John left his homeless camp to spend 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.
With a dog and only a few old blankets, John faced winter with little else but his companions from the traveling ragged homeless camp that congregated near the shoreline at dusk. And to complicate matters, the dog was territorial. Now that winter had set in, John soon discovered that protecting his fair share of bedding was akin to stealing a wild animal’s bounty.
The Carquinez Strait
The Martinez pier, where John often fished, defines an area that once bustled with steamships carrying travelers, goods, and gold miners on route between San Francisco and Sacramento. Passengers crossed 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 travel up the strait from the San Francisco and San Pablo Bays on their way to refineries. Martinez is one of the last oil-refining stops 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 skyscrapers, 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 on the pier while doing a little fishing over winter break. Fishing, for the two of them, has become synonymous with rejuvenation – a time to be outdoors and recover from the rigors of work and school. The pair had packed up our old green station wagon with fishing gear that cold December day as I retreated to the coziness of the kitchen. With a slight smile, I had wished them luck, knowing they probably wouldn’t catch anything edible. I think they knew it too.
Crafting a plan
As expected, the menfolk returned mid-afternoon empty handed. The pier had been cold and windy. But they had met John and shared their bait with him. I listened intently to the description of the homeless camp and of John’s dog who loathed sharing blankets. A palpable uneasiness settled in – that nagging feeling of needing to act or forever feel regret. We talked the matter over that evening and crafted a plan.
The following day, before setting out for 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 on the open side of the van, one of the women sitting in a chair. Images of camper trailers with folding chairs parked out front – like you see in old 50s photo ops with people waving and smiling – flashed across my mind then disappeared into a fading mist.
Leaving me to sit in the car with our youngster, my husband approached John to ask about blankets. Yes, he still needed one. We could have simply dropped it off without bothering to ask. But we wanted to make sure the camp would still be there when we returned. On occasion, authorities were forced to follow the letter of the law, and John and his companions would have to relocate. The three of us 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 away in back, we returned to the homeless camp near the pier, 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, allowing my husband to hand over the bag to John as 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 of the car. I need to speak with them.” Tentatively approaching the wizened tribe, I listened uncomfortably 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 as one of the women shouted, “Happy Holidays.” There was an awkward moment of silence before I rejoined my family, who had been peering at me through the fogged-up windows of our tired old Volvo. We left the darkness of the camp to gaze at Christmas lights before returning home to make dinner and hoist up our tree.
Thankful for the mundane
Later that evening as I stood hunched over the kitchen counter, mechanically grating cheese – I thought about the woman sitting in the chair in front of John’s old van. Our eyes had met. And I wondered – when was the last time she, or any of her companions, had done something so seemingly ordinary as grate cheese?
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 warm, well-lit kitchen. There was no need to 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 biting chill of dusk to move to a different homeless 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.