Compared to some of the more conservative East Bay cities, Berkeley is considerably softer as far as the tolerance of homeless people goes and that means that Berkeley has become a magnet for homeless people who often are also to be found on campus. I pity these poor souls but the best charity is giving time to the kitchens where the homeless pick up a warm meal. Giving money is discouraged as it might support drugs- or drinking habits… If I do have leftover food from a restaurant, I tend to hand it off too, but most of the time I feel quite powerless among this population of hobos and homeless.
Since this group continues to grow, also because the US government does not want to talk about poverty since the 1960s and Johnson’s Great Society, the Berkeley campus is impacted to such a degree that the homeless may bother students and use the campus buildings which are unlocked during a large part of the day. To make sure faculty and students feel safe, the Berkeley campus police facilitates a kind of escort service which you can call if you are working late and need someone to accompany you to your car. One of my students who worked for this service was approached by a homeless man one night; he tapped her on the shoulder and said:
“Hey, can you escort me to my bush?”
Most homeless are innocent and ignoring them is like ignoring the whole problem. So if they do talk to me, I politely answer but do not encourage further conversations about Kant or Derrida. Now and then though, there may be a moment where you smell danger, and the hairs on your neck stand on end.
I had such a moment when I was still working for UC Berkeley, a few semesters ago.
I was in my room early and there was no one in the hallway or in any of the other rooms. My door was open, which it always is (or was) when I am (was) in. I was looking at my computer but when I looked away, I suddenly saw a large man in the middle of my room. He was a big guy, no teeth, dirty pants and a sun-burnt roadmap of a face with a heavy grey stubble. He was panting. Plus, my desk was the only obstacle between him and me.
“Good morning,” I offered, as friendly and normal as I could.
Ignoring my greeting, he said “So!” and specks of saliva landed on my desk: “Do you think,” he continued, “that Holland is a good place for people like me?”
He had probably seen the poster on my door which you couldn’t miss: “Holland!” it said in orange, plus water, boats and more water.
“Surely,” I answered in all honesty, thinking of the lack of homeless in Dutch streets, “and maybe it’s an even better place than the States…”
In the meantime, I thought up some scenarios of what I could do in case I needed help or needed to defend myself.
“Oh,” he said, still panting.
He tried to get some eye contact but I looked away and pretended I was busy reshuffling the papers on my desk. I opened my drawer, looking for scissors, like that sharp one with that pointy hook.
“Do you know my mom?” came out of nothing.
I looked at him momentarily and said: “No honey, I don’t know your mom. Does she live in Berkeley? Do you live in Berkeley?”
This triggered an unintelligible flow of words and yes, I had been stupid because I had encouraged him too much with my counter questions.
With his dirty index finger he pointed at a book of Jip and Janneke‘s, the childhood heroes of every Dutch child. Then he put his claw on top of it, possessively, and grunted:
“Can I see this?”
“Go ahead, but I have to warn you: it’s in Dutch…”
He started leafing through the book wildly and all I could think was: great, now I will have to disinfect Jip and Janneke, too, for god knows where that hand on Jip and Janneke had been last?
He was obviously frustrated and threw the book on my desk with a bang:
“I can’t read this shit…” he said.
I wanted to reiterate that that was because it was Dutch shit but I wisely shut my trap and pretended to look at my pc, in search of instant messaging. Maybe there was a way to ping Nadia, our coordinator who was a couple of rooms down the hallway. The man snorted, cleared his throat and for a moment I feared he was going to aim a bunch of snotmucus at my desk but he swallowed, burped loudly and continued to stare at me. Once again, he put his dirty paw on my desk and a bit closer to me personally this time.
“Can I have this book?” he asked, leaving dirt stains on the cover. We all know on campus that the homeless (and others) have been stealing stuff out of unlocked rooms, and books tend to be popular, not because the homeless want to read them, but because they tear out the pages and put them under their clothes for extra insulation in the winter.
“Hey lady!” he yelled now, saliva flying in my face. “Can I have this book?”
He looked at me and I felt very warm all of a sudden. And at that moment, my eye fell on the box of second-hand books in the corner which we had recently received as a donation: the appropriate books went to the library but the box also included a whole slew on the Dutch Royals… I still hadn’t tossed those books, for if my royalist grandma had still lived, she would have committed a deadly sin to have those books.
So there they were: all those books on the Oranges, gathering dust and flies.
I got up and walked to the box, with my scissors nonchalantly in my right hand.
“You know,” I said to the man, “I have some real gems here– books with rare pictures of the Dutch royal family.”
I pushed Queen Beatrix (who has been demoted to Princess again since her son ascended the throne) into his dirty hands. What would she say if she knew? The man grabbed for it greedily and stared at Beatrix: “Nice gal,” he said “But lots of hair! Is that a rug on her head?”
“No, it’s not, but take her, and give her a nice place… I am in a hurry and have to go,” I lied.
“Thank you,” he said and opened the front of his baggy pants, then dropped Bea into it and, unsteady on his feet, left my room and the hallway.
As I walked to Nadia’s room I wondered what it must be like to have the Dutch queen in your pants. Where would she end up? At a corner on Telegraph Avenue with a sign “Dutch Royals, only 50 cents?” or torn apart to serve as the extra paper lining in a sleeping bag?
At Nadia’s room, I bumped into a student who had a humongo bump on his forehead.
“What happened to him?” I asked Nadia.
“Odd story,” she said “His parents don’t want him to graduate because they need him in their store so they hired some criminal who pulled him off his bike yesterday and smashed him on the head with a lead pipe. Strange, right?”
“Well,” I said, “I have a strange story for you, too. Do you have a moment?”