I was having a beer with a friend at the old Kings Head in Santa Monica when a guy with a piece of paper in each nostril stuck his face in the door. My friend's name was Jules. I don't know the name of the man with the paper in his nose.
The visitor was in his mid-50s and was wearing what in any society might be defined as the clothes of a transient. The two pieces of paper were, maybe, each two inches long. He stared at us for a minute, shook his head in regret and then was gone.
"You see that?" Jules said, wiping his chin with the back of his hand.
"I see all," I said.
"Why do you suppose he had the paper stuck up his nose?"
"Maybe he had a nosebleed. I knew a kid in grammar school who always got nosebleeds and his mother put toilet paper in his nose."
"Why?" Jules asked.
"Because toilet paper was cheap and newspapers wouldn't fit. He had a small nose."
"They ought to throw the jerk in the slammer," Jules said.
He did not mean they ought to have thrown my grammar school acquaintance in the slammer for his nosebleeds. He was talking about the man with the paper in his nostrils and about all of those others who roam the streets. Liberals call them homeless. Conservatives call them bums.
Jules is an electronics wizard and therefore has no real political preference. He simply believes that anyone who does not traffic in computer software ought to be declared legally unemployed.
I had spent the day looking around and talking to a few of the 1,000 or so drifters who inhabit Santa Monica. A bag lady with a grotesquely painted face on Wilshire. A panhandler with his fly unzipped on Lincoln. A sleep-walking junkie in Palisades Park. A man yelling Jesus! on the pier.
The reason I went looking for them is not the same reason those of a more compassionate nature seek out the derelicts among us. I was neither going to support nor convert them and I sure as hell was not about to take a bag lady home.
I just wanted to know who they were.
You remember the homeless. They were our 1984 Christmas Cause. We erected them a tent in downtown L.A., brought them boxes of food and gifts and even took a few to the house to enjoy a good old American turkey dinner. Some of them couldn't even recall what a turkey was. One thought it was a California condor. That made us cry.
We bathed the poor, dirty unfortunates, dressed them in store-bought clothes, gave them five bucks and told them to start anew. Have faith in yourself, bum. You can do it! The old up-by-the-bootstraps routine.
Then when the holidays were over, we threw them out with the Christmas tree and began debating whether we ought to arrest them or ship them to Miami.
See you next year, dog meat.
We are not talking here about the dirt farmer from Purewater, Okla., who packs his gaunt-faced wife and three kids into the old pickup and heads for a better life out West, only to wind up living in a packing crate.
They still win our sympathy periodically because the man stays proud, the woman sweeps out the packing crate every day and the children believe God is going to deliver them a pound of pork chops by supper time.
They end up as throwaway features on the 6 o'clock news and Our Hearts Go Out to Them. Money and job-offers pour in because decent folks deserve our attention, if only fleetingly.
Among the drifters who stick papers in their nose, there are no decent folks. We're talking trash here, man, stinking of urine and Night Train wine.
I asked the guy with the unzipped fly how he got where he was and he couldn't even remember. When I asked his name, he had to think about that.
"Ted," he finally said as though he had just discovered radium. "Ted!"
"Try to recall, Ted, how you ended up like this," I said.
I wasn't sure how to handle that. How do you tell a guy who is apparently unaware of it that he's a bum?
"I would have said just that," Jules suggested later at Kings Head. "If they don't know they're bums, someone ought to tell them. Self-awareness is the first step to self-improvement."
He put a $50 bill on the bar and ordered another beer, not even offering to buy me one, though I had purchased the prior round.
Then he looked at me. "What did you finally tell the bum?"
"I didn't tell him anything. I rephrased the question. I asked him what had brought him to Santa Monica."
"The weather. He hated the cold and thought he might have come from Milwaukee or someplace where it snowed in the winter. He remembered snow."
Jules wanted to know who else I'd talked to but it really didn't matter. They are all so much the same, living in a tiny space of reality tucked between blurred worlds.
After I left Jules, I saw the guy with the paper stuck up his nose. He was standing in front of a pawn shop at the corner of 2nd and Santa Monica. One of the papers was gone. There was paper only in his left nostril.
He was obviously looking for a handout and I was dying to know, so I gave him a dollar and asked him what had happened to the piece of paper in his other nostril.
"I wish I knew," he said.
I wish I knew too. You don't learn a lot on the street.