By Fred Dickey San Diego Union Tribune Aug. 14, 2017
Transport your mind to this imaginary high school campus. Kids are chattering and wandering about between classes. There’s a pretty blonde named Abi over there cradling her books, wearing stylish T.J. Maxx, and just generally throwing off cool.
Boys slow as they pass and say hi with a hopeful little wave. Girls cluster around the leader of their clique. Cheerleader power.
Dream on. That’s all the real Abi can do.
Abi is 15 and probably could fit some of the above roles given more favorable circumstances. Alas, circumstances would not be her friend because there is a mountain range of them standing in her way.
The first is her address. She doesn’t have one. At present, it’s a parking lot on 28th street that’s free to homeless people. That’s where I met her when I wrote last week’s column on her family, the Garcias.
The family is parked there each night in a ’99 Ford Explorer with no place else to go, though they are trying to find one.
They sometimes rent a cheap motel for a night or go to the husband’s mother’s small apartment for a shower or to cook a meal.
Abi (“Abby”) shares the back seat with her sister, Hannah, a year younger. Mom Lisa and stepdad Ramon sleep in the front seat with a 2-year-old daughter who is nursed there by her mother.
The older girls have a different last name which the mother doesn’t want me to use. That’s her call.
The family is homeless because it’s unable to afford even the cheapest rents in San Diego. Ramon works two full-time restaurant jobs, but they are minimum wage and that won’t get you more than a tent in San Diego.
The family has to leave the parking lot at 6 a.m. every day. With no place else to go, Lisa drives from public park to public library, to fast food restaurant, then on to...wherever.
Abi and her sister spend hours reading in the downtown public library, and also in the car, as long as daylight lasts. Then? Well, she has to entertain herself with phone scrolling, video games when she has them, and always available imagination.
She daydreams about a business she would like to someday own. It would be a combination restaurant and book store. (“Much larger than Barnes & Noble,” she says.)
She is not allowed to date, although I don’t know where the opportunity would come from. However, she adds, she can have “crushes,” as though any force in the universe could stop teenagers from having crushes.
She pines to return to the Pacific Northwest and the home near Portland that they left two years ago for the “opportunity” of San Diego.
Her schooling is “independent education” provided by a charter school in El Cajon called Learn4Life. She is obviously a bright girl who seems far more well-read than average — thanks, public library.
I urge her to make college her goal, but I might as well have been suggesting a moon walk.
Lisa and Ramon certainly don’t seem to be boozers, dopers, gamblers or anything else that we sometimes assume the homeless are. They’re just poor, and that’s frequently enough to trap sober people in dead-end corners.
Abi has a sparkle that seems out of place on oil-spotted asphalt. But that’s the thing about a buoyant spirit, it floats above the low sky of despair.
There’s something else that might be significant only to me: She has blonded her hair. You seldom see that among the homeless where the surrender of vanity is a sign of giving up. She has also thus far resisted Big Mac’s caloric attacks.
Abi and I walk to a nearby table to talk. She doesn’t have the young teenager’s manner of averted eyes and nervous giggle. She makes eye contact. She has a tight smile, but being homeless is not a cause for happy laughter.
I can see in her face a little bit of silent wondering — Who is this guy asking questions? He looks like a landlord.
In genteel circles we hear the term “alternative lifestyle” thrown around. It’s often baloney, but let Abi tell you about hers:
Tell me how. I can guess at some of it.
“Cuz, for example, in the car, you don't get to lay down much. You can lean the seats back, but that's it. I don't really talk to many people. Kind of stay in the car and play on my phone.
“Me and (sister) Hannah read books a lot. And then there's Tally (the infant), too. She keeps us entertained.
Does she get on your nerves?
For a teenager, confined for hours in the front seat of a car with the air conditioner off is solitary confinement. Kids are meant to hop, skip and jump. Otherwise, they’re an engine at full throttle but stuck in neutral.
What we need to do is revisit our own 15th year when we used to plan each day’s summer adventure options right after breakfast: play ball, go swimming, maybe bike past the house of the girl we’re madly in love with and hope she comes out to talk. The lawn needs mowing, but that can wait — What? Today? I’m busy, mom. Oh, OK! — For a kid, life is a buyer’s market.
But not for Abi. She’s a prisoner, but there is no jailer to hate. Her family has just chosen the wrong town to be poor in.
One of the tribulations of teenage life is other teenagers. Bullies can find a vulnerable opening like a Napoleon battle plan. And if you’re a homeless fellow teenager, God help you because those same peers will not. The psychic damage bullies don’t do, you do to yourself in the backwash.
Think back to the way it was: I know I’m the ugliest girl in high school, that zit will never go away, Jacob didn’t even look at me yesterday, this sweater is gross — and that’s if you go to La Jolla High.
So, now, project those same eternal verities of teenage life onto a homeless girl wearing someone else’s old clothes, and angst becomes nightmare.
She becomes a rabbit trapped in a dog kennel.
When kids ask where you live, what do you say?
“Nothing. I just change the subject. It's kind of uncomfortable to talk about. It's easier with adults, they’re more understanding, but teenagers, especially boys, make fun of me.”
How do you reply?
“I'm never, like, really talking to them. We used to have a stroller because we didn't have a car, which we just recently got. We packed the stroller with all of the baby's clothes, her diapers and stuff like that, and we had backpacks, too. We’d just be walking along and the boys, they’d just make rude comments and make gagging noises.”
To demonstrate, she opened her mouth and inserted her index finger as though gagging.
“And they'd laugh behind our back as soon as we walked away, but where we were still close enough to hear them.” She blinked hard. “And it — it just didn't feel good.”
Did you ever think of turning and saying, "Why are you being cruel?"
“Well...I'm not really comfortable with saying anything.”
Girls can be mean, too, can’t they?
”Yes, like boys.”
For every slight, every tease, every mean insult that Abi tells us about, you can be assured there have been a hundred worse. She won’t divulge them because that’s her business and no one else can be trusted to know her shame.
Shame? What shame? Well, to a kid, humiliation is to be hidden because they never know if maybe, just maybe, the cause of it might be true. They have egos as sensitive to ridicule as an albino is to the sun.
What I have next to say to Abi I want to say gently. “You have a beautifully formed face, except for you know what — ” A pause. This is not easy. “Has any dentist said you need orthodontics?”
Yes, she needs it. Her teeth are a picket fence after a storm. She knows it, and she knows everyone else knows it, even though she tries to keep her lips closed.
She doesn’t break down. She’s dealt with worse. “Well, not a dentist, but boys talk about it,” she says in an even voice.
“I get picked on about it. Like, this one boy said that he wanted to punch my teeth straight for me. And that really, really hurt. That made me cry. And I don't know, it's just like, I've been teased because some of my teeth are whitish, but some of my teeth aren't.”
Overall, are you happy?
“In general, over all, yeah. Sometimes, I get angry and sometimes I get sad, but I mean, I have a pretty good family and we have a source of income.”
You mean Ramon's job?
“Yeah. He has two jobs right now. One night he got really good tips, so I think it's a pretty good income.”
Share a dream with me, the best you have, Abi.
She doesn’t hesitate. She’s given a lot of thought to the answer over many hours stuck in a stuffy car.
“When I grow up, I want my business to be up and running. I want to be married. I want to have kids. Not too many kids, but kids. I want to live in a big house — well, not too big, but biggish, with a big yard and dogs. And that's pretty much what it is.”
Right now, the way your life is, do you feel like, ‘Why me?’
And when you ask, “Why me?” how do you answer yourself?
“I don't really have an answer for myself.”
The interview is over, and on an impulse, I take a $20 bill from my wallet and give it to Abi, to her delight.
We say goodbye and I watch Abi fold the bill into thirds and walk about 10 yards to her mother who knows nothing of this.
Abi hands the $20 to her mother, unbidden.
Fred Dickey's homepage is www.freddickey.net
He believes every life is an adventure and welcomes ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org