Hope on Wheels

A few years ago, in between jobs, I started hanging out at nearby Mission Bay during the day when I needed a break from my computer. I’d take a beach chair or blanket, a sandwich, a notepad and pen and sit under a tree for an hour or two. Peaceful, balmy, fewer distractions than at the oceanfront beach (also nearby). If people came along, they kept a respectful distance, cycling or strolling by on the path, arranging a lunch picnic at one of the many tables. Kayakers glided by on the glistening water.

I began to notice that several large RVs ringed the outer edges of the parking lot. How cool, I thought. What a great idea. Roll on down for the day. Bring kids or grandkids and your own kitchen. Play ball, fix whatever you want to eat whenever. Memories of my in-laws parking their RV at Disneyland so we could duck in out of the heat and then head back into the maddening crowds.

Around that same time, I also began to notice an old green and rusty orange van parked on my street. Specifically, I noticed the owner, craggily dark and handsome, in a seedy-around-the -edges way. The exact type that made my heart leap 20 years earlier. What caught my eye one day was him dragging clothing and bedding from a neighboring house to his van. (Since I was out of work I had more time to look out my window.) He wore a back brace and walked with a limp, which also wormed its way into my sensitive psyche and overactive imagination. Poor guy. Was he in some kind of accident? After that, his van moved around, parking up and down our block and along all the side streets. Occasionally I’d see him buying cigarettes at the 7-11, leaning into the van’s engine under the open hood or doing yard work for a neighbor, but most often he was sitting in his van staring into space.

No overnight parkingI gradually realized he was living in his van. Then, after seeing the same RVs day after day down at the  bay, I also began to realize that these were not just recreational vehicles, they were homes. They were not occupied by happy campers, but by people who had lost houses, apartments, possibly jobs or health, but come hell or high water held on their homes on wheels. They were living in them.

At night they had to leave the park by 10 p.m., when the gates closed and the police checked the area. They parked if they could somewhere on the streets and waited for the gates to open again the next morning.

Eventually I went back to work, the man in the van disappeared, my weekday visits to the bay lessened and my thoughts about the situation faded into the background. It’s a few years later now, the economy has supposedly gotten better for some, but not everyone. Not for the vets with PTSD and other disabilities. Not for those workers whose jobs have permanently gone away. Not for those who have lost their health and their bank accounts. Not for those who can’t pay rising rent. The number of homeless continues to rise. San Diego is in the top 10 American cities with rising rents and home costs and with large homeless populations. In San Diego, an estimated 4,500 homeless currently live in shelters and 4,100 are unsheltered – meaning they live on sidewalks, under bridges and overpasses, along creek and river beds and in church courtyards, doorways, parks, canyons and vehicles.

This year’s annual homeless census found nearly 1,800 people (or about 21 percent of the total) sleeping in cars, RVs or other vehicles. This number is probably low. Those living in vehicles are often uncounted and unseen; they have not fallen all the way, are still clinging to some kind of home, even if it moves every night in darkness. Stories are appearing about them.

A street lined with RVs, campers, vans in Mountain View, home of Google, in Northern California’s Silicon Valley. Many of the people who live in these vehicles used to work nearby, got laid off, and are trying to find work. Some are employed, but don’t earn enough to rent an apartment. A few are employed with decent salaries but don’t want to spend most of their take-home pay on rent.

A parking lot at LAX, reserved for airport and airline employees and their RVs. It’s easier and cheaper for them to spend their time off near work. In Paved Paradise, as Joni Mitchell sang.

Fiesta Island here in San Diego, east across Mission Bay from where I’ve seen the daytime RVs. A popular recreational site for cycling, boat launching, dog running, and the annual Over-the-Line beach softball Tournament. Now an ersatz RV park. The authorities and police have been letting them stay, not patrolling or checking the gates at night. This will change soon, as residents in surrounding hillside homes overlooking the island complain. I recognized the name of one of these residents, the husband of a woman I used to go to yoga with. I had been in their home.

Now we also have social media, like Next Door, reporting on vehicles that have overstayed their legally allotted time, usually 72 hours. This morning I read that the big white limo parked across the street from our apartment building has “homeless living inside. An old man in bad shape, probably an alcoholic, stumbled out. The wheels are on blocks,” said the post.Limo

I went out to check. It is not on blocks. One of the back tires is flat. The windows are tinted so it’s impossible to see if anyone is inside.  A few of my neighbors have complained about all the space it’s taking on the street. True, it is really, really loooong, but we all have garages and it’s not a busy block, there’s plenty of parking for visitors. I am probably a Neighborhood Watch flunky because the limo doesn’t  bother me, assuming any occupants aren’t blocking others, throwing garbage out the windows, playing music late at night, or luring children inside with pot-laced lollipops. Now if parking suddenly disappeared or if five or ten limos lined up outside, I might change my mind.

In other words, I am cautious, but I don’t assume the worst. More ominous posts appear on Next Door, the majority assuming the limo is dangerous. They call a local news station that airs a story on it, emphasizing that neighbors are “afraid for their safety.” In another two days, the limo is towed away. The news does a follow-up story interviewing the owner, an older man with a dog. He had lost his wife and brother and driven down from Oregon hoping to find work with the limo. Ran out of money to fix the tire. He denied living in the limo and apologized for any inconveniences he caused. Whether he was telling the truth, non-threatening and able to work, who knows? It would take more than two interviews to find out.

As for RVs on Fiesta Island, if they are interfering with others who enjoy the park, or creating health hazards, they probably should not be allowed to stay indefinitely or in large numbers. Where should they go? It is illegal in San Diego to live in a vehicle or to park an RV on the street or in a public parking lot between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. Some cities are creating fenced spaces for the moving homeless, just as they set up shelters and turn old hotels into low-income residences for the sidewalk homeless. In San Diego, a non-profit organization called Dreams for Change operates two lots as part of a safe parking program. According to their website, 65 percent of those they help obtain housing or move to transitional programs.

Some homeless have already moved to desert areas like Slab City, 156 miles northeast of San Diego in Imperial County. A former military base, now owned by the State of California, it began attracting squatters in the 1960s. They live on the leftover concrete slabs entirely off the grid. No running water, electricity, trash collection. Now with approximately 200 residents (and several times that in winter), The Slab calls itself “The Last Free Place in America.” It does not have a good reputation. No one would mistake it for Palm Springs, for example. Whether all its occupants are lawless drug addicts, I don’t know.

As with those who live among us in their cars, vans, RVs, I suspect there’s a mixture of good and bad. Maybe some are alcoholics, addicts, mentally ill. Maybe most are doing the best they can in unlucky circumstances, holding on and taking shelter in the last of their possessions. Refusing to flee to the desert or give up hope.

For more information on laws in San Diego about the homeless and where they can live, see “Are there laws against homeless camps?” by Gary Warth in the San Diego Union-Tribune, Sept. 28, 2016.




Way Stations

A way station.

A place to stop and rest while on a journey.

I’ve made use of way stations, large and small, throughout my life.

As a kid, the tiny train station halfway between home and school. It was only a mile to school, but to my sister and me trudging along the highway in the snow in the Montreal winter, often below zero, it seemed never ending. Not to mention numbing. Despite our layers of clothing, hats, gloves, mittens, we froze. The little station was our warming refuge. We climbed the stairs, ran in and hugged the pot belly stove. Then made it the rest of the way to school hands and feet tingling.

A big, white Victorian hotel in the Green Mountains of Vermont. My grandfather knew the value of way stations, always stopping between Montreal and Cape Cod, stretching our 400-mile journey into two days so we could relax and look out over rolling lawns and play shuffleboard, and so he and my grandmother could enjoy their scotch at gloaming (Scottish for twilight). This was a treat for my sister and me, since if our father had been at the wheel, it would have been a mad, crabby, eyes-on-the road dash each way. No stopping for ice cream, let alone overnight lollygagging.Windansea bench

Other images float up from memory. A bench overlooking the ocean or outside a store, a cubbyhole in a library, a shady spot under a tree, a stoop or doorway, a friend’s spare bedroom or hidden garden, a wide wall next to a museum, a shack in the woods, a diner on an empty road.

Most airports, yes! I have always loved airports, the excitement of new journeys, leaving and arriving, sitting and watching. Today they are less restful, with security checks, long lines, more frequent delays. But there is more to do – eat, drink, shop, gamble, get a haircut, manicure, massage, watch TV, hold meetings, use computers and gadgets, even sleep in some. If I ever blow the whistle on someone, I could hang out like Edward Snowden in the Moscow Airport, although from photos, it didn’t look as if he got a haircut during his weeks there.

Windansea shackActually, I’m living in a way station today. That is what my current house feels like. It does not have a sense of settling in for the duration, or much duration beyond a year or two. I moved to get out of the storm of rising costs, rents. On my journey, I’ve known for awhile I need to simplify, but I wasn’t quite ready to leave a home I loved. But here I am! This way station is comfortable and convenient. It appeared at the right time. It is a place to rest and reflect awhile, to rejuvenate, before I get back out there on the road.

Betwixt and Between

San Diego is crisscrossed with wild and coyote-filled canyons. A few of these canyons divide streets and neighborhoods and so early city planners built bridges and even staircases here and there to bring the parts – and hopefully the people – together.

In the Banker’s Hill area, just north of downtown San Diego, a suspension bridge was built in 1912 near First Avenue over Kate Sessions Canyon to connect two parts of Spruce Street. It is one of the city’s hidden gems. Many locals don’t know about it, but those who do call it the Wiggly Bridge because it wiggles and wobbles as you walk across it. It also creaks and clanks and moans.

Spruce Street Bridge
Entrance to Spruce Street Suspension Bridge

I first crossed Spruce Street suspension bridge 30 years ago on my lunch hour. It’s located in an older, elegant neighborhood, filled with graceful Victorian and Spanish homes, one of which housed the ad agency where I worked. In the mornings, I would park two or three blocks away and walk to work, passing two large houses full of Hari Krishna people outside gardening or inside chanting.

One day the owner of the agency said he wanted to show me something. While he said he liked my copywriting, he didn’t seem to like me. We often argued. He was happily married and I wasn’t attracted to him, so I don’t think our personality conflict was romantic.

Anyway, there we were one fine Spring day on the wiggly bridge! Laughing, enjoying the view over the canyon and downtown and the ability to get to the other side in a sort of secret way. I thanked him. I think it was his way of saying, “We can work together.” And we did, for two more good years.

Recently I watched a show on local TV about the Spruce Street bridge (“About San Diego” with Ken Kramer). There it was in all its creaking glory, “another story about San Diego,” as Mr. Kramer likes to say.Spruce Street Suspension Bridge

This inspired me to drive down and take photos and another wobbly walk. But in some ways I was already on it. In the middle of moving, I am on my own bridge – suspended, swaying in the air, between one home and another.

Betwixt and Between, that’s me. Not to be confused with Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered, that state of temporary insanity hardwired into us so we’ll mate and procreate, which I’d actually prefer right now, except I wouldn’t get my packing finished.

No, I mean the feeling of being neither here nor there, not belonging anywhere. My home of eight years is devoid of life now (except for my suspicious cats) and full of boxes. My new home is having its innards ripped out and is not yet ready to live in. I had planned to leave my current home in a couple of years, to downsize, but a sale and large rent increase put my plans on fast forward and my feet back out onto the streets. Old and new streets. Former neighborhoods. Would I like to be back there again? Exploring new areas. Maybe I should try living over a store or ???

Bridge PlaqueBy luck (and talking to neighbors), I found a new place right around the corner. If it weren’t for a tall condo a few doors down, I could see it from my current window. Straight as the seagulls fly. I don’t know if I will like it. I’ve loved my current space, full of light and looking out over trees and people. I leave it reluctantly, yet I also feel ready to make a new home.

So  here I am, walking the wiggly walk, swaying in the salt air breeze, listening to the coyotes, holding on, no desire to jump, suspended between two parts of the same neighborhood, curious about the other side.

Changing Lanes

To my friends who are changing lanes. You know who you are! I wish you the best of luck and salute your courage.

It can be pretty scary sometimes changing lanes on the freeway, or any busy road. Here we are, hurtling along at 60, 70 or 80 miles per hour, protected only by thin pieces of metal – and now we have to speed up or slow down and look around 360 degrees for the other hurtling objects, gauging the best instant to make the move.

Thankfully I’m not thinking this every time I drive or I’d never go anywhere. Like many, I listen to music and go with the flow on auto pilot. I usually stick to the middle lanes, midway between the fast and the slow. The only time I drove 90 miles per hour in the express lane a family member was on his deathbed and the only time I stayed at 40 mph in the slow lane I was stuck in second gear in my old sports car.

Yes, the middle lanes have suited me, both on the road and in life. I don’t like to hurry or multi-task and am more of a Type B than a Type A fast track person. The three years I spent working full-time, finishing college and caring for my two sons were the closest I came to the fast track and I was glad when they were behind me. However, I do like to move along, reach real or imagined destinations, and in the middle lanes I can avoid running into those slow lane putt putts making tentative entrances or looking for exits.

But recently the slow lane has started to appeal to me. Since leaving my demanding technical writing job three years ago and working as a freelancer, I haven’t had to work as much, and more important, I haven’t wanted to work as much. Gradually, I’ve been drifting from the next-to-the-fast middle lane to the next-to-the-slow middle lane – and I’m starting to eye those exits from the slow lane perspective. Maybe I’d like to get off the freeway altogether and explore the coast highways and byways?

Maybe it’s time to find other ways to work, in addition to or in place of writing for a living, writing what other people want? Maybe I could join the artists and explorers who are taking the time to feel the ground underneath their feet and smell the ocean, desert, and mountain air? Maybe reaching external destinations is no longer required, at least not all the time?

And so, here I am, easing into the slow lane, edging back into the middle. Riding between the lanes like a motorcyclist and just as exposed.

Recently I pulled off for a couple of hours and visited an old friend. A year ago she left her high-powered marketing job and immediately enrolled in culinary school with the idea of becoming a chef. For several months, she stuck to a grueling schedule. When she finished, she realized she didn’t want to be a chef at all – a least not professionally. She loves to cook for friends and family, but she didn’t want to work for anyone!smell the roses

So, in addition to exploring famer’s markets, she adopted a dog, rescued from the streets, who gets along well with her cats, and requires a lot of walking. She also tends a couple of rose gardens in a public park. She gave me a tour, naming each rose bush and explaining its history.

“I’m loving all this, but I wonder if it’s really enough?” she said.

We laughed and laughed at her dog’s antics. With broken legs in his past, he hates getting in and out of the car. With a tender back, she hates the wrestling match it requires to get him to move.

Once back at her place, she clipped me some red roses from her own garden. I got back on the road and headed home, in the slow lane. The smell of the roses filled my living room for many slower-paced days. It felt like more than enough to me.