The Soup & The Kitchen, Part 2

 

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

photography by Shannon Iris 

 

Check out the first installment of The Soup and the Kitchen, wherein the writer leaves his home and stays in the park for three days 

The Next Four Days: The Torres Shelter 

Apparently, bedbugs are big enough to be pat down for, which is disturbing. The Torres bouncer tonight is a woman with an Andean build, wearing a “Carpe Diem” shirt and a wry smile. I’m clean. Well, of bedbugs, at least. Inside, I’m breathalyzed and a female staff member accompanies me into the bathroom where she stands staring into the corner while I piss into a cup. Clean again.

I sit down for an intake interview with Johnny. Johnny is young and looks like he could be a barista at a hip coffee shop. He has sandy-colored bangs that fall in front of unblinking eyes and crudely lined tattoos across his fingers that read, “rock” and “roll.”

Johnny recognizes my byline and compliments me on a few articles. Then he eyes me skeptically. “This is not a flophouse,” he warns—something of an unofficial Torres motto as it turns out. He asks me questions like “did you attend Special Ed?” which, under normal circumstances, I might have taken offence to. But Johnny—one of those countless unsung American heroes—is cool; he’s respectful, he’s doing his job.

I get bunk number 50.

The shelter is institutional and worn, with checkered linoleum floors and florescent lights; something between a county jail and an inner-city dental office. It’s undergoing a serious remodel and expansion. Plastic sheeting billows over bare studs packed with fluffy insulation.

On a back patio, lit by a single halogen work lamp, I talk for a while with “Franklin.” Franklin has perhaps the most alienating identity circumstances of anyone I’ve ever met. A gay black man adopted by a white Jehovah’s Witness family as an adolescent after a childhood of physical and sexual abuse, Franklin says he’s always felt too white for black people, too black for white people, too gay for straight people and—because he lacks any typical gay affectation—too straight for gay people.

Perhaps because of this, Franklin is an incredible mimic. He’s hilarious. A few days later, on the same porch, in the same light, he read aloud from Rob Brezny’s Astrology column in the back of the News & Review. He did my sign, Libra, in a perfect posh Londoner. Then, for a woman with silver hair, and in a stunning surfer-bro, Franklin read from Aquarius: “I’m guessing, that in a metaphorical sense, you’ve been swallowed by a whale.”

The men’s dorm is a cavernous hall packed with rows of peeling metal bunk beds that tilt up like cruise ship deck-loungers. The minimalist wall art is distinctly less inspirational than that found at the JC. There are just two posters. One reads: “Adults, get help with your reading,” while the other says: “More than half of all people will have an STD at some point in their lives.”

Number 50 is a top bunk, with a view through slatted blinds of the huge red letters of the Costco sign. After spending a few days with people who use electrical cords cut from broken lamps to tie together the trashcans on their can-collecting carts, I’m feeling the full brunt of the craziness of capitalism and the five-pack of Sonicare brush head-replacements I just had to buy at Costco last week.

The lights go out at nine. Soon, some sort of John Cage-esque experimental music piece begins. Snoring and farting come at unexpected frequencies, durations; tonal patterns. There are desperate sleep-apnea-gasps for air, and sleep talk, soft and melodic as Muslim prayer.

At five, the lights come on.

For another three days, I continue to hang out at the JC, wander the streets, and sleep at the shelter.

One night, I sit with a few other men around the men’s dorm TV. A roundtable show analyzing the various merits of The Bachelor’s sexy-accented himbo finally concludes; finding, with some unanimity, that he is indeed not only “sexy,” but also “great.”

Then a CBS special marking the 50 years since Lyndon Johnson declared his “War on Poverty” comes on. Ohio Congressman and misleading-syllogism-ninja Jim Jordan (R) appears on screen. “50 years of doing this, 77 different programs, and we have 46 million Americans in poverty, so obviously it’s not working,” he says. CBS then edits back and forth between the Dems and the GOP, bringing out, from their flag flying podiums, the fundamental divide at the heart of our national politics concerning poverty. Are “we” too generous? Or not generous enough?

And more importantly, who will The Bachelor choose?

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One starry black morning, out in front of Torres, I meet Jerry. Jerry tells me about once having money and property, about a divorce, about a lost job, about his unemployment running out, about the truck he wound up living in getting impounded, and, finally, about living in total isolation for three months up an Oroville fire road in a tent plotting his own suicide. For some reason he changed his mind and, just a few days ago, he came to the shelter.

The headlights of a u-turning car flash across his face and I see that Jerry has a white handlebar mustache, and eyes filled with tears and nearly-mystical pain.

“I think I’ll never go camping again,” he says, and we both laugh. “Used to love it, but don’t think I’ll ever do it again.”

A day later, we share breakfast at the JC. On the way to the table, I notice that he walks with a limp. He tells me he’s been diagnosed with neuropathy, a chronic nerve abnormality that has left him with constant pain in his feet, like he’s walking on coals.

“They say the pain is real but that the cause is hard to find,” he says.

He shows me his Exitcare patient sheet, which says of his condition: “If neuropathy is not correctly treated there can be a number of associated problems that lead to a downward cycle for the patient. These include depression, sleeplessness, feelings of fear and anxiety, limited social interaction and inability to do normal activities or work.” He doesn’t complain, but I think for a moment of all the invisible pain that can affect each of us; pain that others can’t always make sense of.

Jerry shows me blurry cellphone pictures of his fire-road camp, of his brother’s “Indian” motorcycle, and of a woman he says he still loves but can’t be with.

“I used to be really conservative,” Jerry says. “I would have said, ‘you’re just a weak little pussy, get over it,’ if I saw myself now. I would have said, ‘maybe you just like to be that way because you’re lazy, because you’re a sloth, maybe it’s because you’ve got flaws in your character.”

“But you’ve got to lose it all to know…” he says, then trails off.

He tells me that he’s been surprised by how “normal” the people he’s been meeting are, and about how their kindness has resuscitated him. “It’s about people…I’ve learned that the material things don’t mean a thing. It’s about people—even people you don’t know.”

We eat and talk for a while more, then, suddenly, I see that well of pain come back into his eyes.

“There are things I conceal about my past,” he says. I can see how reticent and filled with shame he is to tell me his secret.

“They say the journalist’s motto is ‘charm and betray,’” I tell him. “Don’t tell me anything you don’t want to. I care about you more than this article,” I say.

But he goes on. “You gotta understand, my brother— who was also my best friend—see, he was almost naïve, real godly…truly, truly a good man.” Jerry tells me that after a botched hip-replacement, he found his brother, who he lived with at the time, alone in his room, overdosed on painkillers. “He had drowned in his own vomit,” Jerry says. “There was no color in his pupil. I could see right away that his soul was gone.”

“And when he died; destitute, alone and in pain—I cursed God. ‘God, F you,’ I’d say. Stuff like that. That just did something to me. I just didn’t care after that.”

Jerry tells me that a few months later, when a girlfriend offered it to him, he tried meth. He was addicted for the next four years, until about nine months before this breakfast.

“Man, my brother had this Indian [a Harley-looking motorcycle]” Jerry says, a bit later. “I’ve got it in storage. I’m going to get that thing running again,” he says. “I’m going to get it back on the road.”

Then Jerry excuses himself to join the bible study that’s beginning. “This is my nourishment,” he tells me as he gets up.

Sometimes, still, of course, I feel judgmental, angry, even disgusted. Like the time I see the two extremely pregnant women my heart has been going out to for a week chain-smoking together in the JC parking lot like it’s nothing. Or when I find a crudely carved foam body suit, designed to make its wearer appear pregnant, in one of the alleys that leads away from the JC. Or the time the middle-aged, petty-drug dealer, who is staying, for the week, in a motel room his mom got him for Christmas, tells me, over free breakfast, that he refuses to stay in the shelter because, “You can’t smoke weed, can’t drink, can’t do nuthin’.”

The indignation doesn’t last long. If you hear the stories, if you sit where others sit, if you really listen, something happens. Time and again, my heart, momentarily damned, comes breaking back open, overwhelmed, aware of my own wretchedness, forgiving, contiguous as an estuary with the ocean of others’ experiences.

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One day, as I’m leaving the JC’s resource center, I overhear a woman with wild eyes and a head that is shaved except for a small circle of blond, thorn-like spikes at the crown, as she talks to a slight young man as he leaves. “Don’t tell your sister you saw me here,” she says.

Outside, on the steps, the young man’s angelic girlfriend sits rubbing his back. There are tears in their eyes. The love between them is palpable, profound. I go around the corner and cry into my arm for a moment, then go back and ask the young man if he’s ok.

“That’s the first time I’ve talked to my mom in…ever, really,” he says, his eyes red and inflamed. The young man is 18. His grandmother adopted him as a baby. “I mean, I’ve seen her wandering around the plaza or whatever, and gone up to her, but this is the first time I’ve really tried to talk to her. She gave me away when I was three months.”

The next day I sit with his mom at breakfast. She tells me about some recipes from a 1996 copy of Light Cooking Magazine she’s carrying around. She gesticulates in jerky motions and interrupts herself each time she has a new idea. But, suddenly, after perhaps 15 minutes, there’s a brief moment where her eyes go clear and lucid and her body relaxes, as if she had just slipped into a hot bath. She looks at me with her crown of thorny blond spikes and her eyes shimmer with a maternal kindness. “Are you cold?” she asks me, and she extends me her sweater. “You can have this.”

The writer would like to thank all the people he met for sharing their time and stories with him and the Jesus Center and the Torres Shelter for their generosity and for the amazing work they do. Jerry: get that Indian back on the road, brother. 

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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.

Comments

  1. Hi Emiliano. I enjoyed reading your articles on homelessness in Chico. Thanks for telling me about them. Not sure I could put up with the bedbugs, but I suppose most people don’t do it by choice.