(written summer of 2006)
Happened again last night. Third time this week and it’s only Wednesday. Last week, they came four times. And on a moonless night last month, they came at three-hour intervals. Who am I supposed to call? The police? Usually they come once, twice every other month. Sometimes they leave us in peace for three, four months at a time. Never longer than that. And not that you can really call it peace when I pass through the hours of my days dreading nightfall because that’s when they come. Who am I supposed to tell? The police? But lately, they’ve begun to come in the daytime. And that just changes the whole damn paradigm. Been putting up with this for years. Then a single factor changes. A new pressure. An old pressure applied in a new way. A shift in their strategy. Bam. Revolution. A quirk of fear lives coiled at the base of my spine. The sight of them coming my way in the bright beach sunlight, the mere sight of them wakes it up. Tears up my throat, thickens and hardens cancer-like, until I know it intends to strangle my delicately-crafted voice.
But I always knew that this would happen which is why this paper is in your hands. I have grown tired of listening to tree after tree crash in the forest and nobody but me hearing it happen. In the space where my boundless black outrage starts and a mother’s fear begins for her young children’s home, that’s the abyss from which I write. How can this even be legal, much less Constitutional?
Nobody in America should be as afraid as I am. Nobody can have a cop knocking at their front door night & day, with neither warrant nor probable cause, and not go strange. They know that. My own husband knew it from the beginning. Well, now so do I. Who am I supposed to tell? Who am I supposed to call? Who am I supposed to cry to?
Can’t decide which is worse: the actual post-midnight Gestapo-style home invasions, this quasi-legal, socially accepted tactic of urban cleansing benignly known as a “sweep” …OR… these now near-constant day visits that rarely last no more than 7 minutes, a single officer usually a minority or a woman, always young, polite, calm, near-friendly and completely condescending in their warnings that things are about to get really rough for “you people”.
I swear on the Holy Bible, me a faithful Catholic wife raised a Southern Baptist, a fundamental Christian since the cradle, my paternal great–grandfather a deep-woods Louisiana circuit preacher so on the nine Bibles in our home, I swear to you, these police use the words “you people”.
A brilliant mind I once read over three decades ago said we are all of us judged by our homes or lack thereof. For me & mine, that’s truer than most as we have, for the past decade made our home aboard a 32’ retrofitted 1979 black Bluebird school bus.
Our dictionary defines segregation as the policy of separating or isolating one group from others or from a main body or group, to impose the separation of a race or class from society. And that has exactly been our experience in this so-called tolerant community.
There is a law that enforces our inferiority by penalizing our lifestyle with fines/threats of arrest and further, the City’s right to remove us from our property, which is our home, simply because a larger, propertied, thus more powerful, socio-economic group dislikes the way we look is exactly a “Jim Crow” law that intends to make us perceive ourselves as second-class citizens, unwelcome in the community. Worse than that, our children have grown up in this negative environment.
As Martin Luther King Jr. wrote from the Birmingham, Alabama jail, “We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open where it can be seen and dealt with. Injustice must be exposed with all the tension it’s exposing creates, exposed to the light of human consciousness and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.” (1963)
* * *
Last year an old man knocked on my door. He wore a beat-up cowboy boots and a straw hat. His soft drawl made me instantly homesick for our family and land in south Louisiana. He points to the sign outside my door that reads: Vehicle Habitation Prohibited , and asked “do they mean that?” The law says no sleeping or eating in your vehicle from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. punishable by up to six months in county jail and/or up to $1000 fine with the offending vehicle subjected to immediate towing. I dryly reply “Every so often, usually four in the morning seems like, two or three patrol cars surround the bus with flashing red & blue lights, and worse, they use q-beams to light up everything inside like a gulag, makes you wake up pumping pure adrenaline, sometimes I think I’m going to have a heart attack which would bloody serve the cops right, eh? They beat their nightsticks down the side of the children’s bedroom walls, see the chipped paint, the tiny dents – that’s on schoolbus grade steel – you can imagine what that sounds like to my poor sleeping children! Me and my husband, we race each other to reach the front door before the cops reach the glass panels, that sound will just break your heart, lost one already and the side window as well. Hard way to wake up, hitting the floor at a dead run. Worse, you know your kids are wide awake and listening. First thing the cop says is “You have an illegal home. I could tow you right now, so don’t even think about giving me any trouble. Get it out now or I will move it for you.” Usually we are given a lecture and then threatened with their doing a ”well child check”. You know, children that they just woke up in a rude & violent manner! Then we both get a ticket for the crime of sleeping in our vehicle. Which means we have to spend a whole morning at the Hall of Justice, where in front of our young son, we get finger-printed, our mug shots taken, given bail and a public defender. Then we sit in a courtroom for several hours with an assortment of petty criminals, thugs, drug dealers, purse snatchers, prostitutes. The boy is homeschooled – what kind of education is that? The court either puts down a $200 fine or just goes on and dismisses. Sound criminal to you?”
He looks at me funny a long minute, then winks at the little boy sitting quietly in the co-pilot’s seat, playing his Gameboy® because he knows my outburst has been for his benefit. He tugs at the brim of his hat and says, “You got that right. Think me and the missus will head on north”. It did my heart good to see him go back to his rig across the street, worth an easy $180,000 pulling a brand-new pearly white Cadillac. Real good to see him go somewhere else where people like us are welcome.
Another example of how the police have treated our family during our forced sojourn in San Francisco: one afternoon last October 1st , yet another well-child check, there’s a cop walking through our bus, using his nightstick to poke at the piles of books and legal papers and newspaper clippings stacked on my desk and the half dozen boxes underneath of my works-in-progress, disturbing my two parakeets in their cage on the bookcase. Frightening the cat off her perch above my desk. Lifting baskets of sewing notions and crafts supplies, moving my knitting, slowly surveying my teddy bear collection (70 at last count ten minutes ago by Merlin in giddy rush of telekinetic energy) as if a cache of guns is lurking at the bottom. Not to mention the books & toys & souvenirs & junk that a family accumulates over ten years times four children.
While the cop walks through my house, all I can think is how the catfish I ‘d been frying when they banged on the front door, it’s ruined by now. I’d had to turn it off mid-fry, damn it. Gonna have to go buy some more. Jeez. The cop comes outside, laughs and says to the scary butch lesbian cop how hard it was going to be for the tow company to inventory everything, “It’ll take them forever. Ya’ll get on out of here. Nobody wants to see you here anymore. We’re getting calls every day. Captain says you have to go.” It’s a young black man telling me this with an Alabama accent, I think to myself, and her a dyke. That keep going on in my mind. How nobody could discriminate because of their colour or their erotic impulses. But me, a gypsy, that’s CRIMINAL.
What blew my mind into tiny little pieces, what made the poet I am melt into muteness, was the fact that my middle child had an oversize birthday cake from the bakery sitting in the middle of the table. I still remember how bright it’s colours were, a circus cake it was, said HAPPY 13th BIRTHDAY ZOWIE and literally surrounded with piles of presents. It was obvious that we were a party-in-the-rough, me and Merlin at home, Greg gone to the pet store to buy her a guinea pig. We’d been about to start blowing up the balloons. No humanity these guys, I thought as I threw out the fish and fought tears, trying to get back in the birthday mode every mother knows and dreads. Not fair. The colours of the cake weren’t as bright as they’d been, the contents of the boxes Merlin & I had just wrapped weren’t as fine as they’d been 15 minutes earlier, and I felt real, real, real bad that all I had to give my beautiful brilliant little girl was a home that could be invaded by a cop at anytime. In fact, the whole place seemed unbearably shabby. Pitiful. Downright sad. Especially compared to the sweet domestic scene me and Merlin had going before the law arrives.
That night at supper Merlin regaled everyone with an account of that day’s encounter, and I noticed how a silence fell on the table when he said our STUFF would be counted. His siblings looked obviously grey at the thought. All our stuff. Piles & piles. Nine boxes of Christmas decorations. My mama’s pink wedding dress. My black and gold one. The kids’ huge collection of dress-up clothes. Baby clothes. Baby books. Plants. Pillows. Posters. Photos. Pets (lots of them!). Toys. More toys. Legos everywhere. Sports equipment. Bikes. Music collections. Backpacks. Coats. Hoodies. The wardrobes of three kids, their socks alone!
What about the little stuff, will that get counted? The homework done on the counter. Their artwork all over the house. Their tiny treasures and love tokens given to me over the years, lined upon every shelf and in every nook. Oatmeal waiting on the counter, pot on the stove. Whole wheat bread & butter & honey. Juice & milk. Bag of clean socks hanging in the bathroom right next to the shoe polish kit. Tylenol® for their headaches. Pepto-Bismol® for their tummy aches. Bottles of water by each bedside for the middle-of-the-night thirsts. Do they count these things? Do these things count?
Why isn’t my home a home, damn it? A home is where you rush to in a sudden storm. A home is dry and warm and safe and yours. A home is where you sleep. A home is where you dream. A home is where you pour yourself a cup of tea and the cat a bowl of milk while you watch the sunrise together. Home is where you hide when you are sick. A home is where you feel safe & secure. A home is where you make your love and rock the resulting babies to sleep. Home is the Sunday paper in bed together and a lazy nap all afternoon. Essence of marriage, that.
A home is anniversaries, birthdays, Christmas and Easter mornings. A home is romantic dinners and Sunday fried-chicken-and-mashed-potatoes and Friday night fish and celebration pot roasts and middle of the night cold pizza. A home is a glazed lemon coconut cake cooling on the kitchen counter making everyone drool while someone goes to the store for ice-cold milk. So, first and foremost, home is where you serve food. Second it’s where you sleep. The two things the City has outlawed. Seems like they certainly thought it through.
This school bus has been more than shelter, it is a living altar to our marriage, a union that has dared to reach out for a simple and essential life together. I sleep in a bed that my husband built for me to my specifications in my daddy’s front yard in Houston, Texas on a really hot August afternoon. Seeing my new husband sweat out in that hot sun, as he measured me into his bed, that was about the most romantic thing ever happened to me. Sure lasts longer than a dozen red roses. How could this marriage bed be taken away from me?
Sweetest memory of my life was going in that night, turning on the fan and laying our new infant son, almost six months old, in the middle of that rough-hewn bed and discover that he had the most unique mobile any baby ever had: the passing car lights hitting on the pale green shiny metal ceiling caused his very own Pink Floyd laser light show every night. It never failed to make him laugh and gurgle and kick his feet until he wore himself out, falling asleep watching that kaleidoscope.
Here in a city that wraps itself in a (rainbow-coloured) mantle of tolerance and self-congratulating compassion for those of us who march to a different drummer, it seems surreal to live in fear but I do. Here in a city that markets itself as a liberal progressive beacon casting it’s warm, friendly light on dark, conservative, out-of-touch America. This is the city whose ubër-liberal Mayor Gavin Newsom announced at last year’s Gay Pride Parade that “San Francisco = living life out loud.” Bah, only if you’re queer.
Live life out loud? We certainly don’t. We live an Anne-Frankish existence. At night we keep a total blackout, our windows darkened so no light slips out. No coming or going, no aromatic cooking or music playing because a cop might be driving by. Or a nasty neighbor might come knock and tell us outright that we are not welcome. Taking out the trash to the City-owned cans or getting water from public fountains, we have often been stopped by both City agents and the neighbors. That can certainly have an effect on one’s day.
What we have here is a pocket of prejudice. The proof of my theory is very simple: the date that the anti-gypsy law was passed: April 1971. Can you imagine the state of mind of that particular Board of Supervisors? There were a quarter of a million filthy hippies living in their park, with every street from Haight to the beach full of bizarre school buses and vans and who knows what else. I’m amazed that they weren’t shooting them like vermin. Some of the police we meet in the middle of the night like to tell us that they were just young men fresh on the force when they first saw the “likes of us” and then continue to give us their low opinion of our home. In front of the children who so happen to love our old ugly black outlawed bus. I mean, who are these people who get to pass judgment on what makes us happy? Whatever happened to pursuit of Liberty & the Pursuit of Happiness?
For the past year we haven’t been able to park our bus in Golden Gate Park in the daytime without getting a ticket or enduring an invasive well-child inspection. Which is the collateral damage of the segregation because for the children, the best thing about living in the bus was being able to tell their father or me the night before where they would like to spend the next day – the duck ponds, their favorite play grounds, up in Haight for the used book stores and the soft-serve ice cream cones at McDonald’s, maybe it’s free day @ the zoo, or simply go to the meadow so they could have a picnic. They’d wake up and look out the window and be delighted at their “destination order” having been remembered. But I think I was as happy as they, to be able to so easily please them. Now we spend all our days on the beach, federal land patrolled by Park Police. We rarely enter the park at all anymore, and never go to Haight at all anymore, even though our daughter attends Aim High Academy located there.
A pristine example of the peacekeeping community’s attitude came at the beginning of June 2006 at around noon, three patrol cars surround the bus and seven, eight cops jump out. I quickly alert Greg thinking this a bit extreme. As I look across the street and to my horror see a line of the S.W.A.T. officers heavily armed advancing single-file into the carport of the apartments. We instinctively duck because a running concern around here at the Gotham Times headquarters is how damn trigger-happy the SFPD can be. Our windows were all open to catch the Pacific breeze so we were able to easily hear the two cops hunkered down between their car and us. One says to the other “What about this bus? Could they be hiding in there?” “Nah,” replies the other “they are hippies.” They laugh. Then the first asks, “Should we tell them that they need to get out of there?” Long pause. “I guess so,” replies the second and they both laugh harder. Gee thanks.
Spent an hour up the street watch the brass huddle behind our bus while the soldiers flushed out a pair of bank robbers who had run to mama’s house. Spent the whole time invoking angels to plant themselves in front of the tires ($400 each) and the windows (antique) so when bullets started flying, none would touch our home. You don’t get miracles unless you actively expect them.
I learned a lot about the media that day. KPIX had a truck that caught wind of it and photographed the stand-off. It ran briefly at 5pm and it was amusing to see our big ugly black outlaw school bus on TV. Then it didn’t run again nor even make the newspaper. No doubt the media was too busy slamming SFPD because of an accidental tragic shooting of a man hiding in an attic. Since it was in the same district there was no way that anybody wanted to show how well they did their job that day.
* * *
Six or seven months ago, parked on the Pacific Ocean beach, I noticed a cameraman with a pro-size set-up filming a reporter-girl, with our bus directly in the background. Just to show off to Merlin, I pointed them out to Merlin and told him, “watch, if it’s a clip about the habitation of vehicles, then the cameraman won’t be able to resist a clear, he’ll end with a shot of the bus.” I quietly slide the door open so as to not wake up my napping husband (who rarely approves of what he calls my temper tantrums over the public’s sensibilities). I slip on my dusty old cowboy boots and sit back in the co-pilot’s seat, with only my gypsy skirt fluttering in the wind. I keep my face completely out of the frame, telling Merlin to watch and tell me if I’m right. After not even three minutes, he yells “Hah! There he goes!” I jump all the way to the bottom of the bus steps, more a swing than a jump especially in cowboy boots. They make a sharp sound landing on the tarmac. I stomp into his viewfinder. To give him credit, he never stops filming as I demand of his imaginary audience, “There’s two sides to every story, do you even want to hear mine?” The girl-reporter runs to unlock her car as I round on her insisting she give me a business card even as she’s telling me, “No, no, I am only on SFGTVcable 26 (government-sponsored TV, what a thought). She tells me as she gets in her car to drive away, “I know who’s paying my check. I don’t follow the story.” Boy, doesn’t that say it all, about both government & the medium of television.
Meanwhile, the photographer tells me that it is the owner of the Java Beach Café by the N-Judah train that is agitating (this I already knew from SFPD) to clear the nearby streets of the half-a-dozen RVs that stay there. Not always the same campers, but always some campers there. Of course, the café customers in the rock garden would prefer to have a view minus their shabby presence. The photographer rather condescendingly begins to list the various alternative media in the Bay area that might try to tell “my side of things”. I think I’m living inside a tired old 60’s folk song.
One question that traditional media might like to ask themselves is how, even in light of the Bay Area’s historical hatred of the “hippie bus” and all other wheeled homes, how did a municipality make criminal something like RVs which, in this country alone, is a multi-billion dollar industry? Why has no one ever challenged this?
As for those already stricken in that growing urban plague, the lethal combination of homelessness & mental health issues/drug abuse, it’s common sense to say that if a body has basic shelter, then it’s less stressed and more partial to making positive decisions. A body can’t function without a decent night’s sleep. It’s a basic human need; ergo, it’s a basic human right. Right? The mobile life is a strenuous one with the need to haul water, get gas & oil, check the tires, keep the batteries charged, move to different locations, keep the laundry done and the trash out because there’s little space, but snug if it’s kept up & kept tidy. So much better on the human soul than a doorway. So much better for the community than that lump in the doorway. Or so you’d think.
And what does it, these anti-alternative housing ordinances mean for the hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people who are going to lose their homes to foreclosures in the next few years as they face increased mortgage rates & balloon payments maturing.
Homelessness is about to take on a whole new face. It’s going to look like your neighbor, your co-worker, your in-laws, your children. Then everyone will have to rethink these City ordinances when it’s your grandchildren living in the nice motor home you went out and bought to keep them from moving into your spare bedroom.
In the original copy of this essay I pasted in an article from the Examiner that explained (then) Supervisors Fiona Ma & Sean Elsbernd stance on increasing the fines on those who park overnight on City streets, committing the “criminal offense” of living in their vehicles. I would very much like to use this space we are creating with the Gotham Times (a civil rights magazine) to inform these public officials (along with the new supervisor Ed Jew, who has taken up the anti-nomad crusade) that every action has an equal and opposite reaction.
We were the so-called nuisance parking at Lake Merced, rarely more than our bus and two or three other urban campers. And besides, Lake Merced is a manmade fishing hole with a jogging trail around it and a championship golf course across the street. Once you’re past the apartment complex it’s deserted, almost like out in the country. Quiet especially at night. Something of a lover’s lane after midnight. Nobody’s parking space was being occupied, rare enough in densely packed San Francisco. But in the end, the space we used was made a tow-away zone 10 pm to 6 am. The only people who saw us were the joggers, for crying out loud. This really is about how we look. Isn’t that the very definition of a hate crime? I lose because you don’t like the way I present in your neighborhood.
For three days after the previous article in the Examiner appeared, a group of teenage boys would pass by and throw rocks and beer bottles at the bus, jeering. None broke a window, due no doubt to the angels on our roof, but nonetheless upsetting to the children who demanded I call the police. I yelled out the window each time and waved the cell phone at them. But how could I call the police? I don’t have the right to protection. I’m the law-breaker in their eyes.
As was evidenced in the midnight visit from two “bulldog” cops who insisted we leave the area. The usual threats. Tickets for us both. The lecture. Grim endurance until it was over and I was told to leave. I swear on my dead mother’s grave, I had quietly taken fifteen minutes of this B.S. and was trying to walk away, to get back inside to the children with maybe some small shred of my dignity as a mother left me. And I’m almost back inside when the older cop tells me that the next time he sees me I had better have learned how to treat authority with respect or else I am going to take your world apart while I make you watch.”
Even Greg, for all his strength, his arm already around me for comfort & control, he couldn’t stop me from spinning around and jumping back into the fire, “Before you do that, I would suggest that you call down to the City Attorney’s office and ask them if that would be such a good idea.” Then I calmly walked into my bus holding two pieces of paper that says we are illegal. After quietly closing the door, and still without any emotion at all, I walked back to our bedroom to put away the tickets; it was the sight of each child’s hand reaching out of their rooms as I passed by to squeeze mine in solidarity, that brought me to tears.
The very next night, parked in a different location, but still around Lake Merced, the same mean bulldog cop knocks on my door at five past ten o’clock with a large Starbucks Latte in his hand and a small flashlight tucked under his arm. I audibly groan and he laughs, obviously enjoying himself and his power to do what Justice Scalia blithely referred to as the “right not to be intruded upon in one’s nightclothes.” He tells me he wants to do a check on well-being of the children, that Greg and I must wait outside. We know the drill, there’s no point in arguing. On the way out, I count six or seven police, more than usual, I think to myself, more than is necessary to intimidate one woman. All are staring at me as if I wear a sign that reads species: gypsy Americanas extinct 1999.
I go to the front of my bus and lay my head on the cool metal to lower the temperature of my Scottish-Cherokee blood. Big sobs of misery are escaping as I realized that I always seem to be bathed in SFPD’s flashing red and blue lights. It’s rare that I cry, hardly even in private anymore, and never in public that I can remember. But I find once I start crying, I don’t want to stop. All I feel is shame, shame that is external as opposed to the God-given guilt that motivates cleansing change. Who are these people to make me feel this way?
One of the female cops turns to Greg, sarcastically asking him “what’s wrong with her?” I lift my head, blurry with tears and peer through the omnipresent San Francisco fog, looking for the comfort I always find in his face. He never takes his eyes off of me – flashes me one of his rare Clark Gable grins – he drawls, “I reckon Mrs. Mayon takes her Constitutional rights more seriously than most folks do.” Nobody said a word, much less practiced their usual anti-nomad lecture. I couldn’t have taken it.
Finally the cop comes out with a bemused look on his face. He ignores me, still crying, and goes up to Greg telling him that his children are “amazing.” Gee, thanks. No doubt he was referring to the kids’ standing instruction and frequent rehearsal of their single statement to all visitors after midnight: the fourth amendment of the U.S. Constitution gives are the right to be secure in our person, home, effects, and papers from the government’s unreasonable efforts to search and/or seize. They have been taught to ask, “What are you doing? You can’t do this. Do you even have a search warrant?” Too extreme you say, Gentle Reader? Well, the way I see it, if my husband and I are not allowed to stay in our home (like other parents do), when the police interview our children (because it is an illegal home), and we are made to stand outside while hostile City agents poke around in our domicile unencumbered by the rule of law, then the least I can do is leave the children their Constitution.
Several years ago I was trolling the radio and paused on the male D.J. on the ALICE all-talk morning show who was asking the question, “What’s with the community of school buses, campers & RVs that are always parked on the beach? Tell us what you think. Who owns the sidewalk?” Disgusted, I snapped off the radio, “No,” I yell into the silence “that’s not the question. The question you ought to be asking but don’t have the nerve to, is who has the right to tell anybody else they can’t use the public streets.”
Unable to sit alone with the awful awareness that the nasty neighbors in their million dollar town houses and cute condos that cost even more, now having not only the police but now a popular & hip radio station to call in and complain to, while there is no one who would hear me, I close up the bus, an object I now know is hated publicly as much as we love privately, and go down to the beach where my little boy, then five years old, is building yet another sandcastle with his sister, then ten years old. He shows off the huge complex they have built, a small castle for the king where the knights practice outside, where horses are stabled and where the livestock graze. He points out a huge empty space within the walls and tells me that is where the poor people from the countryside will run to when the bad guys come.” Even as I complimented him on his kingly way of thinking about the needs of all of his people, even the poor, just like the Bible tells us to do, all I could hear was the echo in my head “why isn’t there anywhere here for us? Why aren’t we allowed to be part of the neighborhood? We’re raising children here – the City gets $ from the government for each of the kids, for crying out loud! If that doesn’t make you part of a community, I don’t know what else does. So I take up 35’ on a street. So what? We’re raising three smart, kind, and good-looking children who are already productive tax-payers.”
This past Christmas Eve, it’s barely at dusk, I’ve just lit the dozens of candles that sit among my collection of my collection of gold wire trees nestled among boughs of fresh evergreen with a miniature Nativity scene. Real holly has been twined with gold stars and wire, accented with big red satin bows, has turned the arched metal ceiling into an arbor. There are stacks of wrapped gifts everywhere with my collection of Santas sitting among them. We were in full command of the Christmas season and it showed throughout the whole house.
There’s a booming knock on the door. I am in my tiny kitchen putting away tomorrow’s trimmings and simmering a pot of spices, apples & oranges. I hurry past Merlin sitting on the sofa enjoying the new colouring book and mega-box of crayons that he’s just talked me out of, trying to get through “one more night” as he put it. I open the door to a middle-aged white man standing under a big black umbrella. He’s wearing a nice tweed jacket and a crisp white shirt, khakis and a chunky gold wedding ring. When he speaks, it is with very gay inflections (don’t even think about telling me to take it back anyone who lives here knows exactly what I mean by that tone; I for one, am bloody sick & tired of always having to tiptoe around the Gay Population, who have coerced rights based on their erotic impulses and crammed their agenda down America’s throat, while I don’t have enough civil rights to cover the sanctity of my children’s sleep — do you think they will stand up for me? As they demand I do for them. I doubt it.)
He glares at me, obviously angry, and informs me that he lives across the street. I reply, “Merry Christmas” trying to put some brakes on his bad attitude but he is oblivious to the season. He ignores my greeting and points to the sign outside my door, “I want you to leave immediately. You are not even a legal home. I am going to call the police when I go back inside. If I let you stay here, then more like you will come park here, too.” All I can think is that it’s Christmas Eve. Greg has already made it to the front door, telling Professor Tweed “sure, sure, no problem.” By the time I get my verbal powers back, he’s already pulling into the street. Merlin was especially gleeful later on that evening when we gathered for hot chocolate & 5 layer spice cake, to open their traditional gift of Christmas Eve pajamas & blanket sets. He told his siblings, “You all should have seen Mama lean out the bus and yell really loudly at that nasty neighbor, ‘that’s okay, I know you people who own property and pay rent have more rights than those of us who don’t have enough property to have all the bills & problems you do!’ Her skirt and her hair were flying and she looked like a wild gypsy witch.” “Gee, thanks.” I protested. Everybody laughed but only Greg saw me turn abruptly aside to hide sudden, bitter tears.
But these are my children who have at my side through all this, who know exactly how hard I’ve fought to regain our right-to-travel. To be free again like we once were. Before San Francisco. They don’t have to see my tears to know that they are there.
For years I’ve cried.
Weep rivers on the way to court and back, 3 ½ years, fighting the City Attorney of San Francisco for the right to live on our school bus and to be allowed to leave this unpleasant place. We paid our dues but still lost all that time. I am adrift on an ocean of regret. A few more tears? Why bother.
Zoë, then 13, put it succinctly, “Bet if a black family was sitting on his front wall, he wouldn’t come out and tell them to move along else more Negroes come along and sit next to you and I have to see you all in front of my house.” Morgan, our oldest boy and not to be outdone, jumps up and runs up to his dad, saying “Quick! Give me some money and I’ll run down to the rights store to get us a full set before the Christmas Day raid!” Greg brings the house down by standing up, taking his wallet out, and with a long face says, “Sorry son, I don’t have enough. Do you know how much rights cost?” To let them know I was okay, I quipped “Now look, if you get up tomorrow and there are no toys, it isn’t my fault. They might have perfected the Santa shield by now. It is Gotham after all.” Gotham is our nickname for the tendency of municipalities to want to emulate the draconian measures that New York City employs against the poor while corruption flourishes at City Hall – like in the Batman comics. Even before Mayor Gavin Newsom started going to the Big Apple to get their game plan, it was obvious where he was headed. Who’s to stop him?
A less benign encounter happened just before Easter this year. We were parked on the beach, I was just finishing my tea and nagging Merlin into another layer of sunscreen before he got into his wetsuit and we went out for his daily skim board session. Suddenly a white open-top jeep started to circle the bus at a high speed, the sound of Scottish bagpipes blaring (bagpipes, of all things). He slams on his brakes with obvious fury, stopping right at the front door. As soon as I open it, he bellows at me “I am sick of seeing you #@**% hippies on my beach. I was born here. All my family was born here. I want you off my #@**% beach.” He had a shaved head and the vein stood out in his thick neck. I told him that there was a ten-year-old boy listening to him. He turned purple and screamed, I hate all you #@**% hippies. Go back to Louisiana (our license plates are from Louisiana). I’ve got a 45 under my seat if you need any damn help understanding me.” Could smell the liquor on his breath all the way into the bus. I quickly closed the door to make myself less of a target. I’m not ashamed to say my knees were weak as I sank into the co-pilot’s seat and watched him speed out of the parking lot, almost colliding with an S.U.V.
Merlin came with the cell phone in his hand saying, “Mama, that guy was crazy, call the police!” I look into his eyes and wonder if he will understand what I am about to do. All I can think of is how much this child has seen of the underhanded prejudice that people so freely unload on someone they perceive being of a lower-standing. “No,” I reply, taking the phone and slipping it into my boot in case I end up needing it after all, “not even you can make me call the hate-filled police. Look how they acted just last night. The only one for us is God. He’ll send angels to take care of all these haters. You know that. You’ve been seeing it your entire life.” Merlin is a natural child who has adored God since he could walk & talk, who has always had His praise on his lips, by far the most religious person in our large household, a child who brings his father one of the children’s Bibles God to send more because things are getting rough down here.” So we did, right on the spot.
A few days later, as we walked to the 7-11 to get ice cream for Daddy, Merlin & I were stopped by the local beat cop on his bike. A very nice and pleasant officer. He tells me how he know the children from the Sunset Youth Center where they like to hang out and go on the Internet and be within a group of teenagers in a safe haven that plays music unbelievably loud. I tell him that they love the place and how it was actually the reason we stayed in the Sunset neighborhood, even though the police kept telling us how the neighbors don’t want us here. “Besides,” I told him, “my older boy is really happy in his 1st job as a bagger at the Ocean Beach Safeway. I’m not willing to move them to the Bayview like you police often suggest. Out there are gangs with guns, drugs, barbed wire & cement. Here the children not only have a nicer neighborhood, in terms of street crime, they have the beach, the park, the Youth Center, all their friends.” He tells me effusively how great the kids are. Articulate. Intelligent. Very open and friendly, just really neat. His exact words. “Yeah” I reply gingerly. I mean, excuse me, but he’s in a cop’s uniform. He’s probably one of the back-up cops who stands off in the shadows feeling sorry for me when I cry in the middle of the night while his boss goes into my house because he can and there’s nothing I can do about it. No doubt he’s participated in the monster sweeps that clean up a whole neighborhood of people like me and my children. All I care about is the kids staying in a stable situation. My husband has advanced liver disease from Hep C and can’t take the stress. Now, I admit my nerves were taut because it was only an hour before dark. This cop keeps going, “There’s nothing wrong, really, with living in a bus. I mean, obviously you’re doing something. I mean Merlin is even homeschooled.” Okay, I admit it, he is homeschooled thru a supervising teacher thru the district. “I mean,” he keeps gushing, “they are obviously thriving, look at them.” Yeah, I mutter to myself, thinking of the regular home invasions they are subjected to, while having to listen to yet another bloody lecture delivered to their parents, barefooted out in the dark, damp fog. Merlin is dribbling his basketball in circles around the cop on his bicycle.
And yes, I admit to showing off for Merlin sometimes because he sees so much oppression. I don’t want him to feel unsafe (even though I know he does) and it’s important that, occasionally, he sees some résistance. I said I was reclusive, not shy. It’s just that for a split second, I looked into his eyes and saw that he was as open as he’d ever be and just maybe I could forever alter how just this one participates in these Gestapo-like activities. Subversion at it’s best. I let him babble on, waiting until he turns a single sentence into ground zero. He says, “Really, if all the campers were like you and your husband then it would be okay. I mean, you don’t even talk like the rest of the campers do.” Ground Zero. “You’re certainly right on both counts,” I said with a dazzling smile, “if everyone else was like us, our lifestyle would have been legitimized by a class action suit. It’s all very unConstitutional of course you know that. In many ways, the anti-bus law is similar to the old Jim Crow laws in the deep South where I am from. Those laws were enforcing inferiority.” Another smile. Merlin has quitting dribbling. I never smile.
“But, “ I continue, still smiling, “think about it historically. Hitler hated the gypsy and did his level best to get rid of them. Even before that the Roma – you know, the gypsy – was hated throughout Europe and subjected to much harassment including murder. And what about the American government’s support of the white business man’s wholesale theft of all the Native Americans land, driving all of them onto a barren patch here and there, shooting them in the back when they tried to live. All with the government’s approval.” I pause for maximum effect. I am no longer smiling. I rarely do.
But Merlin is sure grinning from ear to ear, tossing his basketball back & forth between his hands. He’s waiting for the punch line, he’s heard this particular lament plenty of times at home. “You what to know what I think, God loves the nomad. After all, He designed His own very first earthly church, and it was in a tent. A tent. He picked out the Israelites as His chosen people, everyone knows they were nomads. And they wandered in the desert for 40 years. He made them do that so they would depend on Him. Look at Jesus, He was a wanderer, too.” Then I smiled again and went in for the killer stroke. I told him about the man in the white jeep, how scary he’d been. The friendly cop starts to reprimand me for not calling the station immediately. I cut him off with of my real expression, a hard flash of golden green eyes, “No, that’s not true. I can’t call you. Don’t you see that’s what it means to be segregated? I don’t the right to the same services and amenities as everyone else. What happens to me is my own fault. That’s what you all say. Isn’t that right?” Merlin laughs out loud to see the cop jump on his official bicycle and pedal off without a word. He starts dribbling again, “You were kinda mean to him, Mama!” Bah, I told him, they were mean to me first.
But as I walked home in the gathering twilight, my nerves flaring as dark falls, I asked myself if my smart ass Louisiana mouth was going to get me sitting on a curb at four in the morning one dark night, in my nightgown looking at my husband in handcuffs being shoved into the back of a patrol car while our crying children watch from the back of different white worker cars as our ugly old black outlawed school bus goes off in the distance, the sight of it fading away is the one memory none of us will ever forget.
* * *
It has been the community’s relentless criminalization of our lifestyle that resulted in the heavily illustrated format of my first book Collected Letters from the Abyss. I wanted the hostile neighbors who are so offended by the sight of my home on their (?) streets, I wanted them in particular, to see inside, thinking perhaps if they saw it though the eyes of the children, through the family snapshots and the 8×10 black-and-whites that photojournalists’ attempts to capture our unusual abode, then maybe they could see what the children think of as their own charming, cozy and very simple beach cottage-on-wheels. I hoped that seeing into our home could dispel some of the malice that prejudice has begot. Their dislike is daunting, to say the least. And it bears all the trademarks: a bizarre law, everywhere the signs promoting the legalized hate, neighborhood groups who roam the streets at night to leave signs & notify the police of a gypsy’s presence, articles in the media to remind everyone that its perfectly acceptable to dislike the gypsy parked across from your house, shame, complaints, tickets, fines, threats, seizures. Fear. Mostly that. And over what? because my house is different than theirs.
I mean, if they could know the adventures that old bus took us on, the magnificent scenery that a simple old bus (that only cost $1500!!!) has allowed us to live in, not merely days camping, but weeks on end. While the time we spent in San Antonio & Santa Fe was lovely, the finest example of the quality of our lifestyle has to be the entire winter of 1996 we spent continuously parked alongside the beaches of San Simeon to watch the seal pups be born. What others would come and visit, we were living with, like in a PBS documentary. I’ve lost count of how many times I went to go outside and had to shoo away a female seal from the front door – I guess the schoolbus looked like protection from the huge males chasing them. The children swam in the icy cold Pacific surf, searched out starfish, and built the entire beach into sandcastle after sandcastle while the tourists circled them and their bus, photographing them and their mystical seashell world as much as they did the seal pups. The four younger children were all bleached blond and tanned and looked the personification of California. I drank my morning tea sitting outside next to Greg, on a double rocking chair made of cypress we’d brought from our home in the bayou on Belle River, Louisiana. As I watched the sun rise behind Hearst Castle, and I knew I was the embodiment of the American dream.
We were on the West Coast for the most romantic reason, this was our dream honeymoon, Highway 1, Malibu to Seattle in our modern-day gypsy wagon. We married @ San Francisco’s City Hall on 14th November 1997 and had planned to dress up that evening and gather the children under our favorite tree in Golden Gate Park (the one above the antique carrousel), to repeat our vows in front of them and a few people we’d befriended in the Haight, some who were, indeed, un-housed.
The night before our wedding we were subjected to our first “sweep” (there’s that “Jim Crow” terminology again). We had not in all our travels in the rest of the country, nor in fact, in the rest of California, had we ever experienced such insult. We thought it was a fluke. Big black ugly bald cop opens the back door while Greg goes out the front door just as the cop up front was yelling. When the quilt hanging fell and exposed my bedroom – and me, sitting up in bed, naked – in the full glare of the patrol car’s q-beam. My then-16 year old daughter, Serenity, ran in and yanked up the hanging and held it in place with one hand and with the other jerked the door out of the cop’s grasp just as her step-father came around the corner. Thereby, single-handedly, saving my wedding day because Greg, given his Southern sensibilities, more than likely would have gone to jail on the spot. Tell you one thing, I haven’t worn anything less than thick velvet leggings and a sweater to bed in 9 ½ years, which Greg would tell you is a violation of his Constitutional rights.
But what would unfold the next night went even further. We knew Golden Gate Park’s after-dark party rules: Curfew @ 10 pm. No more than 25 guests without a deposit. No staying in one spot for more than a few minutes. No amplified music. No food. No drink. No flowers. No decorations.
We married at City Hall that morning and planned to repeat our vows in front of our children under our tree. The children’s Halloween costumes and, of course, my black & gold gown would enough decoration with the beautiful park as a backdrop. The only light we needed. Sugar skulls left over from Dia de los Muertos our token food and the only music from a tape I’d made for a small boom box. Would’ve taken no more than ten minutes to say our vows again & kiss for the benefit of our kids, who’d quite been looking forward to this evening. Afterwards, we’d planned a moonlight walk for perhaps an hour, no more because our youngest guest was only 18 months old and got cranky when he stayed up too late.
The police met my husband literally at the altar, where he’d gone to wait for me and greet our dozen or so friends who’d come to witness.
the rest of this story is called the un-wedding @ http://poems.ramonamayon.com
Is our home alternative? I suppose so. Is it hard without society’s umbilical cord of electric/running water/sewer? Sure. Besides the nasty neighbors and mean old cops with leftover hippie anxieties, do we get fed up without with the endless photo sessions by tourists enchanted with the “last hippie bus”, something we heard over and over. Often they think nothing of knocking on the door and asking to look inside. Oh, definitely.
But is our home affordable housing? It has been for a full ten years, so I could devote myself to the care of a critically ill husband and raising four children as well as home-schooling the youngest. Not to mention building a body of work. As Virginia Woolf put it, in my old school bus provides me with “a room of my own”.
During the pitched 3½ year battle with Children’s Protective Services one of the early social workers told me “Ramona, you don’t understand how people look at your bus,” I laughed out loud, “No Pam, you don’t realize how folks look at my bus.” Last week, an elderly German tourist came to the door and all smiles and cordiality, asked if one of the children would mind posing with him in front of the bus while I took their photo. He told us that his two little grandchildren, ages 10 & 12, yearn to live in a schoolbus. “Very American! They want to live on the beach, too.”
My children have a move that absolutely no other kids have. All I have to do is yell “tour bus” and everyone starts rolling into their beds, diving for the window seat in our bedroom, and laying flat-out and totally still on the low pink velvet sofa bed. Right in front of us will be stopped a tour bus, which with their height, can look right into our front window. There will be a mass of cameras pointed in on us. If I’m a good mood I’ll give them my 50’s beauty queen wave which cracks up the children, especially if I’m cooking.
A few months ago, Greg and I were alone in the bus, sitting on the sofa and having a mild domestic disagreement. Suddenly a twenty-something guy jumps on the hood of the bus and holds his arms above his head in a victory stance. His girlfriend kept snapping his picture while he literally danced on the hood. I nearly broke the windshield banging on it. You try winning an argument after that.
My personal favorite was a woman in L.A. just as we came into Malibu after a real rough ride in from Tucson. She was sitting in a huge S.U.V. waiting for the light to change and as we drive by, she began to wave. Her huge diamond was blinding in the sun. She pulled up next to us, honking and waving like mad. When I gave a mild smile, she began to jump up & down, and shot me a vigorous thumbs-up. All the way up the coastline, I tried to figure out what it was she saw in this big, ugly, old, black bus.
Greg’s favorite happened in San Luis Obispo, a conservative town, a man in a brand-new pick-up truck with a pretty blond wife sitting next to him, drives up to the driver’s window and gives Greg a hundred dollar bill, saying “get a tank of gas on me. Man, if I could just be doing what you are, I would.”
Finally somewhere around Santa Cruz I came to the conclusion that those people and the ones who photograph our home think that they are seeing a myth. Not the “last hippie bus” but rather, the last cowboy.