He Lives on the Streets
“Where do you sleep?”
“You know that overpass here?” He gestures behind him generally, his biceps twisting under his skin. He stands close to the door of my truck in his wife-beater, like a customer at a walk-up window. It’s one of the rare unsolicited conversations I’m interested in entertaining. I look to where he’s gesturing, as if I can see anything beyond the massive storage building.
“Under the 405?”
“That’s the one.”
Though not his belongings, this collection of stuff sits just out of reach of an area where he might be happy to bed down for the night.
His name is A.J. and he straddles the thin line between home-free and homeless, between a selective lifestyle and one that is forced upon him. He looks like the usual 30-year-old, his fresh buzzcut and brand new Trek bicycle, and that’s the way he likes it. But when he beds down for the night, A.J. does so under the shadow of a highway underpass.
Our conversation tonight started when A.J. rode up to my truck to greet me out of nowhere. As far as I knew, I had never seen him before. But he greeted me with the familiarity of an old friend, asking how I was doing and noting that he had seen me here before. A.J. is a bit of a spokesperson for the home-free movement in the area, taking on the role of local governor for a crowd who mostly prefers to keep to itself. I can relate.
As a young adult living on the street, A.J. has a unique perspective on life’s priorities. He appears to have the skills of a real estate salesman or budding journalist, outgoing and personable. But he doesn’t exercise these traits in a way traditionally expected of him. Yet still A.J. isn’t exactly a modern beatnik, either. He values his appearance, dedicating a good percentage of his monthly budget to storing clean clothes in the latest styles and maintaining a regular schedule of weightlifting supplements. He doesn’t bounce from place to place too often. He keeps a fairly strict routine. He’s a hustler, making ends meet where he can, accepting labor gigs and tutoring schoolkids in arithmetic.
“I taught myself math to make that happen,” he says. His smile reveals his clean but slightly crooked teeth.
A.J. has been homeless since he was 13. He moved out of a broken home to live with his then-girlfriend at a time in his adolescence when, to me, a relationship would have meant three weeks of nightly phone conversations and a note-passing style breakup. Since his teenage years, A.J. has floated from city to city, settling in to each one more every time, trying out Houston and then Denver before settling on Los Angeles. He lives simply, his laptop in his backpack and a sleeping bag sheltering him from the weather. Not that he needs much of that here in sunny Southern California. Or anywhere, for that matter.
“I like to think of it as a test of psychological will,” A.J. says of his urban, open air sleeping arrangement. He shifts his weight as he talks, the subconscious itch of a man working hard to stay in one spot for once. “In Denver I’d wait to see how cold it could get before I gave in. One winter I got down to 17 degrees before I had to call the pastor.”
For now, A.J. is content with his lifestyle. Occasionally he will take an apartment or a car to sleep in, but that never lasts too long. Any urge to live normally is no contest when pitted against his verve for living off the cuff. A.J. talks about life as a series of past experiences rather than a plan for the future. For someone that never been given much of a taste for the American dream, that’s no surprise. In a way, A.J. has done admirably to overcome his circumstances. He has no criminal history, his brushes with law enforcement being rarely more than an officer’s nudge asking him to move. A.J. doesn’t abuse substances, either.
“A lot of guys get involved in drugs,” he says. “I’ve avoided all that. My drug is women.”
During at least half of our twenty minute conversation, the subject is women. A.J. lights up when he discusses his past exploits, his blue eyes searching the sky as he recounts his three month affair with a bi-sexual ex-stripper as if he’s looking for someone to thank up there. He refers to us “good-looking guys” as he talks, referring to it matter-of-factly as an asset to be utilized for survival purposes. While survival for A.J. seems to include the attention of his female lovers-in-waiting, he isn’t shy about talking about exploiting women he normally wouldn’t be attracted to for their money. He goes so far as to encourage me to find myself a “sugar momma”. As far as he sees it, it’s as easy as going to the bar, popping a Viagra, and showing the ladies a good time.
And the good times don’t seem to be ending any time soon for A.J.
“It’s great,” he’ll tell you. “But the 18-year-olds aren’t saying yes anymore. It’s got to come to an end at some point. I’m not going to kill myself or anything, but something has got to change at some point.”
As we part ways for the evening, I can’t help but laugh at how vanilla, how easy my lifestyle feels in comparison to A.J.’s. I’d happily sleep in until 9am the next morning, not having lost a wink before starting my day, lingering a bit in the privacy of my home as I answered emails or fixing my morning oatmeal. For A.J., the routine was much more of a challenge. Yet he harbored not a care in the world. He made me wondered if, even in my relative minimalist lifestlye, I wasn't living too extravagantly.
Later that night, I was driving by the underpass where A.J. had mentioned he sleeps. I slowed down, peering through the concrete pylons and beyond a chain-link fence blocking the dirt embankment. I couldn’t see anything. So I turned around, curious to have another look. This time, peeking out from behind one of the pylons was a brown tarp, on top of which was a slumbering body in a sleeping bag. There he is, I chuckled to myself.
Exactly where he wants to be.