To the left of the stairs leading up to the pier at Ocean Beach in San Diego, there is an overstuffed couch. A couple of guys with heavy blond dreadlocks are sitting on the couch and smoking while others in various types of homeless thick-wear (wearing everything you own) are wandering about, chatting, looking bored already. It is just 8:00 in the morning. The guys on the couch are too far away to say hello to, I tell myself. Plus they seem oblivious to me and why shouldn’t they. Another tourist looking at them. I go up the stairs to the pier.
At the top of the stairs, on the little space that is available to stand and admire the ocean and watch the surfers, the rest of the pier shut off to pedestrians for some reason not explained, there is a young woman in a black shirtdress that is gathered snug at the waist with a skirt that puffs out like there is a petticoat underneath. She looks ready for work, sprightly and tailored. She is wearing flip flops which seems incongruous given her dress and when she leans against the bridge railing and stands on her tiptoes to peer at people below, I see that the bottoms of her feet are black, as black as a five-year old going barefoot all day in the summer, but more, days’ worth of black. It has been a long time since her last shower. Still the dress, it seems fresh. I wonder how she keeps it that way.
Next to the pier, a parking lot has every space filled by residential vehicles, mostly vans but not all, some cars. The windows are covered with towels and shirts. People may be living in their cars but they want privacy, for heaven’s sake, reminding myself. People create places for themselves and the places have walls and doors that close even if those things are cars with windows covered with towels or tents with zippered flaps. The parking lot looks like a village. People have lived there a long time.
It is one thing to be homeless but have your place, however ginned up it is, and quite another to be out in the open with nothing, to sleep on the low wall along the sidewalk at Ocean Beach, say, completely exposed to everyone and everything. There are two women doing just that, both wrapped in blankets, sitting up wearily as I walk by, looking as if they are surprised they are still where they were the night before. I consider what it would be like to shut my eyes while I lie out in the open, to sleep exposed to the world although I’ve been told some people would rather be out in the open and see what’s coming than be in a tent and be surprised by what is outside. I don’t know.
None of the homeless people I see approach me. No one asks me for anything. One man says good morning but only one. It’s as if I don’t exist in their world, like I am invisible and I probably am. There are so many of us tourists walking by guarding our phones and our wallets, it must get tiresome, to have to live your life with all the onlookers, especially ones you know will go home and talk about you, all the homeless in San Diego, how they are all over the beach, and what a terrible problem they are.