Unbeknown to many people who frequent San Francisco on a regular basis, and unbeknown to me too, is a fact that is quite staggering. There are 43 hills in the city, and it was built on every single one of them. This makes it very tiring to walk, unless you are super fit. The hills of San Francisco rise way up into the sky, well, it seems that way when you’re at the bottom and you need to get to the top. I was now with my new friends, a gang of sorts, and it had become our mission to walk across town from the Embarcadero to the Mission, at least that was the plan I was given, and since I had no choice, no experience, and no will to be on my own, that was the plan I was prepared to follow. Our gang consisted of 11 people. 3 black males, 4 white, 1 hispanic and 3 white women, all of whom had seen better days. When I finally came to my senses after being grabbed unceremoniously around my throat, I began to converse with some of these homeless souls, all of whom once had lives similar to what we would call, normal. Each and every one of them had so many stories to tell, as I would find out over the next few days, but for now, the one who interested me most, was Oleg. Oleg was huge, probably 6’6″, 240 lbs, and had the reddest hair I had ever seen. His accent was from eastern Europe, but not Russia, even though his name suggest that he could hail from that particular country. Oleg’s beard ran about 8 inches off his chiseled chin, having not shaved for at least two years. His hair was long, way down past his shoulders and his skin, grey and wrinkled from exposure to the elements for such a long period of time. His looks and build suggested he was around my age, maybe 50, but when I began to ‘interview’ him, I was shocked to learn he was only 29. He dressed in anything he could get his hands on, and on this night, the night he’d grabbed me by the throat, he was wearing a grey/green coat, unbuttoned, because there were NO buttons placed where buttons should be, and three sweaters, all different colors, one on top of the other. His pants were black, and his second-hand Nike’s were ripped from top to bottom. He was not a picture of perfection, but in a strange way, he was smart, and he was so obviously proud of his dress sense. Oleg had a back pack, again, black, which was filled with the great unknown, and only Oleg knew exactly what was making that back pack so obviously heavy. He never shared, neither did any of the others. Law of the jungle, rule of thumb, possession is 9/10 ths of the law, and that’s just the way it was out there. No one ever questioned anyone else’s bounty or swag, and no one ever stole from anyone else. If they did, the consequences were dire, as I would find out in due course.
“So, Oleg, where you from, originally?” I asked. Now that a channel of communication had been opened between us, he was more inclined to speak to me candidly, since he knew I posed no immediate threat.
“Poland” he replied, “but my family brought me here when I was 14”
“You still have an accent then?”
“Yes, it helps to keep the fucking American’s scared” came his response. He had such a Slavic tone in his voice and his words were spoken in such a deep guttural manner, that I could see how many people who didn’t know him might be frightened in his presence. He was, after all, a huge man.
“How did you get into the sate you are in, sorry, We are all in, right now?” And so, Oleg began to talk as we walked, a walk that would take at least an hour, telling me of the abuse that his drunken father bestowed upon his slight teenage body when they moved from Warsaw to LA, and how each and every scar, both mental and physical, had driven him into this wanton desire to leave and make his own way in life. This is the brief version, but the real version was epic, and probably worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster movie! Oleg had wandered, on his own from the age of 17, up to Northern CA, arriving in San Francisco when he was 22. He had been without a home for most of the 12 years since he’d left his parents house, obtaining the odd job here and there and even making enough money at one point to afford a room rental close to a job he kept for a year in Santa Barbara CA, but with everything that had gone on in his past, the abuse, the beatings, the uncertainties, Oleg never found it possible to maintain an even keel in life or to spread roots whenever roots appeared to be growing. Oleg eventually gave in and decided, this was it, his destiny was to remain homeless, his future, like the rest of these homeless people, was always to remain uncertain, and irrelevant to any who looked at them from the ‘outside’. A blight on a normal landscape, as he always reminded me. “I see my task to survive, but my road is blocked by others who see me as nothing but a parasite, a worthless piece of shit, someone who means nothing in society, and I have become what they all believe,” he paused, ‘I have become nothing”
This last statement was a fact and resonated endlessly amongst all the homeless people I was about to meet. Through no fault of their own, and I know a lot of you out there will completely disagree with me, they have become nobodies, worthless, inconsequential and a sight for sore eyes that we all just wish to ignore in the hope that they will just somehow vanish. This is really not the case. When speaking to Oleg, for the first time, and not the last, I had my eyes opened. Oleg was as much a human being as I was, and if not for abuse, bad fortune and an inability to integrate into ‘normal’ society because of the way that we have set society up, Oleg was as capable of living a good life as anyone else on this planet. Only Oleg had not had the opportunities afforded to the majority of us who take for granted our every day comforts. An, there was more to come. More that I hadn’t bargained for and that took me quite by surprise.
“How about you?”
“What about me?” I responded, in a rather shocked manner. We were still walking to our final destination, wherever that was going to be, and now, I was at the end of a barrage of questions that I hadn’t planned to answer nor had I ever thought would come flying my way. I presumed that I would come to San Francisco, walk the streets for a week, alone, never meet anyone and never talk to anyone. I was there to observe, not to interview. It was completely out of the blue that Oleg’s question had arrived. It hit me straight in the center of ‘oh shit, what do I say now?’ I thought about it for a slipt second and decided to go with the truth, well it was a half truth, but close enough to ba acceptable and plausible at the same time.
“I had no place left to go. My heart wasn’t in the life I had and I wanted to get away from all the grief that was surrounded by, so, without any ties, no home, no work, no place to go, I ended up here, with you guys, and to be very honest, this is my first night on the streets, here in San Francisco!”
“First night? You’re VERY first night?”
“Well, eh, no, not exactly” I was back tracking now. “It’s my first night in THIS city”
“Ohhhhhhh!” And by now all my new friends seemed to be nodding at the same time. I had won them over and suddenly the questions ceased and we began our route march to the Mission.
I discovered early on with most of the homeless people who have had experience with street life, that simple answers often suffice in taming curiosity. I believe that this comes from an ingrown fear that no one really wants anyone else to know too much about them, just incase it shows weakness. After all, this was jungle like conditions that most of these people were living under, and fear of being overpowered or bullied could come from any kind of weakness shown, verbal, mental or physical, so most street people had tendencies just to keep their mouthes shut and get on with their daily tasks of finding food and shelter. Keep it simple, because life had become too complicated and led them all down this path to loneliness, destitution and irrelevance.
It was now coming up to midnight, way past my normal bed time, but yet, I felt wide awake and totally at ease with the circumstance that now surrounded me. Having Oleg and his chums as company obviously helped, but in general, my life was now completely different, with no timetable and no place to go, so why get uptight about stupid things, like going to bed early in order to rise and do emails, workout and eat? I wasn’t able to do any of these so-called normal things, so my immediate thoughts were guided towards each footstep I was now taking towards the great unknown. And great it turned out to be.
To be continued