“When you write about me,” Julie said to me when I saw her again, “please tell people, that I want to say ‘thank you’ for all their kindness to me.”
Julie, whose last name is Sizemore (no relation to Ted), has been standing in the parking lot of the Downey post office accepting donations for almost two years now, since her sister and mother died. To recap, she had been their caretaker but had no money to keep her mother’s Downey apartment. She is hoping to get enough social security disability to cover the cost of a room, but the paperwork “couldn’t get started because of the government shut-down.” Julie is 64 years old and has increasingly severe macular degeneration.
But Julie is not the only one who has occupied this busy space by the sidewalk into the post office. One overcast and blustery March day, I stopped to talk with a person there with a severely mannish haircut whose name, to my surprise, was Alice. Alice was wrapped up in several bulky layers of flannel shirts and held a cardboard sign lettered, “I am homeless. Have lost my job.”
Julie had told me several weeks before that Alice had appeared one day and told her she could not be the only one in that spot. They have agreed to share the space peacefully, as Alice is there mornings and Julie now comes after 1 pm.
“I come here to get enough to eat,” said Alice. “When people help me, they know it could happen to them.”
“How did you come to be homeless?” I asked Alice and got the reply, “Because I lost my job.” It has been a year since Alice says has been trying to get social security benefits, on account of a “physical difficulty.”
Alice sometimes wears a cotton mask to protect herself - from the cold, or other people’s germs?
How old is Alice? “Fifty-eight years old” is the reply, unexpected because Alice has smooth unlined skin. Her hair is thick and black but cropped and severely short on the sides, where gray is growing in. A style like that must be kept trimmed constantly. How does Alice manage? Does she do it herself, I wondered.
On these recent nights of heavy rain and cold, “I live in my van,” Alice said, and she keeps it in a place where she is safe and there is shade. I did not ask where. Today she was wearing a small gold earring. “I lost the other one,” she said. Alice has lived in Downey most recently.
Back to Julie, these unusually winter nights are hazardous. “This has been hard on me,” she says. “The last time it rained, I got a cold. On really bad nights, when I don’t have money for a room, I go to the waiting room at the hospital. Or to a Jack in the Box. But I go to a different one every night.”
Julie wears a baseball-style cap holding back her long white hair. She lost her blue Dodger-logo baseball cap after the elastic in the back gave way. “I loved that cap,” said Julie.
All her clothes now are gifts from people who see her standing here: flannel shirts, shoes, even a little pair of blue earrings from the 99 cent store.
People have commented that people like this are a scam. But a scam gives some unearned benefits to the scammers. Here are two destitute women, whose only marketable asset is their ability to stand on their feet for hours in sun and in rain, facing strangers and trusting to charity to survive.
This is Downey, not the medieval Paris of Victor Hugo’s novels, where professional beggars came home at night to their slum quarters in the cynically named Court of Miracles, and cast off their fake scars and bandages and crutches, to spend the day’s take on wine and wild dancing.
These women have not made a career of being dispossessed. Studies show that homelessness frequently hits at about the mid-fifties or sixty, when older family members they have cared for, pass away. Or their skills erode, and neuro or some other age-related infirmity, sets in.
When I first spoke with Alice, I had forgotten my camera, so on a glorious March morning when the snowy San Gabriels seemed to stand right at the northern end of Paramount Boulevard, I went back. Alice was there, with a double parasol this time against the bright morning sun, and she remembered me.
“I had a job doing everybody’s work,” said Alice. “I got groceries, cleaned the floors. They fired me and said it was stress, so I sued them. And now I can’t get my job back. I do have physical problems.”
She showed me the black elastic support belt she wears for back pain. “And I’ve had shoulder surgery. People say, why don’t you get a job. But work is hard to get.”
As for a picture, “No. I don’t want a picture,” said Alice. “You never know who’s out there. I had a stalker once, and I had to call the police.”
So I respected Alice’s wish and put away my camera. Physical safety for herself has to be a constant concern.
A few minutes after I went back to my car to write some notes, Alice followed me. “Why are you writing that?” she asked, and I explained again that I was doing a feature story for the Downey newspaper. Fortunately I had just picked up this week’s Patriot with my name and story about Downey’s Super Bloom of California poppies on the front page, and also the one on an inside page about the Downey Symphony’s Gershwin concert. I gave it to Alice, to establish my bona fides.
After another few minutes she was back again. “The name I gave you, Alice,” she said. “That was an alias. An aka. My real name is Jennifer.” And she spelled it so the Patriot would have it right, “J-E-N-N-I-F-E-R.”
“And I was in jail,” she said. “I have a record. That’s why I can’t get a job.”
“But you paid your debt to society,” I said.
“Yes,” said Alice-now-Jennifer. “But people judge. People come up to me and tell me, ‘You have no right to stand here.’ But why don’t I? Why can’t people love each other and get along? God sees all, and I pray for that.”
“I came here yesterday,” I said, “and there was a new man here.”
“Yes,” said Jennifer. “He told me he has kids and needed two hours here, so I left for a while.”
I had interviewed this new person, who said his name was Daniel. Probably in his late thirties, he said he had two children and lives in Anaheim. He did not have the words to explain to me, but he pointed to my car’s fender and pantomimed rubbing it, so I guessed he had been employed in the car wash business.
“No picture,” said Daniel, and he turned away and folded up his cardboard sign. Without skills and not speaking much English, he could have been pushed out of work by automation.
Now as I pulled out of the lot, I waved to Jennifer, and she waved back, but not blowing kisses to me, the way Julie does. I was going home to where the biggest inconvenience yesterday was a short power outage. Today they turned off the water for a few hours to fix a tenant’s plumbing. Both problems only happen to someone already in the success loop of life.
Jennifer’s van has neither electricity nor water. Julia has nothing at all. I can’t complain.