Streetwise

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University Avenue in Palo Alto sparkles at night with trees illuminated with carefully-placed lights by the thousands. The street has been around as long as the town, and in the year 2017, it is a veritable Rodeo Drive, lined with expensive retail stores, wealthy citizens, and dreams of avarice. You hardly ever see anyone wearing business clothes here – – anyone so doing would be rightly perceived as an out-of-town rube – – but it is on this street that companies such as Google and Paypal got their start and the recipients of technology riches shop, eat, and gather.

I have walked up and down this avenue countless times, and almost three years ago, I did a post called Zachary in which I related the tale of a profoundly physically-deformed man who had planted himself in front of a store in 2013 and had been there ever since.  As I wrote, describing this beggar whom I privately called “Sup”……

What struck me about Sup the most was his attitude. This guy was seriously and, dare I say, grotesquely deformed. When he moved from one place to another, he typically did so by pressing his hands against the ground and swinging his torso and tiny legs forward, much like an ape at the zoo. Although his short stature made him easy to miss, once people saw him, they couldn’t help but take note. I can only imagine the range of reactions he’s ever received.

The sheer contrast between broke, deformed Sup and the nose-in-the-air zillionaires strolling by him every day was captivating to me, and I wanted to know more about him. As I further wrote:

I’ve long been tempted to interview the guy, because there’s so much I want to know about him. Where is he from? What’s his background? What’s his physical malady all about? What are the most interesting, kind, and nasty things people have said to him? What are some interesting stories from the many months he’s been hanging out at this particular corner? What does he hope the future brings to him? How does he manage to stay so upbeat?

It’s been about two and a half years since I did that post, and I’ve passed Zachary (his real name) many times since then. However, at long last, I decided to take the plunge. I decided to pull up some sidewalk, sit next to the guy, and find out what he was all about. What follows is the result of my conversation.

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As I sit down with Zachary, sitting in a wheelchair next to his handmade sign, he tells me how his life began.

I was born in Fremont and was raised all throughout California as far north as Redding and as far south as Atascadero. I still live in Fremont and started coming out to Palo Alto in the winter of 2013. I remember to the date when I was put into crappy circumstances – March 16 of 2012 – and as that date comes cycling by, another year goes by, and another year goes by, it’s not like I’ve got anything better to do or anything more important than what I’m doing right now. From all the recommendations people give me, sure, that’s cool and all, I like to keep an open ear, but the bigger picture is that I need to save money so I can get a place of my own.

The “crappy circumstances” he refers to is the death of his mother, his only caretaker. He was born with a terrible deformity in which his legs are profoundly short and his back badly distorted. He is well less than half the height of a person his age would normally be. His physical ailments went far beyond his short stature, however. These problems, however, don’t discourage an attitude that I found to be indomitable.

If I constantly rely on organizations to give me a place, it’s not going to give me any responsibility or give me a stepping stone to get to another stone. I’m going to stay on the same piece of rock that I’m on right now. I live in the Olde Towne Motel in Niles from $55 per night. No matter how hard I try to save, I either have to spend it, or it winds up missing.

Fifty-five dollars a night. It doesn’t sound like much, but what this poor man shells out each month is almost identical to my monthly mortgage. Simply stated, it adds up, and after all these years of shelling out cash for a place to sleep each night, he’s got absolutely nothing to show for it.

Zachary isn’t bitter, however, even though I’d figure he has every reason to be. What shocked me was that even in a liberal, gentle little town like Palo Alto, at least one person is nasty to him every day. It isn’t any particular age, race, or gender that does it: there are simply a regular flow of black-hearted individuals that make it a point to slam on the guy. As he puts it:

People aren’t where they want to be. They think they’re going to use their bitterness against someone like this. Not me. Urban warfare is a real thing, dude. People are like machine guns. Their words are their bullets. The bigger their words, the bigger their bullets. I’m the kind of guy – – I look throw-you-off-ish, but I’ve got 32 in the freakin’ clip, and I’m going to spit it out you like hot fire. Help a little brother out, right?

As for the nasty ones, there is no racial who’s doing what for what reason. People think they are clever with their bitterness because of the way they say certain things, but in all reality you’re just a fuckin’ idiot (car passing by honks) like that. It’s rare you come across someone who is 100% genuine. It’s even more rare to find a wealthy genuine individual. Genuine and wealthy, does that even sound right? Most people who have wealth don’t really care; they just want to act like they do for a small amount of time. I call them single serving friends. They’re only going to last as long as that plane ride is going to last. Your cordon bleu with your plastic wrap and your microwaveable beans – – miss me with the bull, and hit me with the real. I’ve got the skills to pay the bills.

Then the conversation turns to him asking for a dollar from the people that pass by:

What is that dollar going to do for you? You letting go of that one dollar isn’t going to do anything for you, but it’s going to do everything for me. One dollar from each person is all I really need. One time a guy gave me $500. That hasn’t happened in over a year and a half (someone hands him food), but this happens all the time. People love giving me food. Want to know why? So they know I’m not out here for what they think I’m out here for.

It’s funny how people let their greed and selfishness be the ruler of how their day is going to go. Most people say their good days with nobody asking them for shit. I don’t care if you ask me for something. Just come at me the right way. Don’t be afraid. There’s way you come correctly. Some people can be like “Hey, what’s up brother?” but they’re being socially awkward. I don’t even know them. But if you really speak genuine, my arms are going to be even wider when I embrace you. It’s just that you’ve got to embrace me too. How you come in for a hug, if you come in and just become a plank, why would you leave me hanging like that?

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I still want to know more about why strangers would be mean to him:

They see someone having a good time, and they aren’t having a good time, and I ain’t got shit. They’d rather ruin my day because they got it all and are wondering why somebody that doesn’t have shit is happier than they are. I haven’t used up my morals and standards. I haven’t smoked them up like a crack pipe like they have. I’ve never done drugs or had any alcohol, but I’ve smoked a lot of weed.

It’s Tuesday and I literally have one $15 to my name, and I’ve been here since 10:30 in the morning. It’s not a bad day, only because, like I said, you never really know with this kind of work. It’s so spread out in short bursts of everything. People have to want to, but you also have to make them want to. You have to give them a reason to want to. It’s not going to happen just because I want to get it. Who made me the king?

I view the world in a different way than most people do. The world is ending as we speak, and we’re all slowly dying. However, have we lost our ability to live? No. To live is evil, but the fact is that life is not what’s evil, but what you do to survive – that’s what evil. That’s what makes life evil. The minute you take something out of its package, or its wrapper, it starts to deteriorate and fall apart. If that wasn’t the case, we wouldn’t see elderly people or broken people. I was just made this way to not be the way other people are. I wasn’t made to be retrofitted.

I’m especially interested to know how these years on the street have changed his perspective. Here he is, twenty-four years old, and he’s been homeless since he was a teenager.

Being out here has improved my patience, my composure, and the fact I can withstand more than 200 “no”s a day. I’d like to do music with my life, but rap artists don’t make shit. Literally, the only rap music that makes you a shit-ton is popular music, and I don’t even call that rap or hip-hop. I call it really crappy lyrics on really exquisite beats. It’s like you went to a 4 star restaurant and got a 5 star meal. The food is shit but the glassware is spectacular. The scenery is great, but the chicken tastes like wood and the greens taste like you picked them from the grass.

My body has no physical limitations, except for the physical appearance. I don’t have any limits. I have done everything everyone else does, because I have the will to live. You can’t discourage the will to live. I’ve been more willing to live than most people who have far better lives than I ever will. That’s the saddest conclusion I’ve ever come to — that’s sad as hell, dude – – that you motherfuckers live better than me, and you’re sadder than me. I’m just happy to be alive. The only time I’m not happy is when I cannot enjoy my line of work. Because I really enjoy this. But when people are pissing me off left and right, doing it on purpose to see just how far I’m willing to take it.

And then, as our conversation is wrapping up, he hits me with this:

I understand the value of losing something. I’ve lost enough people on this earth to understand the value of losing some THING isn’t shit. We are never old enough to know what death is until we experience it ourselves. I know what life’s all about: making it to the end. Nobody knows when, nobody one knows how. They just know it’s going to happen. We are all going to die. When you have lost more people than you can count on your hands and toes count from shitty decisions they’ve made or health issues or old age or just freak accidents – – I’ve had more than twenty people leave me – – everyone you think you’re ever going to love is going to die or leave you in the dust.

You never understand the value of anything until you lose it. Until you lose that person – – if you think you appreciate someone, wait until they die. You think you appreciate someone? Wait until they die. It’s even going to happen to me. You’re either going to love me or hate me. The more you can be satisfied with the fact that we are what we are, you are going to be more at ease with yourself and what you do.

Nobody on this earth is any more important than anyone else. Literally. You are only important to the degree that you surround yourself with people that care about you. That’s all. Am I as important as you are? Absolutely not. I am just as important as you are. Take it easy. God bless. Never settle for less. The moment you start settling for less is the moment you start putting limitations on yourself. Why? We’re not limited. The only thing that is limited is the amount of time we have on this earth. With that being said, let nothing stop you from getting anything you want. Just intertwine that want with a need.

The stunning thing to me is that this destitute, physically-deformed man is more mentally healthy than 99% of the people in this valley (including your humble narrator). I’m not sure his perspective would survive financial security or not. As it is, he has my respect. I’ve never encountered anyone with such a good attitude in the face of so many things wrong.

Wisdom can drop down from heaven in some very mysterious packages.

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