Contains sensitive subjects. Complex issues with homelessness and implied not explicit abuse. Also contains war trauma.
When Bob Marley sang “cold ground was my bed last night, rock stone was my pillow,” he was wealthy, but with the humbleness to sleep on the ground with “Rockstone” (now a monument) as a pillow. A pillow of any sort would be a luxury beyond my means. The cold ground, this night feels harder than ever. The rough pattern of pavement etched into my raw back. Struggling to sit upright felt like flesh peeled free from the street. It was dark. Footsteps approached. Hunger was ever-present.
What I hoped for was to be tossed a coin. What I expected was the footfalls to jaywalk to pass by on the other sidewalk. What I got, was a frightened child. She couldn’t have been more than eleven, though dressed more appropriate to sixteen. Although no sixteen-year-old wears the same outfit as long as she clearly had. She had accumulated weeks if not months worth of dirt and grime.
I had queued up the typical polite ‘s’cuse me ma’am, coundya spare a coin, I’m awfully hungry’ but what came out was “You ok sis? You alone out here? This late? That young? It’s not safe, you betta get ya’self back home now ya’hear?”
She didn’t go. She came. She sat down beside me silently. Most people avoid the homeless; especially kids. She just sat uncomfortably close, trusting. Neither one of us spoke.
Eventually, she looked up at me. The soles of my blackened feet weren’t as dirty as her face. I repeated, “You ok sis? You alone out here?”
She seemed to think that through a moment or two. “No, alone means there’s no one there. You are here, so, not alone. Okay, though, I’m not so sure. I’m trying. It’s harder than I thought. It’s better, yes, but not good. No. Not good at all. Excuse me mister, could you spare a little change? I’m starting to think I might die out here. I never wanted to eat when I was ‘there’ but now; I’m really starving.” She hissed the word ‘there’ as if it were a cursed place.
She sure was thin. She had to be food deprived long before landing here. “Hmmm, I see, so, you’n’me huh, we both here on the streets eh?” I peeled off my stiff crusty sock revealing two quarters wedged between fungus-encrusted toes. “Well c’mon with you, I know a place. They n’ver close. Welcome homeless.”
It must have been late, the city was nearly silent. The only place open, a Korean joint, “Eat’in it,” a tiny place with bulletproof glass, and standing room for two, or three if one is willing to hold the door open. As always we were alone. “How much you got?” The proprietor of this particular eatery wannabe never asked what you wanted, only what you could pay.
”I got two ag’in like las’ time. But she needs to eat more than I do.”
”Two quarters? Two whole quarters? Again? You rich man now huh?” He always mocks me but treats me kindly. “You take two. Two egg roll. You both look like shit. Now you go. You scare customers away.” There were no other customers. There never were. Rumors were he just gave food away as a cover for a meth lab. The streets were awash with the addicted. I wasn’t one of the afflicted. If I could help it, she would avoid that fate too. I probably can’t though. When you live in desperation, wanting is all you have. Wanting food, comfort, company, anything. Just to be seen as human. When you live in perpetual want, need is one step away. Too often the need for substances surpasses the need to eat. I don’t blame them. I understand them. I would be them if I ever had more than two quarters. It’s pathetic, but, I am not a drug addict cause I am just not that successful or lucky. It’s pretty bad when the crackheads and the junkies shooting up in abandoned buildings are the successful ones in your community.
We had food, we were rich for the moment. The poor little thing nibbled at the edges, just the flakes off the egg roll like she has to make every crumb last as long as she could. Little did I know, she had dealt with anorexia since she was very young.
When the streets are your home, it doesn’t matter where you sleep, so we decided to walk awhile and find a quiet park. We just kept walking. The city was left behind. By the time the sun rose, we were walking past farmland. Farmland has food. Lots of food. Acres and acres of food. Way too much of it corn. Her nibbling gave way to famished devouring. She gobbled down four ears of raw corn before I could finish one.
“Thinkin’ we be campin’ now, huh? Look at us now, eh? We vacationin’ now, are we?” Getting out of the city sure felt like an upgrade. The ground was no harder at least. We even dared build fires in the woods, yet still knew the bone-chilling cold without shelter.
She started to smile once in a while. I even made her giggle once. Late at night though she trembled violently, and not from the cold. PTSD. That was another thing we had in common. I knew where mine came from. Fucking battlefield bullshit! Ugh. The imagery was always there at the surface of my psyche. I was smart. I was in command. I was a leader. I saw my men in an instant go from man to bloody mush. Splattered by artillery fire and missile strikes. You never recover from seeing men, whose lives depend on you, turned into a liquid fountain of blood and a nondescript ‘human matter’ the globs and chunks left over to be identified later. Five men. One unmatched left foot. Approximately three hundred pounds of human matter. Yes, I know that tremble. It’s in me now. I believe I have suffered a form of brain damage from my proximity to the explosion. Not from percussive head trauma, but from that vision filling ninety percent of my mind, leaving very little left for the simple quest for food.
My agitation must have woken her, as hers has many nights, she stirred and tossed a branch on the dying embers. “Mister. You haven’t hurt me in months. I don’t know why. I also don’t know why you call me sis, but never asked me my name. The trembles. I’ll tell you mine. But, tell me yours, please? And... I’m Clarissa. Step-dad asshole called me candy. I don’t like that. Clara, can I be Clara, please? Can I be someone else?”
Clara told me everything, however, needed to say nothing beyond ‘called me candy’. Somehow that alone seemed like a confession of guilt. I cannot divulge the confidences she entrusted in me, that alone will have to suffice. I can say the human liquefaction syndrome (my self-diagnosis) seemed a trivial trauma by comparison.
She ran, and running was the right thing to do. He always used throwing her out on the street as a potential punishment for not allowing torture. She chose the street.
I hadn’t chosen this. I couldn’t function. I couldn’t communicate, and I certainly was useless as a leader. Near comatose from shock, I received a dishonorable discharge for not obeying the order to simply ‘snap out of it.’ There was no snapping out once you are thoroughly snapped. My mind was an echoing moment. Kaboom splash. Kaboom splash. A single second an eternal echo. It became harder to think and form coherent sentences. Every thought is interrupted by a kaboom. Every sentence is punctuated with a splash. What choice did I have? ‘S’cuse me ma'am couldya spare a coin, I’m awfully hungry’ took practice and repetition to earn a meager income of two coins tucked between toes to prevent theft.
I was damaged. She was damaged. Together we could function. She was a charming talker. She required nothing but someone to sit by her side. We made a good team, and things got a little better. The thing about farmland is, that there are a whole lot of barns. Over time we got braver and sought shelter from a storm or two, then started curling up in the rafters on very cold nights.
We were found one day in a bed of itchy hay. (It wasn’t hard ground, but not a big upgrade) The farmer assumed we were father and daughter. She neither corrected him nor objected.
He did not turn us away but invited us in. Paid us to help with farm work. Five dollars a day bailing hay. We had it good. Home-cooked meals. Cots, blankets, even a heater.
Like too many farms, this one too was bought too soon and turned into a strip mall just to service a new exit off the highway. The farmers retired to a low-budget retirement warehouse, and we moved on to become nomadic seasonal workers.
I hadn’t noticed the jingle, but Clara had been saving every dime. Only dimes. She wandered off alone one day and came back with a tent mansion. She was proud the tent she bought me had three rooms for two people. We were living in excess of our needs.
We had walked for days from job to job or hitchhiked the highways state to state. When we worked on an organic family farm in Oregon, they traded us a week's work for a van.
Step by step we worked hard. We worked our way up. We improved our lives and our situation. We found our Rockstone. Our humbleness in homelessness. We found each other, wherever we roam we have our home.
She never did ask my name. Most people didn’t. I became known simply as Clara’s dad. A designation never appended with— the asshole.