I sat alone, although surrounded by thousands of strangers, my mind spinning, my body shivering as the sun rose over Oakland and I looked out into the San Francisco Bay, pondering, dreaming, but really stalling for time. I had a choice to make. Deprived of any real sleep and having spent most of the night wandering streets which I knew but really didn’t know, it was that time, time to fill my empty stomach. I had a few coins, but nothing really of note. There were no tourists at 7.30 in the morning, other than those who chose to get up and jog round the streets before going about their task of exploring San Francisco and all its treasures. This made it difficult to obtain any kind of serious cash from my new-found talent as a make shift and mobile tourist service. Alone, all alone, with feelings of sickness and of desolation running clear through my veins into my stomach. A stomach which was now incredibly empty. All my normal ‘to-do’ list for this time of day had become irrelevant. A shave, a shit, brushing my teeth, my morning work-out, and even something as simple as putting on clean clothes for the day ahead. I don’t like being dirty at the best of times, in fact the smallest stain on anything I wear, and that garment is removed and replaced in the blink of an eye. This was different. This was bleak. This was homelessness. I couldn’t even get a drink of water without crossing the street to the nearest fast food restaurant and begging for an empty cup to fill at their soda fountain. I had plenty time to contemplate my movements for the up coming day, perhaps too much time, but at that very moment, all I wanted to do was leave town and go home. It took all my willpower and the sight of someone who looked worse off that I did, to keep me where I was and to coax me gently into believing I could really do this, spend one week being homeless in San Francisco. After all, it was only a week, and all I had to do to motivate myself was to keep that thought echoing through my head. One week, 7 days, 6 more nights.
Hunger can easily be ignored. Thirst cannot. When I was 11 years old I fasted for the very first time on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. I did it with some ease, and continued to do it for many years until religion and I had a little disagreement, and I said ‘fuck it’ this is silly. So I stopped. Hunger is really a state of mind. Yes, the emptiness brought on by three regular meals vanishing beneath this drought called poverty is extremely disconcerting to one’s brain. Yes, being unable to walk into any local store and buy anything I wanted without thinking twice about its cost was never an issue, but now, with nothing, not a penny to my name, not a shred of hope of seeing any money until much later on that day, made the pains of hunger coming from within intolerable, even though I knew I’d survive. Water however was my greatest concern. I needed to drink. Without water I was a time bomb waiting to explode. Without water I was a sitting duck for the thieves and ruffians who surrounded every move I tried to make. Without water, I was dead. Dramatic perhaps, but oh so true. I wasn’t prepared at that point to just drink from any fountain, any half empty bottle I found in the trash, no, not me. I wanted a cup, a plastic cup and I wanted fresh water, at least as fresh as possible, and I was going to have to learn how to negotiate that particular hurdle in a hurry. Negotiation that would eventually take place in a Wendy’s on Market St.
“Is there something I can do for you” said a voice that was coming from across and open and pretty empty restaurant. This voice had obviously traveled many open spaces before the one I was now crossing and I could tell from his eyes that he’s just about had enough of people like me, although he was about to get the biggest shock of his young life because I wasn’t going to be like the others before me.
“Listen to me” I whispered, as I approached the counter. I noticed a certain amount of fear written across his now frowning eyebrows, but all the same, he could probably tell I was harmless, even though his instinct to remain wary had now kicked in. I continued.
“My name is Alan. I am writing a book about homelessness, and I need water. I am not a homeless person, I am a writer working undercover and I can’t afford to let anyone else know that. Could you please give me access to the restaurant to fill up a plastic cup now and again if I promise to mention you in my book? I don’t want any food, and if I do I’ll pay for it. I just want to be able to come in and have a drink now and again since most of my undercover work will be done around this point of the city”
He looked, stunned, but smiling. I knew what was coming next. I could just tell.
“Sir, please leave the restaurant unless you are here to buy something”
“Come on, don’t be like that. I just need water.” I was pissed. I was hoping this was going to be easy, but it was now obviously going to become a struggle. “Look, how difficult would it be to allow me just to have a drink now and again? I’m from Scotland, but you already knew that didn’t you? Do I talk like your average San Franciscan homeless person? I know you think I am, of course, I’m dressed for the part, but I can assure you, I am undercover. I’ll give you my cell phone number in San Jose, call it, and you’ll hear my message.”
I could see he was warming up to me, so I thought I’d throw in some humor. After a short pause I asked Jim, (we were now on first name terms after someone cooking burgers or waffles or something else that smelled delicious to my empty stomach, had called for his assistance while I was trying to obtain my meager cup of water), “Jim, what do you get if you play McDonald’s Monopoly game for 30 straight days?” He gave me a blank stare as he tried to work it out. I was too quick for him though, “a heart attack!” And with that, Jim relaxed, laughed and offered me not only a plastic cup for water, but he gave me some burgers to take with me and an offer of ‘open house’ as long as I would come back and tell him more corny jokes. Just like that I was watered, fed and friends with the manager at Wendy’s, my new favorite hot spot in town. No longer would I need to roam the empty streets begging for cash, when Jim was prepared to feed me for free. Only issue being, what to do when Jim was off? But at that point I didn’t care. My thirst had been quenched, my belly was filled, sort of, and my spirits were elevated to a level that would ensure completion of my mission. Yes, I had cheated, but only a little, and to be honest, I had no qualms about doing it again. After all, what was stopping anyone doing what I just did? Honestly or dishonestly, chutzpah and guile can get you a very long way in life.