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.