The Mobile Homeless

November 4, 2007 at 12:55 pm (On the road again..., That's not funny...)

There was a knock on the car window. I held still, not wanting to give up the fact that I was sleeping under a pile of blankets and clothing in the back seat. The knock persisted. It must be my sister. I peeked out, cracked the window, and she passed me a slip of paper. “Some guy called about a job. He said call Monday.” She tossed a ham and cheese sandwich onto my chest. “Courtesy of the heat-lamp.” She hustled back to her job at the burger joint. We were parked on the street to the side. We’d been living there for a few months.

In the daytime, that is. After her shift, sister and I would move to our night residence, under a lamp next to a large city park. Or near the bottling plant. Any safe spot out of the watchful eye would do. We were part of a small subculture: the mobile homeless.

After my mom died, the family property had to be sold to pay medical bills. For a mere $26,000 we could have kept it. Since I was living cheap at The Biltmore Hotel, and my sister’s only income was paid by the state, we had no way of coming up with that kind of money. (The state was itching to sell the property to reclaim my sister’s caregiver salary, my parents’ rest home bills, hospital bills, etc…) With heavy hearts, we closed down the property and moved to Portland.

We maintained an apartment for about six months. I quit my job after a flare-up at work, and my sister’s salary couldn’t pay rent in full. I was hustling, living on unemployment and plasma donations. We kept fed, and had beer, but it wasn’t enough to keep the sheriff away. We received an FED in May. So we moved our stuff into storage and ourselves into a 1974 Plymouth Valiant.

It took some getting used to, but it wasn’t bad. My previous homeless stretches involved crashing on other’s couches, or sleeping in storerooms and offices. This was different, plus I had a little sister to protect.

She took the front seat, and I got the back. Creative piling of clothes mad for a wide enough bed, but I had to sleep in a fetal position. I’d enter from the passenger side, and once the door was closed, I had a nice little cubbyhole.

Over time, we became less reliant on others. Showering at the homes of friends was uncomfortable. We discovered the tennis club near Benson High School. For fifty cents, I could shave and shower. If we got there early, we had the place to ourselves.

Next, I would drive Sis to work. She’d start about 7:30. I’d drop her off and then go buy a 40-ouncer and the morning paper. I’d sit at a nearby park, have ‘breakfast’ and read the paper. After that, I’d scope out dinner spots, hustle food for the night, or do what I could to come up with some cash.

After work, I’d pick up Sis, and we’d find a cheap place to drink. She had a boyfriend (married) and we would hang out on his property, barbecuing and drinking beer. His wife was cool with it, until she caught them in the hot tub one night. We were invited not to return.

For special occasions we’d get a room at a local Motel 666, usually when my ex came around. We could sleep three in the car, but I had to move to the front seat, and Ex and Sis had to squeeze into the back. No one was comfortable, but we did it several times. My Ex had some old guy she could weasel money out of, so she paid for a lot of motels.

If she’d just paid her share of our rent, we wouldn’t be in this predicament. But I should have known better than to count on that.

We spent a lot of time reading. We’d position the car so street lights would shine over our shoulders. I was blowing through a book or two a day. My library card got quite a workout.

Where would we go to the bathroom? Wherever! One gets good at slithering in and out of businesses. Fast food joints were easy access. In the morning when, um, sit-down privileges were most appreciated, we went to a nearby diner. I never had a problem, but the head waitress didn’t like my sister, and would chase her off. So I had to run distraction. I would eventually become friends with the waitress, but my sister wouldn’t benefit from that. So we would use the park bathroom.

We spent a lot of time at the park. (I’m not going to say which one, as I might need to use it again some day.) The woods provided natural cover for potty breaks, and the neighborhood watch seemed to accept us. In fact, homeowners would approach me, asking if I’d seen anything after they were victims of crimes. We were only a minor eyesore, and we could be useful!

October rolled around, and it got colder. Phineas had a house, (and a major coke habit) and we could crash in his yard now and again. We saw the movie Shocker, then went to his place. He wasn’t home, so we parked out front. He came home in the early hours, and my sister went inside to shower and get ready for work. I stayed huddled up in my mini-bed.

Whenever I smell wood smoke and the scent of decaying leaves, I think of this time. (The smell used to remind me of grade school.) My sister came out of the house, miscalculated the porch step, and twisted her ankle. With her limp and snarly attitude, we dubbed her Hortense Pinker, after the villain in Shocker.

One night, much like any other, we settled in at the park. We had to park in a more populous spot, because of a picnic or something. We curled up to sleep about 10:30 PM.

Just before midnight, I awoke to screams and yelling. I heard a thwack-thwack-thwack. I poked my head up, Kilroy style, and saw two jock-types pummeling a Latino man with a golf club. “Stay the fuck out of our park, motherfucker!” they kept yelling. They beat him bloody, and ran into the bushes next to our car.

Sis was instantly awake. “What should we do?”

I caught my breath. I was scared. I could see the guy moving, though not very well. I couldn’t see into the brush where the attackers went. Did they run away, or were they watching the man suffer? I had to plan for either option.

“Okay, get your wits, then when you are ready, sit up, start the car, and drive. Let’s get the fuck outta here.” I could hear her deep breaths. I could only hope the car would fire right up.

Thankfully, it did. We zoomed down the street, away from the park. We looped around and headed back toward our other camping spot. I’d planned on stopping at a pay phone to call 911 to get the beaten man some medical help, but as we drove past he stumbled out into the street, bloody. A police car heading the opposite direction stopped. We hurried away from the scene. We couldn’t afford to be questioned- we had no car insurance. We’d been flying on luck, proper driving habits and diligent checking of tail lights all summer.

At this point, I decided it was time to get it together. It was getting cold at night, and the assault was the last straw.

I made the phone call to the guy who’d offered the job. He was the manager of a Nationally Recognized Chain of convenience stores. I explained the situation honestly. He gave me a schedule, an apron, and told me my plasma donating days were coming to an end. “I’ll work you enough you won’t have to do that!”

He was right. I haven’t donated since.

So, during the first week of November, we moved into a one-room apartment for $160 a month. She worked days, and I worked nights. Within two months we upgraded to a two-bedroom (for $260 a month!) and have been roommates since. The manager of the apartment building that took us off the streets?

He’s now my brother-in-law.

Was being homeless a traumatic experience? In hindsight, no. At the time it was unnerving. We adapted well, but I’m glad it’s over. That which doesn’t kill us may make us stronger, but I’m strong enough. I don’t want to have to go through that again. Having a roof overhead is nice.

And if the worst-case scenario involves the roof of a ’74 Plymouth Valiant?

There are worse ways to spend a summer.

1 Comment

  1. larry the lobster said,

    Read your story from the backseat of my plymouth I probably older than you but learned from fl to ny that there is an art to sleepin in a vehicle mine is brokedown & I still dont want to abandon it . If I get ajob Id be able to save quickly might even stay this way watt wont kill you will fortify u!

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