Speed Dating & Dancing Part 1.5 Helping Hand

At around 11pm during my Valentines Day night out I decided to go smoke a joint. After failing to talk the tomboi into abandoning her pole-dancer watching spot to join me, I got into the incredibly long line for the coat room.

Well, I almost made it to the line. I got sidetracked talking to Cami, the Native stud, who stood by the ledge drinking a beer. Guess what she wanted to talk about? If you said the pole dancers, you winnn!I was beginning to really resent those talented sexy bitches.

Once outside I walked up a couple blocks, enjoying the cool night air on my hot skin as I sucked in the fragrant smoke of my joint.

On the way back an older black man stopped me.

“Hey, could you spare anything?” He asked me respectfully. “It’s a cold night–a hard night to be out on the streets.”

“It is.” I said, reaching for my purse. Then I realized that all I had was a ten, and I really wanted to use most of that for the rest of my evening. “I need to get some change, though.”

“I think you can get some across the street, he said, pointing to a gas station. “If you want to.”

I crossed the street, got change for my ten and went back to where he was standing.

“Here.” I gave him three dollars. “Thank you!” He replied. “It’s hard on the streets here in Boston in the Winter.”

“I know,” I replied, “That’s why I left for San Francisco.” I flashed him a peace sign.

I know that seemed like a lot of work to give someone three dollars–maybe I should have given him $5, or the whole $10. But $3 was what I felt comfortable with, and I remember how, when you’re on the streets, even a little bit of money–even a little bit of caring–can go a long way.

 

 

 

 

Where You Shit

The right, or shall we say, privilege to go the bathroom is one of the biggest things you miss on the streets. I feel so strongly about this that ten years later I stormed out of a restaurant after ordering when they didn’t have a public restroom. (When the restaurant went out of business a few weeks later after 50 years I felt vaguely guilty, as if my uneaten hamburger and negative energy were the culprit.)

Oh, going to the bathroom wasn’t such a big deal when I started on the streets in Cambridge: there was Au Bon Pain, the Garage, and that nice little church that gave out free coffee. If you had to pee at night there were a couple bushes, and us newbie girls would leave little bits of pilfered toilet paper in desultery heaps there.

It wasn’t until I hit sunny (ha ha) San Francisco that going to the bathroom became a big issue. Oh, everybody’s had the experience of having to go to the bathroom somewhere and everywhere they go it says “no public restrooms,” storming up and down the street until you beg plead or bully your way into a John. But on the streets that was every single time. Oh not every time: I became adept at peeing between cars and in bushes–peeing in a half crouch and forgoing toilet paper to drip dry. There was one very special alcove off Haight Street with some plants that I watered regularly, their big leafy branches shielding my squatting form from the public eye.

But what to do when you had to number two? If you had money you could buy some time and the restroom key at a coffee shop or restaurant. But what if you had none? What if it was late at night and everything was closed?

On one such a night I was loitering on the street with my sole possessions and a few neer’ do wells. “Where can I poop?” I asked them. I had to go so bad!

“No problem” Said the gutter punk next to me, streetlight glinting off of his spiked hat and vest. “Just go down to the park.”

Ookay. I walked with him down to the panhandle with him. There was no privacy in the well-lit, sparsely tree-d park, cars zooming by on all sides. There were also no people.

“Well, go ahead” He pointed to the skirt of a tree, right there in the open.

Feeling nervous unsure, I gamely squatted down.

“I can’t.”

“Sure you can!” He squatted a few feet away and took a big old junkie shit. To this day I can’t remember if he wiped or what he wiped with.

“No, I really can’t”

As we walked back to Height Street, him feeling much relieved and me worse than ever, he spotted a shopping cart.

“Get in! It will be a cool ride!” He then proceeded to push me on the shortest, scariest ride of my life. If you ever want to get the (proverbial) shit scared out of you, let a junky push you drunkenly up the steep, uneven streets of San Francisco.

When we got back to the doorway we had been hanging in, a guy who was only slightly sketchy offered to take me to his friend’s pad to use the bathroom.

***

Another time I found myself struggling with #2 was late at night at N Judah, the end-of-Judah, the beachy home where we slept either wrapped in tarps in the dunes, or later in sleeping bags in a garage/storage hall. Again I confided my situation to an older, more street smart compadre:

“Just poop in the bushes up on the hill.” He advised, gesturing with his scraggly beard at the steep dune that separated the beech from the street.

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah, sure! People do it all of the time!”

“Well, I really have to go.” So I wended my way though the scraggly paths between low lying bushes. Since it was dark and private-feeling, I was able to accomplish my mission, although I had no means to bury it once the deed was done, only covering with a used bit of toilet paper.

***

A few days later as I was hanging out in front of a coffee shop across the street I watched a fellow street person wend his way through the bushes with a bag in his hands. He came towards us dragging his foot and grimacing.

“I just went up to get my bag from where it was stashed and stepped in human shit!” He exclaimed.

“Ew that’s disgusting!” said the dread-locked girl next to me.

I–wisely–said nothing at all.

My First Arrest

The first time I was arrested was for littering without ID. Picture me at 17: big boned but skinny–short hand-cut brown hair, size 8 pants with holes in the knees, a riot police vest festooned with ragged  multi-colored patches. Everything I owned on my back and a flute case over my shoulder. I was stoned out of my gourd when I made the mistake of attempting a philosophical conversation with an officer. Honestly, he probably would have arrested me anyway, but when I threw a hand-rolled cigarette butt on the cement (anti-littering to my mind–which would biodegrade first?) he saw his chance.

Turns out anything that you do in San Francisco without ID is pretty much illegal. Even if you pick up the trash instantly, it’s your word against theirs.

They took me to the station, where they went through my stuff.

“You know, this is a weapon, I could take it.” The cop found my box cutter I had tied on a string to my belt and tucked into my back pocket.

“It’ a box cutter, you can buy it in any hardware store,”   I told him scornfully. (This was pre- 9-11.) He dropped it in the brown paper bag that was becoming the new home for my possessions. Between the four pockets of my vest and the four in my pants I had a lot of stuff. A matchbook missed the bag and fluttered like a moth to the floor. Before I could grab it, The cop snatched it up.

“Groundscore!” He cried triumphantly. “See,” he said, giving me the smirk of a disobedient child, an expression I would see often from Frisco cops abusing their power, ” I know your slang.”

They handcuffed me to the chair for hours, and I occupied myself with belting out tunes: Amazing grace, Nothing Left to Loose, Mercedes Benz, Redemption Song…at one point a big black lady cop added her full throated voice to mine. Finally an officer asked me to be quiet, and I accommodated. I was tired by then, and coming down.

They took me downtown and finger printed me under a false name. Since I had given them a false birth date as well, they put me in a general pop holding cell. The holding cells in downtown Frisco are glass cages lining a big room full of cops doing paperwork. On one side was a cell crowded with men in orange jump suits.

I was put in a room with two other women, a working TV and a broken pay phone. (The pay phone seemed redundant, as all of our money was confiscated when we were booked.) In the corner a girl lay shaking on the cold bench. She had sores all over her face and the shakes real bad as she came down off junk.

The other woman was middle-aged and slightly off. She kept waving at the police and trying to get their attention. It seemed that she knew or was related to each of them in some way or other. She looked pityingly at the girl in the corner.

“I would never do heroine.” I agreed. God, that looked awful. Coming down in jail had to be hell.“I only smoke pot” she paused as I nodded my agreement, “and crack.”

The show changed on TV to Billy Grahame. No, just no. I thought. This was cruel and unusual punishment. Examining the set-up, I managed to perch on a bench and just barely reach the controls on the TV.

“You’re not supposed to do that.” The woman said as I flipped through the channels. “Can you put on Cops?”

10 REAL Things You Need to Know to Live on the Streets

This is a response to the Nation Article : “Ten Things You Need to Know to Live on the Streets” To be fair, this is a fine post. Just not the ten things I found most usefull.

  1. Trust no one. People will lie to you and try to use you. Accept their lies without commitment but do not buy into them. If you think someone is trying to use you, use them carefully for what you need, but do not trust them. At the same time, try to bring out the best in the people around you. Often even crooked people want to see themselves in a good light. Try to encourage that goodness.
  2. Trust your gut. You pick up signals subconsciously that you may not recognize. If somethings feels wrong, however good it sounds, it probably is.
  3. The people with the least to lose often have the most to give. Make alliances with other homeless people, remembering to follow rules 1 & 2. Learn as much as you can from those around you. Help others as you want to be helped. Remember to share. Hide anything of value that you don’t want to share (I kept some money in a cloth pad in my underwear). Find a traveling partner, and watch each others backs.
  4. The garbage can be your best friend. People throw out tons of useful things. Dumpsters, trash cans, ground-scores (things left on the ground), are all good sources of food, clothing and saleables. Thirsty? Dig in a trash can for a water bottle, wash it out and fill it up. For the most part stick to produce or sealed, packaged foods from dumpsters, as restaurants have been known to pour bleach on their food.
  5. Going to the bathroom is not a right. If you are a girl you must get used to peeing outside. Pooping is more problematic. Use whatever bathrooms you can find, but be prepared to struggle to get to that ceramic bowl. If you must poop outside, try to cover it up or poop somewhere out of the way.
  6. You are a second class citizen. Expect to be treated that way. If you are underage loose your ID. If you use a false name, keep your story straightforward and simple. Memorize your new birth date. If approached by the cops they can pretty much do what they want. Try not to provoke them or get into phillisophical discussions with them while high .
  7. Get good gear. You only have what you can carry, so make it count. You need a blanket or sleeping bag, tarp, maybe a tent. Cardboard cam make a softer bed, or get a camping mat. A knife or two is good too. Keep it within legal limits. You can also use a chain or even a fork in self defense if you have to. If you are at all creative, get art supplies or an instrument. Not only will they enrich your time, but they can be tools for making money. Sleep in your shoes. Wipe your feet with alcohol pads regularly to fight boot rot.
  8. Sleep in shelters only if you are sick. Shelters degrade your the one thing that you have on the streets: your freedom. Likewise make sparing use of youth centers, free meals, etc…(Although these are excellent sources for free clothes and showers.) They dehumanize you with excessive rules. Campsites in the woods or in parks are the best, but be careful who you invite into your space, and always get up early in the morning and clear out. Be prepared to go for days or weeks without enough sleep.
  9. When you ask for help, try to put out some positivity and/or humor. Remember that the more desperate you come accross, the less people will want to help you.
  10. You are not homeless. Your home is in your heart. You are house-less.