Just about every other weekend I jog down State Street and my 10-year-old daughter, Ruby, rides her scooter. It is one of our favorite adventures. With our little dog Gingersnap in tow, we begin at Anapamu and head to the end of the pier, hitting Uncle Rocco’s pizzeria as we return.
These adventures remind me of my own childhood in Santa Barbara, of my favorite places to run free and exert my independence as I grew older.
I remember running along the plank-board-floored maze that once was Piccadilly Square, where Paseo Nuevo mall now stands, where jawbreakers could be had cheap at the candy counter. Donkey Kong and Ms. Pac-Man lived at the arcade that once sat in Victoria Court, or maybe one block farther down; I can’t recall exactly. The little old man who owned the toy shop on the corner of Victoria and Anacapa would kick down a small treasure if you were nice to him and lingered long enough.
I miss Santa Barbara’s smaller-town charm, but times change. I like what downtown is today.
Once I was old enough to work, I had a menagerie of jobs, all downtown: McConnell’s, where McDonald’s now stands; Video Shmideo, the Downtown Parking Lots. Working downtown, confined to a location for long periods, put me in direct and extended contact with many of Santa Barbara’s homeless characters in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
Calvin was the proverbial shell of a man, in his sixties or seventies, with a stump for a left hand. His voice was a painful-sounding rasp. He spoke more with a mumble and a slur than any comprehensible language. Over time I gathered he had lost his hand early in life working in a factory job, drifting ever since.
Most days he sat filthily for hours at McDonald’s. He loved their apple pies. Santa Barbara was where his drifting would end as his body gave way to age, as his mind was tormented by mental illnesses, and as both slowly succumbed to the ravages of living on the streets.
There was Loretta, the always well-dressed woman in her mid-fifties with a misplaced air of royalty who made Video Shmideo one of her regular haunts. She would hang out for hours, sharing from her life.
Never will I lose the mental image of Loretta one beautiful Sunday morning, entering the van of a creepy man whom I had noticed in the neighborhood months earlier for what she would later share was a brief but financially profitable sexual encounter.
A few months ago, as Ruby and I made our way down State Street, I caught a quick glimpse of a homeless woman we had seen many times before. As we passed, in just an instant, her dress shifted, revealing her lower legs. It was quick, but the disturbing black, rotting growths were hard to miss. “She’s dying,” I thought as I ran by and as I later shared with Ruby.
Later that week, I called someone I know in the social service system to ask about this woman. He knew all about her. He said that a whole crew of people from government agencies and nonprofits had been trying to help her, but that she most often refused their assistance, a complication many people serving the mentally ill face. This is America, so they can’t force her to take their help, at least not until a judge determines she is enough of a danger to herself that the courts grant authority to force her to receive their care.
These local heroes, as this newspaper has rightly called some of them in the past, work and struggle and innovate through highly complex human tragedies. They do everything they can with the relatively little support they’ve got to help the meekest among us — those living without shelter and with severe mental illness, a torturous, extremely painful existence, wasting away on our streets.
These are the same streets upon which the progressives of our community have marched to protest in support of reason, equality, and human decency as those values become woefully lacking among those holding our nation’s highest positions of power.
When the president makes fun of a developmentally disabled reporter, we are rightfully appalled. We protest. We resist. We post it all on Facebook.
When our own Democratic governor gutted state funding for the developmentally disabled a few years ago, only a handful of people showed up at Alameda Park to share their disgust. Why did we not march then?
Why is it that we fret and worry and vehemently demand that elected officials do something about the aggressive panhandling committed by a very annoying segment of our homeless population, but hardly a whisper is uttered as many others slowly but surely waste away, hiding in plain sight, helpless, vulnerable, continuously tortured right before our eyes?
When we march down State Street protesting things happening in Washington, D.C., we march right past the woman. I saw her yell something feebly as the protesters passed. I couldn’t make out what she said with all the noise surrounding us. Maybe it was a call from her to them, a hope, perhaps, that they might see her as the human embodiment of the things they feared and protested. Or maybe she was just pissed that they had invaded her space, her little piece of sidewalk, and she wanted them all to get the hell away.
There are no easy answers, no quick solutions to these issues. Do we even look at them? Do we look away?
A few years ago, as I walked up State Street one day, I saw a local elected official standing menacingly in front of a little old man on a bench outside the Fiesta 5 movie theater. I don’t know what led up to this situation, but the elected official was on the phone with the police, angrily demanding that they arrest the little old man. As he sat, visibly scared and angry, the little old man repeated simply, “I’m not homeless. I live in the Victoria Hotel.”
To this day, I am ashamed that I didn’t say anything. I didn’t intervene, or protest, or resist on the little old man’s behalf.
I let the bully win. I marched right by.