Monday, August 31, 2009
Aztec Angel, by Jesse Reno
I spotted him as I was driving to the grocery store in the early afternoon. The boy was lying on the edge of the strip mall parking lot, barely out of the way of incoming cars, his body straddling the curb between the asphalt and a mangy patch of straw-colored lawn.
I pulled into the parking lot to investigate. The child I thought might need assistance was actually a slender schizophrenic woman in her early twenties. She was on her back, waving her delicate hands above her face and cooing at them like a baby. Her limbs and clothes were dirty, but her youth and relatively short hair indicated that she had not been on the street that long. She had an ethereally beautiful face, resembling a young Mia Farrow. I felt sick thinking how vulnerable she was, frail, lovely and mentally ill - a girl my daughter's age. How many times, I wondered, had she already been raped or sexually assaulted?
At the grocery store, I picked up a sandwich and a water for the schizophrenic girl. I returned to the parking lot with my offerings, which she accepted lucidly enough to thank me. I was about to get back into my car when a middle aged woman came up to me. "Did you just buy her food?" She asked. I nodded. The lady told me her office had been feeding the poor girl for over a week. They had called around to various shelters, but none had room. When they called the police, a sympathetic policeman suggested the lady call the late Governor Reagan."He's the one that closed the mental hospitals. Now there's no place for these people to go."
The day after the election, I went to an evening yoga class. Bush was on his way out, McCain wouldn't be succeeding him, and Sarah Palin would never get within a mile of the red telephone. Everyone was in celebration mode. Instead of having us end the class with "shivasana", or relaxation pose, the teacher cranked up some Aretha and the whole class did a happy dance. I am a bit of a spaz and while I've been known to boogy around the house, shaking my boo-tay in front of fifty yogis is another story. I wiggled around awkwardly, and headed out the door as soon as class was over, well ahead of anyone else.
At the bottom of the stairs to the studio parking lot, a scruffy, bearded and obviously deranged young man was ranting at the world. Nothing was going to change. We were all pawns. Victims of a vast conspiracy. Controlled through our cell phones. I switched into urban survival mode, pretending not to notice him. As I reached the bottom of the steps, I raised my hand to brush the hair from my eyes. Instantly, the guy was in my face. "What?" He snarled " You gonna hit me? You wanna fuck with me, bitch?" He took two steps forward and threw his arm up in the air. He was at least a foot taller than me. Out of my mouth came my best angry mom voice, "Chill out! I'm not even talking to you." I kept walking. Fast. I could hear more yoga people coming down the stairs. There had been plenty of men in the class. I hoped one of them would intervene if the mad man chased me down. My post-election yoga mellow had curdled like overcooked hollandaise.
The homeless people among us are no more homogenous than we who have roofs over our heads. Some are recently out of work, luck and rent money, perhaps living in their cars, like the old lady I saw parked around the corner from the Monterey Market in Berkeley. Others are self-destructive alcoholics chasing oblivion, or sociopathic young men dealing drugs and drifting. Professional beggars retiring to a cheap room every night to count their coins, withdrawn, worn-out women fading into doorways, lost children running as far away from their childhoods as they possibly can. And then there are the crazy people. Scribblers of word salads, prophets of the apocalypse, confidants of God. People who are mentally ill and vulnerable, or deranged, and possibly dangerous.
The homeless problem is not singular: it's plural. There are people who need rehab or medication, people who should be behind bars and people who just need a break. We don't have the will, or the wherewithal, to sort them all out. We are a nation that can't even agree on the moral imperative of caring for the physical health of our working people, let alone the mental health of our street folk.