Homeless in San Francisco: Day Sixteen

16 Sep

My father re-entered my life when I was twenty-one.  It was not my choice.   My mother asked one day, I wonder what your father is doing?  She looked through the telephone directory and called the first entry with a name that matched his.  Eventually I made a few visits to his home in Torrance, where he lived with his second wife, Colleen.  I really liked Colleen for her earthiness and easy going manner.  She had cleaned my father up since the time she first met him.  He was a bookie then, walking the streets of Los Angeles in flip flops.  She was a beautician who ran her own shop.  He got legitimate work at the San Pedro shipyards as a welder and became active in union politics.  He was still shady.

The overwhelming feature of their home was the accumulation of junk.  It covered every surface, including a sofa in the living room protected in a clear plastic cover.  The only surfaces free from clutter were areas of the floors and the dining table when meals were served.  It was impossible to lean an elbow on a counter in the fully equipped kitchen.  Product boxes with their contents appeared everywhere.  It was dizzying.  But it wasn’t until Dad gave me a tour of the area behind the house that I had to shake my head.  He wanted me to see his truck parked in a garage, which he used for a welding business he was developing independently of the shipyards.  We stepped onto a concrete patio beside a pool.  Lining the patio in neat rows were more home products in boxes.

Hoarding is one of the newest spectacles in American life.  What a progression from the Rich and Famous to the Sick and Hoarding on television.  It is truly frightening when it becomes enmeshed with the deeper recesses of people’s psyches.  I was once told the story of an old man dying in his apartment when a huge pile of whatever he hoarded came crashing down on him.  And this morning my coffee mate Marjorie told me of a woman who had trouble opening the front door to her apartment, wrestling with the door every time she tried to enter.  One of my professors at Hunter College, City University of New York, kept an apartment with his partner in the Columbia University neighborhood.  He became my thesis advisor.  On a visit to his home, I was led through the front hallway, lined on both sides with bookshelves, to what must of been his study, with at least four more bookshelves taking up central space in the room.  He had a corner where he could sit in a chair.  Even the kitchen was supplied with bookshelves, although the books continued the theme of art history rather than cooking.  And then there was the day he was moving books into his office space on campus because he had run out of room at home.  The effort looked Herculean.

Books became a love and a curse in my life (blame Mom).  I have accumulated so many books that they have a life of their own in storage.  When I taught a course through Free University of San Francisco earlier this year, Minorities and the Critical Decade: World War II and After, I plunged through boxes in a storage unit to free material for the course.  But what does one do with books when homeless, especially so many?  When I moved from New York I donated many books to Housing Works.  While in San Francisco, I began divesting in September 2009 when my income took a decided drop.  I started selling online and found that books, even pamphlets, I held onto for years could fetch a price.  And those of no value I donated to Community Thrift Store in the Mission for my favorite charity, The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.

What I notice now is that thousands, perhaps millions, of people have taken to selling books online.  Five out of every ten online records read “former library.”  If your local public library is not throwing out books, as the San Francisco Public Library quietly tried to do several years ago before being exposed and vilified by a book loving citizenry, there are probably online booksellers pilfering the collections.  I once did my good citizen’s duty by contacting a Washington State university library about a book I had purchased online.  The seller did not advertise its rightful credentials, but I returned the book to its proper owner anyway.  Online booksellers scour shelves at thrift stores with a hand-held device that reads bar codes.  The seller can peruse instant results on what the book is selling for online at, say, amazon.  This past Wednesday I browsed through the tables in front of the public library’s main branch, where used books are sold every week for $1 apiece.  A gentleman beside me, probably too poor to afford the scanning device, was loading books into cardboard boxes without much attention to what he was picking up.  Certainly not the book lover type.  Beware, though, of what you buy.  Read a common online sales description, such as, May have marks or highlighting, and ask yourself, Is the title correct?

I should have known I was in trouble as I left New York.  My rental truck was stopped at a weigh station because it was too many pounds over the legal limit for transport.  When the officers asked what I was carrying, and my reply was books, they let me pass.  I decided to find cheaper storage space as impending homelessness loomed.  I have had a unit with Public Storage since arriving in San Francisco because books just do not fit in walk-in closets that are used as places to sleep.  The facility raised my monthly rate three times in two years.  I found a cheaper storage facility, but only managed to move half of the contents from the former because I did not have enough cash for another truck rental.  My storage fees have increased instead of decreased!  This is comedy at its best.

This is my advice to you: if you love something, love it from a distance.  It is said love knows no possession.  That must be true because once possessed love is replaced by something entirely different, like love with numerous headaches.


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