Sophocles wisely wrote of introspection in Oedipus Rex: “I have no desire to suffer twice, in reality and then in retrospect.” That very feeling often has prevented me from writing about the deepest material of my life. But this time I choose to override those fears and get the story down, even though, I warn you in advance, there is much suffering in it.
Before I left for California, I attended a small dinner party. There was a man there who learned of my upcoming quest to find my missing son and he made a galling remark that sent me popping up from table and wishing my hosts a goodnight. After a lull in the wine-soaked conversation he looked at me and said, “And what exactly do you hope to accomplish by going to California?” “Find my son,” I said cooly, and left.
Several men expressed this dubiousness about my purpose and the suggestion that what I would find could not end well. Women merely told me I was brave. Certainly, I preferred to take the feminine principle with me into the battle for my son, but in the fairness of retrospect I cede that both viewpoints were true.
I found an Airbnb spot just off Telegraph Ave., which I knew from police reports–and even my son’s earlier phone calls–was now a sort of panhandler’s alley. I started off with my photos of Sean and a blank notebook for writing down clues. I wasn’t sure of my directions, and as I passed a small park I looked around for someone to ask. There was only a scruffy bum on a park bench and, habitually, I passed him by in search of someone more presentable. And then I stopped myself. This is exactly who you speak with. I was aware in that moment of a shift of consciousness. Street people were now my allies, advisors, keepers of precious information. My eyes on the street.
I approached the man and showed him the pictures of my son. He looked at them carefully: one taken in Washington, D.C., several years ago, my son’s beautiful blue eyes and chiseled face against the distant confection of the Capitol. “No, no, I don’t know him,” he said. And then he took a closer look at a more recent photo–one of Sean and I in the Castro taken earlier this summer. “Well, it could be,” he said. “Looks like a schizophrenic guy who sleeps under a blue blanket in People’s Park.”
I knew this couldn’t be Sean, but I at least wanted to follow any lead. “Where’s People’s Park?” I asked (this was another of the Stations of the Cross for Berkeley homeless, and was the chief feeding zone for free lunchtime meals). He pointed me just a few blocks away and I set off.
Considering its large renown through the ’60s, People’s Park is actually quite small. There is a small stand of redwoods on one end, a large open green in the middle, then cluster of scraggly bushes and trees at another end. I came at it from the redwood edge, where I found an enclave of homeless people camped out in sleeping bags and perched on tree trunks. My first impression was that there was an abundance of matted hair. And men. One fellow sat on a sleeping bag with long blonde dreadlocks and tilted his head to the sky. His eyes were rolling back in his head and he was talking to himself. I entered this gathering with a soft, but firm step and crouched to speak to man closest to me, a nearly toothless fellow who looked to have just awoken.
I could feel a quiet alert go up among the men as I approached, but it also was jaded, almost disinterestedly reflexive.
I told my name and that I was looking for my son. I pulled out my photos of Sean and he took them in his dirty hands. “Yeah, I seen this guy,” he said. “He was here last night. He sat right there.” He indicated the very spot on the log where I now perched beside him. “What did you talk about?” I asked, and before waiting for an answer said, “He’s great to talk to isn’t he? Very smart and interesting guy.”
He called out to some of his buddies to ask if they’d seen someone named Sean. No one paid him attention. I pressed him for details, but his line of connection suddenly faded, and he said, “Actually, I think I saw this guy in San Francisco.” Another homeless guy with a long, shaggy black beard ambled up. “This is Hate [sp?], he’s kind of the ringleader here,” said the first homeless guy by way of introduction. A couple of people chuckled. Hate took a look at the photos and said, “I think I see him around here sometimes,” and handed them back.
As I made my way through the enclave, everyone, it seemed, had a different story and I had the thought that it could go on like this endlessly. When I got back to the first homeless guy, he stuck out his hand and introduced himself, smiling through browning teeth: “They call me Mumbles,” he said. “Mumbler?” “No, Mum-bles,” he said laughing roughly. “I guess it’s ’cause I mumble.”
Mumbles asked me if I had a place where Sean could find me in case he ran into him. I gave him my business card and wrote across the top of it, Sean’s Mom. I’m in town. Please call. “I sure wish I had a mom who would come look for me,” said Mumbles. People were, by now, listening. “Yeah, man,” someone else called. “You’re a good mom.” At this I burst into tears.