by George Wynn
[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hen I woke and discovered that my alarm clock had gone on the blink after faithful service for years on end, I knew that the meshuga demons from Franz Kafka’s world were about to invade my reality. I could have said softly, “Bad omen,” but instead I blurted it out with venom.
I tried to calm myself by reading the stanzas of the poet-doctor William Carlos Williams and tried to imagine myself writing poems on the backs of prescription pads while I tended to the poor in their third-floor, cold-water flats.
But to my dismay, I was unable to bring down my energy. Then a half-hour of Zen meditation. No relief. No, an omen is an omen, I was convinced. I was sitting on the toilet confessional immersed in the verse of Emily Dickinson when the incessant ringing of my phone abruptly uprooted me from the 19th century world of Amherst (my hometown and Emily’s birthplace) and tranquil, picture-postcard Western Massachusetts.
With long, tremulous, pale-white fingers I grasped the phone and picked up.
“I would like to speak with Harvey Diamond,” a man with a lofty voice said.
“Speaking,” I answered.
“Sorry to relate bad news, Mister Diamond. But it seems the scholarship we offered you to our writers colony for a four-month residency was in error. Another applicant was actually selected before you. You’re welcome to apply next year.”
I wanted to blurt out, “You rotten bastard,” but I restrained myself and asked softly, “How can that be?”
The administrator gave me a lengthy explanation that made no sense and he ended with, “I’m sorry.”
I replied, “I’m more sorry than you,” and put the receiver down solemnly and patted it as if consoling a small child who had scratched her knee.
For the next half-hour, I sliced the skin off my knuckles from pounding my fists against the wall with the vociferous mantra: “Rotten bastard.”
I had already given my landlady notice that tomorrow I would be moving out of my rent-controlled, barred-window, basement cubicle. All I had was money for bus fare to the writers colony.
So on Sunday, I joined the world of drunks, blowhards, drug addicts, and down-and-outs who talk vaguely of making a fresh start in the world of work. I was determined not to stoop to the level of church soup kitchens. “Beyond my dignity. I’d rather starve.” So I pontificated on day one. If I had to take life on the chin, I would stick my chin out like a defiant speaker on a soapbox. I’d had it with my pusillanimous ways.
After half a day, I learned that people on the street — unlike the middle class — have limited choices: It’s either the shelter, abandoned buildings, junkyards, sleeping on the street, or if one is super-lucky, crashing at some generous person’s pad.
The shelter was out for me. I’d heard one too many anecdotes of violence, showers that rarely work, and abusive staff, so I decided to take my chances sleeping on the streets. Growing up in New England, the cold doesn’t bother me that much. After eight nights of shivering on hard asphalt assaulting my behind, I changed my mind.
“When will you go home?” asked the muscular cop, unlatching the nearly empty dumpster where I had spent several nights.
“It’s only my second week on the streets,” I said.
“Listen buddy, it’s almost Christmas. You’re new out here. Don’t become one of the chronic ones. The city’s giving out free bus tickets for visits home to their loved ones.”
“Round trip?” I asked him.
“Who the hell said anything about round trip?” The cop cleared his throat. “You want to sleep in this stinking dumpster for another week? Here’s my card if you change your mind. If I were you, I’d wake up and see the light before it’s too late,” he roared, as he clicked off his flashlight and walked away into the early morning dawn of the warehouse area.
I wandered around the Tenderloin with two duffel bags stuffed with clothes and unpublished manuscripts. I tried to make friends, but mostly, all I received were empty stares or chilling “whatevers.”
I just didn’t fit in because of my nerdy, spectacled, nebbish look. I didn’t smoke pot anymore and I never drank. Only poets and bookish types like myself would converse with me, and they seemed to be a tiny minority.
I could feel the weight of the day resting heavy on my shoulders. The putrid stench of urine that hung in the air was sickening. In this world, I was completely shook up and emotionally unprepared.
Unlike prose or poetry, I had no confidence or understanding of the narrative and rhythms of the street. At times, it seemed there wasn’t a sensitive soul in the entire god-forsaken Tenderloin.
When I encountered other homeless enclaves, under downtown expressways, in Golden Gate Park, or at the beach, I was not accepted either. The streets were alien to me. I was defenseless.
Cops and security guards hassled me for just being in a particular area or store and minding my own business. And when night descended, I was scared out of my wits sleeping in doorways. I became guarded and hyper-alert, trying to evade the hardcore with hair-trigger tempers. Moods changed fast and often, like models on a runway, from hilarious laughter to fists doubled and teeth clenched.
By the end of the week, my hundred dollars had almost run out. I had only 20 dollars left. Needing to let go of the tension that had accumulated in my head, I chanced on a bold outlet.
When a woman who looked like the Wicked Witch laid down her shopping bags laden with many sandwiches, and hitched up her skirt to piss on the street, I grabbed two of her sandwiches and ran off with her maddening curses at my back. I felt terrible. I’d lost control. My stupefied mind went flat — preoccupied with survival all the time. I was a prime candidate for anger management.
The next day, I lined up at St. Anthony’s soup kitchen for lunch and dinner. I was not a strong-willed man. I was a phony artist. My lifelong quest was to be a writer and, enduring misery, all I could think about was myself, instead of jotting down heartfelt observations of the underclass. There was no time for introspection amidst urban manic fury.
I lied to myself. Street people seemed to be everything I was not. They lived for today. I’d always thought of tomorrow and the day after. I began to despair: Was I a real writer or a phony artist?
I had to escape the straitjacket of street life. I was ready to go stark raving mad in 24 hours. City streets were no substitute for Western Massachusetts rural roads. I longed for my roots. I needed a breath of fresh country air. What else could I do?
I called my father collect. Dad could be as blunt as the anti-hero of his birthplace, Lizzie Borden. As a child, he remembered tossing stones at her house in Fall River. Now he hurled stones my way.
“So you couldn’t make it as a writer,” Dad said dryly. “Didn’t I tell you? You shoulda listened. Ah, what the hell, you were always a horse’s ass.”
“I’m thinking of visiting for the holidays,” I said with a lump in my throat.
“Really, after five years, that’s so kind of you,” he said.
“Forget I asked. Good bye.”
“Wait,” he said. “Things have changed. I broke both hips. I’m powering around the house in a wheelchair.”
“Well, I could push you and make up stanzas in my mind,” I replied.
“And you could cook for me, run my errands and do my laundry.”
“Well, I kind of like independent living,” I told him.
“Well, Mr. Independence, I don’t like to pry but where are you living now?”
“Ugh. Ugh.” That’s all I could get out.
“I thought so, you shmuck you. Thought you could fool the old man, a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge.”
In more ways than one, I thought to myself, picturing him watching television with a six-pack of Samuel Adams, patting his beer belly, rooting the Patriots on to victory. “So tell me, what cockamamie poem are you writing now? The Diary of a Homeless Man?” he persisted.
I didn’t say anything.
“When can I expect you?” he asked, mellowing just a tad.
“Soon,” I answered.
All I could think of was the card the cop gave me. I decided to call him. He told me to go to the welfare office at Eighth and Market in San Francisco.
Then-Mayor Gavin Newsom was returning the favor of New York mayors of the 1980s who had offered one-way tickets out of the Big Apple: “Go West, young man, and don’t come back unless you have a bankroll to buy a basket of fruit daily.”
Newsom’s Care not Cash program, in effect, was actually no cash and no care. General Assistance recipients now received only 59 measly bucks and had to fight for a shelter bed. So there were takers for one-way mitzvah tickets out of the city that had become Bill O’Reilly’s pet peeve.
On my way to the welfare office, I saw the woman whom I’d ashamedly named the Wicked Witch. I apologized, handed her five dollars, which meant I only had 15 dollars left. She grabbed the bill and screamed, “Asshole!” and walked off in a huff.
After loading up on four-for-a-dollar Walgreen’s Hershey and Snickers bars, I realized how stupid I’d been to think that I was better than anyone else on the streets braving a similar ignominious existence and the primitive torments of survival.
The counselor called my father to find out if he could provide for me. My father gave his consent and the counselor drove me to the Transbay Terminal and paid for my Greyhound ticket, plus 20 dollars for food during my 72-hour trip. I boarded the bus breathing a sigh of relief: I had escaped the pernicious world of the streets.
In the middle of my journey, bored by the view of cornfields, I began to tinker with my alarm clock. Lo and behold, I got it to work for an hour, and then two and, when I woke up in Pittsburgh, it was working. Was it an auspicious omen? Could I also patch things up with my fastidious father?
I was happy to be coming back to the Bay State after all those years. I called Dad from the road. “I’m busy,” he barked. “I’m watching a movie.”
“It’s a Mad, Mad World,” he said.
“Where are you?” he asked.
“Pittsburgh,” I replied.
“Always the pits,” he grumbled. “Hurry up. I could use a maid. I spilled beer all over my pants and stained them with spaghetti.”
He hung up abruptly. His words struck me like Rocky Marciano punches to the rib cage. This might be a short visit.
Soon I’d be roaming the streets of my alma mater, Northeastern, and staying at the Y next door, off the money I’d borrow from my benevolent dad. And when the money ran out? I didn’t want to think about that.