The Road From Perdition
by Flynn Washburne, June 22, 2016
When I completed my first prison term here in California back in 2006, I was bound and determined never to repeat the process. It wasn't my first rodeo, but in an extension of the metaphor, the rodeos back home in Colorado where of the standard variety utilizing the usual livestock and tormenting them in the normal fashion: horses and cattle being subjected via ropes and ridting. Contrast with the California version where you are tossed naked into the ring with a tiger and a can of silly string and instructed to bring back its hide. Helpless spectators pelt the beast with pea-shooters and small darts to get it into the spirit of the thing as EDM throbs and strobes flash. If that sounds more like some nightmare retro-futuristic Roman type gladiatorial spectacle than a rodeo, it's no accident. If Dante Alighieri could be resurrected and given a tour of San Quentin's West Block he would say, "No no, issa too much. Not even-a hell-a could-a be-a so bad, eh?" Sorry, my only Italian referent is Father Guido Sarducci.
CMC West wasn't so bad but the four months I spent in reception at San Quentin made me holler ’nuf. I hit the bricks vowing never again to allow myself to be subjected to that kind of indignity and dehumanization, and when I reported to the parole office I told the agent as much. I explained my sincere desire to make a go of it. I told him that I had a real problem with drugs and that the key to my staying out was staying clean. I was sincere, reasoned, and cogent in my petition and when I concluded he said, "All right. Good luck with all that."
Okay, maybe not as clear as I thought. I explained that the sum total of my assets where the sweats I had on and what remained of my gate money after the bus ride home. I told him I had no family or friends in the county aside from some degenerate tweakers. I said that I had no place to go and dammit I needed some help.
"Sorry. If you were a sex offender, I could get you a motel room. Call and tell me your address. If you're under a bridge, I need to know what Bridge. Report on the first Monday of the month. Next!"
People who are familiar with the workings of the system here will be saying, Yeah, so? But back home, nobody is released to the streets. You do not make parole without an address and a support system and if you do not have one the state provides it. Why? Because it is completely insane to dump criminally inclined people back on the street with no support or resources to assist in their reintegration and expect them not to reoffend.
I'm not blaming the system for my decision to climb back into the bag; I am capable of making my own decisions and I am not stupid. Okay, maybe I am, but I'm not retarded. Okay, maybe I am, but — by the way, when I say "retarded," I'm not talking about the developmentally disabled, more the type of simpleton who would rob a bank for chump change and thoughtlessly toss away seven of his rapidly dwindling years — I'm still capable of hauling myself out of whatever stupid-ass hole I've managed to dig myself into if I have a mind to. I can be quite resourceful and determined when I want to be and I could have walked out of the office and contrived a plan for staying out and staying sober, but I'm also prone to bouts of fairly advanced existential despair, and when one finds oneself thus afflicted and realizes the cure is a simple cash transaction away, sometimes the best laid plans do aft gang hella agley. The bottom line is, I felt hopeless and managed to convince myself that a little of the ol' blippety-blap was what I needed to pick my spirits up and get me started on the right track. It picked my spirits up, all right, but the track it put me on led straight to perdition, naturally. I knew it would and yet — my mind is surprisingly pliant and agreeable when it comes to suggestions proposed by the ol' wank-tank-a-chink-ank. Nothing seems too outlandish or dangerous and I realize I'm anthropomorphizing an inert chemical and the suggestions are made by me to me to rationalize getting high. But that's my story and I'm sticking to it.
A couple of weeks later I fluttered back down — no that's not right. My earthward trajectory more closely resembled that of an old-fashioned gravity bomb than a feather or butterfly. After plummeting back down to earth and with some pain and difficulty extricating myself from the resultant crater, I took a good long look at myself (not a pleasant sight) and determined it wasn't too late and unless some of the shenanigans I had been up to during my spree came to light, I could yet make a go of it.
I showed up at the Hospitality House a contrite, worn-out, wrung out rag of a man and I was shown to my extremely fragrant quarters after an interview and lecture from Cruella DeVil's spiritual twin sister, Gloria Renteria. I slept as many hours as were permitted and the following morning during breakfast the call went out for volunteers to assist the Board in their fundraising efforts by stuffing and sealing 5000 envelopes. Happy to be of use, I joined the six or eight others who agreed to donate their time and after eating we set to the boring and mindless task.
We had our first deserter a half hour in who disappeared after a cigarette break. As time went on, more and more volunteers simply couldn't bear up under the strain and trickled out the door one by one. By lunchtime, I was the only one left. I folded, stuffed and moistened throughout the afternoon and all the next day and when the job was done you'd have thought I just saved all of Amsterdam with a single bloody finger the way those board members were carrying on and singing my praises. I honestly did not feel I had done much beyond committing to a very simple task and seeing it through to the end, spending a pleasant day and a half chatting with some nice people and stuffing envelopes. It certainly beat hell out of roaming the streets and I was puzzled both by the people who had abandoned the task and the ones parading me around like some rare specimen. Was the nominal amount of effort and endurance I had exhibited so uncommon in the homeless community that anyone showing the faintest speck of ambition was lauded like a conquering hero? Frankly, I felt a little uncomfortably "special," like a severely disabled person being praised for dressing himself.
I was invited to a fundraising banquet the following day at the Botanical Gardens where I was displayed as a paragon of work ethic and received in turn the phone numbers of several do-gooders promising me work. I spent the next couple of weeks doing yard and maintenance work at their homes at a very decent wage and when I approached one gentleman regarding my desire for full-time, permanent employment, he got on the phone and had me an interview scheduled for the following day. I got the job and while my penchant for self-destruction precludes any possible happy endings in my ongoing story, I proved one thing — and not just his time, but several more over the years — if you make a sincere and sustained effort you will not be broke and homeless. If you plug into the housing track beginning at Hospitality House and do as you are instructed you will receive transitional and eventually permanent housing. If you show up at EDD (Employment Development Department) and/or the Department of Rehabilitation every day and avail yourself of their services you will eventually gain employment. If you clean yourself up, stay sober, look people in the eye, demonstrate a little responsibility, there's literally nothing within their power that those people will not do for you. What you cannot do is remain filthy and stinking and drunk and expect good things to happen to you. You need to convince somebody that you are worth saving to get saved.
If you grab a random sampling of 10 homeless people from, say, the food bank line, you will discover that maybe one is a person determined to improve his situation and utilize the available services to help extricate himself. Maybe. The remainder is made up of people either terminally lazy or batshit crazy and perfectly content to pass their days getting high, drinking and squeezing what they are able to from the system.
There is a point at which the genuinely motivated are differentiated from the gimme-gimmiess, but at street level a disproportionate amount of resources go to sustaining the latter group. I'm not suggesting that anyone be turned away — if you're hungry, you gotta eat — but I think more and better services should be available to those evincing a genuine desire to improve.
I'm a socialist, I guess. I qualify that with the indefinite because I don't like to adopt isms to define myself. I prefer to develop my own ideas or handpick from various sources concepts with which to assemble a workable worldview. I have yet to encounter a philosophy or political stance or for that matter a biscuit recipe that I would 100% accept or dismiss out of hand. However, I do include in my personal weltanschauung a couple of fundamental governmental precepts shared by the capital-S Socialists. One is that one of the most irresponsible destructive things a government can do is allow its citizens to amass wealth unchecked. If wealth is finite, and I can think of at least three fields of scientific inquiry that say it is, then a free-market system not only guarantees inequality and exploitation, but ensures that the worst possible people will be in power because kind, altruistic, honorable people do not get rich. Success in a capitalist economy is predicated on a lack of conscience. Every single book out there dealing with business success could be retitled "How To Use the Current Economic System to Fuck Your Fellow Man Right Up The Ass." As far as I'm concerned, it's a coin flip whether these guys end up titans of industry or serial murderers, possibly weighted by childhood sexual abuse.
Second is the state has a responsibility to ensure that its citizens are all fed, housed and cared for. In saying this, I do not mean to suggest that anyone should have a free ride. Those incapable of caring for themselves should be taken care of, but everyone else has to contribute to the general welfare which means that the dirt merchants currently smelling up the Hospitality House and draining the county coffers would be shit out of luck. I say: if they're hungry, feed them. If they are addicted, treat them. If they demonstrate a sincere desire to improve their situation, provide them the resources to succeed. If you just want to get high all day and obstruct public thoroughfares, then I don't know. Put them to work? Render them into animal feed? This is where it gets sticky. You don't want to encourage their lifestyle by subsidizing them, but you don't want them to resort to crime or cannibalism to survive.
One thing I do know is that you don't want a private company making the decisions because when you introduce a profit incentive someone is bound to get screwed. We need a government agency with a clear, straightforward mission, adequately funded, responsibly staffed and allowed to operate autonomously. Fuck Congress and all their obstructionist obfuscations. Get somebody with the ability to get things done and let them do it.
As to the Old Coast Hotel, I see no reason why it cannot be part of a responsible plan to actively address the homeless problem, but do it right, and take it out of the hands of the private sector. Appoint some hard-working visionary with not only the best interests of the county at heart but those of humanity itself. I think you can find some people with those qualifications running unicorn ranches in Shangri-La, so, you know, good luck with all that.