• Talking philosophy in a homeless camp

    by Erika Fiske

    I’m sure the classy women with high heels, bleached hair, expensive jewelry and a Mercedes parked at the curb have no idea they are walking on sidewalks put there by a city engineer who now lives homeless in the hills by Monterey.

    That’s all I know about this man, because the small group of homeless men seated on plastic crates under the trees behind Whole Foods won’t say another word about him. Their honor code includes protecting one another from unwanted publicity. I would have to find him myself if I wanted to know more.

    On this sunny Sunday morning in March, the four men, all bearded and wearing well-used clothing, sit in a circle talking about whatever comes to mind. Tied close by is Mickey, a nice-looking English bull terrier who stands at attention, making certain her bark isn’t needed to ward off this stranger to her place.

    The men meet here almost daily, although if it’s raining they may stay at their camp on the hillside. They’re all middle-aged and drink too much beer. Michael, 44, is a native of Monterey and used to do maintenance work, cooked in restaurants and worked as an electrician. He even had a business with another guy, Griffins Gardening and Maintenance.

    Not long after, he became homeless, although he remembers his last job at McDonald’s, where he was hired as a cashier and wound up doing 15 jobs. “I made seven bucks an hour, and after seven months they wouldn’t give me a raise,” he says. “They said I wasn’t productive enough.”

    So this grandson of an Army General quit his job and joined the other American society— the one behind buildings, beneath trees, under bridges, out of sight.

    Jeffrey, 51, has been homeless off and on since 1997. When he was young, he wanted to be a contractor, building and selling houses. But that dream died along the way. He suffers from anxiety, which led to this life under the trees. At the age of 38, Jeffrey’s busy life as a Las Vegas cook made him feel like a hamster on a wheel, until everything “caved in,” he says.

    Like all the others, he carries a small, silver, $10 Chinese radio from a nearby store to stay in touch with the other society, the one many of us are hanging onto by a thread as the money is sucked up by others.

    Jeffrey says he’s a news junky and likes to talk politics, but notes that the variety of homeless who gather here sometimes discuss music, philosophy and other topics. He thinks the Republicans don’t have a strong candidate for president and will come up with someone new at the convention. And he’d like to see term limits for senators and an end to lobbyists in government.

    “I even carry a sign saying I’m running for president and need funds,” he adds, smiling. Most of the men are smiling, despite their hard lives. All are quiet and polite.

    Two of the men cough several times, one between puffs on a cigarette.

    “Coming here to socialize (under trees behind Whole Foods) gives us a sense of belonging. Yesterday there were 15 of us gathered here,” Jeffrey notes. “I’d rather live outdoors than in a house with all the chemicals found there.”

    The men agree that the makeup of the homeless is changing. “We’re seeing a lot of young dudes, 19 or 20 year olds,” Jeffrey says. “They’re getting out of high school and can’t find work. And they don’t have the support system to allow them to get into college.”

    Luis, 49, shook his head in agreement. He’s lived homeless in the area about nine years, but used to work on oil rigs at Kern Steel in Bakersfield long ago— as a welder’s helper. Mickey is his dog. “I’ve had her over two years,” he says. “Some guys said, ‘We’ve got an apartment and can’t have the dog, so here you are.”

    As I meet more and more of the homeless, I begin to see them as an alternative SPCA— a place where people dump their pets, but where many find a home and companion for life under the trees and in the fresh air.

    Between coughs, Luis admits to having bronchitis and asthma. With those illnesses, the drinking and living outdoors, he doesn’t expect to grow old. None of the men do. But there was a time when Luis thought he might be a helicopter pilot in the military someday, since he came from a military family. Like the others, something just went wrong along the way.

    Craig, 42, has been on the streets 11 years. He once worked on boats in the area, washing them, gassing them up, whatever was needed. Recently he got out of prison after being arrested for fighting with another guy. The four men list some of the professions among local homeless— a man who was studying to be a priest, a paralegal, a taxi driver. They agree that all together, they could probably make a town of their own.

    None really complain about their lives. They’ve gotten used to living on the edge of society, among the trees and wildlife, with no alarm clocks, no minimum wage salaries, no bill collectors.

    Still, one has to wonder how things might have turned out if Luis had taken over the controls of a helicopter, if Jeffrey had found himself with a crew to build houses, if a certain engineer had stayed on to build better things in Monterey.

    Who knows what might have been.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on May 11, 2012

    Topics: Homeless Chronicles

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