Before I begin to wind down my story of the beach, I should probably tell you a little more about what it was like to be homeless.
It's something that not many people experience, and when they think about it, they call to mind the mentally ill man under the bridge, the crazy lady with the shopping cart, or the panhandlers at intersections, the ones we are never sure about. It doesn't happen to people like us, right?
Being homeless is something I never thought much about, because I never knew anyone who had ever been homeless. Sure, I knew some ex-cons, deadbeats, slackers, and hillbillies, but they were all relatives and were living with their parents in run-down farmhouses in south Georgia. My childhood, violent as it was, was secure in that there was money for rent, money for food (though Mom sometimes got it on credit), and money for yards of cloth for Mom to make our clothes. Though my dad had been an alcoholic when I was little, leaving us pretty much penniless, I have no memories of those days. We weren't flush with cash when I was older, but we did alright.
Becoming homeless doesn't happen suddenly. There are usually small steps toward that inevitable end that gain momentum as you go. For me, it was a slow process that started when Dad got cancer, sold off his business, and moved us away from everything I'd ever known and loved. Soon, the cash was all gone from his savings and the sale of the business (no insurance), and we were living on Social Security, food stamps, and sheer resourcefulness. Even with all of that, my parents never ended up homeless, but I left when things got crazy, opting to go live with my older sister in Texas, back where I belonged. It was there that I met "Pete"* and eventually moved in with his family after I graduated, and then ended up in 1982 in a van with them all when they couldn't make rent.
That's right. The 6 of them, plus me, plus 2 dogs. In a van. Down by the river. I shit you not. This ought to clue you in as to why we were joyful at the prospect of sleeping in a car by the sea, one of us in the front (bench) seat, one in the back.
His father was in the driver's seat. His mom was in the passenger's seat. The rest of us squeezed in where we could with the things they had kept with us. Most of their things were in a storage shed. That first night was pure hell.
The rooftop vent was open, as were the rear windows. His dad smoked a cigarette now and then to drive the bugs away, but then he took off his shoes. Never in my life have I ever smelled anything quite as putrid as the scent of his dad's feet. The moist, oily odor permeated the entire van within seconds, unrelentingly so. It wasn't an odor that dissipated; it simply hung there, pervasive. I tried to breathe through my mouth.
And then his father fell asleep, but not until his wife had thoroughly chewed his ass for everything he had done and failed to do to land them in this situation. When she fell asleep from exhaustion, sometime around two in the morning, he fell asleep, too, and then the windows began to literally vibrate from the force of his choking, gasping snores. About an hour into it, I tapped him on the shoulder and said, "Could you --? I don't know. You're snoring so loudly."
He looked at me as though he could have killed me with his bare hands.
"You'd better just shut the f-ck up," he said, turning forward again and lighting a cigarette.
What did I know? I was a kid. I didn't realize that they did not want me there. I was stranded. My sister had divorced her husband and moved across town. I didn't yet have a car, and she had had her fill of me, anyway. I had turned 18 and needed to be on my own, whatever that meant. I couldn't go home, though I considered it. It would have meant leaving Pete behind and starting over again back in that dead-end town. Stubbornly, I stayed and lived in the van.
After a few days, we thought we might be able to get away with sleeping inside the fence of the storage facility. Pete's brother John* had been working on the engine of a Mustang, and it was parked in the storage area. Pete and I slept in the Mustang during the only night we managed to stay in that vicinity. That early fall night was chilly, and I remember having to pee. I had to sit on the running board (or whatever the equivalent is on a Mustang) and hang off over the concrete. My body was stiff with cold and from being cramped into a bucket back-seat that was never meant for sleeping in. I remember feeling those first muscle spasms and deep aches that would later become a near-daily sensation, as though they were imprinted early on.
You can't take anything for granted when you're homeless. Where you get away with sleeping today might not work tomorrow. Someone will rat you out. Where you find an open bathroom today might be a locked door tomorrow. Sometimes there was no soap in the bathrooms, or the paper towel dispenser was empty. Ever try to wash your face or hair with no soap, no shower, no towels? Doing laundry was a luxury. Chances are good that the person you pass on the street who smells like pee had to decide between eating or washing clothes.
You also can't count on anyone's help. Everyone gets angry at you for being homeless. They think it's all your fault and that if you'd just get a job, everything would be fine! Yeah. Hire the homeless. There ya go. Don't mind the smell of unwashed clothing.
Food? It was whatever we could get. John managed to get a job at Steak & Ale as a busboy. He would bring "home" sacks of unused baked potatoes and bread. They were heavenly. No fruit. No green vegetables. No water bottles back then. We filled up on water at whatever fountain we could find, and we would fill up empty milk jugs.
I could have died for a place to bathe or a place to just sit and be comfortable. I slept little and was ever watchful. Terror was my constant companion.
Eventually, I gave in and called my sister. She relented to let Pete and I come out there, but we had to get a job right away! (As if I would argue with that). We were grateful and did everything we could to help her, but it was a tense time. She really didn't want or need us there, so we had many fights. She was a newly divorced mom of a five-year-old and had enough on her plate. I get that. But I was terrified of being homeless again.
As Eddie Vedder sang in Crazy Mary, "That what you fear the most / could meet you halfway..."
Yeah. Eventually it happened again, but this time we were in a much larger, more comfortable car. A big blue 70 Ford LTD with blue and white interior and a white vinyl roof. That didn't make it any better.
Maybe you can understand why I don't go camping. It's too rife with reminders of the hardship I once endured.
Peace - D