Friday, July 11, 2008
"Fine, you're banned for two months...three months...six months!" Those two won't calm. I wait out the fight and listen to their gripes. April from the neighborhood lectures Gus and sets picks when kids rush the door. A man smoking a cigarette, mouth unhinged and catatonic, like he's snoozing out smoke, scans the block for thug body language.
Michael, volunteer, asks me if I'll be okay to visit home depot and return alone. I'm not worried. On the way to home depot with the tricycle, Shane and Gus run at me from the park. Gus pulling his pants, I'm scared. He gets up close and I see his laugh. Shane talks loud - tell Sarah I'm sorry. Okay Shane. They sit on the back of my tricycle for a trip to Home Depot. I lock up and they are gone. I find them in the store. First object: a plastic bin. Shane, ask the store employee for me. Aisle 15. Locking bin or latching bin. I want locking. "I knew you was gonna pick that," Gus says. They drag the bin swerving around like a rodeo goat by the horns. Screwdrivers, tape, zip-loc bags. The two throw cardboard tubes and chase like fox and hound through aisles. Female store employee with flavor streaks in her hair and tattoos on her jeans butt says to stop. I talk loud and say criticism to embarrass them when we are near store employees or shoppers. Shane rats on Gus for having a kit-kat in his shoe. I make him take it out. Store alarm goes off, I tell him cops are coming, he is scared and can't tell if to take me seriously. I let them buy M&Ms only if split three ways. Shane fist full of M&Ms gobbles into mouth. Gus slings me four different colored treats. He suckles the bag, hand closes on the wrapper. He pulls out a toy gun - thats the gun we have been hearing about! I say loudly, "Gus, you can't pull out a toy gun in a store. It looks like a real gun. You will have to go to jail if you do this again!" He says, "Okay! Okay!" We mount the chest full of tools on the back of the tricycle. They sit back to back, Indian style on top of it, six feet off the ground. The trunk is loose and could tip over, so I go slow through the neighborhood, past the brownstones where Shane's father is outside, with his arms crossed smiling. "Why is my dad smiling?" "Because we look good." I drop them off at the park, goodnight.
Monday, December 17, 2007
Monday, First Night HomeWaiting in the terminal for my delayed flight, I began to nod off beside a mother overseeing her son playing with a special set of markers. The fancy markers were called "Twisty Pens". By connecting the markers through a chamber and bleeding their ink through osmosis from one marker to the other, it creates a blotchy, oddly colored drawing.
"Now listen, Marshall. Insert 'Twisty Pens' into 'Color Fusion Chamber' and twist in opposite directions. Rotate and suspend 'Twisty Pens' in vertical orientation for five complete seconds while 'Twisty Mixing' occurs." The little boy twists and snaps. He drops the pens onto his coloring book and scribbles to a crescendo. The colors are not blending. His Mother repeats, "No, Marshall. You need to wait five seconds for 'Twisty Mixing'." The boy finally solves the problem by smushing the felt tips of two markers together. "No, Marshall, that's not how it works."
In Florida, our plane landed on the runway covered in palm trees lit from underneath like Rockettes. The airport is always different each time I return. The terminal now had a floor of manilla and baby blue marble, coated in basketball court epoxy, with soaring buttresses growing from magazine stands and coffee gazebos.
I stopped in the restroom while baggage claim booted up. I put baby devil down against the toilet paper dispenser, and a fly zipped over from the toilet onto his face. Baby devil was so happy and dirty. He was excited that Florida is steamy and teeming with insects.
After dinner, Mom and I took a walk downtown. I thought to myself why it was that the city seemed unreal. I remembered how I had trained my eye to be more critical - I quit looking at pornographic advertisements, then I quit looking at all advertisements, then I quit looking at retail chains and prefabricated construction. The city of St. Pete was distasteful to me - there were old historic buildings converted into franchise hotels, blank shadowless office towers, and gaudy window displays reminding me of Fifth Avenue. I felt that my eyes were not touching anything in my field of vision, that the world was like a holographic projection, and as I closed my eyes I felt empty inside and the world was a halted imprint on my dead circuitry.I leaned over, touched the wet curb, and a circle of texture burst around me. A desperate part of me wanted to touch the sidewalks rough skin, to run my fingers through the cement's hair.
Mom said, "Did you lead us this way on purpose?" I hadn't been leading us. I looked up and saw exactly what she meant. At the corner was a long, orange sandstone, Spanish colonial church. There were people sleeping on beds with warm blankets down the block, past the Church and around the corner in front of City Hall, nearly thirty. There was a police officer talking to a man in a wheelchair about social security benefits. It looked like paradise. When I saw a pit of shopping carts loaded with bike frames and wheels, and a sign that says, "CAFTA means lost jobs," I decided to come back later that night.
I cruise the strip of homeless people and end up in a conversation with some men at the bottom of the City Hall grand staircase."This is the last place in town we can sleep. They kicked us out of the park, and out from underneath the highway overpass." The two older men are farmers and told me stories about the weather that were uncharacteristically interesting. They explained to me how ground cover in a forest retains its moisture, and how it takes weeks of drought and intense heat for the soil to loose enough moisture that air passes through the otherwise anaerobic environment. The oxygen flows through the ground like a gas plumbing system underneath the trees, fueling the fire until the flames break through the canopy and grow wild. They told me a story about a crop of beans that laid in dry hot earth for one month without musting or molding and then sprouted four weeks later than beans ordinarily gestate. They told me about a field of corn so dense that the threshing machine moved at a half-speed clip or else become entangled.
We all get tired. The oldest man, named Pop, asks, "What time is it?"
His friend says, "It's an hour and ten minutes past yesterday."
I lay down on the sidewalk without a blanket and try to fall asleep. Three younger Irish men are drunk and smoking pot from a glass pipe. I hear their muffled conversation from their sleeping bags. "That's what teenagers want! A booger on a screen, a juicy booger. Tell me they won't cheer for a booger, with fuckin' shit comin' out of it. Listen dude, I tell yah', kids these days are weird." They moan the song Master of Puppets with crashed voices that sound like a Geiger counter sniffing the ruins of a bombed city.
Tuesday, City Council MeetingThe homeless sleep outside city hall. They want the key to the city. The key holder wants to meet with them to discuss key privileges. A group of homeless gather at Williams Park, freshen up as much as they can at the water fountain, and show up promptly at 3:30 for the city meeting.
A quorum of homeless, ten strong, has more members than sit at the city council's round table across the room. Only the city council is allowed to participate in the first hour-and-a-half of discussion.
The homeless are quiet and attentive. The city council does not acknowledge anyone's presence by looking at them. The homeless cast their heavy-duty gazes on me, eyes that dismantle, thousand-pound stares. They are the eyes of a different animal.
"Hey!", Pop whispers to another homeless person, "Where's Moses?"
"He's in jail," she answers in a country accent.
"No!", he whispers again, "Big Moses. He got out of jail this morning."
The meeting opens with a report-back on Project Haircut, where seventy-five homeless people were bussed to a salon and given free haircuts. I get a feeling for how autonomous this group is when one council woman asks if anyone from the committee can personally volunteer to loan ten plastic chairs for outdoor seating at the next Project Haircut.
The speaker moves on to the second order of business, an incipient tent city called Pinellas Hope. The woman who is taking minutes draws two pieces of poster board from underneath the table and presents pictures to the council, and after they have seen them she brings them to the back of the room for the homeless people to see. The pictures are aerial maps of a sixteen acre plot of land in the center of the county. I note that the date is December fourth, and the tent city had just began on the first of the month. The number of campers is steadily rising from 130 on the first day to nearly the full capacity of 250 people. The city has spent one million dollars on the project and will be assessing the success of the program in four months. It is a local implementation of President Bush's national initiative to end homelessness called the Ten Year Plan, with projects being tested in nearly three-hundred cities nationwide.
Pinellas Hope residents are allotted tents, sleeping pads, and diddy bags. Outreach teams are providing dinner, health services, laundry services, and free bicycles. There are three televisions, great big coffee urns, and showers. One council woman reports that on her visit she spoke to a man who was grateful and gracious to have slept until eight o'clock for the first time since he can remember.
Another council member reports that criminal checks have landed four people in jail for having outstanding warrants. He reminds the group that background checks are only meant to screen out violent and sexual offenders, and that violators are to be given the choice to leave the premises without facing arrest. He is adamant that proper protocol is being dismissed and the project is starting off on the wrong foot. He accuses the police of engaging in entrapment by bringing homeless people fourteen miles from the city center and seven-tenths of a mile from the nearest road to perform background checks where they cannot leave the premises conveniently or safely.
A council member across the table answers that the reports are false and background checks are being performed at Churches in the city before people are ever bussed to camp.
"Well, I'm tired of hearing the same crap." the man says, slumping back in his chair and opening his cell phone while people across the table balk at him. He questions why a temporary encampment is being built in mid-county when most of the homeless live in the city center and there is plenty of vacant land and property available.
A council representative across the table replies that the complainer ought to go see Pinellas Hope and offer to help out himself.
The man is indignant to be accused of not giving his personal time to help the homeless. He points across the table and says, "You have a lot of damn nerve!", then continues by reminding him he cares for his mother with cancer. A council woman stands and leaves the room and returns to with two guards.
The proponent of the tent city is disbelieving that people are being coerced to enter the tent city when the city only has space for one-tenth of its two-thousand-five-hundred homeless people, including families temporarily living in hotels on vouchers.
The city council discussion ends with people trying to focus on the positive. "We sit down here an hour and a half battin' back and forth the same old ball," says one woman.
"We have begun Pinellas Hope and we have reached the beachhead," another man says, "We will never get anywhere if this is not a success. If we want business, or government, or civic groups to endorse us, we need this to be a rip-roaring success."
When the discussion is opened to the homeless for the last few minutes, Pop tells the council that the homeless do not trust anyone, especially not the city, and that they need to gain their trust by giving them a more active role. The council responds by telling Pop that criticism doesn't help and he needs to offer positive, concrete solutions.
Tuesday Night, Dumpster Diving and Sleeping on the Street
I ride up as Pop is closing a conversation with two carloads of people. Some of the people I recognize from last night. As they drive away, I circle back around to talk with Pop. "Where you bumping off to?" he asks me.
"Dunno. No where."
"You can have this bed," he says, motioning to a tidy pile of blankets on the ground. "I know where they at and they ain't comin' back tonight."
"Thanks," I say and giggle happily at the success of my adventure.
"I don't laugh at no 'thank yous'!" he says, and stares drilling his stolidness into me. I stare back at him, and I realize that his eyes do not move, his face does not contort into any expression, and that in the still center of his being is a place that is severe and raw. He is offering me the bed because as far as he knows, I need it.
I venture out on my bike in search of trash piles. There is not a single trash bag in front of any store or residence. I find beige colored municipal dumpsters behind the stores on Central Avenue, in an alley parallel to the city's foremost commercial thoroughfare.
On the side of each dumpster is written: Do Not Disturb or Remove Contents. I pick nervously through the garbage, not sure if I might be arrested. I worry that I know very few of the people roaming the city at night, which looks to be exclusively homeless people. I do not know which neighborhoods are dangerous. I find a hospital bag with clean needles and an IV bag, a zen decorated candle holder, camfor herb for bath water. I decorate the back of my bike with rabbit ears from an old television and fake plants. I don't hear the man coming up behind me on his bicycle, "Yo, what are you doing?" I jerk up hard and cringe, my sense of inner peace goes flying out of my body like an alien abduction, I watch him bike past me, gawking awkwardly straight at him, and I panic for the immediate future. I look across a sand lot towards another bicyclist and I look up the road where I see a parking lot full of police cars.
I bike across the railroad tracks, through a giant parking lot, and down the loading ramp of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays stadium. The dumpsters are lit brightly with orange sodium light. I find hundreds of Family Circus anti-smoking propaganda pamphlets, a plastic carton of chocolate chip cookies, and five signs that read separately: "Lets" "Go" "Tampa" "Bay" "Rays". I take just two signs spelling out, "Lets" "Tampa".
I find an arts center full of children's artwork. I take a string of seashells and a collage made of commonplace objects such as a hole puncher and packing peanuts.
Finally, I find a dried palm frond and tie it to the back of my bike. I bike fast and the peacock-tail shaped fan flies off the ground and soars behind me.
I come back and decorate my bed with the collage, the signs that say "Lets" "Tampa", and my bike decorated with plants and a TV antenna. I tuck myself in to the muggy blankets and I try to calm myself. A man walking past behind me stops at my bed as a guitar begins to play in the distance. "That's cool he says," standing at my feet. I get scared that he is standing over me and behind me, and I open up my eyes. The orange sodium light is over my head, burning with an aura like a thumb-print on my forehead. I sit up and spin around. The crippled man continues lurching up the street and I see that he had been appreciating my collage.
A man is atop the courthouse steps with his grey winter cap pulled down over his eyes and nose. He is dusting it off pompously, flamboyantly, talking to himself and wailing. I get to thinking all these crazy voices are just a circus of people distorted into a life of freakish sarcasm, laughing at people laughing at them, uppity chortling, demonic cackling.
At the bottom of my bedroll is a slice of carpet. A man pulls up and gives me pizza. I share it with someone who is gracious and grateful.
Saturday, Pinellas Hope
Loaded the bike into Mom's SUV and rode out to the edge of town, further than I've ever been. Parked at a gas station and rode the bike up a side road. A homeless guy crossing paths on a bike told me I was headed in the right direction. I found the camp, opened up the fence and went right in. There's a big white tent with TVs posted at each corner and big eyed, slack jawed people sitting watching ET in the morning. A man walking around kicking dust tells me I need to sign in. Two church women give me a badge that says I'm a volunteer. There's a pathway going to a fence at the far side of the property and all the way down are red swiss army tents. I look inside an open tent big enough to fit a few stacks of clothing, a cooler, a stereo, bed roll, pantry. "I'm staying for the long haul," the guy says to me from inside - he means staying four winter months until April. I push the bike down past a big tree that hangs over the path like a curtain quieting the back lot of tents. There's a Church lady speaking quietly to a father and daughter about the program behind a man filming footage for a television news program. I see a woman tall enough for my bike sitting on a picnic table near the end of the path. The Church lady stops me so that I don't walk in front of the camera and asks that I return to the front of the property away from the private tent area. I explain how I'm going to offer the woman in blue the bicycle and she lets me go ahead. Before I close my offer, the woman is up and cuts off her conversation with another man to take the bike and give it her first ride. She peddles slowly as the bike can move, and I walk as slowly as a cat, both of us meditating in a moment of contentedness.
A speak with the man who I had met in the tent earlier. His plan is to save up money working at a nearby thrift store. His job is to pass out bags and he is a legend in his profession. He makes eleven cents for each bag he places on a house, and five times he has handed out one-thousand bags in a day, a record only one other person matched on a single occasion. He tells me, "You gotta be smarter than the ground."
Another guy tells me he's planning on staying long term and hopes things stay quiet. "Hope no one develops the jail house mentality." He tells me about a guy named Gypsy Joe who looks like he's from the Grateful Dead.
Not too much later, Gypsy Joe comes over and strikes up a conversation. He looks not too much older than me. He tells me he had hitch-hiked around the country for three years playing music and ended up in St. Pete because the city appreciates artists more than anywhere he's been, including big cities like San Francisco and New York. We go to the designated smoking tent and I end up talking to a few guys about their situations, bicycles, work, music. One of the Church ladies comes over and tells me I'm in a restricted area. I have to come to the front table with a business card from Pastor Bruce who is on the city council committee for the homeless to convince her I'm safe.