By Jeremy Arias
It’s usually about 8:30am or 9:00am when I get out of work. There’s something about the difference of the air and smells you get when you walk in and out of a coffee shop. When I get to work, the sun still hasn’t risen and the espresso machines haven’t begun their shift brewing endless cups of coffee, so the smell of coffee is very light and faint, subtle. When I get out of my shift, there’s something about the fresh air liberating my nose from the coffee smell, which I invite with a welcoming breath.
There’s always birds. Pigeons on the pavement eating scraps of food and flocking away the second you come near their personal space. At times I’ll see them sipping water left behind by people washing outside their shops. I’ve seen dogs leashed outside the bakery patiently waiting for their owner to come out. As I pass, the dogs let out a sharp bark telling me I’m too close. I shrug, smile at the dog, and sip my coffee.
As I walked back home just the other day, a voice called down from a bench.
“Good morning,” he said. I turned to my right and saw a homeless man sitting on the bench smiling. His hair was grey, skin wrinkled and burned from sun exposure, and lips spread out in a friendly smile. I felt like I already knew where this was going.
“Good morning,” I returned his gesture and smiled back at him. I was going to continue to walk away, but he leaned in closer as if he wanted to talk, but not yell.
“Do you think you can spare me some change so I can get myself a cup of coffee?” His face was still friendly and had a sincere look. I don’t usually carry change, and I pay for almost everything with my card. I thought I didn’t have anything to give.
“I actually don’t,” I replied getting ready to explain that I don’t carry change.
“That’s fine,” he replied. “Have a wonderful day!” he smiled as I turned to walk away. I smiled back and raised my cup to get another sip of my coffee, when it came to me. I took a few steps back and saw him look up at me as I approached.
“You know what,” I said. “I can give you this instead. I don’t carry change with me and I pay everything with my card. You can have the rest.”
His eyes brightened and hands extended, but stopped midway.
“Are you sure?” he asked. “I don’t want to just take your coffee.”
“Go ahead,” I replied. “It’s my second cup and I’m actually trying to cut down on caffeine a bit.”
He took the cup.
“Well, thank you,” he replied as he took the warm cup off my hands. He smiled and took a sip. “I appreciate it.”
“You’re welcome,” I replied as I smiled and walked away.
As I continued my walk home, I realized I had seen him many times before, not just on my daily commute, but also as I stare out the window of the car and pass the streets watching pedestrians. There’s something about homeless people being ignored in a number of ways. People pass them by on the street, and although they hear their asks for loose change, they keep their faces forward and ears form a path to shoot the sound out the other. They’re invisible.
He had a face that if you saw him in another city, you wouldn’t question where you’d seen him before. You’d simply recognize him and keep going about your day without questioning yourself or looking again at him out of fear that if you did, he’d approach you.
The next few days I walked back home, he would look at me, smile, and say good morning. He wouldn’t ask for any money from me, he’d just greet me as any friend would on a regular day.
“What’s your name, young man?” he asked me politely one morning.
“Jeremy,” I replied. “And yours?”
“I’m Uncle Ron,” he replied ecstatically, as if introducing himself gave him a sense of pleasure. “I see you walk by here every morning and say good morning, but I don’t know your name… now I do. It’s nice to meet you, Jeremy.”
“Likewise, Uncle Ron,” I replied as I nervously shook his hand hiding my fears and memories of the stories my mom told me about how unpredictable homeless people could be.
“How are you doing today?” I asked as I pulled my hand back.
“Oh, I’m just swell,” he muttered. “The other night I was fallin’ asleep, just minding my own business- I stay over there sometimes…” He pointed to an alley across the street from the coffee shop.
“I was falling asleep and some guys came to me and just started beating me up and thrashing me around!”
“What?” I was shocked, but not surprised.
“Yeah, I wasn’t bugging anyone either, just getting ready to fall asleep and their car comes out of nowhere and they get off and start kicking me, look at what they did…”
He bowed his head and pulled some of his hair back to show me some wounds on the top of his head. It was scratched pretty bad, and there was a massive bruise under the scratches.
“I spent three days in the hospital!” he sighed. “Some people just don’t have any respect for other humans.”
He nearly spat out that last part.
“That’s terrible,” I said. “Some people can be pricks.”
“Tell me about it!” he agreed. “I’m almost through with this though.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I’m only doing this for now, see…” he began to explain, “I used to work at the [county] hospital, and for a few months they weren’t paying me. I have nine checks for seven hundred dollars sitting around there somewhere. My sister lives over in…” He pointed east and snapped his finger trying to recall the name of the city.
“...Norwalk,” he recalled. “Yeah, she lives over in Norwalk and said she could help me get a hold of those checks, but I wanted to see what it was like to be homeless first, you know before I make a lot of money. I don’t want to forget who I was, I want to stay humble.”
“I feel you,” I replied. I wasn’t sure if he was telling the truth because it seemed odd that someone would choose to be homeless before making sixty-three hundred dollars to stay humble. I figured perhaps his sister took the checks and left him on a wild goose chase after these checks, and he ended up homeless as a result, then later on convinced himself it was his choice all along to go homeless. I don’t know, but there was something trustworthy about his story.
My grandma was an alcoholic who during the last few years I’d known her was going through a legal debate over being forced against her will to sign the deed of her house over to my uncle. The story I’ve heard, in summary, was that she was drunk, abused, and forced to sign. To pay for her legal fees and bills, our family redirected the rent money she would collect from her other properties, since her biggest expense was alcohol. During her drunken rants, she would say that her daughter (my mom) would steal the money from her and use it for other things. She had a paranoid mind that would take our aid as a threat against her lifestyle.
Knowing that my grandmother had a twisted world view and saw things different from us, I had a feeling there was something similar to Uncle Ron’s story.
There’s a different connection you get with people when you learn the story behind their face. Often times we’re told a story about people we don’t know, so we picture what these people might look like. Later on when we meet these people others tell us so much about, we match the faces to the stories and completely change the image we’ve amplified in our heads. When you learn the story behind their face, you learn that they too are a person who goes day by day with struggles of their own.
It’s been a couple weeks since I’ve seen Uncle Ron. Perhaps he finally got his checks and settled himself somewhere. Maybe he left to stay somewhere else or got admitted into another hospital. I don’t know what happened, but I hope he’s alright.
By Jeremy Arias
It’s Wednesday morning in Boyle Heights, I’m currently sitting in the corner of a coffee shop in Boyle Heights between a tireless espresso machine and a streakless window pouring in sunlight. I work as a baker here, and there’s about forty minutes until the banana bread comes out of the oven, so I have some time to write and catch up with the events going on in my life.
A few months ago, I dropped out of a college in San Diego because I failed just about every class in my last quarter there and later got an email saying I was dropped from the school. In a matter of a day or two, I settled back home with my family as I had nowhere else to go. I owe about ten thousand dollars in loans, and I’ve been dealing with depression which sucked the last of the life and motivation I had stashed in whatever reserves I held. I was a being of basic motor functions. I avoided talking with anyone to the best of my ability. It wasn’t atypical that my mood was repulsed by conversations and interaction.
With only a tiny amount of energy that could barely get me out of bed, and a mind that constantly screamed my insecurities and anxieties, ‘I don’t know/care’ was all that my mouth could spit, filtering all the negative things I really wanted to say. All my truths and feelings were hidden behind the thought that someone, somewhere, would actually listen and come to think that I was a nag or ‘whiney.’
When your day is shitty and you literally don’t find anything fun, your food stops having taste and you’re only eating to not starve to death. It becomes tough answering even the easiest questions for anyone remotely sane, like ‘how’s it going?’ or ‘what do you do for fun?’ The only thing that could put my mind at ease was a cold wind and dead silence in bed, but there was no way in hell I could ever get the two. The next closest thing was laying in my hot bed while the fan pushed hot air onto me. How the hell could someone live like this? This is the reason people commit suicide, and considering I’m only dealing with massive, day-long headaches, low energy, a dislike and repulsion to anything lifelike or stimulating, the thought there were people out there worse off than myself that were actually pushed into self harm and suicidal thoughts made me feel like it was all an act, like my depression was nothing more than a slump and I had to snap out of it, but how?
About a month ago, I got a text from my dad saying that the new local coffee shop was in need of a baker. ‘Fucking A’ I thought, I’m a pretty good cook and I love to bake. This was my calling. I spoke to the barista, who also runs the place, and the next morning, at 5 A.M., I was in the back kitchen being taught how to roll croissants and bake scones. I had myself a job. It is only a few hours every morning, from Sunday through Thursday, but hey, if I can get some extra money and keep my student loan collectors at bay for a little longer, this might work out. From one moment to the next, I became a part time baker.
The only thing that proved to be a challenge was waking up at four thirty A.M. to get ready for work and actually clear my head to focus on what I was doing. Being a college student for two years helped with just that, as I had faced many all-nighters studying and cramming for exams that never mattered. None of what I did in college matters now, at least not what I did in the majority of the classes I took.
Just last week, my mom took me to a doctor and I was put on antidepressants. The next few days followed with headaches that put my previous ones to shame: day-long confusion, nausea, irritability, diarrhea, constipation, fatigue, and loss of self-worth, hoping that within a few days the medicine would kick in and prove that this suffering was only short-term. Soon I would be back on society’s standards of ‘sane,’ whatever that may be.
Being back in Los Angeles, I thought I would immediately reunite with all my old friends, hang out, catch up and be together, but just as I predicted, I didn’t have the energy or will to even lift my phone and send a text, or even respond to a text when my San Diego friends would ask how I was doing.
One of the people I did reach out to, however, was my old art mentor Luis, who was typically a cool person to be around no matter the vibe. He helped push me through the process of bringing out the writer in me and guided me to publishing two books. After a few weeks of catching up and taking him the new, incomplete works I started, he proposed giving me a column in the biannual Art Block Zine and blog for their website, which he described as “dry.” He immediately gave me a .org email for DSTL Arts and told me I was now a representative of his non-profit organization, telling me about the responsibilities and precautions I must take. All my mind could translate this to was: “Don’t fuck this up, Jeremy.” But that may just be a taste of my anxiety sneaking through the Zoloft. He said he’d give me a business card to make it more official; right away he’d given me trust and had confidence I would do a good job with this, something I would have never convinced myself of. That’s how I knew I’d do well. From one moment to the next, I was an Associate Editor for DSTL Arts.
If anyone told me before I walked out of the bakery we met up at, that I would walk out Associate Editor with my own column and potential access to revive the blog, I would have dressed a little nicer than my sleeveless shirt and flannel, but then that would not have been me. And one thing I’ve learned while dealing with depression and seeing others fighting, is that people are unhappiest when they’re forced to be something they know they aren’t. And just like that, I had a new job. Maybe even meaning. I felt like a modern day Hunter S. Thompson without the drugs or funny remarks about life, or a different outlook that astonished people. Either way, I can’t be him, may he rest in peace.
I gave Luis’s proposal some thought for a few moments and proposed the idea of having a column about the community, see what people have to say or share. After all, society has been listening to the voices of Donald Trump, Kim Kardashian, and all the other worthless celebrities people worship so much, who don’t even deserve half a fraction of the attention they get. They don’t share anything with us, and by “us” I mean the community of low-income people like myself, the people who struggle day-to-day to pay their rent, bills, or wonder if they can afford their next meal. Thankfully, my dad has a well-paying job, which unfortunately exploits his hard work, (fuck you “delivery service”, you took my dad from me) and my mom is a part time driver for a “ridesharing company.” My brother is a firefighter who has not yet been called out to put out a fire, and I’m a baker. Aside from us, I have three younger siblings who are still in their free years of school. We’re a working-class family, and there’s millions of others just like us.
Part of what I want to do for my column is hear the voices and stories of other people whose voices and stories deserve to be heard. This, however, will involve me facing my fears of interaction, and not only talking to other people, but getting people to talk back, potentially facing the same fear of telling me their stories. As of now, I’m thinking of asking a few questions about people’s lives, and since I don’t want to bore my readers, I’ll be changing the questions and stories depending on the feedback I get from other people.
Some of the things I want to acknowledge is that everyone is different, and their stories will definitely vary. I have high hopes that this will not only change me in a positive way, but the other people who read my column and articles I publish from here on.
The bell dinged. The banana bread is ready, and so am I. Until next time.
The content displayed here is submitted by various local authors, artists, and more, and is curated by the DSTL Arts Art Block Zine–Editorial Board. Works published here are done so with the permission of all artists involved. Artists hold all rights to their work, and none of it may be reproduced without their permission.