Thursday, December 26, 2013

A Man Called Emily

There are approximately 58,000 homeless people in Los Angeles.  That’s unbelievable, but it’s true.  It’s pretty normal to drive down the street and see various tents set up on sidewalks or to see more than one person at any given on/off ramp to the highway jiggling a cup or holding a handmade sign.  After being exposed to it for so long, you unknowingly start to glaze past the problem as you go about your day.  It’s an unfortunate reality of living in a big city, but that’s how it is.  We learn to ignore the various trash that litters the curbs of just about every street and we also learn to look past the heartbreaking reality of homelessness as it stares us directly in the face.  That is, of course, until a homeless person knocks on your window at a red light or, as happened at work this weekend, screams profanities directly into your face.

As I worked in Atlanta, I grew a couple personal relationships with homeless people.  There was Hawk, who washed my car (sometimes three times a week), and a man that calls himself “Shocker 5,000” whom I shared a few drinks with as he called his brother from my phone and vowed to watch over my car as it sat in the parking lot.  There were many others whom I knew on a less intense level, like a man called “Pussyeater” that has an abnormally long tongue and a tattoo on his arm of the Rolling Stones logo.  There was also the guy from Chicago that thought my name was John and once sold me some weed even though I never asked for it and didn’t agree to buy it (“Here, just take it take it take it,” he said as he reached through my window and dropped it into my lap). 

Through these guys, I learned that although there is a large amount of homeless in Atlanta with mental problems (namely, veterans that don’t receive the care they need and deserve) there is also a large amount of homeless that fall into the stereotypical habits of drug use and crime.  The guy from Chicago once told me that he spent a night “helping white people find their hotels” during some sort of convention downtown.  They were all grateful and tipped him sometimes as much as twenty dollars.  He said he thought he was going to die because he never smoked so much crack in one night as he did then.  He would get his tip, walk down to Pine Street (which was adjacent to my apartment complex at the time), get his crack, smoke it, then head back downtown.  Repeat.  Repeat.  Repeat, until he made himself stop because he feared his heart would explode.

I also learned that most of the people asking for money at stoplights are just drug addicts.  Hawk once told me that there are enough programs through churches and other public service groups for a person to eat three good meals every day and find shelter.  The people at the stoplights weren’t getting money for food, no matter what they told you.  This was evidenced by the few instances where I would try to give a guy a sandwich at a red light and he would shake his head and ask for change.

This is where I came up with the distinction between a homeless person and a bum.  A bum is a piece of shit and a homeless person is somebody that simply needs a little help.  It’s difficult to tell the difference.  How can you tell if someone is out of their mind on drugs or simply out of their mind?  It’s an art.  And even with a lot of practice, never an exact science.  This is why I usually err on the side of giving the person the benefit of the doubt and giving them something whenever I can spare it. 

Last week, I offered an apple to a guy sleeping in the parking lot behind my work.

“Hey man, want an apple?”

“Sure,” he said.  “Wait.  No.  Never mind.  I can’t eat it.”  He smiled.  “I don’t have any teeth.  I forgot.  Thanks anyways!”

Not all of the homeless people that hang around my work are as light-hearted as this guy.  There aren’t too many homeless people in that neighborhood, but the ones that are there are well-known by the locals.  There’s the skinny woman that wears really short shorts who will squat on the curb during heavy traffic and piss/shit without a care in the world.  There’s the woman that sleeps on the sidewalk by the 7Eleven that can sometimes be sweet and kind, and other times scream vulgarities at the top of her lungs while smashing bottles in the street.  There’s the tall, black guy that slowly wanders around without acknowledging anybody around him as if unaware of the fact that he is in public, and not all alone in a room with the windows closed.  There’s the woman that does her makeup every day and will sometimes treat herself to a nice dinner on Vermont.  And there’s also the guy that brought me to write this whole thing in the first place.  He wears a dress and calls himself Emily.

All of the locals mentioned up until now fall into my “homeless” category.  They obviously have some mental issues and are, I believe, not responsible for their borderline actions.  I don’t think they are dangerous, but you can’t really put anything past somebody that is occasionally out of touch with reality.  Emily finds himself within my “bum” category, but even his case is unclear.  I believe he has mental issues, but he is also a flagrant drug user.  I heard one story where he walked up to a child (around five years old), held out his hand and said, “Hey kid, ever seen a speed pipe before?”  I’ve seen him get kicked out of our café once before and was told to remove him as soon as he steps in the door if he ever comes back.

This past Sunday, it was a slow morning and Stevie Wonder was playing through the speakers.  I had just finished speaking with a customer about the concert we had both attended the previous night and was slowly counting down the time until I could clock out.  Then I heard a commotion and looked towards the front door where a customer abruptly stood up, grabbed his chair by the legs, and held it behind him like a baseball bat.  Another man came through the front door and they started yelling at each other.  For the first five seconds, I thought they were friends just messing around since something so animated has never happened at my job since I started it about six months ago.  I quickly realized this was, in fact, not a couple of guys joking around but the beginnings of an ugly fight.  I ran to the front, pulling out my keys, as I shouted to my coworker, “Call the police!”

I got to the front and pushed past the customer with the chair.  On the other side of the glass door was Emily, screaming his head off about the customer’s child with a trickle of blood coming out of his mouth.  “You don’t deserve that baby!”  He was trying to push his way through the door, but the customer was holding it closed and shouting back at Emily.  I tried to lock the door but I didn’t know which key I needed since I had only locked it once before.  When I finally figured it out, I felt like I was in the scene in Jurassic Park where they are trying to hold the door closed long enough to lock it and keep out the velociraptors.  The door shook back and forth too much to get the bolt to connect with the wall.  Eventually, I was able to get the door locked and the customer and I stood back while Emily screamed, “I’m going to fucking kill you!” with his face pressed against the door.  I stepped to the side and locked the door to the patio in case he hopped the fence and continued trying to get it.  I turned around and the customer was on the phone with the police.  Emily left, but not quietly.

“I want this man arrested,” he said.  “I’ve had problems with him before and I know he’s dangerous.” 

That’s when we noticed the pair of scissors on the concrete just outside of the door.  He had rushed at the café, ostensibly towards this man’s child (who sat in a stroller) armed with scissors.  I grabbed some napkins, opened the door, and grabbed the scissors.  I looked down the street and saw Emily yelling at people sitting outside of a restaurant at the end of the block.

It wasn’t long until the police showed up and spoke with the customer.  Apparently, Emily had threatened his child before so when they saw each other through the front door of the café, they both jumped into action.  The verbal threats plus the scissors on the ground added up to what the officer called, “ADW” (assault with a deadly weapon).  “I know where he hangs out,” he told us.  “We’ll be going to pick him up right now.”  Then he turned to me.  “If he ever comes in here again, don’t even try to throw him out.  Just call us right away.”

And that’s the worst part of the whole thing.  Sure, he’ll be gone for a little bit, but most likely, he’ll be exactly the same when he gets out.  He’ll probably not get the psychological help that he needs and he’ll be right back to screaming at children and doing drugs as soon as he hits the streets.  I don’t have any suggestions as to how to do it any better, so I guess I’ll just say I’m thankful that he won’t be in public for a little while.  He could probably use some medication, some counseling, and some rehab, but the city won’t waste it’s time with that unless the person actually seems like they could be helped.  I spoke with some customers that have had a few run-ins with Emily, and they told me the reaction he received from us in the café that day is exactly what he wants.  He was smiling the whole time.  Apparently, he enjoys being someone that people are afraid of.  He likes being “the bad guy.”  How are you supposed to rehabilitate someone like that?  How are you supposed to act when you see him coming down the street?  I know I’ll be keeping a close eye on him if I see him stumbling towards me, tripping over his own feet and looking for a baby to punch.   

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