Honey, I'm Home(less)!

Online guides such as The Zagat Guide or Trip Advisor are often useful to diners but detrimental to restaurateurs. One bad review can close you down before they close their browser. Cyber-sent diners flee from your eatery before they even taste for themselves whether or not your “ambiance is as bland as the soup” or “Their Chicken Piccata made me want to yank my tongue out”.  Some people are just mean – like the guy in California who ran around suing and subsequently closing restaurants if their handicapped facilities weren’t up to his non-handicapped satisfaction. 

I do read reviews; but take them with a grain of salt (if the salt is needed). I often suggest to the waiter, chef or manager ways to improve their food, service or d├ęcor. I love how they nod, smile and thank me. I also know that as soon as the screen door hits me where the good lord split me, they look at my credit card receipt and curse the name on it and then go right back to using cream cheese in their tart even though we all just agreed that goat cheese would be better.

The Zagat Guide once included in their review of swanky eatery The Ivy at The Shore in Santa Monica that it had a nice view of the homeless. Decency herself personally marched into their office and waved her lily white arm That errant phrase vanished. Zagat was right. Many Hollywood hangers-on had difficulty swallowing their $48 hangers steaks while bums blatantly looking all pitiful and hungry hung about outside the window. Mediocre starlets actually got acting jobs based on their ability to act like they didn’t notice the destitute throngs blocking their view of the Santa Monica Pier. We all saw them; we just didn’t care. We cared, deep down, but just not right then.

Back in the old days if someone lost their home, someone else in the community took them in. Sure their reputation was forever tarnished and they'd be spoken of in hushed tones; but they’d be provided for. Then the depression hit and there were just too many of them. Entire shanty towns popped up like zits on a teenager and legions of train-hopping hobos rode the rails without tickets or steamer trunks. By the 1970's when the bloody Viet Nam war was broadcast into our shag-carpeted living rooms during dinner, we were desensitized.  Toughen up and cut that steak, America, Walter Cronkite said.

"Keep eating, dear; it's not us," our mothers assured.

The first homeless I encountered were on my block in NYC. I learned that New York governor (in a brilliant budget-cutting move) released mental patients onto the NYC streets. Being homeless in NYC made no sense to me –- it was so cold. LA seemed a better choice. I figured that these street people were drunk or lost and would eventually just go back home. But for the insane ones -- how could a crazy person find time to get first, last and a security deposit together when they were so busy arguing with the voices in their head?

I came to know this one homeless guy on my NYC street. Not by name or through conversation, just observation. He was a middle-aged tall, black guy that wore cutoff jeans so short that his huge penis permanently poked out of the frayed leg. I figured maybe he would get extra donations off people getting a peek at his dangly goodies. Sex sells.

I used the curb outside my apartment as a Goodwill to drop off clothes I didn't need or remember buying.  Later I'd see my John Holmes buddy roaming our block wearing my sweaters. And he rocked them. He breathed life into the boring Ralph Lauren white tennis sweater I'd once worn on a family photo shoot. It looked so much sexier with his bare midriff.

Everyday he asked me for a cigarette and I gave him one like I was granting him a wish. Once, just for fun I said "no. He immediately asked for my autograph -- clearly what he was after all this time. I granted that request, lowered my head and sped up, like I'd seen Mary Tyler Moore do on Columbus Avenue when she'd obviously strayed too far from her building.

When I moved to Santa Monica, I saw the same, very old homeless woman for fifteen years. She was tiny and had grey Phyllis Diller fright wig hair. She managed to maneuver a marvelous string of a dozen small wheeled carts as if she were handling polo ponies. Instead of leather reins, she tied the carts together with plastic bags. I watched pause to refresh the slash of bright orange lipstick that lit up her otherwise grey face. I always figured she'd be picked up one day and provided a home; but she disappeared. Presto --- it only took fifteen years. I'm sad to say I think she died.

I always face a conundrum -- do I give a homeless person a dollar to ease their struggle, or does that make them successful as beggars and keep them oppressed?

I loved Callahan’s Restaurant in Santa Monica on Wilshire Boulevard. Opened by an Irish family in 1948, bought in the eighties by a Mexican family. I hate that it closed in 2015. The papi cooked, his daughters were the waitresses, and the non-English speaking abuela gave you coffee whether you wanted it or not. Breakfast is good; but the people watching is delicious.

I once pitched in and answered the phone. The caller wanted Cream of Wheat – to go. I thought the order silly. Who couldn’t boil water and throw in some dehydrated gruel? But the Callahan’s crew was glad to make it and box it up.

Later, when I was enjoying heuvos rancheros, a homeless woman I'd seen around town came in. I asked the waitress to give her whatever she wanted and discretely add it to my bill. When her food arrived and the waitress told her it was on the house, the woman looked puzzled. She stuffed her rumpled money back in her pocket – the same money you and I use – and took her Styrofoam box and left to eat on the street. I hoped she'd eat inside and take a break from the mean streets, sitting in the comfort of the green vinyl booths. I suspected the waitress had kicked her out and refused her the right to sit down. Before I could channel Martin Sheen and protest, they explained that the woman always declined to sit inside because she didn’t want to bother the cleaner diners.

I had a yard sale so long ago that I ran an ad in the local  now defunct) paper. My friend Jessica came up with a slogan, Queen Clears the Castle. She read Martha Stewart's tips on yard sales that included washing everything, having lots of dollar bills and playing music. Our ad phrase was so hot that even before the sale started, as David Youse and I were hauling stuff out, we saw throngs of people actually running down the street towards my tables. Twice I went back inside my house and grabbed more stuff. A homeless woman came up and pulled out a huge wad of cash to pay for some sneakers. I gladly gave them to her in a grand gesture which makes me now able to add philanthropist to my resume/credits.

I was working in development of a television show that had a one-time role for homeless character. We picked up one of those guys in Hollywood who stood on a corner with a cardboard sign. It said he was willing to do anything for money, so we shamelessly picked his brain. We asked how he got homeless, how long he'd been out, where and if he bathed, etc. The most surprising news: He made over $200 a day from begging. When we released him, he threw a fit when we offered him a $100 bill. We'd taken up his whole day and prevented him from working. We peeled off another hunny to hush him up.

If LA is the better place than NYC to be when homeless, then Carmel, CA is nirvana. The weather is cool yet sunny, and each charming cottage in Carmel has a name, like Bluebird of Happiness or Punkin Patch. If one wants to write a letter to the occupants, simply address it to the name of the cottage and an attractive postman delivers it, with a smile and possibly some humming. 


I was recently in Carmel and got hungry from wandering the streets. I found an authentic and inventive sandwich shop and ordered a bellissimo Italian meat sandwich. I sat in a tiny park to eat. It was such a beautiful day that my lunch actually tasted better. I sat there chewing prosciutto, wondering if it counted as a processed meat. I did what I always do when I am in a beautiful resort town - try to figure out how I could live there, not work, and be as happy as this magical place seemed. All of my problems would wash away with a better zip code. Famed Carmel resident Doris Day and I would become fast friends and walk our Golden Retrievers on the beach, arm in arm, laughing as she confided in me and only me why she really left Hollywood.

As I sat in the tiny park I resisted the urge to feed the black bird with the bright yellow eyes that was hopping around, looking so longingly at my sandwich – I didn’t want to make him successful as a beggar by just handing him food. A woman in a Martha Stewart-ish knit poncho walked past me, talking softly to what I figured was a cell phone caller from her Bluetooth.  Suddenly another woman rushed up to her, calling, “Suzanne?” The poncho-draped woman turned, and was told that some lunch was on it’s way for her. She invited “Suzanne” to have a seat on one of the park's benches.

I wanted to be Suzanne. A great fuss was being made over her and her needs for lunch and it was being hand delivered to her in a lovely park. Suzanne sat on the bench for a moment. I realized she wasn’t on a cell phone call, wore no shoes, had a noticeable twitch and this park was as close to a home as she knew.

I was impressed that Carmel not only called their cottages by name, but also their vagrants. I watched Suzanne as she sat on the bench mumbling to herself. I wondered how she became homeless, theorizing it was drugs or alcohol, the high cost of seaside living, or sheer delusion, thinking at least she was lucky to be here and not released in freezing NYC by a reckless governor.

The other woman returned to hand Suzanne a paper to-go carton, as if she were handing a wooden block to a five year old for the first time.

"Suzanne, this is your Salade Nicoise," the woman said before hurrying back to her seat at her table in the chic restaurant across the street.

Suzanne ambled off with her box, resuming her frantic solitary conversation and picking out the parts she didn't like and dropping them for the little black bird. A friend from India once told me a tale of a friend of his in Mumbai who was "between residences" and lived in a park for a few months. Broke as he was, he still had a boy that fetched his tea and folded his blankets. In India, I learned, no matter how lowly you are, there's always someone lower.

I was in San Francisco the day before. I got lost in a bad area. I was a little panicked and tried to find a cab or a genie to help me escape. I had to step over a woman asleep on the sidewalk. It was 11AM and she looked so peaceful as she slept on the sidewalk. I saw her stocking feet and figured that she'd been a victim of a recent shoe theft. Her dark tan brought out her still-attractive features. I thought for a second that if this were the South of France or my pool, she'd be actually improving her appearance by getting a little sun. Here she was literally burned up and out -- unprotected. Sunblock was low on the list, beat out by vodka and survival.

She is someone's daughter or sister or wife. At one time she laughed and watched old movies and maybe cooked breakfast for her children. She earned that spot on the street, on her own, by falling on times as hard as the sidewalk. It might not look like it, but she is still someone special.

While I got out of that neighborhood safely, I hoped she managed to get back on her feet. I know I can't help her; but I did keep thinking about her. Unlike the safety I usually feel when watching tragic news on television at a safe distance, she was very close to me. She could be someone I know. She could be me and I could be her.

I'm reminded to practice tolerance and reserve judgement. I may not drop a quarter in their cup; but I can smile and look in their eyes and wish them a better day. That doesn't make them successful as a beggar, but it keeps my humanity in check.

I try to live in gratitude, which needs no physical address.

6 comments:

  1. You are a beautiful man and this was a beautiful piece!!! My family, children included, feed the homeless at a shelter in Florida 2 times a month. It's usually the same 50 or so people and they have brought my family such joy. They are our friends. Most chose to be homeless but they are special, loving poeple. My 14 year old son is a better person for helping them. We all are!
    Of course our Florida homeless are a completely different creature than your California homeless. I was TOTALLY scared walking through San Fran. at night!!!

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  2. Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and ignorant; they too have their story.
    XO JC

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  3. Nice story. There was a homeless man who always sat on the bench outside our place on Galt. He just looked like a guy who maybe had it all at one point and fell on hard times. He smelled horrible and always had the same shopping cart and same clothes on. Red shirt and blue jeans. Since I walked past him everyday I eventually stopped to ask his name...Miguel. I would buy him some fruit at the store and a drink on my way back. He always smiled, thanked me and seemed greatful. At least if I was buying it for him then I knew he wasn't spending the money I would have given him on booze or drugs.
    We can't save the world, but we can try to do a little something extra to make someone's life a little better.

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  4. Once I was in Calcutta and decided to visit Mother Theresa's hospital. On the curb outside were the most miserable filthy homeless people i had ever seen. When I looked in their eyes i could see their pain and their hopelessness; i could also see their humanity. We are our brothers keeper.
    Viva liberalism.

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  5. This was a wonderful reading. Today in the eyes of the norm, I live a fairly normal life. 4 kids, a wife, a dog , Grandson, granddaughter, home with 2 cars in the garage. I hope I always remember, I'm only 1 drink away from living on the street homeless and loosing it all

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