Can you spare a piece of Christmas?
Steve asked me if I thought it was disrespectful to stare at a woman walking away. “When you talk to her, you’re not gonna stare at her chest, right? So why stare at her ass? What are you thinking about when you do that?” He saw the person walking, and wanted to get to know her as a friend. “I hate liars and cheats. If you’ve gotta girlfriend why you gonna go sleep with someone else, you know? So that’s why I just wanna be friends. I know it’s gotta be the right person I am true to, but that’s why I’m waiting!”
Though used to self-medicating for his bipolar disorder and ADHD with marijuana, he’d been trying to quit. They were hiring at a warehouse, and he’d have to pass a drug test. According to the papers he showed me, if he were hired, he would have a mental health counselor and a case worker. But most exciting for him was the thought of having his own money so he could buy what he needed. He hated begging strangers and dreamed of a place where he could entertain friends and maybe someday bring that special girl back to.
I became distracted by a group of Cal sophomores walking by. Only one sneaked a glance without her friends noticing. “You into girls? I notice you’re lookin at them,” Steve asked me. “It’s ok if you’re gay. I’m bisexual,” he confided. “I wasn’t always. But you know sometimes I had to take money to let guys suck my dick, or they’d say give me money or let me do stuff to you. It gets cold outside. And my dad raped me when I was 5.”
“You told us that already!” Francesca scolded him.
Steve showed me his stash pouches in the tongues of his shoes. “Whoever had it before me musta kept drugs in here.” They were empty at the moment. Charlie said he should keep some bills folded up in there, but Steve brushed off the idea. “I’d just spend it on something stupid.” I suggested he dumpster dive near the cal dorms; new clothes and ikea detritus were regularly discarded by students. “I got found in a dumpster when I was 5! Someone was dumpster diving and they thought boy I got somethin good this time. Bet they never expected me!”
The skinny, 5’7 22 year old with the sunburned face turned his attention to his clothes. His threadworn faded orange sweatshirt, with holes cut for thumbs, was the only piece of winter clothing he had. I offered a pair of gloves, but he refused. “Nah it’s here that’s cold,” gesturing to his chest. “My hands aren’t cold. If they were cold they’d be purple and they’re not.” In his backpack was a pair of shorts, some socks, and a folder with pages of resources. In the side pocket was a CD player, but Steve didn’t have any headphones. “Do you have some?” Not with me, I told him. “Oh that’s fine because we’ll see each other again right? You’ll give them to me then.”
He pulled out a sheet of paper that listed public lunches. Given that it was quarter after two, they had two choices for lunch. They could try to make it from Shattuck and Durant to People’s Park in 15 minutes to catch a vegetarian lunch from Food Not Bombs or they could walk down to Acton for another food giveaway at 3:30. Either choice involved a heavy investment in time and energy, and the opportunity cost of money they might be given by strangers. Unlike me, they did not have an AC transit class pass, and they could not afford the $2 per person fare. Francesca had three bags of clothes and toiletries, and a sleeping bag to carry. And with no guarantee that if they made the trek, there would be any food left, they chose to go hungry.
A daytime drop-in shelter also had breakfast and lunch on weekdays. Because it was a women’s shelter, it did not allow men and Francesca wasn’t about to leave her kids. “And what they’re gonna make me do chores for a tampon? I don’t need that,” Francesca snorted. The night shelters were little better. Steve could not sleep because of the constant noise, and could not wear earplugs due to the danger of not being able to hear a threat or a wake-up call. Sami had his own objection to shelters: last time he’d slept in one, he ended up with lice. So he took spongebaths in public restrooms instead.
Might be better to wait and try to scrounge some more change from passers by. Another Cal sophomore, apologetic and saccharine, stopped and handed Francesca a $20. “Thank you! I love you!” she started to say, before the woman realized her error and replaced the bill with a single. “It’s ok, i still love you.” In total, the four had collected $11 and change for the day, not enough to even get them all drunk. In a few minutes, she’d realize even that small amount had disappeared.
Francesca is a 35 year old, mixed race – “I’m black, mexican, indian and german – the german is why I’m white” – from Pima, Arizona, with dred locks fairy wings and a stereotypical hobo bag on a stick. “You gotta kill ’em with kindness because otherwise they pretend they don’t see. Sometimes I wonder if I’m even alive. Am I a ghost? Why don’t they see me?” Her spirit brightened as a tall man with a veil of shimmering gold hair walked by. She ran up to him and came back with a hug and another cigarette.
They decided to walk up to Telegraph and join a larger group. The walk took over 45 minutes, with several breaks to rearrange belongings. I picked up a hat and hesitated, not knowing where to put this. “You can shove my hat down in the side there.” Francesca, reading my hesitation as fear, added, “You don’t gotta worry, there’s no needles in there.” Sami went ahead and came back with more cigarettes. Charlie sung along to a barely audible Gnarles Barclay song on the crank box, an am/fm radio with a broken dial and an antenna that had long ago become victim to metal fatigue and remained attached to the radio by a sliver of rubber. It had to be manually held in place for the radio to work.
I asked to see it, and turned the dial slightly. The wooden refrain of “I’ll be Home for Christmas” began to drain out of the speakers. “God shit damn is that Christmas music? Change that shit, I have been alone for Christmas for the last 10 years. I hate Christmas music.”
Once on Telegraph we settled in with a dreadlocked Black man with his epilepsy medication in a brown paper bag that he didn’t mind sharing with the rest of us. Though his epilepsy was severe enough to cause drop, petit mal and grand mal seizures, it was untreated save for alcohol. Withdrawal from alcohol can also produce seizures, leaving him in a precarious medical position. His physical appearance made it difficult to panhandle, because people generally reacted to him with fear rather than the condescension experienced by Francesca. The storefront like many others on this block was empty. “You can sit on my sleeping bag,” Francesca said. Sami commented on how unusual that a housie would hang out with them. “It’s nothin bad being a housie, just means you got a place to stay.”
“Can you spare a piece of Christmas?” Francesca called to a passing white haired woman with gold earrings and a clean suit. I played along, beseeching her as well. She walked back to Francesca, bent her knees, and sweetly explained her predicament. “Honey I’m sorry, but the problem is that I buy everything with my card so I don’t carry any cash with me.” Without missing a beat Francesca burst out, “that’s ok there’s stores around. We’ll go with you.” The woman patted her on the head, saying, “I have an appointment at 7 o’clock.”She turned to leave, hesitated, and asked, “How many kids do you have?”
“I’m a real hippy chick, I got no kids except these ones I find” gesturing to me, Steve, Charlie, the 26 year old Brit who spent most of the day doodling on the back of his skateboard, and Sami, a quiet, 28 year old mixed race star wars fiction enthusiast who was in the country “illegally” after overstaying a student visa. His parents were undocumented and first entered the country when Sami was 3, though he had spent most of his life in Russia and Japan. He spoke several languages including a dialect of Chinese. Now he was trying to get back to New York. “Take care of them,” the woman instructed before leaving with her credit cards but no cash to get to her appointment.
A drunk driver suddenly jumped the curb and drove onto the sidewalk towards us. Jerry, the man who had let us join his spot, jumped up and began kicking the tire, demanding that the driver stop and be more careful. The driver got out, enraged by the disregard shown to his car, and was joined by another man, also drunk. “Don’t kick a man’s car!” they yelled. “He works for a living, and that’s his property. I’m retired!” Now addressing us as a group, he shouted, “You just sit here doing nothing blocking this man’s business!” He gestured towards the empty building behind us. Jerry reminded him that he’d jumped the curb. “The sidewalk is public property!” he shouted as though Jerry and Francesca were less a part of “the public” than his vehicle. Francesca jumped up and laid her sweetness on thick to placate them.
The drunk drivers left, but by this point another older man had noticed the commotion and wandered over. Confronting Francesca, he demanded her full attention on his eyes. He stood inches from her face, waving his hand over her torso. She backed up. He took a step forward. He put his hands on her arms. She pushed his hands away, and this cycle repeated itself a few more times before he decided to heal me.
He turned slightly and began again his wax-on-wax-off handwaving. “I am opening your love chakra. Look at me!” I stepped backwards and folded my arms. He stepped forward. My arms were forcibly unfolded. “Look at me” he again demanded. The others in the group watched and waited. “I am a eunuch psychic and I can cure lesbians. What do you think I am doing” “You’re being a creeper,” I said.
“No I’m not.”
“NO! Now listen I will open your love chakra and heal you.”
“You are basing this conclusion on my haircut?” I started to ask, before the tipsy fairy girl jumped up and said, “yea we’re lesbians and we’re proud of it!” and kissed me. Again I was jerked towards this strange man with no conception of personal space. After more miming, the eunuch psychic took a walk.
Taking a swig of the rum and coke earned by helping a Cal student buy party supplies, Francesca announced, “It’s an ok life if you’re already a little crazy to start with.”