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Mae West

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Since I was a teenager I can remember certain neighborhood characters that shall go nameless (because I have no idea who they are/were), as they were homeless.  Today in my hometown we have at least a handful of homeless people who come up from a canyon that borders the beach. All in all, California is not a bad place to be homeless. My town is considered part of LA County so we don’t exactly shower our homeless with food and shelter like Santa Monica, but we do have people who care. Until recently we only had one homeless person a year.

One day I offered one of our hobo’s a large bag of trail mix but he thumbed his nose and kept walking. I stared in disbelief for a moment and then called after him that there was chocolate in the mix.  He stopped, turned around and accepted my offer.  I guess everyone needs a sugar fix. I just can’t imagine what brain cell of mine was smart enough to suggest the chocolate in the first place. On another day I offered a coffee to a man outside a Starbuck’s. When I came out with a bagel for him, he asked if I would go inside and get him some sugar and cream cheese. I declined.

Going back in recent history I can name at least 3 in the last 20 years that were rumored to be children of wealthy residents. As the story goes, they were part of a very well-to-do family, went off the rails and decided to live off the street. With a monthly or yearly stipend (so goes the story) they were able to live the life of an insane person. I’m guessing 2 of them had homes to go to because they always seemed clean. One woman always had a freshly painted face of lipstick, bleached blonde hair, and dressed somewhat like Mae West. The other looked like some kind of Sam Shepard Beat poet, with corduroy jacket, jeans and ever-present cup of coffee & cigarette. In fact, he must have been a poet because he was always walking Sunset Blvd having a full conversation with an invisible friend.

The Mae West gal wore lace gloves (it was the 80’s) several pairs of tights (always bright blue and pink), a bustier (again, it was the 80’s) and I think a jean jacket. One would barely know she was homeless until they saw her rouged face ala Diane Ladd in Wild At Heart.  My mother made the mistake of taking pity on her one day and gave her food or clothing or perhaps just an ear, and she began coming to our door regularly.  This wouldn’t have been a problem if my mother hadn’t been scrambling to feed 3 children (and their friends) on her meager salary. I don’t know what happened to Mae; perhaps her wealthy family finally took her in or put her somewhere safe or perhaps she died.

Our poet disappeared one day as well.  He did not coexist with Mae but he vanished in the same way. For years I had seen him walking the streets (not panhandling), drinking coffee and chatting to Jack Kerouac (who else?) and then he was gone.

Today we have a more modern homeless gal. She lives in her car.  She used to have a Jetta and when that disappeared she showed up in an ancient BMW.  Could it be that she too has a generous family? Me thinks perhaps there are a few people nearby that are helping her, in fact I do know of one.

This “new” homeless lass looks like she lost her way from Woodstock but she is probably in her late 30’s. I don’t know if homelessness always ages you or not; I suppose if you are drinking and drugging it does but some homeless people look amazing. It’s just my observation and again, it could be a California thing.  Anyway, our Woodstock gal manages to make friends and enemies because she has a bit of an attitude. This makes me think she was born here.

I don’t know if I believe the old story of “Oh she comes from a wealthy family but is nuts, etc.” What are the odds of 3 different people living such lives? Well, now that I think of it, the odds are pretty good in this neighborhood; in fact, they are pretty good all around. We have to remember that for some, homelessness is a choice. Not all, but some.

When I lived in San Francisco a cop stopped me from giving money to a homeless man who regularly came by a shop I worked in. We always gave him a bit of change or more. The cop stopped me and said, “Don’t be fooled, he works different neighborhoods throughout the city and then goes home to his apartment. I promise he makes more than you.”  Sure enough as I boarded my bus home one day, he boarded as well and got off near my apartment, got out his cup and kept working.  Later in the week I saw him eating at a restaurant looking content.

If one thinks about it, people are quite generous with those less fortunate but there are always grifter’s about.  It’s just hard to figure out who is really unfortunate.

Today I give money to people I know are working hard and earning little. I always tip at a coffee-house and it’s sad to see the look of shock from the barista’s face.

The last time I gave regularly to a homeless person was in S.F. I gave him money because my roommate at the time had done so from our front door.  One night the doorbell rang and my roommate went into a panic asking me to take care of the guy and tell him we couldn’t give anymore. Obviously this fella figured out he had a couple of patsies.

I went to our door and nicely told him we couldn’t give as regularly as we would like. He told me to “fuck off” and left. The next morning the side-view mirror on my truck had been bashed in. Coincidence? Perhaps.