I have a Tuesday Tuneup planned but am foregoing it – and all other things — until this piece of social activism has been submitted. This may be a trigger for some people.
Something happened yesterday by surprise that was so emotionally wrenching, I burst into tears in the midst of all else that is going on at this time.
A few days ago I heard from Alastair (the Street Spirit editor) that they’d received a letter at the Spirit Office that was for me. They said a man had walked the letter into the office, unaddressed, and asked if they could please get it to Andy Pope.
Me being me, I naturally was fairly convinced that it was from some street hustler whom I’d offended, possibly with a threat against my life, or else contained some horrible blackmail attempt such as a photograph of the time I practically defecated in public I couldn’t hold it any longer. In fact, one of any number of high-profile formerly private activities could have been filmed or photographed — the privileges that one sacrifices when one gives up all privacy by living on the streets.
Instead, it was a handwritten letter from a dear friend named Mike. Mike and I had been homeless together for years down there, and we had a mutual friend whom I shall call “Maria.” Mike said that he had been reading my columns for “a few years” and that he especially appreciated the one I wrote about Maria.
Of course, I had been hesitant to write about a real person, and I changed her name to “Maria” when I wrote the story. I wrote nothing bad about her, but still feared it would embarrass her if it got back to her, or anger some of her friends. Still, I was moved to write a column called She Called Me Dad because this young Hispanic woman with a severe mental health condition — possibly Dissociative Identity Disorder — sat across from me where I had my spot where I flew my sign, and pretended I was her Dad so as to protect her.
As a severely disabled young woman alone on the streets, she was very vulnerable. Tweakers took advantage of her all the time, and Berkeley cops could have cared less, because people with conspicuous mental health disorders were generally lumped into the same bag as the other “losers and dirt bags” who appeared to populate the streets.
So Mike sent me two pictures of her — I wish I could scan them and show them to you — but of course I can’t do so without her consent. And like as not, I will never see her again, let alone do I know how to reach her.
In one picture she is seen holding one of two newborns in her arms, obviously caring for her baby as any mother would. In the other, she is seen at the Spot we shared, though of course without me.
He related that she had again been raped (I have no idea how many times she had been raped previously), went through with the pregnancy, and gave birth to twins. The twins of course were immediately taken from her by Child Protective Services.
I stared at the words and the pictures, and tears flooded my face. I’m not a crier, you know. That is, I don’t cry readily or easily. But it was too much for my heart not to be softened and touched.
Mike also shared that “Peaches” had died — which I had already learned from Kathy Kitzman, who was the Admin of Homeless Lives Matter at the time — and that my friend “Lillian” who had had three strokes and suffered from psychomotor impairment had come back for a while and then disappeared again. His reports brought back a panorama of a Berkeley that I’d forgotten about.
I usually think of Berkeley as this horrible place in time where a number of us did our best to look after each other while being routinely treated like shit by practically anybody who lived inside, and by at least half of the people who lived outside. I usually think of Berkeley as this horrible world. What I forget is how much LOVE there was among the decent people who had wound up homeless.
In a way, I’ve lost a lot of that love because life hasn’t been hard – I even get bored these days — which for me is inexcusable. Did I ever get bored on the streets? I remember how when we were homeless, if someone managed to score a hotel room for a week, it was a joke to say: “Wow – you might even get bored!”
Homelessness in Berkeley was a lot of hard things and a lot of good things, a lot of pain and fear and anger, and a lot of fun too. But it was never boring.
“What right have I?” I asked myself when I saw the two pictures of Maria and the vulnerable look in her eyes, “to be bored?”
I have a calling, I have a purpose. I better get on the ball.
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