A Day Off For The Homeless, 1987

I posted this on naranja a year or so ago. I meant to repost it here this November…I got into a lot of sadness and forgot.

But here it is again. A Thanksgiving essay, a little late.

Or maybe not so much, as Molly Ivins might have said.

I found it and pasted it from DK. I thought about editing it, but decided, no.

This what and where I was then, last year around this time. It’s a little rough, I know. It could use trimming.

But I think I got the passion right, and I don’t want to risk trimming the passion.


The holidays are upon us, and this is a story about one such holiday, in my distant past, and the person who helped me make it the fine event it was. He got lost, a long time ago, so this is for him. He may still be out there somewhere. You may even meet him sometime. He could be anywhere. Say hi for me, if you do.

In 1987, I was living with my then-boyfriend (we’ll call him Zeke), in a small ghetto in a central Californian city. The little house we lived in was a beach cottage that had been upgraded and moved to its current location. It had a bedroom, a kitchen, a hole of a bathroom and bad wiring. We lived there with two dogs and, eventually, six cats.

The ghetto, like all ghettos, had street people; homeless people. It also had a lot of broken cars, which no one ever seemed to see fit to demand be removed. One elderly gentleman lived in such a car, just down the street us. He was a mechanic by trade and a junkie by avocation. A neighbor told me he’d been living in that car for 20 years. Surely an exaggeration, but still, the sort of thing one remembers.

Across the street there was a little triangular park, formed by the intersections of three streets. It was maybe a couple of thousand square feet in area, if that. It had several planter boxes in it, filled with dirt and trash, and cement sidewalks. There were no trees, and no benches.

The park was popular with the street people, though, because you could sit on the edges of the planter boxes. And sit they did, and drink from bottles in little paper bags, swap lies, fight sporadically, and watch the neighborhood.

I have been fond of gardening since I was a small child, and as I gardened away in our landlord’s side yard, I would look across at this sad park and feel that need you feel, when you are a gardener and there’s unused dirt sitting around (and in planter boxes even!). Since no one else seemed to have any interest, I decided one day to plant it.

I hauled over steer manure and I put in some annuals. I’ll admit that they had a hard time over there. It was an uphill battle, with the kids and the exposure and the inevitable traffic and abuse such a place attracts. They wouldn’t have survived at all, though, if it wasn’t for the planter box guards. I had a whole cadre of street people police over there, fiercely admonishing anyone who might attempt to deface my fragile efforts at neighborhood beautification.

Eventually this all attracted the attention of the homeless attenders, though; the people who would come down on Sundays and exchange needles, hand out condoms in colors, and give sermons of a sort. They moved in and took over, and soon the planter boxes were turfed in grass. More power to them; they had more resources than I did.

Now that I had established this sort of quasi-relationship with these feral humans, it occurred to me later that year that with the holidays approaching, I might make them dinner. It would be a nice thing to do, I thought. Gardening was always my department, but Zeke was seriously invested in homeless issues as well, having been there himself, and he wanted to contribute shelter to this proposed soiree, as our two tiny rooms were hardly sufficient for entertaining a few dozen people. Shelter, Zeke believed, was much more easily obtainable than the powers that be would like us to believe, and he considered a demonstration model to be in order.

We obtained permission from our landlords and the day before the party, Zeke invested in rocks and cement, and 4 mil plastic tarp, and built a large tent, compleat with smoke hole and fireplace, in the back yard. I issued invitations, which were graciously accepted, and embarked upon making a traditional Thanksgiving dinner for 20.

I had never actually roasted a turkey before – didn’t bother to learn about basting or tin foil (we didn’t have the Internet back then, and I was not long on cookbooks either) but I am good with vegetables, and none of the guests were anything but well-mannered and appreciative. Dinner came off otherwise without a hitch, the tent fireplace worked splendidly, and after many hours of reasonably good-natured carousing, a few folks rolled up their sleeping bags and spent the night.

The next day, we picked up the trash, and took apart the fireplace and the tent, and life went back to what passed for normal in our little neighborhood.

The next year, I broke up with Zeke. We each took one of the dogs, and the cats wound up with some other acquaintances.

We kept in touch for about five years, and in the early 1990’s I hired him to work for me for a number of months at the little health food store I was managing. He was living in his van (which was, however, running) and becoming increasingly marginalized. I was living in a garage, and doing much of the same, pretty much living for my job and taking care of my dog. But it was nice to see him, though hard on him since we didn’t want the same things from each other.

Somewhere along the line, he peeled out of California and out of my life. The last time I spoke to him, he called me and told me his life had fallen apart and offered me the other dog back. My last chance, he said.

I’d managed to move out of the garage in the meantime, but had lost my dog and given up my job in the process, and was pretty screwed up about the whole thing. So no, I could not rescue my old dog we shared, or Zeke either. I’d barely managed to rescue myself, and that only with help.

Shortly after that, Zeke went seriously crazy. He turned up on the doorstep of his brother’s family in Los Angeles, threatening them with acts of violence, and they told him to leave or they would call the cops. The brothers’ parents had died, and there had been money. Much of Zeke’s part was gone – stolen by bandits? Burned up when the van caught fire? Hard to say. He didn’t have any on him at the time; he was on foot. And on foot he made it back to central California, where the bank was where the rest of it was deposited, about $60,000; which he withdrew and left with, and as far as I know was never seen or heard from again.

I called his brother every year to check, for several years. So I guess he’s dead, but I hope not. I hope he’s out there somewhere, maybe on the street somewhere. It wouldn’t be surprising. He was pretty crazy at times, but he was tough and he was smart. I used to look for him on the streets of Los Angeles. It gives you a whole new perspective on the homeless when there’s always the possibility that someone you cared for might be one of them. You look at them much more carefully. You do not avert your eyes.


    • Miep on December 8, 2009 at 5:48 am

    I always think of him this time of year.

    • Miep on December 8, 2009 at 6:11 am

    I’ve occasionally gone into a bad back spasm, and it’s scared me to shit.

    Another story for you, Michael.

    When I lived in west los angeles, around 1990, I was biking around at night and I went by a convenience store.

    In front of the store was a young woman, crouched.

    She had some kind of shawl or whatever, over her.

    It was night, it was cold.

    I was biking everywhere then, so this jumped out at me as a rare event.

    I biked on towards home.

    I biked about half a mile.

    Then I turned around and went back.

    I found her there, again, in front of the convenience store.

    I had some cash on me. I gave her a $20 bill.

    I don’t remember exactly what I said to her, other than how I can rewrite it now:

    “Hey, it looks like you could use some help. Here’s this.”

    What I DO remember is how she reacted.

    The pain and gratitude combined, was seared into my memory.

    “Thank you!” she said.

    Michael, how the hell do you blog that kind of thing into such small words:

    “Thank you!”

    She was waiting for ANYTHING.

    She was just sitting there, in total giving-up vulnerable mode.

    Ya never know, ya never know. But I DO believe that if enough people do that for girls who are sitting in front of convenience stores in total fail mode, that you WILL save some people.

    I could see it, right there, Michael. With my $20 bill I’d given her a little back as to faith in humanity.

    What I wish more, though, would  be for my having been in a position to just invite her home.

    She stays with me always, that girl.

    Wrapped under a shawl. No sign. Sinking in.

    I went back. I did that small thing.

    Small things lead to bigger things.

    • Miep on December 8, 2009 at 6:35 am




    I believe I did a good job with this one. Pain kills, but pain births as well.

Comments have been disabled.