Friday, September 27, 2013

Home of the Deer Horn Tree - Junction, Texas (Part 3)

The tow truck driver dropped us off at the "American" auto shop. A ratty American flag hung in the office window and a pair of snarling rottweilers laid on the ground, chained to a loose tree stump.

I forgot to mention this in the previous posts, but we had a baby pug named Delilah embarking on our trip with us. She was our homeless mascot. And in this moment, she was fast asleep.

My mother told us to wait in the van while she asked the mechanic about getting a new tire. The mechanic was just as greasy as the handkerchief that hung out of his back pocket. He eyed my mother, chuckling to himself, "You got no man to help ya?" Texas wasn't, and still isn't, exactly known for its acceptance of female independence. I'm sure the deer horn tree was the symbol of misogyny. My mother bit her tongue and bargained with the mechanic for a new tire. He wanted $75, we only had $40 to spare. "Guess you're outta luck then, missy."My mother raised an eyebrow; missy? 

Meanwhile, Delilah woke up and decided - being a pup - to bark obnoxiously at the rottweilers who were frothing at the mouth. Behemoths they were, eyes glued to their new prey. They dragged the tree stump behind them as they encroached on our van. It wasn't until they were inches from the windows, their swampy breath creating condensation on the glass, that Sabrina and I clambered with Delilah on top of the Mrs. Car.

My mother and the mechanic noticed the scene, our shrieks weren't muffled, and rushed over to pry the beasts from our van. Claw marks dug into the side doors. Slobber covered every surface. My mother shoved her face in front of the mechanics, "Give me that tire." Now she growled at him, showing the damage on Mrs. Car, how frightened my sister and I were, her best snarl. To keep peace, the mechanic gave in, and changed the tire without a sneer or snicker.

We agitated the dust as we tore out of the gravel and onto the paved road. Junction was our version of Hades, and much like the myths tell, never, never, look back.

- The Diligent Gypsy

(Postcard of Junction, Texas)

Friday, September 20, 2013

Home of the Deer Horn Tree - Junction, Texas (Part 2)

The tow truck came...

If it wasn't for the unidentifiable, pearly white animal skull strapped to the front of the truck, dead center between the two headlights like a bullet wound, I think we would've jumped up for joy.

The driver pulled over, staggered towards us (drunk? wounded?) and proceeded to hook our chunky little home on wheels to the back of his gnarly truck. "S'gonna be a lil while." He grumbled. My mother wrapped her arms around Sabrina and I, tucking us into her fold, and ushered us over to the truck. She opened the passenger door - a pistol sat on the seat. In unison, we flinched. "Yer can just push that aside." He said with a drool of chewing tobacco dripping out of his mouth. My mother nudge the pistol onto the driver's seat using her knuckles and we crammed into the truck. Bullet casings covered the floor like coins, as if this couldn't get any more eerie. What was next? Human-skin seat covers?

The drive to Junction was abnormally silent. We held our breath, taking in sips of air in short intervals, bodies tense and eyes bulging out. The driver cleared his throat and our hands clenched into fists. He mumbled, "Need a new tire, we got two shops in town, one American and one Mexican." He waited for my mother's response, his tobacco yellow eyes darting over at her. "I guess the American one?" She muttered. The driver nodded his head and cracked a smile, which consisted of a few teeth stained gray.

A few miles out of Junction, we eased up a little. The sign of civilization on the horizon proved to us that maybe we overreacted to this highwayman and his chariot of animal bones. We learned to not judge people in our pursuits of the gypsy life, so why select out this greasy Texan soul? My mother attempted to make amends, "Any good places to get food in Junction?"The driver nodded and grunted a little, a la Sling Blade, and that was the end of the conversation.

We pulled into Junction and I stuck my head out the window to get a better view of something in the distance. It looked like a white tee-pee towering over the town's church. A little closer and the strange object resembled a Christmas tree, it even had a star atop. We hadn't had a Christmas tree in a few years, so I bopped up and down in excitement. "Mom! Look! It's a Christmas tree!" I tugged on her shirt and she looked over. The driver chuckled to himself, about two shades away from creepy, and said to us, "That ain't no Christmas tree. Them there are deer horns." And he was right. We drove past and the entire sculpture was comprised of deer antlers, or "deer horns", forming the shape of a Christmas tree. How jolly.

Was Junction a gate to Hell?

- The Diligent Gypsy

(The Deer Horn Tree)

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Home of the Deer Horn Tree - Junction, Texas (Part 1)

In the middle of Texas, between roaming fields of nothing, no one, our front tire blew.

Mrs. Car (our van) wobbled to the side of the road, verging on the edge of a ditch. We jumped out of the van (literally jumped out of the windows since the doors were broken) to investigate - her tire was slices of rubber jerky.

"Shit," my mother sighed. In this particular situation, she was oddly calm. We had no cell phone, little money, and no spare tire. If this was a horror film for the 70s, it would be the perfect set up. A vulnerable, all-female family stuck on the side of the road. Thank heavens we hadn't seen Texas Chainsaw Massacre yet, we were about to live it.

We lingered in and around the van. I made some snacks. Sabrina wrote in her journal. My mother studied the map, chewing on the idea that maybe we could walk to the closest town.

Junction, Texas was the only town within 30 miles, and it was 10 miles away.

We were stranded, resting in the hands of fate to help us.

A while later, a beat-up truck stuffed with a Mexican family zoomed by. They turned around in the intersection - the highway was divided by a pit of grass - and rumbled over to our rescue. The father had a two-way radio in the front seat that he used to listen to truckers. In the realm of highway living, truckers are the gods. They know every road, every diner, highway cop, rest stop hooker, and automotive shop. They use the two-way radio to alert one another about bad drivers, police, and a good bite to eat (as well as their sexual escapades, but let's not delve into such matters)

In broken English, the father told us that he could put out a call to the other truckers to keep an eye on us while a tow truck came to take us to "Yunction." We were overjoyed and said thank you about a million times in both English and Spanish. The family smiled and waved as they drove off. Who knew if this plan would work, we only had hope.

Not too long after, a massive cargo truck rolled down the road. It paused in front of our van and a burly truck driver - decked out with a trucker cap, salt n' pepper beard, gold earring, and a greasy shirt - hollered at us. "Y'all the family with the blown tire?"My mother nodded, remaining stiff to show that she was tough, but all smiles. "Yes! We're waiting for a tow truck." The truck driver growled into his radio, mentioning us being stranded, the highway coordinates, and that we needed a tow truck. He looked us over once more. "Maybe some food, too."

He took off, wishing us the best of luck, and assuring us that the fellow truckers would keep an eye out until the tow truck came. We waved and spilled out our thanks, he tooted the horn a few times and raced down the highway.

For the next few hours, trucker after trucker tooted their horns as they passed us, checking in to see if we needed anything, giving us some fast food, and alerting the other truckers in the area of our status. This was the first time where I felt the unison of the American spirit. Strangers helping strangers with no intentions other than to protect. That notion solidified in my bones as I shuffled along the side of the road; stranded, free, and peaceful.
Then the tow truck came...

- The Diligent Gypsy

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Money Makes the World Fall Down

Money doesn't mean anything. Not even to a homeless man. 

There is a large, organic grocery store in the heart of Silver Lake. You can’t buy anything there for fewer than five dollars. It takes bourgeois food to the next level. Whenever I go there to buy groceries for my boss, I see at least one “celebrity” or someone trying to imitate that lifestyle. Welcome to Los Angeles.

Outside of this haven of gluten-free-all-natural-organic-fair-trade wonderland, is a homeless man and his shopping cart. He is there every day, limping from one side of the parking lot to the other, and back, dragging his trash bags and plastic bottles along in his rickety cart. He mumbles to himself, toothless, and tugs at his straggly beard that is surely infested with some kind of insect.

All in all, it is more than apparent that the man is not mentally and physically well. He doesn’t speak to people or ask for anything, he just yells random words at whoever casts a shadow upon him. I smile and say “Hi,” or “Good Morning,” but always receive the empty answer of a growl, or cheery days, a chuckle. Eventually, an employee will tell him to leave and he shuffles along to the other side of the road to loiter at the gas station.

On this particular day, he lingered by the trash bin playing with the cigarette butts in the ashtray atop. He flicked them and giggled, bemused by the sand flying into the air. A woman crept up to him, clutching her purse to her plump side, and toyed with a scrunched up dollar bill in her hand. She stood within arms length of the homeless man and waved the dollar bill to catch his attention. He stared at her for a moment, as if threatened, or ashamed, but then plucked the dollar bill from her hand.

After that, he pushed the dollar bill into his mouth and ate it.  
- The Diligent Gypsy

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Being Shot at as a Homeless Kid - The Triumph of Guns

I read an article today about how guns have won. Our society will never let go of their phallic, metal, life deciders. Guns aren't for protection. They are for killing. We don't protect deer with guns.

It reminded me that I have had, fortunately, only one occurrence with gun violence in my life. I wrote this piece in my memoir and figured, why not share?

To give some backstory, my family had just inherited some donated money from Starbucks (only a couple hundred bucks) and were using that to live off of instead of stealing and dumpster diving.

August 2001

Word of our new inheritance spilled across the parking lot from van to van, unfortunately by my naïve tongue. The trouble hadn’t come yet, but a bitter smudge was in the horizon. This money wasn’t for celebration, it was for pure survival. If it were edible we would eat it.

All was fine and dandy until the black van started to inch closer and closer to our parking spot each night. Like chess pieces on the board, we would rotate away from the Black Knight every move he took. He showed up in the parking lot a few weeks earlier, keeping close to our group, but never showing his face. Vet and Pat would park next to us for protection, on either side like a pair of pawns.

But one thing the game of chess doesn’t have is a gun.

Our dance of vehicles ended with our van in the middle of Pat and Vet’s. We cuddled in the back and wrapped ourselves in piles of blankets. Delilah stretched out on top off us, a giant blob of pug. We cracked our windows and the ocean breeze trickled in to sooth our slumber.

As silent as the night was, two gasoline-yellow headlights blared into the back of our van. Delilah woke up and grumbled. She woofed and her hackles became erect. We shushed her in our dopey mumbles but her growls grew louder, aggressive and manic. She smacked her face right up against the back window and her breath fogged up the glass.

Then came the shriek; a bullet pierced our back window. Delilah ran to the front of the van, and we weren’t far behind her. My mother started the van and my sister kept my head down. We backed out of our parking spot and screeched onto the street, not looking back, not looking for help.

My mother drove like a mad woman along the coast, frantic and trembling. We settled our nerves with day-old donuts on the beach, silenced by the shock.

We returned in the morning to Pat and Vet safely tucked away in their vans. The black van was gone, he never came back after that night, but our trepidation lingered. 

The parking lot was our territory; we had our own rules and they ultimately backfired. One call to the cops and my sister and I would have been taken to child services, my partially mute mother imprisoned for child neglect, and our home impounded in a junk yard.   

Our only option was to use our freedom and run, run, run.

- The Diligent Gypsy

Monday, September 16, 2013

When I Lived in My Car While Working for Vampires

Nothing feels better than getting off of a fourteen hour shooting day, stretching your muscles as you wander past the sets to your car, droopy eyes ready to sleep, and curl up in the backseat to pass out in the wave of blankets forming your bed.

I worked on Season 6 of True Blood this past year, and within the first month of my 60-hour per week gig as an office PA, I was living out of my car again on the lot where I slogged each day.

Honestly, it was the perfect scenario.

The Lot on Santa Monica and La Brea was my very own commune where I would eat, shower, curl my hair, do my laundry, relax, listen to music, and sleep. Imagine a gritty western town with only one sheriff who enjoys reading poetry whilst hiding on the fire escape in the parking structure to avoid the security guards.

C'est moi.

Being 20 at the time, no landlord would rent me an apartment even though I was well off with cash (HBO is a jackpot) and had a steady job. So in result, I returned to the safe haven that was my Ford Focus.

My backseat was the bedroom as well as storage, the trunk was overflowing with possessions that I collected since my move to LA, and the front seat was where I stashed food and water and books (gotta have books, cars don't come with wifi)

Fortunately, being a PA I was fed at least two meals each day, so it was only on weekends when I would scavenge for food. I lived off of apples, cheese, and trail mix for about two weeks straight. The term "will work for food" was thematically accurate.

Working overnights was common (vampires and whatnot) and that left me alone in the office to do my laundry in the costumes department, scrounge up the left over food from the day to munch on, and even take a shower next to the janitor's closet while we waited for the call sheet to distro. My co-workers never caught on, but when I came into work early one day (I was there anyways, might as well) wearing the same shirt, my boss mentioned it. "Too busy to change your clothes. That's the set life." She joked. I chuckled with my reply "Yup. I'm sleeping in my car too."

The security guards, who were present all night long and into the morning, didn't even question why I had a towel wrapped around my hair as I scuttled back to my car, or why on Saturday mornings I would be leaving the lot without having arrived first.

I parked on the 6th floor of the parking structure, where they kept all of the prop and stunt cars, and tucked my car between the dusty transpo vans. At night, or sometimes in the morning, when I would fall asleep, I felt safe and secure in my camouflage as the security guards mindlessly patrolled the permitters.  

Eventually, after almost two months of being a "car person" again, I managed to sublet a room on the other side of town. I became so used to the lifestyle and the freedom again that for a few days after, I would still curl up in the backseat and cover myself with blankets, disguised as fluffy bedding.

Those two months reinstalled my cravings for freedom and the challenges of living in my car. It gave me time to reflect on my homeless years as a child, proving to myself that I was still capable of overcoming such an obstacle without asking for help. I see how fortunate it was, as most people who are homeless or live out of their cars don't have the resources in which I had access. When I told my friend about it, all she could say was "I could've never survived that."

- The Diligent Gypsy

(My morning view from the parking structure)

Saturday, September 14, 2013

I Grew Up Homeless and it was Awesome

Between the ages of 5 and 10 I lived in a 1991 Mazda van with my mother and sister and our two pugs. We traveled the country, stole food, met gypsies, ran from child services, egged a church, befriended bank robbers, and slept under the stars.

To sum up the reasons why I consider it the best thing to happen to me, I’ve made of list of ten reasons why growing up homeless was awesome.

1: Freedom

We would wake up every morning and the day was a new adventure. We stuck mostly to the Los Angeles area, living by the beaches, but one day we woke up and decided, “Let’s go New Mexico and live in the mountains.” And we did. A few months later we drove to Florida and lived on a beach. A few months after that, we moved to the Midwest and lived off of the farmlands. We had nothing but freedom. That feeling of being able to run away, live on the road, not worrying about school, bills, and social acceptance was a true punk way of life.

2: Survival

Being on the other side of the white picket fence, we had to be creative when it came to survival. I was the thief of the family, stealing food from grocery stores all across the states. Even to this day, I can pocket all the sandwich makings with the simple trick of hand movements and an oversized denim jacket. I don’t need to steal anymore, but if the time came and I needed to steal in order to eat, I have the skill set. Dumpster diving was another alternative, and sometimes we would get a free meal just for being conversational and explaining our journeys at restaurants and people we met a long the way. Kindness feeds the heart, soul, and stomach. 

3: The Weird and Wonderful People

When we were bumming around Las Vegas, we met a married couple who were bank robbers. We shared knowledge and advice and food until the FBI raided their apartment one day and threw them in prison. We also befriended a Vietnam vet who had a metal plate in his head. He drove to Mexico and back to get my mom her medication since the price for pills there are pennies. He was care free and compassionate to others who lived out of their cars. Can’t say that about a lot of people these days.

4: The Real World

In the most crucial time of growth in my childhood, I was exposed to elements of life that most don’t endure until their 30s, sometimes never at all. I saw how society was crumbling, since we were at the bottom, and how to avoid the flaws as we crawled our way back to the middle class. Possessions get you no where, money is nothing more than an object of survival, and to be educated with what is really happening in the world is priceless.

5: Thrift Store Pro

I was born in a thrift store. Before it became a hipster haven, thrift stores were where we got everything we needed. That did include some fashionable clothing that made us pass for the middle, even upper class, when trying to cover up that we lived out of our car and boiled water using our car battery. When consignment stores came along, we would dish out some coins (thrift stores were really cheap back in the day) and buy all the “label brands” of clothing, take them to the consignment store and sell them for triple the price. Our gas tank was never empty, bellies never grumbling, and we always looked chic.
6: Family

Every family endures the undulating events of life, but with my family and our situation, it brought us closer instead of tearing us apart. We didn’t have possessions to separate us. We talked to one another all day, my mother taught my sister and I using her knowledge, and we bonded like war buddies as each daily battle was overcome and then celebrated with the idea that we had one another. That was a true blessing. Thick as thieves. 

7: Books

TV and videogames were not a part of my childhood. The library was our version of going to the candy store. We spent entire days inside of the libraries we stumbled upon across the states, reading and absorbing as much as we could before sundown. They are a true place of wonderment for sponge-brained children, and came with perks of shelter from the heat or cold. Librarians gave us books and, if they caught onto our situation, food or gift cards to use. Books are magical, and so are the people who love and live for them. I can’t tell you how many levels I got to in Mario Bros, but I can recite Moby Dick without hesitation.

8: Feminism

My mother is the ultimate influence in my life. She ditched my dad and decided to raise us as tigers, not daughters (King Lear reference, anyone?) There was no princess nonsense, no baby dolls, no pink, and no dominant male influence. We were taught to be independent, open-minded female creatures that could survive on our own and didn’t care what society thought of us. Plus, Patti Smith, Janis Joplin, The Breeders, and Bikini Kill are great driving music.

9: Culture

In our travels, we experienced different cultures, which left us open-minded and understanding how America is divided by religion, race, and class. We didn’t acquire this knowledge through some dusty, out of date history book in middle school. We saw it unfolding right in front of our eyes. One day we were at an art gallery in Laguna Beach talking to elegant painters, the next day we were eating garbage-salvaged food with gypsies from the northwest. We didn’t judge people by their skin color, gender, or social class; so we were exposed to all side of the spectrum. Essentially, poor people are nicer.   

10: Non-Biased Views

Admit it, before you read this list your idea of homeless people were those crazy bums, shaking their cups for quarters, cussing to themselves and smelling worse than a rat in a sewer. I don’t blame you, those people exist, and they are the majority of what you see. But most of the homeless population are women and children who have to stay under the radar in order to protect themselves and keep their families intact. Whenever I hear someone use the term homeless as a way to characterize something as being abnormal, deviant, smelly, gross, weird, psychotic, and stupid, I shake my head in pity for them and their clichéd views of society.

In the end, I’ll always be a homeless kid at heart, and even though I went to college and have a great job in LA, I can never paint over my past. So why not embrace it?

- The Diligent Gypsy

Returning to the Gypsy Life

On the road again—

The sunrises in the desert haven’t changed in fifteen years. The way the light reverberates across the land as we race towards the sun, the east, down the highway, which glistens like a spilt stream of ink. The road is made for writers.

The symbolism of a road is that of a story arc, and the type of path – whether rocky gravel or smooth asphalt – represent the struggles of the protagonist on his or her journey to the end. All roads end somewhere, sometimes at the beginning.   

This particular road, the I-40W, manages to dress itself in various terrains. Cracked highways from desert heat to tarmac smeared with Armadillo entrails. You know what state you are in just by the road kill alone.

I break into Arizona as the day unfurls, the half eaten donut now melting on the dashboard, and my coffee remaining hot from pure sunlight. Even though my return to Chicago isn’t exactly joyful – my mother is having another heart surgery – a smile sticks to my face like the “believe in magic” bumper sticker on my car. Road trips are my happy place, the essence of my childhood, and to quote William Least Heat-Moon, “There are no yesterdays on the road.”

It was over a decade ago that my child-self ventured into Arizona, riding shotgun, keeper of the map and snacks, as my mother, Glynnis, sister, Sabrina, and I journeyed into our new life. We travelled from LA to Chicago, where my mother scored a job, completely oblivious to what the Midwest even looked like, oblivious to the idea that we would no longer be homeless.

That word, “homeless”, the ugliest word for freedom. But that’s what we were. “Glorified Gypsies” is a more colorful and realistic term. We lived in our 1991 navy blue Mazda van, coated with political and pagan bumper stickers, exploding with our possessions and thrift store Afghan blankets. The front seat was the kitchen area, middle seat was the living room/library, and back seat was the bedroom. Though in the end, we slept wherever our heads fell. Sometimes even on the roof of the car during nights that made beads of sweat feel icy.

Parking lots were our safe spots. The Albertsons in Doheny Beach still makes my heart flutter as if an imaginary white-picket fence outlined our designated spot. It was our concrete commune where other homeless – or as we eventually referred ourselves for spirituality and safety, “home free” – people gathered in the vans at night. We would exchange food, medication, knowledge, laughter, stories, and warnings. Over toasted-coconut donuts, we exchanged unfamiliar faces in the parking lot from the night before, as those without cars were a major threat. The “bums” without vehicles were a step lower on the food chain, and with a ravenous appetite for not only food, but malevolence, we had to be weary of all things that go bump in the night. Cops too, though not as harmful, and usually protected us with their presence, still brought attention to our secret community from outsiders as well as true threats, like child services. The wild, wild, west in a parking lot.  

My sister, Sabrina, and I should’ve been taken away. Not because it was the right thing to do, but because in the eyes of child services and law enforcement, my mother was endangering us and abusing us. This just goes to show how thin the sight of society is, because in reality, my mother was opening up a new world for us and exposing us to a side of life that would build courage and diligence and a tainted-free sense of what really matters in life.

After years of questioning, crying, debating, forgetting, embracing I finally figured it all out – it’s eudemonia. Now, for a quick history lesson, eudemonia is a philosophical theory that the ultimate pursuit in life is to find pure happiness, and by reaching that point, one has survived and fulfilled their destiny. Being "home free" isn’t a destiny, but I have no doubts that it is one of the many ingredients.

In my journals, and ultimately with this book I intend to explore the six different stages of eudemonia while collectively piecing them together from my years of traveling as a home free person. I implore that you escape your world, however you please, and take my hand as we journey not only into the world of being home free but the true side of America.

- The Diligent Gypsy