The Soup & The Kitchen, Part 1

 

A LOCAL WRITER LEAVES THE SHELTER OF HOME FOR THE HOMELESS SHELTER 

Photography by Shannon Iris

 

In January, at the shelter, we have to be out while it’s still completely dark, stars overhead.

People are milling about, hugging themselves to keep warm. Some are using the light from cell phones to pick which things they’ll switch from the banged up metal lockers where belongings are kept—about a cubic foot and a half of storage each—into their day bags.

I’m swinging “Deante” (no names first seen in quotes are real) around by his arms, like I have each of the past three mornings. Deante is five. He is painfully cute, with cherubic dimples, buoyant springs of black hair, and a light-up-the-dark-morning smile.

“Again!” Deante shouts, his arms still stretched out to steady himself against the spinning world. “Again!”

But a trash truck is pulling into the driveway where we are playing. We step back onto the curb, watch it lift the great bins with its hydraulic tusks like some futuristic mammoth. The driver steps down from the truck, flashes a smile, hands Deante a wad of cash, then rumbles, hisses, beeps off into the darkness.

“Forever blessed,” Deante’s mother says, her breath a bright brief cloud in the light from the Costco next door. Deante’s mother has a regal beauty and a powerful presence, with an elaborate braided hairdo that brings her from five foot three to about six foot even.

From the darkness a voice explains where the bus to the Jesus Center will depart. “Just look for where all the homeless people are,” the voice says.

Deante’s mother frowns. “Why do we have to be ‘homeless?’ she asks rhetorically, to herself, as much as to me. “Just because we are here…why do we have to use these labels?”

Instinctually, the snarky station in my mind internally quips: “No home = homeless. We have to use words, don’t we?”

But the station in my mind that quips snarky things has been getting fuzzy the past few days, out here, outta range. That station we all wish we could be more tuned into—you know the one—was coming in more frequently now.

The people I’d been meeting these past few days—here at the Torres Shelter, or at the Jesus Center, or out on the street—don’t have homes and are therefore, by definition, homeless. But beyond that—and beyond the causational groupings that can be made of drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness and tough breaks—beyond yet again the left/right tug-of-war between those who wish to emphasize “trauma,” and “social structures” and those who would stress “personal responsibility”—I met people; people who had erred, as we all err; people who’d found themselves in these particular circumstances through all sorts of circuitous paths.

Homeless essay-4-2 copy

The First Three Nights: The Park

With vague journalistic ambitions, I leave home by bicycle, just as the sky is extinguishing and turning to ash. It’s New Year’s Day night. In a duffle bag I carry a sleeping bag, an inflatable camping mat, toiletries, a change of clothes, a few books, and a notebook.

I’ve got on a thin sweatshirt and flip-flops over white tube socks—a worrying choice, both practically and in terms of fashion. It’s supposed to drop down into the mid 30s tonight.

But I don’t go back for warmer clothes. I’m trying to adhere to these ill-defined rules I’ve set out for myself. You can’t just go back to your house and grab whatever you need when you’re trying to “live homeless for week,” now can you?

Downtown, most of the stores are closed. The streets are abnormally hushed, dark, and empty. I ask a woman with wild grey hair pushing a shopping cart where I should sleep. “With people,” she says, before adding in a few racist details about who would attack me if I slept in the park. (This is the first of five warnings I receive in 48 hours about how dangerous sleeping solo in the park is, including one from a pair of bemused cops.)

I’m hungry, and though I have $5.38, I had intended to make that last the whole week.

Not knowing what else to do, I sit out in front of Peet’s to begin panhandling. At first, I am incredibly awkward at it. I get polite “no’s;” I get “I don’t carry cash;” I get ignored.

 

Then a man comes out of Woodstock’s carrying a small pizza box. His build suggests a man who would know his way around a toppings menu.

“Excuse me, sir, but you wouldn’t happen to have any change or, perhaps, leftovers, would you?” I ask, acting as if I haven’t noticed the box.

He looks down at his leftovers, despairingly.

Then he walks over, extending the box to me. “You don’t have any allergies?” he asks, before handing it over, in what is either the most conscientious thing anyone has ever said, or a desperate last ditch effort to save his pizza.

At about 8:30 I bike back into the park. It’s so dark that I can’t tell if the spot I pick is a perfect hidden clearing or a walking path with a bush next to it. It’s a bit cold and creepy, yes, but mostly it’s fine. In the distance, highway 99 roars faint and oceanic, like a giant seashell. I lay there thinking that this is really just urban camping; a silly stunt; lame. Homelessness isn’t sleeping in the park and eating some dude’s pizza. Like sheep, I count the ways in which this whole idea is dumb, falling, finally, into a fitful sleep.

I had, it turns out, been sleeping in the middle of a walking trail. At first light, I get up from my deflated mat, now basically a two-ply tarp (my princess back is not pleased), pack up my gear and head toward the Jesus Center (JC). They have free breakfasts, I’ve heard.

The JC, which teaches right living through Christ—like how to abstain from the sins of pornography, gambling, nicotine addiction and alcohol—shares an entire block on Park avenue with only one other business: Duke’s Cork ‘N Bottle, which basically just sells porn, lottery tickets, cigarettes, and booze, along with junk food. As I bike by Duke’s parking lot I notice, along the fence that separates Duke’s from the JC, a large red sign advertising the lottery. “Believe in Something Bigger,” it reads.

The JC has a resource center with a small library, computers for job searches, and assistance for those seeking services or work. Its dining hall is a large, fluorescently-lit room with tables arranged in rows and inspirational Christian proverbs written over cheery, childishly drawn paintings. On one side kitchen staff—a mixture of volunteers, employees, and young SWAP workers (the Sheriff’s Work Alternative Program allows people to perform community service hours in lieu of fines)—dispense food on trays, like at a school cafeteria.

I am shocked by how good the food looks and now see why this is by far the most happening restaurant in Chico at 7:45 AM on a Thursday. For the low price of free-none-d-none I’m smilingly served a full tray of tender chicken-fried-steak and crispy potatoes, all covered in warm, thick gravy and accompanied by a quartered orange, a cinnamon roll, and a cup of diner-grade coffee.

The dining hall is packed with over 70 people. A din of conversation and laughter fills the room, as does the co-mingling aromas of rich food and unwashed human bodies. It’s a pretty overwhelming scene. There are facial tattoos and bulbous four-pound dreadlocks woven with detritus. Billowing white and grey beards resembling the little personal storm clouds that follow people around in cartoons about “the unlucky” abound. There’s also a bunch of fairly “regular looking” people—perhaps the majority, in fact, but I don’t notice that at first.

I sit down at a table with a couple of guys. “Fernando” is in his late seventies. There are deep lines etched around his kind, twinkling dark eyes. Fernando requires dialysis for a kidney condition. In Spanish, he tells me that in Mexico, because he’s too poor to afford treatments like dialysis, he’d be dead. “En Mexico, si no tiene dinero,” he says, before making a knife-like motion across his neck.

“Azale” keeps a wary eye on his backpack, which has overstuffed, three-ring binders hanging out of it. He’s young and clean-shaven, almost preppy looking, with chin-length brown hair. He tells me he’s representing himself against some “bullshit” weapons charge. Azale has an incredible Wikipedic mind. He is the first of several men I meet who seem to be in their present living situation, at least in part, because they are too smart and morally rigid “for their own good.” Discussing his case, Azale not only cites from memory case histories and arcane statute law, but also digresses into the etymology of legal terminology, going back, for one word, through four languages. Based on Azale’s extensive research, which fills some of those binders, the court has no basis for their charges. Something tells me the local County judge will not be following his logic.

The crowd thins, and a bible study begins in one corner. “We should be merciful to one another for we are all sons of Adam and Eve,” Pastor Roger Scalice preaches. Scalice, who has a ruddy, earnest face and sympathetic, direct eyes, speaks plainly and passionately. I’m moved by the goodness in what he says and the powerful words of the book he’s reading from, a book I’ve spent little time with.

Just when I’m ready to ask him to baptize me using the nearest mop bucket, he starts in on a string of subjects that make my face start to twitch. “The only light that remains in this dark, messed up world is the Christians,” he says. Then: “This country was divinely given by God.” (My brain was really screaming at that one). He finishes by claiming, “There is a literal hell.”

On my way out, in the hall, I notice a message board with pushpins. Here are just a few:

“Call Mom. Worried about you.”

“Do you need a refill on Rx?”

“Everyone is OKAY. Just wanting to check on you. OKAY to call collect”

“Merry Christmas” – from mom

Out in the parking lot, people are planning out their days. “Wiley,” a slight young man with shifty eyes in what can only be called hoodlum attire is smoking an E-cigarette.

“You seen some crazy shit out here, man?” I ask him.

“I see shit other people don’t,” he tells me, without skipping a beat. He then goes on to tell me about the necessity of developing one’s third eye, about some “crazy bad-ass chick,” with whom he’d been getting spun out with and about getting kicked out of an apartment under circumstances that were apparently very unfair.

I can tell which things—like the drugs—Wiley feels he should maybe not be telling a total stranger because he edits those lines by mumbling them at half-volume, though they’re still perfectly audible.

I tell Wiley I’m here because I’m a writer and I want to learn things. This dismays him greatly and he warns, “be careful who you tell that to,” taking a step away from me before stepping back and pulling out his cellphone to show me a picture of a pile of river rocks, taken at night with flash.

“Do you see the alien?” he asks, his eyes fixing on me, momentarily non-shifty.

“Yeah,” I tell him. “I see it.”

This pleases Wiley immensely.

For the next three days, I wander between the JC and downtown, hanging out with people and then sleeping, at night, in the crook of a fallen tree. I grow increasingly stained, fragrant.

I see terrible things. Like a young woman with a scarred, shaved head, screaming incomprehensibly to herself and exposing her bra by writhing and pulling at her clothes as if she were perpetually on fire. I see her almost get beat up. I have some weak existential terror imagining what it must be like to be her, but mostly I just can’t. I see a pock-faced teenaged tweaker get arrested. I stay present and listen for hours to people whose severe mental illnesses exert a powerful gravitational effect on my own sanity.

And I see countless moments of incredible kindness and generosity, from JC staff, among the homeless, and from the community at large. Here’s just one of countless instances: From the front steps of the JC, I watch a middle-aged Chinese woman wheel a cart over from apartments across the street. Then she unceremoniously hands out old yogurt containers full of homemade soup she’s made. The soup is a rich, nourishing broth, with noodles and meat.

After I finished my noodles, I try to describe, in my notebook, how this woman has made me feel without using the clichéd phrase, “restored my faith in humanity.” I just sort of sit there for a while.

Tune in next week for the second installment of The Soup and the Kitchen, wherein Emiliano moves into the Torres Community Shelter and brushes his teeth.

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About Emiliano Garcia-Sarnoff

View all posts by Emiliano Garcia-Sarnoff
Former busboy, sauerkraut-mixer, and Japanese hair model, Emiliano Garcia-Sarnoff is a writer and father of two, living in Chico. After quitting a job as an Erin Brockovich-like legal investigator, then hitting rock bottom in a scene that involved roommates, tears, nudity and police officers, the UC Berkeley graduate decided to go for broke (and he’s accomplished his goal!) in the exciting world of small town weekly newspaper writing.