commuterchroniclesdbh

Driving and Biking in the Big City

Archive for February 2014

Homeless on the big city streets for the sake of a story

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I have respect for all human life and have a particularly soft heart for the homeless. I believe that’s always been true because I’m a chameleon and an empath.  But it may have teetered toward obsession in my reporter days when my newspaper at the time did a series entitled “The Haves and the Have Nots.” I, of course, had taken the “have not” position and actually spent three days as a homeless person on the streets of a big city where the homeless problem was growing. It changed me forever, as did most every story I wrote where I sometimes spent weeks of interviews, trying to put myself in another’s shoes – whether it was victim or culprit.

In this case, the memory I still hold most upsetting is of a friend I made at one of the soup kitchens who I saw occasionally while frequenting the common places for the homeless – street corners, underpasses, parks and public attractions. Eventually, we spoke a few times after I’d made him comfortable with my regular presence.

It was one of my few assignments where I had to keep my pencil far from reach and in the bottom of a deep dusty bag that was my constant companion. My suffering over those homeless days came mostly because I didn’t have a sharpened pencil in my hands, behind my ear, twirling unconsciously from finger to finger. Ironically, I never was as attached to paper and didn’t mind writing on anything at hand – envelope, napkin, back of a check book, although when I left the profession, I still preferred the skinny reporter’s notebooks that fit easily in a jeans pocket or skirt.

On the night of my memory, I had come to a high school football stadium to hear a preacher who would then serve us supper. I got there early to soak up the atmosphere and potentially sneak out the pencil for some details that I might not remember later.  My new friend came near and but sat several feet away. I was up a couple of rows higher than the seat of his choosing, but we were nearer to each other than any of the other homeless people who came eventually to somewhat fill the stadium.

He was dirtier than me, literally. More smudged and smelly, always with a bit of a runny nose. I never quite got homeless dirty but had found some battered jeans (not hard to find in those days), kept my hair unwashed and never tucked in my shirt (not blouse.) He, likewise, was in jeans and was pretty much blue all over. His bluejeans, his work shirt, his bizarre and ruddy blue complexion. He had some wire-rimmed glasses that sat askew on his face and were in fashion at least a decade ago.

What overwhelmed me and has stuck to me over the years was the simple fact of his age. He said he was 17 years old. He looked like a man of maybe 40. Not a day younger. And I didn’t remotely detect a lie nor any realization on his part of how old he looked.

His face was lined and rough from outdoor living but also from something deep and desperate. He was a runaway, he said. He said he had no one and nowhere to go. He’d been on the streets of Fort Worth for at least five years. (I calculated when he was 12.) He mostly slept in vacant cars and in junkyards. I simply couldn’t believe it.  I always expect tragic stories when I take on an assignment like the homeless, but somehow I am never quite prepared for reality. Facts are always worse than the fiction we conjure.

My second most haunting memory comes to me almost daily.  It is the face of a beautiful dark-haired girl of about 4 years old. She wields a soup spoon in her fist and shovels almost clear broth into her too-hungry mouth. She’s so heartbreakingly pretty and so sweet mannered and inviting that I want to sit by her immediately. She has a beautifully smooth complexion and long silky brunette hair that curls a little at the ends.  I want to touch its perfection. I wonder this decade or so later, “Is this truly how my homeless, hungry girl looked?” Or is she forever superimposed over my same dark-haired daughter who was about 18 months old at the time I was doing this backgrounder for the newspaper series. I see my own child, sitting at the kitchen table with her similarly dark-haired doll, and the two merge in my memory. It makes me weep and weep again.

I was a relatively new mother and all my feelings and empathy had been turned on its head by the experience of being a mom. My homeless child’s parents spoke only Spanish, and I practiced my Texas public school and state college training on them when I joined them at their table. We could talk about hunger, what they were eating, how beautiful their daughter was in her pretty dress. But the emotional details escaped me. I couldn’t get to the root of their pain at being on the streets. “Only three days,” the mom said.  The cultural difference, “I have work,” the father said. Clearly, this little family was simply pleased to be in the United States and what I considered suffering was not even on their radar.

So, I settled for telling the little girl that I had a daughter “la misma” as her.  Both she and my daughter were both “muy bonita” and I liked my new little friend very much.

Later, and after a six-month series I did on teen-age suicide, I’d be offered a transfer to Washington, D.C., or New York -– a reporter’s ultimate goal back in those days. I was eventually to turn down the offer so that I could spend more time at home with my baby girl and later her younger brother.

Written by commuterchroniclesdbh

February 22, 2014 at 7:54 pm

Homeless in the ‘burbs

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I left the suspiciously unsuspicious-acting truck driver that day and headed into my neighborhood toward home. When I came off the main road, I had to make the decision to continue following the concrete-paved street that doglegs around to later run in front of my house or to go straight into the shaded overhang of the asphalted greenbelt behind my neighbors’ houses. My neighborhood is built like an airport terminal. One long street where I live and then “runways” down to cul-de-sacs that empty out onto the greenbelt. If I go the greenbelt route, I’m under a canopy of pines, oaks, magnolias and occasional willows.

The throbbing, heat-pounding street is never the best option in the Texas sun, and the greenbelt shade is preferred, but this is winter. Almost tolerable most days. Neither of my options is shorter in distance than the other, and, in the end, I like to mix it up a bit – just like I change up the bike paths that are part of my routine. I never know what I’m going to do until it strikes me in the moment. Interestingly, I’m never indecisive and my path is clear almost immediately. I’ve come to rely more and more on my instincts as I’ve gotten older.

In this particular moment, I decided to take the road. Fast-track it for the house.  The actual street I live on is Blue Mountain. Of course, there are no mountains in my part of Texas, much less down my street but that is how these streets are named. Every street is clearly marked with completely different names. I suspect the builder considered the names to be unique. But, for some reason, they all sound alike, and I can’t quite remember any other street names but my own street. Blue Mountain, Spring Heather, Walnut Creek, Babbling Brook, etc. See how different they are and yet how much they are the same when someone asks you for a crossroad.

I swerved my bicycle wide around the road bumps of the circle at the end of my street, making my mileage on my handlebar odometer as high as possible. I wasn’t remotely thinking about the weirdness that I’d experienced along my ride – first the stranger who didn’t expect me and then the stranger who seemed to be expecting someone and wouldn’t look at me. The first stranger was at the beginning of my ride, the second at the end. Now, I smelled home and hearth and a bit of a well earned relax on the porch, maybe with a glass of Chardonnay after I’d had my prerequisite glasses of water.

I glanced at my mileage and saw I’d reached the fatal 6.66 miles and knew I’d have to make it at least to a solid seven miles or my superstitious upbringing would kick in. That was easy enough to do by taking every single cul-de-sac along the straightaway to my house. One, two, three, four of them. Then I entered the fifth street on the left, the one right in front of my house, and a black Mercedes was coming my way. I biked to my side of the road, as usual, but was watching out to check his speed and to be sure he saw me, too. After all, I was on the smaller, more vulnerable vehicle. When we made eye contact, I did a double take and so did the driver.

Sitting behind the wheel of this somewhat older but pretty luxurious Mercedes was a familiar face. Not someone I know but someone I’d seen and had a conversation with in the last six months. However, this particular Mercedes driver had been a homeless man the other time I’d seen him.  He was pushing a nearly empty shopping cart at a gas station just outside of the loop.

My first thought was to stop immediately and let my jaw drop. But I happened to be in front of my own house. I didn’t want this guy to know where I lived, so I kept moving, all the way down to the park about a block away. I attempted to act nonchalantly as I biked away and forced myself not to look back until I made it to the parking lot to turn my bike around. When I turned, I could still see the Mercedes so he had to be going really slowly. He should have been off my street by now.

I bravely started back toward my house and watched while, up ahead, he made the dogleg to the right toward the thoroughfare and finally went out of sight. I slowed my pace even more to see if he would turn around and come back. He didn’t. I blew out a long, confused breath.

Could I be wrong? What would that same homeless guy be doing in my neighborhood? And what was he doing driving such a nice car?

Unfortunately, I couldn’t convince myself I was mistaken because I remembered him quite clearly. After all, he’d grabbed me and even kissed me when I last saw him, changing my casual policy for donations to the homeless forever.

Written by commuterchroniclesdbh

February 19, 2014 at 10:49 am

Cub reporter raised by wolves

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As a police reporter in the 1970s and 1980s, I was treated just like a partner by the cops I covered. I saw them daily, sometimes twice a day and became as much a part of the cop shop as I was the newsroom. It was an era of respect by both sides for the other. I earned the trust of the officers I covered by showing objectivity and thoroughness, and they were given my highest consideration about when and what I reported for the good and safety of the community. Sometimes we disagreed, and I went to print anyway. Then, I’d have to earn my way back into their good graces.

Really early in my career and before I’d finished college, the police chief of Port Arthur wanted me to become a cop on his police force at a time when they were trying to recruit more female officers. This was the ’70s and equality was at its height in Texas where Roe vs Wade had just been passed, Barbara Jordan, a black woman from the Fifth Ward of Houston, had been elected to the Texas Senate, and we’d had a viable modern-day female candidate for governor, Sissy Farenthold.

I declined the change in careers but  did a story based on running the police department’s obstacle course myself – a test that was popular at the time as police departments tried to figure out how to be indiscriminate and yet hire officers who could stand up to the physical conditions of the job. Climbing the six-foot fence was the toughest part for me at 5-feet-7, and a bit of a trick that I had to learn from other officers before I could successfully pass the test – even at age 19 or so. The best way to get over the flat face of a high wall is to make your initial jump as high as possible, plant a foot at a diagonal so it will hold for a few seconds and scramble the rest of the way while you still have momentum. It took me several tries before I could hurdle up the wall and throw my body to the other side. Then, I had to rest up so that I could make good time on the other obstacles — crawling in the mud, jumping into tires, rungs on the monkey bars, simple running for time.)

One senior detective in those early days wanted to bring me along on the job to show what now is called a six-pack, a group of pictures for the eye-witness to pick out the suspect. The officer said he needed a woman’s touch to help calm this particularly distraught rape victim in an era when cops were just beginning to take rape victims’ needs seriously. And remember, female officers were few and far between.

He gave me a quick up and down and suggested, “Put your hands in your pockets,” and I put my hands in the pockets of my skirt. “Take your pencil out from behind your ear.” I always had a well sharpened Ticonderoga No. 2 pencil on me somewhere – usually behind my ear for easy access.

“There,” he said, nodding his acceptance. “Just never say you’re a cop. Stand quietly with your hands in your pockets. You’ll be fine . . .  Don’t take notes.” As if he had to say.

As I remember, the assignment went well; the correct suspect was chosen. I then was granted privileges to go with the primary detectives on stakeouts and often helped in rape cases. I also helped searched through dumpsters and canvas neighborhoods. I was good at it. After all, interviewing was becoming my super power.

Often I was a sounding board in a room full of detectives for ideas and scenarios for crime-solving. We once tried to figure out how to get the photo off the backing of a Polaroid that was left behind. It wasn’t the picture itself that was left at the scene but the negative-like other side. When we finally got an image, using my newspaper’s photographers, we realized the angle was toward a certain body part and not at all a body part that would be visible on the street. The clue we got from this experience was the realization that the victim knew his assailant pretty well and at least went to his heavenly reward after a night that started with fun.

Then came my biggest conflict with the officers I covered. I wanted to report the disappearance of a diamond salesman. The cops I covered daily objected. They said it was not a story. It was merely a man who had gotten tired of his life and took a hike, perhaps to Mexico. A pretty common occurrence for folks in Texas who were ready for a change. If I wrote about the missing man, as a diamond salesman, everyone would go bananas and blow the story out of proportion, the officers said.

The missing man’s wife called me off and on all that week after his disappearance. She was desperate, scared and crying. I went over and talked to her. She said their son was about to get married. He may have left her but he wouldn’t leave his son, she said. Then, his twin brother came to my office. Wow. That was weird. I talked to him, of course, and it made quite an impact. They had always been terribly close, like twins can be. They talked or saw each other every day of their lives.

Finally, I wrote the story. And yes, it was a banner headline across my newspaper’s front page. My city desk ate it up. “Diamond Salesman Goes Missing.” Then, all hell broke loose among my competitors who already believed I was getting special treatment. I argued that I worked harder, and I did. I always ran my traps, even at the smaller police stations that seldom had anything to report.

My cop sources were livid. They thought I’d blown out of proportion the story of a consenting adult who decided to leave his life and wife. Then, to make matters worse, they were forced to hold a press conference for the rest of the media and especially the television cameras to discuss a case they didn’t believe was worthy of a story much less a Page 1 headline.

And, it seemed like they were right for a few months. Time passed. Everyone was cranky with me. No one loosened up. I sweated like a workhorse for every inch of newsprint I got out of the cop shop.

Then one day, a couple of men walked into a bar with a briefcase where the bartender was not your average guy. He noticed that the briefcase matched the description of the missing man’s case where the diamonds were kept.  A detail published in my story. He quietly called the cops and served them up a couple more beers, delaying them until the officers could arrive.

A couple of confessions later, and the diamond salesman’s body was found. He’d been dead since the day he went missing. Yes, he was seeing another women who’d set him up. He was driving her and “her brother” when the man in the back seat of his vehicle hit him over the head. They buried his body on a lonely street and covered it in lime to delay the odor. Without a confession, the body probably never would have been found.

Interestingly, the officer in charge of the case apologized to me and began to trust my instincts more and more. If you called him up today, he’d say that I solved that crime. Of course, I was just a reporter of the facts and not an investigator nor anyone who helped dig up the body or present the evidence. And, at the time, I’d never have considered my instincts to be on target because I was always doubting myself. But, in the end, I had a really good nose for news and mostly called a story correctly and got the right interview out of the right person. Mostly.

The wife of the dead diamond salesman called me after her husband’s body had been recovered. She wanted me to sit with the family that night and listen to old stories about his life. I had never met him but I sat with his wife, his son, his twin, neighbors, their pastor and others. I listened to stories of his kindnesses when his child was young and the pranks he and his twin pulled. I soaked up all the details and joined in the mourning, but I never printed a word in the newspaper about the personal evening I spent with the family.

Written by commuterchroniclesdbh

February 15, 2014 at 8:18 am

Another unusual sighting on the usual road

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When I took a desk job and stopped playing tennis four to six times a week, in between paying contract assignments for my writing,  I told myself that I would bike more to make up for my lost exercise. Cycling is a sport I can do alone, at any time of day and for any amount of time that is available to me on any given evening after work. More on weekends. Over the months that became years, I established many routes, depending on the amount of daylight left and my own proclivity for exercise that evening after a full day of writing and office politics.

I have five-mile, 10-mile and even 20-mile routes that wind through the overhanging trees and greenery in tropical Texas where shade becomes as precious as oil. In the past, I would take out my heavy, grandma bike with the big basket and ride to the library and fill the basket with books. That’s a 20-mile haul over the Lake Houston Bridge, typically on the weekend when the Atascocita library is one of the few of the Harris County public library system that is open on Sundays. Now, I’m more likely to download a book on tape from HCPL mobile for free – even if I’ve been on the hold list for months – so I don’t have to schedule my rides around an open library.

In my particular suburb, on the outskirts of Houston, there are hundreds of miles of greenbelts, taking you to any and all of the city’s neighborhoods. And, if you’re careful and methodical, you can choose a route without ever crossing a major artery or putting yourself in harm’s way of ill-considered teen-aged drivers or multi-tasking soccer moms and dads who may not see you until they’ve killed you – and perhaps not even then. In other words, I prefer to stay off the main streets, even in my mild-mannered ‘burb, because it’s on the open road when, as a biker, I take my life into my own hands.

I joke that a teen-ager will mow me down and simply “call daddy” who will cut a check over my broken body in an attempt to make up for junior’s mistakes. It happens. I see the white wooden crosses with a spray of plastic flowers marking all the main arteries and even some side streets where I often wonder how someone can possibly get up enough speed to kill or be killed.

I won’t be a victim of this class war.  I won’t allow junior, in the years before s/he grows a conscience, to toss me aside like a beer can tossed out the car window over a weekend or on an after-school romp. I won’t become a wooden cross or a statistic.  I will drive defensively; I will always be on the lookout. I haven’t overcome my dysfunctional childhood, spent 20 years as a police reporter whose been shot at twice, faced countless murderers even some before I turned 20 years old,  seen more than my share of dead bodies and a few autopsies — to go down for the count to a teen-ager or soccer parent. I happen to cherish my own bones even if the drivers in my neighborhood don’t.

Today I wanted to log some miles but knew I wouldn’t be able to stand the cold weather for long. Right, right.  It’s 45 degrees. I know that’s not really cold. In my former Michigan residency, my kids would have been crazed to play in the sprinklers on a day like today, but my blood has thinned in my native Texas and I crave sunny, sweaty days before I settle in for hours and hours of biking.

I bundled up – gloves and earmuffs – and started my ride on the street during the afternoon and before kids are let out of school. The streets are pretty vacant on school days and I can pick up the pace before I head off road and onto the greenbelt. After I enter the umbrella of trees and heavy quiet, I bike a couple of three miles until I turn around, literally, at the big penis that appears beneath my tires. That is, a regular graffiti that’s been drawn routinely on this particular greenbelt for years, reappearing when it’s painted away. It’s become a crude marker, of sorts, for this particular route,  perhaps mistaken as an atomic bomb or lopsided mushroom by some less frequent passersby. I bike to the penis, turn around and come home behind a neighborhood that has several wooden bridges over the swamps and lowlands. This is about a 30-minute, six-mile ride. I’d say it’s lower on my totem pole of favorite rides. Not really much exercise but a pretty scenic route – if you don’t count the penis.

I finished the scenic part and started on the paved roads toward home. As I poured out onto the very last leg, there was a white truck parked at the entrance to my specific neighborhood. I noticed the parked vehicle up ahead for several minutes before I also saw that the guy sitting in his truck (I think a Nissan Frontier) was looking bizarrely uninterested in his surroundings. A young enough guy – maybe late 20s, early 30s. Cleancut with dark blonde hair, pretty even features otherwise.

Being raised in a newsroom from the time I was younger than 18 has made me a pretty good observer. One of my early mentors recommended a writing exercise when we sat in a diner on assignments. We would write specific and detailed descriptions of the folks in the restaurant and then look for triteness or overused descriptors to eliminate and rephrase,  make the writing clearer and more precise.

Like many childhood skills, I didn’t even realize I’d acquired such a careful eye for my surroundings until it became a popular subject of television shows like “Psych” and “The Mentalist.” That’s when I discovered I’d already assimilated the characters and details of my surroundings and picked out “which one is different from the other ones” without even being conscious of the specifics unless asked.  The only glitch is that I describe people bizarrely, perhaps even impolitely, without meaning to do so and with a strictly pure heart. It’s just my mouth that gets me in trouble if I say it aloud.

“Really pointy nose, big forehead,” I say and would never consider it an affront unless I hear it repeated or said to the person I’m describing – who actually is pretty normal-looking and even attractive. I just know without thinking the characteristics that stand out.

“A bit fat but clean and well dressed.”

“Really big head and little body. Long neck.”

“Huge boobs with incredible cleavage and broken fingernails.”

“Gangly legged guy with the shorter girlfriend who maybe had a strange spangle wallet in her pocket.”

See, it doesn’t sound nice, but I bet it would help you pick the person out in the crowd. Nine times out of 10, when I describe this person, my audience knows exactly who I’m talking about.

Instinctively, this truck and its driver caught my attention because the driver seemed out of place, doing nothing. His head was pointed dead straight, looking neither left nor right. I looked around to see if he had a passenger nearby and he was merely waiting for someone to hop in so he could drive away.

Average guy. Maybe cute enough but a bit weirdly awkward, stiff  and uncomfortable.

A couple of cars passed him while I approached on my bicycle as did one of my neighbors walking his two rowdy hounds. The truck driver never looked at anyone but sat alert, eyes forward, a stiff neck. Who does that?

And, when I biked by, I gave him a huge, long lasting, hairy eyeball and he never, ever swiveled my way.

Strike two.

Written by commuterchroniclesdbh

February 12, 2014 at 6:03 pm

Skeleton from the closet

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My recent trip to the casinos reminded me of my gambling blood and the family legend of Uncle Richie. This story was published in the old “Star” magazine of the Houston Chronicle in 1992 after he died.

commuterchroniclesdbh

I scrawled the directions on a piece of paper near the telephone, my husband — in the background — more incredulous all the time.

“You’re gonna turn at Aunt Bessie’s old place,” the voice on the line said.

“But I don’t know where she lives. You know, I haven’t been out there since I was just a kid.”

“You’ll know it by that blue Chevy parked in the yard,” he explained.

“You sure her car’ll be there?”

“It’s been there for at least 20 years.”

My brother was giving me directions to the cemetery in East Texas where my uncle was to be buried. My husband was giving me grief for even thinking about trying to find it. Half the drive was a two-lane highway; the other half was red-dirt roads only traveled by the people who lived down them. My last obvious landmark would be the Arcadia Four Corners…

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February 8, 2014 at 8:14 am

An unexpected meeting on the bike path

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I was upon him before either of us noticed. The meeting was inevitable. He looked up at me with dark, heavy eye-lashed eyes and out of a bit of a ruddy complexion. Could he have been 30 or older? What was he doing on that kid’s bike. It was really small for his frame, at least 5-feet-10.

Had I not biked up quickly and close, I would never have been able to describe him. Dark pants, heavy sweatshirt and hoody pulled over his ears and much of his face. Nothing specific would have registered.

But he didn’t see me until he did. You might say, I surprised him. All of my life folks have said I am quiet-footed, in this case quietly biking.

So he looked up, startled, and we made eye contact. What is it between two strangers that passes quickly and you know something about someone without a word and with just a glance. He was surprised and then angry at seeing me. He had entered the bike path from a nice neighborhood in the middle of the morning on a school day. I happened to have taken a vacation day or I never would have been there.

In an instant, I knew he didn’t want to be seen and had been seen … by me. My senses told me he didn’t quite register me as harmless. We’d made eye contact, human contact. I could recognize him again. He could recognize me. Something he had been doing or thinking was not for an audience, even an audience of one.

I skirted him quickly and, in my mind, as casually as possible. I never looked back to see if he was gaining on me. I turned off the isolated bike path and onto a busy road. I presume he stayed on the bike path because he didn’t come out behind me.

I know where he was and what he looked like. He knows the same and certainly could identify my bike again. I could identify the bike he was on, although I suspect he’d borrowed it from a younger kid.

This has happened to me before in my lifetime as a police reporter. I arrived before the police at the scene of a suspect in the murder of five people. I drove by this man who, in fact, was found guilty of mass murder months later. He was raking his leaves in the front of a house that was the biggest, most frightening mess I’d ever seen. He looked up from his raking and we made eye contact. The feeling that passed back then was of his ultimate glee. Cold and irrational. Kids biked up and down that same street at the same time. My information was a mere tip but I knew, with that look, that I was in the right place.

Back then, I made the loop and parked a few houses down until we heard the helicopters and sirens coming in for his arrest.

Yes. I know trouble when I see it. Sometimes in just a glance. Perhaps not big trouble this time but mischief and perhaps burglary. And now, we wait and see.

Written by commuterchroniclesdbh

February 5, 2014 at 10:32 am