This must certainly come as a surprise to no one, but spending the night outside in a city is no fun. It’s not just the expected things like sitting on cold concrete and being exposed to the elements; it’s also the nuisance of wanting water or a place to pee. We grow used to the little conveniences and when they’re gone life becomes a little less fun. Let’s forget for a moment my emotional state at this time, which, by any measure, was at an all time low, and talk about the physical strain of life on the street. That first night was an aberration, for one, I thought it was going to be the only one. I never contemplated spending as much time “homeless” as I have in the last six months. As such, I figured I just had to make it until dawn, and then I’d figure something out, call someone and find shelter with an old friend for awhile, something, anything would occur to me as a solution to the mess I’d gotten myself into. I’d also had a decent amount of sleep on the bus, so I wasn’t as in need of a full night’s sleep. Night after night though your body gradually wears down, one poor night leads to a day seeking a place to sleep, and then another miserable night, and before you know it everything, all reality drifts into fog, the days blend into each other, the nights are woefully long dark hours of fear, hunger and uncertainty.
There’s no place to get clean. And, I was surprised at how quickly I got dirty. Even after a redeye flight it’s nice to take a shower or at least splash water on your face and change your shirt. Now imagine that same feeling after a 24 hour bus ride, and then instead of a few hours in a room at the Marriott, a night on the street. My hair was greasy, my clothes (I still had my running shoes at that point) started to smell and itch, a few days growth covered my face, and I started to discern my own body’s odor. That ever-present odor grows unnoticeable after three or four days. You may accidentally catch a whiff of yourself on occasion, shocked by an offensive smell like someone else’s fart, and then realize it’s really you. It’s more than disheartening, it’s humiliating. I became one of them. Almost overnight.
In a way the filth acts as a shield. The normal people ignore you (think about how often you looked closely at a bum on the street), and the others, the rest of the ignored, warily acknowledge you. You’re one of them, but you’re not one of them. They note someone else has joined them. If I were clean I’d be a target. That old coat I picked up in Sacramento, the growing layer of grime and the increasingly grizzled appearance acted as a badge, a pass into their world. A bit more tidy and the more than two hundred dollars I still had in my pocket would have glistened like a pearl in a pond.
Sitting here now, faced with the same internal angst (it does not diminish with time, the utter stupidity of what I did) yet absent the physical discomfort I can wonder how I was so lost, I can imagine I should have done something else, that I could have been capable of doing something else. But, the truth is, the morning after that cold, frightening night, I simply ran and hid. The sky grew lighter and real people started walking the streets, and I just didn’t want to be seen. I walked down Mission Street to the Bay and then just followed the water, under the bridge, past the ballpark, down Third Street, the sun now up over the East Bay hills. I found a boarded up warehouse down off Third Street, slipped around back to the deserted loading dock and curled up on some old cardboard to try to get some sleep.
But just as I was about to drift off, or rather after I’d had a few fitful moments of sleep, as if still in a dream I remembered Jake and the phone number. No matter how long I shifted around trying to push it out of my mind, the thought of getting some answer any answer to what went wrong prevented me from peaceful slumber. So, I dragged my exhausted butt off that uncomfortable concrete and went in search of a pay phone.