“Would you like some pizza, ma’am?”
“What kind is it?” the homeless woman shot back.
Slightly bewildered, I explained there were some plain cheese slices and some sausage.
She looked up, her face beamed and said “I love pizza”
“Here, eat it while it’s warm” I proffered.
I don’t believe she was being picky – the pile of her belongings neatly arranged next to her spoke of no other home but that patch under a spindly tree – I think she was just looking for human contact, her way to say that she still knew good pizza from bad, that a box just wordlessly handed over wouldn’t do.
My beautiful, sunny and limitless city is a mecca for the homeless, a destination where spending the winter outdoors is less painful than, say, Chicago, and the welcoming policy of cities like Santa Monica that would never turn away the homeless is known the country over. The result is a multitude of people huddling in office doorways at night, and in all those corners where a bit of privacy can be found. It’s not just Skid Row that harbors the homeless, the lost veterans or the mentally ill – if you look closely, they are to be found everywhere.
I try hard not to judge. Not the pony-tailed able-bodied blond man on PCH whose sign informs us he is looking for money to buy weed; not the whippet thin woman with the dour face on the corner of San Vicente and Wilshire who never cracks a smile; not the young girl whose mother is probably worried sick. There is a small army of them that I encounter on my daily rounds, with my favourite the African-American man at the Crenshaw exit of the 10 Freeway, nestled to his giant rocking horse, not a coherent thought in his head but a smile always at the ready.
A few years ago, those living in my neighborhood noticed that someone had used a remote and inaccessible corner of our canyon as a dumping ground for discarded tires. Over the course of a few weeks, these same tires started appearing on the side of the road, neatly stacked – upon further and discreet investigation, we realized the homeless vet who has been hiding in the canyon for years was methodically climbing down the ravine to retrieve the tires, one at a time, an impossible job no city worker would have ever performed (although they were happy to haul the bounty back once we alerted them). We wanted to do something as a way of thanks for this man many of us encountered on the way to work: he, walking up the canyon; we, driving to work. What we didn’t know was that he was going to work too.
Approaching him wasn’t easy as he was afraid we would discover the exact location of his encampment and report him to the authorities but, finally, someone was able to convey our wish to thank him. What could we do for him? “A new camping mattress would be nice.” And so a camping mattress was left somewhere in the vicinity of where we thought he might live. We didn’t expect a grand gesture of thanks and none was forthcoming, but we all hoped we made him feel valued.
I have learnt to hold my judgment every time I see a beggar because I have no way of knowing what circumstances brought him there or whether she chose that life and why. It shouldn’t matter. I stop, I give some money, and maybe that money goes towards liquor or cigarettes or weed. Whatever the reasons, I know that is not the life anyone could have envisaged when the future still looked bright and full of possibilities.
Above all, I look at them, I make a point of engaging in small talk: the weather, the traffic, my car. There was a time when I would drop off food on my way home from a restaurant to assuage my guilt and the unfairness of it all, my good fortune against their rotten luck, their mental illness or their wrong turns. Not anymore. I am aware that my small gestures are less than a drop in a gigantic leaking bucket and that unfairness is tightly woven into our existence and impossible to eradicate.
“You have a beautiful smile” the man at the LaBrea exit told me with a toothless grin. It was the best compliment I got all day. I hope my smile made him feel less alone for a fraction of a second. I know he made me feel less alone for longer than that.
Wherever you are, we wish you a wonderful Holiday Season. Campari and Sofa will be taking a brief break and will back on January 1.
Thank you for reading and being part of our world. We never take it for granted.