“The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” – Anatole France
A while ago I posted to this blog a piece advocating the slaughter of our nation’s homeless masses as part of the solution to America’s most troubling economic problems. The piece was satire and my audience seemed to appreciate it, although one of my more conservative friends (yes, I do have several) later told me that he enjoyed my piece immensely until he realized that I was joking. Joking or not (and, for the record, yes, I was joking), I suppose there is some irony in the fact that the very next day I had what was, to date, the longest one-on-one encounter I’ve ever had with a homeless person. I’d like to share that experience with all of you while it is still fresh in my mind. [Note: I started writing this piece a month ago and then work consumed my life…you know how it is. The memory is still there…it just might be slightly tweaked, that’s all.]
There’s a café around the corner from my apartment called Café Mercury. I go there for lunch at least one weekend day pretty much every week, and always order the caprese sandwich on a French roll, which is served with a small salad. The whole plate is drowning in olive oil and balsamic vinegar and it tastes like heaven. I often bring a book to the café, or a crossword puzzle, or sometimes my laptop (yes, it was in this café that I wrote that particularly fun and creepy post about the pretty girls of San Francisco I’ve gone back to the café nearly every week and have yet to see either of those two women again.) I went last Saturday and brought my book, but after finishing my sandwich I realized it was truly glorious outside, so I decided to try reading in the little Hayes Valley park—you know, next to Smitten the beer garden (something bothers me about calling it a “biergarten”—I’m normally all about using the ethnic names but for whatever reason it seems so pretentious in this case, even for me).
The park was crowded, but I managed to find an empty bench in the sun. It was one of those perfect SF spring days when it’s sunny and beautiful and the clean air smells like fresh laundry, but it’s not at all hot so you can be perfectly comfortable in jeans and a sweatshirt and your Keens. Yes, I wear Keens. I pulled out my book, went to the page held by my Book Passage bookmark, retrieved the bookmark, and placed it in the back of the book while holding my current page with my pinky finger so I could read it several seconds later. You’ll understand why these details are important in the next paragraph.
I had scarcely read half a page when a man sat down on the bench next to me and immediately asked, “hey, why do you have the bookmark in the back of the book and not on the page you’re reading?” This question struck me as incredibly moronic. Who the hell keeps a bookmark on the page he’s reading at all times? Doesn’t everybody stick their bookmarks in the backs of books when reading? I glanced over to my left and out of the corner of my eye noticed that my companion on the bench was a homeless man. I shifted my gaze back to my book and said, in a quiet but assertive voice, “I’m keeping my bookmark in the back of my book while I read. When I’m finished, I’ll retrieve the bookmark and place it after the last page I read. To ‘mark’ my page, if you will.”
“Oh, that makes sense. What are you reading? Is it any good?” I’m normally pretty social, but I was in no mood to engage in a conversation with a homeless man. Not today, not on a rare day off from work when the sun is shining in San Francisco. I knew I couldn’t just pretend I didn’t hear him, so I answered him rather curtly. “It’s called ‘Swamplandia!’ by Karen Russell. I like it.”
“Who are your favorite authors?” Was this guy fucking kidding me? “I don’t know, I tend to like books more than authors, but I guess Margaret Atwood and Kurt Vonnegut.”
“Oh. Who’s Margaret…what was her name?”
“Margaret Atwood. She wrote Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake, two of my favorite dystopian novels.” My gaze was glued on my page, hoping that somehow, if I didn’t look up, the guy would leave me alone. I was starting to smell the cheap red wine on his breath.
“I like Bukowski.” Of course he did. “And Steinbeck. I used to love to read Steinbeck, but it’s hard to read when somebody keeps talking to you. Am I bothering you? I don’t mean to bother you, I just wanted to know what you were reading.” I put my book down, but kept my eyes pointed straight forward and not at my inebriated conversation partner. Yeah, he was definitely inebreiated.
“What’s your favorite Steinbeck book?”
“You said Steinbeck was your favorite author. What’s your favorite book by him? Mine is East of Eden. It’s one of my favorite books of all time.”
“I love East of Eden! I even memorized a chapter.” He started reciting. I don’t remember what he said. I was contemplating Googling East of Eden right now and then copying the first lines that come up, but that would be dishonest to you, fair reader. And you know that I would never, ever lie to you.
Although I don’t remember which chapter he quoted or how it went (I read East of Eden in high school and don’t remember much more than “Timshel!” and the fact that I really loved it), I was very impressed. I lifted my head up and got my first good look at my benchmate. He was tall, and kind of pudgy, wearing a dirty olive green sweater and faded blue jeans caked with mud. His hands were huge, and rough, callused and covered in dust. He had a very scruffy red beard and natty read hair peeked out from under his plain brown baseball cap. His face was covered with a mix of freckles, scrapes, scabs and scars, and his teeth were yellow and rotten. His tongue was purple from the cheap fortified wine he was drinking out of a Welch’s grape juice bottle.
“Not bad,” I told him.
“But my favorite Steinbeck book is Grapes of Wrath. I memorized a whole lotta that book, too, I read it so many goddamn times.”
“I didn’t like it. Couldn’t get into it.” It’s true—in fact, I never finished it. I got about half-way and then gave up. Then again, that was when I was 14 or 15. I should try it again now.
“How could you not like it? It’s the story of the romanticism of the American West!”
“Is that right?”
“Nomads, like me. Just travelin’ round the country with no real cause.”
“Weren’t they migrant farmers?”
“But you know what I mean. About the traveling around part, at least.”
“How did you come to San Francisco?”
“First time I came here was on a freight train. This time I came in a car. I got a ride up from San Diego with my friend’s brother. My friend is Belinda. Have you seen her around? She’s this one-legged lesbian punk rocker with a bleached blond mohawk. Sometimes she’s at Market and Gough, and we panhandle together. Maybe you’ve seen me—I have a sign that says ‘Ugly, Broke and Sober.” Me and Belinda been friends for a long time. Hell, I was friends with her when she had two legs!”
“How did she lose her leg?”
“Hopping a train. She tried to hop in the boxer, the idiot. You NEVER go for the boxer. I always go for the unit.”
“It’s the car up front. There are usually one or two of them, sometimes three. And they have seats that are pretty comfortable, and a bathroom—it doesn’t have running water, but it’s better than trying to shit out the side of a boxer. And there’s a first aid kit, so you can wash off your hands with rubbing alcohol. And the best part is that it’s easier to board than the boxer!”
“Is that right?”
“Yeah! You just wait in the bushes for the engineer and other guys to get on the front, then you can hop up the stairs in the next car. There’s a little ladder for you to hold onto and everything.”
“And nobody is in the next car?”
“Nope. All of the train folks are in the very front car, but there’s usually another one or two units that are empty.”
“What if you get caught?”
“I mean, the engineer usually comes by, but he doesn’t mind. Sometimes he’ll bring you food too. They’re usually pretty nice. The only guy you gotta watch out for is the pitbull. The railroad cop.”
My homeless companion started staring off into space, and then took another huge swig from his grape juice bottle. At that point I put my book down.
“You’ve ridden on a lot of trains, huh?”
“Yup. I’ve never been across the ocean, but I’ve been to every single state except for Florida, South Carolina, and Hawaii, and the only reason I ain’t been to Hawaii is cuz no freight train goes there…yet!”
“So what’s your name?”
“My name is Richard Michael Touchey, Jr.”
“What a coincidence. My middle name is Michael too!”
“Oh yeah? What’s your first and last name?”
“J and K.”
“J Michael K. Very biblical sounding.”
“Well, I am Jewish.”
“Oh yeah? I’m Italian. Or at least part Italian, I think. That’s where I get my olive skin. Well, it also comes from sleeping on the streets. That makes you all ashy, like me. Hey!” he called out to a smoker passing by. “Gotta an extra cigarette?” The smoker didn’t look at him. “I guess not.” Richard turned back to me. “You wanna know my favorite alias?”
“David Bryce Cooper.” Pause.
“…Should I know who that is?”
“When the cops stop me, I tell them my name is David Bryce Cooper, and then I sign my name D.B. Cooper!” And that, my friends, is awesome.
“Yeah. Most of the time the cops don’t get it, but one time one did and he started laughing.” Cops today are young, keep in mind. Younger than us. And if you’re my age, don’t feel bad if you don’t know who D.B. Cooper is. I only know ‘cuz of my dad.
“And then look at my backpack! It’s got two names on it, and neither of ‘em are mine. There’s this one on the front—he’s the original owner of the backpack I think. But then this one on the back is my friend Shelly. She gave me this backpack. She’s in Seattle now but I really hope she comes down for my birthday.”
“No shit—mine’s on July 13th!” Richard got excited and flashed a huge grin, then put out his fist for me to pound (or “fist-bump,” if you prefer). I gave him the rock. His knuckles were extremely rough; it felt like punching sandpaper. “How old are you gonna be?” I asked.
“That’s a big one!”
“Sure is. I remember when I turned 30. I spent the whole night trying to hook up with this girl. I didn’t that night, but then we did a little later. Then I hooked up with this girl who was my best girl friend. Not my girlfriend, like, my friend who was a girl.”
“Oh yeah? How did that turn out?”
“I think it coulda been really good, but I fucked it up.”
“Oh yeah? How so?”
“When I went to prison, I chose another girl instead of her. This new girl was nice and all, for a while she sent me letters and money. Then she stopped. The other girl, the one who was my best friend…she was the sweetest girl in the world, and I fucked it all up…”
I certainly did not want to get into a conversation about fucking it all up with sweet girls…I spend more than enough time thinking and talking about that as it is. I changed the subject to one I found more interesting. “When and where were you in prison?”
“I’ve been in 11 different correctional facilities, for, let’s see…I did 3 and a half years the first time, a year the second time, and then little stints here and there…maybe I’ve spent 6 or 7 or 8 years of my life behind bars. I don’t know.”
“Oh yeah? How is it?”
“Fucking sucks, man. I ain’t never going back, not if I can help it.” I have often heard conservatives complain that prisoners have it so good, with their flat-screen TVs and 3 meals a day, at the taxpayer’s dollar. I challenge any of those conservatives to spend one night in prison. One night, and then tell me how great it is. If you don’t like spending your tax dollars on prisoners, then stop sending people to prison.
Richard told me more about prison and incarceration in general. He said the first time he went to jail was when he was 17, for beating some kid up at school. “They sent you to jail for a schoolyard fight?”
“Yeah, it was bullshit, but my dad had a bad name around town, and everybody associated me with him so they were trying to make my life miserable.”
“Missoula, Montana! Shitty place.”
“I’ve heard Montana is beautiful.”
“It is! Not Missoula, but the rest of the state. We used to go to this river to go swimming, and…” At this point, Richard told a long story about going skinny dipping in ice cold water. When he started telling the story, it was as if he suddenly became incredibly drunk, or rather, that he had been able to contain his drunkenness for a while, but his self-control fell apart when reminiscing about the halcyon days of this youth. I tuned out—there’s only so much mindless babbling I can take. At one point a pretty girl walked by with a cigarette and Richard asked her for one, with quite a bit of slobber. She pretended not to see or hear him.
He eventually noticed that he had become incoherent, and tried to steer me back into the conversation. “Hey, wanna hear a joke?”
“Sure, I love jokes.” I really do.
“Okay…okay. I see you got that bald spot, so here’s what you do. Don’t use Rogaine or any of that shit. Here’s what you do. You get a piece of bologna and put it right on the bald spot, okay? Then you put on a hat, and you wear your hat on the bologna on your bald spot for 2 weeks. Don’t take of the hat and don’t wash your hair or nothin’. Then, in two weeks, when you take off your hat, your hair will be bologna in the wind!”
Not only was the joke not funny, but it kind of pissed me off, because I’m pretty self conscious about my bald spot. “That was your joke? That wasn’t funny, Richard.”
“Wait, wait, I gotta another one. Wanna hear?”
“Okay, but if it’s as bad as that last one, I’m leaving.”
“Did you know that chickens die after sex?”
“Well, they do after I fuck ‘em!” Now that, my friends, was my kind of joke!
“That’s pretty good, I got one too. What’s the hardest part about eating a vegetable?” Thus began our game of “joke tennis.” This is when you keep telling jokes back and forth until one person runs out. I’m really good at joke tennis. After the vegetable joke, he told an oldie-but-goodie about pedophilia that I had been telling since I was 14. That exhausted Richard’s joke arsenal, but I told a few more. The jokes I told were a little too inappropriate for this blog, but my “winner” for our game of joke tennis had the punch line “twenty-seven.” Shoot me an email and I’ll tell you the first part…although it’s really one of those jokes that is best told in person.
Just me and a homeless dude, sitting on a park bench in Hayes Valley, telling dirty jokes.
An elderly Chinese man walked past us, smoking a particularly smelly cigarette. Richard asked him for one, and he stopped, gave Richard the stink eye, spit on the ground, and walked away. At that point, two sexy Latina women walked past our bench. They actually looked like a mother-daughter combination.
“Did you like those ladies?” Richard asked me.
“You didn’t think they were pretty?”
“Not my type.”
“Oh yeah? You prefer blondes maybe, like her over there?” I pointed at a stunning blonde walking across the other side of the park.
“Aww man, you just like her cuz she’s got that tiny miniskirt on.” Kinda true. “Nah, all of these girls are too skinny for me. If I fucked any of them, I’d break them in two. I need a woman with a big butt. I’m talkin’ huge! The bigger the better! Like that chick over there!” Indeed, judging by Richard’s female of choice, he certainly likes his women large and in charge. And there sure as hell ain’t nothin’ wrong with that.
Just me and a homeless dude, sitting on a park bench in Hayes Valley, checking out the ladies.
I looked at my watch and noticed that it was getting late and I had some place to go, so I excused myself. The whole time I had been speaking with Richard I had been anticipating that he would ask me for money, but he never did. This was a good thing—I had no cash on me and I was kind of dreading that awkward moment. Then again, he had his booze, his clothes, and a bag full of food (I didn’t mention that part before, but he had food, including a box of Triscuits. During his incoherent babbling about Montana, he had mentioned how his grandmother won some Triscuit recipe contest 60 years ago). What more did he need?
“Richard, what do you do all day?”
“You know, the usual…try to take over the world.”
“How are you gonna do that?”
“I’m also trying to take over the world.”
“What do you do?”
“I’m a lawyer.”
Richard looked down at his wine, then back up at me. “I think my way is better for taking over the world.” He certainly had me there.
I checked my watch–we had been chatting for nearly an hour and a half. I was meeting a friend for dinner, so at that point I said goodbye and started walking home. I passed a man smoking a cigarette and asked him for one. I was hoping he would give me one, so that I good be an obnoxious liberal and point out that people pretend not to see the homeless, but will do something nice for the handsome and gainfully employed. However, the guy didn’t even look at me. It was only when I got home and looked in the mirror that I realized that in my unshaven, hungover state, with my unkempt hair (this was before I got a haircut), baggy jeans and 10 year-old gray hoodie, I probably looked almost as homeless as Richard.
Epilogue: Two weeks later I went back to the park after eating lunch at Café Mercury. Richard was there with a friend. His face was bloody, with fresh stitches above his eyebrow. I said hello, and he kind of recognized me, but not quite.
“Richard, what happened to you?”
“You know how it is–you win some, you lose some.”
“Do you need anything?”
“Nah man…I got my smokes, my food, my…” he opened his jacket to reveal a small bottle of cheap vodka.
“Sounds like a great Saturday afternoon.”
“I’ll say. A great fuckin’ Saturday afternoon.” I left Richard with his friend and walked back to my apartment, trying to pretend that the situation didn’t depress me.
I won’t try to sound like I have a lot of street cred by saying that Richard is my “friend.” I don’t know much about him. I would not introduce him to my single female friends as a prospective date. I would probably not invite him over to my apartment for dinner. But he’s a human being and he has a story to tell—that’s enough for me to at least appreciate his company.