The following is an excerpt drawn from the new book Hobos, Hustlers, and Backsliders: Homeless in San Francisco, by Teresa Gowan. Gowan will be giving a talk and signing books tonight at University Press Books in Berkeley, CA, and tomorrow night at Modern Times Bookstore in San Francisco. Find more event info on our website.
No One Loves a Loser
Willie, a lanky, gravel-voiced white man with a stoop, came from a hard-drinking “hillbilly” family in Stockton. His mother ran off when he was seven, leaving him with his biker brothers, who beat him frequently and taught him to skip school. On New Year’s Eve, 1973, fifteen-year-old Willie witnessed one of his brothers killing a man in a drunken rage, smashing his head with a heavy chain. Overwhelmed by fear and disgust, Willie left home early the next morning and caught the bus to Fresno, the nearest sizeable town. There he slept rough for a few weeks while looking for work. Lying about his age landed him a mediocre job in a rubber goods factory, and he soon found an apartment to share with a couple of other young men. He never went back home.
Willie could move, but he couldn’t change California’s passionate affair with chemically enhanced experience. His early life had left him with a great fear of out-of-control drinking and drugging, but this fear was always tinged with desire and curiosity, for not only the bad times but the good had been charged by drug use. In Fresno, it proved hard to stay away from the constant drinking and drugging of his friends and co-workers. It was the 1970s, the height of American drug consumption, and it seemed like everyone Willie knew was involved with drugs one way or another, using marijuana and Quaaludes to chill, PCP and coke to fly, poppers for sex, and heroin—why with heroin you didn’t even need sex, so they said. Willie tried them all, thinking he would just experiment. Heroin proved too strong for him, holding him in a bitter and sordid embrace that steadily led him to unemployment and petty thievery, and then to jail. When he came out a year later, Willie decided to move to San Francisco, thinking that the variety and opportunities of a big city might help him steer a new course. He worked a few temporary construction jobs, and stayed out of jail for a couple of years, but his hold on himself was fragile, and he failed to land the kind of work that could anchor a new life. He started using heroin again in 1988, and his shoddy collection of part-time jobs was woefully inadequate to feed his habit. Again he turned to stealing, this time motorbikes, which he sold to a fence for between $50 and $200. Within months he was in jail again.
Willie had told me this backstory one day when heavy rain prevented us from recycling. Giving up on making any money that day, we had gone to the St. Francis, a two dollar cinema on Market Street, to see some second-rate action movie. It was warm and dry, and one of the only places in town where you could get away with smoking inside. I remember Willie’s low voice and the glow of his cigarette in the dark, as the gunfire rattled and the explosions roared around us.
I met up with Willie again one year later, a couple of months after he had landed a dishwasher job at a small hotel. His clothes were cleaner and his beard was gone, leaving a handlebar moustache and sideburns that suited his angular face.
“Remind me how it was you got to be homeless in the first place,” I asked him.
Willie leant towards the tape recorder. “I got clean in the county jail in 1991, and I stayed that way for a while. I was dishwasher and short order cook at the Shamrock, on Harrison, I was there seven years.”
“Where were you living?”
“I had a room in the Delta Hotel.”
“Okay it was a dump, but I had one of the best rooms, up on the fifth floor, with a window looking out right over the corner of Sixth and Mission. I had a girl who didn’t do junk, a nice colored girl… She was only 23 when we hooked up, but she really liked me. She was a cocktail waitress in North Beach. … We wanted to see the West, the mountains, Vegas, the desert, you know. The plan was to buy a van, something we could live out of. We had about $600. Then I lost the money and most of my things in the fire in 1997. You heard about that fire?”
“Sure, it was a bad one,” I said. “The place is still empty.”
“The top floors were hit the worst you know. All my shit was destroyed. I had to move into the All-Star, in the Mission. It was all I could find, a stinking little hole with no air, no windows, crackheads roaming the hallways, partying.” Willie paused. “A few weeks later my girl dumped me.”
“Do you think it had anything to do with the fire?”
“It felt like that. You know, no one loves a loser. She was mad with me over losing the cash, said I shoulda put it in the bank. Like I had enough money for a bank account. I was paid in cash, never had that much.”
“You took out your disappointment on each other?”
Willie shrugged. “I guess. I wasn’t great company; I was in a dirty mood. Then she caught me with a rock in my pocket, and that was it. Her parents were dope fiends, and she wasn’t gonna tolerate me using.”
“Were you using a lot of crack?”
“I wouldn’t say a lot. Couple of times a week maybe. I was trying not to, that’s for sure. But I could feel her drifting, flirting with other guys, dressing up more sexy when she was working. And when I talked about getting our shit together again, getting out of town, she wasn’t interested. She would just watch TV when I was trying to talk to her. It made me feel like shit. I mean, this was the best thing I ever had, and I knew it was over. … And I was worried about my job. Some developer was trying to buy out the boss so he could tear down half the block for some of those new condos. The boss was giving us a good line but we all knew he was going to take the money. It was obvious, the way he started spending more on his car, his clothes. He was just waiting on a better price.
“I needed something to look forward to. I was getting so angry, bitter angry, I thought I might hurt somebody. I wasn’t going to go near heroin, I knew better than that. But I thought, well cocaine, that’s not my drug of choice, I can take it and leave it. I had done it before a few times, before I got with Theresa. And there was this guy at work; we would go up on the roof some times after work. I tried to keep it to a couple of rocks. I knew it was foolish, but I couldn’t do any better. I didn’t have the strength in me. It was a bad time.
“After the bar closed, I went on GA, started looking for another gig. But GA barely covered my rent. I had to get some money for my daily expenses. So I started panhandling on Market Street, by one of the entrances to Montgomery BART Station. I didn’t know what else to do. My idea was to panhandle in the morning then go out looking for work. I wasn’t looking for a hustle. I’m too old for that. I just figured panhandling was the most honest way, you know, I need money, I ask people to spare a few pennies.”
“Had you ever done it before?” I broke in.
“Panhandling? No. And it wasn’t easy. … You get to hate the people marching past.”
Willie cleared his throat and glanced up at me, a strained look in his eyes. “I was having dreams of being invisible, really invisible, like I couldn’t see my hand. One dream I had, I was standing on a big staircase somewhere, and all these people, this whole line of people I used to know. They came down the stairs past me, and not one of them said a word. They didn’t even seem to see me.
“And then I had to get up and try to find work. Except I had to go back to the hotel and change my clothes to look for work. It all took time, and I was so down, it was hard to come into a joint and ask for work. And they didn’t seem like the right kinds of joints for me.” Willie hesitated, struggling for the right words. “You know how the city, it’s become so yuppie. Like I’m too old, not educated enough. … Seems like it’s not good enough to be just a regular guy… in the end I gave up on looking for work, and I was just sitting out all day panhandling.”
“Did you ask people for money?” I asked. “Or just fly a sign?”
“At first I had me a sign, and I would just sit and read a book, but you don’t get much if you don’t ask. Then I used to give people this intense look, just say ‘Please, anything helps.’ I figured people should like that, showing you’re not fussy, you’ll take the pennies. … The thing is, after a while, you hate them, you hate everyone, and they feel it, they know.”
“So how did you come to recycling?”
Willie was silent for a moment, casting his mind back. “See, I was watching Julius every day come past me with this big load. We would say hi. He lived on Sixth Street at one time you know. I realized that he was having a better time than me, it was that simple. He seemed okay, less depressed than I was for sure. Then it took a while for me to get used to the idea of pushing a shopping cart. Seemed to be like saying, ‘Look at me, look at this poor homeless motherfucker.’ And I wasn’t even homeless. I still had my room, just. … But what’s worse than sitting on Market Street begging? So I asked him could I go out with him, figure out if I could make it work for me.”
“Did you like it?”
“It was okay, but the money was bad, worse than panhandling. I couldn’t see it, working all day and it’s hard manual labor, pushing that bone-shaking cart. You know you should be getting 12, 15 bucks an hour and you’re getting maybe one or two bucks an hour if you’re really going at it. It wasn’t till I lost my room that I went back to it. The thing is, it’s real different when you’re homeless. For a start, you’ve got nowhere to go so you don’t care if you’re working a lot of hours.”
“The more the better?” I asked hesitantly.
“Yeah, just about.” Willie turned to grin at me. “And it took me a while to realize that. I’m in this mentality of ‘I’m not gonna work for nothing.’ But with recycling, you’re not working for someone else; you’re working for yourself, so you don’t have to feel like someone’s getting rich off you. There’s no boss. No one’s making you do it. OK the money’s not going to do much for you but it’s something, and it gives you something to do that’s not just sitting around. I got stronger than I had been for maybe 10 years, pushing that cart, slinging those bags of bottles. It kinda hurt my shoulder, but otherwise it was real good for me physically. I started cutting down on cigarettes, because I needed my lungs for my work, and I wanted to save.”
“Did you manage to?”
“Not much. But the recycling did get me off the streets. I really think it did. See I met this buddy of mine back from my Fresno days, and I arranged to stay with him and his girlfriend and put something towards the rent. So I was recycling and every day I’d give them 10 bucks. My mentality was so much better, I would go look for work in the mornings, then do a big load of recycling in the afternoon. And it paid off, at least for now. I moved with Wayne and Sherry, we got a place in East Oakland now, got my own room. Things are coming together again, I hope.” Willie resolutely tapped the oak bar with his open hand.
“Couldn’t you have stayed with them anyway, if you weren’t recycling?”
“I dunno. No, I don’t think so. They could see I was doing something for myself, like I wasn’t going to be just hanging around with a long face, getting wasted. You know, I had this routine for myself, work times, work gear, it was like I was working.”
“You just weren’t making much money.”
“Yeah. But money’s not everything you know.”
This vignette appears in Hobos, Hustlers, and Backsliders: Homeless in San Francisco, by Teresa Gowan.