A brief idyll

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The hillside where Sean slept with the foxes.

I visited my son not long after he left San Francisco and went to Marin County. He had settled in a little hippie town not far from San Raphael. He complained a bit about loneliness there, since it was a fairly upscale area without a large homeless population, but it seemed to offer him some needed tranquility after his sickness and sidewalk shuffling in the Castro.

I arranged to meet him at the public library (in those days, he still had his cellphone, fancy backpack, sleeping bag–all the accouterments I’d bought him), but had no idea what to expect. When I pulled into the parking lot, there was a gaggle of boy scouts with camping gear gathering for a trip … Sean was slouched over a picnic table across the lot with his own gear, head on arms, a picture in contrasts.

I woke him up and he seemed dazed at first to see me. He was very tan–or maybe that was dirt?–and he smelled awful. But he was my same old sweetie. Within a few minutes it was as if we had always been together. I took him to my Airbnb flat and threw him in the shower, taking advantage of his preoccupation to hand wash his clothes in the sink. They were too dirty to wash in my host’s machine: great, inky billows of black grime filled the sink over and over as I squeezed his soaped up shirt. It took me at least 30 rinses–I’m not exaggerating–to get the water to rinse at least a wan gray. Clear was too much to hope for.

We had a good visit: He pointed out the hillside behind the supermarket where he slept outside with the foxes. “They make the cutest barking and whimpering noises when they sleep,” he told me. We strolled down to the stream where he washed out his socks and hung out in an abandoned leather lounge chair. As we had when he was young and we wandered the woods near our house, we followed the stream upriver and pretended to get lost. He showed me some edibles — bay leaf and something else I can’t remember. But I think his foraging was mainly theoretical because he told me he trotted down every morning to get a sushi roll breakfast at the grocery store with his food stamps.

What a sweet, luxurious life that sounds like to me now. He no longer gets food stamps. His bank card was stolen, along with his backpack, cellphone, clothes and  ID, so he can’t verify his identity to get a new debit card at the bank.

Why did he leave there? It’s one of the thousands of unanswered questions that haunt me. The day after I left he had to go to court to fight a bogus trespassing charge that overzealous San Raphael cops had slapped on him for merely walking on the campus of a local college (a privilege they seem to save for youths with backpacks, since plenty of local people walk their dogs there and stroll around unmolested). Predictably, the charges were dropped, but I think the whole scenario set him off, prompting him to hightail it to more homeless-friendly surroundings.

I wasn’t crazy about him sleeping on a hillside. But at least it was a known place, in a community where oddballs are the norm. When Sean left Marin he seemed to leave some sweeter version of himself behind. His phone calls became less frequent. Eventually they stopped.

Not his real name

baby-namesSo why would I launch a blog to search for my son and then give him a false name? It’s a fair question, though the answer is as layered  as the rest of this mess.

Ostensibly, I want to respect his privacy and I want to protect my identity. Also, by giving him another name, I think it almost gives me a sense that it’s someone else’s son and not my own beloved boy. It also helps me think of this as narrative and I take a small comfort in that–that this is a story I am living. It will have a beginning, a middle, an end perhaps. And so, too, it might be a story that will help other families in my situation.

It’s also probably indication that I’m not desperate enough to launch my own full-out Missing Person campaign. I still believe he’ll call me on his own and we’ll reestablish regular connection. Maybe he’ll even come back East for a while and let me fatten him up and give him a real bed. Barring that, I am counting on my mother’s navigational system to help me locate him when I do my own street search next month.

Mainly, I’m afraid of offending him. I’m taking a big risk by writing about this. It could become a wedge between us, propelling him further from my reach. That is, of course, predicated on him actually reading it. But Sean no longer has the cracked iPod Touch I gave him, so searching the Web is unlikely. He can’t even access those public library computers since his ID card was stolen–along with all of his belongings–several months ago.

When I filed my first Missing Person’s Report with the Berkeley Police in July, the officer who located him told me this detail: “Your son was very polite. He looked like he was taking care of himself. But he did do one very strange thing: He kept insisting that he had a different last name.” When I asked the officer the name he had given, it was his correct last name. My son bears my last name as his middle name and the officer had transposed them in her report.

So, you lose things on the street. Without an ID, my son has no name. But he hasn’t yet figured out that he can use that to his advantage and become someone else–or become no one. When I plaster the Berkeley streets with my Missing posters next month … will he step up to his name and call me?

Those thin threads

Sean spent his first few weeks in the Castro, befriending a scraggly group of fellow street dwellers. At that point, he still had his cellphone. Even though he wouldn’t accept incoming calls and left his voicemail box purposefully, repellantly full, he did manage to call me weekly. At first he was exultant. The flowering trees, the weather, the groovy people. He was evasive with details of his daily life–locations of where he slept, for instance–but I was at least able to get an emotional barometer and vague descriptors.

I knew he slept in parks much of the time, sometimes in groups. So I imagined a group of Merry Men encamped among the eucalyptis in the Presidio. He did say he tried sleeping in a doorway one night, but it was “too scary.” (This is where imagination begins to leave the mind and travel to other parts of the body: My stomach imagined his jolts of fear as junkies, prostitutes and thugs passed by his doorstep, weighing the prospect of him.)

Sean's bushes

Sean’s bushes by the health clinic

Finally, he seemed to settle in a tiny private garden outside a health center in the Castro where he could sleep by himself without being seen. A few weeks later, when I took a detour on a business trip and visited him there, he took me on a tour of some of his haunts. His tiny garden turned out to be a giant aloe planted in a small curbside garden abutting the building, with blooming shrubs and rich foliage. California is ridiculous that way: Everything flowers and multiplies into soft bowers. He really could sleep there relatively unseen.

I have tried to be if not supportive, at least relatively good-natured about this anarchist enterprise of his. It seemed the wisest course if I wanted to keep avenues of communication open. I should say that this wasn’t the first time I had survived bouts of Sean’s homelessness. He had spent the previous winter, off and on, living in abandoned buildings in Maine with other street kids. In between, he crashed at his father’s studio apartment, though they fought often. At least then I knew he had a place he could go. And Sean is not foolhardy, actually. He would seek shelter rather than freeze.

And then two weeks went by in San Francisco when I didn’t hear from him. This was unusual and it worried me. No, worried doesn’t cover it: devastated, devoured, obsessed. I could think of almost nothing else. I maintained a veneer of normalcy at work, but traveled to a “foreign” bathroom on the 11th floor so I could lock myself in a stall and cry when it got too bad. I imagined Sean stabbed, pimped, addicted, drifting through the streets with his mind blown–the absolute worst places my imagination could lead. I tried a few weak prayers but they even sounded flimsy to me.

When he finally surfaced, he sounded unconcerned by my worry. He had been sick, he confessed, very sick, and was heading out to Marin County to “get his head together.” I was so glad to hear from him that I didn’t press for details. I was just glad that he was going to Marin, with its beautiful hills and peace-loving hippies.

Leading to lost

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My son leaving home.

Six months ago, I put my son on a plane from East coast to West. His backpack was laden with survivalist gear: tent, sleeping bag, buck knife–even snake garters, ridiculous equipage for a vagabond’s life in San Francisco. I considered it a small victory to have talked him out of his 10-pound mini-shovel and heavy-duty mallet at the last moment. Lugging these around, I told him, would kill him long before he used them to fight off mountain lions.

He was on a quest to find his life. A classic hero’s journey, my Odysseus. It wasn’t his first try: He had decided to live in the woods outside Louisville, Ky., the summer before. Why Louisville, I really can’t say. I think he liked the idea of it as southern city, and therefore terra incognita for a man raised in New England. His dream was to live on foraged food, create a leaf shelter, and live beyond the reaches of the corporate complex that enslaves men and dominates world consciousness.

He lasted about 10 days in Louisville, only one of them spent in the woods–some odd tract he found just outside of town. He called me in a panic during a crashing thunderstorm asking for advice. After I got him settled safely, if soggily, in a dell, he spent a sleepless night on the ground before heading back to town and spending all his (well, mine) money on a motel for the remainder of his trip.

The irony with which I recount these early misadventures is a luxury I no longer have. In those days, I still thought Sean [not his real name] would snap to his senses. Or at least join a commune. I clung to the hope that he would somehow forge a path in the world filled with stretches of happiness, deep fellowship, outlets for his considerable creative intelligence, and even peace. And who is to say he hasn’t found those? I pray for what I can’t believe.

The fact is, I have now lost my son.