Tent City, U.S.A.
** AN IN SITU STUDY** was conducted of a tent city near downtown Fresno, California. The objective of the Study was to explore this unusual community of homeless people and learn something of its inhabitants. The Fresno location was chosen based on its size (the Study Area extends over several city blocks) and substantial population (approximately 300 individuals).
The project methodology was simple: The Principal Researcher (PR) would set up a tent within the tent city and observe the inhabitants.
_ Description of Study Area_
IT IS DIFFICULT to convey the sobering effect of entering the Study Area for the first time.
On occasions during the Study, when use of a notebook seemed problematic, the PR would switch on a portable tape recorder. On the tape from day one, as the PR enters the Study Area, there may be heard: a long silence, an audible exhalation, a whispered profanity.
The PR had previous experience in the ghettos, slums, and shantytowns of various Third World cities, including Jakarta, Nuevo Laredo, Peshawar, Bangkok, and Kathmandu. It was observed, however, that the PR was feeling more fear here in Fresno than he had felt in any of those foreign locales. Wild shouts could be heard; the air smelled of wood fire and dust; dogs roamed the Study Area; mysterious figures stared out from asymmetrical doorways; in the distance, under a highway overpass, a cramped, smoky, Stygian neighborhood seemed to exude menace.
At first glance, the Study Area presented as a junkyard, but one in which people were living. Tents of various vintage were observed. In addition, the following materials had been used to construct dwellings within the Study Area: Plyboard. Blue plastic tarp material. Tree limbs. Lengths of string, wire, and rope. Large wooden cable spools. Shopping carts. Construction pallets. A piece of inverted signage reading: lt. governor bustamante, working for families. Rocks, bags of dirt, and an office chair had been used to secure a tin roof. The yard of one house boasted a number of well-tended houseplants, including several cacti. This house also had a white metal screen door neatly mounted into its frame and an American flag flying above it on a tilted pole. At a nearby house, dozens of branches from an artificial Christmas tree had been inserted at regular intervals into the siding, decoratively.
In short the Study Area did not conform to the PR’s expectations. Based on a pre-Study survey of existing media information, the PR had expected the tent city to be populated by middle-class individuals recently made homeless by the economic downturn, beaten but not destroyed, a kindly Steinbeckian gathering of stoic types, possibly playing guitars, who would welcome the PR, gratified that someone had come to document their plight.
The PR left the Study Area and drove around Fresno for several hours, seeking a more Steinbeckian tent city. Although promising pockets of poverty were observed, no Steinbeckian tent city was found.
At approximately 2 p.m., the PR returned to the Study Area. Overcoming some initial fear-related resistance to exiting the vehicle, the PR exited the vehicle.
A squat reddish woman was observed in a chair, blunt legs thrust out into the road.
This was Wanda.
Wanda: A Modest Proposal
WANDA WAS a woman of uncertain ethnicity between 30 and 50 years of age whose face consisted of a series of sun-darkened red-and-purple rounded structures, like rosy cheeks, but located in places on her face where cheeks would not normally be found. Nevertheless, Wanda exuded a wry joviality, as if aware that there were comic aspects to the fact that she was seated, sunburned and barefoot, on a street of houses made of garbage, wearing what appeared to be a set of maroon hospital scrubs.
How are you? the PR inquired.
Could be better, Wanda responded.
Wanda reported that she had recently been hit by a train. (The Study Area was located illegally on railroad land, and its western border was a busy switching yard.) She’d been trying to cross the tracks with her bike. That train could have at least honked, she said. Wanda inquired as to whether the PR would give her a hundred dollars. The PR demurred. Wanda asked whether the PR would give her a kiss. The PR demurred. Wanda stated that the PR “looked rich.” The PR protested that he was not rich. Wanda looked pointedly at the project research vehicle, a late-model rental minivan. Wanda showed the PR her train-injured foot, which was red, glazed, and infected. Her big toe was bent at a right angle, as if someone had snapped the big toe at the joint and set it ninety degrees from the correct orientation.
The PR expressed his desire to put up a tent of his own.
Wait, you staying here? Wanda said. How long you staying?
Maybe a week? the PR said.
You married? Wanda said.
Twenty-one years, the PR said.
I’m a rape you, Wanda said.
Meet the Neighbors
THE PR’S TENT WAS NEW. He had never assembled it before. All day he’d been worrying about this moment of confused fumbling, and now it was happening. Several more poles than expected tumbled out of the bag. The instructions were observed to be blowing away. The PR felt the eyes of the entire Study Area upon him.
Suddenly, a burst of competence appeared in the form of Valerie, who feverishly began assembling his tent. Valerie was a small woman in her late forties, a grandmother, she said, of seven and a half, wearing John Lennon–esque glasses, baggy men’s clothing, and a khaki-colored baseball cap pulled low over broad, friendly features that made her look, someone would later say, “like John Denver on the cover of Rocky Mountain High.”
Valerie stated that the PR was welcome to stay here, near her compound. The compound was a large, corral-like enclosure defined by a fence of pallets stood on end and draped in black plastic tarping. Inside were: multiple tents; a blue Rubbermaid cart; a sun-faded Little Tikes playhouse; a table made of a cable spool, with ad hoc patio umbrella; a bike frame; and two couches. Entry was gained by lifting/sliding a pallet laid across a gap in the fence.
Valerie was joined by a diminutive handsome Tibetan-looking man with a long black ponytail and little wool cap with short front brim that gave him the look of someone who should be playing a wood flute in a park in New York City.
This was Ernesto.
As he helped Valerie assemble the tent, Ernesto urgently offered the PR several pieces of advice.
THE PR LOOKED GOOD. Too good. Ernesto himself tried to look not too good. The PR better park that van somewhere else. There were crackheads living up in here. After dark the crackheads would break into the van and steal everything. Even the van. This was not a good place. These were not good people. The PR better take off his wedding ring. They’d come in the night and steal it, taking the finger if necessary. The PR would see tonight how wild it got. A friend of Ernesto’s had stayed out here once, to learn about the homeless. After two weeks, he was dead.
They killed him? the PR said.
He killed his own self, Ernesto said. It made him so sad to see how the people are living. He stayed a couple nights. Then two weeks later, he kill himself. I don’t want that to happen to you.
The PR observed with some interest that his reaction to the clarification that Ernesto’s friend had not been murdered, but had only killed himself in despair, was relief.
Origins of the Study Area
AN OVERVIEW of the Study Area is presented in Figure 1.
As shown, the Study Area consisted of two subcommunities: one under the overpass, another out in the open. Per Albert, who lived in a tent at Valerie’s front gate, the community under the overpass had been named, by its residents, New Jack City. Or as Albert said he sometimes called it, New Crack City.
The open area (where the PR’s tent was located) was called Taco Flats. That is in actuality something that I baptized it, said Albert. Me and Valerie were the first ones here. Then your people from Mexico, the paisas, they came here. There was, uh, what’s his name? Juachi. And Mundo. There was Sinaloa. And eventually, you know, it was like the old saying, If you build it, they will come. And they sure as heck did. But she was the first one here.
Valerie confirmed that she was the founder of Taco Flats.
Valerie: A Settler’s Tale
My husband and me started out underneath the bridge. Two weeks after that, we got our tools stolen and shit like that. So we came down here, got it all flattened down, put our tents up. We were like: Fuck this. So we put up all these tents and shit—my ex-husband gave me that tent, my brother gave me that tent, the church gave me that one, that big one right there is my husband’s. That one there’s all torn to shit but I’m gonna take it over there and sew it at the women’s center. And everybody just moved in beside me.
And Yet Not
THIS VERSION OF events was later contradicted by a woman named Large Jo, a blond oracular woman of 60 always found in a certain shady location on G Street in her wheelchair who said that if anyone had a right to Taco Flats, it was the_ paisas_. They were there first. They’d worked hard, built nice places, framed them out and everything. She had pictures of Pancho when he was framing the first house in Taco Flats. The white guys didn’t come in until the paisas had been there awhile.
As will be seen, truth was relative within the Study Area. Truth is relative everywhere but was even more relative within the Study Area. Anything anyone ever claimed during the Study was, at some point, directly contradicted by something someone else claimed. Stories within the Study Area, as will be seen, were rife with exaggeration, omission, or fabrication. It is postulated that this was related to the hardship of material conditions within the Study Area, as well as the prevalence of mental illness within the Study Area. The relation between mental illness and residency within the Study Area is worthy of further study. In some cases, mental illness seemed to be the reason for residence within the Study Area. In other cases, residence within the Study Area seemed to be causing mental illness in individuals who, in a less stressful setting, might not have been mentally ill at all.
The View from the Project Research Center
THE DAY WAS WINDY. Following setup, as the PR ferried his things—sleeping bag; mini reading light; roll of toilet paper; approximately twenty (20) moist towelettes; eight (8) bags organic instant oatmeal; useless plastic tent-stake hammer; a copy of The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño—from minivan to tent, the tent was observed to be rolling away across the Study Area. An aggressive young man of about 18, noticing the PR emerging from the minivan, confronted him angrily. Who was he? What was he doing here? The PR pointed out the rolling-away tent and indicated that it was his. The young man and the PR watched the tent go. The PR’s willingness to admit ownership of the rolling tent seemed to convince the angry young man that the PR belonged here.
During this incident, the tent was damaged in several places. The PR, recalling Ernesto’s warnings, used his fingers to create, from an existing scuff mark, a security eyehole. In the dwindling light, through the eyehole, a pile of garbage could be observed near the tent. In a heap of discarded clothes sat a white plastic lawn chair, one leg bent beneath it, evoking a racehorse with a broken leg, photographed in midfall. Also in the pile were two mattresses, one of which was hot pink. Also visible was a ribbonlike length of VCR tape fluttering maniacally in the wind; no VCR casing was observed. Also visible were a white plastic fork, a single huarache sandal, and a piece of thin green plastic tubing, like a miniature garden hose.
THE SECURITY EYEHOLE provided initial data on Study Area activities.
Vehicles would enter the Study Area and sit idling in the empty zone of hard dirt and vestigial asphalt that separated Taco Flats and New Jack City. A shadowy figure would shuffle out to the car. The shadowy figure might lean into, or enter, the car. A short while later, the shadowy figure would dash off in the direction from which he or she had come. The car would then drive away.
The wind, if it blew just right, would lift the front window flap, affording the PR a view of a fortress-like structure behind Ernesto’s house—which, in time, he would learn was called the Watchtower. A man’s head could be observed sticking out above the roof, as if he had been beheaded and his head placed on the roof. When a car entered the Study Area, this man would emit an angry-sounding cry which, to the PR, came to seem like a sort of Study Area anthem: Hey! Hey! Hey!
If the vehicle slowed near the PR’s tent, this meant the driver had chosen to make his purchase from the group affiliated with the man whose head was sticking out of the roof, i.e., from Taco Flats. If the vehicle proceeded into the empty zone, this meant the driver had chosen to make his purchase from New Jack City, whose men were also continually barking: Hey! Hey! Hey!
That is, a spirited capitalist competition appeared to be occurring between the two locales.
A Comfort Station Indeed
SOMETIMES AN individual would enter the Study Area on foot, and a brief transaction would occur on what would have been the lawn of the PR’s tent, had the PR’s tent had a lawn. Observing the illicit transactions occurring on his nonlawn gave the PR a giddy, powerful feeling. The dealers didn’t even know he was in there, taking notes.
Soon, however, he became aware of an urge to urinate.
A row of porta-potties had been placed, by the city of Fresno, approximately fifty yards from New Jack City. A person wishing to attain the porta-potties thus needed to walk directly toward New Jack City, and nearly enter New Jack City, thus making himself easy prey for those crackheads who all evening had been wondering where the individual who had arrived at the Study Area in a luxurious rented minivan had gone.
Still, he couldn’t very well pee in his tent. Earlier, Valerie had kindly given him a bottle of water. Could he pee in there? It was a little early in the Study, the PR felt, for such an extreme manifestation of cowardice.
As the PR crossed the empty zone, he observed himself to be walking in a deliberately shuffling gait, with a slight fake limp, in an attempt to appear more homeless.
The PR lingered inside the potty. It felt safe. Safer than the tent. The potty had a door with a lock. It didn’t smell nearly as bad as he’d expected. Someone had been in here with some disinfectant or something. Well, he couldn’t stay here all night, could he? If the potty were only larger, and a bit cleaner, he could lie down. He could go back, fetch his sleeping bag…
The PR reluctantly left the porta-potty and started back across the empty zone.
A gold Mercedes entered the Study Area, passed in front of the PR, and sat idling in the empty zone. It was a beautiful car and appeared to shimmer in the combined moonlight/streetlight. Several shadowy figures left the area under the bridge and raced toward the Mercedes.
The PR made for his tent.
How you getting by, kiddo? Wanda said, as the PR rapidly approached.
Okay, said the PR. Everyone seems nice.
Uh, well, said Wanda. They’re all crackheads.
They are? said the PR.
Sure, said Wanda. I’m one, too.
You’re a crackhead, said the PR.
Just a little bit, said Wanda.
Listen to the Music of the Night
THE NIGHT WAS full of sounds. These included: the whoosh of traffic from Highway 41; sirens; the metal-on-metal sound of freight trains coupling and uncoupling; hammering sounds as several Study Area residents made nighttime improvements to their dwellings; a bullfrog in the junk pile next to the PR’s tent.
Through the night, heedless of the human convention of staying quiet while others tried to sleep, the Study Area residents emitted shouts, invective, imprecations, jokes, requests for clarification, and non sequiturs, including
AFRICAN-AMERICAN WOMAN: [facetious, affectionate] You niggah bee-yotch! AFRICAN-AMERICAN MAN: [in affectionate response] You bee-yotch!
FEMALE VOICE, UNCERTAIN ETHNICITY: Hey, motherfucker! MALE VOICE, UNCERTAIN ETHNICITY: Shut up! FEMALE VOICE: You shut up!
IN A NEARBY TENT: [A loud fart.] WOMAN: [affectionately] Stop it! The woman and a man laugh together.MAN: [imitating a popular TV commercial] Can you hear me now?
MALE VOICE: [angrily, into cell phone] I don’t like that! I don’t know you! I don’t like that!
MALE VOICE: [calling out desperately] Mikey! Mikey! Do you know what time it is?
It occurred to the PR that he was not the only person in the Study Area anxious for the night to end.
Some Data Regarding the PR’s Mental State, Night One
THE WIND PICKED UP, twisting and pulling the PR’s tent, exactly mimicking the effect of a strong man trying to wrest the tent from the ground prior to entering the tent to cut off the tent-dweller’s finger, in order to steal his wedding ring.
In his sleep, the PR dreamed he was a beautiful blond woman, like Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, who possessed considerable confidence in her powers of seduction. The PR was naked, in a hot tub, surrounded by male inquisitors. The PR posed and preened in the hot tub, refusing to answer the questions. This approach, it seemed, had worked before. This part of the dream was seen from the point of view of the PR: He could feel his feminine power, sense the mounting frustration of his inquisitors. Then the dream cut to an external point of view: a shot of the PR, female, naked, wet, being carried away on a stretcher, mouth bandaged and bleeding, vagina bandaged and bleeding, mouth and vagina having been irreparably damaged by brutal phallic intrusion.
The PR woke in an agitated state. The meaning of the dream was clear: A combination of naïveté and condescension could prove catastrophic.
The PR slept fitfully until just before dawn, when Wanda, dragging a plastic garbage can past the tent, inquired whether he was still alive. He replied that he was. Didn’t know if you survived, Wanda said, then went off shouting, Morning! Morning! Morning! at the top of her lungs, to all corners of the camp, in what struck the PR as a kind of protective/preemptive birdcall.
A SPARROW WAS observed to light on the roof of Ernesto’s house. Just outside the PR’s tent was a mound of feces, which the PR assumed to be dog feces, although the size of the mound did not rule out a human source and furthermore did not seem commensurate with the size of the only dog thus far observed in the immediate area, i.e., Ernesto’s tiny dachshund, Chiquito. Near the feces was a pair of rusty pruning shears, which the PR secured and placed inside the tent for security purposes.
During Day One, the PR had heard frequent mentions of an area west of the Study Area, across the freight yard, which included several facilities catering to the homeless, in addition to another, smaller, tent community called the Hill.
The PR resolved to spend the morning exploring this area.
Site Visit: the Hill
THE HILL WAS a long row of tents running parallel to G Street under the freeway overpass. The PR entered through the gate on East California Avenue. A chained, barking pit-bull mix was observed. Two African-American men in their late twenties approached. The taller of the men inquired as to what the PR needed. He had weed, the man said, he had rock. The PR here affected the Study Area habit of prevarication. He had no money, he said, making his voice weary, he was totally wiped out. Feeling the conspicuous absence of a reasonable explanation for his presence, the PR asked if it would be possible for him to put up his tent. The tall man responded warmly that it would. Everyone was welcome. He then produced a complicated wad of electronic devices, including a large pink cell phone that appeared to be from some earlier era of cell phones. The PR reminded the man that he was wiped out. The man accepted this graciously and then, desperate to sell something, played what he evidently felt to be some sort of trump card.
Got a white girl in there, he said in an undertone, indicating a tent in the weeds. White girl with red hair.
That she was a white girl seemed to be one selling point. That she had red hair seemed to be another. The PR demurred. It was tempting, but he was still wiped out. He continued up the Hill. He could sense the men behind him, discussing his inexplicable presence.
Then, at the top of the Hill, he saw something extraordinary, a tent unique among all tents observed in the Study Area. The owner had built, as a platform for his tent, an impressive treated-lumber deck. The deck was beautiful. It evoked suburbia. It drew the eye, its series of straight, clean lines conveying an almost military precision. If the Hill had been a medieval community (and it might well have been, with all the wood smoke and squalor), the resident of this highest tent would have been its king, surpassing all others in his mastery of the physical realm.
No one appeared to be home.
A Moral Inquiry
RETREATING DOWN G Street, the PR considered the white girl with red hair. Was she being held against her will? Likely she was a junkie, in some sort of long-term relationship with the tall man, who served as her pimp. Who had she been before she was the white girl with red hair? The PR reminded himself that the white girl with red hair had been a whore in that tent long before he arrived and would be a whore in that tent long after he left. All of these people had been living thus before he arrived and would continue living thus long after he went home. Anything he could do for them would only comprise a small push in a positive direction before the tremendous momentum of their negative tendencies reasserted itself. The PR was put in mind of a single shot from a gun being fired into a massive orbiting planet.
Still, what would happen if he decided to abandon the Study and commit all of his resources to the sole purpose of extracting the white girl with red hair from that tent and getting her into whatever treatment program was required? Wasn’t it possible—wasn’t it, in fact, likely, given his resources—that he could effect a positive change in the life of the white girl with red hair? And if so, wasn’t it, at some level, a moral requirement that he do so? That is: By continuing down G Street, the white girl with the red hair becoming less real with his every step, was he not essentially consenting to her continued presence back there in the tent, waiting to be sold, by the tall man, to anyone who happened by? Wasn’t he, in a sense, not only allowing that to happen but assuring that it would happen?
Yes, he was.
NORTH OF THE HILL was a facility central to the life of all Study Area residents: Poverello House (“the Pov”). Free meals were available here, no questions asked. Laundry could be done, showers taken, medical assistance obtained. At times the existence of the Pov seemed like a kind of miracle of clear-sighted, unconditional generosity. At other times, it seemed like a gigantic enabling machine: The free food supplied by the Pov seemed to be the main reason for the existence of the Study Area.
Entered from Santa Clara Street, the Pov presented as the campus of a small community college: black wrought-iron fence, Spanish-style buildings, trees, recessed courtyards, milling people. A man with long white hair passed by in an electric wheelchair. The PR asked if the line across the courtyard was the line for breakfast. No, the man explained, that was the line for showers. That line there, the longer line—that was the line for breakfast.
How did this breakfast deal work? the PR asked. Did you need a ticket, or did you—
The man’s face brightened.
No, you just go in there and eat, he said.
Many Are His Battles
THE HANDSOME bearded young man looked like a German U-boat captain in a movie except for a long string of snot that ran from his nose, through his mustache, down to his chin. The snot string looked fid and immovable, as if poured from plastic. The young man stated that he was dying of internal injuries; the general and his men had beaten him up just outside the gate of the Pov. Heather was also dying. Heather was his girlfriend. She was from England. If Heather’s parents back in England found out about all of this—about Heather dying, the low manner in which she was living—they would die, too. He seemed baffled and humiliated to have come to this pass. He had not always been so low. He had served in the French Foreign Legion, had spent time in Algeria, in the Sudan.
The PR and the young man entered the dining room. The young man mentioned that while in the Sudan, he had once won a whole war by himself. He indicated a group of men at a table.
That’s four of my men, he said sadly. That one there? He was my sergeant.
The alleged former sergeant was an ancient Mexican-American man merrily chewing.
I think your best friend’s got a Ph.D. after his name, a sunburned man in a black bandanna said to the snot-bearded young man.
I started out with 23,000 men, the young man said, looking at the table of four with affection. And them’s all that’s left.
Better make that one less, the man in the bandanna said. ‘Cause you’re fucking brain-dead.
Breakfast consisted of apple oatmeal, a muffin, an apple, and chocolate milk. The PR sat with the man in the bandanna. The young man with the snot in his beard sat elsewhere. He was never joined by Heather, or any woman, leading the PR to conclude that Heather existed only in the bearded young man’s mind, a notion later confirmed by Valerie, who said she knew this guy, he’d been dating this one Mexican chick for a while, but then she’d left him, probably because he was so fucking nuts.
A Partial Camp Death Roll, in the Collective Voice
OH, LOTS OF PEOPLE die in here.
The Ho man died. Gladys died. Ferdinand over here died. A guy by the name of Tupac got ran over by a train right here. Richard died, the guy they called the Birdman. He got hit by a train, just back in January, January 31. Because the Mission denied him to stay overnight, he got a blanket from a friend and stayed behind one of the train cars, and lo and behold, they were switching at night, and he was asleep, and evidently they just popped him like a strawberry basically. Really a super guy. But mentally challenged. He would shoot birds, thinking they were there. Very strange fellow. Not with an actual gun, no. Just with his fingers.
There was Edson. He was alcoholic, a good man, but mind you, his son was a professional baseball player. He could have lived differently, but he chose to be out here drinking. There was a lady got hit on the freeway couple months ago. She was crossing the 99, wasn’t paying attention. We’ve had overdoses, stabbings. One homeless guy got burned in his blankets. Some juveniles poured gas on him. We had two people shot here in the past three months. One of them, I was sitting right here when I heard five sharp pops from under the bridge. Then here came this little gal, racing by, shrieking, I told you I’d do it! I told you I’d do it! And she disappeared from Tent City and was never seen again, and the guy she shot in the face died.
People come here to die. There’s a guy dying here right now. Name of Rusty. Got bone cancer. They offered him an experimental treatment, but he don’t want to be no guinea pig, and I don’t blame him.
Just a lot of pain out here.
We got a woman, Pamela—you seen her? Nice-looking lady. Looks like a teacher. Always holds one arm up over her head, like she’s snapping pictures. Used to be a married woman, out in the world, with a kid and a house and a husband. Then, one day, the husband ecutes the kid with a gunshot to the head, then shoots himself in the head, too. Just leaves Pamela alive. Then she comes out here, gets raped. You’ll see her walking around, acting all crazy. But she’s not that crazy. She’ll talk to you. If she knows you. And if she wants to talk to you.
And sickness, don’t even get me started. You get ticks out here, you get bedbugs. Look at my leg. At least I ain’t got crabs, because I haven’t fucked in so long.
The Look of Love
THE PR ACCOMPANIED Valerie to the recycle center, to gain insight into the basic economy of the Study Area.
Stuck in behind the various pipes and wires of the big recycling-center scale were a number of small stuffed figures of the type won at carnivals, including SpongeBob SquarePants and Stewie from Family Guy, stained oily black from months of being crammed grotesquely behind the various wires and pipes, twisted into grotesque postures, as if longing to escape.
VALERIE: Usually there’s a big old white woman that’s over here doing this shit.
Two gentlemen approached the scale, pushing a shopping cart each.
VALERIE: Quack-Quack! What’s up?
One of the gentlemen, presumably Quack-Quack, responded: Quack-Quack!-, as if this were a tradition between him and Valerie. Per Valerie, these men were a gay couple. Per Valerie, it was surprising that Quack-Quack was still with this same guy, Quack-Quack not being known for lengthy relationships.
The aforementioned big old white woman appeared and began operating the scale.
VALERIE: How’s your grandbaby?
WOMAN: He’s fine, adorable. You know.
VALERIE: My husband’s coming home from jail in two weeks.
WOMAN: I know you’re gonna be busy in two weeks.
VALERIE: Oh, hell yeah. I’m gonna be sore, too.
WOMAN: [laughing] Shame on you!
As she stood at the payout counter, the look on Valerie’s face remained that of a schoolgirl with a crush. Her earnings for the transaction totaled $4.20.
Why Valerie’s Husband Is in Jail
VALERIE’S HUSBAND, Pablo, was in jail for beating up that punk Rusty. Rusty looked just like a guy named Rusty would look, Valerie said: a cross between Danny Bonaduce and that Mad Magazine dude. He’d been drunk on vodka and took her cigarettes. She wasn’t putting up with that shit and grabbed them back. Then Rusty punched her in the face. Yeah, with his fist. When Pablo found out, he beat the shit out of Rusty. Nearly killed him. Somebody ran and got the security guard. The security guard called the police.
Valerie produced Pablo’s driver’s license. Pablo was a handsome, sturdy Mexican-American with shoulder-length hair that gave him the appearance of a buff confrontational Jesus.
When Pablo got out, Valerie said, Rusty was gonna be dead.
Wasn’t Rusty the guy with bone cancer? the PR said.
Yup, Valerie said.
Two Who Got Away
ERNESTO INVITED the PR to attend a Fresno Grizzlies baseball game. The way the homeless of Fresno attended a baseball game was to stand at a fence in right-center field, through which was afforded an unimpeded view of the game.
About the third inning, Ernesto and the PR were joined by a colorful couple, Lyle and Brenda. Lyle wore a 1950s-fedora-style hat, the kind former hippies began wearing ironically in the early 1970s as a way of underscoring how little they had in common with, for example, Frank Sinatra. Brenda, who at all times stayed close by Lyle’s side, presented as a fussy toothless woman bright with a-ffec-tion for all things.
The following conversation ensued, under the occasional roar of the crowd.
ERNESTO: So you out of the streets for good.
LYLE: We’re out of the streets for gooooooood.
BRENDA: We even have a pet rat named Zooey. After the J. D. Salinger novel Franny and Zooey.
Brenda had a drunken slur that seemed at first like a parody of a drunken slur but then never went away.
LYLE: Can’t have a dog, can’t have a cat, but the guy said: You can have a rat. So we went and bought this rat, the biggest, meanest motherfucker…
There followed a discussion about a liquor store that, lamentably, didn’t open for another hour. Lyle said you had to be careful in that neighborhood, because you’d hear (Lyle lapsed into an imitation of a clichéd African-American voice): Gotta dollah? Gotta quarter?
That’s amazing, Lyle continued. Panhandlers panhandling panhandlers. I trip out on that, I’m sorry.
Lyle and Brenda had formerly lived on a loading dock. Ernesto had once lived on this dock. But Lyle and Brenda now had an apartment. At the Peacock. Near Tulare and F. Above that former fish store. Those nice brick apartments.
BRENDA: Well, you know what’s nice?
LYLE: To have a carpet.
BRENDA: And a microwave. And you plug it_ in_ and it works.
LYLE: And a toilet.
BRENDA: A shower.
LYLE: We used to be at the Komodo.
BRENDA: Are you boys at the Komodo?
ERNESTO: We’re at the camp. The H Street camp.
LYLE: Well, that’s better than the Komodo. Fuck the Komodo.
PR: What’s the Komodo?
LYLE: The Komodo’s right across from Central Valley Fish. They charge $400 for a room the size of your ass. It’s bullshit. You gotta share the same toilet, there ain’t no kitchen. On a good day there’s a microwave and a watercooler.
BRENDA: Oh, we have a nice pet rat. Zooey is so wonderful. You boys can have dinner with us. lyle: We’re having salmon tonight. That rat’s gonna tear into that. He eats everything we do. He’s a good little critter. He nibbles a little, but he don’t bite hard.
BRENDA: He kisses me.
LYLE: He don’t draw blood.
BRENDA: He kisses me. He puts his tongue in my mouth. Lyle said he never saw a rat do that. Doesn’t he kiss me? He puts his feet like this on either side of my mouth, and he puts his tongue in my mouth. He kisses the hell out of me.
LYLE: You know why we got a rat? Because the guy that owns the place—Larry—he was forced to eat them as a youngster.
BRENDA: He’s from China. He is four feet tall.
LYLE: He’s from China.
BRENDA: He will not let us have a cat.
LYLE: His parents fed him rats. So we gotta hide the rat.…
BRENDA: No, they fed him cat.
LYLE: We gotta hide the rat, because Larry smiles at the rat, like: Hey, dinner!
BRENDA: And I go: Lawrence! I call him Lawrence. He hates it.
LYLE: Don’t mind us, we’re crazy. Come on, honey. Let’s go around the front, hit those two barrels, get some recyclables for tomorrow.
BRENDA: Oy vey.
LYLE: You guys be cool!
BRENDA: I grew up with a lot of Jewish.
LYLE: Then we’ll get us another bottle of vodka and get fucked up.
Brenda and Lyle walked off into the night, seemingly awash in happiness. Although they appeared to be, as Ernesto claimed they were, alcoholics, and were, by their own admission, on their way to panhandle and dig through trash cans until it was time to return home and kiss the rat on the mouth before sitting down to dinner with the rat, still, a significant difference was observed between Lyle/Brenda and the people living at the Study Area, namely a wacky, buoyant quality the onlooker felt as hope. Had Lyle and Brenda always possessed this quality? Because Ernesto seemed subtly irritated by this quality, the PR was inclined to think it was a new quality, related to the fact that they now had a home, which had empowered them and taken the edge off their shame.
A Message from an Old Friend
THE FIRST THREE NIGHTS of the Study, the PR woke in the night with a hard-on unique in that it felt completely devoid of sexuality. It was more like a fear hard-on. Its function seemed to be to wake the PR up so he could reevaluate his safety. Why are you sleeping? the PR’s penis seemed to be saying. Shouldn’t you be awake and watchful? His arms and legs would be freezing, but his cock would be hot and ready to flee. Was he horny? Did he want to masturbate? Ha ha. In here? No. He’d go back to sleep, but his penis would stay awake, complaining, at full attention, about the danger in which it had been placed so late in its life, having served so honorably for so long.
About Day Four, the fear hard-ons ceased. The PR believed this to be related to a general evolving comfort with his surroundings.
Midstudy Data Summary
THE CRACK DEALING continued apace, day and night. During the course of the Study, the PR was offered crack, weed, and prescription muscle relars, as well as comic books and sunflower seeds “of all different flavors.”
Sometimes the Study Area seemed like a tumor that had burst on the side of capitalism. Other times it seemed like something ancient and sensible: people building dwellings, then improving them. These houses seemed like an intelligent revolt against what modern culture had declared a house, i.e., an elaborate box built by professional builders of such bos, part of a mutual-enrichment scheme between city and builder. But were these not houses? Were there not rugs in there and chairs and treasured little stupid items? Did the residents not look forward to returning there at the end of a long day?
At times the Study Area residents seemed bumbling, sweet, hapless, and victimized. Other times they seemed vicious, aggressive, and vituperative, unable to say a kind word about one another—self-defeating, excuse-making machines, spoiled rotten by free food.
Sometimes it seemed unimaginable that such poverty could exist in America and that the residents accepted it so passively. Why didn’t the place explode? Other times—when, for example, the PR had been out driving around the pleasant neighborhoods of Fresno—the Study Area seemed like a tiny blip on the radar, the necessary detritus of an insanely affluent country. The presence of 300 losers in a city of winners seemed not like a crisis, but rather a reasonable embodiment of Christ’s admonition that the poor would always be with us.
The Cruel Dotted Line
FIGURE 2 ILLUSTRATES the distribution of wealth in an idealized capitalist culture. At the far right are the superrich; we note that there are not very many. In the middle, in greater abundance, are those of average wealth. To the far left are the poor. Now, let the dotted vertical line represent the level at which one becomes so poor as to become homeless.
The goal of any citizen in a capitalist society is to avoid blundering left of the dotted line. The goal of the society at large should be to minimize the negative consequences for those individuals who do happen to blunder into that region, i.e., show mercy. The true measure of a culture might be said to lie in its answer to the question: How severely are those who blunder to the left of the line punished?
The Study Area presented a unique and vexing case: With all basic needs (food, shelter, laundry, etc.) met, did all suffering vanish? Based on the observations made during the Study, it did not. The well-fed homeless of Fresno, it was observed, suffered considerably.
They suffered with feeling inadequate and left behind. They spent considerable time and energy telling and retelling the story of their lives, as if looking for the place where things had gone astray. They were lonely and seemed to long for the better things in life: ease, property, companionship. Perhaps not surprisingly, this longing sometimes manifested as anger; also impatience, derision, a tendency to gossip ungenerously. In this the Study Area was similar to any other human community, but with the endemic poverty serving as a kind of process accelerator.
Site Visit: Return to the Hill
ON THE AFTERNOON of Day Three, the PR sat drinking with Jesse O., the man who had built the regal porch on the Hill. The treated porch lumber was redolent of affluence. The beer was cold. Across G Street, an ancient black woman sat on the curb in the midday heat, head between her knees. Fifty feet away, an ancient black man sat in the same posture. If only they could meet and comfort one another, the PR thought. But both appeared unconscious. A pickup flew past, ruffling their garments.
Jesse and the PR discussed many things in an increasingly friendly, telegraphic, and blurry manner. After the painful breakup of his marriage, Jesse had left Los Angeles, headed north. Passing through Fresno, he became part of a hundred-car pileup in the fog and nearly lost a leg. The hospital dropped him off in front of the Rescue Mission without even a wheelchair. He lived in the Mission briefly but didn’t like it—didn’t like the rules, the way they shoved religion down your throat, the general lack of dignity—so he came out here and built this deck and put up this tent and was now just waiting for the insurance settlement so he could get the hell out of here.
Once, Jesse had gone to a psychic. The psychic asked Jesse what he most desired in the world. Jesse said: to be anointed from the Horn of David. The psychic predicted this would come to pass. The PR felt he should know what the Horn of David was. But all that came to mind was a coat of many colors. One day a preacher was blessing Jesse, and Jesse saw that the container from which the blessing oil was being drawn was made in the exact likeness of the actual Horn of David. Thus the prophecy was fulfilled.
The PR’s forty-ounce Bud Ice was nearly gone.
Yahoo, the PR thought. Now we’re getting somewhere.
Back in Los Angeles, Jesse made $300 a pop for personalized homemade greeting cards which would include drawings of, for example, animals or race cars, as well as a personalized poem he would inscribe in calligraphy, such as the following example, composed in honor of the birth of a friend’s first son, which the PR drunkenly copied into the project notebook:
We have a son just a baby, our baby the image of both you and I so pure, so innocent so fascinating is life’s beginning. By the grace of god and the virtue of heredity and the goodness of nurture set out to become the product of his unique experiences. Ever still, if meeting you was all i had ever accomplished in life, my past would be one pleasant memory. And I thank god for your birth. And I love you. Thank you. Signed: Jesse O.
Jesse stated that the mother of the baby (to whom the lines “Ever still, if meeting you was all I had ever accomplished in life, my / Past would be one pleasant memory” had been slyly directed) had accused him, Jesse, of trying to use the poem, for which she was paying, to hit up on her. Jesse confessed that this indeed had been his intent. But there was nothing wrong with trying, right?
People around here looked up to Jesse, he knew that. He was known as El Sabudería (which he translated from street lingo as “Mr. Wisdom”), tried to keep the peace up here—not by force, but by listening to people, hearing them out—but it was hard. People were crazy, people were angry, people were on crack. The sadness made it a volatile place.
Where was he, the PR, living at? Jesse asked.
Over in the tent city, the PR said.
Yeah, but where exactly? Jesse said.
The PR described the location of his tent.
Jesse was mortified. There was dealing going on there all the time. The PR wasn’t safe. They were going down there right now, get him moved, over by the white people, to the north end of Taco Flats, with some friends of his who’d look out for the PR.
A Step Down
THE PR, JESSE, Ernesto, and a couple of white guys were hustling across the Study Area, carrying the PR’s tent between them like a wounded guy on a stretcher.
Mobile home! the PR shouted.
Some Mexicans in a doorway laughed at the PR, not with him. The PR could feel the dead weight of his stuff inside the tent, sliding downhill to the center sag.
The group stopped in front of a compound at the southwest corner of the Study Area and hefted the tent over the gate with a strange urgency, as if the need to work toward some common cause, long dormant from chronic unemployment, had suddenly come alive.
The matron of the compound appeared, a kindly woman with a touch of a Mexican accent. Where would the PR like his tent to go? She suggested a spot. The tent was dropped. Someone, outraged, pointed out that, oriented that way, the PR wouldn’t even be able to get in. The tent was lifted, rotated, dropped again.
Jesse embraced the PR. He, Jesse, could at least sleep now. This was one of Rusty’s compounds. He’d be safe here. Rusty was good people.
Rusty? the PR thought. The same Rusty who’d punched Valerie in the face, whose ass had been kicked by Pablo, who was supposedly dying of bone cancer?
Once Jesse left, the PR asked the Matron why Jesse felt his old location was dangerous.
Well, she said, the dangerous thing was, maybe in the night you hear, you know, a damsel in distress, or something like that? And you think: I should go help her. Only, in here, there ain’t no damsels. Everybody be drunk, be partying, you hear something, someone getting hit or slapped, you go to help and wind up getting stabbed yourself or whatever.…
The PR liked Jesse. But Jesse had sort of bitched him around, hadn’t he? He hadn’t wanted to move, but Jesse had made him. He was now in a relationship with Rusty, living under Rusty’s protection. Rusty, who had punched Valerie, grandmother of seven and a half, in the face. What if Rusty tried to bitch him around? Would he be expected to fight Rusty? This was a world of badly directed energy, primitive idiotic vows, pointless, vicious fights. The disposition of a cup or license plate, the nonpayment of a two-dollar debt, might come to violence if the people involved got shitfaced enough. It was too much. He needed a break. Where was Ernesto? Did Ernesto want to go to the ball game? Tonight they’d get real seats, like real people, leave this moronic place behind.
Let’s go, said Ernesto.
_At the Ball Game _
NEAR THE DUGOUT, a group of Asian-American teenagers were flirting with the players. Ernesto and the PR sat looking with longing and consternation at the demonstrative slender Asian girls in their tight jeans and lingerie tops and spiked heels. It occurred to the PR that in these girls, affluence manifested as confidence: a sort of hubris, an overflow of capability and life force and sexuality that felt, in this context, almost bullying.
Ernesto was sad about the PR’s new location, sad and worried, mournful even. It was much more dangerous than the old place, especially if Rusty and his friends got to drinking. The PR asked if there was crack in his new neighborhood. Ernesto said there was crack everywhere. Ernesto had done crack himself once, he admitted, a long time ago, back in Vietnam.
Crack? the PR said. In Vietnam?
The PR had always thought of crack as a newish drug.
Yes, they’d come across the plant in the wild and smoked it right there in the jungle, Ernesto said. That had been a crazy time. Before their first battle, their officers had even injected them with steroids to make them less scared.
At the front gate, Ernesto turned suddenly self-conscious about his appearance.
Maybe, he suggested, you could say I’m your friend who just got off work and didn’t have time to change clothes.
The PR had tender feelings for Ernesto, who was courteous and intelligent and always seemed happy to see the PR. And yet Valerie had claimed Ernesto was a miserable punk, a liar. Albert agreed: Ernesto was a bitch, because when Ernesto’s wife, Jodi, got beat up, Ernesto just cowered behind her.
They took their excellent box seats and had a couple of beers. The Fresno mascot appeared, a yellow-orange bear with stained fur, standing on a chair back to perform a groin thrust in some college kid’s face. Ernesto recalled that he had gone to grade school with Barbara Bush.
Barbara Bush? the PR said. That doesn’t quite…
Laura Bush, Ernesto corrected himself.
You went to school with Laura Bush? the PR asked.
It was at DeZavala Elementary, in Midland, Texas, Ernesto said. When he first saw her, he’d believed her to be a Mexican girl. She looks a little bit Mexican, he explained. He had a crush on her. He remembered they used to have to stand in a big field before school, for attendance. He would look over, find her. It always made him happy to see her.
Then Ernesto grew up, moved to Amarillo, got drafted, was sent to Vietnam. His girlfriend loyally waited for him.
I came home, he said, asked her to marry me. She say okay, sounds good, man. We got married. It was good in Amarillo. But then we lost our first kid. And I got into trouble with drinking. This was way back in ’85. In ’89, that was when I lost my wife. In a car accident. You know the way it is, the road going to the mall? That’s the way. That’s where it happened. Interstate 40. So I said okay. That was really hard. And I took my little daughter to my mom and I say: You know what? I’ll be back. I told her: I’ll be back. But I never came back. I never saw my daughter again after that. After my wife died, I just lost everything.
After the death of their infant son, his wife had gone a little crazy, he said. She used to go out to the graveyard and try to dig the baby up. Then she died herself. His current wife, Jodi, is always saying that the reason he refuses to own a car is his first wife’s death in that car crash. And it’s true, Ernesto says. Her death was the end of him.
The PR excused himself, went to the bathroom, stood at the urinal, fighting tears.
Jesus, he thought. Jesus Christ. Would Valerie and Albert still consider Ernesto a bitch and a punk if they knew about his dead son and his wife digging up their dead baby, and that same wife shortly dead herself, and their daughter abandoned all these years? Hell, maybe they would. Mercy was, it seemed, in short supply in the Study Area, and Valerie and Albert had stories of their own.
Last night, Fresno had lost big. Tonight, Fresno was ahead. If Fresno won, Ernesto stated, there would be fireworks. You could see the fireworks from the camp. But tonight, sitting inside here, they would really be able to see them. That is, if Fresno won.
Fresno continued to lead until the top of the eighth, then fell apart: a Tacoma single, a walk, a double, and then Fresno was down by three in the bottom of the ninth, and the saddened crowd acutely felt the impossibility of hitting a pitched ball even once, and were then confirmed in their pessimism by three straight Grizzly outs, and the game was over.
No fireworks, the PR said.
No fireworks, said Ernesto, in a not unhappy tone that seemed to indicate he’d never really expected them anyway.
Revelation: A Brief Flash-Forward
A FEW DAYS LATER, inspired by Ernesto’s story, the PR sneaked away from camp and Googled Ernesto’s brother in Odessa and gave him a call.
Yes, he had a brother named Ernesto, the guy said, but he hadn’t seen him in fifteen years. Last they knew, he was living in Fresno. If this man really was Ernesto, the brother would love to talk to him. The PR then told the man everything he knew about Ernesto. Their family was from Guatemala, the brother confirmed. He himself, Ernesto’s alleged brother, was, yes, a preacher in Odessa, whose middle name was, in fact, Rudolpho. But something was off. Ernesto had never been to Vietnam. Ernesto had never been in the military at all. Ernesto had said he was 65? He was nowhere near 65. Ernesto had a son who died as a baby, yes. But he never had a daughter. Absolutely not. Their mother was still alive, and if a daughter had been left with her, they would have, uh, noticed. So something was off.
Something’s off all right, the PR thought. Everyone in this place is a liar, even sweet, broken Ernesto.
Enough Is Enough
AFTER THE GAME, Ernesto and the PR walked back to the camp. It was quiet because, Ernesto said, everyone was flat busted. It would get lively and dangerous when people who got money from the government got their money from the government.
Inside the PR’s tent, it looked like a tornado had hit. He hadn’t been back inside since the transport. He wished desperately to be back in his old spot. Good old Valerie, good old Wanda. But now attention had been called to his presence. Jesse, as he’d led the tent movement, had made it clear to everyone listening that the PR was not homeless but here for an important purpose. He was doing a Study. Jesse had called over one of the guys from the Watchtower, told him that, though it might look like the PR was a narc, the PR was not a narc, just a guy doing a Study. The Watchtower guy said he had no problem with a guy doing a Study, as long as the Study didn’t mention drugs.
Everything seemed to have changed in some unhappy way.
The PR woke to the sound of a woman being fucked or hit, he couldn’t tell which. Her cries were rhythmic and laden with sorrow. Woman, he thought, you really are the nigger of the world. Unless that is a pleasure sound. And even then, you still are. Because look where you are, and who you’re getting that pleasure from, and at what cost.
Enough was enough. He had a wife, he had kids. He had to get out of here before something bad happened. He was lying about who he was as much as anybody else in here, and it now seemed clear that the uncovering of this lie must lead to resentment, and resentment, in turn, to some retributive cost.
Time to go.
First he’d have to give away all his stuff: his sleeping bag and pad, his little light, the tent itself. Wanda had been asking for the tent. Valerie had advised him against giving the tent to that little crackhead Wanda. He’d also considered giving it to Suzanna, a lost soul just out of jail, stranded here in Fresno with no tent of her own, also a crackhead, but a crackhead more adrift than Wanda, who, though a crackhead, was also well connected and fat and slothful, always begging and playing the angles. Per Wanda, Suzanna had sold her jail-issued train ticket for crack; why give a brand-new tent to someone like that? By rights, Valerie should get the tent. Valerie was his pal. Valerie was no crackhead. Valerie was a grandmother of seven and a half. Then again, Valerie already had like five tents. Why did she need another one? Arguing in Wanda’s favor was the fact that she had been hit by a train and could barely walk and was awfully genial and forgiving for someone so down on her luck.
Jesus, he couldn’t wait to get out of here.
The camp dogs were going nuts, stirred up by someone strolling the camp and whistling a repetitive seven-note figure. The dogs in here were like the people, the PR reflected: They liked to bark unhappily at shit for no reason. The barks and yips gave way to the sound of vicious outright fighting. No one intervened. The dogs were left on their own, to rend, tear, and kill one another.
As the PR started to doze off, a sound came from the freight yard, a beautiful echo-chamber freight-whistle effect that sounded like this: _Whhhhhyy did it? Whhy why why did it? Whhhhhy? _
The whistle made a long show. It was a gorgeous lovely sound to be half-awake to.
Then the whistle left off and there came the most complex exotic birdsong he’d ever heard, a sound made more beautiful by its occurrence in such a godforsaken place, as if the bird did not discriminate but made beauty wherever it went, just because it could, a song that then resolved itself into what it actually was: the yelp of a dog in pain—kicked, maybe, or wounded in a fight, or just tied too long to a fence by its absent, wasted master.
The Cratchit Confusion
AT TIMES, as indicated above, the PR found certain residents of the Study Area irritating, even maddening. At one particularly low point, when very tired, not himself at all, the PR, who in real life prided himself on his kindheartedness, even wrote, in the project notebook: “Exterminate the brutes.” For several days afterward, he felt bad about this while, at the same time, continuing to feel exasperated with the Study Area residents. Then the PR realized the error of his thinking, an error he thereafter thought of as The Cratchit Confusion.
Bob Cratchit, the hero of Charles Dickens’s novel A Christmas Carol, is poor yet virtuous. He is honest, forthright, hardworking, clean, and articulate. He loves his family and is forgiving of those who oppress him. He is, in other words, easy to sympathize with. In the real world, however, the unfortunate may not be so likable. They may be stupid, dishonest, lazy, or mean. They may obfuscate, they may attack those weaker than themselves, they may claim their poverty is the fault of an unfair world, they may invent lives for themselves in which they are heroic sages, ahead of the curve. These negative qualities, in fact, may be the root cause of their misfortune.
But to love the unfortunate, it is not necessary to feel fond of them or tenderness toward them. Momentary irritations are inevitable, the PR came to feel; they are also irrelevant. All we must do is what we would do if we could see the unfortunate purely. Our minds can be kind when our hearts cannot. In time, he predicted, his irritation would recede and all that would remain would be feelings of sadness and protectiveness toward the Study Area residents, who, after all, had not killed or abused him but had let him walk among them with impunity, and had even been kind to him, if not always to one another.
Good Country People
A WHITE PICKUP comes into the Study Area. Three couples from a local church hop out in ranchwear—starched jeans, button-down shirts—and start distributing toiletry kits and sack lunches.
Sir, one of the women says to the PR, would you like lunch?
The PR says he’s just had lunch, but thanks very much.
No, thank you, she says. Thank you for your honesty.
The PR isn’t used to being thanked for his honesty. This is like being thanked for brushing his teeth. He likes these people. They are doing it just right: They are friendly but not too friendly; they don’t seem to be getting off on what they are doing; the lunch isn’t shit; the little toiletry kits are actually useful.
Meanwhile, Wanda is sprawled in the burning direct sunlight in front of her tent, looking frazzled and cooked, like someone who, as part of a torture regimen, has been staked out in the desert without food or water. She’s been getting high on crack since early this morning, on $20 given to her by a reporter she described as “a Howdy Doody–looking dude.”
Hey! she shouts to the PR, can you bring me a lunch? I’m hungry!
The PR approaches the woman who complimented his honesty and, to preserve her good opinion of him, goes to great lengths to explain that the lunch he’s requesting is not for him, but for his friend, over there. He is going to such great lengths to explain it all that he soon becomes aware that he is sounding insane. The more she looks askance at him, the harder he tries to convince her that he is just like her, the more the pity in her face drifts toward panic.
Finally, the PR cuts his losses by doing a difficult thing: He shuts up, takes the lunch, and turns away, letting whatever she’s thinking about his life and his sanity stand uncorrected.
The Kidnapped Tent
ON THE LAST DAY of the Study, the PR went around the Study Area giving away his things. He gave his reading light to Valerie, so she could play dominoes after dark; his leftover water to the Matron; his sleeping bag to the couple known as Big Mama and Sweet Daddy. He had decided to give his tent to Wanda. He had, after all, promised it to her. The thought of Wanda realizing she’d been lied to once again was just too sad.
Hey! someone shouted. I got your tent!
A red-haired man was standing in the entrance to a compound, hands on his hips. Wait a minute. Was this Rusty? He was just as Valerie had described him: a cross between Alfred E. Neumann and Danny Bonaduce.
Rusty stepped over aggressively.
You been staying there in my place all this time, Rusty said in an angry whine. You didn’t come to see me, didn’t offer to pay me nothing. All my friends that are living over there in my compound pay me a little something, ten bucks a month or something. So it’s not fair. You can have your tent back for five dollars.
Behind Rusty, in the compound, was the PR’s tent, upside down, being guarded by a leashed pit bull.
The PR was flustered. Rusty was basically extorting him. Rusty had kidnapped his tent? His poor loyal tent lay there like a bug on its back, a humiliated hostage. This was too much. But what was he supposed to do, fight Rusty? Kick the ass of a guy three inches shorter than him who was dying of bone cancer? Or, conversely, get his ass kicked by a guy three inches shorter than him who was dying of bone cancer?
His impulse was to pull out his wallet and just pay the five bucks. But if he pulled out his wallet and Rusty saw all the money in there, Rusty might increase the ransom, or grab the wallet.
Buying himself a little time, the PR claimed his money was in his wallet, which was back in the van.
Where’s the van? Rusty demanded.
Over at the Mission, the PR said.
Max! Rusty barked. Go with him.
A strange apparition appeared: a teenage boy who seemed to be on a drug that raised the body temperature to unbearable levels and made a boy sweat and look hangdog and prematurely elderly. The kid’s head sweat was giving him a wildly unlikely forelock of hair.
The PR started off for the Mission. What to do? He could refuse to pay, leave the tent there. But then Rusty would have Wanda’s tent. He could call the cops. What? Call the cops on a dying homeless guy over five bucks? That would be pretty low. If you’re going to slum incognito, he thought, it’s hardly fair to call in the big guns when something doesn’t go your way.
Still, shit, was he really going to capitulate to that little asshole Rusty? Rusty had punched Valerie in the face. Jesse hadn’t said anything about needing to pay Rusty. And he hadn’t even needed Rusty’s protection in the first place! He could have just stayed where he was and saved the five—
Ah, fuck it, the PR thought. It’s five dollars.
Five dollars to a dying guy, so he, the PR, could bequeath his tent to Wanda, a poor little crackhead who’d been hit by a train.
He felt himself forcibly pulling himself away from a sort of Homeless-Logic Vortex.
He took out his wallet, got out a five, handed it to Max. Max went through the front gate of the compound and dumped the tent over the fence.
The PR dragged the tent wearily across the camp. It was pretty light with nothing inside. Wanda wasn’t around. Suzanna, the lost soul from L.A., sat on the mattress stuffed inside Wanda’s tent, staring blankly, her Afro front-trending and oddly asymmetrical. He was leaving Wanda this tent, he told her. She, Suzanna, was to get Wanda’s old tent, this tent she was now sitting inside. Did she understand? Would she tell Wanda?
Suzanna nodded gravely.
Boy, he hoped Suzanna wouldn’t sell the tent for crack. He hoped Suzanna wouldn’t mislead Wanda and keep the nicer tent for herself. He hoped Wanda wouldn’t sell the tent for crack. He hoped…
There was so much to worry about, and yet he knew that a few days from now, he wouldn’t be worried about any of it.
We Sat and Talked/About Things on Our Minds
AN HOUR OR SO after the extortion, the PR saw Rusty sitting at a picnic bench outside the Pov and attempted to eradicate his mild shame at having been bitched around by Rusty by joining Rusty at the table and asking him some intrusive questions.
Yes, he had bone cancer, Rusty said. He wasn’t even supposed to be alive right now. He wasn’t supposed to have made it past New Year’s. But here he was. He’d watched his parents and all four grandparents die of cancer, in the hospital, and wasn’t having any of that. He was going to die right here. He’d served in all four branches of the military and had decent VA benefits. It was supposed to be a really painful death, yes, but he was on a superhigh dose of morphine and had sleeping pills he took every night.
He hadn’t told anybody about the cancer, not his sister, not his kids, not his ex-wife. He didn’t want to be a burden or ask anyone for anything.
Was he scared of dying? the PR asked.
Yeah, yeah, Rusty said. The thing is, you have to make your peace with yourself. You have to ask yourself, have I been a good person?
Rusty has a nice way about him, the PR thought. And of course, even someone who’d punched a woman in the face and so forth could find a way to fit that into a larger narrative in which he was a good person.
He was satisfied, Rusty said. He’d been all over the world, done everything he wanted to do in life. He’d skydived, had three great kids: twin teenage sons and another son in veterinary college on a full scholarship.
Everyone, the PR reflected, made a sort of sense when you gave them time to explain themselves. Rusty made sense to Rusty. Rusty was just a guy. The PR imagined Rusty dying in his tent, nauseous, no one to care for him, waiting for the end. Soon, Valerie’s husband, Pablo, would be home from jail, gunning for Rusty, and might beat the shit out of him again, after which Rusty would have to crawl back to his tent and continue dying, until such time as he was shitting and pissing himself in what would probably be, by then, the heat of the coming Fresno summer.
The PR asked about Rusty’s famous fight with Pablo.
Rusty warmed to this topic. The way that went down was, Pablo had attacked him with a board. But what Pablo didn’t know was that back in the service, Rusty had received special hand-to-hand training. He’d taught martial arts in El Salvador, when he was down there in the ’80s, as part of a secret CIA mission. So poor Pablo wore himself out swinging that board, but the board never even touched Rusty. Pretty soon, Pablo got exhausted. Then, luckily for Pablo, the cops showed up. Rusty had said it loud and clear, for everyone to hear: He didn’t want to press charges. But sadly for Pablo, stupid Pablo was out on parole. So off to jail he went.
Not long afterward, five paisas attacked Rusty, trying to avenge Pablo. Using the same techniques, he fought them off single-handedly in an epic battle that spanned the tent city, from one end to the other. Finally, the paisas got so frustrated, scared, and exhausted, they just gave up and ran away.
Once, in El Salvador, Rusty said, they’d come into this village. Nobody would give them any information. Everyone was too scared of the rebels. In that village, he’d befriended a 7-year-old girl, real sweet kid.
A few weeks later, when they returned to that village, he brought the kid a bunny.
A bunny, the PR said.
A rabbit, Rusty said. Like for a pet.
But the rebels had already been there. They’d torched the village. The horrible things they did to that little girl, Rusty said. He got hold of all kinds of shit he wasn’t supposed to have, weapons and whatnot. But luckily, his gunnery sergeant had talked him down.
They, uh, mutilated her? the PR said.
Skinned her, Rusty said. Everything but her face.
The PR realized he had reached an exquisite level of perfect Study Area immersion: He honestly didn’t know if Rusty was lying or not. And he didn’t care. It didn’t matter. What mattered was the display. It was beautiful to hear Rusty, this dying man, this vanishing soul, say the crazy things he was saying, whether they were true or not.
Soon Rusty would be gone. Soon the camp would be gone. The City of Fresno had initiated a radical and seemingly enlightened plan to place every person in the Study Area in an apartment and assign him or her a case worker who would help that person with whatever he or she needed—get them into rehab, identify unclaimed government benefits to which they were entitled, help them find jobs—and the city had just approved half a million dollars for this program.
It was all just gorgeous smoke: Rusty, the camp, the Study, the PR, the world itself.
So you’re just going to die out here in your tent? the PR asked.
Yep, Rusty said. I’m hoping to just wake up dead someday.
In parting, the PR expressed his wish that everything in Rusty’s future would go well.
As good as it can go anyway, Rusty said.
*All names have been changed.
GEORGE SAUNDERS teaches at Syracuse University. His last book was The Braindead Megaphone.’