From Young Rooms: People I Live With
“Is he your valentine?” he points to me, looking into my eyes as I look at the center of his chest. I grow tense because I’m with someone I want to protect.
That time behind the gas station, before it got dug out into a canyon, tractors and hardhats removing oil tanks and seepage, over a year ago, it was dark, around ten. I was walking by myself, dressed normally, tears in my black sneakers. It was Christmas time, in a week or less I was going home.
His face makes him look like an overgrown teenage boy, someone who sits in front of the television playing video games, eating pizza and ignoring his mother, thirty years later. Someone who needs Ritalin or anti-psychotics. He asked me to pray for him. “Please man, keep me in your thoughts.” I’ve always wanted someone to ask that of me. It brings heat to the coiled parts of my mind.
I gave him something from my wallet and he loped down the downtown street, said he was headed for Jack in the Box. I breathed for a moment to recover, like the cops who stand in a circle and joke with each other to calm down after making an arrest or telling someone to shuffle along. I watched them on Jefferson Boulevard, three or four cruisers parked along the sidewalk, when another black and white zoomed past them with lights blaring one of them stuck his thumb out like he was asking for a ride.
A taxi driver looked through his open passenger window, parked and waiting for work, watched him sing to me an improvised Christmas carol. When the man left I was glad to be gone from him.
Over a year later he doesn’t remember me, there’s not even vagueness, the jerkiness of his stance, his voice rises from high to low, a sad sense of need drenched into every affectation like bread in a bowl full of wine. The homeless around school have this polarity, they either know you for the rest of their lives, like cats, or their memories live on the bottom of dark oceans.
Two or three guys used to wash windows at the Chevron. They’d come up to the windshield sometimes whether you liked it or not, towels stuffed into their back pockets. It was like they took shifts, day and graveyard.
One of these men was very forceful, would stare at my friends, demand things without asking questions: “Bro, gimme a smoke,” and tuck it behind his ear while he bent over an electric blue minivan, terrifying the family within. The mother stuck two dollars out the crack of the window and he grabbed it and didn’t say thank you. It never changed anything the fact that what he was doing could be done for free, a do-it-yourself service offered by the gas station. The only thing they could do to him was dig his office out of the earth, take the world from beneath his feet, send him down the street to more poorly lit, more sinister places.
The guy who worked at night was named Greg, was also tall, and without memory for people. He told me not to hit women, because his wife and children were in Venezuela, he said he collected quarters and called them from the pay phones, that they refused to talk for more than a minute each time. They all tell me to stay in school: “My man, get your education, do your thing,” nodding towards the brick facades of campus, the forest within the jungle, the black gates.
Most of them, it seems, are fathers, or attached to something somewhere else. Their families depending on them, but lost. “My wife back in Michigan.” “Mama’s dead and gone now though.” “My old lady and kids in Venezuela.”
I was standing outside on the street in front of a taco stand, he came up to me with his bike, showed me a picture of a little girl on the background of a cell phone. Another man, much bigger, much less soft-spoken, started yelling at him. We were waiting for our food, money was in our hands, a Styrofoam cup of tip change rested on the counter. It was the kind of place that must have a gun living beneath the register.
“I don’t smoke crack, man.”
“Yes, you do.”
In journalism class I’m leaning back in a mobile chair, one of two men in a room of twelve or thirteen students, the other guy married with a child. A girl is playing her broadcast assignment on the projector on the wall, scenes flash by in three-second intervals. We’re silent with our heads tilted. On the screen he’s walking in a blue sweater, the same clothes from when he’s in the street in front of my apartment, bent over at the shoulders, a rag held over his mouth as if he’s afraid of catching something.
This girl from my class set up a video camera given to us by the school on a tripod on the street, people watching her with that mix of timidity, curiosity, distrust. She watched him bend through the barrels as the bus went by, making the trash by the curb, the flyers and Subway sandwich wrappers, flutter in the air like wounded ghosts. She pressed record.
We have no idea where any of these people sleep. By day they’re on the corners as we’re walking to class, they ask if we can spare some change, they don’t say anything if we keep walking. The guy who sits on the edge of the grass by the food trucks squints upwards as people walk by. He doesn’t bother speaking to the people on bikes. He asks my friend if he’s been on vacation.
They say they have Crohn’s Disease, they can’t drink coffee but they’ll take your change. They have bikes that look like the ones stolen from you. They look sorry or angry or calm as empty swimming pools. One says he graduated from UCLA in 1991, that his girlfriend just kicked him out of the house a week before and he needs some change for a cab ride home, that he’s really, really embarrassed to ask. But I see him for two years, his braces jammed with slime, sharp hairs around his cheeks. A cop tells me that he’s trouble and to never give him anything.
Dean is standing on the porch of his off-campus house, drinking with two roommates. Dean wants to be an actor, studies the method, the films, marks up acting books with pencils and lends them to me so I can get inside his head. Two men rush up to them, demand all their money and valuables, and then start laughing. They’ve been wandering the streets drunk together, trying to pass the time, now they’re doubled over. By the end of the night Dean and one of the men, easily in his 40s, are exchanging Marlon Brando impressions. “That’s pretty good, that’s pretty good, young fella!”
I’m walking back from lunch with my girlfriend and her roommate, a man with a gold medallion chain strides toward us, words running from his mouth between audiences. “Hey man, how is it that you have two women and I have none?” A small redness, I imagine, starts developing between my shoulder blades, expanding across my back like water darkening concrete. “Can I have one of them?” It feels like I’m about to punch someone for the first time. “Why don’t you leave us alone,” I say, and I almost mention the police, but I pause. He says “Alright, alright…” and keeps talking, keeps moving.
My last day on campus this year I was sitting at a table outside an ice cream shop. This guy, a Bob Marley refugee, cross-legged on the grass in the hanging triangle of shade from a financial aid building, graduate students moving through the doors, ads for loans covering the cement walls. In the circle his index finger made with his thumb a small cigar pierced and bled menthol smoke into the air, smoke like incense.
As each person passed his spot in front of the bus stop, even other homeless men, he’d ask: “I wear shoe size thirteen, can you spare some dinero?” and then squint his eyes like he was thinking of a story. The statement enters your mind like a password, a distinct repetition after fifteen minutes, like the pin to your credit card. It appears and then goes away for awhile, but it’s something you’ll know, resting in your brain like a sleeping person.
I say it to myself as I step into the shower.
Reach Michael Juliani here.