January 10, 2010
The drunkards of Walnut Creek? Or rather, just some chatty, friendly homeless guys hanging out in front of the former Sunrise Cafe and Bakery
This is the former popular eatery where suburbanites sat outside, at those picnic tables, at all hours of the morning and afternoon, eating omelettes, salads, sandwiches, and pastries. Now it, and other commercial spaces in that little strip mall near Newell Avenue (site of the former Pinky's Pizza), stand empty.
And, on a recent misty, sunless afternoon, a couple of those picnic tables in front of the former Sunrise Cafe was occupied by guys in beards, hats, and dirty old jackets. One was chugging from a bottle wrapped in a white plastic bag.
Curious--and nosy as I am--I pulled into Trader Joe's, got out and started watching the guys. They caught me watching them, and one of them came walking across the four lanes of California Boulevard traffic to me.
This guy, in a green coat, had cuts on his nose and looked and smelled like he hadn't showered or washed his clothes in months. He asked me why I was watching them. I told him: that I'm curious about people who are homeless in Walnut Creek (as evidenced by my interest and support of Fresh Start Walnut Creek, the homeless respite and services center, and of Creek Kids Care, which raises money to support Fresh Start programs).
I also told him about my blog. He introduced himself as Larry. He held out his hand which was caked in dirt. After we shook, he invited me to come over and meet his friends.
So, I crossed the street with Larry and sat, for as long as I could, and enjoyed what was a friendly but somewhat meandering conversation with Larry and his friends, Allen and Keith. The three shared their life stories filled with hard luck and, they admitted, their own bad choices.
Before I go on, I should address my use of the term "drunkard" in this post's headline. Well, first, this term is a reference to blogger friend Claycord.com's "Drunkards of Claycord" series, in which the Mayor has followed the misadventures of 13 men who have been identified by Concord police as chronic homeless who are causing trouble in that community.
As far as I know, Larry, Allen, and Keith have not received any such designation from authorities. But they all admitted to having long-term problems with alcohol.
"All three of us have a drinking problem," said Allen, 50, who smoked a cigarette and whose grizzled face and missing teeth contrasted with the sweetness of the Monterey Bay Aquarium sea otter logo on his jacket. He added: "All three of us have a homelessness problem."
As I sat with them, I didn't smell any alcohol. Just cigarette smoke and the smell of their long unwashed bodies and dirty clothes. They had several shopping bags, and one look liked it contained malt liquor; another a cheap bottle of gin or vodka. But also beside Keith at the table was an unopened package of sushi.
As for whether Larry, Allen, and Keith have caused problems in town, like the the "Claycord" drunkards, Keith, 57, stated:
"We're good guys," said Keith, who said he was awarded a Purple Heart for taking two bullets in the shoulder during service in the Vietnam War. "We don't lie or cheat or steal."
Well, that's not entirely the case. Allen told me that he had a couple cases pending in court. For petty theft: shoplifting from Safeway. He said hunger and desperation drove him to steal food. And desperation for for a drink. One case involved trying to shoplift a bottle of booze.
Allen said he grew up in a family of alcoholics, and the stress and cold of living on the streets makes him need to self-medicate with alcohol."You're out here sleeping in the cold. You can't sleep. It helps." Allen said he had also been asked to leave Trader Joe's. "I got mad at them. Because of all the frustration. They just said, 'don't come back.'"
Meanwhile, Larry said a family member, who lives in the area, had a restraining order against him. He also said he could no longer visit Fresh Start, so he must have somehow violated their terms of visiting and getting assistance.
As for Keith, who had wire-rim glasses, salt-and-pepper beard and hair, and a name identical to a famous rock star, told me something about having a wife or girlfriend in a program for drinking. He also said he had been hit by cars eight times while crossing the streets of Walnut Creek.
They said they had been hanging out together for about eight months, living in different homeless encampments around town. "We help each other." They all insisted they didn't want to cause trouble for anyone. "I hate violence," Allen insisted.
All three said they just wanted to work. To be given a chance to prove they are worth something.
"Homelessness is not against the law," one of them said. Allen said he worked as a painter, Keith said he had a degree in architecture, and Larry said he had worked as a builder.
I probably could have stayed there many more hours, trying to untangle narrative lines from a sometime wandering converation. Befre I left, Larry asked me whether I thought that by talking to me, and posing for this picture, he and his friends would make people more aware of the challenges confronting Walnut Creek's homeless.
I said I didn't know. But I told him I guessed that some of the things they said might make people mad. This would include other homeless who would say they are trying very hard to play by the rules and not cause trouble for anyone else, like this other guy I know who lives under one of the bridges around town. Or this woman I recently met a Fresh Start who almost became homeless after getting laid off 10 months ago from her marketing job.
I also know of some residents near downtown, particularly whose properties back up to the creeks, who are fed up with tresspassing in their yards and the littering in the creeks. I'm sure some business owners aren't too crazy about some--not all--in the homeless population who commit "quality-of-life" and other crimes, like shoplifting.
I did suggest that they not sit out on busy California Boulevard, drinking liquor, even if it's wrapped in a plastic bag. This act attracted my attention; I'm sure it attracted the attention of other people driving by.
So that's my chat with Larry, Keith, and Allen: a snapshot of three guys who live in our community, not far from the properous shopping destinations of Whole Foods, Nordstrom, and Tiffany & Co. Three guys who are desperate, admit to being problem drinkers, friendly, sad, bitter... That's the way it is, or was, when I was talking to them.
By the way, I recently asked the question whether Walnut Creek's homeless are members of our community or a blight.