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Talking to the Homeless

February 11, 1990|JUDITH FREEMAN | Freeman is a novelist and short-story writer. The book she refers to in her journal has recently been published by W. W. Norton under the title "The Chinchilla Farm."

In 1986, I had just moved to a neighborhood near MacArthur Park not far from downtown Los Angeles. At that time, I met a few homeless people who live in the area. My daily experience with them eventually inspired me to collect passages on the subject of homelessness from the works of other writers, and I also began keeping a journal. The following excerpts are taken from these writings.

APRIL: I have started work on the novel. By mid-afternoon, I have to get out. I'm exploring the neighborhood on foot. Even taking some pictures. I've found a pool behind a hotel across from the park nearby where I can swim. The walk to the pool is interesting, there are so many people on the street. I suspect there's always been this kind of active street life in immigrant neighborhoods. Most residents here are Mexican or Central American. Sometimes I sit in the park across from the hotel, either before I swim or afterwards. I've met a man named Tom, who is homeless. Our dogs play together.

\o7 JUNE: "Homelessness is an ultimate condition we are all moving toward." This sentence turned up in my notebook, and I've been staring at it. I think it means that once the environment goes--when the big home we all inhabit is thoroughly fouled--we'll all be out in the cold.

OCTOBER: Tom needs two teeth pulled. They're loose and giving him pain, he says. I don't know where he can get it done, but I feel I ought to help him.

NOVEMBER: Tom pulled his own teeth. Now he doesn't have any on top in front. He limps. It doesn't stop him from collecting cans. He told me he was involved in an accident in childhood. Hit by a car when he was 7. He stayed in the hospital, he said, almost two years. I think he's about 55. He says I'm his sister; I call him brother.

JANUARY: I'm reading Henry Miller. "The land of opportunity has become the land of senseless sweat and struggle," he writes in "The Air-Conditioned Nightmare," a book he completed after he fled Europe and the war in 1939 and returned to America. He mentions the homeless. "The goal of all our striving has long been forgotten. We no longer wish to succor the oppressed and homeless; there is no room in this great empty land for those who, like our forefathers before us, now seek a place of refuge." He also says that if you really want to understand a city, go to its park and sit and talk to the people there. This was all written 50 years ago. Same time as "The Grapes of Wrath" and Joseph Roth's "The Legend of the Holy Drinker."

DECEMBER (of following year): Tom has terrible sores on his hands. He spilled a cup of hot soup on them. The skin blistered, then broke. In other places, it has cracked from the weather. It looks bad. I went to Thrifty's and got some medicine. While I sat in the park and bandaged his hands, the other men looked at me. Then one of them, named B., came up and asked me for a Band-Aid.

JANUARY: I'm reading "Hunger," Knut Hamsun's novel written in 1888 about a writer who lives in such poverty and yet is determined to survive on his writing. He nearly starves. He can't pay rent. He's thrown out of one place after another. Sometimes he sleeps in the woods. He suffers in other ways, as described in this passage:

"My good God, what a situation I am in now! I was so deeply sick and tired of my whole miserable life that it wasn't worth fighting any longer to keep it. Circumstances had won, hey had been too harsh. I was completely worn down, just a shadow of my old self. My shoulders had a serious slump in them from favoring my one side, and I had gotten the habit of leaning over when I walked in order to spare my chest a little. I had examined my body a couple of days ago and I cried the whole time over it. I had worn the same shirt for many weeks now, it was stiff from old sweat, and it had rubbed the point of my naval raw. A little bloody water came out of the wound even though there was no pain, it was pitiful to have this sore place in the middle of my stomach. There was nothing to do about it, and it wouldn't heal by itself this way; I had washed it, dried it carefully, and put the same shirt on again. Nothing else to do. . . ."

\f7 FEBRUARY: I met Tom's friend, Rolland, who lives in a hotel downtown. Rolland said he used to live in the park but he's been in the hotel for more than a year now. He works part-time as an orderly in a hospital. He likes to come down to the park and visit Tom. The worst part about being off the street and living in the hotel, he said, is the loneliness. "You can't imagine how lonely it gets in that hotel room," he told me, "so I come down here." Rolland looks and behaves like a pleasant, affable uncle.

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