When asked if he still maintains contact
“Oh I used to quite a bit, but I don’t any more. They are across country and live in Jacksonville.
“Not even a Phone call?”
“Ain’t got the money to make a phone call every week or so. You know I do what I can, once in awhile I’ll do that, but I won’t call them collect anymore, cuz I don’t want to put that burden on them anymore. They’re old and my Dad is on a pension.”
“How old is your dad,” I inquired?
“Oh in his 70’s, I don’t think it polite to really ask him. “ he said with a slight chuckle. I could hear the level of respect he still maintained for his father, even after leaving home over twenty years ago.
On the subject of Marriage, Barry was proud to say that “Thank God” he had never been married. When I asked why, he responded that he “heard his Mom and Dad fight a lot. They love each other you know and it’s like the Irish and English, whatever my Mom is, you know, you get two Brits in a fights it’s kind of like putting ammonia and bleach in a pot together. “
Every once in awhile, Barry would go off on a little tangent and I would have to direct his and my own focus to the questions at hand. He would talk of some guys robbing a bank and how stupid they were. Little flickers of grandiose stories would seep through his conversations.
I was curious about his daily routine, “So what’s your routine like during the day? I see you in the morning”
“Oh it’s very busy Terry, it’s just like you know, you get up, roll your stuff up, put the pan out, sit down, it’s after six, can I sleep? Is a cop here?” he chuckled.
I started getting the sense that it was not too much effort to get going in the morning. As we talked, a few “regulars” walked by as they gave their pleasantries. A young woman handed him a candy cane and wished him a Merry Christmas. Somehow I felt I was intruding in his life and keeping him from making money, but my curiosity kept me focused. I was also struck by the generosity of those who passed. Whether it was a hello or some change dropped into his pan. I also hoped it wasn’t showmanship because I had a notepad and tape recorder visible.
Asking where he sleeps, “In the tunnel or once in awhile like someplace. I don’t really tell too many people where I sleep, you know a lot of people just innocently, casually mention it, then you have a whole bunch of people coming out. I don’t like having a whole lot of people knowing and then bringing a cop up there. They do a lot of stupid stuff drinking and doing drugs.” I pictured in my minds eye that it would be difficult for Barry to hide where he was going, his 100+ lb shopping cart would attract attention like a parade in July.
“How about the shelters, when it gets really cold, do you use those?”
“If it’s like 14 degrees, yeah”
“What about the cart then, what do you do about that?”
“Yeah they usually gripe about the cart, so I don’t know you know, I’m like shove it if you don’t like it.”
“That’s all your possessions right there, right? Other than food and clothing, what’s your most important thing in there?” Thinking that maybe he had some special memento like a photo or journal.
“I had a guy tell me I was addicted to shopping carts”
“Does it become a friend to you where you can find some security in having it?”
“If I get a lot of shit, well it’s just me. It’s like there’s this guy I know that says hi to me now and then. He gets really mad at me and used to give me shit. He says he finally just figured, I’m out here because I’m out here”
“Why are you out here?” I asked.
“Probably for the same reason, there’s a mental thing going on. Mainly I give people a reply they say well, why don’t you get a job? Well, I don’t like to work, if I liked to work I would do it all the time, I’d get a nine to fiver”
At this point he went off on a digression about wanting to charge people forty dollars a month to have a bunch of people in tights and a boom box playing aerobic music and doing bumbersize classes. He envisioned his customers going up and down the canyons of the city, pushing shopping carts for exercise.
Barry would digress on little tangents likes this. The stories or thoughts would flutter like paper strips in a ticker tape parade. His inability to disconnect fantasy from reality would become obvious.
I sensed it was time to change gears and wanted to know a little bit more about his upbringing. “So tell me about your childhood, what was it like growing up?”
“I was a kid once, I grew up that’s about it, I hated school, I told them to stick that diploma, light it on fire and keister it”
I was somewhat surprised to hear he had a diploma, but also realized as we spoke over the past month, he had an intelligence about him that surprised me. You see when Barry talks; his tongue sometimes sticks out, without impeding his speech. A condition I learned is a potential side effect of his schizophrenia medication. This led me believe throughout the years, that he may have been retarded or slow. One of the reasons I was reluctant to strike up a conversation with him.
“Weren’t you proud to have earned the diploma?”
“No, I still ain’t, everything I know, I learned in Kindergarten”
I chuckled, “And I bet you read that book as well”
“So as a kid, where did you envision yourself being ?”
“ I didn’t see bum, I didn’t have a big ol’ bum sign flashing across me.” The vision of a huge sign above his shopping cart came to mind.
“Do you see yourself as a bum?”
“I don’t like the word, it depends on how you use it, and it’s a subjective term. It’s like, Freud said about the cigar, you could call it anything you want, and it’s still a cigar. It can be a Macanudo or a Montesano or a Dutch Masters, it’s still a cigar”
I was curious how he thought others saw him. Since he didn’t like the term bum, did he see himself as others did? I know I personally judged him immediately. It’s hard not to put someone who pushes a shopping cart and lives on the street into some kind of category. Whether it is crazy, lazy or whatever term the mind can envision.
“How do you think people perceive you? Number one, when people walk by, do you care what they think?”
“Some of them maybe I give a damn, if they got money. If they’re going to put enough money in the pan.” His eyes, looking to the horizon as people passed by.
Going off on another tangent abut getting kicked in the side so a drunken person could give him a dollar, I posed the question again, “how do you think people see you?”
“Crazy, most of them think I’m crazy. They use it as a pejorative, you know, but if somebody is ignorant and they say a stupid remark, it’s more of a compliment coming from that kind of person if you know what I mean”, he chuckled. “You could be insulted by somebody, but I’ve always told people that crazy is a subjective term.” Having seen people who were crazy on the streets, with no shoes and begging for money, Barry did not quite fit the crazy profile for me.
I directed the question toward his answer on having mental health issues. “I got mental health issues, yeah but what’s crazy? Rusty Weston was a little nuts, but they killed him”
Unable to remember that name, I asked him for clarification on who Rusty Weston was. “He stormed the capitol building with a 9 mm or a 38, killed a cop and a Secret Service agent. They shot him, I know they at least shot him and he was supposed to be schizophrenic. Kaczynski he was a little nuts he was a little bit crazy he had a thing about computers.”
So I pressed him for some clarification on his mental illness and what he had? “So your mental illness, can you clarify it for me?”
“I was diagnosed with schizoid affect disorder”
In asking whether he takes any medication for his illness, he said that he didn’t want all those meds in his body. The more meds he takes and puts chemicals in his body, he wanted to keep his body clean, because eventually he’ll have to be taken off of them anyway. I found this interesting, as I had seen him and Popeye celebrating the arrival of Thanksgiving with Cook Champagne and thought this to be counterproductive to his well being.
“What about alcohol in your life?” I asked, thinking there must be some kind of vice that grabs a hold of a person on the streets.
He pointed to his jacket, coated with dirt and the pocket bulging with a concealed bottle. I asked, “Right there?”
“It’s not like I’m going to crack the bottle open right now with all the camera’s around here” His statement opened the shroud of mystery a little more and made me think of his schizoid affect disorder he alluded to. The paranoia of “The man” watching and all the black helicopters stories came to mind. “I don’t even break the seal with all these cameras’s watching, not like Tex who would sit there and drink a beer, then piss over the side. He got to where he didn’t give a damn anymore.”
My curiosity needed to be satisfied as I envisioned a 40oz beer in his pocket. “So what do you like to drink?”
“Bush Mills Irish Whiskey and you know what Glenn Leavitt is, I drink that too?” I nodded and inquired, “Is that for special occasions when you get a little extra money?”
“That was last night because Brian gave me ten bucks”
I had also started building a friendship with Brian, a Real Change vendor. We talked of how he loved to cook a good Rib Eye steak and his small studio apartment at $500 a month was enough for him to be happy after being on the streets. He had worked until midnight selling the paper the night before Thanksgiving, so he could buy himself a good steak and shrimp. He wanted to be in the warmth of his home to enjoy his first meal after being homeless. I imagined his apartment as little more than a bed and a sink with dishes piled high.
I knew Barry likes to drink as he and Popeye were celebrating a little holiday cheer in a McDonalds cup under the freeway, the day before Thanksgiving. They asked me to join in and I refused, saying I was not much of a drinker. The honest truth, I was afraid to drink out of the same cup as them. I also did not think it wise to support them.
“Yeah, he gave me one of those little bottles as a gift” I could visualize his happiness of receiving that from Brian. Modest things we take for granted have particular meaning for someone with nothing.
I decided to pop the $10, 000 question as the conversation was drifting to other topics and asked him, “What’s the #1 contributing factor, other than money that keeps you on the streets?”
“I think that’s it’s just that I won’t seek shelter” he said with some resignation. “I don’t drink that much, but if you go showing up, they’re so hypocritical, you know. Like they never drank a day in their lives. Some of these guys are so addicted they can’t, you know, what are they going to do? You gonna kick everyone out that drinks you know, then you have these assholes in here that come up in there and their drunk and they raise a bunch of hell. They need shelter and they aren’t gonna kick them out.”
“I had one guy at the First Avenue service center, Brother woke me up, he’s beating on this guy with a club because he was trying to take my shoes. I went over there and said stop beating him with the club and I’ll kick him with my shoe.”
“I pressed the question again, other than money what do you think would help you get off the streets or is money the #1 factor”.
He chuckled with a nervous laugh, “yeah give me a couple of million dollars, a house in Hunts Point, you know.” Somehow the image of him in an exclusive neighborhood like Hunts Point came to mind as he pushed his cart through the neighborhood with multi million dollar homes. What a sight that would be. The idea of the response of the residents made me snicker inside.
“Is that what you want?”
“Yeah, I don’t care about the streets, the streets are OK if it’s not 14 degrees and you are not doing something incredibly stupid, you can survive on the streets.” He said with conviction. “You don’t need a big old house with heat, you can go find yourself a Hobo shack or a mobile home or something”
“So what about someone like me getting on the streets, what do you think, how long do you think I would last?”
“Dead inside a minute, because you wouldn’t make it. No offense, but you wouldn’t make it. You have the salt and pepper hair; you don’t look like you’re old enough to be on there, when you are young enough. You are not at a young enough age to where you are used to it yet. You gotta get used to it. Now Tex he was on there for years, Popeye has been on there for years, they’re used to freezing their asses off”.
You don’t think the average Joe like me that walks by every morning would be able to make it?
Looking down the walkway, his head turns to a young couple walking away. “ I don’t think that guy or that women, no offense to them, it’s like Tex used it as pejorative he would say these guys, they really couldn’t stand thirty minutes. Spend 30 days with me and then let them talk their smack”
Satisfied with his answer, the thought still tumbled through my head like dice in a cup. Could I make it? Would I be able to find it within me, the strength to humble myself to begging? With no family and only the friends on the streets could I really do it? I somehow wanted to find out that answer, but I knew the only way I could do it, was to give up every material and monetary possession. He was probably right I would never make it. I am too comfortable with the choices I have made.
“So you don’t have to answer this question, but how much money do you make a day?”
“I ain’t gonna divulge my profit and loss statement unless you show me identification that you are with the IRS” with a weightiness in his voice.
I chuckled at his comment, “I’m not with the IRS, and I’m just a guy who is curious”
It’s a toss up, let’s put it that way. There are some people that will tell you a $150 dollars a day, everyday, that’s bullshit, not everyday. Maybe get a $100 bill every once in awhile then you run and cash that fucker before someone sobers up, the guy that gave it to you or realizes, you gottta be outta that spot before he comes back and says, hey give me my hundred back”
I felt that a gift of $100 was a rare gift indeed, but I know that I myself had given $20.00 bills to homeless men I had befriended, as a Christmas gift.
Turning to a new topic, “What’s your scariest experience living on the streets”
“Shit, there’s been a lot of him” he said with dejected eyes.
”Is there one you are comfortable telling me?” I prodded.
“I saw one guy get beat up with a crow bar one time, that was kinda scary and I didn’t even want to move and he looked at me, like you in this? The guy with the crowbar. Do I look like I’m in it? I got something in my hands; you think I’m stupid? Some other people started talking smack. I told them after he left that it’s pretty fucked up. “What kind of alcohol and drug filled arguments had he seen in his 20 years on the streets? I did not want to prod further and sensed there were stories I would most likely never hear.
He then shared with me a funny story of a skateboarder with dreadlocks, a T-Shirt and shorts who skated across a manhole cover, where a carriage horse had recently peed. As he went over it, he fell off and landed on his stomach in the middle of the horse piss. “It was old Major’s puddle, I knew it was. He was ringing out his shirt”
“So your daily routine, do you go anywhere to eat, or cook, just make your meals here?”
Pointing over to Ralph’s Soups, which was a couple of hundred feet away, “I go over there, go to Ralph’s or some other low cost place to eat.”
“And the business owners, how do they treat you”
“It depends on if there are any problems out here you know. They’re sensible, if you don’t do any damage to their business, then they’re OK.” Pointing to another homeless man who was walking from First avenue, “Now that brother over there for example, gets too aggressive, they don’t let them people in the business. “They get kind of weird when we go in there.”
Looking down the length of the walkway, cars passed behind Larid who was doing a little shuffle while holding his paper cup. His aggressiveness forced people on the street to gravitate away from his cutting personality. Barry gained his attention and motioned him over, “Hey Larid, come on over here”
I had seen Larid on the streets before; he is what I would call an aggressive panhandler, with black skin as shadowy as the hours of darkness. His eyes soulless, with neither depth nor sparkle, move in a constant state of motion. As if searching for something concealed. His voice has a resonate depth that comes from the caverns of his throat. Sounding like a combination of Fat Albert and Jabba the Hutt, his words indecipherable, force a listener to take note of every syllable uttered.
“How you doing my friend got any dollars? Something? Hungry” He asked without embarrassment.
“I’ll buy you a McDonald burger” Barry chimed in
“You give me two dollars?”
“You know I don’t do that man”
“I haven’t had a hot meal all day”
“Yeah I know, I’ll buy you a MacDonald burger but I won’t support your damn beer habit”
“That’s nice of you,” I said.
With this, Larid told Barry he would wait for the delivery of his meal in a spot that he frequently staked out. His perch was a worn windowsill to lean against. A place he stationed himself at while on a rushed quest for beer money.
I was struck by Barry’s charity. He spoke of his concern for him, because he knew that Larid would soon be on a bender and he needed some food to make it through the night.
“So do you see yourself doing this forever” I asked as we walked toward a soup shop that Barry determined would be more healthy than a hamburger.
“Oh hopefully out of here by about” pausing to gather his thoughts ”by about, oh, Tex’ age. I loved Tex like a Dad. You know I loved him like a father. He was like the dad I didn’t have almost. But I really, wouldn’t want to know, you know. I don’t want to see myself becoming like Tex and pissing over the balcony and not give a shit.”
“So you see yourself getting off the streets in a year, five years, by retirement age? I guess retirement age is ill relevant to you”, I chuckled.
“I don’t try to become religious about that, try to predict what God’s gonna do for you”
“Are you religious?”
“Its helped me in a lot of ways, it’s better to have faith in God than in a beer bottle, pimping that wine all the time.” I got the sense that he had faith in a higher being, but I couldn’t help but believe that he was really on his own on the streets.
I shifted gears again, “How was the transition from living in a home with your parents to being homeless?”
“Well first it was really bad, first you’re not used to it. Luckily I was in California the weather was warmer. I went to Lake Piru Condor Refuge and its desert and stupid me; well it’s not warm at night. It gets unusually cold at night. To someone who was homeless at 18, I thought it was probably a fun adventure until the actuality of his circumstances set in.
“When did you get used to, you said “ok, I’m out here for awhile?””
“Terry, I hope I never get used to it. I hope I never get so used to it where I’m like Tex get married to it. I hope I don’t, I hope I don’t. If I get the opportunity to get some decent room and board, you know. I hope I’m in a space where I’m able to take it and say fuck all.
“How can you get into some room and board?”
“You just get some money and decent identification and pay your rent, the hell with HUD, you know, pay your rent.” He said with strength of mind.
As we continued to walk, the sound of a car alarm went off and the rush of traffic could be heard in the streets. This was his living room, I thought to myself. At home I can be in warm place and fluff a pillow, while Barry straightens his cardboard and his jacket is a place to lay his head. I had seen him late some nights, his tarp over his head, sitting in an almost upright fetal position.
“So when’s the last time you had a place to live in, what we would consider a home?
“I don’t know”
I sensed he wanted to evade the answer as he thought about the question. Not wanting to push the matter “ In general are you happy? How do you feel? I mean when you get up in the morning, what’s your feeling like?”
“I’m like praise God, another day, you know. Another day alive you know. Basically people are like that. You have to be glad your living, you know what I’m saying” I nodded in agreement.
We entered the soup café and Barry ordered the usual sandwich that he always gets. “I need to get one for the brother out there, but I don’t want to encourage him” he told the worker. He then ordered soup and requested wheat bread because “It’s good for him”
“I’m getting Larid some soup because he’s gonna be getting drunk on me and he needs the food. Otherwise he’s gonna be hurting, belly gonna be hurting. He’s gonna be getting what they call arsehole drunk”
I questioned him “Arsehole drunk ?
“Asshole drunk, I wanted to tone it down in here and be polite” he smiled. Though his life was a struggle, he could still maintain his manners and I imagined his dad was a strict disciplinarian for proper etiquette.
As we left the café, he commented “Get him a sandwich with lettuce and tomatoes, get him something nutritious. She knows how to do it. Try and buy him something to eat because he’s bullshitting about the eating.” As we approached Larid, he was standing in the middle of the path about 50 yards away, naked from the waist up. He was changing his shirt and was putting on a brand new T-shirt, fresh from a shelter donation. I asked him if I could get some pictures and he obliged., asking me “Did you bring me that DVD, was that you? Are you the gentlemen that brought me those DVD’s? Shrugging, I told him no.
“You got any money for me?”
“I don’t walk to talk to anyone then” he stated. I found this jagged gratitude a bit harsh, since he was just given a nice meal. Guess that’s the way it is for some on the streets. If you cannot fund their needs, then it’s time to pursue the next mark.
Barry and I went back to the cart as we continued our conversation. Thumbing through a Photo Magazine I had given him, I asked, “ So anyway, you’re pretty happy for the most part, you’re alive, you wake up, you look forward to the day?”
“Yeah well, you know, sometimes it’s like you wake up. Sometimes you’re like oh boy does my face look like crap, where the hell is the exfoliating cream when you need it. It’s like Saddam Hussein waking up in that hole, “Who the hell do you have to torture to get a damn Biori Strip around here?
“So what do you think of the Iraqi war? Knowing he was up on current events.
“ We can insult the Arabs even more now we’ll be insulting some other group when we go into the next war. The next President will do something stupid and we’ll get rid of him. I think most politicians, while they’re campaigning ok as soon as they win, think of our esteemed mayor. He was so great, but look who he had to run against. He’s not the sharpest knife in the box. He then shared with me that I should never fly on Osama Airlines and any plane that had a photo of Osama Bin Laden on the rudder should be avoided at all costs.
“So what do you miss most about your former life?” Pausing for a second, he reminisced about Thanksgiving dinners with his Mom. He started talking about a program called Fair Start that teaches the homeless how to make a living in the restaurant industry. Something he did not want to participate in because “They are always got some solution for homeless people”
“So what is the solution?” expecting that cash would be the thing he would ask for.
“There ain’t no solution, throughout history there have been homeless people, there have been beggars at the gates of the temples, right? The temple gates at Christ’ time. When Peter and John, have you not heard Silver and Gold Have I None; but Such as I Have Give I Thee?” Being no scholar in biblical passages, I nodded and let him continue. “So you know there are beggars all throughout history, there are always going to be beggars, when we’re building colonies on the moon, we’ll be floating around in little spaceships all shabby and holding out the cups; probably having anti gravity things on them to keep the coins from flying out.”
“So ultimately, you think there is no solution?”
“You’re not gonna get rid of them. Talk about a solution, a solution implies it’s a real problem. Everybody calls it a homeless problem.
“You think it’s a problem?”
“It’s whole culture, a separate culture. It’s real nihilistic of them for people to say just because you’re not that way; the culture needs to be eliminated. You have people dying on the streets. Ever year the Real Change did an article on that. But, you have a lot more people dying in apartments, houses places all over the country. You don’t have people saying, “hey my grandmother died in a hospital, she was being taken care of, OK?”
We talked about more about the culture, how close people are and his need to “Go Solo” at times to get away from the craziness of he street comrades. How he can get “Amped” up on coffee at times and drinks too much. He spoke of a young homeless man named Nathan, who I had met that walks around with his pet Rottweiler. “Nathan was all speeded up, he hit that speed pipe, right? Then he decided in his wisdom, his drugged up wisdom, his doped up wisdom, decided to take 10 shots of espresso in his coffee on top of that speed. He’s got attention deficit hyperactive disorder…bipolar, get him manicey, really did wonders for his medication. You know caffeine counteracts your medication, Bipolar. Makes you go into a manic stage. That’s why they don’t let them have caffeine in a mental hospital”
“So what do you worry about most”
“Mainly what scares me the most, I’m gonna get to like this kind of shit, you know. I’m just gonna be as crazy as Larid and as old as Tex or as old as Popeye or something and I’m gonna be out here, I’m gonna be so inured , gonna start drinking wine.”
“You seem intelligent enough to see that’s not the way to go”
“So who do you love:”
“Not a lot of people, there’s Tex I loved him, I could get a kick out of him. Popeye, of course. He’s got his little thing with Detox. I think they got mad and put him in the old folks home. I’m waiting for him to bust out. He said something like when he got put in Terminal Island Federal Prison. Some guy asked him what he was in there for and he said, well you rob a few banks….”
“So what do you value in life”
“I value this life, you know someone tips over my cart, stupid you should have stayed over here and done that when I was around. In the end, where’s it all gonna go, if I go to jail in a couple of months, it’s all gonna go in the trash anyway and it’s gonna be nothing. Maybe I’ll do something stupid and not give a fuck and hit someone in the head with a milk crate. Maybe I’m tired of these assholes won’t get off the rep, maybe I can blame it on my craziness.
Sirens in background
“What advice do you give other homeless people on the streets?”
“Sit down shut up, hold the cap out, do what the cops say”
“So what do you like about your life”
“I get to sit on my ass, go to Salvation Army, I don’t have to put up with shit like they do with their boss. If I go to a job interview and the boss starts getting smart with me, I can tell him to shove his job. I’m 38 years old and I’ve got more respect for myself than to kiss ass for a job.
With that my tape ended. It was time to go back to my cocoon of comfort.
Update – A few months after this interview, Barry was more cantankerous and I noticed him talking to himself more and when I did stop to say hello, the wild stories would come out. The subjects usually involved the police and “robbers”, fast cars and people going to prison. The last time I saw him, he was sweltering in the 80 degree heat with his 4 layers of clothing, cussing up a storm and seemed to be mad at his shopping cart. Asking how he was doing, His response was, “You don’t want to know, Terry” With that, I walked away. Word on the street is that Barry will be spending his summer, on vacation, at the King County Jail.
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