Part 3: Unfortunately, vulnerable people believe the scary things politicians say and Senator McCarthy had terrified mom. She believed the communists had bugged our phones and they would steal me if they could. She let me go to 2nd grade but was too afraid to let me go to 3rd & 4th.
Schizophrenia, televangelists, alcohol and cigarettes had their way with her until she could no longer pay our rent. I knew mom believed crazy things, but she told me that if the truant officer caught me playing hooky from school, I’d go to San Quentin for life. That sounded like it could be true.
You wouldn’t think a child could be homeless in Oakland, but it happened to me. I remember sleeping in the woods, in creek beds, and parks — making sure the truant officer couldn’t find us during school hours.
Sometimes mom would create a disturbance and the police would haul her away. They would recognize that she was mentally ill and would take her to the psych ward of a hospital. By California law she could only be held for 72 hours if she wasn’t deemed a threat to society. I didn’t let the police see me and stayed with other homeless people. They were as wonderful as the TWA stewardesses but, like mom, they were haunted by scary beliefs.
One winter mom found out that dad had a sailboat in Alameda. He didn’t lock it so we slept in the main cabin for perhaps 2 months. The boat had a galley with cans of chile con carne!
One day dad showed up with two clients he wanted to impress. When he opened the hatch and discovered us, he grew furious and told us to get out. We were filthy. We tried to gather our things, but he yanked mom from the cabin and I ran away from him and onto the dock. When you’re homeless, people just look away but this was different. This was my father too embarrassed to admit I was his son. I’ll never forget walking down the dock wondering how we would survive.
There are 10 more stories like that I will never tell, not even to my children.
To this day when I see cigarette butts on the sidewalk, I think of collecting them for mom. We didn’t have money so I gathered butts that still had tobacco and she smoked them.
Sometime around 5th grade age, I finally got caught shoplifting and had to go to Juvenile Hall. It was a sweater from a department store. The detective who ran me down slammed my shoulders against a wall, his chest heaving, and called me a little shit.
A tall, silver-haired, and kind man brought books to my cell and asked my name. I froze and stared at my feet. I couldn’t tell him because then he’d know I didn’t go to school and I’d be in real trouble. He was so kind, I would give anything to go back in time to thank him.
Juvenile Hall was nice. They served three meals a day we ate together in an open area. For lunch we got TWO HAMBURGERS WITH KETCHUP AND MUSTARD!! And warm French fries. I worried, though, that mom believed the communists had taken me.
The kind man explained that we had to go to court and the judge would demand that I tell him my name and where I was from.