Ah, home sweet home. Nothing, with the possible exception of a mother’s tender love for a newborn child, warms the heart like arriving home after being away. Shakespeare’s line — “People are usually the happiest at home” — is a cogently powerful thought that has resonated through the centuries.
However, poet Emily Dickinson’s notion — “Where thou art, that is home” — evokes a tinge of cheerless irony for tens of thousands of Americans who live on the streets and in shelters.
For the more moderately well-off homeless person — as I was 19 years ago — an automobile can serve as a provisional residence. It even raises the question: If you live in your car, are you truly homeless?
I’m quite sure our contemporary concept of homelessness was not what Dickinson had in mind, but a car (with windows, heater and gas in the tank) is a vast improvement over the cold concrete of a back alley or a bug-invested tangle of brush in the woods.
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That said, a car has no kitchen, no bath, no running water, no bedroom or backyard. But there is some positive news for folks living in cars: If the driver’s seat reclines, with strategic positioning of a sleeping bag and pillows — and a dose or two of Tylenol PM — a guy can get a decent night’s sleep.
I lived in San Diego during a localized recession in the 1980s, and I was employed as a writer / creative director by two companies that had declared bankruptcy, back-to-back, over a period of two years. Separation checks were promised, but never appeared.
When my landlord raised the rent, my savings were depleted and my income (a part-time phone solicitation gig for AOL) slipped below the poverty line, things were tough. A lot of good my college degree did for me, I grumbled.
But wait! I had a dependable Ford Tempo and a safe, secluded La Mesa driveway to park in at night. And there were free shower facilities just 15 minutes away.
On the other hand, the frigid water discharged by the outdoor surfer showers at Mission Beach was beyond just icy cold. It was brutally, hideously unkind — but it served a purpose.
Social survival (avoidance of body odor when applying for a job) cried out for a creative bathing technique in that predawn blackness: a) strip down and step very, very briefly into the freezing water; b) once wet, step out and lather up; c) take a deep breath, survey the landscape to be sure you’re alone, and step back into the shockingly cold water to rinse off; d) check quickly again and wrap towels around you while hustling to the nearby public restrooms to dry off, dress, and blow-dry your wet hair.
Fast forward to 2015, and while my Ford Tempo “home” is a fading memory, this past year has been wildly uneven vis-a-vis my living space in Cambria. Do you know anyone who had three addresses in less than one calendar year?
I began the year on the east side of Park Hill on Plymouth Street, a place that — notwithstanding the nattering roar of Highway 1 far below — had its charm. I kept in shape trekking up 37 steps to my apartment, and a neighbor’s big yellow tabby, who purred like a perfectly-tuned Rolls Royce, showed up occasionally as though knowing I had need of a friend. Perhaps I did.
A four-point buck, driven to nutritional extremes by the drought, dined on a thick patch of ivy a scant few feet outside my window. Squirrels entertained me as they hurtled off the long lazy pine limb and landed awkwardly on my riotously swinging bird feeder.
But that lodging situation ended when the home owner decided to rent the entire upper floor and I had only needed a portion of it, so having only lived there for 14 months, I moved.
My next stop was a deliciously pastoral, lushly forested environment, and a quick walk to Strawberry Canyon. Watching crows dive-bomb a red-tailed hawk that was perched on the top of the highest nearby pine tree brought many a smile and chuckle. The hawk never moved, but his head turned in perfect sync with the trajectory of the crows’ aggression.
However, the business end of that arrangement was not as favorable as the ecology. One morning I was shocked to learn that I faced a 30-day notice to depart. Ouch. A swift kick in the britches. But, as the cliché goes, everything happens for a reason. Indeed that rude awakening opened the door to a far better domicile, my third home in 10 months.
Presently, I am tucked into a tidy studio apartment on property featuring more hearty succulents and a wider variety of cacti than I have ever witnessed on any other Cambria property. Toss in a veritable jungle of bamboo, a sprawling, awe-inspiring oak tree, sweet-smelling eucalyptus and a surfeit of songbirds, and you have an idyllically vigorous ecosystem for the nature boy in me.
Beyond the friendly, sumptuously welcoming environment, and the gentleman landlord, lady luck has also made several appearances.
The other morning, I went out before the crack of dawn to fetch my newspaper. As I turned from the bottom steps around a corner to the street (the delivery person tosses my paper on the opposite side of the property), my flashlight startled an adult skunk that stopped in its tracks 4 or 5 feet from me.
Momentarily paralyzed with fear, I switched off the flashlight and stood stock still. The skunk, apparently not feeling threatened, looked me over for a couple of seconds, turned, and moseyed across the street.
The moral of this story: When what seemed to be an ideal living situation turns out to be a stinker, hang in there, better days could be in the cards when you’re living in Cambria.
Freelance journalist and Cambria resident John FitzRandolph’s column appears biweekly and is special to The Cambrian. Email him at john fitz44 @gmail .com.