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Down and Out in 'America's Finest City'Vic Pittman Salem-News.com
When do the arrests and the fraud and treason trials begin? Greedy parasites eventually kill their host...the beginnings of which I saw happening in San Diego.
(SAN DIEGO) - I saw a sign once that read "Bad ideas make for the best stories", and thinking how true that was. My bad idea for June 2012 was thinking I could hitchhike through California, from the Mexican border up to Oregon. I had done it 40 years earlier with no problems, so why not?
I crossed the border and began hitchhiking, only to have a State Trooper pull up almost immediately. He told me that hitchhiking was illegal on the freeways, which I already knew. I went through the motions of walking off the freeway, and as soon as he pulled away, went back down and started hitchhiking again.
Five minutes later, another State Police car, same story. This scenario repeated itself five times with the last officer asking me in frustration "Why do you keep doing this?"
I told him it was the only option I had, and I knew that it was illegal, but didn't know what else to do. He told me that every time I got out on the freeway, their switchboard was jammed with people calling to report me and that I could expect to be arrested if I continued.
I have to say, all five of the California State Troopers that I encountered were very nice and polite. However, I knew that my hitchhiking idea was not going to work. My only option, it seemed was to call someone and get a bus ticket to Oregon. I had money, but not enough. When I finally made that decision, I found that my cell phone was broken. Amazed and angry at my bad fortune, I walked into San Diego. Tired out from walking all day, I began looking for somewhere to sleep. Right away I was surprised by the number of homeless people out on the streets... many more than I had ever seen in Portland or Seattle. It seemed over half the people downtown were homeless.
I asked and found out that there was a camp of sorts on the South end of town, so I walked there and spotted a small group of tents and people down in a field by the baseball stadium. As I was walking towards the camp a guy maybe twenty or so years old stopped me and asked me what I was looking for. I replied that I just wanted to find a place to sleep. "You are new here, aren't you?" he asked me. "I can see it in your eyes, you don't look jaded yet. You don't want to go down there." he told me. "Those are the hard core meth heads, they will stick (stab) you if they think you have money or something they can trade for dope."
He told me that he knew a couple of guys who lived under a bridge about eight blocks away, and that they were very cool and would probably let me sleep there. He said that when he first came to town they helped him out.
We went there and he introduced me to Tony and Tommy. Tony was a huge black man, originally from Boston. He reminded me of the John Koffee character in The Green Mile, a gentle giant with a heart of gold. He had moved out to California four years earlier to take a job teaching developmentally disabled adults to read and write.
Shortly thereafter, the state of California pulled funding and he found himself unemployed. He got on unemployment and was getting $200 per week, but was spending most of that on rent. After three months of being broke, he gave up his apartment and moved out on the street. He said that he never intended it to be long term, but had now been under that bridge for nearly four years.
"Its not a bad life" he told me. "You get used to it quickly". He was a very intelligent man, knowledgeable in many areas and an interesting person to talk to. He didn't drink alcohol or use drugs at all. Tommy was early thirties, also very nice. He was very much into hygiene and cleanliness, and kept the area spotless. There were carpets down on the ground and even a makeshift bookcase with books ranging from philosophy to dimestore novels.
They agreed to let me sleep there at least that night. I was so tired and thankful to have found a place where I could maybe safely sleep. I had no sleeping bag or covers, but Tony had an extra sheet so I wrapped up in it and slept like the dead.
It had been dark when I met Tony and Tommy, so I had not seen the surrounding area in daylight. When I woke that next morning, it was as if I were in a post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie. The whole area was filled with makeshift camps and homeless people. Just across the street was a camp of maybe thirty or so tents and maybe a hundred people. Tommy had gone down to a place where you could take hot showers that was set up every morning from 8 to 11.
Tony told me that they would show me around and get me set up with the shower place and show me where to get food and all. I told him that I appreciated it, but did not plan on being there long at all, to which he replied "No one plans on this being long term. I didn't, but many times it ends up being just that."
That morning I met Summer (not her real name), a 53 year old woman also homeless. She stopped by to visit Tony and Tommy and just kill time. Her husband had been drinking and was being abusive. She tried to make light of it... "He is really nice unless he's been drinking...which is every day." Her face and forehead were lumped from previous beatings. She had just turned 53, but looked much older than that.
But what I will never forget were her eyes.
Beyond the matted hair, beaten face and missing teeth were the eyes of a scared child. Her husband had just gotten qualified for Social Security and had gotten his first payment and now was trying to get rid of her because he "did not want her spending his money".
She was trying to be tough but got tears in her eyes when she told me this. "When I think of the things I have done, the times I whored myself out so that he could get his dope or a bottle, or we could get a room for a couple of days, it makes me sick. And now he wants to get rid of me..." Tommy told her that she would be much better off without him. "But he's my husband", she sobbed... "I don't have anything else, and I don't want to be alone.."
She saw that I had no sleeping bag or pillow and said that she would get me one that day. Sure enough, that afternoon I returned to find a clean Coleman sleeping bag and pillow laid out for me. I was so touched that I nearly cried. I often wonder about her and hope that she has found some peace in her life.
I saw one woman maybe forty-five years old walking down the sidewalk with a pair of scissors in her hand. She was repeating the same thing over and over to no one in particular... "I'm armed and dangerous. F--k with me and you will die" Her face was badly scraped from side to side as if she had been dragged across pavement. What the hell could have happened to this woman? This was someone's daughter, mother, maybe grandmother.
The bridge we were under was a freeway on ramp. In front of us and running under the bridge, was a freeway exit. So we could plainly see the faces of people as they drove by. Most looked then quickly looked away, as if they were seeing something disturbing. Some people laughed and some did the disgusted head shake thing. Some went further and flipped us off, sometimes even honking their horn so that we would be sure to see it. Why would someone give the finger to someone down and out who is not bothering them, I cannot imagine. I began to feel embarrassed just for being there.
The second day I was there, I bought one can of beer and took it back to the bridge to drink while I read a book. I found that I was self-conscious about taking a drink when cars were going by...I did not want to fulfill the stereotype of the homeless drunk. I felt like I was being judged now by a harsher standard than before. I was "homeless", a blight on San Diego, but I could sit there leisurely reading with my beer in hand while the good, productive working people drove by going to and from their jobs. I knew I was doing nothing wrong, but still felt guilty.
As early as the second day, I looked homeless. Even though it was early June, it was cold, so I had the layered look going on. Right away a polar shift of sorts happened. The street people who usually avoided eye contact or conversation were open and friendly to me while the "regular" people avoided my glance and looked at their watch or down at the ground when passing by. I asked one woman if she could please tell me where the library was. "I can't help you", she replied. "I don't have any money". She didn't even hear what I said, assuming from my appearance that I was panhandling.
That day Tony and Tommy told me that they had talked and decided that I was welcome to stay as long as I wanted, that I seemed cool. I was touched... after all, this was their home for the last three and a half years, there are only so many bridges..even in a city like San Diego, and people are very territorial with their space.
Now I do not know if San Diego is "America's Finest City" as it advertises itself, but the finest and most incredible, non-judgmental people can be found working at the San Diego Public Library. Every morning at opening time, the entrance is filled with homeless people who come there to use the internet. There are twenty computers set up and anyone can get free internet for half an hour.
Some of these people are long overdue for a scrubbing and some are obviously a bit unhinged. Nevertheless, from what I saw, the staff at the library treated everyone with the utmost courtesy and respect. They made eye contact and were friendly and helpful to everyone, no matter how distressing their appearance or scent. If they were shocked, disgusted or repulsed, they did not show it. I was very very impressed. Kudos to this wonderful group of people!
On the flip side of that coin, I witnessed a twenty-something Transit "police" officer harassing an elderly obviously homeless couple that had the audacity to sit on one of the benches outside the transit station. First he asked to see their trolley tickets, which they did not have. He told them that if they had no tickets, they had to keep moving. Then, he demanded to see their identification.
That was enough for me... I strode over to him and thrust my drivers license in his face.
"What's this?" he snarled, looking first at my license and then at me.
"Well", I responded, "I see you harassing this couple, demanding that they show you their ID, so I thought maybe you'd like to harass someone more your own size." Actually, I was a good deal larger than him. "Get back!" he shouted, "I can have you arrested!"
"Why don't YOU arrest me?" I replied.
"You are a police officer, right? Or are you just a punk-assed rent a cop that likes to kick people when they are down? Arrest me, 'officer'!" The elderly couple smiled at me. "Thank you sir, but we are OK..you don't have to do this." the old man told me. "I do have to do this", I replied "there are benches everywhere, but he harasses you because you are street people."
I was shaking, I was so angry... the rent-a-cop had his radio out, presumably to call for real police. A small crowd had gathered. I glared long and hard at the transit cop then walked off. Some of the onlookers gave me a thumbs up sign. I was now officially a street person..the polarization was complete.
I realized that my "mission" had changed a bit. I wanted to stay longer. I could smell a story. I was getting a first hand look at life as it is for many... too many, Americans. Sure, there were the crazies, the obviously deranged, the strung out... folks who would be on the street even in the best of economies, but there also were families, couples, mothers with children, people who had fallen through the cracks or like my friend Tony, victims of "downsizing". From what I could gather, this was the status of the majority of people. They weren't there because they were dopers, drunks, lazy, or stupid.
When you have no address, no phone (lots of people had cell phones, but no time on them, as I discovered when trying to borrow one), no place to wash up or wash clothes or even hang your clothes up so that they aren't wrinkled, and no current references, it is hard to get a job to break the cycle and get out.
Now I had money, so I could buy my own food, but for the experience, went with Tony into town where he showed me the different food distribution places. We started at the Salvation Army mission where we listened to an uninspiring but thankfully short sermon. They were serving an equally uninspiring pasta dish which would win no culinary awards, but was hot, filling and free! There also were several places where church groups set up food distribution centers in parking lots... the food was incredible and healthy. "If you go hungry here, it is your own fault" Tony told me.
He also told me that for that reason, people who panhandled under the guise of being hungry drew the ire of the homeless crowd. "They tell people they haven't eaten all day, when what they really want is cigarettes or liquor. Then they come here and eat. They are discounting the efforts of all these good people...I don't like it".
Because I was with Tony, I met lots of people I would not have otherwise. A large percentage of the men I met were veterans.
One Wednesday morning the California Transit Authority trucks came. They had convict labor... their purpose, clearing out the homeless camps. We watched as they rousted the camp across the street from us. There were San Diego police with them to ensure things went as planned. We were hoping they would leave us alone, but after clearing out the folks across the street, they turned to us. "This happens every other Wednesday." Tommy told me as we were gathering up our things. (We had five minutes to get what we wanted out) "After they leave, we just set up camp again..everyone does." Sure enough, within twenty minutes of their departure, we were set up again, bookcases, carpet and all.
Like I said earlier, I had never seen anything like the homeless situation in San Diego. The sheer numbers of down and out people amazed me. When I asked Tony about it he told me that many of the homeless, like him, were from other colder places. He was from Boston, and Tommy was from Hays, Kansas. "When people realize that they are going to be on the streets, they want to be as far South as they can, to stay warm. You can't get much further South than San Diego and still be in the US."
Using the internet at the library, I contacted my wife and family and let them know that I was OK. A family dinner/get together was planned for the third week of June and I wanted to be there to see everyone. I was not ready to leave, but finally borrowed the money for a bus ticket up to Oregon. I passed on my Coleman sleeping bag and said goodbye to two of the nicest people I have ever met, Tony and Tommy.
I vowed to myself that I would return and visit, take more time and get more stories. These are Americans... families, veterans, teachers like my friend Tony, for the most part good, honest people who are living like refugees in a country that spends over a BILLION dollars a day on war and weapons. The Pentagon admits that it cannot account for trillions of dollars yet constantly demands more.
Fantastic budget "projections" are trimmed back a bit then touted as "defense spending cuts"....a ridiculous smoke and mirrors trick that obscures somewhat the incredible price we are paying to attempt to conquer and rule the world. The US now spends more on war, weapons and the military than all the other nations of the world combined...and we do this every year. We spend twenty-five times as much as our closest "competitor", China. Is this necessary or is this as Five-Star Marine General Smedley Butler put it... "a racket"?
Think We The People are being fleeced? I do.
And it is BOTH parties, as they are essentially one and the same. Everything that Bush did, Obama has continued and magnified. The left is strangely quiet now that their guy is the one ordering the drone strikes, refusing to join the ban on land mines (one of the few countries in the world that has not) and approving the largest "defense" spending bills in history. (Yes, bigger than any of George Bush's!)
I imagine that when I do return to San Diego, there will be even more homeless there. And by then, many hundreds of billions of dollars will have gone into the hands of the weapons contractors, and the private mercenaries that the US hires to do their dirty work, like the so-called Syrian "rebels". EVERY DAY approximately 15 million dollars in money and weaponry will have gone to Israel... why?
Some of this money will have been cycled back to the politicians who keep the fires of fear fanned and who haunt the Sunday morning TV circuit warning of dire consequences if we do not spend more money on more weapons or attack some other country. Also by then, more American jobs will have been outsourced to other countries, and more American workers will be living under bridges.
Illegal immigration is at a ten year low, so we can't blame the usual scapegoats, as many choose to.
Last year when Whirlpool closed it's Evansville, Indiana washing machine factory and reopened it just across the Mexican border, laying off 1200 Americans, where were the "they are taking all our jobs" pundits? I do not recall any demonstrations against Whirlpool, nor did I hear any right-wing commentators decry the move. These were good paying, family supporting jobs.
All in all, the definition of Fascism... government, the military, the financial sector and industry working together AGAINST their own citizens, extorting through fear and perpetual war as much of the country's lifeblood as they can
How bad does it have to get before we say "Enough!"
How bad does it have to get before we demand our country back?
When do the arrests and the fraud and treason trials begin?
Greedy parasites eventually kill their host...the beginnings of which I saw happening in San Diego.
Stay tuned for Part 2.
__________________________________Vic Pittman is a freelance writer from Scotts Mills, Oregon who resides in Mexico today. He is the holder of no literary awards, journalistic awards or college degrees. He has at one time or another been a honor student, inmate, biker, Christian, pothead, father, radical, pacifist, anarchist, artist, heavy metal guitarist, model citizen, lawbreaker, business owner, illegal marijuana grower, and volunteer for various causes. He is proud to be a "common man" and be among those striving to make this world a better place if at all possible. He was fortunate enough to have been raised by awesome parents who instilled what he feels to be essential values and encouraged him to feel a kinship with not just family or Oregonians or Americans or whites, but every person on Earth, and to act accordingly. He and his wife Glenda currently live in Nayarit Mexico.
You can write to Vic at this address: firstname.lastname@example.org
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