My First Year – Santa Cruz

At first being on the street was like camping. I thought I was going to be so clever.
What I had to live with, was camping gear. I had bought a sleeping bag. And the first night I didn’t know where to go. So I found a building with a bush, and slept between the building and the bush. I learned about sprinklers for the first time. Not the last.

It was a bank. Not far from the main shopping street in Santa Cruz. You can call it downtown. But calling anything in Santa Cruz downtown is odd to me. It is also called a The Pacific Garden Mall. Before “the earthquake” it had been different.

I only spent one night at the bank. And I am not sure where I stayed afterwards. An early spot I camped was a church. I figured churches should be safe places. There was no trouble from the law. But I did have my wallet stolen.

It was upsetting to me. It was still early enough in my adventure. It felt like camping. It felt like an adventure. Losing my wallet somehow closed a door. And made the path I was walking down feel more real. It made me feel alone. And vulnerable.

I stopped camping at the church. And I met other homeless people. On the street a lot of societal lines of separation fade. I recall a woman, of indigenous decent became a friend. She showed me a house to sleep in outside of town. But I never felt comfortable. One night I recall having dreams of being found.

Another of my early squats was an old restaurant. In Santa Cruz at least a squat was any place you slept. The first night we slept inside the building. A male friend had shown me you could enter through a window on the second floor. It was a big building.

What I remember most about this boy was his insight and humor. “Don’t sweat the petty things, pet the sweaty things,” he would say. And once, “we hate all the cops, because we think the cops hate all of us.” It put the clear otherization used by both sides out in the open. I don’t recall his name, we can call him Alpha.

The restaurant itself was two or three floors. On the first night we stayed inside. But I never did again, though I slept there later. The inside was a mess. The kind of mess almost scary to explore for danger of needles or shit. It was called the Cantina.

The roof was a high, with a steep slope. At the top was a strange flat spot. This is where I camped the most. It felt like no one would look so high. And maybe wouldn’t see me. But I got a ticket on the roof there once. Not on the top, but hidden in a great spot. It was between a flat section of roof, and a slope from the roof for higher floors.

I think it was the second ticket I had gotten while on the street. I lied to the police about my name. The reason I got caught, was another person had camped in the open on the flat section of roof. While processing the other person, I was spotted under the eave. I know this was still early because I still had my sleeping bag.

At some point, and I don’t recall when, I started just using blankets.

Also I started to be able to find my own places to sleep. Finding a place to sleep was a skill. What you needed was a place no one else had found. A place comfortable, quiet, soft, flat. And a place where police wouldn’t find you or ticket you.

There was another squat not far from the Cantina. A dilapidated old building. The roof had fallen. It was a favorite for drinkers. Later when I got upset I went and broke a bunch of bottles here. Until a friend talked to me to calm me down. The only time I remember staying here was when I got sick. And it was raining.

I took someone else there as a favor. Noting the factors above in locating a good squat, you didn’t share. People would bring more people. Which would either fill it up, make it noisy or bust it by being too obvious. Sometimes I think police know where you are, but don’t ticket unless they have reason.

A funny story about the old building involved Alpha. He had gone there with some other people. There were some mattresses. Well, police had come in the morning and was talking to Alpha. “Look at this filth,” they said. They pointed out a used condom as an example. He replied the condom was his, from a couple nights before.

There is a line of bluffs running through Santa Cruz. A few of the places I camped were along this bluff. My street sister used one for a while, but when I attempted a man told us to leave. I was with some girls I was watching for a short period. Their story comes later. “I throw my dog poor there,” the man said through the fence. It hardly seemed to matter.

But I did find a new place, also along the bluff. It was across the street and worked for a while. During this time I started going back and forth to San Francisco. You had a fair chance of keeping a spot, if there every night. But leave town for a while, and all bets were off.

The third place along the bluffs was near a office complex. A small wall stood between a parking lot and the slope. Enough flat ground remained on which to sleep. In the brief time I spent with Crystal we camped at this location. But in the end, we the business complex complained of urine smell. They posted a sign, and I started sleeping somewhere else.

At the bottom of the hill was a spot. The spot was flat and discrete, but concrete. One of my first nights in Santa Cruz with M was here.

One of the coolest places I camped was under a bridge. It was a small bridge over the Branciforte Creek. Getting into it wasn’t easy, but inside was warm and dry. Almost like a little apartment. A friend of mine shared this treasure with me. To get in you climbed over a three foot fence. But there was no ledge on the other side. So you hung on, slid over and ducked under the bridge support. Once under the bridge you climbed back over the fence.

Under the bridge was dry, and warmer than outside. I couldn’t stand up. But I could walk hunched over. One of the most important things about a squat like this, is not having to carry your things with you. The person who showed me the squat said someone had lived there before him. But they had a fire. A fire so hot it closed the road, and may have damaged the bridge. He was able to clean up a space for himself though. He had candles, furniture and even some carpet.

One of the oddest places I slept was close to the mall. Closer than the bank from my first night. An empty lot overgrown with weeds. There was a small mound of dirt. At first we slept only on the far side of the mound. But later we slept on the near side as well. The police had to have known.

I camped here with Killer, and Swilly Daniel. Maybe I should write about people in a different post. Because I feel like many of the people I met at being left out of the story. This was my favorite spot. But a small fire started by drinkers during the day ended this spot. Someone leveled it with a tractor.

All of these locations were in my first year on the street. During the first winter I met Amy. And I lived with Amy for a month. After which I met M. Then my life changed.

This is the year I felt the most on the street. I spent the most time going back and forth to San Francisco. The most time not having a settled place to sleep. And the most time not having close friends. In the second year things changed in a number of ways.

During this first year I would sometimes leave my shoes and walk around barefoot. In Santa Cruz there was a corner at which the homeless gathered. Some called it the cage. A chain-link fence separated the sidewalk from a parking lot. When I first started walking around barefoot, it was just close to The Cage. But then I went further and further. No one ever took my shoes.

The Cage was where a local street-corner preacher told me I was going to hell. Because I was “effeminate.” I didn’t feel it was an insult, I only recall feeling how it was absurd. I later told a friend of mine about the encounter, which led to some good jokes actually. His story will also come later. In the end the preacher told me he had misunderstood. It wasn’t being effeminate, but being gay which sent people to hell. He apologized, I accepted. But I never cared either way about his opinion.

The loudest place I ever camped was also close to downtown. There was a clock tower downtown. And across the street a building with a fairly flat roof. A friend had talked about camping on the roof. It was easy to get on because it was set into the hillside. But it was so close to the clock tower, you shook every time the clock chimed. And it did so every hour. In the morning the owner asked us to leave. Said the city was cracking down on him, but I wouldn’t have ever wanted to sleep there again. Also it wasn’t completely flat.

The problem of flatness will feature clearly in a later story.

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