Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Big Rock Candy Mountain

C Town has a lot of homeless people. Generally dire nation-wide economic factors aside, it's not hard to understand why C Town has become something of a magnet for. The winters are mild, freezes are rare. It has nice parks and a pleasant yet vibrant downtown area with a block-sized plaza to hang out in.

Being a college town, it has decidedly liberal leanings. There is no shortage of well-off people who don't mind donating to the down-trodden - whether indirectly through contributions to charitable organizations, or directly via handouts to panhandlers. There is a very nice secular homeless shelter, and a large Christian-based center (hereinafter only known as the "JC") which feeds and clothes and offers other services to the homeless. The Boo Line even gets in on the act by providing a free twice-daily shuttle between the homeless shelter and the JC (a distance of little over one and a half miles).

Not all the homeless can fit in the shelter, of course, despite plans to expand it. And some can't or won't stay there because there are rules against alcohol and drug use.

When you spend enough time on the streets of C Town, it seems as though the homeless run the town. They lay and hang about in all the public places and even many of the private places. They sleep in large groups in the doorways of downtown business, causing some to close their doors permanently. The homeless problem is a recurring topic of city council meetings, and there is a plethora of suggestions of ways to deal with it. Any ideas of restricting some of the homeless's more heinous activities are shouted down with claims of infringing on their rights. The California legislature is currently considering a sort of homeless "bill of rights" which, if passed, would basically protect their ability to sleep on sidewalks and in doorways. Most of ideas which do get implemented in an effort to address the problem only seem to encourage further lack of personal responsibility or consequences for unacceptable behavior. There is even talk of constructing another kind of shelter which will offer the drunk and the high a bed. Hey, hey

In fact, C Town is such a relatively nice place to be homeless that it I think it has become the closest living thing to the fabled "Big Rock Candy Mountain", ("first recorded by Harry McClintock in 1928, is a song about a hobo's idea of paradise" - Wikipedia):

One evening as the sun went down
And the jungle fires were burning,
Down the track came a hobo hiking,
And he said, "Boys, I'm not turning
I'm headed for a land that's far away
Beside the crystal fountains
So come with me, we'll go and see
The Big Rock Candy Mountain

In the Big Rock Candy Mountain,
There's a land that's fair and bright,
Where the handouts grow on bushes
And you sleep out every night.
Where the boxcars all are empty
And the sun shines every day
And the birds and the bees
And the cigarette trees
The lemonade springs
Where the bluebird sings
In the Big Rock Candy Mountain.

In the Big Rock Candy Mountain
All the cops have wooden legs
And the bulldogs all have rubber teeth
And the hens lay soft-boiled eggs
The farmers' trees are full of fruit
And the barns are full of hay 
Oh I'm bound to go
Where there ain't no snow
Where the rain don't fall
The winds don't blow
In the Big Rock Candy Mountain.

In the Big Rock Candy Mountain
You never change your socks
And the little streams of alcohol
Come trickling down the rocks
The brakemen have to tip their hats 
And the railway bulls are blind
There's a lake of stew
And of whiskey too
You can paddle all around it
In a big canoe
In the Big Rock Candy Mountain

In the Big Rock Candy Mountain,
The jails are made of tin.
And you can walk right out again,
As soon as you are in.
There ain't no short-handled shovels,
No axes, saws nor picks,
I'm bound to stay
Where you sleep all day,
Where they hung the jerk
That invented work
In the Big Rock Candy Mountain.
I'll see you all this coming fall
In the Big Rock Candy Mountain


I've always considered myself a pretty liberal fellow. I was once even homeless myself for a brief time, a long, long time ago. So I like to think I kind of understand how it can happen to a person. However, my job currently involves driving some of the "guests" back to the shelter at the end of the day. What's more, it's just part and parcel of the job that we have to deal with these folks on a regular basis on many of the routes. Consequently, I now have some conflicting feelings about the homeless.

It's obvious to me from listening to their talk aboard the bus that many of them don't really seem to care that they are homeless. They are having the carefree time of their lives. When their time at the C Town shelter runs out, they'll probably go back to the streets, or go stay at the Christian rescue mission in O Town for as long as they can.

In short, I guess I can say that no one should have to be homeless, but some always will be, at least for awhile, and some want to be. Whatever the reasons, no one should starve because they are homeless. On the other hand, if well-meaning people make it too easy for the homeless, what incentive do many of them have to try not to be homeless?

All of this is a long way of getting around to an incident involving a homeless woman that I wanted to share with you. As a little background, I should explain that there is a mini-storage place sort of next door to the HS. I don't know if this storage facility has some sort of deal with the HS and/or the JC to provide reduced-rate service to guests of the HS, or if just its proximity to the HS that makes it popular with some of the homeless. Just parenthetically, I know they don't offer the storage free, because I'm acquainted with a homeless man who was staying at the HS, but lost his belongs at the storage facility because of lack of payment.

I currently drive the afternoon shelter run, as it's called, from the HS to the JC. I usually arrive shortly after 4 and depart promptly at a quarter after. One day as I was waiting to pull out, a woman I had not seen before came to my door. She was pushing a bike, whose baskets were loaded with some loose oddments and a couple of bags of presumably more oddments. She asked me for a favor. She said she wasn't staying at the HS, but she needed to get to the storage place near it, and didn't have any bus fare. I'm really not supposed to carry anyone who isn't a guest of the HS. On the other hand, I have no means of verifying that everyone who purports to be going to the HS actually is. I have suspected that a couple of people merely wanted a free ride rather than pay a fare on the O South, which also goes there. I told her that I would just pretend that she was a guest of the HS. I didn't plan on counting her manually on the farebox as I have to do for the HS guests. That way whoever foots the bill for these rides would not be out anything for me carrying this extra person.

She said, "Thank you", and then added, "I've got a lot of stuff." My heart sank a bit at these words, but I kept to my original agreement and hoped against my intuition that it wouldn't be too much stuff. She asked me how long she had, and I replied "ten minutes". She was having trouble getting her bike onto the bike rack, so I helped her with that, even though drivers aren't supposed to do so for liability reasons. I did it anyway for the sake of time. She brought in the oddments from the baskets and dumped them on a seat. She then disappeared into the JC parking lot for more stuff, with which she returned in a couple of minutes and deposited on the ground rather than bringing into the bus. Perhaps she thought I was supposed to be her porter as well.  Her stuff was mostly loose and not in bags - crap like binders and other accouterments of the homeless mentally ill. I wished it was better packed, but things were still not too out of hand. As it was, I left her second load on where she had.

On her second trip into the parking lot, she remained out of sight for a long time. At 13 minutes after the hour, I got out to try to find her. I spotted her coming wearing a backpack and a carrying a dufflebag. I thought that as long as that was really all she had we'd be okay. She said something I didn't catch, but I said that I needed to get going. She tossed her bags down in a petulant fashion onto the ground against a wall of the JC. I took this as a sign that this was not indeed the last of her stuff. She said, "You told me I had ten minutes." I said, "You did, but it's all used up now." She testily said, "That was never ten minutes.", to which I replied that I was offering her a free ride, so she shouldn't be arguing about the time constraints. I guess she felt she couldn't finish gathering up all her belongings in time. She asked me to take her bike off the rack, which I did. She seemed to have forgetten about her stuff that was already on board, so I brought that out and added it to her pile on the ground. The people on board had not heard our exchange, so they didn't understand why I seemed to be leaving her until I explained that she was opting to remain behind.

This incident made me determined not to bend that particular rule again. As the old saying goes, "No good deed goes unpunished." More to the point of this story, another old saying describes well the behavior of the many street people: "Give them an inch and they'll take a mile." I tried to extend a kindness to another human being, and was burned in the process.

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