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A Street Life--Wasted Days, Wasted Nights

March 02, 1986|GEORGE STEIN | Times Staff Writer

LAWNDALE — Hawthorne Boulevard cuts through the city, a river of restless humanity on the way to somewhere--a job, a home, a friend, a lover, a meal, a date; a blurred embodiment of purpose, always on the move, never quiet.

But for Bert Gonzalez, Hawthorne Boulevard is the Street. And it is home.

He has lived on it off and on for two years--sleeping in nearby cars, under bushes, in cardboard boxes, whatever will offer shelter for a night; watching the cars, buses, trucks, bikes rush past his bus bench at 147th Street.

Rules of the Street

He knows the rules of the Street along with its dangers, comforts, where to find a meal, how to turn a dollar, where to give blood plasma twice a week for $15 a pint.

"I do not consider myself a bum," said Gonzalez, 56. "Just temporarily down."

Although no statistics are available, officials estimate that there are several thousand other homeless men and women like Bert, roaming the streets of the South Bay, living life on a catch-as-catch-can basis.

A typical day with Bert provides a glimpse into life on the streets.

It was a day of small victories--beautiful weather, one meal, a cup of coffee, a few drinks, a drunk friend's escape from police scrutiny with just a warning, and talk, much talk with friends, to pass the long, idle hours.

Bert wants out. He vows to get off the streets, to get a steady job again, to stop drinking as much as he does. "Instinctively, a man does not want to be down," he said.

But the Street sings a siren song of defeat. He has seen others disintegrate and he hears that evil song.

"It would be easier to give up," he confessed. It is fearsome to venture away from the comfortable anonymity and sidewalk friendship that street life, however rough, offers him.

Indeed, Bert's dimunitive figure at the bus stop blends in with the other riders waiting for the bus. But off the streets--in restaurants and stores geared to the cash-carrying public--a single glance can ignite a scalding shame.

"They serve you, but they look at you and you think, 'Oh, God, I shouldn't have come in here,' " he said. "The realization comes to you, and you say, 'God, what have I become?'

"I have thought, 'God, I'm glad Mom and Dad are dead.' "

Bert's story and his street lore comes out in bits and pieces.

"It is sort of an unwritten rule that you don't ask a person their background or why," he explains.

Years of Drinking

He is 5-feet-4 and weighs 123 pounds. The whites of his eyes have a yellowish tint, testimony to years of drinking. Bert dresses neatly in inexpensive clothes. He tries to wash his hands and face every day. He shaves less often and figures he showers about once a week.

Six months ago, a doctor told him that his teeth needed repair, that he has the beginnings of an ulcer and that his heart beats too fast.

"Put it this way: I sleep in the bushes overnight, in the car the next day, in a shed the next day. Naturally, it is going to run your health down," he said.

The morning began well, mainly because the night before had not been a problem.

Bert had been fortunate enough to bunk down on the back seat of a friend's stalled blue 1970 Cadillac El Dorado, bypassing his preferred spot on the grounds of a nearby church because it was a cold night. "Do you think I like sleeping in the back of a car? I despise it," he said.

The Caddy, which needs a new battery, has been sitting for weeks in Hawthorne Boulevard's median parking strip near 148th Street, stranded like some sort of lifeboat cast up against a river island.

Up at 6:30 a.m., Bert smoked the first of many cigarettes and walked down the street to a Best Western Motel to use the lobby toilet. No chance to wash up or shave because an unsympathetic desk clerk was on duty, he said.

Bert said he was born in East Los Angeles, attended the University of Redlands for awhile and later worked for McDonnell Douglas Corp. A succession of jobs followed, including a stint in the mid-1950s as sports and feature reporter for the Los Angeles Examiner, he said. He married and divorced and married again. He has a son who is a high school senior living with Bert's second wife in Aurora, Colo.

For almost 10 years, Bert worked for Gulton Industries Inc. of Hawthorne, spray-painting silk screens used in the manufacture of printed circuit boards, a company spokesman said. Bert said he was making $14.50 an hour in 1982 when he was laid off, conceding that a drinking problem "might" have been a factor in his layoff.

He got another job with a screen-printing firm, but that company went bankrupt, he said.

His situation disintegrated.

"I gave up on myself. I said, 'What is the sense of killing myself for a job that pays $3.50 an hour?' I didn't try. I know it," he said.

He and his wife moved out of their $350-a-month, two-bedroom apartment near Chadron Avenue and 149th Street and into the garage of a drinking buddy. The man sent Bert out mornings with money to buy a fifth of Scotch and a six-pack of beer. Bert drank beer for breakfast.

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