I’m at the Santa Fe train depot, San Diego, waiting in the bicycle line with my bicycle, to board the train to Los Angeles, when an older man, wearing a baseball cap, a pale blue shirt, shorts and trainers and holding on to a fancy looking dark blue bicycle says- ‘So, you’re with us.
‘Technically, I suppose yes,’ I say to him, and we both laugh.
‘I bet we’ll be last on to the train with our bikes,’ he says.
I tell him I don’t know, and then because we’re standing there and there’s a silence, and we have a common topic, we start talking about where we’ve been and where we are going with our bicycles.
‘We cycled from San Luis Obispo, the man tells me.
‘How far away is that?’ I ask him, knowing that it’s far, but not how far.
‘About 450 miles,’ he tells me.
But his cycling companion corrects him.
‘475 miles,’ says the cycling companion, whose bicycle is one of those low rider style, like a reclining beach chair with a wheel at each end.
‘Jesus,’ I say, ‘that’s a long way. Are you too tired to cycle back?’
‘My butt hurts,’ says the guy in the baseball cap, and with his left hand he reaches around to his bum and pretends to rub it.
‘I bet it does,’ I tell him, ‘and I look at his seat which looks like it would be as vicious as a plastic picnic knife on the backside and testicles.
‘Believe it or not,’ he says after I suggest he get a gel seat, ‘this is the most comfortable bike seat in the world. It’s a Brooks England,’
I tell him I don’t know what that means, but I’ll Google it, and the man goes on to tell me it’s the third seat he’s had and he’s worn all the others out and this seat takes 6 months to break in.
Then the 2 men start looking over my bicycle, and the cycling companion, who is very tall and has gray hair and round wire-rimmed glasses and is wearing a pale blue cycling jacket, and jeans, tells me my chain needs some oil.
‘A bit of oil to go with those cobwebs on your gears,’ he says, pointing to the back wheel.
We all laugh at this and I explain that my bicycle has been in storage for 4 months.
Then, diverting the conversation away from the shameful state of my bicycle, I say to the man in the baseball cap-
‘You look like a hard core cyclist and that bicycle looks really lightweight,’
He tells me yes and that all they have carried on this 475 mile trip is in their panniers-a change of clothes for eating dinner in and not much else.
‘And sore bum cream?’ I say.
He laughs and says yes.
‘Have you been cycling a long time?’ I ask him.
He tells me yes, he has, since he was very young.
‘I’m 75 now,’ he tells me.
And my mouth falls open and I frown.
‘Are you serious?’ I say, ‘you’re 75? You look about…I dunno, 54,’
Then he laughs and touches me on the shoulder and says he’s going to tell his wife.
‘I’ve been married 51 years,’ he says, ‘and I’m going home to tell her I look too young for her and that she doesn’t cut the mustard anymore,’
I laugh at this and then the conductor walks over to us.
‘Off you go with your bicycles.’ he says to us.
And so, despite the 75 year old cyclist with the sore bum predicting we’d be last, we, with our bicycles, are first to board the train to Los Angeles.
I’m sitting on the sun bleached yellow concrete bench at the bus stop at the corner of Market and 22nd, San Diego, about to board the number 3, when two small children run up the to the bus, and leap, as if over a wide puddle, onto the bus.
While I wait to board, I wonder whether the children might be those of the driver, because they’re all holding arms out to each other, the driver leaning down and, one after the other, giving the children hugs.
The greetings over, and the children walking down the aisle, I step onto the bus and stand by the machine that will take my $2.25 fare.
‘Do I get a hug too?’ I say to the driver while the ticket machine wolfs my two one dollar bills.
The driver, who is wearing a pale blue bus drivers shirt, black trousers, black sunglasses and shoulder length dreadlocks, laughs.
‘Stop that now, girl,’ she says.
And I laugh, too.
And then she asks me where I got my accent.
‘Where you get that accent of yours?’ she asks me.
I tell her I got the majority of it in Australia, but some of it I got in England.
‘Damn, she says and cocks her head to the right and says, ‘What are you doing here, girl?’
‘I dunno, really,’ I say truthfully, smiling at her while she smiles back at me ‘I just really like your land and your people,’
Then, for saying what I have just said, she tells me I can have a hug, too.
‘Come here, girl,’ she says, ‘you can have a hug too,’
And she reaches her arms up toward me and I laugh and lean down and we hug.
And my arms are around her and she is large and feels comfortingly spongy.
And the back of her pale blue shirt is soft on my arms.
And the hug momentarily subdues my anxiety.
But then as we release, the anxiety flares when I remember I haven’t showered today.
And I can only hope, that as my arms had gone out toward her, the hugging driver hadn’t caught the odour of unattended sweat flavouring my right armpit.
It’s San Diego and it’s very hot and the girl who lives behind us but who often hangs out next door drinking beer and applying make up to herself, is standing on my front porch, holding on to a beach umbrella.
‘I got this beach umbrella,’ says the girl whose name is Priscilla, who is today wearing tiny pink shorts, a tiny tee gray shirt, a lot of eye make up and tied back hair, ‘you want to buy it?’
‘I don’t like the beach,’ I tell her, ‘my skin is fair and I burn and the beach is windy and I don’t like the sand,’
And for emphasis I tell her I grew up on a river, where sand doesn’t blow in the cracks of the body, and where waves don’t relentlessly bash themselves into the sand, committing noisy, disturbing liquid suicide.
‘I like going in my bikini with my daughter,’ my neighbour then says, standing there opening and demonstrating how the giant beach umbrella works.
Then, even thought I don’t want the beach umbrella, I ask her how much she wants for it.
‘Hmmm,’ she says, frowning and thinking, ‘Only 15 dollars,’
And then thinking she probably really needs 15 dollars, I almost open my mouth to buy the umbrella that I don’t want.
But I don’t.
Instead I say no thank you, and that I probably would never use it.
‘Everyone gives me things,’ she says unperturbed and folding the umbrella up into it’s closed position, ‘so if you think you need anything for your house, you let me know.’
Then I ask my neighbour if, seeing she is Mexican, she might like to teach me her language.
And that I if she teaches me I will pay her.
‘Yeh,’ she says, ‘from now on every time I see you I will speak to you in Spanish.’
‘Okay,’ I say and smile, ‘great.’
And just then her daughter rides up on her bicycle and stops in front of the house.
‘Hola,’ she says, parking in front of the steps and smiling up and waving at me.
‘Hola to you, too.’ I say, waving and smiling back down at her.
I’m standing on the corner of Broadway and 7th, and I’m looking back toward Downtown.
And I’m looking out for a bus with the number 2 on it; the bus that goes up from Downtown to Northpark.
And I’m standing in front of the bus stop, and I have my sunglasses on and I am sucking on my e-cigarette, when a man who looks like he might not have a fixed abode, looks up at me and says- ‘Girl, you look like you got some stress in your life,’
I look down at the man, stop sucking on my e-fag, and I smile.
I want to tell the man that I have just spent the night in hospital where I have seen and heard and felt things I do not wish to see or hear or feel again.
And I want to tell him that I am unwashed and unfed.
And I want to tell the man that although I am trying to find the start, I cannot unravel the thread.
And that, unsure of my future and confused by the past, I feel a live-wired Medusa living in my head.
But I don’t say any of this to the man.
Instead I just laugh, and say ‘Yes, I am a bit stressed’.
And then, when the man asks me for a couple of something to get himself something, I take 2 dollars of notes from my pocket and hand them to him.
And then the number 2 bus comes and I get on it, and to the driver I say- ‘I do not have the correct money,’
‘Never mind,’ the driver says to me, ‘the city needs the money for a new stadium, anyway,’
Then the driver and I laugh.
And then I pay 3 dollars for a $2.25 ticket and walk through the bus and sit down and look out of the window.
And there, in the bus stop sits the smiling man who has told me about my stress-face.
And he is still smiling at me.
And I smile back at him.
And he lifts his hand and waves at me.
And I lift mine and wave at him.
Then I give him a thumbs up.
And he gives me back a thumbs up.
And then the bus moves off, and I wave again.
And the smiling man waves and I wave and smile until I can no longer see him.
And all the way up to Golden Hill, even though I cannot see him, I smile at the smiling man in the bus stop.
I continue my smile for him.
I’m riding my bicycle along 17th street, San Diego, having just left Fitness First, when I see, in the middle of the road, in front of a strip of footpath where homeless people live, a garbage truck, 2 police cars and several human beings in orange shirts with a City of San Diego Sanitation Dept logo on them.
Then, I notice, right in front of me, a white van offloading humans wearing high-vis jackets, gloves, protective head gear and face masks.
I get off my bicycle and wheel it to the next corner, where I see a man with a lanyard around his neck, watching the police cars and garbage truck.
‘What’s going on?’ I say to the man, who is wearing a brown hoodie, steel rimmed glasses, soft baggy blue jeans and a horizontal striped coloured tee shirt.
‘We’re from the county,’ the man tells me, ‘and we have to clean up the streets,’
And then the man tells me the homeless people get angry, and attack them.
I look over at the piles of blankets and piles of clothing and piles of garbage bags, and shopping trolleys and I say to the man- ‘That’s people’s possessions. That stuff there is their home,’
The man shakes his head and crosses his arms and looks at the footpath and, looking sad, says- ‘I know. And we have to clean this up with respect for these people and for their possessions. But we have to do this every two weeks,’
Then, a blond woman wearing a pony tail, a high-vis jacket and a ferocious expression on her scraggy mouth, walks past, hands on her scraggy hips and shouts -‘We been here an hour and a half and we ain’t done nothin’ yet,’
When her and her putrid temperament have passed, me and the man from the county talk again.
‘This is the thing that has made me the most confused about the United States of America,’ I tell the man, ‘the amount of homeless people and the amount of riches,’
The man shakes his head and looks at his shoes again.
‘The police tell me that at night is is bad,’ he says, ‘There are children here. The people are fighting over blankets, the women are being raped,’
‘Fucking hell,’ I tell him, turning away from the cleaning and looking right into his face now, ‘it’s like a fucking jungle,’
‘That’s right,’ the says the man from the county, ‘it’s like being forced to live like animals to survive,’
Then we go quiet again and watch the further dehumanisation of people who have slightly more than nothing, until I say- ‘And you see those Republicans cutting food stamps and trying to repeal Obamacare and I wonder what how much more they need to take,’
‘That’s right,’ says the man, ‘they spend more on their leisure than it might take to feed these people for a year,’
Then the man from the county tells me that his church in Spring Valley helps.
‘We give out shoes and clothes,’ he tells me, ‘we give out pushchairs for the children. We open the doors of our church to them so they can shower,’
And then I ask him what his church is called and he tells me and I think about how good it would be to join a church but that god gets in the way, and then we quietly watch as a homeless woman walks along the footpath collecting sticks, leisurely almost, as if she is she might be on a camping holiday and collecting her evening firewood.
Then the man from the county starts talking again.
‘I’m only a pay cheque away from this,’ he tells me as he looks over at the cleaning, which is now starting, ‘and if I lost my job tomorrow and my sister or my mum or my brother couldn’t take me in, I would be on the streets. I don’t have ten thousand dollars savings, to keep me until my retirement kicks in,’
And then we stand there saying nothing, listening to the noise of the garbage truck as, with great indifference, it eats up what little these people who have so little have.
If you are in San Diego, you can go here to help out-urban-angels.com
‘Hey,’ says Bruce, who has wooden Buddha beads around his neck and is wearing a pale blue Hawaiian style shirt, jeans and brown leather flip-flops, ‘it’s good do see you,’
‘Hey,’ I say back, ‘oh, it’s very good to see you, too,’
And then, because Bruce looks so happy, I tell him how happy he looks.
‘Bruce,’ I say, ‘you look so happy, you look happier than last week,’
‘I am happy,’ he tells me, ‘I’ve had a good week,’
Then, because last week when we had sat together for refreshments after the service, drinking green tea and eating rice and a Japanese salad, and Bruce had told me how much he works, I ask him some questions about his job.
‘How’s the job going?’ I say, ‘do you own the company?’
Bruce laughs and says no, he does not own the company, but he has worked there for 23 years and that he loves his job, which involves designing some kind of metal work.
‘I love my job,’ he says, ‘I love going to work, I love the work I do,’
I tell him that’s great.
‘Yeh,’ he says, ‘so many people complain about their jobs. I want to ask them, “Hey, if you were hiring someone to do your job, would you hire someone like you? Someone who moans and complains all the time?”‘
I start laughing and so does Bruce.
Then he tells me he loves the company he works for.
‘I’m good at my job,’ he says, ‘and I like helping my company prosper, because they have been very good to me and I have prospered,’
I tell Bruce that this is a great way to look at life and work, and then we get on to the subject of chanting.
‘I like how chanting feels,’ I tell Bruce, ‘like literally how it feels in your body,’
Bruce says he does too.
‘It’s like someone hit’s you with a big tuning fork,’ I say to Bruce while I pretend to hold a big tuning fork and hit him on the shoulder.
‘It’s exactly right,’ he says.
Then he asks me if I have a TV.
‘Oh,’ I say, ‘is your show on today?’
Bruce’s company is going to be featured on ‘How It’s Made’ and I want to watch it.
‘No,’ Bruce says, ‘but there’s a show called CBS Sunday Morning and it has really great things on it. Like, this morning there was a segment on blind baseball players who use a sort of sonic ball that makes sounds,’
‘I don’t generally watch TV,’ I tell him, ‘American TV frightens me and makes me anxious,’
‘Try this show,’ he says and smiles, ‘it will make you feel good. It’s full of…goodness, really,’
I tell Bruce that I’ll try to watch next Sunday and then he asks me how my trip to Los Angeles had been and I tell him that I had done some tattooing, and spent the evening in a strip club and I tell him about the train trip that goes partly along the ocean, and that at 7am the sun was coming up on one side of the train, over the bare hills, and that on the other side I could see, through the fog, the surfers out on the Pacific ocean, waiting for their waves.
‘Ah,’ says Bruce, ‘you know that’s the only other time I get some kind of peace in my head,’
And then he holds up his hand and starts waving it in front of his forehead.
‘It’s always going on up here,’ he says, ‘but not when surfing and not when chanting,’
And then we laugh.
And then we talk about the content of the service.
And then we talk about the priest.
And then we talk about new years eve celebration at the temple.
And then, because I am going out for lunch, I tell Bruce I have to get going.
But then we stand there in the Buddhist temple car park for a bit longer, me holding my bicycle, my helmet on my head, and Bruce swinging his car keys and smiling until even though I really want hug him, I just shake his hand and tell him that I liked his ideas on prosperity and that I hope I would see him next week.
‘I hope I see you next week,’ I say to Bruce.
‘Yeh,’ says Bruce as I get on my bicycle and get ready to cycle off, ‘I hope I see you next week, too.'
‘It frikkin’ sucks,’ he says, in a southern accent of some sort, ‘it was wasting my breath,’
The he goes quiet.
Then a moment later he starts saying how ‘fucked’ something feels.
‘Yeh, man,’ he says, ‘it just feels so fucked,’
Then he goes quiet again.
Then he starts talking about something organic.
‘Yeh, so I pick it up,’ he says, ‘and the guy goes, like, yeh, it’s organic. But I’m looking on the back of it and I can’t see it so I’m like, what the fuck ever,’
Then he goes quiet again.
Then he starts talking about being pissed off about things.
‘I’m pissed off,’ he says, ‘things have gotten kind of screwed up. All the notes were, ..were…were…’
Then he goes quiet again for a few moments.
Then he starts talking again.
‘Anyway..,’ he says.
And then he goes quiet again.
The he starts speaking again.
‘Yeh, it’s not,..’ he says.
Then there’s quiet.
Then he starts again.
‘There are three levels of presentation,’ he says, ‘and it’s like…that’s…that’s…’
And then he stops talking.
The he starts talking.
‘It’s not open,’ it’s like…it’s, um…’
Then there’s another silence.
Then he starts talking about someone called Randy.
‘Randy, he’s like, Randy’s almost, like…he’s, uh…’
Then there’s silence for a few moments.
Then he laughs very loudly and says, ‘I’m watching the waves break,’
Then he shouts ‘huh?’
And then he laughs again and shouts- ‘No, I’m watching the waves break. I’m on a train and I’m watching the waves break.’
It’s 3.45am and I am standing in the middle of E Street looking up at the moon undergoing an eclipse, when Krista comes out, sits down on her porch and lights a cigarette.
I am in the car, driving Downtown, with Stephanie, Pete, and a girl called Destiny, and in the boot of the car are salads and tuna sandwiches and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and bottles of water that we are going to give out to the homeless people of San Diego.
‘Okay, we are Team Awesome,’ says Stephanie who has long brown hair and a big smile, and whose car, an Audi, we are in, ‘and here are the rules for Team Awesome. We stay together, we don’t engage in conversation, we don’t wake people who are sleeping,’
Then Stephanie starts the car and tell us more rules, while at the same time, driving, laughing and shouting about pedestrians.
‘Oops,’ she says, ‘I don’t want to be an arsehole who runs over pedestrians, that would be so totally not cool,’
Then she yells at someone to get out of the way.
‘Out of the way, areshole,’ she says, and laughs and turns the corner.
Then she asks us what our names are, and we all call out our names again.
Pete says Pete, Destiny says Destiny, I say my name and the Stephanie says hers again.
Then Stephanie asks us all what we do.
Pete says he’s an arborist and Stephanie says cool.
I tell Pete and Destiny and Stephanie what I do and everyone says ‘cool’, but we don’t get around to what Destiny or Stephanie do because we haven’t gone very far before Stephanie sees some homeless people and is parking the car and yelling ‘WOOH’, first stop, let’s roll, let’s rock out some SALADS,’
Then Stephanie tells us we have to hurry because we are parked in a disabled parking space and she is not disabled.
‘Clearly,’ says Stephanie, running on the spot while putting bottled water into a hessian shopping bag, ‘I am NOT disabled, so we gotta, like totally roll on this one,’
For the next 10 minutes we walk from homeless person to homeless person offering the salad in polystyrene containers, the tuna sandwiches, the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and the bottles of water.
‘You want some dog food?’ says a woman a who has no teeth, and no dog that I can see, ‘Someone gave me so much dog food,’
Stephanie smiles and laughs and says ‘WOOP, no thanks, you hang on to it, we’ve got dog food’ and walks on.
Then we go back to the car and, while we are driving around looking for more homeless people, Stephanie talks about how she’s becoming Jewish because she’s marrying a Jewish guy.
‘I call it How to Become a Jew School,’ she says, of the classes she is taking to convert to Judaism.
Then she tells us how expensive it is to become a Jew, $2.500 a year for temple fees, another $500 for ground fees, $250 for classes but that he fiance’s father, who lives in Beverly Hills and is ‘minted’, is chipping in.
‘You should see the temple,’ Stephanie tells me and Phil and Destiny, ‘it is BEAUTIFUL,’
Then, just as Stephanie is explaining the similarities between Buddhism and Judaism, and telling us that Jew school is on Thursdays so she won’t be able to do the homeless food drop for 6 months while she becomes a Jew, she sees some homeless people gathered at the side of a windowless convenience store, and parks the car.
I look out of the car window and see, on the footpath at the side of the convenience store, a very fat woman in a white dress sitting in a wheelchair.
In her white dress she glows under the light that drops on her from the one streetlight.
On the ground, in the shadow around her, people are lying on piles of clothing and blankets.
On the corner there are more people standing around a rubbish bin.
‘Wooh, let’s rock those salads,’ says Stephanie and me and Phil and Stephanie and Destiny get out of the car and cross the street and ask the people standing around the rubbish bin if they would like a salad.
Some say yes and we give them the salads.
Then I ask the woman in the wheelchair if she would like a salad.
‘It’s the only thing we have left now,’ I tell her and she smiles and says yes, she would like a salad, and then says ‘bless you,’
And then I offer a salad to a woman lying on the ground next to the woman in the wheelchair.
The woman on the ground says yes, she would like a salad, but she doesn’t move to sit up so I put the salad on the ground next to her and she says ‘bless you,’ also.
It is night now, and except for the light falling from that one street lamp, it is all dark around us.
So we walk around, handing out the salads until all the salads are gone and then when we have no more salads we cross the street, get back into Stephanie’s car, and me and Phil and Stephanie and Destiny go home.
‘I’m going to San Diego,’ I tell him, ‘what about you?’
‘Uh, huh,’ he tells me, ‘me too,’
‘Nice,’ I say,’ that’s nice,’
Then, the man who is wearing shorts but no shoes, a Hawaiian shirt, a baseball cap, and holding a walking stick between his legs says, ‘I ain’t been back since 1975. I’m going to a friends wedding,’
‘Oh, lovely,’ I tell him, ‘that’s something rather exciting,’
‘Hell,’ he says, ‘I’m so frikkin’ nervous I got my pockets stuffed with Xanax,’
‘Well,’ be careful, ‘I say laughing, you don’t want to pass out at the wedding,’
He laughs and he says he’ll be fine.
‘I ain’t been anywhere since I broke my back,’ he tells me.
‘Oh, shit,’ I say, ‘that’s bad luck. How did that happen?’
‘I was getting into bed,’ he says.
I turn to him with a puzzled expression on my face and say, ‘Getting into bed?”
‘Yeh,’ he says, holding his hand over his mouth and coughing gently for a bit, ‘you know, I came flying in through the door to the bed, she went one way, and I went the other, and I crushed all my vertebrae,’
Then he stops talking and tilts his head back and runs his hand up under his neck.
‘All of this was smashed in and I have had to learn to walk again 4 times in my life,’
‘Fucking hell,’ I say, turning to look at him, and frowning, ‘what kind of life have you led?
‘I got hit by a car recently, stop sign, woman went through a 4-way in a Jaguar at 60, broke my back,’
Then he tells me he hasn’t worked in many many years because of his injuries.
‘I used to work at Sea World,’ he says, ‘and pretty much any tourist attraction in the country, you name it. But now I can hardly get around in the day, I am so full of medication,’
‘Well,’ I say, just as our flight is called, would you like me to help you with your bag?’
‘You know,’ he says, ‘I’ve partied with rock stars and billionaires, and I’ve woken up in gutters without a dollar in my pocket, and I’m about to go to a birthday party and a wedding of my old high school friend. It’ll be either the FBI or the cops got me on Monday morning. So I’m good with my bag, but thank you for asking, ma’am.’
And, then, as I watch him barefoot and slightly drunk, drag his blue sack of wedding clothes toward the gate, I imagine it’s 1979, and a much-younger, much handsomer naked him stands in a doorway preparing to sexually dive-bomb the woman that’s lying waiting for him in his bed, both of them so carefree on booze and cocaine they’re thinking this party will never end.
This evening while I’m cycling home thinking about the 4th of July and what a mongrel Dick Cheney is, I stop at the lights and wait for a slow man to cross in front of me.
And his eyes were very very pale blue.
Like a Husky.
‘That’s a bit shit,’ I say.
‘Where are we going?’ I say to him.
But the man doesn’t say anything.