Smell of the streets
December 13, 2013 § 79 Comments
My brother Ian always used to talk to homeless people. I think it’s because he felt like he was just a step or two away from being homeless himself, and also because he hurt so badly inside that he could relate to other broken people. When he lived in an awful little place in New York he became friends with a homeless guy who lived in a cardboard box.
One time Ian locked his bike up outside a neighborhood store. When he came back, someone had cracked the lock and stolen his bike. He was only in the store for about five minutes. The bike was his sole means of transportation, and he was barely making rent and couldn’t afford a new bike. He walked back to his apartment. His buddy Al was sitting in his cardboard box smoking a cigarette.
“Why the long face?”
“My bike got ripped off.”
“That black one with the funny seat?”
“Sucks, man. Want a cigarette?”
“Sure.” They sat on the curb and smoked a cigarette, taking turns puffing on it.
The next day Ian got up and went outside. Al was in his box. “Hey, man,” he said. “I got your bike back.” Ian’s bike was leaning next to the box.
Fear of filth
I’ve never chatted up homeless people. I’m afraid of them. I’m afraid they’ll hurt me or ask me for money that I don’t have. I also don’t like them because they’re dirty and they smell bad. They also look terrible, and they’re usually missing teeth, or their teeth are rotten, and a lot of them have weird shit going on in their eyes, not just the crazy look but actual clumps of blood or they’re wall-eyed or even blind in one eye.
Homeless people are great at reading faces, and they steer clear of me. My face says “I’m not giving you one fucking dime.” They never ask me for money or even try to make eye contact. When I’m striding to court in my suit and tie and my warpaint face the homeless people in downtown L.A. get out of my way.
There’s a side entrance to the Stanley Mosk courthouse, just down from the Disney Hall. Most people don’t know about it and use the main entrance on Hill Street, so there’s rarely much of a wait. In the outdoor covered walkway there’s a homeless guy who always sits on a mat with a paper cup and smiles at me. I’ve sometimes smiled back, and once I put a dollar in his cup. It always struck me what a cheerful guy he was.
History is never in the past
My eldest son Hans recently recommended a book to me, “Dispatches” by Michael Herr. It’s a journalist’s “journal” of the Vietnam War. Along with “The Things They Carried,” it’s one of the more real and disturbing accounts of that conflict.
On Monday I was charging to court and as I entered the walkway the homeless guy said, “Stay focused!”
He knew I was concentrating on court, and he was cheering me. I glanced over at him and flashed a grin.
“You got it, young man! You got this!”
In the courtroom there was a lot of waiting. I thought about that homeless guy. When the hearing ended, as I left the building I stopped next to him.
“Hey, man,” I said.
“Hey there, young fellow!”
“How’d you wind up on the streets?”
He took it as if it were the most natural conversation starter in the world. “Drugs. Heroin.”
“You still on it?”
“Oh, no. They got me off when I got out and put me on methadone.”
“Got out of what?”
“Vietnam. I was there four years. We was all on heroin. That’s the only way, you know, we could fight and not be afraid.”
“You did four tours?”
He brightened at the word “tours.”
“Yeah, man, four tours. I liked it there. But we was all on heroin, you know the military wanted us on heroin because we could fight when we was high. We wasn’t scared of nothing.”
“Who were you with?”
“Rangers. 75th Battalion, Charlie Company. We ran convoy protection up the An Che valley. My gunship was called ‘Seven Shades of Soul.'”
I laughed. “Seven Shades of Soul?”
“Yeah, man, ’cause we was all brothers on the gunship. Marvin Gaye, baby, ‘What’s Goin’ On,’ you know?”
“Where did you serve, mostly?”
“Oh, here and there, but mostly Pleiku. That was some bad shit. They had the Vietnam regular army hitting us all up and down An Khe all the time. They wasn’t like the VC, they was regular army, man, they had the weapons and they fought like we did, you know, trained army. They dropped a mortar round in one of our convoy trucks one time, wasn’t nothin’ left but a pair of eyeglasses hanging on the rear-view mirror. Blowed every one of our boys into little tiny pieces.”
“You ever get hurt?”
“Oh, lord, yes. I got some shrapnel in my brain during a firefight. They sent me to Yokota for three months R&R, then they dropped me right back in Pleiku, just like I’d never left. But that was some good times in Yokota. That was a nice place.”
“And now you’re homeless, living on the streets. That’s what it got you?”
“Oh, I don’t regret nothin’. I learned lots of things in Vietnam I couldn’t have never learned in college. I learned about doin’ what you have to do, you know? And I learned you can’t take nothin’ for granted, and I learned after I got out to love god, god is always gonna take care of me, there ain’t no use worrying’ about that. You know and I also learned I better be grateful for every day. You know why?”
“‘Cause man I made it through four tours and one of the brothers he did too but he died a month after getting’ home, workin’ on a construction job diggin’ a ditch and the ditch fell in on him. So he made it through the war but he didn’t make it through the peace, you follow? So I’m grateful every day, just like I’m grateful talkin’ to a nice young fellow like you.”
“What’s your name?”
“Elliott. What’s yours?”
“That’s a good name. That’s a name from the Bible.”
“Can I take a picture of us?”
“That would be fine, indeed it would.”
I squatted down next to the pad he was sitting on and squeezed up against him, shoulder to shoulder. A pair of lawyers walked by, leaving the courthouse. The one nearest me was wearing three thousand dollars of wool and cotton and silk and leather, and another five thousand dollars of metal and gold on his wrist. “Excuse me,” I said.
The guy stopped and looked down. “Yes?”
“Would you take a picture of me and my buddy here?”
“I most certainly would not.” He marched away, disgusted.
“Don’t you care none about that,” said Elliott. “There’s good lawyers and there’s evil ones, too.”
I reversed the camera and took the photo myself. “I’ll see you around, Elliott.”
“Yes, sir, you certainly will,” he said, and as I walked away he added, “Young man, thank you!”
“Sure,” I said.
“You know what I’m thanking you for, young man?”
“The five bucks?”
He laughed. “No, young man. I’m thanking you for stopping to talk. For acknowledging that I exist. God bless you.”
“I’m the one who owes the thanks,” I said, as I thought about the lawyer who had refused to take our picture and scornfully walked away. That lawyer was me.
Good writing allows us to reflect on what was written. Great writing causes us to reflect on ourselves as human beings.
I know lawyering pays the bills, but writing is where your best comes out.
No Seth, that lawyer is not you. Not in any shape or form. Not only did you make Elliott’s day, you make a whole lot of shifty, lowlife, loser cyclist’s days much brighter with your heartfelt writing, allowing us into your life and mind. Thanks.
Super words, Jon, thanks.
Dude, thanks for showing me what an asshole I’ve become. Seriously, thanks.
Thanks for the note.
Buy a homeless person a meal sometime. That is some enlightening dinner conversation.
It’s all about your perspective, right?
“…but by the grace of Dog, go I…”
Dog graces us all, especially with a tail wag and a face lick.
Asshole here too. And I guess “the Things they Carried” is the new darling of English Lit, because my high school niece from New Mexico was having to read it over Thanksgiving.
I read it when it came out, sometime in the early 90’s, on the recommendation of my brother. I think it’s a better fit for high school literature than Gatsby or Catcher in the Rye or Of Mice and Men.
Somehow I think the guy who said no to taking your picture buzzes cyclists at every opportunity..
The story is as big as your heart!
Then blames them when he hits them …
The things they carried was a profound read. Eye contact and a smile is such an easy thing to give to another human being. Yet so terrifying. The worst thing we can do to a homeless person is to see through them. Smile….even if they don’t smile back…even if you don’t have change. Great story Seth. Thank you.
At least once a week, you write something that stops me, tests me, re-directs me, upsets me, or makes me smile very broadly. This one did all of those and more. Thanks.
I wonder if you know, now, that one person can make a difference. Your writing is doing that every day.
Damn. Thanks, Brian.
Thank you, Seth, as always. Funny parallel, I road back from Encinal Wednesday solo. You know that little cadre of homeless people (three or four men and a woman) who are always by the bike path near the little bridge at Sunset? One of the first times I rode to Malibu, My girlfriend and I did not take the bike path, and we were going to make our way through the tunnel under the bridge. It must have rained the day before, the way was under water. To get to the bike path and on our way, we had to get our bikes over a chain linked fence. We were struggling when that little group noticed, came over and lifted our bikes over, helped us climb over, then walked away ~ not asking nor looking for anything. When I was riding home Wednesday, as I passed, I looked at them with a big smile. A couple of them noticed and smiled back. After riding PCH all morning, ha! Needless to say I was not feeling the love! One guy yelled, “We love Cyclist!” Totally made me smile more and feel really happy. I also love the fact that they are always there, and always together. Anyway, I rolled about 50 feet, then remembered I had stashed a $20 in my little plastic Wanky pouch. I rolled back to the group, reminded them of when they helped me. They were awesome. I asked them if they would share – to which all of them said “Yes! Of course!” and I handed the $20 to their accountant, they woman (it struck me as funny they all indicated I should give her the money.) On the roll out that morning I was telling Mighty how I feel like we are all on the same team. You too? Anyway, the whole encounter was very cool. Glad to have you as a teammate.
Thanks for the coffee and the sticky bun this morning!
My turn to say it: “Thanks,man.”
Fantastic! Thanks, I needed that.
Pass it on!
Seth – you need to talk to L-Ron about the cycling program he and I are starting for West L.A. veterans at a homelessness/addiction recovery center at the VA. We’d love to have you join our efforts. -CZ
Hit me up.
We are all connected…every one.
Man, I know that guy. You’re right, he’s always saying encouraging things when we walk by getting ready to fight someone else’s fight. But I’ve never stopped to talk to him. Thanks for the perspective.
His name’s Elliott. Tell him you heard he was a war hero. Because he is.
You inspire me to be better, thank you…
Thanks, Sherri. Looking forward to Christmas and sharing some eggnog with you!
When it all comes down to it, we’re just people. Some of us decent, some of us crap. Nice piece, Seth.
Thanks for your leadership in this area Seth, seconding what Sherri said, you have inspired me to be better too.
Looking forward to the party, Brian!
This was different and much needed in my life. Thank you, Seth!
Hope we get to pedal together over the holidays. Thanks, Trev!
Beautiful… And beautifully written.
Bullseye! (But you’re still a wanker.)
Was there ever any doubt?
Thanks. This hit’s close to my heart. As a parent of a young homeless addict I appreciate and understand not only your words but most importantly your actions.
In lieu of giving you a big ‘ol biker-shaved-legs-lycra-hug which might seem weird I’ll offer a virtual terrorist fist bump will instead.
Biker hugs always appreciated! Fist bumps, too.
That was an awesome inspiring read Seth…thanks for sharing!
I tip my hat to you Seth.
I confess – I had a tear in my eye. THANK YOU for reminding us we all share this world and no one, no one, should ever be treated as invisible.
Now wipe away that tear! And thanks for the note.
Great story and you’re a better man than I. However, you do kinda suck at selfies
Yeah, sun was blasting through the gap there, that’s why I asked the other dude to take the photo for me. Oh, well.
Amazing a man who did four tours in Vietnam became addicted to drugs and now lives on the streets still believes and has faith in God. But some of us (me) struggles with faith and living a good life. Thanks for the post and your humanity.
… and he’s cheering for you as you go into court …
Damn, even when your writing has nothing to do with cycling, it is still excellent. We should all take this one to heart.
Thanks Seth…living in downtown part time gives me lots of opportunities to meet these people. Some are scary, some are not, some are good, some are evil, some are sane, some are crazy. It’s way hard for a woman to walk around downtown and be making eye contact…I don’t find it as hard, but I understand what can happen, especially after dusk. It pays to be aware; friendly, yet ready to skedaddle. My dog and I walk a lot and see all the regulars between Hill and Fig, 4th down to Olympic; There are a lot of Vietnam vets among the older fellows, but more and more, we are seeing Gulf War vets there now.
We have all the riches we need, especially when we read your stuff.
Next time you are downtown, let me know…lunch is on me.
Thanks, Dean. Really nice words.
Just looked at the photo with this story. I worked on wilshire and fig for years and he was always hanging around at the 110 off ramp at wilshire. He is a fantastic guy. It’s great to see his face again.
I think he’s found a place where it’s safer. Every now and then a court staffer or lawyer would walk by and greet him and put some money in his cup. He can’t walk very well, so he stays seated on his mat the whole time.
Wow…thats deep brutha. . I have 2 older brothers and a close friend who were there. It wasnt good and comming home wasnt much better. Thanks for reminding us about how hard these guys had it and that many still suffer. They didnt come home heros. If you ever walk The Wall in.DC I guarantee you will weep for the boys that didnt make it back alive. The tears were rolling down my face by the time I got to the end.
I’ve been to that wall. We weep for the ones who didn’t make it back, now we need to weep a little bit for the ones who did.
First thing that came to mind when reading this was thank you for reminding us that life presents these daily opportunities to bring happiness to those who most need a helping hand.
And the second thing that came to mind was YES! I have an idea for a great stocking stuffer for my lil broski courtesy your piece. As a younger even more stupider baby seal, I would read “Chicken Soup for the Soul” books, and I see now that these sorts of messages and life nuggets are more important than any Harry Potter book (even though Quidditch is pretty tight).
Instant karma. Great read, thanks! Just reread it and it got me pumped for Crownview today
Hey Seth, Nice read. My father is schizophrenic and has lived on the streets in various places including Long Beach, CA for the last 8 years. He recently returned home to Pennsylvania after having some severe health problems and finding out through social worker that his parents had died a couple years ago. Luckily he’s a vet, and the VA often tries to take care of his physical ailments. They can’t do anything for his mental illness, though, because of the deinstitionalization/reinstitutionalization that occurred in the 80’s. My childhood was rough, it took a big toll on my mother too. There’s much more to the story.
Anyway, the point is that I always hoped that encountered more kindness than unkindness while he lived on the streets. I have no idea if he did. Much of America’s homeless are not merely addicted, they’re often mentally ill. Many of them had families, children, and careers before they disappeared.
Yes, it’s like wading through a minefield. Terrible mental healthcare system; just put them out on the streets.
Spot. On. Brother.
Cyclists have way more in common with homeless than we think…
We’re both nomads with wanderlust and a peculiar eye that goes beyond all of the trivial bullshit passing by most people day in, day out, like a blur. You can see, hear and smell some great things on a bike or from a curb. The people you meet along the way; even better. Great piece.
I know you’re not a bible guy Seth, but this verse came to me as I read this. Maybe it’s for your friend Elliott.
Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it.
By the way, thanks for helping me to start my day with that. Made me smile.
Thanks for reposting this story Seth. It is one of my favorites. It haunts my conscience and consciousness.