I spent a couple of years hanging out on the street scene in Arcata in Northern California. There was usually a big crowd of us hanging out at the Arcata Plaza, drinking beer, playing guitars, smoking pot, and generally whooping it up. There were the regulars who had been there for years. But there were also always new street people who were coming and going.The street scene is like that. Very fluid and transitory. So you constantly have these unusual and bizarre characters suddenly showing up, enacting their strange dramas right in front of your face for awhile, only to suddenly disappear as fast as they came, never to be seen again. It’s like watching a movie. Except you only get the middle act of the movie. You don’t get the first act or the third act. You don’t know their life story—what led up to them being the people that they are. And you almost never find out how their lives turned out. You just get these incredibly dramatic middle acts.
Case in point. One afternoon we were all hanging out on the lawn when this big van pulled up to the Plaza. And a bunch of street people piled out of the car and joined us. One person who joined us was this young woman who couldn’t have been more than 18. She was waif-like, wistful and skinny. And she would have been very pretty, except her face had one of the worst cases of acne I had ever seen. Her entire face was covered with these bright red spots.
So we’re all hanging around in a circle, whooping it up as usual. The woman was soft-spoken and withdrawn. Didn’t say much. Mostly sat there with her head down. It was somewhat painful to look at her. Because you couldn’t help noticing it. Most of us were in a certain amount of pain, street casualties that we mostly were. But at least we could hide our pain. But with her, the pain was right out there in the open for everyone to see.
So the afternoon turned to evening and then to night. When the new arrivals decided to call it a night and they got up and piled into their van, the young woman followed after them. But when she got to the van they told her she couldn’t come with them. One of the women stuck her head out of the car window and said something mean and angry to her. And then they drove off. Leaving her standing there.
“That’s what the street scene is like. You get these vivid scenes, but no beginnings or endings.”
For lack of anything better to do, she returned to our circle and slumped back down and hung out with us for the rest of the night. At one point she was sort of silently weeping. Rejected again. The only thing I remember her saying was: “I just want to hang out with the kids.” Which had a poignant tone. Like she was just looking for some place in this world, any place in this world, where she could belong. And not finding it anywhere.
It was dark on the Plaza by now, so at least her acne was no longer visible in the light. And you could see how pretty she would have been without it. After awhile you could sense that she was finally starting to relax, knowing she wouldn’t be burdened until the harsh light of morning. She spent a long time quietly talking to this young street guy. And I still have this vivid image in my memory of the end of the night, as they walked off together, side by side, their sleeping bags in their hands.
I happened to be renting out this little hotel room at this flophouse in Eureka at the time. And a couple days later I happened to pass the woman as she was wandering aimlessly by herself down the street. So I invited her up to my room to take a shower if she wanted. An offer she accepted. There was a small shower at the end of the hallway on my floor. So I gave her a towel and she took a nice long hot shower. Which can be a score when you’re living on the streets. When she was done she came back to my room with the towel wrapped around her hair on the top of her head. And we hung out for awhile, talking quietly. I can’t remember anything we said. I mostly remember her demeanor. This resigned, defeated, weary demeanor. And it was sad to see someone who was so young who was already so dispirited. It’s like she had no solution, no answer, to her life dilemma. All she could do was endure. And she reminded me of a ghost in a way. Like she wasn’t really all there. Like she couldn’t bear to be there. So her spirit had sort of disengaged from her body.
She thanked me for the shower and left. And I never saw her again. But every now and then I’d wonder what ever happened to her.
That’s what the street scene is like. You get these vivid scenes. But no beginnings or endings. Just the middle. Just random jump-cuts from one movie to another.
This article originally appeared on Ace’s blog, Acid Heroes.
Ace Backwords is a homeless writer and artist who lives in Berkeley, California. You can find more writing on his blog.