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Homeless!

by Dianne K.
 


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I'm homeless. Well, let me qualify that. I sleep in my car and I don't have anywhere to park it. And it's not exactly a car, it's a small, old-ish suv. It was willed to me by one of my  friends. I am forever grateful to him for handing me the keys and the title just before he died. This car has changed my life, maybe forever. At least it has extended it. The car wasn't quite that lucky for him, but I'm hoping that this treasure will be my ticket to a better life.

I've been on the street for more years than I can or want to remember. I ran away from home when I was sixteen, a stupid thing to do, I know now, but at the time it seemed like my only option. It wasn't much of a home, and I'm not sure I was missed. Maybe my relatives were happy to see the last of me. I know I felt that way about them. I won't go into detail because I don't like to think too much about those old days. I took some cash and pawn-ables from them, as well as a backpack and a small roller bag full of my own stuff. The night I left, in the middle of the night after everybody finally went to sleep, I snuck into wallets and purses, pulled out the cash. Found the cookie jar rent money in the kitchen, took all of it too. It gave me a start. Some kids don't even do that when they run.

So I snuck out of the house, and just walked away. To the train station, bought a ticket and took the first one out of town. San Francisco is where I headed. Then north. I tried lots of places in Oregon. Realized that bigger towns are better for homeless kids. Went back to San Francisco, and that's where I am now. Those first few months and years were the hardest, running, scrambling around, learning the ropes, meeting up with the wrong people, running from scrapes and the cops, hiding and dodging, begging, stealing, lurking around, staying alive. Being a woman on the street has advantages and disadvantages. There are fewer of us, so we can pass for regular folks easier. That's the one thing that keeps me safe. I can pass for a regular person, and nowadays I sleep in a car.

Things are better now that I'm in my mid twenties I think. I don't keep track. The car runs, and I don't use much gas because I don't drive it very far, just to find a quiet, safe place at night where I won't get hassled. Sometimes side streets in nicer residential neighborhoods will work for a day or two. I like it out in the Avenues the best. That's closest to the ocean. But neighbors are nosy and they usually call the cops once they notice me. So I try to keep ahead of that phone call.

I keep my car neat and tidy. I have stuff in it, my blanket and pillow. some clothes and a little food, if I'm lucky. A few books. A plate, some silverware, a cutting knife. No, I don't have any weapons. I had some pepper spray for a while, but I sold it.

A few places, motels mostly, will let me park overnight for a small fee. It goes into the night guy's pocket, the owners have no idea what goes on in the seedier motels around here. I can buy an hour's worth of motel room before the maid cleans up. A couple bucks if the motel clerk's in a good mood. Of course, the room is a mess, the towels are dirty and sometimes the previous tenants have taken the soap and lotion with them. Doesn't matter, I can get clean on used towels, wash up my undies and eating utensils, fill my water bottles, and even steal something. I get away with thievery if I'm not too greedy, another lesson well learned. They won't miss a towel or a wash cloth. They will miss the hair dryer or blankets. Choose carefully.

I'm not your typical homeless person, I'm not entirely unattractive, but I don't advertise that I'm a woman. I'd say my look is as nondescript as possible. Nose rings irritate people, so do tats, and pink hair, so I don't do that. Also, I don't do drugs or drink, I don't sell myself, so I have few habits that might endanger me. I keep my own company as much as possible. I guess being an introvert by nature has served me well. I don't like to talk to people who don't make sense, and just about everybody I run into, or avoid, is either crazy as a cuckoo, plastered and addled by the booze, or in a heroin haze.

I also have a police record, which is extremely unfortunate. I've been in jail overnight a few times. Got lucky, got let go with warnings. I never test positive for drugs or alcohol, never get into a fight, try very hard not to provoke anyone, invisibility is my high card, my only problem is getting caught stealing stuff, but it's small stuff. I'm working on it, getting better at it all the time. You see, I can't stop the petty theft. That's how I survive.

Once in a while I line up for the shelter. But only when I know it's going to be really cold. There's a shower, a meal, and a bed, a little Jesus talk, but it's one of the most unpleasant ways to spend the night that I can think of. Mingling with the rest of the outcasts is not my cup of tea.

But I do like some of the people who run the shelters. One or two are just a paycheck away from this life, so they get it. And there are churches that offer free clothes and food, which I get my share of whenever possible. Food banks. Gotta love them. I usually sell the food because I don't cook.

On a typical day I get up early, find some way to clean up. If I have a buck or two I head to McDonalds for the dollar menu and a small coffee with plenty of cream and sugar. Spend time in the john washing up, always brush teeth whenever possible. Change clothes if I can.

Next thing, figure out a way to get some money. Begging beside the on-ramps can be profitable. Gotta be clean for that and have a good sign that says looking for work. I'm not, but that's not the point. Folks on their way to work seem to sympathize with me.

After rush hour, the stores are open. As I said before, I'm a pretty good thief because I'm careful. I stay out of Macys and stores with alarms on the clothes. I take a few items into the dressing room in a place like Kohls, pull off tags, put the new stuff on, then put my own clothes on over them. Don't be greedy, if I look too bulky I'll get caught. Best time to steal from stores is winter when it makes sense to be wearing a jacket and sweat pants. I buy something, if possible. Nothing says customer better than actually buying something. Find some small thing that's been marked down, way down, buy that. Smile, ask for a bag. Don't look like a criminal. Don't smell like one either. Use the facilities whenever possible.

I even steal from the Good Will, please don't lecture me about that. Same routine. Put on some clothes and then mine over the top. Don't take much. Bring enough stuff into the dressing room so I can take some back out of the dressing room, on their hangers, hang it back up, good customer that I am. Buy a pair of shoes, or a paperback book. Smile, but don't talk too much. Be kind to the staff because they too are one step from being back in my position.

Once in a while I get lucky and grab a handbag. Women are careless with them. In a busy mall cafeteria I can get the wallet and be gone before they know it's missing. Sometimes I just take the cash. Handbags hanging off chairs, or on the floor spilling contents -- easy pickings. Occasionally I have to remind people that they've left their cell phones on the table. They are grateful. They usually don't know that I have their spare cash in my pocket. And they will never remember what I look like. Brown hair, medium build, dark sweat shirt, jeans, tennis shoes, nice smile, no scars or other marks. I could be half the people in San Francisco, male or female.

When I'm hanging out in the grocery store, I always push a cart, and pretend to be interested in labels. I'm looking for mirrors, cameras or store clerks who might be watching me. I plop a few things in the cart, and sneak stuff into my pockets. I watch other customers. It's so easy to sneak into their purses. Getting out the door is tricky. I usually get in the express line, buy something, another hurried customer. Sweet.

If I have a good morning, meaning that I made a few bucks, I spend afternoons reading and napping. I can park in big malls, or on the street, anywhere safe. Best sleeping time is the afternoon. I gotta sleep light at night so I'm usually tired by two o'clock. After my nap I head for the library. I like to read how-to books, history books, science books, any kind of text book I can find, and mysteries. I have a little notebook that I use to keep track of everything I read. Certain things come easy to me. Early evening is when I try to sell stuff I stole. I sell cheap to my friends who are too hapless to steal for themselves. I get a few of the bucks they begged earlier in their own day's journey.

I don't know much about computers. I use the ones in the library, but I'm self-taught so nothing to brag about. I'd love to have a cell phone. I watch people playing games on them all the time. It must be fun. I don't steal them because I heard they can track you down if you are carrying one. Being smart, I stay away from the cell phones, and all electronics in general.

It's surprising how quickly my day goes by. I like mornings the best, and dead of night the least. That's the scariest part of being homeless. You never know what might happen in that long dark night. I have goals but no definite plans on how to reach them. And one day becomes the next one and I'm still doing the same old thing, surviving.

I think about getting a job all the time. I could work in a bank, but that makes me laugh. Who would hire me? Maybe work with my hands, I'm strong, do construction work. Or maybe be a cop. They have such good jobs, driving around in their cars, lounging in Starbucks, parking where they think nobody can see them. They are always talking and laughing together. What are they laughing about all the time? I rarely see women with them. It's a man's world.

I want the same thing everybody else wants, a place of my own, a job, somebody to come home to, maybe even a family. I'll take good care of them. I'm resourceful. But first I have to figure out who would hire me, who could possibly love me. And I have to get an address, proper identification, not the phony stuff that I use, maybe get a name change. But when I consider how to go about starting a real life, I get the shakes. My experience is not what the boss is looking for. Of that I'm pretty sure.

My day dream is to save up some money, get the car in good running shape, go to the pound and rescue a big dog and just take off driving around the country. See some of the places I've been reading about. I don't know how much money it would take. Maybe if I become a good enough petty thief I could just steal my way around the country. But that plan sounds a little scary. I think I'd need to snitch some camping gear, and I'd have to figure out how to cook a little. I've never been to the woods or a national park. I've never driven more than a few miles at a time. I wonder what it would be like to point the car in a strange direction and just go.

Living this way for the rest of my life scares me to death. The days pass quickly and I'm always on edge, always afraid somebody's going to catch me doing something wrong, because I'm often doing something wrong. The rest of the time I'm too tired or hungry to think straight. Something good has to happen one of these days. Please!


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