by Johann Galloway
What’s your typical day like out here?” I asked.
“Well… you do a lot of walking and a lot of reading.”
I wondered how folks like him ended up in such dire circumstances. Are they all drug addicts, alcoholics, degenerate gamblers or violent anti-socials who deserve their lot in life? And if so, isn’t my sympathy in vain? Then a quote by a great man, actually Clint Eastwood, popped into my head: “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.” I wanted to delve deeper into his world, and knew it would take more than asking a few questions.
Via the internet, I found quite a few emergency housing services (homeless shelters) in St. Petersburg. After filtering-out the ones for women and children and the detox-related, I was down to three. The Salvation Army was full; however, the man on the phone told me beds become available when a current resident doesn’t show back up. Then, admittance is on a first-in-line, first-served basis. He also mentioned that I would have to pass a breathalyzer test. I thanked him, finished the bottle of Beck’s I was drinking, and called the next place. That person was less cordial and bluntly told me to be there between 5:30 and 6:30. I didn’t ask him about taking a breathalyzer test. While writing the address down, I realized I had driven by that place a thousand times, occasionally seeing a crowd of homeless people out front. It was a well-kept bungalow style house, and like many of the other old houses in the downtown neighborhood, has a low pitched roof and a front porch that stretches the width of the house. This particular porch was fully enclosed with shadowbox style fencing. A string of Christmas lights were fashioned to the front of the fencing spelling out JESUS. I popped the cap off another beer and called the third and last place. That person repeated what the Salvation Army had said, except for the breathalyzer part.
I had lived downtown for years so I knew my way around there. I also knew homeless missions were a place to sleep, not live, so luggage was out of the question. I was pretty sure I would have to keep my belongings with me throughout the day and I had no intention of schlepping a suitcase around. I grabbed my backpack from the closet and stuffed it with bare necessities: a change of clothes, a toothbrush, toothpaste, a bar of soap, a towel and a copy of In Cold Blood. I had never read anything from Truman Capote, and had ordered it from Amazon a few months before. I went over my backstory in my head: I lost my job, then my apartment. Finally, I spent the last of my cash desperately clinging to hope at a motel. I took my debit card, ID card and forty-seven dollars out of my wallet and laid them in next to my backpack. I took my apartment key off the keychain and put it in my sock. I grabbed another beer out of the fridge and a pair of scissors out of a drawer. I cut open the nearly impenetrable plastic which encased the twenty dollar disposable Verizon cellphone I had bought earlier that day. After setting up the phone, I put on my old Sketchers running shoes; they had white paint drippings all over them, yet were still in good shape. I threw away some leftovers that were in the fridge and took the trash out to the dumpster. I turned off the TV, sat down at my dining room table, lit a Marlboro, inhaled deeply and called a cab. It was 3:30.
I told the cabbie to drop me off at Jannus since I had some extra time. I’m not sure if Jannus Landing is supposed to refer only to the outdoor, courtyard-style music venue, but I’ve always considered the entire entertainment block of the Downtown Historic District as Jannus. Besides the concert venue, there’s a comedy club, a cigar shop, a liquor store, several restaurants including one with courtyard seating, a few bars and places to quickly cure the munchies including a pretty decent pizza place and a good New York style deli with patio seating. There are plenty of benches and shade trees along the extra-wide sidewalk to people-watch in comfort. On the first Friday of every month, barricades bar traffic from interfering with the block party—a tradition for as long as I can remember. The St. Pete Pier is only a hop, skip and a jump away—just past beautiful Straub Park. Every New Year’s Eve, tens of thousands would come to my neck of the woods to see the spectacular fireworks display at the Pier, and I had the perfect view right in front of my apartment building. I often miss my cozy, old downtown apartment which was in walking distance to all that coolness. Back then, except for work, I rarely used my car; I walked everywhere. I have a bigger place by the beach now, yet I rarely go to the beach. Maybe there’s more to life than a more admirable apartment. I thought about this while eating a footlong at Subway and resisting the temptation to wander across the street to the bar I was staring at through the window.
I left early enough to leisurely stroll the thirteen blocks to the mission, but I was out of shape and it was a sauna-like day in July; I was sweating like a Star Wars fan talking to a girl when I got there. There were three picnic tables in the back area of the house where dozen a men and a couple of women were eating. A middle-aged black man served hot dogs and macaroni & cheese on paper plates. “Are you eating?” he asked, probably wondering why I was standing there gawking.
“No. I was hoping to check-in.”
“Have a seat on the front porch. Someone will be with you shortly,” he said.
A forty-ish man in faded jeans and a pair of worn Timberland-style work boots was sitting in the most comfortable looking of the assorted chairs on the porch. He was smaller and leaner than me, but had cut muscles, broad shoulders and looked like he could handle himself in a fight. I sat down and wiped the sweat from my face with the sleeves of my shirt.
“Are ya checkin’ in?” he asked with a southern drawl.
“Yeah,” I replied. “You?”
“It’s my second day.”
“Do a lot of people stay here?” I asked.
He laughed slightly. “It was just me and another guy last night, and he ain’t showed up yet today.”
“Really? I called a couple other places and they were pretty much full.”
“A lotta people don’t like the rules here.” He took a drink from a liter bottle of water. “They’ll explain ‘em when ya check-in. But basically we hang out here, and there’s church every night.”
I pulled a Marlboro out of the pack in my front pocket. “I guess that’s better than sleeping on the street.”
“No, but I’m gonna try to find some restaurant work this week.”
“There’s lots of places all up and down 4th. You from around here?”
“Yup, I used to live just up the street,” I replied.
“Alright, then… you know where to go, I don’t have to tell ya. Well, I’m Jimmy.”
I stretched over and shook his hand. “Johann,” I said.
A couple of minutes later, a burly guy with a huge belly and a high and tight haircut walked up and asked me if I was checking in. He wore a pair of white sneakers with Velcro straps, dress pants that were too tight and too short and an out-of-style polo shirt. I followed him to the back tables where a couple of people were still eating. We sat down across from each other and he said he was Brother Ken. He opened a black binder and read a form with the rules to me. I was allowed to stay for up to thirty days, but if I missed a day I would have to wait thirty days before being able to return. I had to be there no later than 6:30 each evening, sober, and had to be off the property by 4:00 in the morning. There “is no leaving the property on Sundays” and I had to attend all church services. As I signed the form he asked if I had a pair of long pants because shorts were not allowed in church. I said I did not. He told me I would need to shower after Jimmy was done, and pointed out where the bathroom was inside the house. While I waited for Jimmy, Ken came back with a towel and a pair of dress pants from the 70’s for me. He unlocked a metal storage shed by the picnic tables and explained that I would need to keep my backpack in there during church. Brother Ken had the mannerisms of a serious cop who had pulled over a teenager for racing on the highway.
After a cool shower, I put the same socks back on because I had forgotten to pack some. The plaid, polyester pants were too short, but I didn’t feel like complaining. I put my backpack in the shed and walked back to the porch. Jimmy was talking to someone I recognized. It was the guy I had spoken with a few weeks before about his typical day. Although our chat was brief, I assumed he would remember me. I looked directly at him and asked, “How’s it going?”
“I’m hanging in there I guess,” he said. “So there’s three of us tonight. Before Jimmy got here yesterday, I was by myself for a night.”
The guy who had served the meals during dinner walked up and smiled. “Three tonight. Well praise the Lord. Ready for a shower, Dale?”
“Is he in charge?” I asked.
“I think Brother Ken is, but I’m not sure.”
I had planned on staying on the street for about a week, but I was already missing my normal evening routine—especially since it usually included an air-conditioned environment. Besides the miserable heat and mosquitos, the boredom was irritating. I suppose I had at least expected a TV room. I also didn’t understand the ultra-early morning wake-up. I didn’t mention those things to Jimmy or Dale; I didn’t want them to label me a tenderfoot.
We shot the breeze for the next hour and a half. Dale had been on the street for a while. He had a regular sleeping spot in a (secret) wooded area when he wasn’t able to stay at a mission. During the summer rainy season it would be a muddy mess, though. Jimmy and his wife had a falling-out with another couple who they had been living with and were thrown out without notice and money. His wife was staying at the Salvation Army Women’s Shelter and she had a job at a cleaning service. He had recently lucked into a temporary construction gig. His boss picked him up at Williams Park each morning, solving his transportation to work problem.
Dale was clean cut and had the distinguished distinction of gray before the typical accompanying age. He wore an old polo shirt a couple of sizes too big for him and rolled a carry-on suitcase around. He explained that the group which owned and ran the mission were ultra-religious Pentecostal types, and warned me not to disagree with anything they said if I wanted to stay. He added that they owned several houses on that block. One was supposed to be a halfway house, yet no one stayed there except one of the “brothers.” Another was their church, and services were every night at 7:30. The services alternated between regular church, praise night, Christian movie night and Bible study. That night would be praise night, he told me.
At 7:30, Ken took our cigarettes and lighters and escorted us next door to the church—which was actually a single level house, smaller than the main one. The inside had been converted to one big room. Like most other small, homegrown churches, it had pews and a stage with a PA system and pulpit. An upbeat, drum and bass-driven Christian anthem filled the room. Ken and Flinth were sitting in dining room style chairs alongside the stage. Flinth was thumbing through a book and the other six brothers were sitting in the front row of the pews with blank countenances, yet bobbing their heads and tapping their feet. I sure hope nobody opens a box of snakes, I thought.
For the first hour, the brothers took turns choosing songs, which included an album side of Shirley Caesar, to play through the PA. Flinth was by far the most active: shouting, clapping and dancing. Though I would have preferred not to, I followed everyone else’s lead and stood the whole time. I thought about Alex, the sociopathic delinquent from A Clockwork Orange, and his rehab via forced psychological conditioning. Next, the brothers took turns at the pulpit singing traditional spirituals from a hymnal a cappella. After an hour of that, Flinth invited us to come up and sing a song. I was glad Jimmy and Dale didn’t take him up on the offer, either. There were prayer requests sent in tongues and a call to repentance before we were allowed to go back to the main house.
Brother John placed a large plastic tub, a water cooler and a stack of Dixie cups on one of the picnic tables. The tub was half full of various doughnuts and pastries and the cooler contained red Kool-Aid. I noticed that the brothers never spoke, especially to us, except when it was necessary, save for the constant barrage of praise the lords. I ate a bear claw, but really just wanted to smoke. Jimmy reminded Ken about the cigarettes, but by then we were barely able to finish one on the porch before another brother, Jeff, hurried us back to the church.
I followed Jimmy and Dale’s lead and grabbed two sheets, a pillow case, a pillow and a 6′ x 2′ gym mat from the back room. I threw the mat on the floor in front of a pew, covered it with a sheet, lay down and covered myself with the other sheet. A window-unit air conditioner buzzed loudly while blowing out artic air. Brother Jeff grabbed a mat and also made a makeshift bed. He looked impatiently at Dale, who was fidgeting with a knot in his shoelace. Jeff put his hand on the light switch and said, “You all can get a drink of water and use the bathroom, but no smoking or going outside.” Nobody said anything. Jeff said, “Praise the Lord,” and turned out the lights. I felt elated (as if I had accomplished or survived something), but bored—I didn’t usually go to bed at 9:45. I fell asleep about three hours later.
“Wake up! Wake up time. Time to get up.” Jeff’s shouting and the bright florescent lights instantly reminded me that I wasn’t at home. I rubbed my eyes and looked at my cell phone: 3:45. Jimmy was awake but Dale was still cocooned in his sheet. I was first to put my mat back in the storage area, then went into the small bathroom, took a leak and wet my hair back. I took a drink from the water fountain and asked Jeff about retrieving my backpack. He said they didn’t open the shed in the morning, and that I should have gotten it after church. Are you kidding me? I thought. Now I’ve got to walk around all day with these fucking clown-pants and no book. I went outside and lit a cigarette. My grogginess and the sharp contrast between the ice-cold church and the heat and humidity outside made the morning seem surreal. Also, 5th Avenue, a four lane street usually busy with cars, was dark and deserted. I knew Jimmy was going to Williams Park, so I decided to tag along. The last thing I wanted to do was wander through that neighborhood alone in the middle of the night. Jimmy walked faster than I normally did; it wasn’t long before I was soaked in sweat again.
Williams Park is a one square block park with an amphitheater, plenty of benches and because it’s the major downtown bus hub, bus shelters around all four sides. It’s right next to Janus Landing and (after sunrise) a regular hangout for the homeless. Like all other city parks, it’s off limits from dusk ‘til dawn and the St. Pete cops don’t turn a blind eye, especially towards the homeless. The city sees the homeless as a “problem,” not as legitimate people. That mutated sentiment was once “homelessness is a problem.”
We each grabbed a Creative Loafing from a free newspaper stand and sat at a bus shelter. Jimmy had some instant coffee and a cup in his backpack which he was willing to share, but we had no hot water. I lit a cigarette and looked at my phone. It was 4:30, and the kwikie mart there didn’t open until 6:00. I decided to catch the first bus at 5:30 to cool off and escape the tedium. There was a tall black kid with long baggy pants walking purposefully around the park. As long as he doesn’t pull a gun on us, let him keep pacing around, I thought. It’s too early to be at the park; if the cops come around, they’ll probably fuck with him first.
“The rent-a-drunk shops open at 5:00.” I knew he was referring to labor services which pay daily.
“Did you ever do the labor pool thing?” I asked.
“When I had to, but it ain’t gonna get ya off the street.”
“What do they pay, minimum wage?” I asked.
“Somethin’ like that. But what it is, unless ya have a steady ticket yur not getting’ out every day. If ya do get out, it might not be a full day. Then, after taxes, insurance, money for drivin’ ya to the job site and back, payin’ to cash yur check, eatin’ supper, keepin’ a couple bucks for breakfast and the roach coach—that don’t leave ya enough for a room. And if ya do get a steady ticket, and the guy yur workin’ for likes you, he can’t even hire you on if he wants to.”
Jimmy took a drag from his cigarette. “Yeah, they have to sign somethin’ where they can’t hire on from the labor pool.”
“That’s bullshit,” I said, shaking my head.
“You’re better off lookin’ for that restaurant job. Ya might haveta cut them whiskers, though”
I didn’t thinkabout that when I told him I would be looking for restaurant work. The beard was my way of blending in on the street. I changed the subject. “Do you know anything about St. Vincent’s?”
Jimmy paused from reading his paper again, yet didn’t seem to mind helping out a greenhorn. “St.Vinny’s lets ya sleep ‘til 6:00 and they serve breakfast at 7:00.”
A police car zoomed by. “Why aren’t you stayin’ there?” I asked.
“They were full. There’s too much bullshit goin’ on there anyway. My wife gets paid Thursday, I get paid Friday, so we might have a place this weekend.”
“That’s cool.” I said. “What kinda bullshit at St.Vinny’s?”
“There’s always a buncha idiots hangin’ out there drinkin’, smokin’ spice, fightin’… shit I needta stay away from.”
“Yeah, me too.”
“If you needta eat lunch today, they serve at 12:00,” he said.
“Where’s it at exactly?”
“Up the street from the mission. Fifth Avenue and 15th or 16th. Past the hospital on the left. You’ll see the crowd. Supper’s from 7:00 to 8:00. And if ya needta stay there, check-in’s at 8:30, but getting’ in’s hit or miss. Dependin’ mostly on the time of month.”
“Time of month?” I asked.
“A lotta people get their checks at the beginnin’ of the month. So that’s the best timeta get in.”
It’s clear the homeless who receive a government welfare, social security or disability check consider it a godsend; however, it’s not enough to maintain a regular apartment along with basic living expenses. But even just a few days of having a bed in a (cheap) motel room, a hot shower, a cold six-pack, television and some food of their choosing is surely bliss to them.
It was still dark when I got on the bus, and was happy to spend the five bucks for an unlimited ride day-pass. It was air-conditioned, and staring out of the window beat sitting on that bench. After riding around for an hour, I got off at a McDonald’s; I bought a large coffee, a newspaper, a bacon, egg and cheese biscuit and a hash brown. The morning seemed to last forever. At 10:30, I ended up at the library, which is a block from Williams Park.
The two floor, medium-sized library is another homeless refuge. It offers sanctuary from the Florida summer sun, a water fountain, public restrooms and a temporary escape from the bleak day through plenty of books, magazines and computers with internet access. Inside, an imposing security guard greeted me. I sat down at a small desk on the first floor. My Truman Capote book was in the shed, and I didn’t feel like looking around just then, so I scanned the rows of books next to me. I grabbed an Ann Coulter book, though I disagreed with most of her political views.
A couple of hours later I considered a slice of pizza and a cold beer at Janus, but I had planned to make my forty-seven dollar allowance last longer than a day or two. What’s the point of this if I cheat at every turn? I didn’t feel like walking all the way to St.Vinny’s, though. I compromised, went to the kwikie mart at Williams Park and bought a sandwich, a honey bun and a pack of generic cigarettes. Nobody on the street smoked name brands, and only a few smoked (four dollar) generics; they either rolled their own or bought ninety-nine cent packs of cigarette-sized cigars. I handed the cashier nine bucks, which made twenty that I had spent that day already.
I had left my book open on the desk to save my spot. I thought about what to read next and stared at a piece of paper taped to the wall: the library rules. One rule was bags bigger than what can fit under a chair were not allowed. That kept many of the homeless away, but I knew exclusion wasn’t the intention; the library just can’t be littered with shopping carts, sleeping bags, piles of clothes and luggage. I had already noted that everyone on the street had something to keep their stuff in. For many it was only a student backpack. The advantage is mobility and not blatantly looking homeless, which is important to many people on the street. The same shower at every opportunity, shave daily and try to wear clothes that don’t make them look too out of place. I think it has more to do with hope than embarrassment. Then there are the folks who carry several big bags or large military style packs with rolled-up blankets and sleeping bags. That also has its own advantages. The stereotypical shopping cart guy is definitely the extreme minority.
I had been noticing that the security guard and librarians were very cordial with the homeless. I witnessed many interactions and there were no condescending actions or even tones. It was clear that the staff’s daily interactions with the homeless pressed them to see past their worn-out tee-shirts and weather-beaten skin. They saw tangible, often intelligent, interesting and pleasant people.
I went out front, lit a cigarette and saw that the sky had become overcast. It was the rainy season and it hadn’t rained in a couple of days, which usually meant time for a torrential downpour. Once I get back to the mission, I’ll be stuck there, I thought. I didn’t want to leave just then, but I didn’t want to get caught in the storm later, either. I had an hour before I had to leave to get there in time for dinner. Though the library wasn’t that much more exciting, I stayed. There was a stronger sense of freedom; I wasn’t stuck on a porch, nor did I have to ask someone to use the bathroom. I began to understand why that mission stayed so vacant. But where else could I go? What else could I do until the next morning? That’s what it was really all about on the street: getting by until the next day. I took one last look at the sky before going back inside when a raindrop splashed on the bridge of my nose and ricocheted into my eye. It began to storm hard a few minutes later. I would have gotten caught in it anyway. When I left an hour later, the rain had slowed to a slight but steady shower. I made it back to the mission in time to eat dinner, wet.
I asked Ken for a pair of socks but not a shirt. I was afraid of what he would find for me to wear. He gave me a pair of used (but clean), paper thin, black dress socks. After a shower, I put on my shirt from the day before but not the socks; my shoes were wet and I was hoping they would dry-out by the morning. I grabbed my book and sat on the porch. Dale was rolling a cigarette and mentioned he hadn’t seen Jimmy. He didn’t ask if I was familiar with life on the streets, but he knew I wasn’t. We chatted and he gave me the rundown on where and when to find places in the area to eat. The “elevator” Church had a buffet-style breakfast on Saturdays that was all the rage. It was called the elevator Church due to the necessary elevator ride up to the dining hall. The “black” Church on 3rd served a choice breakfast early Sunday mornings. The Chicken Man served four days a week at Demens Landing Park. I didn’t have to ask him to elaborate about the Chicken Man; I remembered reading an article about him in the paper. He had been delivering chicken dinners with vegetables and bread out of his van to the homeless for years, and the city had attempted to ban the practice. At the time of the article, it was estimated that he had served over 400,000 meals over the years. That was the same year the city outlawed panhandling and passed the “no sleeping, lying or reclining” ordinance.
After church, I didn’t forget to take my backpack out of the shed. That night I fell asleep almost right away.
I changed into my shorts, put on the dress socks and my damp shoes, then went out front. I lit a cigarette and waited for Dale. When he finally came out, I asked where he was headed. He said “St.Vinny’s for breakfast”. It was only 4:05 and they didn’t start serving until 7:00. He pulled out a bag of tobacco (which he collected from ashtray butts throughout the day) from his bag to roll a cigarette. I gave him a real one and told him I was going to Williams Park (which was in the opposite direction). I stood there for a minute and watched Dale walk away. There was no liveliness in his gait—he seemed to have the weight of the world on his shoulders as he ambled down the sidewalk, rolling his carry-on suitcase beside him.
No one was driving on the avenue—it was eerily quiet, except for the echoing barks of a big dog far away. The street lamps emitted only a dull glow. I gazed at my chosen path: It was like a long, dark tunnel. Wandering through this neighborhood in the middle of the night is fucking insane, I thought. What the fuck is wrong with these people throwing us out here at 4:00? I threw my cigarette down and walked away from the mission. Old homes and two story rooming houses lined the left side of the street. Nobody’s lights were on. There was a sidewalk on the other side of the street, too. But on that side, a twenty foot tall highway on-ramp retaining wall completed the feel of a dark alley trap. The on-ramp entrance was several blocks ahead.
As I reached into my front pocket for another cigarette, I saw the silhouette of a figure standing on the street corner straight ahead of me. Goddammit, I knew it, I thought. I left the cigarettes alone. As I continued forward I focused on him hoping to see something to alleviate my tension—like the telltale bags of a homeless person. But there were no bags. He was a tall twenty or thirty-something year old with short dreads. Why was he standing out here this time of night? I thought. A desperate crack-head out of money? A sociopath waiting for the first random motherfucker to walk down the sidewalk? My heart beat harder and faster as a rush of adrenaline coursed through me. I focused and thought through several scenarios in a second. Turning around or crossing the street would scream fear and weakness. Then I thought about something Dale had said on the porch.
I walked straight up to him and asked him in a dumbed-down tone, “Hey man, you know where that elevator church is?” I wanted him to think that I was broke. And in case he was thinking about doing something stupid, I hoped my direct approach would snap him out of it.
“On the corner of 3rd…” He nodded his head in that direction. “By the library.”
“Aright, thanks.” I said. While walking away, I stayed as aware as I could. After a few steps, I crossed the street—an excuse to glance back at him.
At Williams Park I opened my book but it was hard to read. I was hot, tired and desperately wanted a cup of coffee. I thought about my encounter fifteen minutes earlier. He may not have had any intention of fucking with me; regardless, I had no business being out there. To avoid a pointless repeat of the day before and spending the rest of my cash, I decided to change up a few things. I withstood the humid hell until the library opened. Also, I had decided that I would not to go back to the mission but try to check-in to St.Vinny’s.
I left the library at 11:30 and walked the twenty blocks to St.Vinny’s. The large, rectangular building was right next to an interstate overpass. There was a long line leading inside and a large crowd of people outside. Besides those in line, there were people sitting against the wall of the building. Others sat on the curb under the overpass and others gathered in groups loudly slurring. Their appearances ranged as much as their ages. Some looked as if they had been living in the woods for years without a bath or razor, and others as if they had just left a college classroom (maybe they had). But most donned the typical summer street-people gear of a second hand tee-shirt, shorts, worn shoes, a baseball cap and something to carry their stuff in. I’m sure not everyone there was homeless, but I know they were all glad for the free meal—always a big help for anyone barely making ends meet. I got into the long, slow moving line.
Inside, a hallway led to a large cafeteria with rows of long folding tables and chairs. Lunch was chili mac, two slices of bread, a piece of cake and orange juice. I found a spot at the end of a table across from an old man with a thick head of white hair. He asked me if I wanted his cake and I accepted.
After lunch I went outside, lit a cigarette, and saw the old man walking up the street. I caught up with him and said, “Thanks for the cake.”
He glanced at me suspiciously. “I can’t eat too much sugar.”
He walked slightly hunched over and rolled a suitcase (like Dale’s, but bigger) behind him. We were among a procession of homeless making their way back downtown. “Do you stay there? The reason I ask is I wanna try to check-in tonight.” He looked at me again, this time for a moment longer. I think he became more at ease once he noticed I was smoking a (real) cigarette. He was probably bothered for a smoke a couple of dozen times a day.
“I’ve been there about two weeks. Check in is at 9:00, and you can stay three weeks if you don’t miss any nights. They call everyone’s name that was there the night before first. If someone doesn’t show up, there’s an extra bed. They give those out at random. If you don’t get one the first time, keep coming back. You’ll get in if they see your face enough times.”
“I didn’t see a dorm. Where do you sleep?” I asked.
“In the cafeteria. They fold-up the tables and put mats on the floor. They cram you in like sardines, though. And I don’t know what’s worse, the smell or the damn coughing and hacking all night.”
“Not the fuckin’ Hilton, huh,” I said.
“Well, odds are you won’t get tuberculosis sleeping at the Hilton, so you got that right. When I get my check, I’m outta there for good.”
“If you don’t mind me asking, how’d you end up in this situation, anyway?”
He looked at me again, now with a slight smirk. “I was staying at the Banyan Motel on 4th and got robbed by my roommate. I woke up and my wallet was gone.”
It’s common for two people who get checks to get together to afford a cheap motel room or efficiency apartment. But it’s a precarious living situation where things can go south quickly.
“That sucks,” I said. I wiped my forehead with the back of my hand. “I’m getting out of this heat and going to the library. Where are you headed?”
“I usually sit at Williams Park.” he said, then stopped and leaned on the retractable handle of the suitcase. “I have to catch my breath for a minute. Can’t get around like I used to.”
I looked down the long street—the downtown office buildings were far-off in the distance. Then I looked at this man who was at least seventy and almost chuckled out loud when I thought, Lazy bum! That stereotype suddenly became pretty ridiculous to me. For a bowl of chili mac and a slice of bread, he had walked two miles in the Florida heat. And the day before, Dale had told me about having redeemed a ten dollar voucher at a thrift store on 34th. He had walked over eighty blocks for a couple pair of clean socks and a second hand T-shirt.
He had also told me about his toothache experience. Make no mistake, he wasn’t complaining. He was simply explaining some of the ins and outs of street life; things that are important to know. After several days of pain, he went to Daystar, a Catholic charity, waited six hours and was luckily given a twenty-five dollar voucher for a dental college. However, the college only accepts the first five people in line on certain days for emergency treatment. It had been too late that day, a Friday. So not only did he have to wait until the following Monday to be treated, he had missed lunch and dinner that day. As far as I’m concerned, surviving on the street is a full-time job. I saw many tough and resilient people who never whined about their situation. What I never saw was a lazy bum. A lazy bum wouldn’t survive a week.
When we got to Williams Park, it wasn’t anything like 4:30 in the morning. Buses rumbled into and out of their stops, bus shelters were crowded with people eager to get home, two impeccably dressed old black ladies holding up issues of The Watchtower were sitting on the 2’ high retaining wall that separates the sidewalk from the inner grassy area, a few people waited in line at the corner hot dog stand and plenty of homeless men and women were walking about and sitting on benches—mostly in the center of the park by the amphitheater. Two guys and a girl, probably USF students, were walking a few steps ahead of us. I overheard one of the guys when he raised his voice and mimicked a tour guide: “…and this is bum park.” Richard said he’d be going back to St.Vinny’s at around 6:00, and if he saw me there he would put a good word in for me with the guy that does the checking-in.
During the short walk to the library I thought about what the college kid had said. Actually, about his attitude—the words were just a by-product. Too many people have bought into the stereotypes of this sub-class of the poor. Due to physical, psychological or other issues these folks evidently can’t keep up with the rat race. Is that reason enough to dehumanize them so to justify treating them with disdain?
At the library I headed straight for the water fountain and slurped cold water for at least a full minute.
I went to the mission for dinner, but I had not made up my mind about staying or trying to check-in at St.Vinny’s until I had finished eating. I wasn’t very hopeful about getting into St.Vinny’s, yet walked past the front porch anyway. I felt elated from the sense of freedom. Dale wasn’t there yet, but two new people were on the porch. Instead of walking straight up the street, I went around to the scenic Mirror Lake route. I sat down at a bench along the lake. It was a humid but beautiful evening and I felt pretty good. So good, in fact, that I realized I could not really understand what someone who is destitute goes through—not with a fucking debit card in my pocket and a comfortable apartment a cab ride away. I could imitate the boredom and the physical struggle for basic needs, but not the panic of hitting rock bottom or the despair and hopelessness in the daily grind of life on the street.
I stood, stretched-out, took a deep breath and walked in the direction of Jannus. At the library, the last two librarians had called it a day and were getting into their cars. Across from Williams Park, a thin old man who sat in front of St. Peter’s Cathedral asked me for a cigarette. He had a large backpack and a rolled-up sleeping bag with a makeshift rope handle beside him. I cut through the middle of the park where some folks sat on benches watching the world, others were reading and someone was asleep on a blanket in the grass. I brushed past a group of German tourists at Jannus and went into Mastry’s. I ordered a scotch on the rocks, laid my debit card on the bar, lit a cigarette and wondered where I would sleep if I had to stay out on the street.
St. Pete city ordinance prohibits sleeping on a sidewalk or bench. It’s even against the law to sit on a sidewalk. After sunset parks are also off limits, so it’s necessary to find a secluded place away from the police. The catch-22 is since these spots are secluded, they are dangerous. A vicious attack on a homeless person by someone who does it just for kicks (pun intended) isn’t unusual. Being robbed at some point is almost unavoidable and usually violent. Crack-heads, criminals and homeless that prey on other homeless know that (especially early in the month) street people often have loaded food stamp cards and cash in their pockets.
I left the bar and scarfed down a slice of pizza at Fortunato’s next door. Since it was still early enough to catch a bus to my place, I decided to save the cab fare. On the way to Williams Park, I saw a homeless couple sitting on a bench under an oak tree. Her head was on his shoulder and her eyes were closed. A duffle bag, a backpack and two rolled up sleeping bags were on the ground beside them. I thought about turning around and picking up a couple of slices of pizza for them, but changed my mind. Instead, I reached into my pocket and separated three one dollar bills. “I need this for the bus,” I said. I handed him the rest and walked away.
”Thanks, man!” he shouted.
I thought the dignity of choosing what to do with the money would taste better than a slice of pizza. Regardless, the money was only an excuse for me to say, I see you—you’re not invisible!
I got on the bus, sat by a window facing Williams Park, and untied my shoes—my feet were killing me. I felt a little disappointed about not staying out longer and climbing higher, but then there were no mountain peaks to reach on the streets. I learned a little about their lives and a lot about mine. I take things for granted less and I understand more clearly that there’s too much indetermination in the universe to sum up circumstances with a phrase like you reap what you sow. As the bus pulled away, I stared at the world I was leaving behind—a world many people never see.
Much appreciation to Hanna’s Homeless for the pictures. Check out the cool things they are doing https://www.facebook.com/HannahsHomeless and please donate—even just a few bucks—at http://hannahshomeless.org/ . It will be money well spent.
artwork copyright Ralph Steadman