For two years, there was a homeless woman living in the alley next door to my first floor duplex. She had erected a massive fort out of plywood, tarps and shrap metal; an intricate, multiple-tiered fort with a ladder, a closet, and a bed made of blankets and garbage. The police never made her dissemble it or move, probably because she was mostly peaceable and any zoning violations were constructively irrelevant in Tucson.
Everyone in the neighborhood knew of her. Ellen was a schizophrenic in her mid-fifties. On a bad day, could be volatile. She sustained herself on sugar packets she stole from the café where I worked, even though all of us agreed we would have given her a bagel and coffee, had she just asked.
If you saw her on the street, she could have been mistaken for an eccentric professor: well-dressed, manicured, carried by an air of stately dejection. And I remember: she always wore eyeliner. Normally, she donned, long skirts, big earrings and head scarves, like a gypsy. Except for the occasional conversation-with-self or lucid outburst, she somehow managed to blend in.
Also, given the circumstances, she was lovely.
One morning around four o’clock, I woke up terrified because she was peering through the paned glass of my front door and pounding frantically. I am sure she was cold, or just having another spell, but I called the police.
“What’s the emergency?”
“There is a woman trying to break into my house.”
“Alright, can you describe the offender?”
“I’m sorry ma’am you are going to have to be more specific.”
“A gypsy—you know, big earrings, head scarf, weird look on her face?”
“I don’t understand.”
“A gypsy? Haven’t you ever seen a gypsy before?”
The cops never came and I think she must have passed out or wandered into the house next door, like the stray cats that also had an inclination to break in during the night. With that police call came another complaint: my neighbors reported she was defecating on the front porch.
Ellen could be intimidating, bothersome, sometimes rude, and her inability to fashion some makeshift plumbing made things a bit messy. Still, I found her presence comforting. She was a fixture, something recognizable in a city that seemed so foreign to me when I first left home. I was slightly disappointed to see that the fort had been torn down several years later, though I have spotted her wandering the streets, wearing the same flowing outfits and scarves, big jewelry, always with the pretension, that there was nothing wrong.
In Minneapolis, there is a motorcycle coffee shop I used to frequent while in law school. Of course, there were the bikers, but the space was also populated by other locals and misfits who had most weekdays off—artists, writers, students, computer geeks, and the generally, under or unemployed. Clove was one of the regulars I came to know, self-taught in every incarnation he self-proclaimed: artist, intellectual, bike expert, Eastern medicine guru, spiritual adviser, calligraphist, tattoo artist, fashion designer, horticulturist, and hairstylist, to name a few. He was about ten years older than me, always wearing leather and was covered in self-inflicted tattoos. Without his platforms, he stood around 5 foot 4 and weighed less than a hundred pounds.
At every encounter, I could expect a conspiracy theory, political announcement, or life advice, including a pointed edict on why I should never be employed and anecdotal evidence to prove that doctors were evil. There were also gems that have stuck with me. Clove had girlishly lovely locks that reached his lower back. Once I asked him how he grew out his hair so long. He took a quizzical look at me and a puff off of his American Spirit, blew the smoke at me and asked, “You want to know how to grow your hair long?”
Waiting for some mystic sagacity or a simple beauty secret, I said, “Yeah.”
He took other drag, paused, and in a very serious cough of smoke, he pointed the butt of his cigarette at me and said, “Don’t cut it.”
Clove always sat in the corner, curled up, drawing pictures like a child. Sometimes he wrote poems in code, a language he had created, handing them over to me and asking if I could decipher the letters, as though he held the key to the universe. He told me my horoscope and always looked at me intensely, as if he knew something about me I had missed. Not sure if I was young, naïve, or just curious, I paid attention to him and I listened. Sometimes he sat next to me for hours reading Camus or The Iliad, ignoring me, as if he were too captivated to hear what I was saying.
I let him.
This summer, nearly six years since law school, and only one of a handful of times I had returned to the café since, I saw him pass me on his bike while I was walking down the street. He flipped around when I called his name. Up close, he had come to look less like a hipster and more like a homeless person, which he may or may not be. I realized that despite his availability and our endless conversations, I never knew that much about his personal life.
I asked if he wanted to get a beer, “Aww shit. No money, honey.” His little nose scrunched and he shrugged. He was wearing a torn mesh tank top that exposed his boyish, bony shoulders. He told me that he worked the door at the corner bar, bartering for free booze, but couldn’t drink unless he was working (yes, the irony of his life was fascinating). When I offered to buy, he got a spring in his step, turned his bike around and rode next to me, the sole of his leather boots, flapping against the concrete.
We had surface conversations about local politics, his disdain for Michele Bachmann, changes in the weather, and his new obsession: he had restricted his literary diet to stage plays and only read them aloud. He also told me he had a Prince Albert and showed me his new tattoo: a mermaid and waves that stretched across his small belly. Also, in large block letters: “Eats Pussy.” He smiled and said, “Speaking of waves and mermaids…” He went on to tell me the following string of jokes:
“Why do mermaids wear seashells? -Because they’re too big for B-shells
Why does a mermaid have a tail? -To frustrate the seamen
What did the fish say when he ran into the wall? -Dam.”
I probably won’t see Clove again for a few years, if ever, but it is comforting to know where he is, existing in a neighborhood I have come to know and love. He is another personality, part of the fabric of a city; one of the living, breathing fixtures that make up, place.
I met a cab driver in San Francisco last summer before I left the country. Ted told me about what the city was like in the seventies and complained about how it changed, most specifically, with the heavy-handedness of law enforcement.
On the ride out of the Mission, we talked about traveling and he told me about a hitchhiking trip he took through Mexico, Central and South America. As I was getting out of the car, he handed me his business card and a copy of a book he had written while on the road. It looked like it had been published independently sometime in the eighties. I tucked the book in my backpack for good luck on my travels, feeling fateful I had met him before my own journey.
A year later, my car was towed in San Francisco. After calling the impound lot, I needed a cab. Remembering the hitchhiking cab driver, I pulled out the book and found the business card and cell phone number scribbled on the back. He picked up, unrecognizably, “Hello?” His voice was tired and confused.
Before he could mumble anything else, I said, “Ted, hey, I met you last summer. This is sort of strange, but…you gave me your card. I have your book…Think you could give me a ride?”
There were some muffled sounds like he took a shot of whiskey and was scratching his beard. Then he answered, “Hmmm. Well I’m not really working right now. You mind if come in a pick-up truck?”
I don’t hesitate in moments like this: “Nope.”
Ted honked outside the front of my house like a bad date then opened the passenger door from the inside. The rust stained truck appeared to have a crooked axle and drove kind of left-justified. The holes in the bench seat upholstery were covered with Mexican blankets. When I told him how much the towing costs and fines were ($600.00), he slammed the brakes and his fist on the wheel: “That’s criminal! Extortion! This place is a goddam over-policed Disney World. I told ya, it ain’t what it used to be. You’ve got a goddam cop on every corner and a new law to follow every week- don’t do this, don’t do that. Eat this, don’t eat that. I’ve gotta get out of here.” He shook his head and sighed.
On the way to the impound lot, Ted told me about his two daughters who were “about my age.” He talked longingly about his youth and travel, then said, “Life moves quick, you know? I can’t believe I’m 50.” He pulled his long hair back into a ponytail and looked in the rear view, smoothing his hand over his bearded chin.
Before I got out of the truck he said to me, “Hey, be smart okay. Be safe. And, you know, life is short. You’ve gotta do what you love.” I smiled and thanked him for the ride. We were parked in an alley outside the impound lot. Before I opened the door, he said, “Wait. I want to show you something.”
He pulled a piece of paper out of his jacket pocket.
While unfolding it, he excitedly proposed the following: “You want to go down to Mexico? I mean, if you do, well, I’m heading down there. I have this treasure map, and I know it sounds crazy, but man, this is for real…50 G’s. There is this abandoned property and this woman died and I heard through a buddy… if we can just get to the property, well, we have this map. And we’ve got this truck. This baby’s been all the way through Argentina and back. I know it’s a little rusty, but this is a rare gift, man. Carpe diem, you know what I mean?”
He smiled with sincerity and handed over the map, “What do you think?” I examined his scribbles and notes and what looked like the map of a small town somewhere in rural Mexico. Inspired by his enthusiasm and offer, I said I would get back to him about the treasure hunting.
The window was still open when I shut the door and he yelled, “Yeah man, think about, I mean, this is it.”
When I think of cities, I think of the people who make them: the woman on the corner in Hanoi who served Pho and tea from a wooden stool until the early morning; the postmaster in Marrakesh who was always trying to sell us hash while delivering mail; the man at the liquor store in Istanbul, who laughed every time I attempted a Turkish expression; the teenage Balinese boy who gave free scooter rides for a kiss on the cheek.
There is a woman in New Orleans who sells roses on Bourbon Street. She is beautiful with long, thin, papery-skinned arms and will weave long stories about her prime as a Southern belle and actress. Beneath the skin that hangs from her bones, you can still make out how lovely she once was. Truthfully or not, she told me she had a small part in Gone With the Wind and had been (nearly) married to a famous producer from Hollywood. Throughout her youth she was a stage and film performer, though life and circumstances do change. A castaway of time, she is now pushing flowers on a cart, though still aglow in Southern charm. To me, this woman is New Orleans.
Outside my apartment in the Mission, there is usually an assembly of Mexican men who stand on the corner, smoking cigarettes and listening to salsa music from a boom box. For the first few days, I worried (groups of men are always, at the very least, menacing).
Leaving in the morning or coming home late at night, they have become a safeguard in a neighborhood that is often fraught with the plight of homeless, police sirens and, occasionally, the sound of gunshots. With recognition, they call to me, “Hola señorita ¿como esta?” They don’t speak English well, though, we get by on few words, and, I have come to trust their presence. Sometimes they will watch my parking spot for me if I have to leave on an errand. We share cigarettes. They go to the taqueria across the street and play soccer with the children that live down the block. I learned that their families have been in the neighborhood for decades.
I am the interloper.
In the past few weeks, the men on the corner have become a comfort to me, just like the graffiti, the coffee shop, the skyline, the scents, and the other local trademarks that remind me where I am. They are the fixtures that distinguish place, marking the corners in the map of our memories and minds.
It is people that make travel both possible and relevant. I am merely a pass through, but they are perennial.
A city and its history, are only as alive as its voices.