Is it possible to live on the sidewalk for years and still maintain your health? Not just maintain but thrive? There is a man who has made his home on the sidewalk in our neighborhood for at least the last ten years, under the awning of Europa Express at 750 La Playa Street.
We call him the Screamer but some locals refer to him as Marco. With no tent or sleeping bag, and only the occasional blanket over his shoulders to protect against the night chill, he is a constant presence. Not only does he live on the sidewalk, in only the clothes he’s wearing, but he can sit cross-legged in the one spot for the entire night. I will see him there at 5 in the afternoon, at 9 before I retire, at 1 a.m. when I’m up during the night, and he is still there at 6 a.m. when I wake in the morning. Perhaps he moves about in between times but, even so, how is that possible? Who but an accomplished yogi could do as much?
Not that he always sits quietly. Frequently, in a bellowing voice that fills the street (that I can hear at the back of the house even with all the windows shut), he will shout out “Get out witch” and “F you witch” only he doesn’t say “witch” and he doesn’t say “F.” He also likes to shout out, in a voice that must surely penetrate every unit in the half block long, four story apartment building of Ocean Beach Terrace, and all dwellings within a block radius, “I’m going to f you up witch” and other similar choice expressions like, “I’ll kill you n c. witch.” I’ll leave it to you to fill in what n and c stand for. It is, to say the least, not pleasant to hear. Often, the stream of imprecations goes on for an hour or more, increasing in violence and incoherence until it is only anguished animal barks and growls, as if he was suffering the torments of the damned. At the same time, he is hitting himself forcefully on both ears with his fists. So hard, in fact, that I am amazed he can survive it.
The following day, I will see him with a new set of clothes, standing tall and positively swaggering down the street, calmly tipping a drink into his mouth, master of all he surveys. This 20 yards of sidewalk is his domain, his kingdom, and no Lord Mayor could have more self-possession than the Screamer as he strides up and down. Clearly, someone, somehow, cleans him up a bit and puts a fresh set of clothes on him two or three times a week. The clothes always fit him. But, by that afternoon, he is covered in dirt, sitting on one of the beds of small red rocks that are set into the sidewalk, where he will count, sort, shuffle, smooth, pick up and put down the same red rocks, within a square foot, for hours at time; completely absorbed in his task he rarely even looks up. He will pick out little bits of something, throw them onto the sidewalk and then sweep them back with his hands, all the time never varying his cross-legged pose.
Rummaging in the nearby trash receptacle is another favorite activity and takes place many times a day. He will reach in, pull out bags of garbage and search for something, who knows what?. He will then sit down in his little alcove, pull a bag of food out of his pocket and start eating.with his bare hands. Not that he is always reduced to scavenging. He often has bags of fast food and plastic bottles of drink and is a frequent customer at Europa Express where he apparently purchases items, including liquor. The mailbox on the sidewalk in front of where he sits is his own personal storage locker and auxiliary trash receptacle. I have watched him, on many occasions, deposit various objects into it, none of them letters. We stopped using that mailbox years ago and walk to the one in front of Safeway. I’ve reported this to both our local mail carrier and the Post Office, but no one seems to be able to do anything about it. I’ve watched our postal person patiently take the collections of junk deposited there and put them in the nearby trash can; the Screamer’s larder.
After a day and night of madness, ranting, flailing about, pounding his fists into his ears, screaming and frantically rushing up and down the sidewalk, I will see him the next day sauntering along, freshly clothed, exchanging greetings with some of the regulars, and seemingly without a care in the world. If there is anything wrong with him you wouldn’t know it. He walks easily without a cane or stick and makes the circuit of Cabrillo Mall, Balboa Street and Golden Gate Park. He is sometimes absent for a day or two, but when he returns he is as robust as ever and newly clothed. His personal hygiene is non-existent, but he is apparently never sick. He sits, without a mask, all day, on a busy sidewalk but seems immune to flu or virus. I just finished watching him lift up the green water bag that’s around the base of one of the newly planted trees. There was a pile of trash underneath because he likes to feed trash into the tops of the bags. He then scrounged through the trash, retrieved a face mask which he then put into his pocket, and returned to his chosen spot. In some part of his brain he knows he’s supposed to have a face mask.
Quite frequently, the rampant insanity of his behaviour as he lashes about with a cane or long stick he’s acquired, slashing at the young trees, banging it against the lamp post and against the building, threatening the passers-by, or rushing bellowing down the sidewalk bashing his fists into his ears, prompts calls to the police. I have called at least half a dozen times myself, always to be told that I am the second or even third person to have called. “We’re dispatching an Officer now.” The police arrive and the Screamer is as meek and mild as can be; polite and cooperative. The encounter invariably ends with the Officers (sometimes there are two and even three) telling him, “Well, take care. Have a nice day.” I can understand; would you want the Screamer in your patrol car? Still, I have to ask the Officers, would you like the Screamer in front of your house when your spouse or kids come out the front door?
Sometime ago he deliberately pushed a recycling bin at my wife while shouting, “F you, witch.” and, if she hadn’t dodged out of the way, it would have hit her. We tried to report it to the Richmond PD but no one returned our calls. Two weeks ago, when I went down onto the sidewalk to talk to the police, they told me: “He’s mentally ill. There’s nothing we can do.” It wasn’t the first time I had heard this. The Screamer is disturbing the peace, shouting out hate speech, threatening passers-by (I saw him shaking his fist in the face of an elderly man) and committing vandalism (I watch him rip the door panel off the front door of Europa Express one night; you can find it underneath the bin in the trash receptacle if you want to look.) A favorite pastime is throwing the red rocks into the light fixtures that line the storefronts. If you’re wondering where the red rocks have gone, look in the light fixtures. When the bins are put out for pick-up, he goes into both the black and blue bins, putting items from one into the other and strewing garbage over the sidewalk.
Of course, nothing can be done because he’s “mentally ill.” And the rest of us living on La Playa are going in that direction, thanks to the Screamer.
Categories: letter to the editor