Living life under a freeway overpass
I caught sight of it out of the corner of my eye, as my bus pulled off the Harbor Freeway. It looked like an elaborate fort, spreading out from a concrete wall alongside a busy offramp near USC. I could make out a bed and couch, rimmed by what looked like bookcases. And on the sidewalk out front, a child-size table and chairs.
The bus driver told me it had been there for months. He’d heard that a family was homesteading there.
So I paid a visit, prepared for a story of pain and loss.
Instead, I found Eddie Dotson.
It was dark when I stopped by on Wednesday night, so I took my friend Johnny along. As we approached, he called out, “Hey, anyone there?”
Dotson pulled back the tarp and answered the “door,” a silver sunshade propped up at the end of a walkway of carpet remnants. He let me peek in, apologizing first that it wasn’t as neat at he liked. “I didn’t get around today to doing my laundry.”
But inside looked tidy to me. A bowl of fresh fruit was on a table. His bed was made with a patterned comforter. There was even a bathroom, walled off by a cardboard box.
Outside, a coffee table was set with matching candleholders. Another bed and a wicker sofa were flanked by bookcases. And a set of golf clubs leaned against his tarpaulin wall.
Dotson and I chatted briefly in the dark, outside the freeway shelter he shares with his puppy, a stray he rescued from a busy intersection. I’m not going to give the location of Dotson’s place. In winter 2007 the Sentinel, a local black newspaper, wrote about his previous encampment, and two days later police cleared it away.
“My place then was really nice,” he told me. “I had a king-sized bed, a living room, a kitchen.” He gestured toward a patch of grimy sidewalk. “The master bedroom was over there. . . . I had some nice paintings, some antiques. My library had over 100 books.”
He had so many clothes, for men and women. “If I had a date and the young lady didn’t have anything appropriate for where we were going, I could say, ‘Just pick out something you want.’ ”
The police officers were nice enough, he said. “But they crushed my stuff, put it in a big old trash truck and carted it off.”
He spent the next nine months sleeping on park benches and camped out under freeway overpasses, pushing a shopping cart filled with clothes, blankets and his golf clubs. He refused to move into a shelter: “There are too many people who need those beds.” And he didn’t like the constant moving around.
So in October, he returned to the same spot, down the block from a crumbling apartment building where single rooms rent for $750 a month.
The plight of Dotson, 67, is not unusual, in a city where the homeless population is estimated at 73,000 and growing. And homey creations like his reflect our innate impulse to “nest.”
I went back to talk to him Thursday, searching for some message to convey. We sat outside, and he walked me through a life that might seem like a failure to someone else.
He greeted everyone who walked by, as much to feel them out as to socialize. He has passed muster with leaders of the local gang, “and nobody around here bothers me.” Yet he’s wary when strangers walk too close to his home.
Everything he has, someone else didn’t want. He roams the city on his bike and prides himself on his eye for finds. “I pass by if it’s too dirty,” he said. If he likes it, he loads it on a dolly or shopping cart and walks it back to the freeway underpass.
“I’ve brought furniture from Inglewood, piled on top of a shopping cart,” he said. “People stop and watch me, wondering, ‘How’s that guy going to do that?’ I get a kick out of that.”
His stuff occasionally disappears -- hubcaps, pictures, knickknacks from his shelves -- while he’s off doing laundry or playing golf.
“They’re not just things, they’re mine,” he said.
And I think of my own collection of patio wind chimes. They’re not expensive or exotic, but they are mine.
Our conversation went on for hours, so long the sun faded and the rush hour traffic on the freeway grew loud enough to drown him out. There were personal questions I couldn’t bring myself to ask. It just wasn’t my business. Eventually, I stopped taking notes.
Maybe it was because Dotson had just added LBJ to the list of politicians who had it “out” for him. Or maybe I was just enjoying our conversation.
Our long talk convinced me that Dotson isn’t that much different from the rest of us, his life a story of dashed dreams, near misses.
A native of Texas, he’d hoped to earn a football scholarship; when he didn’t, he had to drop out of college. He joined the Air Force to see the world but hardly ever left the military base. He finished college on the GI Bill, but his cleaning business failed and his marriage broke up.
In 1987, with $3 in his pocket, he hitched a ride with a trucker to San Bernardino. He found sporadic work -- and housing -- managing apartment developments under construction. When the work dried up, he began biking around Southern California, carrying his belongings in a backpack.
There’s no romanticizing homelessness. His clothes were clean, but his hands were dirty. Still, I found myself admiring the self-sufficiency of a man who is able to ride the tides of circumstance.
There’s a lesson we can learn from that, in this climate of financial uncertainty.
And then there’s the lesson that Dotson has learned: Strangers, he said, “stop by, give me clothes and things. You find out a lot about people when you’re in a situation like this. You find out a lot about yourself.”