Years ago I self published a book, Seattle City Life and in the book I shared this interview (I think it was in 2002) with Barry, I homeless man living on the streets of Seattle. Recently I saw him while I was driving though the city on tour and thought that this would be worthy of a share again. The homeless and drug crisis has in Seattle has escalated to be a more magnified problem than we I spoke with Barry.
There is some salty and less than politically correct language in here, but I am sharing it unedited as the way I wrote it.
The Bainbridge Island to Seattle ferry is my cocoon of solace and quietness before beginning the workday in the financial district. The smell of the Puget Sound envelops my senses and the crisp air brings a slight chill to my bones. The bicycle commuter’s speed past the pedestrian walkway, jockeying for a position at the front of the boat. Their cautionary safety lights twinkle a bright red in the darkness, with an intermittent flicker. Their feet are clipped into the pedals as securely as my camera, in my ever-present backpack. The busses unload their payload of commuters; the coffee shop is a workshop of activity. With the morning headlines tucked under my arm, I make my way up the ramp to a comfortable booth that is my perch to watch the day unfold.
The ferry is loaded with a less than typical Monday crowd as the holiday’s approach. The makeup lady stares into her mirror for the 1/2 hour long commute. Transforming herself into a beauty queen while her husband stares blankly at the reflection of himself in the window. His eyes drifting to sleepiness.
A makeshift Christmas tree stands as a lone sentry beyond the entrance to the ferry, while the steady streams of commuter’s embark on their familiar journey. The temporary travelers all jockey for their respective seats, coffee and papers are juggled with briefcases and strollers in hand. They emerge from all over the Kitsap Peninsula with Bainbridge Island being a popular choice for commuters to live. With a “bedroom community” atmosphere, the island hosts many professionals of the middle to upper class status. Porsche’s and Range Rovers are as common as the stuffiness within this island neighborhood of water view bungalows.
Across the water, the day is beginning for Barry, a 38-year homeless man, who has called the streets his home since he was 18.
The freeway screams overhead, the tires creating a thump; as tires hit the freeway joints. Slowly he clears the cobwebs from his head as first light comes. He knows all to well the police may arrive any time to move him along. With a slow methodical motion he lays his bedroll on the cold asphalt. Both hands to the side, he cups them toward the middle, rolling the bedding with the experience that twenty years on the street can teach. His bended knee makes sure the roll will be tight; helping conserve the limited space in his overstuffed shopping cart. Movement is hard with the many layers of clothes required to make it through the chill of the night. This day he has a T-Shirt underneath 4 layers of clothes.
Clothing can be traded at homeless shelters or treasures discovered in dumpsters located in the canyons of the city. His boots are taped with silver “Duck Tape” while his khaki pants and jacket are coated in dirt. A fresh pair of underwear will have to wait for another day as the familiar itch of an unwashed body, reminds him of his circumstance.
Moving his cart can take a Herculean effort of muscle and the organizational skills of a train conductor. The contents are jumbled mix of discards from the world of business commerce and households. Two milk crates hang precariously like a rock climber tethered to his rope. Ski poles jut from the top like twin spires of a cathedral while a teddy bear stands guard next to a plastic bag filled with food.
Clothes both clean and dirty combined with toiletries bounce along the cart, while a cardboard sign pleading for spare change, acts as a cushion. Slowly the force of drive and energy begins, allowing the movement of his worldly possessions to commence. Barry begins another day.
Being an avid photographer I passed by Barry every morning, with a photographic eye. His cart by his side like a familiar friend.
Seeing him for three years in the same spot in the morning adds a certain comfort to my routine. A routine that has remained unchanged for years, except for my reduction in the amount of caffeine I drink. Many mornings I had passed him, being caught up in the swell of the crowd, as hundreds of commuters do at daybreak. Their eyes transfixed to the horizon, without a gaze at Barry.
I too was conscience-stricken of this. Being able to see through a homeless person is something you learn after conditioning yourself to the pity you feel in yourself for not helping. You also know in your mind, you do not want to help someone with an addiction to feed his or her habit. Though I can be gregarious and excitable at times, talking with Barry seemed intimidating to me.
What would other commuters think? Why give him my attention and then have expectations of myself, knowing I could not walk by again without sharing a quarter or two.
On this morning I shuffled by with the rest of the crowd and ducked into a local Internet café. Beyond the tunnel, Barry was sitting with a Dick Francis book, “Driving Force”. The café’ had recently opened and the new shopkeepers were smiling to have a customer that was not gravitating to the nearest Starbucks. I enjoyed my grande vanilla latte’ and watched Barry through the window. Setting aside the book, he swept his area clean to begin his day.
Positioning myself in the chair, I nervously fiddled with the camera as I changed the ISO setting to 800. Making sure my memory card was clear and battery was fully charged, I noticed a sign in the café’, “30 free minutes of internet service with purchase”. Of all the times I had walked by this coffee shop, I never once saw a sign outside, advertising this service. What a great way for someone like Barry to keep in touch with friends and family.
Nervously I walked out of the door. The sky was a blackened gray like so many of Seattle’s desolate days with the wintry chill, hovering in the air. I put my camera at my waist to see if I could capture an image while Barry swept the darkened, urine stained asphalt.
Having preset my camera at F2.8 and in black and white mode, I knew I could get off a couple of frames before I arrived into his territory. Nervously I approached and introduced myself.
“Hi, I’m Terry and a local photographer. I was wondering if you mind me taking a few photos of you?”
Barry kind of shrugged, “Sure if you think taking a photo of a homeless man sweeping dirty asphalt is interesting, go ahead”
With that, I took advantage of his consent, taking multiple shots from different angles. The broom was worn at the bristles like an old toothbrush. “You know”, he started to speak, “it’s nice to keep this area clean and with all the guys that pee out here, it makes me feel better to sweep things up”
I laughed at his backhanded comment chastising his fellow homeless man. I had imagined the pools of urine were his, smelling up the passageway with a foul stench that would blister your nose in the summer heat. I used to think to myself, revamping an old line from a movie, “There’s nothing like the smell of stale urine in the morning”
I knew this day I would be late to the office, but I also knew the office was not as exciting as meeting Barry might be. Being stuck in a cubical all day wears on my nerves and photography is my solace from what I consider the droning of America. How many charts and spreadsheets can one create? The automation of society has resulted in workers creating worthless pieces of paper that no one really gives a shit about. Who really creates anything in this country anymore? My mind usually wanders outside to the city as I sit in the cube; the colors and contrast of the buildings turn to black and white as I envision everything with a photographer’s eye. I love getting out and shooting the cityscapes. Sometimes it can be boring, but there are some days like today that give me a chance to experience downtown. Days like today to meet Barry.
Pointing my camera to the ground, I continued to talk while I viewed my photos on the 2” LCD screen. Feeling satisfied that I took the photos I wanted, I lowered my camera to engage in conversation. Barry was still sweeping and was finalizing his task into a little pile.
“Hi, I’m Terry” I introduced myself again.
“It’s nice to meet you Terry, my name is Barry,” he said with an upturned grin. With his soiled baseball cap tilted to one side. I examined his face, trying to gauge his reaction to my intrusion on his domain. As he reestablished a roost on his milk box, a quarter lands in the creased aluminum pie pan.
Barry responds with a polite “Thank you”.
“I have seen you for a number of years and have wanted to introduce myself” I said with an almost self-conscious enthusiasm.
“Yeah, this is usually where I am at, just trying to make a living and reading my books”, He smiled. We exchanged small talk as the next load of commuters walked through the vacant tunnel of the walkway. The footpath is fabricated of chunky steel with five foot sides. The panels are painted with stick figure people interacting in the city, courtesy of a local grade school. Blisters of rivets meander a conduit up the structure. The pathway topped off with an asphalt wrapper contrast with the freeway overpass whose composition covers the refuge.
This will be Barry’s office for the day. I learned he had been on the streets since a falling out with his parents. He likes to read fiction and was versed in current events. I imagined that with little responsibilities, one could immerse himself in literature and the arts. Maybe I was casting and romanticizing his plight in my head. But for a brief moment, his life seemed to me like he was really living and involved in the human experience. He talked openly, seeming happy to engage in normal conversation. A few people passed by, looking at both of us with curiosity and averting their eyes as if looking at the sun.
I realized as I was standing there that Barry grew up as a teenager at the same time I did. How different was he from myself and what allowed me to achieve a “normal” life, whereas he hit a dead end? We continued our conversation for another few minutes, but time was pressing and I had to get to my office. I soon said my good byes and told him I would be back.
A few weeks went by and we continued to exchange pleasantries. I spoke to him of his friend Tex, who was diagnosed with cancer a couple of years ago. He had passed away in his parked van he called home. Succumbing to cancer with homeless friends and a canine companion, Lady, by his side. As a small tribute to Tex, I wrote an article in the local Homeless advocate newspaper Real Change. Sold by the homeless, it helps to supplement their income, allowing the sellers to make a small living. In researching the article, Barry introduced me to a number of his friends, including “Popeye”.
Holding his hand to his heart, tears in his eyes, “Popeye” summed Tex up best “He had a good heart and I loved him” as he described his friendship.
Slowly I built up a relationship and always stopped to see, Barry, Popeye, Brian or any other of the cast of characters who were homeless. I started building an affection for them and enjoyed my conversations as I tried to understand their world. From the outside, a vision of a fish in a bowl came to mind. Was I intruding or do I take the attitude that we are in this “Thing called life”, together?
I eventually felt comfortable enough to ask Barry if I could do a formal interview with him where I would record the session, as my writing skills could not keep up with his wit and analogies of street life. “ I really need to check my schedule” was his response. “I think I have an appointment with Paul Allen or Bill Gates today, but I might be able to fit you in”.
We ultimately agreed on 11:30 that morning. His calendar was cleared for me.
I was really excited to talk with him and throughout the previous few days I had asked friends and family, “What would you ask someone who is homeless, if you could speak with them” The common answer was, “why are they homeless?” Now I know there are a host of factors that can contribute to homelessness. But I had this burning desire to find out some answers besides drugs, alcohol and money woes. What keeps them from doing what the rest of us do to make ends meet? Do you ever see yourself off of the streets?
I let Barry know up front, I have no bias and he could choose to not answer any question I presented. I was not with any type of agency; I was just a photographer and a curious human, who wanted to understand more about their circumstance.
When I arrived, Barry was standing just where I expected. His cart full of “crap” at his side.
‘Crap’ was a term I had used previously when talking to him. A term I was afraid may have insulted him.
And so it began:
Born in Jacksonville, Florida his family moved to Lompoc, CA at age of five where he graduated from high school. His dad had left the Air Force to become an employee at Morton Thiokol, soon worked and retired from United Technologies. He grew up in a middle-income family with parents he describes as “Semi Abusive”. It was by mutual consent that he left the home at 18 years of age. “More like you cannot depend on Mommy and Daddy anymore”
When asked if he still maintains contact
“Oh I used to quite a bit, but I don’t any more. They are across country and live in Jacksonville.
“Not even a Phone call?”
“Ain’t got the money to make a phone call every week or so. You know I do what I can, once in awhile I’ll do that, but I won’t call them collect anymore, cuz I don’t want to put that burden on them anymore. They’re old and my Dad is on a pension.”
“How old is your dad,” I inquired?
“Oh in his 70’s, I don’t think it polite to really ask him. “ he said with a slight chuckle. I could hear the level of respect he still maintained for his father, even after leaving home over twenty years ago.
On the subject of Marriage, Barry was proud to say that “Thank God” he had never been married. When I asked why, he responded that he “heard his Mom and Dad fight a lot. They love each other you know and it’s like the Irish and English, whatever my Mom is, you know, you get two Brits in a fights it’s kind of like putting ammonia and bleach in a pot together. “
Every once in awhile, Barry would go off on a little tangent and I would have to direct his and my own focus to the questions at hand. He would talk of some guys robbing a bank and how stupid they were. Little flickers of grandiose stories would seep through his conversations.
I was curious about his daily routine, “So what’s your routine like during the day? I see you in the morning”
“Oh it’s very busy Terry, it’s just like you know, you get up, roll your stuff up, put the pan out, sit down, it’s after six, can I sleep? Is a cop here?” he chuckled.
I started getting the sense that it was not too much effort to get going in the morning. As we talked, a few “regulars” walked by as they gave their pleasantries. A young woman handed him a candy cane and wished him a Merry Christmas. Somehow I felt I was
intruding in his life and keeping him from making money, but my curiosity kept me focused. I was also struck by the generosity of those who passed. Whether it was a hello or some change dropped into his pan. I also hoped it wasn’t showmanship because I had a notepad and tape recorder visible.
Asking where he sleeps, “In the tunnel or once in awhile like someplace. I don’t really tell too many people where I sleep, you know a lot of people just innocently, casually mention it, then you have a whole bunch of people coming out. I don’t like having a whole lot of people knowing and then bringing a cop up there. They do a lot of stupid stuff drinking and doing drugs.” I pictured in my minds eye that it would be difficult for Barry to hide where he was going, his 100+ lb shopping cart would attract attention like a parade in July.
“How about the shelters, when it gets really cold, do you use those?”
“If it’s like 14 degrees, yeah”
“What about the cart then, what do you do about that?”
“Yeah they usually gripe about the cart, so I don’t know you know, I’m like shove it if you don’t like it.”
“That’s all your possessions right there, right? Other than food and clothing, what’s your most important thing in there?” Thinking that maybe he had some special memento like a photo or journal.
“I had a guy tell me I was addicted to shopping carts”
“Does it become a friend to you where you can find some security in having it?”
“If I get a lot of shit, well it’s just me. It’s like there’s this guy I know that says hi to me now and then. He gets really mad at me and used to give me shit. He says he finally just figured, I’m out here because I’m out here”
“Why are you out here?” I asked.
“Probably for the same reason, there’s a mental thing going on. Mainly I give people a reply they say well, why don’t you get a job? Well, I don’t like to work, if I liked to work I would do it all the time, I’d get a nine to fiver”
At this point he went off on a digression about wanting to charge people forty dollars a month to have a bunch of people in tights and a boom box playing aerobic music and doing bumbersize classes. He envisioned his customers going up and down the canyons of the city, pushing shopping carts for exercise.
Barry would digress on little tangents likes this. The stories or thoughts would flutter like paper strips in a ticker tape parade. His inability to disconnect fantasy from reality would become obvious. I sensed it was time to change gears and wanted to know a little bit more about his upbringing. “So tell me about your childhood, what was it like growing up?”
“I was a kid once, I grew up that’s about it, I hated school, I told them to stick that diploma, light it on fire and keister it”
I was somewhat surprised to hear he had a diploma, but also realized as we spoke over the past month, he had an intelligence about him that surprised me. You see when Barry talks; his tongue sometimes sticks out, without impeding his speech. A condition I learned is a potential side effect of his schizophrenia medication. This led me believe throughout the years, that he may have been retarded or slow. One of the reasons I was reluctant to strike up a conversation with him.
“Weren’t you proud to have earned the diploma?”
“No, I still ain’t, everything I know, I learned in Kindergarten”
I chuckled, “And I bet you read that book as well”
“So as a kid, where did you envision yourself being ?”
“ I didn’t see bum, I didn’t have a big ol’ bum sign flashing across me.” The vision of a huge sign above his shopping cart came to mind.
“Do you see yourself as a bum?”
“I don’t like the word, it depends on how you use it, and it’s a subjective term. It’s like, Freud said about the cigar, you could call it anything you want, and it’s still a cigar. It can be a Macanudo or a Montesano or a Dutch Masters, it’s still a cigar”
I was curious how he thought others saw him. Since he didn’t like the term bum, did he see himself as others did? I know I personally judged him immediately. It’s hard not to put someone who pushes a shopping cart and lives on the street into some kind of category. Whether it is crazy, lazy or whatever term the mind can envision.
“How do you think people perceive you? Number one, when people walk by, do you care what they think?”
“Some of them maybe I give a damn, if they got money. If they’re going to put enough money in the pan.” His eyes, looking to the horizon as people passed by.
Going off on another tangent abut getting kicked in the side so a drunken person could give him a dollar, I posed the question again, “how do you think people see you?”
“Crazy, most of them think I’m crazy. They use it as a pejorative, you know, but if somebody is ignorant and they say a stupid remark, it’s more of a compliment coming from that kind of person if you know what I mean”, he chuckled.
“You could be insulted by somebody, but I’ve always told people that crazy is a subjective term.” Having seen people who were crazy on the streets, with no shoes and begging for money, Barry did not quite fit the crazy profile for me.
I directed the question toward his answer on having mental health issues. “I got mental health issues, yeah but what’s crazy?
Rusty Weston was a little nuts, but they killed him”
Unable to remember that name, I asked him for clarification on who Rusty Weston was. “He stormed the capitol building with a 9 mm or a 38, killed a cop and a Secret Service agent. They shot him, I know they at least shot him and he was supposed to be schizophrenic. Kaczynski he was a little nuts he was a little bit crazy he had a thing about computers.”
So I pressed him for some clarification on his mental illness and what he had? “So your mental illness, can you clarify it for me?”
“I was diagnosed with schizoid affect disorder”
In asking whether he takes any medication for his illness, he said that he didn’t want all those meds in his body. The more meds he takes and puts chemicals in his body, he wanted to keep his body clean, because eventually he’ll have to be taken off of them anyway.
I found this interesting, as I had seen him and Popeye celebrating the arrival of Thanksgiving with Cook Champagne and thought this to be counterproductive to his well being.
“What about alcohol in your life?” I asked, thinking there must be some kind of vice that grabs a hold of a person on the streets.
He pointed to his jacket, coated with dirt and the pocket bulging with a concealed bottle. I asked, “Right there?”
“It’s not like I’m going to crack the bottle open right now with all the camera’s around here”
His statement opened the shroud of mystery a little more and made me think of his schizoid affect disorder he alluded to. The paranoia of “The man” watching and all the black helicopters stories came to mind. “I don’t even break the seal with all these cameras’s watching, not like Tex who would sit there and drink a beer, then piss over the side. He got to where he didn’t give a damn anymore.”
My curiosity needed to be satisfied as I envisioned a 40oz beer in his pocket. “So what do you like to drink?” “Bush Mills Irish Whiskey and you know what Glenn Leavitt is, I drink that too?” I nodded and inquired, “Is that for special occasions when you get a little extra money?”
“That was last night because Brian gave me ten bucks”
I had also started building a friendship with Brian, a Real Change vendor. We talked of how he loved to cook a good Rib Eye steak and his small studio apartment at $500 a month was enough for him to be happy after being on the streets. He had worked until midnight selling the paper the night before Thanksgiving, so he could buy himself a good steak and shrimp.
He wanted to be in the warmth of his home to enjoy his first meal after being homeless. I imagined his apartment as little more than a bed and a sink with dishes piled high.
I knew Barry likes to drink as he and Popeye were celebrating a little holiday cheer in a McDonalds cup under the freeway, the day before Thanksgiving. They asked me to join in and I refused, saying I was not much of a drinker. The honest truth, I was afraid to drink out of the same cup as them. I also did not think it wise to support them.
“Yeah, he gave me one of those little bottles as a gift” I could visualize his happiness of receiving that from Brian. Modest things we take for granted have particular meaning for someone with nothing.
I decided to pop the $10,000 question as the conversation was drifting to other topics and asked him, “What’s the #1 contributing factor, other than money that keeps you on the streets?”
“I think that’s it’s just that I won’t seek shelter” he said with some resignation. “I don’t drink that much, but if you go showing up, they’re so hypocritical, you know. Like they never drank a day in their lives. Some of these guys are so addicted they can’t, you know, what are they going to do? You gonna kick everyone out that drinks you know, then you have these assholes in here that come up in there and their drunk and they raise a bunch of hell. They need shelter and they aren’t gonna kick them out.”
“I had one guy at the First Avenue service center, Brother woke me up, he’s beating on this guy with a club because he was trying to take my shoes. I went over there and said stop beating him with the club and I’ll kick him with my shoe.”
“I pressed the question again, other than money what do you think would help you get off the streets or is money the #1 factor”.
He chuckled with a nervous laugh, “yeah give me a couple of million dollars, a house in Hunts Point, you know.” Somehow the image of him in an exclusive neighborhood like Hunts Point came to mind as he pushed his cart through the neighborhood with multi million dollar homes. What a sight that would be. The idea of the response of the residents made me snicker inside.
“Is that what you want?”
“Yeah, I don’t care about the streets, the streets are OK if it’s not 14 degrees and you are not doing something incredibly stupid, you can survive on the streets.” He said with conviction. “You don’t need a big old house with heat, you can go find yourself a Hobo shack or a mobile home or something”
“So what about someone like me getting on the streets, what do you think, how long do you think I would last?”
“Dead inside a minute, because you wouldn’t make it. No offense, but you wouldn’t make it. You have the salt and pepper hair; you don’t look like you’re old enough to be on there, when you are young enough. You are not at a young enough age to where you are used to it yet. You gotta get used to it. Now Tex he was on there for years, Popeye has been on there for years, they’re used to freezing their asses off”.
“You don’t think the average Joe like me that walks by every morning would be able to make it?”
Looking down the walkway, his head turns to a young couple walking away. “ I don’t think that guy or that women, no offense to them, it’s like Tex used it as pejorative he would say these guys, they really couldn’t stand thirty minutes. Spend 30 days with me and then let them talk their smack”
Satisfied with his answer, the thought still tumbled through my head like dice in a cup. Could I make it? Would I be able to find it within me, the strength to humble myself to begging? With no family and only the friends on the streets could I really do it? I somehow wanted to find out that answer, but I knew the only way I could do it, was to give up every material and monetary possession. He was probably right I would never make it. I am too comfortable with the choices I have made.
“So you don’t have to answer this question, but how much money do you make a day?”
“I ain’t gonna divulge my profit and loss statement unless you show me identification that you are with the IRS” with a weightiness in his voice.
I chuckled at his comment, “I’m not with the IRS, and I’m just a guy who is curious”
It’s a toss up, let’s put it that way. There are some people that will tell you a $150 dollars a day, everyday, that’s bullshit, not everyday. Maybe get a $100 bill every once in awhile then you run and cash that fucker before someone sobers up, the guy that gave it to you or realizes, you gottta be outta that spot before he comes back and says, hey give me my hundred back”
I felt that a gift of $100 was a rare gift indeed, but I know that I myself had given $20.00 bills to homeless men I had befriended, as a Christmas gift.
Turning to a new topic, “What’s your scariest experience living on the streets”
“Shit, there’s been a lot of him” he said with dejected eyes.
”Is there one you are comfortable telling me?” I prodded.
“I saw one guy get beat up with a crow bar one time, that was kinda scary and I didn’t even want to move and he looked at me, like you in this? The guy with the crowbar. Do I look like I’m in it? I got something in my hands; you think I’m stupid? Some other people started talking smack. I told them after he left that it’s pretty fucked up.”
“What kind of alcohol and drug filled arguments had he seen in his 20 years on the streets?
I did not want to prod further and sensed there were stories I would most likely never hear.
He then shared with me a funny story of a skateboarder with dreadlocks, a T-Shirt and shorts who skated across a manhole cover, where a carriage horse had recently peed. As he went over it, he fell off and landed on his stomach in the middle of the horse piss.
“It was old Major’s puddle, I knew it was. He was ringing out his shirt”
“So your daily routine, do you go anywhere to eat, or cook, just make your meals here?”
Pointing over to Ralph’s Soups, which was a couple of hundred feet away, “I go over there, go to Ralph’s or some other low cost place to eat.”
“And the business owners, how do they treat you”
“It depends on if there are any problems out here you know. They’re sensible, if you don’t do any damage to their business, then they’re OK.” Pointing to another homeless man who was walking from First avenue, “Now that brother over there for example, gets too aggressive, they don’t let them people in the business. “They get kind of weird when we go in there.”
Looking down the length of the walkway, cars passed behind Larid who was doing a little shuffle while holding his paper cup. His aggressiveness forced people on the street to gravitate away from his cutting personality. Barry gained his attention and motioned him over, “Hey Larid, come on over here”
I had seen Larid on the streets before; he is what I would call an aggressive panhandler, with black skin as shadowy as the hours of darkness. His eyes soulless, with neither depth nor sparkle, move in a constant state of motion. As if searching for something concealed. His voice has a resonate depth that comes from the caverns of his throat. Sounding like a combination of Fat Albert and Jabba the Hutt, his words indecipherable, force a listener to take note of every syllable uttered.
“How you doing my friend got any dollars? Something? Hungry” He asked without embarrassment.
“I’ll buy you a McDonald burger” Barry chimed in
“You give me two dollars?”
“You know I don’t do that man”
“I haven’t had a hot meal all day”
“Yeah I know, I’ll buy you a MacDonald burger but I won’t support your damn beer habit”
“That’s nice of you,” I said.
With this, Larid told Barry he would wait for the delivery of his meal in a spot that he frequently staked out. His perch was a worn windowsill to lean against. A place he stationed himself at while on a rushed quest for beer money.
I was struck by Barry’s charity. He spoke of his concern for him, because he knew that Larid would soon be on a bender and he needed some food to make it through the night.
“So do you see yourself doing this forever” I asked as we walked toward a soup shop that Barry determined would be more healthy than a hamburger.
“Oh hopefully out of here by about” pausing to gather his thoughts ”by about, oh, Tex’ age. I loved Tex like a Dad. You know I loved him like a father. He was like the dad I didn’t have almost. But I really, wouldn’t want to know, you know. I don’t want to see myself becoming like Tex and pissing over the balcony and not give a shit.”
“So you see yourself getting off the streets in a year, five years, by retirement age? I guess retirement age is ill relevant to you”, I chuckled.
“I don’t try to become religious about that, try to predict what God’s gonna do for you”
“Are you religious?”
“Its helped me in a lot of ways, it’s better to have faith in God than in a beer bottle, pimping that wine all the time.”
I got the sense that he had faith in a higher being, but I couldn’t help but believe that he was really on his own on the streets. I shifted gears again, “How was the transition from living in a home with your parents to being homeless?”
“Well first it was really bad, first you’re not used to it. Luckily I was in California the weather was warmer. I went to Lake Piru Condor Refuge and its desert and stupid me; well it’s not warm at night. It gets unusually cold at night”
To someone who was homeless at 18, I thought it was probably a fun adventure until the actuality of his circumstances set in.
“When did you get used to, you said “ok, I’m out here for awhile?””
“Terry, I hope I never get used to it. I hope I never get so used to it where I’m like Tex get married to it. I hope I don’t, I hope I don’t. If I get the opportunity to get some decent room and board, you know. I hope I’m in a space where I’m able to take it and say fuck all.
“How can you get into some room and board?”
“You just get some money and decent identification and pay your rent, the hell with HUD, you know, pay your rent.” He said with strength of mind.
As we continued to walk, the sound of a car alarm went off and the rush of traffic could be heard in the streets. This was his living room, I thought to myself. At home I can be in warm place and fluff a pillow, while Barry straightens his cardboard and his jacket is a place to lay his head. I had seen him late some nights, his tarp over his head, sitting in an almost upright fetal position.
“So when’s the last time you had a place to live in, what we would consider a home?
“I don’t know”
I sensed he wanted to evade the answer as he thought about the question. Not wanting to push the matter
“In general are you happy? How do you feel? I mean when you get up in the morning, what’s your feeling like?”
“I’m like praise God, another day, you know. Another day alive you know. Basically people are like that. You have to be glad your living, you know what I’m saying” I nodded in agreement.
We entered the soup café and Barry ordered the usual sandwich that he always gets. “I need to get one for the brother out there, but I don’t want to encourage him” he told the worker. He then ordered soup and requested wheat bread because “It’s good for him”
“I’m getting Larid some soup because he’s gonna be getting drunk on me and he needs the food. Otherwise he’s gonna be hurting, belly gonna be hurting. He’s gonna be getting what they call arsehole drunk”
I questioned him “Arsehole drunk ?
“Asshole drunk, I wanted to tone it down in here and be polite” he smiled. Though his life was a struggle, he could still maintain his manners and I imagined his dad was a strict disciplinarian for proper etiquette.
As we left the café, he commented “Get him a sandwich with lettuce and tomatoes, get him something nutritious. She knows how to do it. Try and buy him something to eat because he’s bullshitting about the eating.” As we approached Larid, he was standing in the middle of the path about 50 yards away, naked from the waist up. He was changing his shirt and was putting on a brand new T-shirt, fresh from a shelter donation.
I asked him if I could get some pictures and he obliged., asking me “Did you bring me that DVD, was that you? Are you the gentlemen that brought me those DVD’s? Shrugging, I told him no.
“You got any money for me?”
“I don’t walk to talk to anyone then” he stated.
I found this jagged gratitude a bit harsh, since he was just given a nice meal.
Guess that’s the way it is for some on the streets. If you cannot fund their needs, then it’s time to pursue the next mark.
Barry and I went back to the cart as we continued our conversation. Thumbing through a Photo Magazine I had given him, I asked, “ So anyway, you’re pretty happy for the most part, you’re alive, you wake up, you look forward to the day?”
“Yeah well, you know, sometimes it’s like you wake up. Sometimes you’re like oh boy does my face look like crap, where the hell is the exfoliating cream when you need it. It’s like Saddam Hussein waking up in that hole, “Who the hell do you have to torture to get a damn Biori Strip around here?
“So what do you think of the Iraqi war? Knowing he was up on current events.
“We can insult the Arabs even more now we’ll be insulting some other group when we go into the next war. The next President will do something stupid and we’ll get rid of him. I think most politicians, while they’re campaigning ok as soon as they win, think of our esteemed mayor. He was so great, but look who he had to run against. He’s not the sharpest knife in the box.
He then shared with me that I should never fly on Osama Airlines and any plane that had a photo of Osama Bin Laden on the rudder should be avoided at all costs.
“So what do you miss most about your former life?” Pausing for a second, he reminisced about Thanksgiving dinners with his Mom. He started talking about a program called Fair Start that teaches the homeless how to make a living in the restaurant industry. Something he did not want to participate in because “They are always got some solution for homeless people”
“So what is the solution?” expecting that cash would be the thing he would ask for.
“There ain’t no solution, throughout history there have been homeless people, there have been beggars at the gates of the temples, right? The temple gates at Christ’ time. When Peter and John, have you not heard Silver and Gold Have I None; but Such as I Have Give I Thee?”
Being no scholar in biblical passages, I nodded and let him continue. “So you know there are beggars all throughout history, there are always going to be beggars, when we’re building colonies on the moon, we’ll be floating around in little spaceships all shabby and holding out the cups; probably having anti gravity things on them to keep the coins from flying out.”
“So ultimately, you think there is no solution?”
“You’re not gonna get rid of them. Talk about a solution, a solution implies it’s a real problem. Everybody calls it a homeless problem.
“You think it’s a problem?”
“It’s whole culture, a separate culture. It’s real nihilistic of them for people to say just because you’re not that way; the culture needs to be eliminated. You have people dying on the streets.”
Every year Real Change News did an article on those that had passed and I even attended a few memorial events in Pioneer Square to help remember those who died on the streets. I was always struck about how close the community was and his comment “It’s real nihilistic of them for people to say just because you’re not that way; the culture needs to be eliminated”.. stuck with me.
“But, you have a lot more people dying in apartments, houses places all over the country. You don’t have people saying, “hey my grandmother died in a hospital, she was being taken care of, OK?”
We talked about more about the culture, how close people are and his need to “Go Solo” at times to get away from the craziness of the street comrades. How he can get “Amped” up on coffee at times and drinks too much. He spoke of a young homeless man named Nathan, who I had met that walks around with his pet Rottweiler.
“Nathan was all speeded up, he hit that speed pipe, right? Then he decided in his wisdom, his drugged up wisdom, his doped up wisdom, decided to take 10 shots of espresso in his coffee on top of that speed. He’s got attention deficit hyperactive disorder…bipolar, get him manicey, really did wonders for his medication. You know caffeine counteracts your medication, Bipolar. Makes you go into a manic stage. That’s why they don’t let them have caffeine in a mental hospital”
“So what do you worry about most”
“Mainly what scares me the most, I’m gonna get to like this kind of shit, you know. I’m just gonna be as crazy as Larid and as old as Tex or as old as Popeye or something and I’m gonna be out here, I’m gonna be so inured , gonna start drinking wine.”
“You seem intelligent enough to see that’s not the way to go”
“That’s what frightens me, I still got my mind you know. I’m gonna start really you know loving it down here and then I’m gonna know I’m gone. Really know it’s time for the rubber room.”
So I asked him how he maintains his sanity . “You just gotta laugh at it, you’re not gonna cry.”
“So who do you love:”
“Not a lot of people, there’s Tex I loved him, I could get a kick out of him. Popeye, of course. He’s got his little thing with Detox. I think they got mad and put him in the old folks home. I’m waiting for him to bust out. He said something like when he got put in
Terminal Island Federal Prison. Some guy asked him what he was in there for and he said, well you rob a few banks….”
“So what do you value in life”
“I value this life, you know someone tips over my cart, stupid you should have stayed over here and done that when I was around. In the end, where’s it all gonna go, if I go to jail in a couple of months, it’s all gonna go in the trash anyway and it’s gonna be nothing. Maybe I’ll do something stupid and not give a fuck and hit someone in the head with a milk crate. Maybe I’m tired of these assholes won’t get off the rep, maybe I can blame it on my craziness.
“What advice do you give other homeless people on the streets?” as we heard the ever present sirens in the background.
“Sit down shut up, hold the cap out, do what the cops say”
“So what do you like about your life”
“I get to sit on my ass, go to Salvation Army, I don’t have to put up with shit like they do with their boss. If I go to a job interview and the boss starts getting smart with me, I can tell him to shove his job. I’m 38 years old and I’ve got more respect for myself than to kiss ass for a job.
With that my tape ended and I ended the interview, It was now time to go back to my cocoon of comfort and for Barry to continue with his day.
Update – A few months after this interview, Barry was more cantankerous and I noticed him talking to himself more and when I did stop to say hello, the wild stories would come out. The subjects usually involved the police and “robbers”, fast cars and people going to prison. The last time I saw him, he was sweltering in the 80 degree heat with his 4 layers of clothing, cussing up a storm and seemed to be mad at his shopping cart. Asking how he was doing, His response was, “You don’t want to know, Terry” With that, I walked away. Word on the street is that Barry will be spending his summer, on vacation, at the King County Jail.