I Have Slept

By Jeff Burt

Essay

Photo credit Jim Fischer

Photo credit Jim Fischer

1.

Gault Street Park is Next to Nothing

 

Homeless, I curl like a shrimp in a sleeping bag under the skirt of dipping pine branches, dry on the side close to the trunk, wet on the side past the dirt ring underneath the branches where the grass is clothed in dew, the pine needles shed fog as it aggregates into drops, suspends, then falls to the grass. Underneath the branches, the sun does not penetrate, which makes it good for sleeping but not for warmth. At Gault Street Park, the first park I sleep in, three other men have their own trees. We are wary of each other, perhaps like the first Neanderthals by their caves or covers, perhaps like dogs. I suspend a bag of belongings from a pine during the day in fear every second someone will steal it.

The rooster crows when the first mother and her children enter the park after leaving another child at the elementary school nearby. Mothers run the park during daylight; homeless men run it at night. The mothers run us out of the park first with menacing looks. It’s an incriminating, suspicious glare, a glare that announces men could be pedophiles, circus clowns who play with kids but end up terrorizing, or hair-touchers, pawing long hair like Lenny did in Of Mice and Men.

They have the right to glare. I have known rapists and molesters among us, men short in IQ more than a couple of letters. The mothers should be suspicious. So when the kids come, the glares come with them. A couple of women, arm in arm, actually have told us to leave the park, bold but kind women, who study the Bible as their kids play on swings and slides. They tell us we can have the park back when the kids are gone. They are convincing. We leave the park.

In 1979, Gault Street Park is next to nothing. When I say next to nothing, I mean it is miles from services, miles from shelter, miles from Home Depot or lumberyards, miles from possible employment and the EDD, miles from a shower, dinner, or a free cup of coffee at a church. It is in the in-between for the in-between, the in-between poverty and death, or the in-between desolation and recovery.

But I also mean Gault Street Park is next to Nothing. Nothing is the green space down the street with a trail that leads to the harbor. The green space is the Void, the Outer Limits, Hell, the location for the vicious, where an argument begins over sex with a toothless female alcoholic and ends with stab wounds and a rape, though the woman will not call it rape, preferring to call it love-making, because she needs a protector, the kind of love that foregoes the sanctity of one’s self to save the body from violence. Gangs have turf, and here, the homeless, too.

When I venture into Nothing I am chased for wandering off the trail, for stepping into the waist-high grasses and wild grains and scrub, accosted by a man who rips my shirt and demands a fee for letting me keep my teeth, charged by a thin, little lout whose coats weigh more than he does adding a hulking force to his spindly frame, withered by a fusillade of dirt clods and rocks by an old couple from a perch on a hill under a tree staking out their claim, these same two who outside of Nothing are affable Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus, kind winkers who know everyone in every line, say please and thank you, and while neither of them will give you the shirt off their backs, they will direct you to where you can get one. They are masters of direction for charity, know the soft touch from the hard, the volunteer from the agent, like one of those signs with multiple arrows which point in seven different directions etched with the mileage to Moscow, Rome, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Topeka, Kansas, only instead of cities, they point to giveaways.

Photo credit Jenny Downing

Photo credit Jenny Downing

But step one foot on their claim, and they become Grinches. I can’t blame them. The highland perch has become their retirement home, the vast accumulated data of charities their legacy to pass on to the next generation of homeless, the personas of geniality, their masks for mentoring. They defend their home as any retired General Electric ex-exec would do. Instead of ADT or an armed surveillance service, they use the Pandora’s Box of grenades, dirt, asphalt chips, rocks, and pinecones. They collect these like seashells on a beach each day just like a retired G.E. exec sets his numerical code on the keypad of his alarm. The imaginary security fence around their perch is no different from the tangible wrought iron one.

Still, the dirt clods bruise, and the pinecone to the face leaves an unpleasant mark to explain.

Fortunately, I stay clear of Nothing. I am too young to establish a residence, too restless.

I stay by the park by the river that slithers through downtown, once populated by the older and perpetual homeless, the prophets who needed an audience, the opportune beggars, but now belongs to young toughs and professional panhandlers and the occasional groups of unemployed farmworkers who speak little English and drift in and out of the population as farm work wanes and waxes. Ebbs and flows. Services, both public and private, line the river. There is no territory here, the police patrol, and the tenants are too tired of traipsing to mark a plot. No one I know who looks for work stays here. No one who shaves every few days for work lives here. Physical illness and social illness—all are rampant.

Parks are the place of spectacle, of music, a renaissance faire without the food and royalty. This place of jugglers, hacky-sack kickers, jesters, jiggers, poets, jokers, and their meandering manifestos. We are crazy, and we know it, we delight in it, we throw ourselves out of our bodies, and for a time, out of our minds. It is good to be out of your mind and not high, to lose not time, for we have no need of punctuality, but to lose timelessness, that sense that time passes endlessly, without divisions, seconds, days, the weekly passages, birthdays, holidays, the gray seamless fog of eternity that possesses us. To lose timelessness, to actually be in the moment, the reverse of Zen, yet the same point of being, the leap that Jesus called blessed, bliss, to put a small space of silence in nowhere to make it now, here.

In crowded housing and buildings, parks provide a space of rural green to urban paint and pavement, to give public assembly areas to the world of the private. To the people who actually live in the park, it is the opposite.

We wake and rise from non-idyllic pastures of fear where we sleep with one-eye open like flounders, and muscles tense to sounds approaching. Paint and pavement are our respite. There we relax. We leave the privacy of parks to assemble in public, a line at psych services, a line at Home Depot, a line at St. Joe’s, a line at Homeless Services, a line at the AIDS clinic, a throng at the park, a crowd at the evangelical church for coffee hour. Here our shoulders drop, the gaps in our stories and teeth appear. Like sparrows in winter on rooftops, we gather around chimneys, we gather around feeders.

 

2.

Xanadu

A former engineer who lived in a tent in the redwoods, Ben worked off and on, more off, installing replacement flues for mobile homes without wheels, tethered to the earth, fixed upon concrete blocks and cement aprons, mobile only in type and imagination. He installed a flue in a yurt in the mountains used for sage ceremonies, renewal ceremonies, the yurt not made of skins but of synthetic rugs that ward off the rain in winter, the yurt anchored to metal poles driven six to eight feet into the earth no doubt cupped in concrete, the yurt meant to also be a mobile home or meeting place.

Do we wonder why, when we hear Xanadu, the heavenly dome of Kubla Khan, we think of castles, of a pleasure palace so firmly made and riveted to earth that it cannot be displaced by wind or rain or fire or earthquake or age, that even centuries of existence cannot wreak or rot it.

But Kubla Khan’s Xanadu was a large magnificent tent, able to be pulled down at a moment’s notice, Mongol tribe ready to migrate, to move to a different territory or expand into another tribe’s land. Up and down in hours, packed and transported on a sleigh attached to a few horses.

Heaven, at least the domain of heaven, was a knocked down knocked up scrap of hides bundled for the road. Heaven was transportable to Kubla Khan. The pleasure palace, the pleasure dome existed wherever he went, not some fixed position domicile, and not some fixed position in the vapor we use to think of eternal existence. Heaven was now, under the yurt, with his people assembled, wherever the yurt went up. John the Baptist gave up on the tent over his head completely, and wore the skins of the tent right on his body, needing no down time, no up time. Heaven traveled with him, on him, now and ever now.

Photo credit Dan McKay

Photo credit Dan McKay

So when the homeless are reduced, minimalized, is it any wonder they give up their freedom with anxiety that they panic at the thought of living in dorm quarters in fixed walls with fifty other men? In a nylon tent with a small fire just under the flap, small enough not to melt the nylon flap six feet from the ground, small enough that it cannot warm farther than a foot and cannot be spotted from the road. This is the homeless’s heaven, this pleasure palace. The last nomads of the Golden Horde, the vestigial gypsies of the urban forests.

Fourteen years after I was homeless for ten weeks, I worked with two men who were homeless, one an ex-Army vet called William who fought in Kuwait and tried to rejoin for the Iraq skirmish-war-action-occupation but was considered too far gone mentally to re-enlist, which by his telling, means you are pretty much ready for the asylum, except we don’t have asylum’s anymore, so the asylum is called the bridge over the river, with lodgings below.

William said he shot forty Iraqis, but nobody believed he killed any. We didn’t know if he ever served a day. All he ever talked about was the birds stuck in the oil slicks, which he knew from National Geographic. He lived in a truck in a camper shell. He said it was perfect, and with the government checks he got for disability, he could afford the gas and the registration, though he faked his insurance, using a blotted piece of paper that resembled proof, good enough to get by the cops. William called his truck a rolling piece of heaven.

Joseph was a refugee from drugs and drug treatments, a musician he called himself, though it should be former musician. He did not play anymore. He lived in a van, an old white Ford Econoline, with a mattress and sheets and pillows, his stuff hanging on the walls, and a portable toilet in the second seat, water, and a small refrigerator, though unplugged. His mother left him a trust that paid him $1000 a month for the rest of his life, and by the time he was done with paying for the van, he had about $700 left over for everything else. He knew what streets to park on without getting a ticket or being rousted by the neighbors, how often to move to the next spot, and if need be, he could go to the next town or city. He had been to every state park on the coast, which only cost him the fee for an annual pass, and campers were cool, nobody judged, nobody asked anything about him.

Joseph called his van heaven on earth, and wanted to be buried in it, and for how much time he spent in it, sometimes I thought it was already his tomb.

 

Joseph talked to himself as if he was a third person. He soliloquy-ed what he had done for the day or would have liked to do. This was especially true when he saw a woman he was attracted to.

Joseph, he would say to himself, would you like to take her clothes off? Look at those fine legs.

Photo credit Kurtis Garbutt

Photo credit Kurtis Garbutt

But we all talk to ourselves. The difference is when you’ve been homeless for too long, and among the unemployed for too long, you start talking to yourself even when in the midst of others. And not short sentences, or just a little reminder, or a statement of disbelief or motivation. All interior talk spills over the dam of civility, gushes over the lips, and falls to the ears of those who should not listen.

One talks to his socks, named Leftie and Rightie, and if one day Leftie Rightie are a different color, he does not hesitate to tell them so. If Leftie gets too worn and develops life-threatening holes at the bottom, he conducts a burial ceremony, and tells Rightie he will have to find him a new mate.

This type of self-talk occurs even in the presence of enemies, those who laugh and tease, but cannot be stopped. One rehearses aloud his lists for the day, and even though the day shortens, the oration of the lists stays about the same length, as he simply repeats the things to do in a steady whisper until his allotted time is up.

Some are perpetual mutterers, those who have lost the sensibility of ever closing their mouths, and say everything their brains process for speech. Some are angry like clockwork, once an hour, once every five minutes, Old Faithful at Yellowstone, and their speech wanders in and out of violence, paranoia, and deprivation. But some are witty, playful, and some are romantic.  Me, I obsessively talked about time, time to walk, time to wait, time to walk again. Time to bus to, time to bus from, more time to wait, as if all of my day had meaningful connections, a normal orderly transit, my way of staying sane, of beating back the deafening muteness of marginalization and aimlessness.

Cordero, who will tell no one his first name and gets angry if you push him for it, who has hair as white as Santa Claus and just as smooth and fine, who never eats but has a little tub attached to his waist, Cordero can be working alongside you bagging groceries and dipping newspapers in wax at Grey Bears. Then, all of a sudden, say, with an apple to his nose, he can see his wife in the orchard near his old home, peddling her bicycle over fallen Granny Smiths and taking a spill. He smiles. His wife passed away four years ago.

Where is the line that we draw as a congregation that defines on one side sane and on the other demented when we talk aloud? Who gets to draw it? I had a boss once, a CEO, who talked to himself even during meetings, but the company thrived under his management. Then I’ve had a boss who talked to himself with great vulgarity, little private pep talks he called them, full of piss and shit, and managed his department well, but never went to meetings. No one called them crazy.

A tree cutter climbs without a rope to the top of a tall pine to begin lopping off branches before the trunk he can section and drop. He starts his small chainsaw, but you can see him talk to himself, or talk to the tree, encouraging each cut, wooing the saw as if a dance partner or lover, telling himself how he is cutting, slashing, trimming, felling. He spikes his boot into the next lower branch and lowers himself toward safety, but his speech punctuates each cut and screaming stop of the saw.

Yeah, baby, you are so sweet. You don’t go hard on me, baby, that’s good, yeah. You’re soft. I’m gonna get you. You’re gonna go down just fine, just fine.

I notice three men in a row in business attire with earpieces talking, and think maybe I should just get a bunch of earpieces, even broken earpieces, and pass them out to my friends, my fellow curb-standers, my jobless-ers, so that we will appear to be talking to someone else, and then I’ll bet we wouldn’t look crazy, as long as no one pulls out the earpiece and puts it towards his mouth and starts screaming at it.

 

Once in the city park down by the county building, a preacher was telling us that heaven was not a place, but a type of heart you had, an emotional and spiritual place you entered into. And while we all know that is a truth just as much as a rock is hard, it just doesn’t click with a crowd of people who have no permanence, especially when they can’t get a foothold on the ladder of a job, a location, health-care, food, income, rehab, recovery. They are the children of relapse, of missed shot and rebound and another missed shot, of handouts to survive.

Health and wealth gospel means nothing. Buddhist desires to not desire have no meaning. Nor does heaven is in your heart. Heaven is a place. That is what the human heart longs for. Do they really think Jesus didn’t know that, and accept that? Do they really think Jesus wanted them to roam around and stink and have their teeth decay and beg for acknowledgment and hang on the fringes of a crowd at a festival embarrassed at the few of them who waded in and danced electric uncoordinated motions near the band? Do they really think Buddha meant they could be placid and honed in on achieving Nirvana when a rivulet of rain runs through a tent and not just dampens but also makes clothes soggy, rancid, and wet for days? Do they really think heaven is in the heart when food stamps run out and a cop finds you at two a.m. behind Taco Bell rifling through the dumpster?

Blessed are the poor, for they shall see heaven, in a zippered nylon tent three feet above their heads, possibly stolen, or the white metal roof of a van, or the spun fiberglass of a camper shell.

 

Photo credit Dominic Alves

Photo credit Dominic Alves

 

3.

I Have Slept

 

The backhoes and front loaders screech and stutter, then roar to a start, and though they are internal combustion machines, the sounds are anything but internal. They have come to raze the creek sides where a persistent homeless camp sits, a disorderly series of tents and debris of men and one woman who inhabit the creek rain or shine every day of the year.

Homeless advocates in yellow vests go tent to tent, bag to bag, blanket to blanket, stirring the men, and cops follow, some unarmed, some forceful, some not, all with latex gloves on, some with dangling masks in case of hazardous waste or some just for the rancid, mildewed smells. They help those who want it, stand back from those who refuse it.

Now the front loader starts on the left edge by the creek and runs over small bendable willows until it hits a clearing, and then wades in to a carnival of color–the first red sleeping bag and white pharmacy plastic bags with blue jeans and a blue nylon jacket with yellow stuffing falling out, comes up, and then an abandoned shopping cart full of trash that no one claims, green and yellow wrappers, white and blue cartons, torn and wet cardboard, blue and gray striped boxers, white socks, block socks, gray socks, blue socks, cotton socks, wool socks, polyester black socks, argyle socks, checked socks, polka dot socks, all wet, all putrid, clear syringes with orange tops, yellow and white albuterol canisters, green methadone bottles, and tens and twenties of small see-through brown prescription bottles fall into and some out of the front loader.

Tarnished Buddhas, broken crucifixes, pictures of yogis, statues of the Virgin Mary amid hundreds of Millers, Bud Lights, Heinekens, Coors, Dos Equis, and Coronas. The circus has left town. Here are the remains.

One female advocate, probably in her fifties, cries,says, look at their faces, but their faces show no expression, and perhaps that is what she means, but these homeless, the most down and out, those who cannot stay in a shelter, who fear all officials, their expressions are usually blank. They are too blotted, besotted, or emotionally diminished to cry, or wail. They do get angry, as two men do, but the anger is more about timing than being forced to leave. It is too early for them to be rousted. They sleep until noon. The screech of the equipment is like an alarm that always sounds too early in the day, they prefer to be warmed by the morning and rise about lunch.

Too much pissing and shitting in the creek, one cop says, with a health worker by his side. Even aboriginals knew not to piss and shit in their own water.

Even if they don’t get sick by it, it just passes downstream and makes a problem when the creek empties into the river, the river to the bay, the water department aide says. You know the old saying, if the spring is contaminated, everything downstream will be contaminated.

The cops says, if there’s shit coming out of the faucet, there’s gonna be shit in the soup.

That’s really it, isn’t it. Could be for frogs or ducks or seagulls or people at the beach, doesn’t matter what kind of soup it is.

It’s not just that, the cop says. The cyclists and hikers complain all the time about this place. Don’t feel safe.

Yeah, we hear that, since this is technically our property. But we’ve never heard of anyone getting hurt.

Me neither. There are some scary dudes here, man. Mental problems, you know what I mean. Lit fuses waiting to go off.

Aren’t we all, the water department man says, and the cop and the aide stand side by side looking at the homeless packing.

Shitting in their own water, I think. Nice if it was their water. But it’s not their creek. It’s not their bank on the side of the creek. It’s the six feet by two feet imprint of the sleeping bag, or the roll of pink foam, or the ten by six footprints of piles of cardboard placed, marked, and defended with fists. The size of the basic cemetery plot.

Marlene has a shopping cart that serves as a portable kitchen, a useless portable kitchen. People call her crazy. She has a black toaster, a silver plug-in carafe with no top, a white microwave with no door and no revolving plate, an old shiny silver coffee percolator with the cord cut off, a waffle iron with a broken hinge, and a collection of silver coffee mugs with TOYOTA and LEXUS stamped in green ink on their sides. She serves herself coffee during the day, nothing but cold water.

I have been paid a few twenties to clear out garages and basements and attics of the dead, and this homeless woman is no different in her collection from most. Puzzles with missing pieces, games with no tokens, chess sets with missing knights, encyclopedia sets missing the last sixty years, books without covers, one shoe of a pair, broken lockets and necklaces and one earring, dresses sizes too large or too small and decades of dust and decay on them, newspapers with no special significance, pictures of people and places with questions on the back who is this? and where was this taken? and who are these people from the reunion? Are they less crazy than she is?

When the backhoe digs out the accumulated garbage pit in a small cutout of the stone that makes the bank, in the wet, crushed trash pops up a plastic leg, a prosthetic, and clear tubes for ventilation, mounds of surgical gloves and bloody rags and torn paper sheets.

I watch the rousting with little emotion. I know these fifteen homeless will disappear for a month to other locales, one or two might die without their routes, challenged by existing homeless who collect from bins and dumpsters, but they will survive, and in another season they will return to this creek like the steelhead, following some genetic code I cannot understand. What separates me from them? A business owner who didn’t care that I had no address and slept in a car. No more lines. A little more order, that I can rise early and work. Not much separation. But enough.

This is an act of compassion, really, a Homeless advocate says. I can tell he is an advocate because he has ADVOCATE on a big shiny label on his jacket, as if the homeless would read the word and call him friend.

But these are people who have given up, treated and cared for by people who have not given up but don’t know what to do with these fifteen homeless, homeless who don’t want anyone to treat them or care for them and just as they have given up wish that the advocates and cops and water quality specialists and social workers would just give up, just leave them alone to suffer in their little nests of squalor and play darts on a discarded board and shuffle batteries into a boom box that gets AM but no FM and can no longer play CDs. They don’t want job listings or resume services. They want to sleep until noon, perpetual teenagers. They want to build the little lean-tos of wood and waffled aluminum and fiberglass and cardboard over again even though a mild wind or the first storm of winter will tear them down. They want stability. And stability means looking in the same garbage bins behind the same businesses every day without competition, getting whatever services they want by showing up and not being asked questions beyond their name, getting medical care only when drugs or beer cannot provide enough pain killing. The calendar pulled down from the shed, days X’d off, is from the year 2001. That’s stability.

Compassion is measured in seconds, not in goods or words or kindness. I know their questions:  How long will the social worker need to talk to me until I can make her go away? How long will the cop ask me if I want to go to the hospital before I can make him go away? How long will the youth group be here with blankets, water, sandwiches, and gospels before I can make them go away? The fewer the seconds, the more the compassion.

It takes two dump trucks to finish the cleanup, and scattered trash remains. The yellow ribbon of warning goes up, and hazardous materials signs are posted.

And everyone leaves.

And no one is happy.

 

I am Ben, I am Joseph, I am William.

I am Marlene, I am Cordero.

I have slept near that creek.

I have slept near that creek on pink electrostatic foam intended for electronics packaging that I found in a recycling bin.

I have slept near the next creek and I have slept near the creek after that.

I have slept near the creek too drunk to get to my tent, too drunk to get into my shed.

I have slept behind a man’s house in the small space behind his wire garden fencing designed to keep out deer, and in front of the eight-foot redwood fence he had installed to prevent anyone from seeing he was trying to keep deer out.

I have slept behind a man’s house and had raccoons shit a few yards from my feet, to express their displeasure with my arrangements.

I have slept in the doorway of a tax accountant’s office on the second floor of a new building just to smell the stain finish and knowing no one would be there until ten.

I have slept in a park and been rousted by a police officer and circled the block and gone back through on the other side of the park and slept in the same exact spot knowing he wouldn’t look for me there.

I have slept in a motel, for free, the gift from a church. And in a hammock, too, in the back yard of a friend, too far to walk home and he too drunk to drive.

I have slept in the garage of a friend for two months until his wife kicked me out, saving my friend the trouble of doing it himself.

I have slept in a field, well, I didn’t sleep, the coyotes ran down the path at sunset and the wild dogs followed in the dark.

I have slept on the concrete wall on the walkway of the esplanade down by the ocean, both at night and during the day.

I have slept behind a dumpster.

Though I have never slept in a dumpster. I know men who have.

I have slept in a tent, a large blue pup tent, a small green pup tent, and a family-sized red and gray tent, tents in woods, in brush, in plain sight, in backyards.

I have slept in a 1988 Volvo, a 2001 Honda Civic, in a 1996 Dodge Caravan in a bucket seat that tilted back and was the smoothest thing.

 

Standing up in a doorway when it rained.

In a shed with ants crawling over my feet on their way to my bread.

Naked, my clothes hanging up waiting to dry.

I have slept with all of my clothes on, all shirts, two pants, two coats, boots, trying to stay warm.

I have slept by fire made from wood.

I have slept by fire made from charcoal.

I have slept by fire made from newspapers and trash.

I have slept until dawn.

Until noon.

Have slept until four in the afternoon.

I have slept on a rancid pillow and put spearmint gum under my nose so I could not smell it, and washed my hair in the morning with mouthwash, but could still smell the pillow.

I have slept by the ocean.

I have slept by the highway.

I have slept where the lights of the city cannot be seen and deer are not nervous.

I have slept hungry.

Slept full.

Slept with a strange dog in an RV with no door to close, huddled against each other for warmth.

I have never slept.

 

 

 

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JEFF BURT lives in Santa Cruz County, California. His work has appeared in Storm Cellar, Eclectica, phren-z, Word Soup, Agave and others. He won the 2011 SuRaa short fiction award.

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