I approach the front desk at the hotel and ask, "So where do the homeless hang out in town?"
After an odd stare, he said, "Try the 99 cent store." This was the first time I had gotten this advice and it would prove valuable on several occasions, (Here is a story of someone else I met at a 99 cent store) not just in Redding California.
Upon arriving at the 99 Cent store, I did not see any homeless but did see two security guards. I approached them and asked, "Don't homeless people tend to hang out here?"
"Not any more." They laughed, clearly proud of having done their job.
"Do you know where they do?"
"Try down by the safeway...and tell them the 99 cent store guards say hi." They laugh again but then add, "Just kidding, don't tell them that."
On my way to the safe way I see what appears to be a homeless man with a small dog. I walk fast to catch up. "Do you know where the safeway is?" I ask. I really wanted to ask, ,"Are you homeless?" but it's a bit of an odd question, so I stick to directions to the store.
"Yea, right there." He points across the street, and we both begin to cross. I introduce myself and learn his name is Carlos Perez.
"Where you from?"
"What are you doing in California?'
"Just trying to find work."
At this point I am very confident he is homeless and decide I'll take him to dinner and find out more then. "You hungry?"
"You want to get something to eat?"
"Yeah," he says with a smile.
"You have time to sit down?"
"I got nothing but time."
He is drinking what appears to be beer from a Nalgene bottle as we walk.
"So you're looking for work?"
"Yea, I had a job, but I blew that because I didn't have a phone to call in when I didn't show up. I did work on a farm up the highway a ways, but they pay me in weed."
He says it so casually that I assume I misheard him. "Did you say weed?"
"Yeah, weed and wax."
"Its made from the oil of the stock. See weed is like 24% TCH and wax is like 84%. It gets you high way faster. But it's too common in California, so it is not worth anything, but if I could send it to Florida it would be worth tons of money. Then I could go home with some real money."
It amazed me how casually he would discuss multi state drug trafficking with a total stranger. But not having much use for the ins and outs of weed dealing I moved on to another topic.
"Why'd you leave Florida?"
"Me and my girl wanted to travel. I'm a traveler, not a hobo who stays in one place. But my girl and I got in a fight and she left last night."
"Where do you stay?"
"We are lucky, we have a car. I'm not licensed or registered or anything but we get around. It is an old truck with no windows and shakes violently when you go over 25, but that is usually where we sleep. But I can sleep anywhere, after all it's just sleep. You do need to know where it's okay to go. Wal-Mart is the best. I've never been kicked out of a Wal-Mart. They let you sleep around the fence or in the lot."
"What about when it gets cold? Do you go to a shelter?"
"No way, I hate shelters. I just bundle up with lots of clothes or put my dog on my chest. If I need gas to run the heat I just sit on the corner with a gas can and people will get me some."
"So how long have you been in Redding?"
"Too long. I hate it here. Everyone is on drugs. This is the meth capitol of the world. That's part of why me and my girl fought, she has been clean for a year but has slipped back 3 times and it's hard here. I've never done that stuff. I don't want any part of it. It's just too addictive. Alcohol is bad enough. " He says, gesturing to his Nalgene.
We enter the Black Bear Diner and stand by the, "Wait to be Seated" sign. We are standing there for several minutes while we continue to talk. Several waitresses walk by. Finally after uncomfortably long I stop one and say, "Table for two." Carlos has his small dog with him. The dog has a vest that has a patch sewn into it that says, "Service animal." The waitress does not ask about the dog, but does lead us to a side room that has a few guests finishing their meal and puts us in the far corner. It appears that this is the portion of the restaurant that they close earlier than the rest but decided it would be a good place to put us.
"So did you grow up in Florida?"
"I grew up all over. My Dad left when I was 5 and my Mom kept going back and forth between Puerto Rico, Massachusetts and Florida."
"How long have you been on the road?"
"For 4 to 5 years now. I love being a traveler, it is so eye opening not being a slave to work. I'm not lazy, and I like to work, but the rules don't apply to me." He stops, gets very serious and point to himself says, "For me, this is a choice. Some people are out here because they lost their parents or were abused and run away, but not me. For me, it's a choice. My family are still back in Florida, my Mom and my boy."
"You have a son?"
"Yeah, he is 16 years old, lives with my ex. I love my ex, we had our differences but we get along and she lives by my Mom and brother, all in Daytona. I also have a 22 year old daughter but I don't know where she is. She is a rebel like her Mom. I hate that woman. I was 15, had sex for the first time and found out she was pregnant. I stayed with her for 5 years, but she went crazy and disappeared."
I couldn't help but see my own 5 year old little girl and couldn't stomach the thought of never seeing her again.
"So do you see your boy?"
"Oh yea, he lives down the street from me." He speaks of his Mother's home as if it is his own, and even though he hasn't been there in 5 years, considers it so. (I wrote about his idea in How Many Ways is He Homeless?)
"Yeah, I was a Mason in Massachusetts making like $1,200 a week but I needed to be close to my boy so I moved to Florida and was only making $290 a week as a cook. But it was worth it to be by my boy."
It get's silent and I don't want to ask follow up questions because they will all lead to the obvious question of, "why did you leave then?" So I change the subject.
"What's your dogs name?"
"Her name is Black Dog."
Black Dog has been quietly, obediently sitting this entire time. I realize I have been now waiting longer then I have ever waited at a restaurant. We are now the only ones in this room and I finally get up, find the lady who sat us and tell her we are ready to order. She apologizes profusely and says she will quickly send someone.
Shortly after I get back, someone comes to take our order. Carlos gets a Reuben.
"So why California, I ask?"
"I started traveling a little bit at a time. Each time I would get a little further from Florida. Then one day I met My Girl at a rainbow gathering and we decided to try California. See, at the time, I had this really cool RV. It was the total party bus. I liked to paint and do like body art and tag. So my bus was tagged inside and out. We finally made it to California and a guy come up to us with a garbage bag and I say, 'What's in the bag?' He throws it down and it's full of weed--10 lbs. of it. And he gives me a little handful. I was like, 'I don't have the money to pay for this.' He said, 'No need, welcome to California!' So we decided to stay in California."
"What's a Rainbow Gathering?" I ask, again trying to get off the weed topic.
"They are where woods people gather and have festival. It comes from the ancient nature prophecy that said when the world is falling apart that it will be saved by the rainbow children who will bring back unity. There is some really good rainbow groups on Facebook and stuff. I can show you how to get involved. They are really good people."
Again I realize it has been really long, and I have to get up again and find the waiter. He again apologizes, and shortly after, our food shows up.
Carlos looks down at his Reuben and with a huge smile says, "This is great! It reminds me of jail."
"Yeah, there was this jail in Keystone Colorado. It had the best food! I loved it there. I wanted to stay but got out. Actually I was surprised they caught me. I had just tagged this police car with a Sharpie, and some officers came up and said they knew it was me. I totally denied it, but then they asked to see my pockets and found my Sharpie markers. I should have thrown them in the dumpster. The jail was awesome, but the officer was such a jerk that I told him I would never come back to his town."
The irony of this statement was thick.
"Are most jails okay?"
"No, just that one. The one I spent a few weeks in Florida for having some weed was the worst. They gave you like one hard boiled egg, and that was your lunch. The conditions there were awful."
We get back to talking about the Rainbow People and he notes, "If you go on Facebook and type 'Rainbow Family' and request friends they will let you know when the next gathering is. I always tell people a gathering is like the Robin Hood movie with Kevin Costner when they go into the woods. I told you about the prophecy and it totally makes sense, who knows how to get by without electricity? The rainbow people.
"Do you have Facebook?" He asks.
"Yeah, I just got it. I had avoided it for a long time." I admit.
"That's good. Most divorces today are because of Facebook. That is part of why my girl and I fought. I saw her phone and read some of her Facebook messages to other guys. She got all mad saying she is allowed to have friends. I was like, 'friends don't say that to each other.'"
By this time I had long since finished. Carlos had only finished half his sandwich but it was clear that was all he was going to eat. I again went into the restaurant to find someone to get us a check. Again, a profuse apology.
After we had paid, we walked out and Carlos asked if I wanted to hang out. I told him I had better get to bed, but at the stop light before I crossed he told me one more story. I wrote about it earlier and you can read it here. Anyone can see Carlos's life was full of contradictions. His decisions to travel versus his desire to be by his son. His disdain for drugs, and his love of Marijuana. His divorce vs. his love of his ex wife. His love of Keystone jail and his determination to never return. We all have contradictions in our lives and Carlos's contradictions made the Serpentine Stone story all that much more poignant. If you have not, I hope you read it.
But I cannot leave the story of Carlos and not address the mistreatment at the restaurant. I do not think the restaurant purposely mistreated us. My guess is the lady put us in the corner of our own room because of our smell. Carlos's smelled about how one would expect a guy who had been sleeping in an old truck for weeks without a bath to smell. And Black Dog probably wasn't helping the smell much either. Given this, maybe the back room wasn't a bad place. After that, the total neglect, I think, was because they were busy and forgot about us. It was a room they didn't usually use that late, so to get to us was out of the routine. But purposeful or not, it was neglect.
I think most of our neglect of the homeless falls into this category. We don't mean to hurt, ignore or put them down, but to help them is out of our routine. Especially to really help them. So they get put in the back room, the homeless shelter, the bad part of town, and we get busy and forget about them. If we want to really help the homeless we have to get out of our routine, we have to step out of the day to day busyness of our lives, call a personal timeout and remember the back room.
If you like this please read my last homeless post: We don't want your kind