The woman walking in front of me on the sidewalk was wearing a short skirt and a sleeveless blouse. After stepping out of the street he readjusted the strap of the large duffel bag on his shoulder and began to drift towards her. Uneven stubble covered his face and his hair stuck out in several directions.
“Hi,” he said, smiling with both his eyes and lips. “How are you?”
She swept past him without turning her head. Unfazed, he then saw me.
“OH, COME ON!” he exclaimed, his voice more delighted than annoyed. He clearly recognized me.
As he continued to grin at me, I offered, “Hi.” I know you, too…
“Hi! How are you?” he greeted, his voice warm and his eyes bright.
“Fine, thank you. How are you?” You were one of my patients, but from where…?
“I’m good, thanks. It’s so nice to see you!” Neither one of us stopped walking, though he slowed down just as I began to cross the street.
I waved good-bye to him. He waved back.
Oh! I last saw you in jail! You thought you were a machine! You told me that everyone could read your thoughts! You shouted at the walls of your cell—
—and how much better you look now![1. The moment someone changes out of a hospital gown or a jail uniform into casual clothes he will immediately look more healthy, independent, and dignified.]
My father was telling me a story as we walked past the corner store. I’m not sure if he saw the man approach me.
“Hey, can you spare some change?”
Turning my head with a small smile and looking at his face, I said, “No.”
“Oh, hey now,” the man said, starting to walk next to me. He then reached out and stroked my arm. “I just want to touch you.”
“DON’T TOUCH ME!” I shouted, still walking. The man stopped. My father, taken aback, looked at the man over his shoulder, though remained silent.
“Go on,” I said lightly to my father, who then did. However, I didn’t hear anything he said. Did that actually just happen?[2. In my years of working with people who are homeless it has been rare for anyone to touch me. This includes people who were actively psychotic or acutely intoxicated. Furthermore, when people have touched me, it was within the bounds of social convention: We shook hands, gave high fives, bumped fists. Hence my alarm after this man touched me.]
The yellow sign on the fence reads: “Illegal activities and loitering not permitted.”
Within the confines of the fence are at least ten tents arranged in a half circle. Some are reinforced with several layers of duct tape. Others are covered with blue tarps.
A small barbecue grill, round and uncovered, is in the center of the circle.
A freeway ramp is on the other side of the fence. Trucks with 18 wheels, cars running on electricity alone, clunkers painted different colors, sleek sedans with round logos, and vans carrying kids, groceries, sporting equipment, and DVDs roll past.
The camps have grown this year.