my head bowed, my heart pumping blood towards my shaking legs. Sweat rolling down the back of my neck with fear. My eyes, forward, yet never making contact with anyone. My determination to succeed, non-existent!
“Can you please spare some change?” this time louder, more assertive. I was getting the hang of this! The hang of what, you might ask? Well, the hang of taking money that was hard-earned for most, and using it to satisfy my own survival and curiosity. Why do people give to other people? I for one, always looked at someone’s shoes. I figured if they didn’t have decent shoes then things must be really bad. So, why would anyone give to me? I had to have a hook, a draw, a reason, that I received before anyone else in the street. My smile? My hair? My accent? I just needed one hit, that way I would figure it out, like the rest of my life, and build upon my good fortune.
“Please spare a dollar for homeless Scotsman!” I was now very assertive and bold with my speech and demeanor. I even smiled a little, hoping this would work.
“Where are you from Pal?” His accent very recognizable, his face, completely unknown to me.
“Same place as you”
“What happened to you?” He was now going into his pocket to retrieve what I believed to be a dollar bill. His wife, or girl friend, standing next to him, quietly embarrassed and pulling at his coat sleeve in a manner which suggested she would rather not be standing holding this conversation.
I wanted to be upfront and tell him that I was doing research for a book and that there was nothing wrong with me and that nothing untoward had happened to me, but I stopped short of doing so and went into an unrehearsed diatribe about how I had come from Scotland to make money in the computer industry, lost my job, lost my money and then lost all sense of belonging. He stood silently, eyeing me up, undecided if I was telling the truth or not and trying hard to determine if I was just another junkie or alcoholic looking to make money to take another hit of my favorite beverage or white powder. I could tell he was really flummoxed and confused. I spoke quietly and with my usual smile, so I knew I was unlike all the rest of the homeless tribe he’d already encountered during his stay here, in San Francisco. I obviously intrigued him, because he continued.
“Any idea what direction Ghiardelli’s is ?”
“Yep, it’s about 3/4 of a mile up that way” and I pointed him in the right direction, “And their ice cream is brilliant! Have a fudge sundae if you can, you won’t be disappointed. When you’re done there, I would suggest One Market St for dinner”
He looked at me like I was daft, and the confusion spread across his face was there for all to see. I just knew he was trying hard to figure out in his own mind how I could possibly know these things. It was obvious to me that he was trying to compute 2 and 2, but was only arriving at 3.
“Any other places you can suggest?” He said, as he raised his eyebrows in a way that suggested I was perhaps a fake, a plant and that there was a TV crew just around the corner filming his reaction for one of those ‘America’s Funniest” shows.
I proceeded to give him a very long list indeed. His wife, now a little more comfortable with her situation, knowing that I wasn’t going to mug them or do any other nasty deeds to either of them, wrote down my every word on a sheet of paper she’s mustered up from her Coach handbag. It turned out that not only were they from Glasgow, they were from a place three miles from where I was born. Small world. We concluded our ‘tourist’ information conversation, and without warning, he pulled out a $10 bill and handed it to me.
“Make sure you eat with that son?” He said, and as quickly as he’d come, he was gone. I’d done it!! I could not only eat, I could also get the train home if needed. I was elated, yet sad, but I accepted that I’d passed my first test and then realized how, going forward into the week, I could possibly make more money. Tourism!! That was my key to success. In the meantime, hunger had struck a nerve in my head, and I was now off to find out if I’d be served at McDonald’s, which was only a few steps around the corner.
Tourist, after tourist, and a few locals, formed a straight line opposite three cash registers. And then there was me. Everyone who saw me walking in, looked like they’d just seen an alien. Everyone avoided me, everyone was talking about me. I know I didn’t smell, after all, this was only day one of seven, but their obvious perception of who I was supposed to be and what I represented, was there for all to see. There had been many times in my past, and I could recall nearly all of them, when I would go into a fast food restaurant and see a homeless man or woman in a corner with nothing but an empty cup. I would always, without exception, offer to buy them food. My thought process was, that I was better of feeding their hunger by buying them whatever they wanted, rather than feeding any bad habits they might have, just by giving them cash. At least I could see them eat, and not squander any money on drugs or alcohol. I presumed, wrongly of course, that some nice person might have the same opinion of me, as I stood in line, alone, waiting to be served. No one offered anything other than avoidance.
“Please can I have a number 1?” I asked politely.
“Got money to pay for that” she asked from the reverse side of the register. I took out my $10 and handed it over. She triple checked it, just in case it was a forgery, put it in her cash register and gave me the change. I, just for the sake of pissing her off, triple checked the change, just in case she thought she could stiff me. That made her frown even harder. She went away, and within 10 seconds, returned to the counter, threw my meal down and with a gruff, “thank you’ and a forward nod of her head, wished me a ‘fuck off out of here’ goodbye! I would not starve tonight! I sat in a corner, stared down by all and sundry. It was unnerving. I kept savoring the taste of this junk food, as if it might be my last meal for a while, thinking aimlessly about what it would be like to do this every day in life. I couldn’t fathom how people did that, how they went from one day to another without the continuity of a regular income, a home, a family, friends, and all the other things we just took for granted. At that particular moment, I felt extremely lonely. Suddenly realizing that my day was nowhere near being over, I jumped out of my comatose thought process with a jerk! “Where was I going to sleep?” It was now just after 7 PM, and it would be dark in about 30 minutes. I knew there were shelters for homeless people in the city, but how did one find them and how did you get a bed? I would have to find out, and find out sooner rather than later. I gobbled down the remains of my dinner, finished my drink and set off in search of a place to stay for the night. And that, is when everything started to become difficult and my worst nightmares began.
To be continued.