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My Homeless Friend
Kevin Berger | February 4, 2008
I wanted to write a story assessing the city’s latest attempt to solve its most disturbing problem. Then I met the ordinary, extraordinary Shalako Brooks, and things got personal.
He seemed like just another homeless guy, the kind you walk by every day in San Francisco, or try to walk by, before he irritates the hell out of you by asking for spare change. "Pardon me," he said. "I don't want any money. I just want to ask you a question."
It was a late afternoon last May, and he was standing on McAllister Street, his back to the pale stone wall of the San Francisco Civic Center Courthouse. His long fingernails were filthy. Skinny as a branch, somewhere in his 30s, he was swaddled in a holey blue sweater and a dirty green Army jacket. His unshaven face was clouded by a wrinkled baseball cap, and yet there was a haggard sweetness in his eyes. The ingenuous lilt in his voice made him seem unthreatening.
"Who played the guy in The Grifters?" he asked. "I've been trying to remember all day. Anjelica Huston played his mother. Annette Bening was his girlfriend. But I can't think of the actor. It's driving me crazy."
"John Cusack," I said.
"Yes!" he said. "Thank you, thank you." He then stared at me a little too long for comfort. And smiled. "You look like a very nice man," he said. "You're the only person who stopped."
Now it was my turn to say thank you. Although I should confess that the main reason I stopped was that I was researching an article about the city's new plans to cure its homeless crisis—as we all know, the worst in the nation. I had just come from a meeting across the street at City Hall, where a cadre of civic leaders was praising a new city program to get homeless people off the streets and into safe and clean hotel rooms, complete with medical services. A week earlier, Mayor Gavin Newsom's notorious Care Not Cash, which offers welfare recipients less money in exchange for a place to stay at night, had been instituted. So I had been traversing the city, talking about the new program with residents, business leaders, social workers, and homeless people themselves. Here was another person to add to my backpack full of notes.
Would he mind if I asked him a question? "Go right ahead," he said. He invited me to sit on the sidewalk next to him and his friend Suzy, a stocky woman in her 50s, bundled in a Salvation Army bin of clothes. Her face was blotched red by years of hard drinking and sleeping outside, although just now she was engrossed in a frayed paperback, One More Time, a memoir by Carol Burnett. Next to her stood a metal pull cart filled mostly with stuffed animals.
It was brisk out, and he offered to cover my legs with his gray blanket. I told him he didn't need to do that.
"How did you end up on the streets?" I asked.
"Do you really want to hear it?" he asked. "Are you sure you can handle it?" I assured him I could. "Are you sure?" he asked again, and tears began to form in his eyes.
His name was Shalako Brooks and he was 35. His dad had lifted his name from the title of a Louis L'Amour novel. He had been sleeping in the doorway of the shuttered Colton Piano store on the corner of McAllister and Van Ness for a year. Before that, he was driving a Jaguar and working in the movie industry as the executive assistant of Carol Lombardini, one of the most powerful lawyers in Hollywood. Two years ago he was making $120,000.
He was just getting started. Scenes that didn't fit any pattern began to tumble out of him. He would cry, swallow his words, apologize for crying, and then mysteriously regain his composure.
He mentioned the night he came home to his condo in Silver Lake and discovered that his 76-year-old lover, Robert, was dead. There was the child pornographer in Corpus Christi he had met through an online personal ad who threatened to kill him, so he had to go into a witness protection program. There was the ex-convict he'd met in Las Vegas who fell in love with him, beat him up, and also swore he would kill him—which is why he fled to San Francisco.
Before he was a teenager, he said, he'd had sex with one of his mother's boyfriends. And just a week ago, he said, his real father, who also lived on the streets of San Francisco, "dragged me to a motel out by the zoo and got naked."
A disheveled, menacing-looking man in his 50s walked slowly in front of us—we'd been sitting there for 30 minutes—and strode across the street and into Civic Center Plaza. "Look, there goes my dad now," Shalako said. "He has two girlfriends who are crack monsters. One of them woke up the other morning and said to me, ‘My money's gone.' I said, ‘That's because you spent it, honey, don't you remember?' My dad goes, ‘You stole her money' and hits me in the face. I knocked him on his ass and beat the shit out of him. I was strangling him, I was so angry with him. And so we're not talking."
Lying at Shalako's side on McAllister Street was a well-worn copy of Last Exit to Brooklyn, Hubert Selby Jr.'s notorious 1964 novel that opens with a brutal rape and descends into a vivid urban underworld of junkies and drag queens. "He's my favorite author," Shalako said. Perched next to the book was a bottle in a brown bag.
Shalako showed me a missing tooth in the side of his mouth. That got knocked out a few nights before by a homeless guy he knew named Jim. In the bushes at the Palace of Fine Arts, he said, Jim held a pair of scissors to his throat and raped him. Jim bit his nose, slugged him in the temple, and ruptured his eardrum. Finally Shalako ran away down Lombard Street, hid in an alley, and slept there all night.
I didn't say anything for a while and Shalako said, "You don't have to believe me if you don't want to." I wasn't sure what to believe. If he was writing his own Last Exit to San Francisco, the ragged emotion in his scenes was certainly real. He had me there.
I asked Shalako if he wanted to work again. "I really do," he said. "But how am I supposed to apply for a job? I can't show up in dirty jeans and look disgusting," he said. "If you saw pictures of me before this, you'd drop dead. I'm gorgeous."
He said he wanted to sign up for Care Not Cash but didn't have any ID to show to the city's welfare office. His backpack had been stolen and he didn't have $6 to get a new ID from the Department of Motor Vehicles. I told him I would give him the $6, and he started to cry harder than before. "I really don't want your money," he said. It was fine, I said, just as long as he spent the money on getting a new ID.
I didn't have any small bills in my wallet, so I handed Shalako a twenty. "Are you sure you want to give this to me?" he said. "Are you sure?" Finally he took the bill with a flurry of promises that he would go to the DMV. "I'll be back in a week to check up on you," I said. "Don't worry," he said, smiling. "I'll be here."
While I began this story investigating the merits of San Francisco's new plans to abolish homelessness, I was also driven by something more. Lee Stringer, a New York author who has written exceptional stories about his life on the streets, once said in an interview that after all his hard years of being homeless and studying the politics of the problem, he didn't know what was to be done about homelessness except that individuals should try to find their relationship to it. "Just, when you pass somebody on the street: What is your relationship to that person? I mean, how as human beings do we relate to one another?"
It's a hard question, one that forces us to realize that the homeless crisis, once it fades from the news, is our own personal problem. Perhaps Mayor Newsom will solve it for us. Admirably, he has deemed the crisis his paramount mission in City Hall. Who knows? Care Not Cash and "supportive" hotel rooms may succeed where 18 previous years of similar legislation and treatment programs have failed.
But when you pass homeless people on the street, you are experiencing only the tip of the problem. Before I met Shalako, I saw the whole iceberg. I visited shelters and drop-in centers and dead-end streets in Hunters Point where people lived in old Chevy vans. I spent a morning in the Martin de Porres House of Hospitality in the north Mission, an outdoor patio enclosed by fences, where, it seemed, the city's entire homeless population had gathered to eat corn soup. It was a bracing scene, The Grapes of Wrath in the core of the sophisticated city. You couldn't sit there without asking yourself where all these people were supposed to go. Homeless people live in a dire world, and despite all the fine people devoted to helping them, I can humbly say they are not going to be vanishing from our streets anytime soon.
Which brought me back to how we relate to homeless people ourselves. That was the question I now wanted to challenge others to answer, as it seemed the only true way to make peace with the crisis. Then a funny thing happened on my way to the Tenderloin—I met Shalako—and I was staring squarely at the problem myself. How did I feel about this sardonic street person, fragrant, you might say, of cheap liquor? My first thought was that his life was tangled in a labyrinth of problems that I wanted to notate as a journalist but then quickly flee for my own mental health. My second thought was that I liked him immensely.
Above all was curiosity: I wanted to know whether he was telling me the truth. Carol Lombardini, I thought, could be a clever embellishment of the name of the 1930s movie star. For all I knew, he had made up his own name, which is also the title of a movie (made from the L'Amour novel) starring Sean Connery. A quick bit of research and a phone call, though, brought up the first curtain on his life.
"Oh, yeah, Shalako's his real name," said the amicable Carol Lombardini, senior vice president for legal and business affairs at the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, a trade association that represents Hollywood studios in labor negotiations with actors. "He was a very eccentric character. He had all kinds of stories to tell."
Shalako worked for her from May 2000 to October 2001, she said, when he lived with an affluent man, Robert Fleming, who was more than 40 years his senior. Shalako answered phones and managed her calendar, although, Lombardini said with a laugh, "every once in a while, clients would call and say, ‘I spoke to Shalako, and I wasn't really sure if he had spoken to you about this or not.' Then Shalako would tell me about some piece of legal advice he had given them."
Still, she couldn't fault his dedication. "He really did aim to please. If I stayed until 9, he would stay with me. I'll tell you one wonderful thing he did. My son was 13 at the time and wanted a PlayStation 2. They were impossible to find because they'd just come out. Shalako tracked one down at a Toys "R" Us that was a good hour from his house. He went there at 6 in the morning and stood in line for five hours. He got the last one."
She fired Shalako for failing to show up for work once too often. "There was some incident with some distant relative of Robert's who was on the plane that crashed into the Pennsylvania field on 9/11, although I never knew whether that was true," she said. Before we hung up, she told me one more thing: "When Shalako left here, he was driving a Jaguar, one of those big, beautiful-shaped Jaguars."
I was astounded. If this much was true, there was a good chance that the rest of what Shalako had told me on the street was true, too. And in fact it was. Yet it would take months of spending time with Shalako to emerge with anything like a linear story of how he ended up on the streets, as he seemed constitutionally incapable of revealing more than a few facts about himself at a time. I didn't mind, though, because that's how his remarkable life unfolded: short bursts with brilliant details.
A week after talking to Lombardini, I found Shalako perched on his regular spot on McAllister Street. He shoved aside a pile of clothes and I sat next to him. Men and women in business suits, just off work from the nearby klatch of government buildings, formed a line less than two yards in front of us, waiting for the Golden Gate bus to Marin. We were invisible.
Shalako couldn't get over the fact that I had spoken to Lombardini. "I can't believe you talked to Carol," he said again and again, not surprised that I called her, I sensed, but caught up in remembering her himself. He swore he had gone to the DMV to get a new ID and it would be mailed to him at a P.O. box center on Hyde Street any day now. He was so effusive that I had to believe him, even if I was a bit surprised.
"So where are you from?" I asked, while sitting on McAllister Street.
"I grew up in San Bernardino," he said. "The guy that socked me in the nose and that I kicked the shit out of the other night? That's my real father."
"What did he do when you were a kid?"
"He worked odd jobs. He was in the circus for a while. My mother is my father." His mother, Sharon Dickinson, worked for a small firm that wrote permits for California truckers. In 1990, Shalako said, "I went to work for her company in L.A. I was my mother's assistant." Tired of taking orders, "I went out and started my own permit company called Golden State. I started it when I was about 24. I remember because I bought an alpine-white four-door sedan BMW 325i."
Shalako was born in Southern California and raised in a patch of desert in San Bernardino County. For several months in 1969 when he was an infant, his hippie mother and father, who is part Hungarian gypsy, part Apache, carted him around San Francisco in a papoose lined with rabbit fur. His mother played the guitar and sang in the Haight and Marina districts. She panhandled. For months, the family of three lived in a hotel on Eddy Street, seven blocks from where we now sat.
Dickinson's relationship with Shalako's father grew violent—she worried about leaving Shalako alone with him—and she left him when Shalako was a year old. In 1971, she married a longtime friend, Steve Hudson, and they had a son, Steve, and daughter, Mercy, making Shalako, he said, "the evil stepson."
Muscoy, where they eventually settled, was a stop on Route 66. It was a town without sidewalks or streetlights, dotted with chicken farms, clapboard homes, and Pentecostal churches. "Everyone there was either a redneck or ran around speaking in tongues," Shalako said.
Years later, not yet a teenager, Shalako was separated from his childhood when his mother, by then divorced from Hudson, started seeing a man who she later discovered was in therapy for his pedophile tendencies. Shalako said the man pursued him and forced him to have sex. "But then I made him give me $5 for it," he said. "At least I'm looking at the upside, OK?"
He'd long known he was gay, but by high school, he embraced his outsider status by idolizing goth-rock bands the Cure and Bauhaus. Where he once dressed like a preppy, he now remade himself into a punk with torn black clothes and orange hair. After dropping out of high school, he got his GED and transferred to a vocational school. He wrote poetry and acted in community theater, including one production in which he wore a white suit, walked with a cane, and spoke with the eloquent lisp of Truman Capote.
Shalako stayed away from home for days at a time to escape his obstinate mother, he said. They usually related to one another like brother and sister, but now even that relationship had soured. "If you're going to stay up for days and do speed," Shalako recalled his mother saying, "the least you can do is wash the dishes." One afternoon, Shalako came home to find that another family was renting his house. Dickinson had moved to L.A. without telling him. Shalako slept under a bench at his old elementary school before a friend who worked at Circle K gave him a room for a few weeks.
While I came to know Shalako over the course of six months, I shared many intimate conversations with Dickinson, too. I first called her to verify the things that Shalako was telling me, but I also wanted to see him through her eyes. Now 55, she lives in Montclair, a suburb just outside of Pomona, where she still works for a truck permit firm. She was disarmingly open about her life, and I grew to like her a great deal, even though at times it was awfully difficult to penetrate her decisions.
The first time we talked, I asked Dickinson if she had really moved away without telling Shalako. Yes, she had. In fact, when Shalako eventually made his way to Los Angeles, he called to ask if he could move in with her. "He says, ‘Mom, I'm going to freeze to death on the street.' I said, ‘No, honey, it's summer, I don't think you're going to freeze.' Maybe that sounds coldhearted. But when I was a hippie, we lived on the streets. I knew he was going to be OK. And he'd be better for it. Maybe that's a squirrelly way of thinking of things."
Homeless at 19, Shalako was sitting on the sidewalk one night in front of Mr. Mike's, a gay bar in Silver Lake, near downtown Los Angeles, when he met Fleming, a retired airline-parts executive. "He was wearing white shorts and a Gilligan hat," Shalako remembered.
Fleming, 64, who had been married and had two daughters, was now single and gay. "He was a very sweet man, very gentle, very kind, had a wonderful laugh and a wonderful smile," Dickinson told me. "He never had a bad thing to say about anybody." He and Shalako fell in love, and they soon started living together in Fleming's condominium in bohemian-chic Silver Lake. Eventually they got a second house in Palm Springs.
On McAllister Street, as dusk settled, I told Shalako that it sounded like Robert had saved his life. "Of course he did," he said softly. "He really did. He was my best friend. He was my baby."
Shalako lived with Fleming for 13 years. Then late one night in early February 2002, Shalako came home and found Fleming dead of a heart attack in his bed. Earlier, Shalako had been out with another man, with whom he was having an affair. Swept away by guilt, the grieving Shalako spiraled through two years of sordid, violent experiences that only a bad novelist would dare invent. At the end of which he landed in San Francisco.
Like the diligent executive assistant that he once was, Shalako organized street life into an effective routine. To begin with, he
refused to panhandle. "I make money the honest way, I recycle," he told me one morning on McAllister Street, as we set out to do just that. At 8 in the morning, beginning in the Civic Center and ultimately making a loop through Cole Valley and the Haight and ending at a recycling center in the Fillmore district, Shalako grabbed bottles and cans out of trash cans and Dumpsters. I trailed behind, taking notes.
Shalako moved with alacrity from one bin to another, filling a big green trash bag. He knew his bottles and cans like a Dow chemist. "There are number twos, number sevens, and number fours," he said. "Water bottles like Calistoga are PET [polyethylene terephthalate], and you get 67 cents a pound for PET. Glass is 8 cents a pound and aluminum is $1.25. But there's not a lot of aluminum out there." Shalako made about $9 a day.
Most of the time, people ignored Shalako, another anonymous homeless person picking through the trash. But not always. Tagging along with him, I was amazed at how he bore up under the poisonous looks of disgust from some passersby. If he felt humiliated, he hid it well, although once I saw it overtake him. He was rifling through a Dumpster at the Cala Foods on Haight when a hefty truck driver, unloading wooden pallets of food, yelled at him. "You stupid fucking homeless bum. Get the fuck out of the garbage!" Shalako instantly started crying. By the time he got to Clayton Street, though, three blocks away, the tears were gone and he was pointing out a young woman darting across the street. "Will you look at those pink and beige socks?" he said. "It's the total Julie Christie look!"
Along the way, Shalako fished the occasional snack out of the bins, which one day included a fully wrapped chicken gyro. And corner market owners, accustomed to seeing him, often gave him sandwiches, yogurt, or milk. "They're really sweet about it," he said. "I tell them I'm not digging through the garbage for food, and it's really OK, you don't have to give me food. I'm a little embarrassed about that. But what are you going to do?" The only time he ever ate, though, was late at night, and he usually did so alone so people wouldn't see him vomit. He said he had been bulimic since he was 15. "It's from a fear of gaining weight, I guess. I don't know. It's a strange little kind of thing." He laughed. "You gotta love me."
In the evening, back on McAllister and Van Ness, with Suzy once again at our side, we sat with our backs to the Colton Piano building. Bundled in blankets, Suzy was eating ketchup from tiny pouches, still reading the Carol Burnett memoir. She had said barely a word the last time I was here. So I was surprised when she turned to me and said, "I read this book 5 times a year. I've read it 50 times."
"Stop eating ketchup," Shalako said to her. "Jeez."
"I got a whole bagful of it. It's good. It's made with tomatoes."
"And how much vitamin C does it have?"
Shalako kept his eyes fixed on her. "Do you need a tissue? Your nose is bleeding." He pulled a napkin out of his jacket and gave it to her.
Suzy was from Virginia, and her husband had been in the Navy; they had lived in Spain and Scotland. In San Francisco in the eighties, she worked for the Social Security Administration. When she was laid off, she did clerical work for temp agencies, then went on unemployment. That ran out six years ago, and she has been living on the streets ever since. She used to travel with another man, but he was a heavy drinker and heroin user. One day, she said, "he fell backward down the steps of the First Unitarian Church, hit his head, and died."
Shalako and Suzy had met on Fillmore Street near the recycling center about three months before. They slept side by side most every night, with blankets if they had them, extra clothes if they didn't. They used the bathroom at the McMillian Drop-in Center at the foot of Fell Street and took the periodic shower at St. Paulus Lutheran Church on Gough Street.
In early 2003, Shalako stayed one night at the Providence shelter in Bayview and was frightened by crack dealers and the murmuring threat of violence. He stayed another night at the shelter known as MSC South on Fifth and Bryant and said the experience was no different. (Now he refuses to travel anywhere south of Market.) The best strategy was to stay around busy areas like the Civic Center. "It's safer here than in the shelters, it really is. On the streets, I know who to trust and who not to."
And that goes for the cops. "There's a wonderful new officer on the beat," Shalako said. "She's very beautiful. She woke me up one morning and said, ‘You really should be staying somewhere else.' I started packing some things and she said, ‘I've got a surprise for you.' I thought, ‘Oh shit, here comes the handcuffs.' And she gives me a bag of Oreos." ("Shalako's always pleasant, and for the most part, one of the more stable individuals on the street," the officer, Aileen Brady, later told me.)
By the way, I told Shalako, just a few weeks ago, Mayor Newsom had dispatched a new troupe of outreach workers to cruise the Tenderloin—the Bermuda Triangle of homelessness, shaped by Market, Geary, and Van Ness—and escort street people into shelters and temporary refuges like the McMillian Drop-in Center. Had he or Suzy ever been approached by them? "We've never even seen them," Shalako said. The only city workers they saw were the guys who drove the Department of Public Works trucks and alerted them every morning at 5 that they were about to hose down the corner where they slept.
Being rousted at the crack of dawn was one of the most exhausting things about street life, Shalako said, and a good reason why he was ready to give Care Not Cash a chance. Street people always complained about having their checks sliced by the program, he said, but getting a monthly check for as little as $59 was fine with him, as long as he could land one of the new hotel rooms. That way he could keep a chest of clean clothes, take a shower every day, and begin looking for a job.
So the next morning I accompanied him to the Department of Human Services office on Mission Street. Earlier he had worried that people would make fun of him if he showed up in filthy clothes, so he had taken a shower and unearthed a fairly clean pair of jeans and a floppy gray sweatshirt. He also dreaded that he would be trapped all day in a grim maze of downtrodden people. But while the drab building was jammed with people of all races and ages waiting in lines to hand in forms to a warren of clerks, the atmosphere was no more depressing or threatening than that of a crowded bank.
Besides, Shalako passed the time with a whirlwind of black humor. One question on the application asked, "How have you supported yourself for the past six months?" "Should I write ‘fellatio'?" he asked. (He had, in fact, made an extra 20 bucks a couple of times by performing said act on customers in a Tenderloin porn theater.)
As we waited in line to hand in his application, Shalako told me that after he sold his truck permit company, he went to work in 1995 for Donna Smith, then a senior vice president at Universal Pictures. His first day on the job, Shalako said, "I hung up on Robert Redford. He told me who he was and I was like, ‘Oh, right,' click! I also went to Hawaii with Donna to meet Kevin Costner. He was spending way too much on Waterworld. Donna had to yell at the prima donna for ten minutes before he would come out of his trailer." After recalling in detail for me the morbid scenes of cannibalism in the Peter Greenaway film The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, Shalako was directed to a spacious anteroom, where perhaps 100 people sat in chairs, waiting for their names to be called by a social worker.
Forty minutes later, in an office with cubicles, he took a seat behind the desk of "senior eligibility worker" Elizabeth Bergado, a native Tagalog speaker, who was gracious and unflappable, if somewhat impersonal, in the presence of this gaunt, unkempt homeless person. She informed Shalako that Care Not Cash, officially known as County Adult Assistance Programs, contained four options. Bergado, who struggled somewhat with English, did her best to outline the requirements that Shalako would have to meet to qualify for each of the programs (PAES, CALM, SSIP, GA), and told him that he could receive a monthly check of either $59, $171, $332, or $182.
It all came out sounding rather confusing, though. Mostly out of pity for Bergado, who appeared flustered by reciting all the rules, Shalako asked, "What do you suggest I do?" Bergado said he should take the $182 and agree to sign up for a shelter; if he refused to sign up for a shelter, he would get only $59. Shalako agreed that he would go to MSC South. Even though he had no intention of going, he believed he would still get credit for showing up. "They never check you in," he muttered to me. As Bergado punched his shelter reservation into the computer, she hit a glitch, apologized, and went in search of a supervisor.
"Did I tell you that Julia Roberts actually knows my name?" Shalako asked me. "She's the nicest person in the world. The three nicest people I met in Hollywood were Holly Hunter, Nicole Kidman, and her short husband, Tom Cruise. And the bitchiest person I ever met—I just wanted to slap her upside the head—was Rhoda. Valerie Harper, what a nightmare."
Bergado returned with a supervisor, who sorted out the computer glitch. Shalako asked Bergado how he could get one of the new supportive-housing hotel rooms instead of a shelter bed.
None were available now, she said, and she would have to make an appointment for him to come back to this office, when a social worker would check again.
"Isn't it a long waiting list?" Shalako asked.
"Yes," Bergado said. "But one time, I got a room for someone on the day they checked in."
"Is that rare?" Shalako asked.
"Very rare," said Bergado.
Bergado told him that before he would start receiving his checks, he had to go to an orientation by a social worker at Glide Memorial and then return here in a week to finalize his paperwork. She handed him his seven-day shelter reservation and nine bus tokens.
"Thank you, dear," Shalako said. "It was a pleasure."
Three weeks later, I was driving home from a trendy restaurant and thought of Shalako on the streets. It was a frigid night. I didn't
find him on McAllister Street but around the corner in an alley, near a Dumpster behind a California Pizza Kitchen. He was sitting by himself and reading The Hours by Michael Cunningham. A dim light came from an office window above. He asked me if I could bring him a blanket and some extra clothes the next time I saw him. I said that I could.
"So how did it go with Care Not Cash?" I asked.
"It was an administrative fuckup," he said. "I went to Glide for my orientation and stood there for an hour, listening to all the same bullshit that the social worker had just told us. I'm not stupid. I read the material she gave me. And the guy at Glide was very condescending. I asked about the hotel thing and he basically said to shut up. ‘It has to go through HUD. It takes 30 days, it could be a lot longer, we're going to put you up in a shelter, you'll get your $180.' You know what? He looked like a cross between Wayne Newton and Liberace."
Back at the welfare office, Shalako was assigned to Bergado again, and she did call Glide to verify that he had been there. "She was polite and apologetic," he said. "But then I had to sit through an hour-long session of everything that she had already told me." In the computer, she could see that Shalako had not shown up at the shelter; she told him that doing so might improve his chances of getting a hotel room. "I told her that I really don't want to go to a shelter." He sighed. "I don't think getting a hotel room will work out. My instinct is this whole program is not going to be what people say it's going to be."
I asked if he was glad that he enrolled in Care Not Cash. "I am glad," he said. "I needed to do it. It's just that this whole thing irritates the hell out of me. I explained to her, ‘Look, I don't ask people for money, I don't do anything like that, I jump through your hoops. I don't know. This is why a lot of other people on the streets don't do welfare. It's just a fucking nightmare."
Shalako pulled out a pouch of Bugler tobacco and rolled a cigarette. He was in the most reflective mood that I had seen him in. "I could be an excellent executive assistant," he said. "I was thinking about that today. I was sitting in front of a school on Turk Street. I was reading a book and I thought, ‘I'm almost 40 years old and I've lost everything.'"
We sat in silence for a moment. "You got to understand, and I don't really expect you to understand this completely," he said, "but this lifestyle is completely habit-forming. It really is. When you get so scared that you're never going to regain your life, you start to meet people, and you make friends, and it's a camaraderie that exists out here. You definitely get hooked into the lifestyle. You definitely do. And that's unfortunate. It's very unfortunate. It's very hard to break. But I'm going to do my best to try and break it."
I guess I believed him. He was more self-aware than most of my friends. But I didn't understand why he had not broken the habit before. Having any crummy job or apartment had to be better than shivering in an alley behind California Pizza Kitchen. Then I did understand. It was no more of an epiphany than that. Enchanted by Shalako's archetypal life on the street, I hadn't really thought about what he had always been drinking in a brown bag. In any case, the answer was as banal as it was omnipresent. It also explained why he recycled every day in pursuit of $9: Royal Gate vodka was cheap.
"On the streets, you basically live bottle to bottle, or rock to rock, or tar to tar," he said. "I do survive bottle to bottle. I will be very honest about that. I drink a fifth a day, if not a liter."
During the past year in San Francisco, he had already mounted the 12 steps of two detox programs and had twice fallen off the wagon. Could he ever stop drinking? "I fully expect to," he said. "It's just that it's so damn boring out here."
As if on cue, a 60-ish man named Cory, who was wearing a torn denim jacket and an FDNY baseball hat and had a creased face that looked as if it had weathered a century of storms, plopped down next to us.
"I had a dream last night that you were wearing black stockings and a garter belt," he said to Shalako.
"Welcome to my life," Shalako said.
Cory grimaced at Shalako and then turned to me. "I want you to write this down," he said.
"OK," I said.
"Flowers are dying near the Civic Center because no one knows how to treat them. No one knows what those flowers are like. Do we not have anybody who can take care of the flowers and make them bloom? Do we not have anybody who can help the city without hurting the homeless?"
Shalako sighed and said to me, "Having an experience, are we?"
In late August, Dickinson called me in search ofher son. Her only contact with Shalako depended on his calling her, which he did a couple of times a month, usually when he was feeling particularly low. Dickinson wanted to tell Shalako that his stepfather, Steve Hudson, had died and left him $17,000. To receive it, Shalako had to sign some bank statements. Would it be all right, Dickinson asked, if she mailed the papers to me and I gave them to him? Absolutely, I said, surprising myself at how excited I was for Shalako. It was an extraordinary chance for him to turn his life around.
I hadn't seen him for a couple of weeks, though, and still had an old sleeping bag and a blue and white ski sweater for him in the trunk of my car. Then, sure enough, one Sunday morning I found him on his McAllister Street perch. Had he heard the news about his stepfather? "No," he said, amazed by the question. "What happened?" I told him and he fell silent. I expected some jaded barb about Hudson, but instead Shalako seemed moved. He said he was surprised and would call his mother right away. He was pleased with the sleeping bag but frowned like he had tasted sour milk when I handed him the ski sweater. "I'm not going to wear that thing," he said.
More than a week went by and I hadn't received the paperwork from Dickinson. Just as I was worried that something had gone wrong, Shalako called me one morning and asked if my open invitation to drive him to his mother's house in L.A. was still good. When his mother had told him about the money, he said, he took it as a sign that he had to stop drinking. Dickinson, he said, had promised to help see him through the agonizing hell of withdrawal.
I picked him up on his McAllister Street corner early on a Saturday morning. His belongings as he entered his new life consisted of a pouch of tobacco and his copy of The Hours. I had insisted that he take a shower before we left, and despite a shaggy beard, he looked fairly refreshed. He had found a pair of jeans with embroidery along the pockets. Climbing into my car, he said, "I look like Shania Twain!"
As we drove over the Bay Bridge and toward I-5, he was trembling with emotion. "This is a new start for me," he said. "It's exciting but at the same time frightening. I'm leaving my friends, the people who've taken care of me on the street. I feel guilty about leaving them behind. But I said, ‘I have to leave you. I have to go into my future.'
"This morning, I got Suzy up at 4 and we had a beer. I told her, ‘This is why I've been acting strange and alienating myself from you for the past few days: I'm not coming back.' My dad said, ‘I got to talk to you, you're my son.' ‘Yeah, by sperm donation only, you idiot.' But now that I'm going back to suburbia, I'm fucking scared. I really am."
He grew silent for a while and then said, "When you get into a rut, you get into a comfort level: you know what's going to happen. But now I have anxiety about what the future brings and what my mom's going to think of me." He began to cry. "I was the big kid. I was the one who took care of everybody. I screwed up. I'm sorry. I apologize."
We glided through the San Joaquin Valley, beneath a wide blue sky, along fields and mountains, and Shalako looked out the window with the wonder that one reserves for driving through a foreign country. "It's so beautiful out here," he said. "The clouds."
During the serenity of the drive, Shalako opened up about his mad year in the wake of Fleming's death. He struggled to narrate it for me with the coolness of a British crime novelist. But his poise cracked and I could feel him reliving his most futile attempt to connect with somebody, to find a way home.
Following Fleming's funeral service on Valentine's Day, Shalako said, he moved to San Francisco to work for the CEO of a biotech consulting company, who promised him a $120,000 salary. He thought he would feel at home in gay-friendly San Francisco, but it wasn't to be. He started drinking heavily—"annihilating myself"—and quickly washed out of his job. Dejected, he returned to Hollywood and one night in his apartment downed a clutch of sleeping pills with a fifth of whiskey.
"When you're with somebody for 13 years and they just keel over on you, and you have no idea what to do with your life, it's just amazing," he said. "It knocks you for a loop. And maybe it knocked me for a loop because I'm weak. I don't know."
While he was in the psychiatric ward of an L.A. hospital, he said, "I remember hallucinating. I had an IV in my arm and kept talking to my mom. The doctor came in and said, ‘Who are you talking to?' I said, ‘There's a phone right here and I can hear my mom.' He said, ‘There's no phone there.' I said, ‘Yes there is, and my mom is talking to me.'"
Following his release, Shalako found a job as a secretary and in his off-hours drafted personal ads on Yahoo and Match.com. One night, he received an impassioned response from a high school teacher in Corpus Christi. After they exchanged dozens of ardent emails, Shalako relented to the teacher's importunity and, on a libidinous whim, moved to the man's home in Texas. "He was an older man, and I was trying for another Robert," Shalako said.
For a few months, their relationship went well. The teacher encouraged him to enroll in Alcoholics Anonymous and he obliged. Considering the man taught German, Shalako said, perhaps it wasn't strange that his apartment was filled with Hitler memorabilia and swastikas. What was strange was that 13-year-old boys would show up at the teacher's door and act surprised to see Shalako.
Shalako hacked into his computer and discovered volumes of photos of naked boys and pseudonymous email exchanges with young teenagers. "There were 15-year-old kids who emailed him," Shalako said. "Sexual email. It was just obnoxious."
After days of suspicion, fear, and finally the encouragement of a friend he had met at AA, Shalako made up his mind to call the police. Then one night the teacher, who suspected that Shalako had hacked into his files, yelled at him, slugged him, and told him to get out of his home. Shalako said he grabbed a pair of shirts and fled to a phone booth, where he called the police and confessed what he had seen.
Two days later, a Corpus Christi vice squad lieutenant met Shalako in his motel room, wired a microphone to a telephone, and had him call the teacher. The teacher "got really irritated at me," Shalako said. "He asked me, ‘Do you remember the gun under the bed? I'm coming over to visit you because I know where you're at.'" Police sped to the teacher's apartment, questioned him, and confiscated his computer, suspecting him of child pornography. (I later verified Shalako's story through Corpus Christi police records.)
The police gave Shalako bus fare to Las Vegas, where he stayed with his half sister, Mercy. Shalako then called one of the teacher's sisters in Corpus Christi. "She was terribly distraught," he said. "She said word of the police investigation leaked out into the community, then when the teacher tried to go back to his apartment, people shunned him. So he had gone to a motel room in Corpus Christi and killed himself. I still feel really guilty about it."
"But you shouldn't," I said.
"I know," he said. "Everybody says I saved a lot of kids from absolute hell. If it wasn't for me, it could have been a smaller kid, a kid who wasn't strong."
Shalako's troubles with older men were not over. In Las Vegas, he landed a job as the office manager of a fly-by-night company located in a dingy office not far from the Liberace Museum, and moved into the house of a man he met through work. Shalako said the man was closeted and a heavy drinker, and that Shalako was often the victim of his violent mood swings.
One night, Shalako said, "he punched me in the face and dragged me through his rock garden and threw me into the cactus." (A Las Vegas police report supported the story.) "Then I'm hunkered over in the corner of his living room with a bloody nose, and he says, ‘I'm going to go to my room and get a gun.' I called 911 and ran out of the house. I'm wearing nothing but boxers and a T-shirt."
Shalako stayed with friends and said his boyfriend, a felon convicted of robbery and importing marijuana, began stalking him at all hours of the night. Afraid for his life, Shalako fled to Los Angeles and stayed briefly with his half brother. The ex-con called Mercy in Las Vegas in desperate search of him. Worried that his presence in L.A. would jeopardize his family, Shalako hit the road for San Francisco and moved in with one of his father's ex-girlfriends, Vivi Lazarus, who lived in Noe Valley. Shalako soon realized she had AIDS and was an ex-junkie. "She was nuts," he said. ("Shalako was always drinking, so I threw him out," Lazarus says.) In any event, Shalako admitted, "that's when I ended up on the streets."
And now, I thought, he was finally getting off of them. The rest of the trip was filled with the kind of small talk that friends reserve for long-distance drives: scattered details of growing up, philosophical musings, and comments on fat kids in SUVs. We listened to a Radiohead album, and when the song "Karma Police" swept through the speakers, he began to cry. "This song reminds me of Robert," he said. The lyrics go, "For a minute there, I lost myself."
Then he fell into a deep sleep for three hours.
I shook him awake just as we exited the freeway in Montclair, a Southern California suburb without the glow, a place where you would find a tire store before a Restoration Hardware. A block from the overpass, and next to a slightly used business park, his mother lived in a clean expanse of modest single-story apartments called the Pines.
Shalako was intensely nervous as we walked through the complex, along green lawns and past a giant swimming pool. Just as we found the number on his mother's apartment, Dickinson emerged from behind a wooden gate. She looked just as I had imagined, a middle-aged woman, her hair colored blond, the brusque waitress at the roadside diner who instantly charmed you with her self-possession. Shalako put his arms around her and cried. They hugged for a long time. "You look older," she said to him.
Inside the simple apartment, framed photos of Dickinson's family dominated the walls. She was an amateur photographer and illustrator—she did drawings with astrological themes that recalled rock posters from the sixties—and her own work was displayed, too. I sat on the couch, and she brought me a shoe box of photos featuring Shalako as a cherubic kid and later as a preppy teenager. She ordered us pizza from Domino's.
"I have so much to tell you," Shalako said to Dickinson. "You can't believe what I've been through." He sounded as if he was about to tell her about some tropical vacation, and Dickinson smiled like a tolerant, loving mother.
The first thing Shalako had to do, though, she said, was shave. With a beard, he looked exactly like his "chickenshit asshole" father. She also promised to buy Shalako some new clothes tomorrow. "Are you going to be able to handle me in the next couple of days?" he asked. "I'm going to be shaking, retching, vomiting, sweating."
"I'll step over you," Dickinson said with a grin. A moment later, though, she sincerely told him: "We'll get through this."
With matter-of-factness, Dickinson said that alcoholism runs in her family. She listed several relatives with drinking problems. "My father was a functioning alcoholic. He would start drinking early in the morning and he would drink all day. He would drink Bloody Marys out of two-cup measuring cups. My mother was an alcoholic and that's what killed her. Her liver gave out on her."
Steve Hudson also died of liver failure, at age 54. He lived like a recluse, Dickinson said, and throughout his life, their daughter and son had seldom seen him. Shalako had often said that Hudson called him his "evil stepson," I told Dickinson, so wasn't it a surprise that he had left Shalako some of his retirement money? "I think he didn't know how to make amends," she said. "So he did it in a monetary way."
Shalako seemed like any embarrassed son while I talked to Dickinson, always telling his mother that I didn't need to see any more family photos. They had a natural rapport, one moment trading ripostes like a bickering brother and sister, the next seeming very much like a son and mother who had been apart too long. Shalako walked me to my car and we hugged good-bye. I told him that I couldn't wait to hear from him when he found a new job in L.A. As I drove away, I honestly didn't know what would happen. But I was really glad that he got to see his mother and would stop drinking.
Six days later, my email in-box flashed with a message from Shalako: "I'm sorry that this e-mail is a request for your assistance and not a happy hello! My mother has decided that I'm not welcome. There is some tension between us and I think I'm in the way. It's understandable. When you have a routine and someone is in your household, it's strange. Oh, and I had a beer and she found out...my screw-up! She has asked me to leave by tomorrow evening, Monday. I have nowhere to go and I don't know anybody out here. There are no services for the homeless and I could not even begin to know where to start...that and recycling sucks here. I've decided that I'm going to come back to the city. At least I know people, I'm familiar with the services, and I'm safe camping with Suzy. I feel safer being homeless there than here."
My heart sank. I was discouraged that he had failed to last even a week with his mother. I was angry at both of them.
After Dickinson insisted that he leave, Shalako tried to sleep in a mall next to JC Penney but police threatened to arrest him. So he ended up sleeping over a heating vent near a hedgerow in the business park. He also wandered around the apartment complex and slept in the laundry room, angering the landlady, who complained to Dickinson.
But, Dickinson told me, she didn't kick Shalako out because he had had a beer. Each day that she came home from work, she could tell that Shalako, drooped on the couch, had been drinking heavily. Then she found a clutch of empty vodka bottles in the bushes beside her apartment. "I just blew up at him," she said. "‘I'm not going to sit here and watch you destroy yourself and I'm not going to let you burn me.' I lived with an alcoholic mother and I have no patience for it. I told him, ‘You're going to have to find your own way in life.'"
Dickinson gave Shalako Greyhound bus fare, and when he arrived back in San Francisco, he resumed his life of a week before, sleeping on McAllister and recycling every morning. Then one night he called to say that he was in Fremont Place, a residential detox clinic. A speed freak had been stalking him on the streets, and "I just made a decision that enough was enough," he said. "Being at Mom's gave me a new perspective. Being homeless wasn't fun anymore. It was drudgery." Besides, his $17,000 would arrive in two weeks "and I'm not going to blow it on alcohol."
I wanted to believe him. But earlier, I had spoken to Rosemary Bryant, program facilitator for the Alcoholics Rehabiliation Association located on Haight Street, where Shalako had first flunked out of detox. I would call her down-to-earth, but that doesn't seem strong enough to describe her bold Irish presence. She spoke with the calm wisdom of a former alcoholic, one who had slept more often than she can recall on the cold San Francisco streets.
Bryant told me that she remembered Shalako and liked him, as most people did, but was not charmed by him. He was a hardened alcoholic who still hadn't faced down his problem. I told her that he had inherited $17,000 and wanted to get clean and get a job. She grinned, as if humoring me. "That money won't do him any good. I see it all the time. He's just going to get a hotel room and get drunk again." Until he truly dealt with his alcoholism, she said, he could "never go back to the way he was."
Bryant's words were ringing in my ears when Shalako called me in early October from another residential alcoholic treatment clinic. After getting sober at Fremont Place and receiving his money, he'd rented a hotel room in the Tenderloin and invited two friends from Fremont Place whom he'd met first during his early 2004 stay at a rehabilitation center in Redwood City. "You know me, the nice guy," he said. The friends smoked crack in the room, he said, and one had sex with a transvestite hooker. Shalako tried to sleep in the next room. For a pillow he used his new duffel bag, stuffed with $17,000 in $20 bills.
The next afternoon, he was walking down Hemlock Alley off of Polk Street when, he said, he was hit on the head from behind, slammed up against a wall, raped, and robbed of the $1,000 in his pocket. He staggered to his feet, bleeding, and called 911 from a phone booth. An ambulance sped him to San Francisco General Hospital, where he said he was treated for his abrasions, interrogated by police, and released. He said he didn't dare tell the police he was raped; they would have humiliated him just like Jodie Foster in The Accused and told him, "You asked for it." After he was robbed, he started drinking heavily and sleeping on the streets, and once again, exhausted and depressed, sought help to dry out.
For almost two months, I didn't hear from Shalako. I was worried about him. Our relationship had begun as journalist and subject, but by now I thought of him as a friend, albeit a frustrating friend, one who consistently failed to help himself even when given one opportunity after another to do so. In that way, I guess, he represented all homeless people who perpetually washed out of social services and back onto the streets, where they drove citizens mad with their squalor and made even the most passionate social worker consider a nice job writing content for PeopleSoft.
But despite being flabbergasted by Shalako's failures, I had gotten to know him too well to give up on him. One morning, he even inspired me to wax philosophic in my notebook. "Humanity is defined by our faith in people's ability to change," I wrote, while trailing him down Haight Street as he dug through a trash can. Today, when I make my way across town and see people sleeping in the parks, smoking under awnings, or sleeping in doorways, I see shades of Shalako.
Of course, I also wondered what happened to the man himself. I was intensely curious about what he was doing with his remaining $16,000. Throughout November, I searched for him in all his usual places, from McAllister Street to the recycling center in the Fillmore district. Shalako's half brother, Steve, phoned me one afternoon. He was spending some of his inheritance driving around the country, investigating the ancestry of the father he had barely known. He had arranged to meet Shalako in the Haight, and I asked him to tell Shalako to call me. He never called. Finally, on December 12, a Sunday afternoon, Dickinson phoned to say that Shalako was back in detox at Fremont Place. I still had three hours until visiting time was over.
Fremont Place is a small treatment center on the second floor of an old industrial building that sits under the shadow of the Bay Bridge. Downstairs is a shelter called A Man's Place, a dim room filled with mats, cots, and a flickering TV. Sure enough, inside Fremont Place, there was Shalako, wearing pajamas, a sweater, and purple socks, sitting at a card table, while eight other men slouched on a couch and yelled at the 49ers on TV. He was surprised to see me and rushed over to give me a hug. We stepped outside onto a rooftop patio so Shalako could get a smoke and sat at a metal picnic table, shaded by an umbrella.
Shalako recounted the past two months for me. He said he had failed to stay in what was supposed to be a month-long 12-step alcohol treatment program because one of the other patients was constantly hitting on him. Then he fled from a detox center on Howard Street after only three days because it "was dark and disgusting." In the meantime, he had tried to reenter Care Not Cash. But when the social worker called his name, he was trapped in a line outside the welfare office because police were interrogating "some kid" who had passed through the metal detector with a knife. After six hours of snafus, he said, he still couldn't see his social worker, so he made a complaint with the mayor's Office of Neighborhood Services.
"I see your life is back to normal," I said. He laughed.
"So where's the rest of your money?" I asked.
"I didn't tell you something when we talked on the phone."
"Oh, no," I said.
"Yes," he said, "they stole all of it, all $17,000. I was on my way to the bank when I got raped and robbed. I was hysterical, but," he paused, "what are you going to do?"
I recognized his fatal voice of repression, and now my own stomach was tied in knots. It didn't feel any lighter when Shalako told me that after his detox was complete at the end of December, he had nowhere to go. He insisted that he had tried to enroll in numerous residential treatment centers, where he could stay for months and work with a therapist on the roots of his alcoholism, but that all of them were filled. Because he wasn't HIV-positive or diagnosed as schizophrenic, he said, he was either told he didn't qualify or placed on a long waiting list.
"I broke down crying when my brother told me that you were looking for me," he said. "I thought, ‘Oh, well, maybe somebody does care about me.' That was a catalyst for me to come back here."
"I'm really glad," I told him. And I was.
Ultimately, Shalako's problems stretched deeper than I could know. Bryant and other social workers and psychologists I encountered admitted that it was tragic how many people had to be turned away from residential centers for a lack of space—and a perpetual lack of money for mental health. At the same time, they also recognized in Shalako's consistent failures and complaints the chorus of the habitual alcoholic who was looking for any excuse to drink again. Which, of course, only made him a greater challenge to the public health system that was supposed to care for him. And, as far as I could tell, had failed.
Shalako insisted that regardless of what happened to him when he left detox this time—he expected to "end up back on the streets"—he would stay clean. "I'm determined to do it," he said. "I don't know what else to say. I'm going to do my damnedest."
I didn't question him. He asked me to visit him on Christmas, and I said I would try. If Shalako ever does cycle out of detox clinics, get a job, and drive a Jaguar again, I can't wait to have dinner with him in some fine restaurant. In the meantime, I will take his calls and talk to him from wherever he is. For me, Shalako's story is not over.
"Be careful when you leave here," he said, as he slowly walked me to the door. "This is a scary neighborhood."