“Elizabeth, if I tell you something, will you please not be offended?”
I raise an eyebrow.
“If you were nineteen, I’d totally be hitting on you.”
I notice that he’s got a careful margin past the age of consent there.
“Well, I guess we’re safe, because I’m way past nineteen.”
“Yeah, well, if you were nineteen, I’d totally be hitting on you.”
“Hitting” is more like. I’ve comforted his girlfriend after he’s beaten the shit out of her. I’ve stopped by to visit three of my guys at their usual place: we are sitting by the driveway out of King Soopers, a grocery store. Grant is on the sidewalk because that’s public property; he can’t get in trouble for trespassing there. Flying a sign: “Homeless. Anything helps.” The sun is brutal. An SUV pauses. A man extends two handfuls of granola bars out the car window. Grant is too drunk to get up, so I retrieve them, then retreat to the shade of the parking lot median, where I sit between Adam and the sprawled Robin. “You going to share with Robin and Adam?”
Grant says, “Of course. So how old are you?”
“Fifty-five. How old are you?”
We both look surprised. I am getting used to homeless people thinking I am much younger than I am. I have all my teeth. I live inside and can sleep through the night. I’m not sunburned. I don’t use drugs, hardly drink.
Grant was a handsome man, even last year. Now he is swollen and wobbly. At the jail, one of the deputies once said to me, “Grant does the baby walk. You ask him to walk a straight line to prove his sobriety, and he has a terrible time getting up, but then he just launches. Lots of fast little baby steps.”
I am here to return Grant’s ID, which I copied for my file so that when we try to get him a housing voucher, we can prove that he has the necessary identification documents. Because it’s pretty sure to be lost by the time a voucher possibility comes around. I let Grant use my phone to call his mom, because everyone should be able to call family, but also because he promises me he’ll let his mother know that I’m going to call her and ask for her help in getting his birth certificate. While he’s chatting with his mother, I turn to Adam and Robin. Robin seems better today—less in pain, more at peace. He is so drunk that I can’t understand much of what he says. He’s wearing a T-shirt that has a face printed on it like Smokey the Bear’s except above it is the word “Tokey.” Tokey’s got a spliff hanging out of his bear lips. Robin reaches up his hand, and I take it.
“Robin, why are you so hoarse these days? Are you drinking any water at all?”
I can’t understand what he says. He lies down in the bark chips, in the median between sidewalk and parking lot, where he is officially on private property and liable to get a trespassing ticket. Closes his eyes. Sun punishing his face. I look at Adam, who is clearly under the influence. But he is still alert, his intelligence not yet tamed by alcohol. Both Adam and Robin have the fairest skin. In Boulder, even the homeless people are mostly white, mostly whiter than white. Their blue eyes glow with eerie beauty out of their sunburned faces.
I say, “You guys should be careful. The sun here is nasty and you both have such light skin.”
Adam fake-preens, “Oh, I’ll just apply some of my collagen and elastin cream and erase those wrinkles.”
Robin rouses himself, asks, “Is Elizabeth making comments about my skin color? I never thought I’d say this, but, fuck you, Elizabeth.”
I try to clarify that my comment is only solicitousness; I take his hand again. Robin at least pulls the bill of his cap down over his face, closes his eyes, turns on his side. Grant is still on the phone. I turn to Adam.
“So, have you worked on anything?”
“I talked to a guy. Didn’t get me anywhere. Wasn’t very pleasant.”
I realize that he is talking about going to Mental Health Associates, that most user-unfriendly of agencies.
“What about ID? Did your sister get you a birth certificate?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t talked to her.”
“Want to use my phone when Grant is through?”
I like Adam. When I worked at the old day shelter, I was responsible for getting ten people showers each day. Adam told me that every time I got him a shower, he’d get down on bended knee and propose to me. And he did.
When you are working with a lot of lonely homeless men, you get plenty of amorous attention. I tell my friend Susanne that if she wants to get asked out, she should start working at a shelter. Between clients, volunteers, and the occasional policeman, I’m never wanting for offers. Me, a chubby 55-year-old. I feel mighty affection, but mostly no attraction. Adam, though, is someone who, in another life, I’d fall for. He’s the guy I had a mad crush on in high school because he was obviously the smartest kid in AP history, even though he might not pass the class. The one who made smartass comments to the teacher, and the teacher liked him anyway, because they were witty, smartass comments about historical events. He’s probably the guy who had a pretty, socially adept girlfriend throughout high school who became increasingly confused and distressed that her nice boyfriend was drinking so much. I feel something of that confusion and bafflement even now.
Worse, I note Adam’s sudden disconnection when a man I don’t know passes by. Word is that Adam has become a tweaker. He wanders off after his meth connection. He pauses, looks back: “Hey. Love your face.”
“Love your face, too,” I respond.
Later, walking to my car, I hear Grant in the background saying, “Stay sexy, Elizabeth.”
For people who live on the street, affection is complex, and it necessarily makes room for contradiction, anger, and sadness. It also embraces humor, generosity, and a kind of sideways eros that is less about sex than about resilience. If people can sass, then they are seeing something alive in each other, and even the most abject people have gifts and pleasures. For that reason, I put up with stuff that would piss me off or even scare me in other contexts. I kind of like playing in the flexible rules zone.
When a nice Native American boy who is young enough to be my son texts me that he is sober and has been getting good medicine at pow-wows and, by the way, had an erotic dream about me, I just text back how happy I am that he is sober and keeping me in his prayers. And when I see a man on the street the day after he has called me a cunt, I call out a cheerful hello. Another man, from his hospital bed, tells me that I remind him of Megyn Kelly. I blink, pause, and tell him thanks. Choosing to ignore things is its own kind of rule-bending, rule-breaking liberation.
I hear women who are living on the street discuss having “safety sex” with men for whom intimacy is the last thing on their minds. I hear about women waking up groggy from drugs with their pants around their ankles. About staying with boyfriends—“street husbands”—who are abusive, because it’s better, even safer, than the alternative. I’m not embedded that way. I have an address, and a key to unlock its door. I go home at the end of the workday. Still, I witness, and know from personal experience, that two people can love each other and nonetheless be toxic to each other. Some of the relationships I watch have gone on for years and years.
My relationships with unhoused people are certainly forged in—or despite?—the distances that arise through my (relative) economic stability, (excessive) education, and (relative) mental health. At the same time, there are other kinds of intimacies than sex, and flirting can be a way of acknowledging that.
I say that word, “intimacy,” to a friend, who looks uncomfortable. But the term is true to the relation and the circumstance. With my homeless friends, we work the impossible. Getting ID and housing for people who have neither is impossible. To accomplish this takes a tremendous amount of time and stubbornness. We persist through all the impediments that the Department of Motor Vehicles can diabolically devise, and the infinite number of times the homeless individual stooges me on appointments that they swear they will show up for. I have waited in a clinic exam room for an hour and a half, listening as a pregnant woman’s ultrasound conveyed a fetal heartbeat through the wall from the room next door, while the man I was there with performed a Wookie imitation. We lasted it out, and he left with the disability verification he needed to qualify for permanent supportive housing. If accomplishing that isn’t intimacy, I don’t know what is. When he sees me now, he makes a heart shape with his fingers and calls me the Goddess Freya. One day at the park, he took off his necklace and put it on me. It is a delicate dream-catcher web made with the rim of a plastic bottle cap, dental floss, and the twisted cotton neckline of a t-shirt.
Intimacy is hope. Hope is intimacy. I think these guys flirt with me because I have the audacity to think something better could come to them. They are afraid to hope, but they sure want me to do the hoping for them.
Another day wandering in the parking lot at King Soopers. One of my clients, a woman with a brain tumor that renders her unsteady on her feet and occasionally aphasic, has escaped from the detox center where we have been trying to sober her up so she can get surgery. I drift between the Starbucks inside the King Soopers and the liquor store, her known haunts. Passing through the parking lot, I look up and see Josh.
Josh. Big, forsaken Josh, with his ruined body, keen mind, and ridiculously good heart. I first met him when I still worked at the day shelter and he came in for free acupuncture on Wednesday mornings. Soon we began to talk, and he told me how, when he turned sixteen, his foster parents explained to him that they’d be moving, but he wouldn’t be moving with them. He figured out how to grow up on his own, got married, had kids, became a car mechanic. But then his wife cheated on him and left him, his son got into drugs and then into prison. His back failed him, then his whole body. Now he is a homeless man, leaning on a cane, gamely trying to get stronger but grimacing with discomfort.
During our weekly chats at the day shelter, Josh has noticed that my supervisor is nasty to me. One day she comes by looking for a document, and I tell her that I already gave it to her. She loses everything—documents, cash, bus tickets—all the time. She insists that I didn’t give her the papers and that I’ll be written up for this. As she walks away, I look at Josh, smile, and roll my eyes. Next week, Josh is back for acupuncture and comes by for a chat.
“How’s it going with the boss lady?”
“Yeah, well, I took care of that.”
“What do you mean?”
“I told everyone in the dorm at the shelter that she had free memberships for the Y and to come on down and ask her for them.”
I laugh, scandalized and pleased. The Y memberships are a huge hassle to allocate. Josh appears very satisfied. “That’s the way it goes: you’re my girl.”
Josh can hardly walk, but another day he comes in to tell me about when a friend of his moved into an apartment. Of course Josh jumps on a bus and heads to the new apartment to help with the move-in. On the way, he sees Ricky, the friend, waiting at the bus stop ahead. Ricky is notoriously grouchy, stinky, and—though homeless—somehow able to hoard tremendous amounts of crap. Bus drivers hate him because all his stuff is loaded on plastic bags hung off his walker. It takes him several minutes every time he wants to get on or off the bus.
Josh tells me that when the bus driver saw Ricky scowling at the bus stop, he said, “Oh, hell no!” and drove on. Josh waited a full hour at Ricky’s apartment before Ricky arrived, incensed. This story makes me howl with laughter. We huddle in a corner of the day shelter, laughing conspiratorially. Another week, when my ex-husband drops off some papers at the day shelter, Josh, the mechanic, tells me disdainfully that he has a crap car.
And then I switched jobs and I saw less of Josh. He has drifted in and out of my thoughts until the morning I’m wandering around the King Soopers parking lot looking for the woman with the brain tumor. (In the liquor store, I asked if they’d seen an older homeless woman who is a bit unsteady on her feet, and the clerk said, “Lara? Dana? Catty? Rani? Shorty?”—all of whom I know.) I don’t find her, but back out in the parking lot Josh is suddenly there, grocery shopping with the help of a friend from Center for People with Disabilities. He is cool toward me.
“Hey! So glad to see you. How’s it going?”
“I have an apartment now.”
“What?! That’s the greatest news, and no one deserves it more.”
“You never call me anymore.”
I stop short. “Well, I have this new job, and I’m just super busy.”
“I’m not a client now. You don’t have to treat me like that. I’m not your client.”
Some months later, still haunted and guilty at Josh’s chilliness, I venture to call him again. It turns out that my timing is good. He’s still in the apartment, but for unknown reasons, the benefits office has stopped his Aid to Needy and Disabled money. It’s only $189 a month—hard to see how much aid that really offers to anyone needy and disabled—but it’s crucial for Josh. He pays $50 a month in rent on his voucher, but now he doesn’t have even that, and it’s the turn of the month. When I ask why they turned off the money, Josh says he doesn’t know. He checked his account and found nothing in it. Then he went to the Health and Human Services offices, and they first accused him of some violation. This was so demonstrably untrue that they checked further and came back noncommittally allowing as how there had been a clerical error.
“When will it be turned back on?” I ask.
“They don’t know,” says Josh, “but it takes a while, maybe a couple of months.”
This sends me into a storm of consternation: don’t those idiots realize that people’s lives depend on these tiny bits of money? But Josh is resigned. I tell him that he is the most patient and resourceful person I know. Without looking up, he says, “I have to be.” Then he adds, “You know, when you finally get housed, you think that everything will be okay, but what actually happens is that you just start having a new kind of stress and worry.”
I could go over to Health and Human Services with him—sometimes flashing my court I.D. badge can help move things along—but Josh says he’s been over there every day this week.
“I know! My church is doing a panel on homelessness, and it would be great to have someone with lived experience on it. I’m sure we could pay you a stipend.”
In fact, I am not at all sure that the church will want to pay a stipend, and I hate asking Josh to do this. Like most people who have lived through the abjection of homelessness, the last thing he wants to do is discuss it publicly. I see his hesitation, but Josh agrees.
Over the next day, I hustle so that Josh will get a check in time to make his rent. The convener of the panel says that the church has no funds to pay panelists, but she is sympathetic and asks how much his rent is. I tell her $50, and she writes me a personal check for $100. I cash the check and add in $100 of my own. I know Josh; he will find a way to cover all his expenses for the next two months on $200.
It’s a Friday night when I drive over to Josh’s apartment to deliver the money. I feel exhausted from a long week at work, and fragile. A relationship that I had wanted badly is falling apart; I can’t ignore or deny it any longer. I rest my head on the steering wheel for a moment, holding back tears. Then I get out of the car and see that Josh is already waiting on the lawn just outside his apartment.
He wants to show me his place. Despite all the anxiety, he is gleaming with the pride of possession. After four years homeless, he has his own address. I see the scuffed wooden floors, the tiny swaybacked single bed, a black and white television that looks like it hails from the 1970s. “Found it in a dumpster,” Josh notes with satisfaction. He smells of cigarette smoke and alcohol. I realize what a very big man he is, even leaning on his cane.
“This is great,” I say, “and here’s a little money to see you through. Thank you so much for being on the panel.”
While he carefully counts the money and puts it away, I edge toward the door. I am outside before he catches up with me. His voice is equal parts urgent and hesitant: “Listen. Listen,” he says. We are facing each other in the gold light of the day’s end, but I am looking down. I look up.
Josh says softly, “It’s all so hard,” and I gulp down the sadness that rises in my throat. “You know,” he goes on, “It doesn’t have to be the way it was. I’m not your client anymore.” He raises his hand slowly, gently cups my cheek.
I am not sure how I manage to get away, desperately fumbling the keys into my car ignition before turning out of the driveway and bursting into tears.
Weeks later, I head over to Meth Park, only a block or so away from King Soopers, looking for some people. Cheddar Bob and Kai are lying on the grass near the utility building. Cheddar Bob could have had an apartment long ago, but he drifts off to do more meth every time he gets out of jail. A week ago, he was excited about a stringless electric guitar he’d found in a dumpster. The week before, he was on a bike taking pictures with a camera he’d bought.
Kai is staring up at the sky with his mouth open.
“Hey, Kai,” I say, “Your sister helped me to get your birth certificate. She says to tell you that she loves you.”
Kai’s mother is homeless, and his dad, as far as I can tell, is dead. When I got his grandmother’s number from Kai and called to ask if she would help me with getting his ID (a close relative can order a birth certificate), she was so terrified that her son—Kai’s uncle—called me and chewed me out. I tracked Kai’s sister down on the internet. A probation officer told me that he’d heard a rumor that she writes porn for a living. It’s true. She was glad to help.
While I am talking to Kai, a man is zipping up and down the sidewalk on a bike several sizes too small for him. I get the distinct impression of a grade-school boy showing off. After the bike whizzes by a third time, Cheddar Bob says, “Adam is trying to get your attention.” Only then do I realize the bicyclist is Adam. He’s unrecognizable, meth-thin. A few minutes later, he throws the bike to the ground and collapses on the grass.
“Adam, I didn’t recognize you. You look emaciated.” As he gets up and approaches, I see that his pale eyes have an almost-grotesque map of red lines crisscrossing the whites.
“I’m fine.” A mixture of edge and defiance.
“You’re in pre-match now. That means, once we get the documents together, you can get a housing voucher.”
Adam has epilepsy and diabetes. These don’t mix well with alcohol and meth. Even though he is still fairly young, I worry about him.
“Nah, Elizabeth. I’ve got—I’m going—I’m going to try—it’s destined to failure, but I’m going—I’m leaving for Portland.”
I’m disappointed for a number of reasons, but I’ve seen people take the ‘geographic cure’ before: running away from their addiction. Once in a while, it works. “I’ll miss you, but if you decide to come back, we’ll just work on this again, okay?”
“Sure.” Adam looks exhausted. He borrows my phone to call his sister, and I talk to Cheddar Bob while I wait.
Adam hands back the phone, retrieves his bike. Kai calls me over, wanting to know if there are any warrants out for his arrest. There usually are.
I’m walking back to my car when I hear Adam calling out behind me: “Elizabeth, one of these days, maybe we’ll get married.”
I slow and look up at the sky. Without turning around, I call out, “Yes.”
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