“I wouldn’t go down there.”
She was warning me, not threatening me. Warning me as a friend might.
“You think it’s dangerous?” I asked her.
“They’ll think you’re a John. You might have cash on you.”
“Is there a lot of that around here?”
“Some. How else are some of them to get by?”
“And what about you?”
“I have a degree,” she said, offended. “Me and my man do OK here.”
Here was the sidewalk along North Magnolia Avenue in El Cajon. There were two tents set up on the sidewalk. In and around the tents was enough assorted junk to fill two pickup trucks. She saw me looking at everything.
“Our car broke down, so we got stuck. We have a storage unit, too.” As an afterthought, like she was reminding herself, she added, “Rent’s due next Monday. We owe forty.”
“Will you have enough to pay it?”
“I don’t know. We have to turn in what we got here. Might be enough.”
“You mean the recycling center down the street.”
“Yeah. Soon as we get a car we can turn this stuff in.”
“Why a car?”
“They won’t let us walk in anymore. Have to drive in.”
“You’re kidding me?”
“No. They don’t want us. We have to carpool our shit in.”
I shook my head, thinking: Why would anyone make it more difficult for the homeless to do the one thing they can do to help themselves? I also thought shit was the first profanity I’d heard her use. I believed her when she said she was educated.
I looked at her again. She was young, pretty, well-spoken.
“So how did this come to be?” I asked her, indicating the tents, calling her by her name.
“I chose it. I couldn’t take the abuse anymore. I was with someone. He hit me all the time. I had no money to leave. But I did anyway.”
“Not out here.”
“The guy you’re with now, he’s OK?”
“He doesn’t hurt me, if that’s what you mean.” She paused. “You remember the feed the homeless fight at Wells Park? The one the mayor tried to shut down?”
“My man led that fight.” There was pride in her voice. It was good to hear.
I noticed, poking out from under a small silver tarp, the rear wheel of what looked like one of those electric scooters companies are dispersing around cities, along with those electric bicycles. The homeless were stealing them left and right. She saw me looking and adjusted the tarp so the wheel didn’t show. I asked anyway.
“It’s not for transportation,” she answered. “It’s for the batteries. You can use the batteries to charge your cell phone. Starbucks won’t let us use their outlets anymore.”
That brought a laugh to both of us.
“Well,” I said, “I think maybe I’ll head down through the canal. Just to see.”
She nodded. “They’ll know you. I mean, they saw you talking to me.”
While we were talking several other homeless had passed us. One had gone through the cut chain-link fence where I was heading.
“Take care,” I said, feeling stupid as I said it.
“We will,” she answered, and went back to arranging the junk and debris piled around the two tents.
I crossed the street and walked to where the street crossed over the large, open, cement drainage channel. Access to the channel was fenced off, but the chain-link fence had been neatly cut and rolled back to provide access under Highway 67. I passed through, and climbed down a steep embankment that led to a short drop. A shopping cart lay on its side in the channel bed, up against the short drop, to help provide a step down.
Standing in the channel bed I suddenly felt very isolated. I walked under Highway 67, the cars and trucks above me making the channel reverberate with endless deep-bass whooomps! There was water in parts of the channel, trash, diapers, plastic bottles, a few sections of galvanized fence pipe. I exited the other side, seeing no one, and continued along, this time under another road, a surface street. I had to crouch low this time to get through.
On the other side I found myself walking again along the open channel where, on each raised bank, apartments lined up one after another. Ahead was another tunnel. Unlike the first two, I could not see the other side, which meant the channel curved as it ran under the road. As I approached a woman exited from the tunnel darkness, walking a small dog. She stopped and looked at me warily.
“Hello,” I said. I stopped well short.
“Hi,” she answered. She was fidgeting around with a handbag.
“Are you part of the group living here?” I asked her.
“Sort of,” she said. “Sometimes.” She was busy with her handbag.
Babs was perhaps thirty, not fat, not slender, wearing shorts and flip flops, and a running bra two sizes too small from which her large breasts overflowed. She would not look me in the eyes.
“You have friends here?” I indicated the tunnel opening that had at its entrance all the signs of a large encampment deeper within.
Babs said something too low to catch, still occupied with her handbag. She pulled out a small stuffed animal, then a plastic prescription bottle. She snapped the lid off then immediately put it back on, as though merely reassuring herself of its contents. The stuffed animal went back in. A steel pair of handcuffs came out next, then a black cannister that I guessed to be pepper spray. The dog strained at its leash, pulling her off balance. She jerked the dog towards her and walked back into the tunnel.
I stood outside, only able to see in a few feet. There were bicycles, most of them dismantled; coolers, filthy blankets laying about, some wet where they lay in the water, trash and debris everywhere. It all smelled musty, dank, old and disused.
“Something you want?”
The question came from inside, from someone unseen. I judged from the voice alone it was an honest question, not a veiled threat. I introduced myself.
A young man, perhaps on the short side of thirty, came out from the tunnel. He looked intelligent, calm. We shook hands.
“Yeah, didn’t think you were a cop,” he said.
He said he was part of the group living down here. I asked if I could enter.
“Do you have trouble down here?” I asked.
“Not much,” he said. He started walking, back to where I had come. Walking me out.
“This is kind of a no man’s land here,” he explained. “The county and state, neither takes responsibility.”
“What about the city of El Cajon?”
“Bill Wells is an ass,” he said. He was talking about the mayor.
“I don’t know him,” I said. “I knew Mark Lewis, the guy before him.”
“Yeah,” the young man said. “The Chaldeans got him out.” He laughed.
He was talking about Mark Lewis’s comment about Chaldeans taking advantage of the free school lunch program. First time they come over here, it doesn’t take them too long to learn where all the freebies are at. Lewis was forced to resign.
“So, you’re not a fan of Wells?”
“This whole city is filling up with the homeless. It’s packed, anywhere you go. Anyone you see with a backpack or cart, all homeless. He thinks it’s our fault.”
We kept walking. He seemed to want to talk.
“You can’t get an apartment. They want three times the monthly rent now. You have to be making three times the monthly rent! Rent’s fifteen-hundred, even here. Forty-five hundred a month; whose making fifty grand a year? And even if you are there’s the credit check.”
We were back were I had entered the channel.
“When I got out of Donovan…” He paused. I didn’t ask what he had been in for. “When I got out I thought being an ex-con would be the problem. It wasn’t. I can get work, I work most weeks. But not enough.”
I noticed his arms, general skin. Clean, no signs of drug use.
“So what now?” I asked him.
“Keep on the best I can. Look.” He pointed to a paper sign taped to the bridge support. The sign warned that channel cleaning was scheduled and that personal belongings needed to be removed or risk forfeiture.
“That’s the county. That’s why we stay back down there,” he said, meaning where I had first seen him. “State doesn’t get down here as much.”
There was another figure approaching us, a young man, aggressive, shirtless, tattooed all over. He walked at me, meaning I had to step aside to let him pass. I was suddenly glad I was with the young man I was talking with.
“Trouble?” I asked him.
“Sometimes. He’s from Donovan, too. He’s not making it.”
The aggressive man had picked up one of the fence poles laying in the channel and began using it to beat against a concrete bridge support. Each skull-shattering blow echoed loudly in the tunnel, mixing with the endless whoomps of the overhead traffic.
It was time to go. I said goodbye to the young man.
“Yeah,” he said. “Maybe I’ll see you again.” He seemed embarrassed somehow, as though the actions of the violent man reflected on the rest of them, diminishing their basic right to exist, their very worthiness as human beings.
Walking back to the auto shop to pick up my car, whose repair had taken a few hours and caused me to wander through the city I’d grown up in, merely killing time, I thought that the concrete drainage channel was the new amphitheater, a spectacle showcasing human misery and despair, an exhibition of prostitution, drug use, violence, and hopelessness; an insane asylum flushed regularly by storms or county decree, while in the wind, if you listen for it, you can hear Donne’s bell tolling.
Notes: The story above is just a short sketch describing my visit down to the El Cajon drainage channels. It is all true, although I changed a few things around to protect people who are very vulnerable. I do not recommend doing what I did, unless you have experience working with the homeless. I spent a year at St. Vincent De Paul tutoring homeless to earn their GED’s, and I have spent much time exploring homeless encampments in other parts of San Diego. One simple thing you can do, however, for the homeless is to simply say hello when you see them. It is a kindness that is greatly appreciated and goes a long way in alleviating that most basic of human horror: loneliness. But again, disease and violence is also part of the homeless equation, so be careful. One of my fictional characters in the novel, “A Line Intersected”, says of the homeless: “…a burden to none but perhaps collective society in general, a society someday surely great enough to ease the misery of the less fortunate amongst it.” I hope that happens.
-David Grant Urban