A Memoir by Al Poole, Part 3
He was sitting in Pershing square, a park located between 5th and 6th avenues of downtown Los Angeles. The park’s best days were well behind it, as it was the current hang out for low-income seniors, hustlers, L.A.’s homeless, thugs, sexual deviants, and the mentally ill. The park grounds were rectangular in shape, with walking paths and benches surrounding the interior. The scattered palm trees through out, did nothing to block the fierce sun that enveloped the park during the afternoon. A large parking garage was built underground for L.A. commuters, which had an immense bathroom where every possible behavior occurred, often in front of bathroom users.
The park had been his daytime living place for several weeks. In the late evening, he would spend the night on the expansive grounds of the downtown library, staking out a sleeping place behind the many shrubs and vegetation.
On this particular night, he had carefully picked a bench where the hot sun was totally unblocked, and the annoying cooing of the doves and pigeons were loudest, as if to punish himself for his thoughts. His choice would also insure that he had the bench to himself; although his smell was so bad that the likelihood of someone sitting next to him, or trying to pick him up for a sexual encounter, was remote.
His last shower had been ten days earlier and was taken primarily out of necessity. He had learned too late that sleeping in the all-night theaters in L.A. was a good way to pick up bugs and lice. He was forced to spend his last five dollars at the downtown dormitory for men, throwing away all of the clothes he was wearing, before staying in the shower, under almost scalding hot water, for nearly an hour.
As he set in under the unrelenting sun, his only comfort from his thoughts was the voice of baseball announcer Vince Scully calling a Dodger/Giants game that blasted from radios, as fans followed the baseball pennant race between the two teams. He gingerly massaged the bottle in his pocket that he had stolen from a nearby drug store, and painstakingly and angrily began to review how he had arrived at this stage in his life.
His arrival in L.A. had been a disaster from the start. To begin with, he had arrived without a plan. His only thoughts were to finally be free from all of the institutional restraints that had governed much of his past life. He had spent his first few months exalting in his new found freedom. He soon realized that it was nearly impossible to find work. This was primarily due to the fact that he interviewed poorly, and was exaggerated by his extreme reluctance, and almost pathological fear, of working for other institutions, i.e. the local post office, hospitals, or government jobs. He quickly reverted to the self-isolated person that had protected him so well in institutional settings. However, this left him crippled in developing his communications skills and learning from others. In fact, if he hadn’t overheard a conversation about unemployment benefits, he wouldn’t have even known to apply.
Learning he had few skills to offer when applying for a job, he soon gave up the awkward task altogether, and drifted into a level of depression he could not shake. The saddest part, and one of the reasons for his self-anger, was that he knew there were jobs he could have gotten – nursing homes, hotels, the post office and others – and yet he was trapped in his own inertia and unable to make a positive move on his own behalf.
It had been almost 20 months since he’d arrived in L.A., the last three of which he spent living on the streets and in all night movie theaters. He didn’t wait for the landlord to come by and evict him when his rent was due. He simply vacated the unit. He only took his LP collection of sixty records with him, which he tried to sell on Sunset Blvd. When there were no takers, he simply left the records on the road. He’d been alone on the streets ever since.
Being homeless was not terrifying for him. He had spent many nights as a child on the streets. Still, life could have been easier. He knew of several homeless missions he could have sought out for help. Instead he had taken to stealing in order to eat. He was surprised at how good he was at it, and how little it bothered him. As he once again massaged the bottle in his pocket, he also realized that the lack of conscience was a part of the self-contempt that was eating at his soul.
His life was a complete failure. Though he couldn’t stand it any longer, he didn’t see any way out. Calling home for help was out of the question – he would never let his folks know he had failed – as was returning to the military. Strangely, he could not articulate what success would be like, yet his disgust with the way he was living, was an overwhelming weight he could no longer endure. He simply had thought he was a better, more accomplished person, than he had turned out to be.
He walked over to the water fountain and filled the container he had rescued from the trash. As he returned to the bench, he remembered how much he disliked L.A. water and smiled. “Well, that would be one less thing I’ll have to worry about,” he thought. He casually opened the bottle in his pocket and started to take the pills in it, washing them down with the fowl tasting water.
He awoke to a painful crash and loud thump. He instantly realized that he had walked head first into a street sign and was stunned to see he was in the downtown financial section of L.A. The clarity of his observations astounded him, as he knew exactly where he was and just as quickly, blankness overcame him. Sometime later, he awoke again having painfully walked into a street parking meter. He took note that he was now in the seedier parts of downtown L.A., before blanking out again. For a second, he tried to figure out why the young black man with the pool stick was yelling at him. Again the clarity of the situation was almost instant and he realized he had been sleeping on the pool table in a tavern. He quickly got up and headed straight to the back door through which he had entered, before blanking out again.
The loud piercing sounds of car horns woke him up for good. After a moment of confusion, he realized he was standing in the middle of the underground parking lot of Pershing Square. He was standing in the entrance, making it impossible for cars to pass him.
The blankness did not return, so he made his way to the steps leading to the park. His stomach was roiling; he ached in several parts of his body and felt exhausted. He puked profoundly in a garbage can and headed to the bench he had occupied the day before. On the way, the clock, visible from across the street, proclaimed that it was 8:30 in the morning. He remembered the times he had awoken during the night, otherwise he had no idea of where he been or what he had done. As he approached the bench, he saw the empty bottle of sleeping pills lying where he had left it the day before. He realized during the walk back that he was happy to be alive and was in a state of wonder about how he had survived the night. “Well that didn’t work out, I guess I will have to try something else,” he thought sarcastically. As he relaxed and drifted into an exhausted sleep, he knew he was missing something important, something he could feel but not quite visualize. This feeling would bother him for weeks before fading…
He was extremely irritated as he entered Interstate 5 to leave Seattle for his trip to Oakland. It was close to three in the afternoon and he had hoped to leave much earlier. Once a month his work schedule included four days off, which he used to travel to Oakland, California to spend several days with his girlfriend Carol. She also took a similar trip to Seattle on her four days off a month. He was almost thirty-years-old and this was his first real relationship. They had met, most improbably, at the First Avenue Service Center – a drop in center for people living on the streets of Seattle.
Their worlds were completely different. She was a college student from a middle class, southern white family, and he was a black refugee from L A, and yet they had become friends almost instantly. The relationship had changed and become more serious, when she had returned from a summer long journey working as a migrant farm hand as she traveled throughout the southern states. That the relationship had continued to grow stronger after her graduation from college, and move to Oakland, was a wonder to him.
He had expected to leave Seattle soon after the end of his graveyard shift at the Seattle Main Post Office, however he had been required to work several hours of overtime. In addition, he had to wait several hours to get his car back from the garage where he had left it to get a simple oil change.
As it was, he was leaving just as freeway traffic increased, a situation he had hoped to avoid. He secretly hated driving. He had learned to drive at a late age and knew he was not good at it. He also suspected he was slightly blind in his left eye, the result of a fight in an L.A. jail, which affected his depth perception. Of course, this was something he would never share and frequently buried deep in his mind.
He normally enjoyed the trip though. He would leave early before traffic was heavy and have clear sailing through half of Oregon, before stopping for a break. He had learned to time his drive through the mountains in mostly sunlight. The worst part of the trip for him was usually after getting gas in Weed, California and heading down the mountains towards Sacramento. He hated it primarily because the turns terrified him. He knew that his late start had messed everything up.
It was almost midnight by the time he left Weed, California, by now he had been up thirty hours or more and briefly considered stopping at the first rest-stop he passed. However, the drive was going well and he decided he would continue on through the mountains. The sound from the car radio had been nonstop static as he travelled. Suddenly, the radio blared out the Star Spangled Banner and a Utah station signed off for the night. The sound from the radio returned to static as he continued to drive.
Slowly, but with growing intensity, the hair on the back of his neck felt as if it were catching fire and becoming prickly in a way he had not felt since his youth. He started to shake uncontrollably and pulled off the highway. He knew that he was parked dangerously, but couldn’t move. He allowed the knowledge to seep in slowly that when the radio started playing the anthem, he had been asleep. How long and how far he had traveled he did not know, but he was absolutely certain he was sleeping.
A passing car blew his horn reminding him to get back on the road and continue his trip. But there was something else. He could not bring himself to look at the passenger side of his car. He drove resolutely now, almost in a trance and as he drove recognition and awareness came to him. It was early morning when he arrived in Sacramento. He parked in the huge parking lot in front of the train station. He used the restroom, bought a cup of coffee and wondered if he could still make Oakland before Carol left for work as a swing shift nurse at Highland hospital. When he came back to the car, he spent some time looking in the passenger side window. Afterward, he sat behind the wheel of his car not moving for several hours, processing what had come to him as he drove down the mountain.
During the drive down, he remembered how he felt that night in L.A. almost ten years ago. He remembered also that he had felt it the first night he had been a young runaway from home, camping out in an open field near downtown Norfolk, Virginia.
As a youngster he had simply accepted it unquestioningly, grateful for its presence. He knew the self-absorbing way he had lived in L.A. prevented him from recognizing it. He also knew without question that his life had once again just been saved by it. The peace that came with the recognition would last for several years before fading again. But he would never doubt that every time he had awoken on that terrible night in L.A., when he was camped out near danger as a kid, and beside him in the mountains on the drive, there had been a presence. He had not been alone.
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