The plague of homelessness runs through the book like a pulsing vein. There is murder—and bodies galore. There is unhesitating genocide. There is an escape from certain death that will haunt you.
And yet The King of Trashis a story of tenderness, of ethical struggle, and of deeply bonded humanity.
In his latest novel—and his first to move beyond the highly successful Mogi Franklin middle-reader mysteries—author Don Willerton intertwines modern-day themes of transcendent importance through a unique and intriguing tale of mystery, adventure, and courage.
Early readers have sometimes had nightmares, but yet The King of Trashis ultimately redeemed by its heart. It begins with a newspaper reporter setting out to interview a former school mate who’s now become one of the world’s greatest scientists—and one of its richest men. Before long, though, we are enmeshed in a web of awful and expedient “facts” building to a twenty-first century morality tale in which no one can escape the hard and bitter decisions of the “real” world. And yet at the end, we learn, is the central truth, the only remnant left to sustain Willerton’s fascinating and vivid characters—and the rest of us alive on Earth as well.
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Library of Congress Control Number 2019901352 Distributed by SCB Distributors,
I doubt there are many people anywhere on Earth who haven’t heard of him. For the last few decades, Parker Evans has been mentioned on a regular basis in every major newspaper around the world: his attending some international conference, his building a new off-shore wind farm, his adding a new ocean-cleaning platform, quotes from a speech he gave in Zurich, Paris, New York, or Shanghai, or the latest update on his position in the list of the wealthiest people in the world. (He’s usually on top.) And that’s not to mention his fame for having received not one but two Nobel Prizes.
Parker Evans is a man of staggering genius, free and clear. I should know because I grew up with the guy. I was there when everything was good times, and I was there when it all turned bad.
We were the Mutt and Jeff of Central Elementary in Broad Point, Texas, a little outside Fort Worth. I was big and awkward and destined for the traditional Texas schoolboy track—football—while he was several inches shorter than me and was already the city chess champ. His father was a scientist of some sort, his mother a psychologist; my parents taught at the local community college. Our houses were next door to each other. We usually got together after school, playing guns and war and wrestling at my house, or playing chess, building things with his erector set, and torturing his hamster in various experiments with his chemistry kit at his house. We probably would have stayed friends if his parents hadn’t started buying him private tutors. Eventually, he
went to some special school in Philadelphia.
I want to state up front that whenever I’m asked if I ever saw any of the dark side that Parker would later make so clear—the side that would eventually result in the murder of thousands and his own psychosis—I readily respond that I did not. He was aggressive about winning at chess and blew up easily the few times he lost; he was hyperactive about reading and showed his remarkable ability to learn things with almost no effort; he found most social situations, like being surrounded by other grade-school students, irritating and useless; and he readily admitted that I was his closest friend because I was his only friend. But there was nothing that seemed outside the realm of an ordinary elementary school boy.
Privately, however, I do recall being shocked at Parker’s laughing when we finally fed the hamster a supposed invisibility potion that left it screeching horribly as it slowly choked to death. And it was even more abhorrent when he kicked the hamster’s body over the fence into my backyard. He told me I could bury it if I wanted to, which I did that night. I didn’t tell my parents.
There was a certain part of him that was definitely disposed to violence. That makes a really smart person like him particularly dangerous.
Parker graduated from his special school at fourteen, began MIT in the summer, had a doctorate in physics before eighteen and another in chemistry a couple of years later. He was ready for a brilliant professorial career when an accident happened in his college lab.
And me—I was graduating from high school about the time Parker graduated from his first college. I spent two years playing football at junior college, then a couple more years at a four-year school where I played long enough to blow out my knee. In the summer, I worked at KFC to help pay expenses.
I graduated with a journalism degree, and have had a good career writing for magazines and newspapers, so I’m not ashamed of how I turned out, or intimidated by his accomplishments. The world needs geniuses like Parker just like it needs people like me.
Okay, back to the accident.
Parker was at MIT at the time, researching a new kind of chemical core for electric car batteries. Lightning hit the building, a breaker failed, and electricity shot around his chemistry lab, eventually hitting a beaker of something-or-other next to a battery on the table. He ran like a rabbit while the whole place smoked up like a trench in World War I. Glassware exploded, Parker’s liquid got zapped, and the smell was awful. Thankfully, no one was hurt.
When he came back to clean up, he found that the electricity had dissolved his liquid into a rubber table pad that had been drenched with battery chemicals. The mess dissolved into a thin film that now covered his workbench—and absolutely could not be removed. The harder he tried, the more it resisted, and then he realized that something extraordinary had happened.
The thin film was stronger than the table. That was interesting, but what was more interesting was how slick the electrified liquid/rubber/chemical combination was. We’re talking slick here— absolutely no surface friction. Remember when Teflon was first used in the space program? America thought it was only an interesting novelty until they coated a skillet with it, and then everyone went berserk. It made cookware so slick nothing would stick to it. Not burned cheese, not burned eggs, not burned butter, nothing. Everybody in America suddenly wanted Teflon-coated pans and pots.
Parker’s new substance was way beyond that. It was slickslickslick. Unbelievably slick. Phenomenally slick.
Realizing what he had “made,” he abandoned his battery research and devoted himself to understanding his accident. A year later, he had refined the thin film enough that he borrowed money against his trust fund, took over his parents’ garage as a laboratory, and started testing.
What eventually became a viable product was a thin film coating that could be applied to any metal surface where friction was a problem—like the hull of a steel boat, for example. Parker pulled the family boat out of the water, hooked the hull up to a battery, and sprayed on his film. The film bonded with the metal, he put it back on the lake, and just like that, it was going twice as fast.
It might take the rest of us a while to figure what could be done with this discovery, but it didn’t take Parker long at all. As soon as he could manage it, he contracted with the Navy to coat the hull of a small cruiser to show what the film could do. The test worked. The ship practically zoomed through the water, and the Navy projected a clear 18 percent cost saving too. The admiral who’d given his idea the go-ahead was doing back flips.
The next year, Parker rented an empty drydock near the shipyards in Newport Beach, revamped his process to make it more efficient, and sprayed the hull of a destroyer. Success again! He was soon contracting with a bigger shipyard to work on his first aircraft carrier. When the carrier set new benchmarks for speed, efficiency, and cost, the landslide of government contracts set Parker up to become very very rich.
Then, if that wasn’t enough, he did something no one expected: He franchised his hull coating business. When the Navy told him his thin film process was a national security asset that it wanted total control over, Parker had the Supreme Court tell the Navy to go fly a kite; he had invented it, and he could choose who would use the technology.
That opened the door to hundreds of shipyards around the world offering ship owners the opportunity to coat their hulls with this miracle product. It made every ship faster, more cost-effective, and the thin film was nearly indestructible. It soon became the standard for ship building.
And every time a cash register at any franchised shipyard rang, money slid into Parker Evans’ pocket. The money poured in from his franchises, he put it in the bank, patted himself on the back, received his first Nobel Prize in chemistry, and at the old age of forty, Parker Evans became the richest person in the world.
I’m sure that some psychology student has done a research paper about how some rich people became rich (or successful or influential or whatever) because of accidents. That is, it wasn’t always their genius or smarts or savvy that led to their immense wealth, but some improbable incident whose probability was minuscule but happened anyway, and taking advantage of the accident became the turning point in their success. Parker’s accident in the chemistry lab is a good example. If that hadn’t happened, he might still have become fabulously wealthy, but he might also have lived a long life as an esteemed chemistry professor.
With that in mind, you would think that one life-changing accident should be enough for these people. Parker got two.
He decided to take a vacation and sail his yacht to Hawaii. Not paying much attention, he casually laid out a route that put him crossing the middle of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Everyone knows about the monstrous areas of trash floating in the North Pacific. The whole circling-current phenomenon extends from the Orient to the U.S., but there’s an oval-shaped section between California and Hawaii that’s called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where approximately 88 million metric tons of plastic are dispersed over an area about twice the size of Texas. Researchers used to think most of it was small stuff, but a new analysis I read in Nature Scientific Reports shows a surprising amount of large objects. The currents just keep swirling whatever’s floating on the surface in a vortex like an eddy on a river. It sounds unbelievable but if you go to YouTube and type in “ocean trash,” the footage is pretty remarkable, especially when the plastic escapes the eddy and piles up on a used-to-be beautiful beach.
As if one trash site like this isn’t bad enough, there’s actually another four of these circulating dumps around the world, one in the South Pacific, one each in the North and South Atlantic, and one in the Indian Ocean. A recent smaller version has recently been discovered in the Caribbean and another off Honduras. It’s a problem of global proportions, threatening the existence of many fish and sea mammals as well as tainting the fish that end up on our tables at home and in restaurants.
By far, the major component of all this trash is plastic—all kinds of plastic but mostly familiar items: water, juice, and soda bottles; grocery bags; coffee cup lids; cups, cartons, and storage bins; five-gallon buckets; trash cans; plastic knives, forks, spoons, and straws; shower curtains; swimming pool floats; Frisbees; toys; kids’ swimming pools; car bumpers; fishing nets, hammocks; computer parts; plumbing pipes, and on and on and on.
Plastic is found in every culture in the world and is used to make almost everything. After its useful life, though, most of it ends up in a garbage dump or landfill or goes straight to become a pollutant on land, in rivers, or in the oceans. Not that recycling doesn’t make a difference, but, worldwide, the problem is growing far faster than changing social behaviors can address; more plastic was made in the first decade of this century than in all of history before then.
Each year, 8 million metric tons of plastic get added to the 150 million tons that are already in the world’s oceans. Most of it starts out on land but then is carried to the sea by way of wind and rain washing out landfills and by way of illegal dumping in areas not designated as landfills; by way of polluted rivers (there are ten major rivers that account for 90 percent of the world’s aquatic pollution); by the huge rainy seasons of some countries; and by tsunamis, typhoons, and hurricanes that scour whole cities and countrysides of unimaginable quantities of stuff, sucking it all out to sea. It’s estimated that up to 20 percent of the current North Pacific trash can be traced back to the Fukashima tsunami of 2011.
Okay, let’s get back to Parker.
He sailed in the floating trash for days. Not being content to just look, Parker used a long-handled landing net to pull up enough floating debris to fill a garbage bag. Noticing an offensive slime covering everything, he borrowed a pair of panty hose from his then-current girlfriend (she wouldn’t last long; a woman who brings panty hose on a sailboat wasn’t his kind of woman), cut the net from the handle, and bent the metal loop until he could stretch the panty hose across it. Then he dipped it in the Pacific. It came out filled with globs of noxious sludge. He immediately realized that he was looking at the real pollution of the ocean.
I described the you-can-see-it forms of plastic floating on the ocean. As horrible as that seems, those forms are not the deadly side of plastic in the ocean. The deadly side is that plastic degrades.
One empty plastic water bottle floating in the water is something that can be seen and collected. But one empty plastic water bottle floating in the water for a long time tends to come apart: the constant beating of the waves and the exposure to solar radiation makes it crack, shrink, splinter, shatter, rip, and shred. The one empty bottle disintegrates into a hundred pieces of plastic. And each of them then continues to degrade, breaking apart and getting smaller and smaller, until the one empty plastic bottle becomes a million tiny pieces of plastic.
Most fish typically can’t swallow a whole plastic bottle. But a good portion of the million tiny pieces of degraded plastic are the size of plankton, the tiny organisms that are at the base of the food chain for a wide variety of marine animals. Fish that ingest plankton as their food source can’t distinguish it from plastic, and swallow both. Researchers have found seven hundred fifty thousand microplastic pieces per square kilometer in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and the marine animals in that part of the ocean have intestines full of them. In parts of the Patch, the tiny plastic pieces are so thick in the water that they act as a colloidal layer (think of all the suspended flecks when you shake up a bottle of Italian salad dressing) from inches to hundreds of feet thick. Imagine a tuna swimming for days in that mess; now imagine that tuna on your plate.
Parker, who had heard of the Garbage Patch, was not surprised by the amount of floating trash he saw. But he hadn’t realized the prevalence of the deadly microscopic plastic pollution. That is, not until the panty hose came out of the water. He was horrified and disgusted and intrigued. By the time he docked in Hawaii, he had found a new calling and set about engineering a solution to one of the world’s largest and most crippling problems.
Parker knew that the big pieces of trash were manageable. That is, you could line up a thousand ships dragging regular fishing nets across the top of the water and essentially scour them from the ocean’s surface. But that wouldn’t touch the plastic Italian salad dressing. He then theorized that you could drag a zillion pairs of panty hose, but they would fill up in seconds and had significant logistical problems, not to mention having to dispose of them.
How about a single pair of panty hose that was very, very, very large?
Well, he reasoned, even if you could create some kind of net made of the same nylon fabric that was a thousand feet across, it would certainly catch a lot of those teeny-tiny pieces of plastic but also would snare thousands of fish, turtles, and whales. Besides that, because it would be the ocean equivalent of tugging a parachute through the water, a vessel the size of an aircraft carrier would be needed to make any headway. Which meant you’d again have to have a really large fleet to do any good, and it still wouldn’t solve the problem of disposing of the stuff once the net filled up. It would take forever to do an effective job cleaning any appreciable area of the ocean.
What was needed was a net that let the fish, turtles, and other marine life flow through but still trapped the tiny pieces of plastic. That is, it had to have openings that were both big and small at the same time. To the rest of us, this is impossible; a single opening can’t be both big and small.
But Parker Evans didn’t win a Nobel Prize by being second in his class. He realized that he already had a miracle film in his hull coating, if he could find the right kind of flexible fabric to spray the film onto. That would make the fabric slick, much easier to pull through the water, and as tough as it needed to be for the ocean environment—plus, he could make it any size he wanted. That left the problem of needing holes in the fabric that were both big and small at the same time. Again, to you and me, impossible.
Allow me to jump over the year of research and development that came next.
Parker Evans developed a filtration fabric that was a marvel of chemistry and electricity. Never finding something that would work, he created his own fabric by making a thick, stand-alone sheet of his miracle hull coating and punching it full of uniformly spaced holes. Then he sandwiched electrical wires between two of the sheets with wires circling each hole, all connected to common electrical cables, and glued the whole thing together. When he energized it all by making a strong electric current flow through the wires around each hole, a magnetic field was created across the hole’s opening. Once that happened, anything that had a magnetic field of its own would be repelled by the hole’s magnetic field and wouldn’t pass through. Living things, which aren’t good conductors and don’t have inherent magnetic fields, would pass through the hole with no problems.
The next problem was obvious: Plastic isn’t a conductor; It won’t react to an electric charge or magnetic field. From my point of view, it seemed that Parker had swapped one problem for another, but stick with me here.
He made a mental jump that no one else anticipated: It didn’t matter if the individual microplastic pieces were conductors or not, if the colloid—the sludge made up of the little plastic pieces--acted like a conductor; then it would work. In fact, the thicker the plastic Italian salad dressing, the better it acts like a conductor, and thus would have an induced magnetic field of its own due to its movement through the Earth’s magnetic field. That made the colloid resistant to going through the electrified holes of the fabric.
Yeah, I didn’t understand that last part either. No Nobel Prize for me. Let’s move on.
A few experiments, some sea trials and Parker finally found the right combination of hole size, electrical charge, and fabric thickness. The net he created was amazingly successful: It prevented the out-flow of little plastic pieces while allowing small marine animals and plankton to escape. Now he had to make it work on a scale appropriate for an ocean.
That’s just engineering, Parker was heard to say.
My part in this story begins when I came to work one morning and had to enter past two homeless men who had set up camp under the building’s entrance portico. I stopped at the editor’s desk as soon as I got through the door.
“What do you want me to do about it?” he asked.
“We have security people, right? You’re the editor. Call them, and have them tell those people to go someplace else.”
“I don’t think they’ll find a better place. They’ve got protection from the wind and the rain. I’m not surprised they’re there.”
I wasn’t in his office to debate the subject. “That’s irrelevant. They shouldn’t be using our entrance to dump their junk and spend the night. It looks bad, and who knows if they’re not psycho or something. It looks unfriendly to visitors, and probably people who work here too. If we don’t get rid of them, they’ll come back, and then someone in the building’s going to start bringing them donuts every morning, and someone else will ask them to have a cup of coffee in the break room. It’s a slippery slope. We shouldn’t get started.”
All I got in response was a thoughtful look.
“You know,” the boss said, “I wonder about those people: who they are, why they live in the streets, what got them there.”
Then he paused—a pause that I immediately knew was “pregnant,” meaning dangerous for me. I was thinking I should have sent him an email or a text or left him a note. Or even better, contacted security myself. Or maybe just gone into my office, closed the door, and gone on with my ordinary life.
Instead I said, “Those are great questions, Mike, but aren’t you a little scared by them? I mean, think about our safety here. If they’re high on drugs and we do something like hit them with a door accidentally when we open it, who knows what kind of confrontation they could launch into, or maybe even pull a gun.”
He had stood and was looking out the window at the two men and their meager collection of clothes, bags, and blankets.
“They don’t look like terrorists,” Mike finally said, “although maybe you have a point. I don’t think the word compassion’s any- where in the employee handbook.”
It was a bad sign when he said that word.
“You know, maybe there’s a story here,” he went on. “I’ll bet readers don’t know anything about these street people or homeless or whatever they are. Maybe what we need is a good, respected reporter to talk to these people, find out who they are, what their story is, how they ended up sleeping on our front porch. And then to let the rest of us know what he found out.”
That’s when he turned to me with a smile.
The two ragged men on the “porch” were gone by the time I finished another story I had to wrap up first. I hadn’t wanted to talk to them anyway. If they didn’t like what I wrote, I’d have to start coming in the back door to avoid them. I needed to find another approach. There were plenty of choices. Most of the major intersections had people holding signs and looking for a handout, panhandlers were all over the sidewalks downtown, and I knew it would be easy finding a “camp” under an overpass somewhere. I had been to a homeless shelter for a story once, and there were always the missions, food centers, and churches that could point me to someone to interview.
Jimmy A was my first choice because he looked safe and was often around my neighborhood. He was a wiry kind of guy, short, neat beard glaring white against his black skin. I guessed he was around seventy or so. He always wore his long-sleeve shirt tucked in, belt cinched up, shoes tied, ball cap hiding his thinning head of hair. His eyes were clear and bright, and he usually had a smile. Definitely a street person, but he looked better than most.
Most mornings, he’d be holding a sign on a corner down from my house, hoping someone would roll down their window to give him a dollar or some loose change. Other times, I’d glimpse him hoofing it from one place to another, or sitting in a park smoking a cheap cigarillo. He carried an old daypack, with a worn coat tied up with a rope over his shoulder for cold mornings. I saw no reason to be afraid of him.
“How long have you been on the streets?” I asked.
Jimmy sat back against the building, took a long suck on his cigar, closed one eye, and let out a tight stream of smoke. “Oh, well, close to twenty years, on and off, I guess.”
I held my breath against the smoke. “What put you on the streets to start with?”
He coughed a laugh. “Oh, I got a powerful tearjerker of a story, but there’s no need to go into it; I wore it out a long time ago. I’m here now ’cause I’ve got everything I need. Most times, anyway.”
“You’re on the street because you want to be?”
“Well, my choices are slim to none, let’s say—not that I’m complaining. Too old for anyone to hire, too dumb for computers, too old to learn anything, too much arthritis in my knees to stand up much, too itchy to stay in one place for long, can’t stand to take orders from some yahoo who wants to reform me or improve me or something like that. I guess I could sweep buildings or parking lots, but I get by as well working the corners here. Got a sweet place to sleep every night, and people mostly leave me alone. I’m riding a smooth rail right now.”
He coughed again, pulled a leg up, and wrapped his arms around it. “I got good days and bad, like most people. Ain’t no way to lie about liking rain or wind or cold weather. ’Course, I stay home covered up if it’s real bad outside. The bad part’s not bein’ able to go anywhere. I can’t sleep too much before I gotta get up and move around to get the hurts out. You know we get bored? I bet people never think of us street folk getting bored. It don’t bother me if I got a good book to read or maybe a pile of magazines, but I’d rather be out doin’ something.”
Mostly he was right. Ordinary people probably don’t think of “streeters”—the label my mind started giving them—as being bored. Lazy, maybe. Crazy, probably. Looking for handouts because they don’t want to work or can’t, sure. Dangerous. Sick. Desperate. I don’t think people refuse to have sympathy for the poor and homeless, but we want a cause for it: forced poverty, tight job market, lack of education, PTSD, jail time, drugs, age, exhaustion, mental illness, language barriers. Finding a reason—or maybe just an excuse-- gives us permission to notice them and maybe have a little compassion. It lets us think that it might not be their fault.
Another tight stream of grayish-white cloud. “A couple of kids, but they’re back in Indiana, or were last I heard. When my wife died of cancer years ago, the kids didn’t like the empty house, I guess, so they asked to move in with my brother, and I let them. I worked at a tool factory, just doing maintenance and stuff, but the job moved to Mexico, and I had only the mortgage left, and an empty neighborhood, so I sold the house, gave the kids the money, and went west. Go west, young man, ain’t that what they say? Well, I went west, then went back east. The West sucks. I sold the car to pay for a room and food while I looked for work, but it disappeared like it had wings. Pretty soon, I was outta money; the streets were the only thing left. I hung around different towns, but weather kind of drives everything. Here, the seasons are pretty nice, the buses get me around, and when I found a place to camp, I decided to stay. I consider myself ‘retired,’ though I doubt the city agrees with me. I think about my kids now and then—my brother too, I really do—but I don’t fit in anymore. I’m sure my kids who—damn, must be in their 30s or 40s by now—are doing just fine without me.”
“Tell me about living on the street,” I said.
“Oh, well, there’s the freedom to move around. It’s probably over-rated, but it is what it is. I don’t owe anybody anything, don’t have to follow anyone’s orders, don’t need a schedule ’cause there’s no place I have to be. And there’s nice people hereabouts, mostly. I visit, talk to people, keep my ear to the ground for new places to eat and such. There’s a little barbershop on Fourth Street gives free haircuts to folks like me once in while, so I keep my hair trimmed and try to wear clean clothes and smile, so people aren’t afraid too much.”
“New places to eat?”
“That’s the dumpsters when a new restaurant opens up. They make big portions to impress people, and lots of stuff is left over. Real good eating for a couple of months or so, then that’s over and I go back to the regular dumpsters. It’s amazing what people throw away. One year, I actually gained weight.”
“Do you have a regular route? Corners you always work? A favorite sign you hold?”
That got him laughing, which made it easier to talk. I like someone who finds humor in hard places.
“You’re talking business management skills now. Yep, I got me a routine for regular days, then I do a little different on weekends. I do specials on holidays, like wearin’ a hat or ringin’ a bell for Christmas. I always limp on Veterans Day,” he chuckled. “No Army for me, though. Came in between wars and thought my future was too bright to waste on the military.”
The cigarillo was getting short. He took a couple of small puffs and seemed to be looking far away. Jimmy needed to get back to work. I’d made a mental note to buy him a pack of those cigarillos some morning.
“Respected reporter,” the boss had called me. At fifty-seven, I’ve been in the newspaper business thirty-two years, doing mostly everything—crime, politics, sports, obits, schools, government—long enough to graduate into writing weekly columns. Now I do “investigative work,” which means anything that takes more than a couple of days to figure out and write up. Usually it’s stuff like political shenanigans at City Hall or construction projects that never get finished or patients waiting forever at the V.A. or maybe a new business coming to town, how it’s good for some people and bad for others. When those things are slow, the boss pretty much gives me free rein for whatever catches my interest, as long as it has to do with life in the city here and I get it in on time.
But there are days too, like with the homeless story, when he finds something for me out of his own head.
I didn’t half mind the assignment, but it was going to take legwork, and I’d been hoping to coast for the summer, maybe put some of my overtime toward a long vacation or something. Maybe a cruise for me and my wife, Beth, something we could kick back and enjoy and let other people take care of us for a change. Fifty-seven isn’t old—though I admit to getting older—but I am trying to relax more, stay fit, and pay a bit more attention than I have in the past to enjoying life.
I knew why Mike wanted to do the story. It was time. The city had passed a law against giving money to panhandlers or people who did things like put an empty coffee cup or upside-down hat on the sidewalk. The law was stopped in court for the moment, but the issue was still hot, especially with the tourist season being close and the city so concerned about its image. No one had ever thought the law was going to deal with the problem, just something to make it less visible, figuring that if tourists in the more popular parts of town didn’t give money to the panhandlers, they’d go beg someplace else in town, and the tourists would be happier spenders.
Mike and I figured I could talk to a fair number of the homeless, in addition to city officials and community organizations that were trying to help them, and put together a series that could run a half-page, plus photos, in the Sunday paper for three weeks. It was a pretty complicated situation, and a little understanding never hurt anybody. We hoped I would be able to make the homeless a little more “human” to our readers, clarify some of the issues, and perhaps identify some possible solutions.
Jimmy was open about his daily circuit, his friends and associates, and his favorite dumpsters, plus his opinions about the local shelters for the homeless and social programs that had reached out to him, but he never told me where his “sweet place,” was, though he enjoyed bragging about it. His “home,” he said, is a cheap, semi-collapsed, Sears-type metal storage shed tucked into an empty lot behind an industrial building. It’s camouflaged by weeds, old cars, and piles of junk, and he doesn’t think anyone knows he lives there.
It was clear Jimmy was an ingenious guy. He’d put down several layers of cardboard for a floor and brought in a big refrigerator box to give himself a less drafty bedroom. An old sleeping bag, a slab of discarded foam rubber, a tiny flashlight, a discarded beer cooler to keep the mice out of his food, and he was set. Plus a five-gallon bucket and toilet seat in the corner for a commode if he can’t get to the gas station two blocks away. He said he gets broken sacks of unused kitty litter out of the dumpster behind PetSmart so the smell isn’t too bad, and he empties it regularly.
Shelter, a dry floor, a comfy bed, a private place to poop. A “sweet place,” like he said.
“What do you do with the money people give you?” I asked him.
“Oh, I pretty much spend everything I get,” he said, taking another long draw. “Gotta have my smokes, you know what I mean?
“And beer. Don’t drink much anymore ’cause it hurts if I drink too fast, but I cheat sometimes because nothing beats a cold beer on a hot day. And there’s my morning coffee, of course. If someone doesn’t hand me a cup, then I gotta get one at the Quick Stop. And maybe a donut. I don’t mind buying some of my friends a donut or coffee or something. I always try to remember that there’s always somebody worse off than me.”
Sometimes he’d go to a shelter downtown to take a shower, have a meal, maybe get some medicines. When there was a stretch of freezing nights, he’d accept a free bed, but he wouldn’t stay after it warmed. Too crowded, too confining, too public. And too much danger.
“That’s why people drag those damned shopping carts all over. There’s always someone gonna steal anything you got—and not just for the stuff, ’cause it’s all worthless. They do it to put fear into you, ’cause they want you to be afraid of them.”
Jimmy relaxed against the side of the building, scratching his beard, brushing the ashes off his shirt, and taking meditative puffs on his cigarillo. When he ground the ash into the ground and stuffed the butt into his pocket, my time was up.
When I first started on this series about the homeless, I was curious, like most of us. They seem interchangeable, sitting or standing on corners, holding up signs, buttressed against storefronts by awkward bundles of blankets, looking desperate.
Once in a while, we give them money, usually followed by a reply of “God bless.”
We vary between feeling irritated at seeing them and feeling guilty for giving only a dollar when we just spent six bucks on a cup of coffee. And sometimes we have questions: How did they end up there? Do they really need the money? Are they just too lazy to work? Where do they sleep? How can she afford cigarettes? Why is there always a dog? Is he really a vet? Aren’t there social programs for these people? Why don’t they use them? If I give them money, will they buy food, or drugs and smokes?
We’re curious, but we’re also compassionate. Most of us have had hard times ourselves, or our families have—living paycheck to paycheck, one more bad thing and we’re over the edge, job in danger, crushed by debt, trapped by medical bills, no light at the end of the tunnel.
We’ve been there—or damned close. We have empathy, so we reach into our pocket for that dollar. But we’re also wary—not wanting to be made fools of, and sometimes scared too. We hate being deceived. We hate being suckers. We hate being victims.
Couldn’t the government be taking care of these people? Doesn’t it have shelters? Isn’t that part of what I’m paying taxes for? Aren’t there programs, food banks, soup kitchens? What about the Salvation Army, the V.A., the churches?
We assume someone out there is helping them. Someone must be. But we don’t ever ask.
* * *
In Los Angeles, the number of homeless people rose 23 percent in 2017. An estimated sixty thousand people within the city limits alone have no adequate housing on a nightly basis. In adjacent Orange County, a tent community stretched for miles next to what had been a popular walking, jogging, and biking path. After an uproar from nearby residents, the county unceremoniously forced the occupants off the land while maintenance crews tore down more than seven hundred ramshackle dwellings (mostly tents and tarps), leaving behind two hundred fifty tons of trash, eleven hundred pounds of human waste, and five thousand hypodermic needles.
San Francisco, which has a far smaller number of homeless, reportedly budgeted $240 million in 2017 to build and run housing and treatment centers for them—an average of $32,000 for each of the city’s estimated 7,499 homeless residents. In spite of this, national organizations concerned about their members’ safety have moved conferences to other cities. Every year, municipal authorities receive thousands of complaints about human waste in public places. The Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that in the United States, more than six hundred thousand people are homeless every day. Most of them try to sleep until morning in either a homeless shelter or some sort of short-term transitional housing. Slightly more than a third spend the night in cars or under bridges or in some other way are living unsheltered.
One quarter of the U.S. homeless are children.