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.

 

When I was 28 and fresh off another involuntary commitment to the mental institution in Louisville, KY, I took a duffel bag and my last $125 and bought a Greyhound ticket to New York.  It’s a long trip. It takes days.  This story starts on the third day of that trip, somewhere in the countryside of the Northeastern US in late November of 2003.

Occupy Wall Street is not fueled by the brutal historical repression of Tahrir Square or the savvy political message of a PAC. It is, instead, the last stand of messy humanity. These are the people who never accepted spreadsheet-driven indifference as a method of keeping social order. And they’re not going to hurry up and formulate their message because it isn’t a message; it’s a litany of arguments about how society is run.

Once I saw on the sidewalk a man shooting up. He knelt at curbside as though praying, his skinny white ass peeking out from his too-tight jeans and too-short shirt. Thwap-thwap-thwap went his needle. We walked away before we could see him do anything. When we returned, he was gone.

The Walmart lot was cold in the night air, even for southern California. I hadn’t brought enough blankets and would need to swing by the thrift store and pick up a few more. Everything was well-lit by the streetlamps and eerily quiet. There were maybe a dozen other trailers around when I arrived, but no sign that actual people might live in them at all. I had once visited Calico Ghost Town, an old abandoned mining settlement in the hills outside San Bernardino, and this had that same sense of deathly desertion. I knew they were there, perhaps even peeking out their windows at the newcomer, but I couldn’t see or hear any of them.

Were any of the others like me? Were the rest of them just passing through? Was I the only one idiotic enough to think I could pull off a stunt like this?

Irrational fear swept through me. How could I sleep? I was more weary than I’d been in a long time, but I flicked on a solitary flashlight and tried to read a book, although you couldn’t exactly call it reading. It was more like staring blankly at the page, eyes racing over the words without comprehension as my mind created scenarios one after the other, each more horrible than the last. What if I awoke to the brisk tapping of police batons on my windows?

What if they knew I was planning on staying here longer than a night or two? What if they could sense it? What if I awoke at a tilt, all my boxes hurtling from one end of the trailer toward my head, as a tow truck dragged me away, screeching for help, muffled and buried under hundreds of books?

I had never much thought about homelessness or homeless people. Sure, there was the occasional “hobo” on the street, perhaps lounging on the sidewalk outside a 7-Eleven, begging for change, ragged, perhaps with a worn ski cap on, maybe missing a few teeth, with scraggly hair and a wizened visage.

“Don’t make eye contact with them,” my mother would say, jerking me to her side, not even bothering to whisper or even lower her voice. She spoke about them as if they couldn’t hear or understand her, or as if they had no feelings to hurt. I never really thought to question that. It was just another stereotype repeated to me, ad nauseam, from infancy.

“They’re just lazy bums. Too lazy to get a job. Don’t look at them, don’t talk to them and don’t give them anything. Half of them aren’t even really homeless, you know. They’re just faking it to make money without actually having to do anything.”

I had never thought about how those homeless people ended up there. I had never once thought to ask, “Why would a lazy person choose that life?” It seems like a really hard, scary, uncertain life. It seems like the last kind of life a lazy jackass would choose.

I was ashamed of myself, thinking back on it. In a way, this was my atonement, my penance for being so self-righteous all those years. Serves me right, I realized wildly.

It was Thursday, February 26, 2009. I was homeless. But then, it’s not really enough to tell you that I’m homeless, is it? You want to know who the hell I am and how I got here.

I was ashamed of myself, thinking back on it. In a way, thiswas my atonement, my penance for being so self-righteous all those years. Serves me right, I realized wildly.

It was Thursday, February 26, 2009. I was homeless.

But then, it’s not really enough to tell you that I’m homeless, is it? You want to know who the hell I am and how I got here.

How does an educated white girl from middle class Orange County become homeless?

The circumstances behind homelessness are as varied as the people who are homeless. In my case, as with so many others, I was affected by the global recession when I was laid off from my job as an Executive Assistant in 2008, and wasn’t able to find new work. Additionally, I think people sometimes overestimate their safety net – you take away one or two “guaranteed” cushions, such as family or friends, and you suddenly have nothing left to fall back on. I had family issues that are detailed quite extensively in the book, and all of my friends had found themselves out of work and struggling, as well. Many of them had moved back in with their own parents or already had roommates, so it wasn’t as simple as asking to crash on someone’s couch for an indefinite period of time.

 

You were raised in a strict Jehovah’s Witness household. How did that claustrophobic childhood shape you?

The very fundamentalist, insular nature of it definitely added to the normal pressures of growing up. Among other disturbing practices I talk about in the book, Jehovah’s Witnesses enforce a strict policy of shunning of any member who decides to leave. They call it “disfellowshipping” and it applies even to family members, which means that my parents and sister are not allowed to socialize or speak with me unless I decide to return to the religion. So although I discovered early on that I didn’t necessarily believe what the Jehovah’s Witnesses taught, there was an added sense of feeling trapped because you quickly realize that the love of a JW will always be conditional. You can have freedom of belief or your family; you can’t have both.

Of course, at the same time I tried to make it clear in the book that there were other issues at play in my household; that I’m not only pinning it all on the Jehovah’s Witnesses. For several years I coped with physical, verbal, and sexual abuse that were not necessarily JW-specific. Being raised in the religion exacerbated it, though, no question.

 

How did your difficult relationship with your mother play into your ultimate homelessness?

Living with my mother was an extremely toxic environment to be in, and one in which I was always at a severe disadvantage and susceptible to abuse, even after turning 18 and becoming an adult. When I found myself without a job, I also found myself unable to stay with my mother and stepfather due to both the abuse and the religious differences.

 

How old were you when your mother put you to work earning money to help support the family?

I was ten years old when I got my first under-the-table job, at a beauty/tanning salon in Fullerton. When I turned twelve, my mother obtained a work permit through my junior high school and put me to work full-time, even teaching me to drive four years before I would be eligible for a driver’s license, so that I could drive myself and my sister to school and then drive myself to work afterwards. I started out in salons and restaurants, and worked my way up. By the time I was 16 and a junior in high school, I was a legal secretary at a contract law firm. My mother separated on-and-off from my stepfather, so it was just us girls. My mother didn’t work and therefore my paycheck went to the support three of us.

 

Once you were thrown out of your mother’s house, how did you end up living in a trailer in a Wal-Mart parking lot?

By sheer coincidence, my biological father (who had sexually abused me, and whom I had not seen since I was about two years old) committed suicide mere weeks before I became homeless. As the next of kin, I inherited the few possessions he had left, among which were a truck and a camper. When I was thrown out of my mother’s house, I utilized the only resources that I had available to me. The almighty Google led me to the Wal-Mart policy of allowing campers and RV-ers to stay in their parking lot overnight. I did my best to blend in with the other campers and vehicles there, some of which came and went, and some of which were more permanent “residents”.

 

You worked doggedly to find a job. How long did it take? Did getting a job end your homeless life?

I spent my days in Starbucks job-hunting on my laptop, sometimes up to 10 hours at a time, and sent out several hundred résumés every month. I did work several temp and freelance jobs on and off throughout my period of homelessness. Permanent work was near to impossible to find; the competition was enormous due to the recession, and as an additional blow against me, although I had years of experience due to entering the work force so young, I had no college degree, as Jehovah’s Witnesses vehemently discourage higher education. Potential employers could choose between the “best of the best” because everybody was out of work, and nearly every job posting I read required a college degree.

When I did find temporary jobs, they usually paid very little and I was living paycheck-to-paycheck. Scraping together enough money for first and last month’s rent plus deposit on housing was out of the question and would have taken years at the rate I was finding work. Additionally, without a permanent position, I had no reliable source of income. Even if I had somehow been able to land an apartment or a roommate, there was no way of knowing whether I would be able to continue paying rent or would find myself evicted.

 

Some people might argue that you weren’t really homeless because you were living in a trailer. How would you answer that criticism?

The Federal definition of homelessness does encapsulate “mobile homeless” vehicle-dwellers, as well as those living in hotels, as they are not considered fixed, regular and adequate accommodations designed for permanent habitation. Clearly, I was lucky enough to have a resource that many homeless people do not, and I am so grateful for it. But the “mobile homeless” are the fastest growing subset of the homeless population, with the recession, and you have to remember that this wasn’t like I was living in a luxury RV or a trailer park (which I couldn’t have afforded).

It was a parking lot. There were no utility hookups, no water or electricity. I boiled water on my car radiator to cook food. I bought a $10/month membership at a mom-n-pop gym 8 miles away and drove there to shower every other day. I purchased a jumbo flashlight at Wal-Mart and aimed it at the ceiling of the trailer at night so that it wasn’t pitch black inside, and I could read or build résumés.

I realized the legality of my staying there long-term might be shaky, despite Wal-Mart’s policy, and I lived in fear of the policy changing or an overzealous policeman having me towed. I just sort of eked out a sustainable existence and devised a routine that I stuck to as closely as possible, but it was nothing that could ever be considered a permanent solution.

 

What about your cell phone and laptop? Were those luxuries for a homeless person to hold on to?

I think that in such a technology-driven age, they are necessities for anybody, and especially homeless people if they want to get back up on their feet. Without a laptop, how was I to efficiently reach out to as many potential employers as possible? Without a cell phone, how were employers or temp agencies to contact me for telephone interviews or job offers? I wasn’t always homeless. These were resources that I had when I became homeless. Sure, I could have sold my several-years-old cell phone and laptop for a paltry sum (not anywhere near enough for even one month of rent), and bought a few hamburgers with it. But then the hamburgers would be gone and I would have thrown away some of my greatest resources.

 

Your dog, Fezzik, is an important part of your life. Was it difficult keeping a dog while homeless?

It absolutely was. Homeless men and women having pets is an extremely controversial issue. And I knew from the beginning that if I reached a point where I wouldn’t be able to take care of Fezzik properly, I would have to find an adoptive home for him, despite how much it would crush me. He is a Neapolitan Mastiff, a huge lovable lunk, and he served not only as my companion during times of loneliness (and there were many), but as my protector. Despite his sweetness, he has a very deep, formidable bark, and people give me a wide berth when they see me walking down the street with him. It was a source of much reassurance, because being not only homeless, but a homeless woman, left me in a highly vulnerable position.

 

How did you meet Matt, the fellow homeless blogger from the UK who would become your boyfriend?

We initially met via Twitter. He ran a highly respected website online that served as a community for homeless and formerly homeless individuals. He picked up my blog on his RSS feed through an initial tweet that I sent out. He asked me to write some guest posts for his site, which I did, and we be came close rather quickly.

When we fell in love, it was a very new experience for me, because growing up the way I did, I had never experienced love before. In the book, it was important to me to convey that we were not two “homeless” people; we were first and foremost two people who just happened not to have a home. Time doesn’t freeze, feelings don’t disappear, and the need for connection doesn’t dissipate just because I lost my home. Like most homeless people, I did my best to try and move on with my life despite my housing predicament.

 

Your story became a media sensation when you landed an internship with Elle magazine columnist E. Jean Carroll. How did you make that happen while living in a trailer in California?

She was one of my favorite advice columnists because she has a very funny, down-to-earth, yet brutally honest writing style that I related to. I had been reading her column for nine years. On a whim, I wrote her a letter explaining my situation and asking for advice. Several months later, not only did she publish my letter and her response in Elle, but she offered me a telecommuting internship that would forever change my life, open a lot of doors for me, and also provide me with an expanded platform to talk about homelessness.

 

What would be your first piece of advice to a person who suddenly finds themselves homeless?

Have a good cry, get it all out, and then figure out what resources you have. Hold onto as many essentials as you can, and work out a survival plan. If you can get into a sustainable routine you’re halfway there. Positivity and hope are also so important to cultivate, because it’s incredibly easy to get sucked into depression and bogged down by it. Once that happens, it’s that much harder to shake off the inertia and get yourself rolling again. I know because I’ve been there. To dig yourself out of homelessness, you need to think positive and proactive as often as possible. Once you’re in the situation, your most important asset is, of course, yourself; your mind. Take care of it.

 

You have a new book and a job. Do you still consider yourself homeless?

I recently got a wonderful, permanent job that I adore, with awesome and supportive co-workers, so that’s a huge bonus. I’ve been there about three months. And yes, I have a book coming out, which is exciting and which I’m hoping will reach a wider audience, alter perceptions and stereotypes about what it means to be homeless, and invite further discussion as to solutions.

The Federal government would still consider me homeless, though I consider myself in sort of a limbo state. Right now, I’m living in a converted shed on a lot in the middle of the Southern California desert. I commute 80 miles round-trip to work every day from there. The property owner rents the lot to homeless and down-on-their luck individuals on a month-to-month basis, so it’s become a sort of informal homeless commune in which we live out of campers, vehicles, or converted sheds and garages. Similar makeshift residences and “tent cities” have sprung up in the news all over the nation since the recession, so I suppose we’re in good company.

It is a step up from a camper in a Wal-Mart parking lot, for which I’m super grateful. But it’s not a permanent home by any stretch of the imagination. I know that there are no “Cinderella” stories and that I’ll have to work extra hard to get myself out of this, and it’s what I do, day in and day out. What this book has given me, more than anything, is a voice that many homeless people don’t have. I’m hoping more than anything that it helps to put a spotlight on them and give them the recognition and voice they lack. I want solutions for all homeless people, regardless of background or circumstance. And if I can make it happen for myself too, then I’m just peachy with that.

Late night in New York City. So late it’s early. Pitch black with a fuzzy, artificial yellow glow around all the streetlights. Stores are shuttered.

The only places open are some bars, some late-night diners.

A few drunks tottle down the streets, call out into the darkness, try to hail cabs which screech to a halt on the corners.

D. is walking down the sidewalk, hands shoved deep in the pockets of his pale gray Patagonia fleece jacket, trying to find his way back to a friend’s new apartment. This new place is in a foreign part of the city (way up in the hundreds), and he just wants to get there so he can crash on the corner of a futon in a room that is way too small to even be called a bedroom.

After a night party-hopping at what he derisively describes as “the parties of the rich,” D., who works as a carpenter in New Jersey, only wants two things.

Food and sleep.

He’s simple that way.

A hooker starts following him down the sidewalk, waving slightly and chirping like some exotic bird. She wants his attention.There’s nothing scary about D., the man who would become my husband. When she tells him, “Ooh, baby, you are cute!” she isn’t lying.

Of all the men who might possibly pay her for her time, of all the guys walking the streets of Second Avenue at three a.m., D. seemed, I am sure, the choicest alternative. I mean, if the seller can choose the buyer, why not choose the one guy who obviously would never hurt you? The one with the shy, adorable, slightly crooked smile?

Most guys can look back on their youth and prove they were at least somewhat cute. But D. was Super Cute. There was just something about him—some fresh-scrubbed innocence, long eyelashes, perhaps, some aura that said he was responsible–that drew the ladies.

“Looking for a good time?” the prostitute pesters him, tottering on her cheap high heels, trying to keep pace.

D. just looks up and shyly smiles.

“I’ll give you a good time, honey. You and me, we could have a serious good time.”

“I’m not interested…in that,” he tells her. And then something—does she look upset, or is it something else, something more pitiful? He tells me later that she just looked run-down–makes him say, “But I would like to buy you some dinner. Or breakfast. Come on, you want to eat?”

The hooker brightens. She doesn’t say no. She must be the type of woman who doesn’t pass up a free meal, who might not remember to eat unless someone else is buying, or cooking.

They go to a diner. D. says later that his diner date was “sort of embarrassing” because she kept cursing loudly in the diner, using the most bald-faced and un-ladylike epithets, which–luckily–go largely unnoticed in the middle of the night in Manhattan (“So then I told that motherfucker, I told him, No fucking way you come in here and tell me you want my motherfucking bank statements…”).

But he did get her to eat a hamburger (he had to keep reminding her, “You have a hamburger. Are you going to finish your hamburger? How’s your hamburger?”), with the same relentless coaxing you’d give to a child who was too busy rambling on about some unintelligible misunderstanding on a playground to remember to chew and swallow.

Then D. and the hooker parted ways, though not after she said she’d gladly “Give [him] one for free,” and he refused (no, he really did refuse; he can be prudish or simply very modest) and finally found the friend’s apartment and rang the buzzer and went inside and dropped immediately into sleep.

D. barely remembers the story about buying the hooker a hamburger. But it sort of became legend among his friends.

“Where were you last night? Where’d you go after that last party?”

“I was buying a hooker a hamburger.”

It sounded so crazy, but it was true.

They recall that not only did he do that, but he also had a habit of buying hot dogs at Gray’s Papaya and handing them out, again in the wee hours, to the homeless.

There was one woman who stood out to him, surrounded by a sea of split plastic bags, wearing a terrible old coat, the kind that barely exist anymore (wool and polyester, man’s style, with large buttons, greasy lapels). She was thumbing through a ratty paperback, a book without a cover.

 

“Whatcha reading?” Doug asked, handing her some hot dogs and a drink.

“My favorite book in the whole world,” the homeless woman said dreamily, shocked back to reality by the steaming franks in front of her. “This book is very special.”

“Oh yeah? What’s it about?”

(I happen to know that D.’s favorite book at that time was “Desert Solitaire” by Edward Abbey. He also loves a book I gave him entitled “Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line” by Ben Hamper).

“It’s about a beautiful young woman in New Zealand who’s adopted and then accidentally finds her birthparents.”

“I’m adopted,” D. says. This is absolutely true (and so am I). “I’ve always wanted to find my birthparents. Where’d you get this book?”

The book found its owner, it turns out. It found her and it spoke to her. It touched her with its sad beauty, the way it all works out in the end.

Because of the hot dogs, because of his kindness, because of the fact that he was adopted himself, the homeless woman hands him her most prized possession and begs him to take it.

“I can’t take your favorite book,” D. says.

She insists. He must take it. It was meant for him. She was meant to find it and love it and talk about it so that one day he could have it. That’s how things work. People who are meant to find each other or find certain things they need, eventually do find them.

“I can read that book anytime I want to,” the woman says, tapping the side of her head. “It’s all in here, now.”

So D. took the yellowed, tattered Harlequin romance and stuck it in his pocket and he went home and read it. A few years later, I read it, too. It made me cry. It was actually very good.

For years, we had this book, this falling apart, sort of smelly, crumbling book in our house. We couldn’t throw it away, could we? It was like a sign. Or simply just a gift.

It’s gone now, eventually tossed because it was literally disintegrating, but the book itself isn’t important anymore. It’s the story–it’s every story–that really counts.

 

 

 

 

 

“We’re moving,” I tell my dental hygienist when she tries to set up my next visit, six months from today.

“Oh! Wow! Where to?” The inevitable next question.

Honestly, I really don’t care much for dental friendliness. I like clean teeth and gingivitis tops my pet peeve list, right along with things that involve a seething crowd of fans, but I am not here to make friends. Perhaps it’s the vacuuming of my spittle that makes me feel so vulnerable and mean, or the lead vest, I don’t know. I shut my eyes behind my colossal sunglasses and run my tongue across the polished surface of my incisors for strength.

I do not explain how we are planning to pack our family into our Honda CRV, drive ourselves to Lincoln Mortgage, sit for our property closing, hand over keys to our house and then drive out of town. It’s a long story.

I also don’t tell her that I wish she were a robot.

“West,” I say, not so helpfully, and only because she’s blocking my exit with her Care Bear scrubs and confusion I add, “Seattle maybe.”

We really don’t know, I don’t say.

We are among the millions that have been directly affected by the recession. I hate that word, that euphemism. It’s an insult to eupha-mizing. It’s a euphemism that needs euthanizing. We have been unemployed for a year, our house is under contract and we simply have no reason to stay, so we decided that we might as well be in a place we love and we love what’s west of here, so we’re going there.

When we tell people this, the responses vary from interest, excitement to sadness and heartbreak for the missing that comes with leaving. The dental hygienist is easy. The good friends are definitely harder. It’s one of those all-inclusive-full-spectrum kind of experiences.

“Fear not!” I say to the friends, but not to the hygienist. Actually, I probably don’t really say, fear not to my friends either. But I certainly do imply it when I assure them that although we may not have a firm destination, we do have a plan, we do have faith, and we do have job prospects, talent and are unabated survivors. We will land.

In the interim, relieved of the weight of our things (having traded them for garage sale cash) we will be light and expansive! With a loose itinerary and a sense of adventure we will zig zag! We will take the long cut! We will have spitting contests with our son over canyon lips and notice the difference in the shape of the sky, the varied species of clouds over Wyoming, Montana. We will get cricks in our necks from gazing up the to the peaks of the Rockies, the tips of the Redwoods. But most importantly, we plan to laugh in the face of our homelessness and bestow onto it, with an avowed sacristy, ineffable calm, hearty and appropriate euphemisms. We will not undermine it like that “recession” crap. Instead, we will enhance! Transform!

We will not be Homeless. No way.

We will be Nomadic. We will be Gypsies. Vagabonds. James Bonds. Free Willys. Rolling Stones. Pigs in Zen. We will be Superbad and coming to a town near you. We will be cruising with the windows down, making terrific wave formations with our arms and we will be shaking our heads at the naysayers and the game players because we will know we are indestructible.

We will pretend we are flying, we will know we are free.


There was one seat left at the diner bar next to a white-haired gambler. I sat down as he ordered a soda and bowl of chili. I ordered the $4.95 Binion’s Burger, potato salad and a two-dollar Coke.

The white-haired man didn’t say a word as he waited for his food. When it arrived he took a couple of bites, washed it down with a sip of his drink, then paid for it with two five-dollar casino chips.

“Keep the change,” he said.

A female worker with sunken cheeks and poorly dyed hair stood behind the counter and shrugged after he wandered away. “I sure hope he was finished,” she said.

As she tossed his leftovers in the trash, a soft-spoken black man with a beard walked up on my right. He put a bag on the chair between us. “What kind of beans you got?” he said.

“Pinto,” said a Binion’s diner worker named Mel. I swear he worked the same counter ten years before. He was so matter of fact that I considered ordering some beans too.

“Give me some of that. And some corn bread. And a water,” the black man said. His food arrived almost as fast as he ordered it.

My burger was juicy. There were three tomatoes along with other fixings on the side. I carefully placed the tomatoes on top of the patty, replaced the bun and took a bite.

I looked over at the black man. He’d dismantled his cornbread and mixed it into his beans.

In the morning I saw a woman asleep in the warm Las Vegas light. She sat on a chair and leaned against a pole. Her dirty head was flopped forward and to the right. She leaned slightly against black and blue bags. Both had been silkscreened with the words, “Las Vegas.”

She’d been there all night.

My first night in town I walked from the sardine-packed crowds of Fremont Street to find the Downtown Transit Center. I was going to start taking a city bus to my new job.

The streets were nearly empty along Main Street Station. I rounded a parking garage to find a limping black man talking to his friend about getting in a club. One of them said something like, “We can get in there.” They disappeared into an alley lit by historic neon signs that led back to the tens of thousands partying under the Fremont Street Experience.

Up ahead, glittering blue and pink lights lit the top of the transit center like a slot machine just hit a jackpot. I walked through its doors to find a man sleeping on a chair. The long hallway was empty, silent. If it weren’t for the flashing lights on top of the building I would have thought the bus station slipped into hibernation.

A young hustler slunk past closed cashier windows. A Latino janitor pushed his cart through the station. He didn’t look like he wanted to work. I checked the price of bus fare. Seven dollars a day. Steep. Those are deadly prices. Tourist prices. You have to have a hell of a good job just to afford the stale bus air and a spot on seats that rarely catch a whiff of hand sanitizer.

I walked back out through the same set of doors that I entered.

“What do you mean it’s not open twenty-four hours? What the fuck am I supposed to do after hours?” said a man into a cell phone. The world around him was a big dark mess lit in the distance by neon and schools of light bulbs that swam through the Vegas night. He had a black bag slung over his shoulder and looked to be in his late fifties. Maybe he had grandchildren. He could have been a drifter. Maybe he was like me and just found a job in a big city far from where unemployment still dipped near twenty percent.

I slipped past into the glittering night.

Walking south I could see the closed Lady Luck had spent her nine lives. I remember when it was open. When I worked in Las Vegas ten years before as an artist for the big canopy of lights above Fremont Street. I remember a midget Charlie Chaplan twirling his cane outside the casino like he was some kind of shrunken Alice in Wonderland street performer. I had waved at him.

“Look at all the casinos,” said one of two men in front of me. I couldn’t hear anything else they said. My ears practically deaf from too many factory jobs.

I lost sight of them walking toward the Gold Spike.

I made a right turn and snapped a foggy, lonely photo of the El Cortez after a herd of cowboys slunk past toward the raving party on the promenade.

Across the street, a gutted room basked in white light. Empty bench stools hung under the weight of ghosts.

I made a left, toward the shadows of shady motels. I passed the old glittering historic Aladdin Hotel lamp and a flickering vertical sign that was nearly burnt out. Only two letters worked at all. They flashed and buzzed “FR-FR-FR…”

Tired, I turned around and headed straight toward Fremont Street.

A man in a wheelchair sat at a corner. His thinned grey hair on his big round head looked like a mess of moonlit grass. Two men leaned against newspaper racks about ten feet away from him. They waited.

“I’m going to hustle her,” one of the men said about a woman across the street. She stood by herself on the corner as if crack was going to flow from a nearby storm drain.

I shuffled across the intersection, past a club, a nearly empty Cuban restaurant, and an Albanian pizza parlor. A 7-11 that once flashed its gaudy convenience store sign had closed since the last time I lived on Fremont Street.

Since the last time I lived in a casino.

Further ahead, tourists stared into the big metallic sky. They waited for more lights to explode. I soon entered the hotel where I was living. I peeked at a tank where two sharks slowly circled with schools of fish. They look like they’d been gambled out. This was it, their last show. Out near the pool someone hit it big. Or maybe they just didn’t bust. Or maybe they were enamored by the lumbering sharks.

I went up the elevator to the 22nd floor. Outside, there were shouts from an alley. The walls shivered with conversation. I shut the blinds, the curtains and the lights and eventually fell asleep.

I was sitting outside at my favorite coffee shop; one of the last times I would do so before I moved away from the sleepy streets of Beaumont for good. The man sat across the patio from me at a cluttered table in a puddle of sunlight and his own eccentricity. I have long since come to terms with the fact that I am a divining rod for insanity. I can spot it in a crowd, and in some instances I am even magnetic. It doesn’t wait for me to find it, but instead fights its way to the front. I’ve seen a lot of crazy people.

This guys though, this guy was a rare gem. A trucker’s cap covered his balding head, which on its own would not have been unusual. He was also wearing a fanny pack and a tube top, however, and had eight mountaineering clips attached to his belt with nothing on them.

And he was carrying a record player.

It wasn’t my first encounter with this man either. He was the non-athletic type, and I somehow imagined that he lived as a stowaway in his mother’s basement, occasionally trying on her clothes when she went to work and exploring the inner workings of his turntable. The first time we met, he cornered me on that very same patio and proceeded to discuss with me the different types of solder. It was more of a monologue on his part than an actual conversation.

“We used to use lead based solder back when I was on the inside. Lead. Lead is good. Now everything’s lead-free and useless. It’s better they say, but it’s not the same thing. It all depends on what you want to join. Sometimes I just put things together to see if they’ll stick. Did you know you can’t solder something to a mouse? Won’t work. Not even with 18 gauge rosin flux. It just runs. The mouse I mean, not the solder. Ask me anything about solder, and I can tell you.”

I’ve learned since then to simply keep my earphones jammed deep in my ears whether I’m listening to music or not. It buys me the freedom to observe without participating. That day I watched, intrigued, as the man alternated between tasks, sometimes rolling cigarettes, sometimes strategically arranging the napkins on his table, and sometimes taking a moment to run his tongue along a lighter shaped like a deer’s head.

The latter was deeply disturbing.

Years ago I used to make a habit of randomly picking up homeless people and taking them for fast food. I’ve always been fascinated with other people’s stories. I’m a collector, and the vagrant population has more than most. You won’t get an earful of inner-office drivel from them. You’re not in danger of having to listen to them prattle on about their misbehaving children or how the neighbor’s dog won’t stop tearing up the flower beds. Their stories are never that mundane.

It was never unselfish. I in no way ever felt like I was doing some great service to these men. At best – even if they were in fact starving to death – I was only buying them one more day, and it was unlikely that they were going to figure things out in those twenty-four hours. Still, a Sonic burger in exchange for the chronicles of another human being always seemed like an acceptable trade to me.

More than anything, I grew curious as to whether or not these people were truly unstable and wild or if some of it was just an act. One I remember particularly clearly was named Big Chief. Over tater tots he regaled me with tales of having removed himself from the grid on purpose. Crow’s feet and thick lines cut their way through his face as he talked, making him look like a living Fredrick Remington sculpture and his Native American roots came through audibly as well, his voice possessing the broken, yet soothing, cadence of his people.

“They are watching,” he said. He glanced repeatedly in the sideview mirror as he talked. “If they knew where I was I would be dead, and you too most likely. If I can be on a different car every night, they cannot catch me.”

“You hop trains?” I asked.

“It is better that way. In 2002 the world will end, and only the ones of us with places to hide in the jungles will be safe. I have gold buried across the country, so when the economy falls, I will be ready.”

“Gold?” I was a bit incredulous.

“And jewels.” He pointed to his pocket, where I saw the metal spiral of a small pad of paper sticking out. “It is all in here. When I worked for the Secret Service I saved every check they gave me. I was there when they shot Reagan. Every dollar I made went to buying precious stones and metals and only I know where it is all hidden.”

The world didn’t end in 2002, however, and I never saw Big Chief again. I imagine him sometimes though, hiding in the forest on the outskirts of some sleepy town as night falls, burying nuggets of gold and marking their locations in his tattered notebook.

When I was eighteen I worked at a grocery store. A homeless man named Redbeard frequently hovered outside one of the entrances, begging quarters from soccer moms as they wheeled carts full of food to their SUV’s. It was a brilliant ploy, accosting these people with assertions of hunger when they couldn’t possibly argue that they had nothing to give. I never understood why these customers were so quick to go to their purses rather than hand the man a bag of chips or some lunchmeat from their carts.

We called him Redbeard not just because of his matted red beard, but also because of the invisible parrot that sat on his shoulder and gave him advice. There was a pizza place next door to the store and one day I invited Redbeard to join me on my break. Over lunch the imaginary bird miraculously disappeared and a much saner man emerged.

I grabbed another slice of pizza. “You don’t really believe there’s a parrot on your shoulder, do you?” I asked.

“Of course not,” he replied with a gleam in his eye. “But I do kinda look like a pirate, don’t I?” It was true. He did.

“Honestly?” he continued. “They won’t give you anything if they think you can help yourself.”

There was some obvious logic to his argument considering that he was sucking down slices of pepperoni on my dime. That encounter though has forced me to take a longer look at the crazy people I come across, which is what I found myself doing on that coffee shop patio with the man I knew only as The Record Player.

Like the vagrants in my past before him, he somehow ended up with a name like a Batman villain. They should have had their own line of action figures. Legitimately crazy or not, I could envision a metropolis filled with them; a world where Redbeard and Big Chief knocked off banks while The Record Player scrawled cryptic riddles on construction paper and left them behind to confuse the cops, as they all idled away into the night in the back of a boxcar. If they were ever captured, their insanity pleas would be airtight.

My own past is not exactly devoid of crazy moments, and I can’t help but wonder if I, too, have been labeled the same way by much saner people somewhere in the past. Crazy is such a relative term anyway. What right did I really have to sit there and judge this man? Maybe he continued to cross my path for a reason.

Perhaps it was even Life’s way of keeping me humble. “Don’t get cocky, Slade. Regardless of what you think about yourself, you’re still two tables away from a guy licking a lighter.”