A photo of a dog laying on the concrete surrounded by clothing and suitcases. Around the dog, the words "Poor in Public, by Martha Cast" are written in somebody's handwriting.
The cover of Martha Cast’s book, Poor in Public. (Martha Cast)

This story is an excerpt from Martha Cast’s book, Poor in Public: a collection of essays about the people she met and experiences she had while homeless in Berkeley between the years of 2014 and 2015.

I saw Socia’s van in the parking lot of the marina the day before we met. It’s an old Ford from the 90s that she’s painted herself with a tie-dyed pinwheel spray of blues and yellows and purples, complete with glued beads and a mosaic of broken mirror pieces and magazine cutouts of powerful African American women posted on the panels and a license plate that says “Jesus loves you” where her real DMV plates should be. The roof rack is full of grill parts and lawn chairs and the tires are low from carrying too much weight. I pulled into the marina parking lot after midnight and decided to park next to the van and stay there, because I thought, whoever owned it must be cool.

Socia is one of the ones that ain’t never coming back. She won’t tell me how old she is but I’m guessing about sixty. Before I start telling you all about what a crazy homeless nutjob she is, it’s only fair to also tell you about the precious gift she gave me. The gift that changed my life and allowed me to get comfortable and get a job and formulate a plan to get out of this situation. Socia gave me a key. The key allows me to use the berthing showers like the sailors do and gives me access to the laundry room, so I can stay clean and do my laundry without having to drive all over town every day. These keys are reserved for people who pay big bucks for live-aboard slips and who dock their yachts in Berkeley while they’re off to their multi-million dollar tech jobs. I didn’t ask how she got the key; that would be disrespectful.

The key is stealing, there is no getting around that. I am stealing showers and laundry privileges from the City of Berkeley, for all my talk about not being a thief. This is the one dishonest thing I’ve been doing since I started living this way. And you know what? I don’t care.

A shower is a basic human need, just like food and shelter and medicine. Any human being will steal food if they get hungry take a shower if it’s available. That is the one thing we don’t have in place for homeless people and it keeps a lot of people down and depressed and unable to move forward. Go for a couple of days without a shower, and see how it affects your health and self-esteem. See how long you can roll out of bed and go to work after sleeping outside in the cold without a hot shower to start your day. Watch how people start to look at you with disgust and pity.

Socia comes across as a lunatic. Clearly she’s been abused and wronged by the system and her family and God knows who else since long before I was ever born. In her mind it’s still 1969 and Martin Luther King Jr. was just assassinated. She is vocal about her identity as a Black woman, and is angry at all white people for causing all the problems of the world. Usually I take this in stride. I can tell she’s mentally ill and old and broken, but sometimes it’s more than I can handle and I’ve learned to just walk away while she’s in mid-sentence. Like the day she told me Magic Johnson didn’t really have HIV, that it was all a conspiracy made up by us white people to keep the Black man down, or the day she started screaming that Michelle Obama is really transgender and the president is gay.

Usually I see her at night when I’m winding down to sleep, usually I’ve got a beer in my hand and I’m trying to put myself to sleep. I’ve only sworn off weed, I’m not an alcoholic. Yet. Usually she is sitting in the front seat of her van watching movies on her laptop about this time. We chat some and she asks me how my day was and gives me a hard time, telling me I don’t have any business being out here, like I have a choice at this point.

Everything I’ve tried to do for her has blown up in my face. I bought her a bunch of pork from the butcher shop where I was working last fall with my discount and she started complaining, acting like I was stealing from her. Then she got mad when the harbor patrol rolled through and tried to run her off but didn’t say a word to me. I think it’s because I was out walking the dog and my truck looked like any other vehicle parked in the lot, meanwhile she’s out there having a tailgate party, singing at the top of her lungs, cooking stew, smoking cigars and throwing shit around for the seagulls to eat. And somehow that’s all my fault.

But she has moments of sanity. Like the day I came back to the lot all pissed off and cold and wet because one of the drunken idiots at the sailing club that I’d been hanging out at had caused us to capsize a boat and I went for a swim in the bay in my jeans and tennis shoes. Or one of the many other days I’ve been running around the parking lot crying and pissed off for no good reason other than I’m still in early sobriety with the weed and I’m sleeping in a car and I’m moody. And on this particular day she was sane and kind and gave me a big hug and some hot food and told me not to worry that it gets better and that I can’t go runnin’ around crying every time some ignorant motherfucker crosses my path. She does have a point.

That was the day I learned that she’s a recovering alcoholic and that she spent several years weaning herself off the psych meds they put her on when she was institutionalized back in the early 2000s. She says she doesn’t go to meetings because she doesn’t need those 12-step fuckers and their white God bullshit anymore. I can’t argue too hard on this one. I have my own issues with those 12-step fuckers and their hateful God as well. I’m just quieter about it than she is.

About a week after Socia gave me the key, my friend Malik’s first van broke down, which left him homeless and carless. That’s a whole new level. So I gave him a copy of the key and he had his van towed into the lot so he could still sleep in it and leave his dog while he hopped on a bus and went to work at the swap meet. I started working at the butcher shop and taking sailing lessons at the sailing club on the south end of the marina and Socia started cooking dinner for the three of us every night and for a minute I started thinking I was getting it together and that I was going to be okay.

And then it got cold and started raining and I got sick. And it kept raining. And raining.

In the years since this story was written, Socia passed away.

Martha Cast is a writer who has a BA in English from the University of Arizona. She has been intermittently homeless for the last six years. She wants to see the American people take collective action to stabilize the housing market, create a universal healthcare system and see that everyone has access to higher education and/or attaining jobs skills without incurring outrageous debt.