Homeless Camp - A Memorable Winter's Day

                                      By California Historical Society Digital Collection [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons

                                     By California Historical Society Digital Collection [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons

John spent frigid December days fishing on the pier. Although winter is short in the communities that lie along the Carquinez Strait, a narrow, deep water channel that connects the San Francisco Bay to the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta, it does arrive. And there's a wind and a dampness along the water's edge that chills to the bone. Except for a dog, a few old blankets and some ragged companions from the homeless camp, John faced winter with little else.

At dusk, John and his friends would congregate along the edge of a park near the shoreline, where they slept and prepared meals. But in addition to sleeping on the cold, damp ground, one of John's biggest challenges was sharing the blankets with his dog, who bared his teeth and growled when John tugged on the covers. Staying warm was akin to stealing a wild animal's bounty, and the dog had even bitten him a time or two.

The Carquinez Strait

The Martinez pier, where John fished, defines an area that once bustled with steamships carrying travelers, goods, and gold miners on route between San Francisco and Sacramento. Passengers used to cross the strait on a horse-powered ferry to Benicia, another mid to late 1800s shipping town nestled on the North side of the strait.

Today, the area lies in sharp contrast to years gone by. Oil tankers from the San Francisco and San Pablo Bays pass by on their way to refineries with Martinez being one of the last oil-refining towns before the strait merges with the delta. Beyond this point, rice, almonds, corn and even wind turbines continue upstream to the ports of Stockton and Sacramento.

The pier is now strictly recreational. And downtown Martinez comprises mostly restaurants, antique stores and other small shops. Tankers, car boats and agricultural shipments glide on the horizon as floating edifices, while the towns sprinkled along the edges of the strait yawn with a sleepy disconnect. They've evolved into mostly bedroom communities for the San Francisco Bay megalopolis.

Fishing on the pier

My husband and son met John while fishing on the pier one winter break. For them, fishing has become synonymous with rejuvenation, a time to slip away from work and school worries. On that cold December day, I watched the pair pack our old, green station wagon with fishing gear. I retreated to the coziness of the kitchen. With a slight smile, I wished them luck, knowing they probably wouldn't catch anything edible. I think they knew it too.

Crafting a plan

As expected, they returned home mid-afternoon, empty handed. The pier had been cold and windy that day. But the two of them had met John, who could talk a blue streak, and they had shared their bait with him. I listened as they told the story about the traveling homeless camp and John's dog, who loathed sharing the blankets. An unsettled feeling washed over me, a nagging thought of needing to act or forever feel regret. We talked the matter over that evening and crafted a plan.

The following day, before buying our Christmas tree, the three of us drove to the shoreline to look for John. We scanned the area for his old, 67 panel van, a white relic that seemed to lean from the weight of its contents. It was easy enough to spot, parked at the edge of a lot by the shoreline trail.

The homeless camp

A small group had gathered in front of the open side, where a woman was sitting. The scene conjured up images of camper trailers with folding chairs parked out front, like you see in old 50s photo ops, happy vacationers smiling and waving. But these images soon dissolved into the afternoon fog, which gave the park an eerie dreamlike quality.

Leaving me in the car with our youngster, my husband spotted John and approached him to ask about blankets. Yes, he still needed one. We could have simply dropped one off without bothering to ask. But we wanted to make sure the campers would still be there when we returned. On occasion, authorities followed the letter of the law and forced John and his companions to relocate.  Having accepted our mission, we drove away from the battered old van packed full of who knows what and the welcoming band that guarded it to join the throngs in the shopping frenzy of the season.

Hours later, with a tree on top of our luggage rack and a sleeping bag tucked in back, we returned to the homeless camp, where dusk was settling in with a biting chill. The sleeping bag we purchased had a warmth rating of 30-50 degrees Fahrenheit. But we worried that it still wouldn't be warm enough.

Passing the buck

Feeling hesitant, I passed the buck, delegating the job of handing over the sleeping bag to my husband while I listened to the "thank you's" from the comfort of our car. But just as we were about to crank the engine to make our escape, I said, "Wait, I need to get out; I need to speak with them." Tentatively approaching the wizened tribe, I listened as John rambled on about the Air Force, the Navy and how the government said he didn't exist but how he really did.

"Yes, you exist," I said. "I can see You." He chuckled. Then, as if on cue, the woman sitting in the chair shouted, "Happy Holidays." There was an awkward silence as she gazed into my eyes. I broke the stare to rejoin my family in our old, battered car with the tree on top and fogged-up windows. It was dark, now. We drove away from the mist-shrouded camp and its guardians to look at Christmas lights. Soon, we would return home, and I would have to make dinner.

Thankful for the mundane

Later that evening while hunched over the kitchen counter, grating cheese, I remembered the woman from the homeless camp and the look in her eyes. And I wondered, when was the last time she did something so ordinary as grate cheese in a space with hot running water, a sink and stove and all the other conveniences that we take for granted?

Making eye contact with her had changed my perception of the mundane, and I felt it in my bones. I was privileged, simply by having the means to cook nourishing food in a functioning kitchen. I needn't fear the bite of a dog while wrestling blankets in the cold, damp grass. And no one would force me to pack up my clutter in the chill of dusk to move to a different camp.

If I had remained in the car, the woman's eyes and mine would have never met.


*Please note: although I doubt that John will ever read this, I did change his name out of respect for his privacy. Originally published in December of 2015, this piece was recently edited to improve the quality.