Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Life on the Streets - Bill


Bill was one of the more colorful guys I had ever hung around with in my life in the other America. There are no Norman Rockwell paintings of that side of our great country. Bill taught me so many survival tools that I could still use if I was ever again relegated to living “on the street.”

Bill and I lived in the same hotel. He lived one floor below me. That made him one floor closer to the bar. We spent our evenings in the bar on the ground floor of our hotel and worked out of the same “slave market.” We became friends when it seemed that we received job assignments to the same companies each day. We would get our sandwiches and head out to where our assignment was for the day. Sometimes we had to ride the bus, in which we had to get bus money from the manager, or the employer may pick us up at the office. The bus money, of course, was deducted from our pay at the end of the day when we reported back with our signed work ticket.

Bill, like most of the men and women I met on East Seventh Street, was an alcoholic. I was not at all surprised because just about everyone started drinking when they got down on their luck or got down on their luck when they started drinking. Bill, like Ray, came from Michigan. Their stories, however, were very different. Ray was a guy that had started at the bottom of the social scale and worked his way up while Bill started at the top of the social scale and worked his way down.

We really became close friends when we were assigned to a “steady ticket” working at a factory that made gas meters. We would meet in the morning, go to the day labor office, get our sandwiches, and head off to our work assignment. The sandwiches were long gone before we ever arrived at the factory. Aside from a sandwich from one of the food trucks that seemed to make it to every work place in Los Angeles at the same time at every break and lunch, our morning sandwiches were our only meal. After work we would settle up on our pay at the office, go to the hotel and pay our room rent for the night and head to the bar where we drank until our money was gone and listen to every manner of hard luck story one could ever imagine or to the stories of those who were going to get off the street and make it big with some hair brained scheme that no one could ever imagine. When our money was gone we headed upstairs, actually the hotel had an elevator with an operator, shower in one of the two showers on each floor and collapse on the bed for a good nights sleep in preparation to repeat the same routine the next day. The truth is that it was a little hard to get a really good nights sleep because across the street from the hotel was a very large fire station and just about every ten minutes, the sirens would sound and a fire truck would speed from the station to save some building from extinction. Every time the sirens shattered the night the couple hundred men and women in the hotels nearby grabbed the pillows to cover their ears until the noise was a distant whine, lest they lose their hearing or have their heads explode.

I found out that Bill had a girlfriend in North Hollywood and he invited me to go with him one time to meet her. I was shocked to find out that she was from my hometown and had been in my oldest sister’s high school class. It truly is a small world.

Bill was even more savvy than Don when it cam to getting freebie meals, clothes, and even small amounts of money. During my short time on Seventh Street I went to more missions than I ever knew existed. I always found it amusing that we would be required to sit through a sermon by some evangelist, most of whom were too young to know anything about life or too old to understand the plight of the men and women they were pontificating to. I believe that most were sincere but the truth is we were there to have our bellies filled, not to have our souls saved. I considered myself to be a little different than most of the men and women I saw on the street. I was there by choice and I could leave anytime and find somewhere else to go. I was on a quest to find life while most of the people wandering the area were trying to get away from life. They had quit, given up, and were just waiting for the end of a miserable existence to end.

I am sure that many of the people there were running away from criminal charges some where; some were just hiding from a world that had somehow cheated them or that they cheated on. When they just became tired of the games of life they found their way here; to this small corner of the world inhabited by others just like them. We rarely talked about criminal records; that was a taboo subject unless the other person told you about his misadventures. Even then one would not want to delve too far into someone else’s life. That could be very dangerous. Crime on the street was common and expected. It seems that there was a death in our little area at least three times a week.

Back in the mission meeting halls, after a few songs that sounded like a herd of cows groaning as they fought off death, the evangelists would begin his or her sermon to this group of broken men and women. The message was that Jesus loves you and he is looking after you all the time. All one had to do to get off the street was ask for forgiveness, accept Christ as your personal savior and you will receive salvation and your pain and illnesses will be healed just like the man with palsy who Jesus healed and told to get up and walk, his sins had been forgiven. It seemed so easy, but like one man asked me one time “What did the guy do after he got up and walked? Where did he go? What did he have?” We really didn’t know. And what these people wanted was a warm meal no matter how meager it was, not a soul saving expedition by a bunch of wealthy do-gooders. To be honest most of the men and women I met on the street had a better understanding of God’s love than most of the preachers they endured for a free meal.

Bill and I hit missions at least three times a week. We learned which ones were long winded and which had just a short service. The rule at all of the missions was that you had to sit through the service in order to get the meal. Even in this bleak corner of civilization the economic principle of “there is no thing as a free meal” was proven true over and over.

We, Bill and I, decided that we were drinking too much and we needed to turn over a new leaf. That lasted about three hours. One day at our factory job assignment, the lead foreman somehow pushed us both a little too far and we told him to do something with his anatomy that is probably impossible and walked away. When we got back to the office we were told that we could not get paid until the next day because they had to verify exactly how long we worked. The manager also told us we were suspended from working out of that office for a month. That hurt!

We stored what little we owned in a friends room and we went to find a place to sleep for the night. We hung out in the bar for a while, nursing drinks that others had bought for us until last call was announced. What came next was a jolt to my system. It seems that not too far away were some hotels that allowed only women renters. Most had only one bathroom per floor. So, if one was out of a place to stay and did not want to be picked up for vagrancy, the best thing to do is sneak into one of these hotels, go into one of the bath rooms and lock the door. Since women don’t get up during the night too much, one could usually steal a few hours sleep on the floor, all the while being alert for someone rapping on the door. That only happened to me once and the lady just decided to go to another rest room. Refreshed from our night of sleep on the floor of a restroom, we reported back to the labor office and got our part days pay less the cost of our morning sandwiches. We had about four or five dollars each and no prospects of getting an assignment at any of the slave markets.

On the street we heard that there was going to be a company looking for people to go up north to a labor camp to pick lemons. We decided that maybe we should try to hook up with them in the hopes of getting back to having a little money and food. We wandered around for most of the day, trying to look like we were actually doing something so as not to be too visible to the police. We went to a mission for the noon meal. We got there right at the end so we were the last to finish. Since we were the only two people left, one of the ladies that operated the mission kitchen asked if we would like to clean the kitchen and dining room and earn five dollars for it. You betcha! That was better than slave market wages. Not only did we clean the kitchen and dining room, and did a really good job of it, but we were also able to clean ourselves. The manager allowed us to shower and clean up and in fact provided us with brand new underwear. By the time we had finished it was near time for the evening meal to start and men and women were lining up outside the door of this storefront refuge from the harsh reality of life at the end of the line. We were told that if we would stay and help serve that we could eat first and if anything was left we could have seconds. This was the kind of action that touched the hearts and souls of men and women who had long ago given up on such concepts of love, friendship, fellowship, sharing, and even God. It wasn’t the ranting and ravings of some preacher who wanted to save us all from being condemned to hell. Those men and women would go home to their snug homes with their families around them and brim with joy over the good work they were doing. Most of the people living on the street were already living in a personal hell that those preachers could not even begin to understand. Most thought that the hell the preachers described would be an improvement over their current circumstances. What softened the hearts of those poor souls who had been abandoned by family, friends and the socio-economic system in which they existed was the kindness so freely, blindly and sincerely handed out by the ladies that ran the soup kitchen where the meals were truly free. I guess that was my first realization that what you do and how you do it are far more important than what you say. For the rest of my life, I have been able to distinguish between the talkers and the doers. Some others were selected to clean up that evening and Bill and I left clean, full, and ready to face whatever came next. That night we did the women’s hotel restroom thing again and bright and early we were up, appearing as neat and clean as possible and, having retrieved our one suitcase each, were waiting for the mobile office set up by the lemon camp recruiters to open. There were only about six or seven other men there so we knew we would at least get an interview.

The whole experience at the “office” was interesting to say the least. The office was a small mobile home converted to something that resembled an office. The interviews actually took place out in the open at folding tables. It really was not much of an interview. What is your name? What is your age? Are you an American citizen? May I see your social security card? Are you new to California? Where are you from originally? Do you have any health problems? Do you mind living in a camp in barracks like buildings? If the interviewer was satisfied that you would do the work and stick around for awhile he filled out a paper and told the applicant that he was hired and that this paper would get him on the bus and into the camp. We were also told that the bus would leave from that location at a certain time, have your belongings and be there on time or the bus leaves without you. We were not told too much about the job. The only explanation was that we would be picking lemons at various orchards, we would live in a camp, our bed was free but we had to pay some token price for our meals. There was a company store in the camp where we could buy most anything we might need. We were also told that alcohol was not permitted in the camp. It all sounded pretty good to me.

Bill and I were hired right away. We already had our belongings so we just found a corner to hang out on until the bus arrived. We watched guys come and go; women were not being hired for these jobs, just men, that was the mid sixties. We laughed when one guy approached the office area with a cart that he must have made himself or stolen somewhere. It had rubber wheels and handlebars to push or pull it with. It had two wooden cabinets attached to it and all together it stood over four feet tall. He must have everything one would need to set of housekeeping anywhere. He was strutting along with his house on wheels making sure everyone noticed him and realized how much better he was than the dregs of society hanging around on the street hoping to get hired. He marched up to one of the interview tables, sporting a smug look that I secretly wished someone would help him change it with a knuckle sandwich. But it did not happen, something better did.

He presented himself to one of the interviewers, having pushed his way past men who had been standing in line for a couple of hours. The interviewers had a boss. A manager I guess. He just walked around, smoked his Lucky Strikes and watched over everything. As mister house on wheels approached the interview the manager yelled,” get the hell out of here. I’ve had trouble with you before. Don’t ever think you are going to work in any of my camps.” Some of the men clapped, some made crude and rude remarks and let out catcalls. When Mister big shot walked away he had lost his swagger and his body language betrayed the level of his anger and humiliation. I just thought that he probably deserved what he got. It seems that there was code of ethics on the street. No one was better than any other man or woman. The people that employed people from the street seemed to respect that code and would not tolerate anyone that caused trouble. Trouble would probably be bad for business. My guess is that the goofball had caused trouble on the street and at some labor camp this company operated. The Japanese have a saying”the nail that sticks up gets pounded down.” In the Japanese society everyone must conform or the society breaks down. That same rule applied to the those men and women who were likely at the last stop on the train of life and forced to live in a culture that was ignored or, at best, tolerated by the rest of our society. Survival at any level requires some degree of conformity but there and then, ones life depended on blending in with an unusually diverse population and accepting the unwritten rules of the street.

When it came time to board the bus for the long ride to the camp that would be our new home we walked with all our worldly possessions to the assigned pick up spot. We were expecting some beat up former school bus; instead there was a large motor cruiser, much like one of the Greyhound or Trailways buses that crisscrossed the continent carrying millions of people to any destination imaginable. This was not an old used up coach but a relatively new, clean, and comfortable bus. We were traveling first class. This was a most pleasant surprise. I knew we were going someplace north of Los Angeles but I really didn’t know exactly where. I was not too familiar with California cities.

A few hours after leaving Los Angeles, we arrived at our camp. It was a pretty nice place especially considering we had just left East Seventh Street in L.A. There was a large main hall where meals were served in the morning and at night. The offices and a well stocked company store occupied another large building. A group of barrack style buildings completed the community and along with the other two surrounded a central courtyard with benches and a few recreational items.

The area was beautiful. The town was Golita, near Santa Barbara. Every time one opened one’s eyes it was like looking at a living postcard. One area that we worked in was on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The clear blue color of its water looked majestic in the morning sunrises and evening sunsets. There are many scenes etched in my mind. The view of the ocean from that bluff is one of the best.

Picking lemons was not the hardest job I ever had in my life but it was not the easiest either. We were paid fifty cents a crate. The most I ever did was forty crates. That was twenty dollars in one day. Usually by the end of the week, after I had paid for my meals and settled up with the company store, I had only a few bucks left. There were many itinerant Mexican workers who did this for a living full time. Not just picking lemons but working in just about every kind of agriculture environment one could imagine. I once saw a field full of workers using short handled hoes to weed. That had to be horribly backbreaking work. Most of the Mexicans were a family package. There would be mom and pop and two or three kids and sometimes a grandparent or two. They would all be on the job and work their tail ends off. When the job at one camp was finished they usually had enough saved for a few new, or used, clothes and to get them to the next camp and set up there. I will never forget the feeling of working next to a ten year old boy who worked as hard as any man. It was quite humbling.

The rear of the camp bordered on a highway. The camp was much higher than the road and across the road was a drive in theater. Bill and I, and others, would sit on our hillside and watch the movie across the great divide. Of course we couldn’t hear anything but we still had fun watching. We had long talks about most every subject we could think of. It was there that Bill told me about his former life and his fall from grace.

Bill came from a very well to do family in the Detroit area. His father was a prominent physician and his mother taught at a university. I was never sure exactly how many siblings he had but I know he had an older brother. He was always being compared to his older brother, who was perfect, and he developed a pure hatred for him. His brother was three or four years older than Bill and when he went off to medical school, to follow in dad’s footprints, Bill went into his first alcoholism rehabilitation program. Many more rehabs would follow. He tried college but no school would accept him. He barely made it out of high school. He bummed around doing dead end jobs, that he would eventually lose, and mooching off his parents until they had enough and ran him off. He was disowned and told he was not welcome at family gatherings or even to call. He told me about on Christmas when he went by his parent’s home and the whole family was there. He stood outside and looked through the window. I was quite sad for him as he told his story.

Bill had been in county lockups several for being drunk or for petty theft but he was a far cry from a criminal. He just never got his life on track. He told me about the last time he was in Michigan. He and another guy were trying to steal something and somehow he fell and broke his leg. Too bad there were no “world’s dumbest criminals” shows back then. I’m sure he would have been a star. He had no choice but to go to his brother to get his leg set. His brother reluctantly set it and told him that if he ever laid eyes on him again he would have him arrested on old warrants. Bill was not sure if there were any such warrants but he had never been back to Michigan or had any contact with his family. Stories like his are common among those who have lost everything and given up on others and themselves.

One evening, as we were sitting on the hill, Bill told me he was going back to L.A. He left the next morning as the rest of us were loading onto the trucks to take us to our next work area. I never saw him again but have never forgotten him and the time we spent together on the street.

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