Greatest Hits: Hobo Habits

I’m a big fan of what I like to call “hobo moments.” They’re those little occasions on which all people’s little pretenses fall away, and what’s left is our core essence and truest self: a crazy homeless person.

Because really, when you take away all the compulsory socialization and basic comforts many of us take for granted, what you’re left with is a mixture of pure id and wild animal. Hence: a crazy homeless person.

San Francisco is a city that is truly overrun by crazy homeless. I recently asked a friend if the homeless situation here was comparable to that in New York, and he strongly rebuked the idea.

“God, no,” he exclaimed. “Homeless people in New York are completely different. There, it’s like people are just kinda down on their luck. But in San Francisco, homeless people are. FUCKING. CRAZY.” I relayed this observation to one of my priests recently, as our conversation was being interrupted by a hobo spinning in circles and screaming with all the power of hell while jaded San Franciscans calmly glided by him. My priest confirmed this, and commenced to tell me some kind of story about the lack of mental health resources in the Bay Area or something like that. I didn’t really catch the whole thing, because by that point we were on Muni during rush hour, and were being violently shoved into seats and poles by a different kind of crazy person: the 9-to-5 corporate commuter (of which I freely admit my membership).

Anyway, hobo moments can come in many shapes and forms. My friend Melanie, for instance, is one of the great pioneers of the hobo moment. While she was a student at the University of Pittsburgh, Melanie was known to travel around the campus wearing dirty sweatpants, a scrunchee in her hair, and her dead aunt’s tennis shoes. She also carried her belongings in a trash bag. Consequently, Melanie was frequently mistaken for a homeless person, and kindly strangers would approach her and gently extend enough money for bus fare. But since she was unaware of the impression she made on people, she would take great offense to this and slap the money away. As such, she developed a reputation as that stuck-up homeless girl who’s too proud to take handouts.

One of my most recent hobo moments took place when I was still working at The Sharper Image. My department volunteered to serve lunch at Glide on a Saturday afternoon, and so I spent several hours busing tables and taking out trash (in the rain). By the time it was all over, I felt absolutely disgusting. My clothes were dirty, I smelled like garbage, and I had that deflated damp look one gets from standing too long in a light rain. I began walking toward 4th and Market with some coworkers. They were on their way to SFMOMA, and asked if I wanted to join them. However, I had much more pressing plans: I needed to find a warm shelter where I could poop and dry off. So, like other SF hobos who find themselves in this situation, I went to the Metreon. I genuinely felt a kinship with the homeless that day. To paraphrase Brian Krakow, I visited one homeless shelter and suddenly I was, like, this expert on homelessness.

Then, this past Sunday, I took on the decidedly hobo-like task of lugging all my spare change to Safeway so that I could dump it into one of those coin-sorting machines and exchange it for paper money. I had been keeping all my coins in these small cardboard boxes that once housed my ill-fated “Headset specialist” business cards from Headsets.com (the least corporate job I’ve had, and still the only one for which I had a business card). But I was entering the final days before my next paycheck and my funds had dwindled, so I wanted to cash in.

So, I loaded the coins into a double-bagged sack that also contained a few other things I was going to need that night, and I set off for Safeway. By the time I got there, I had broken into a sweat in the unforgiving Saturday afternoon sun. The bag had begun cutting deep patterns into my famously soft and delicate hands, so I was trundling ahead with great speed and urgency, eager to finally drop my load (so to speak).

I angrily swept into Safeway and lumbered over to the coin machines, jubilantly hoisting the heavy sack into the air and slamming it down on the counter. Muttering to myself and breathing heavily, I glared angrily at the nearby shoppers, warning them not to come anywhere near me. I meant business. Giving my waistband a few half-hearted tugs, I eagerly began cleaning out the contents of my plastic bags so that I could get to the coins. Several pieces of mail. A tattered, soiled iPod. Five issues of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer comic book. A grease-stained Popeye’s box. All of these items now sat proudly atop the coin machine, as I reached the smelly metallic treasure at the bottom of the bag.

“Whoo boy, I’m gonna get some money,” I slurred, before dumping a large mound of change into the sorting tray. Dollar signs floating in my eyes, I pressed the “Start” button and waited for the magical money machine to whir to life. It didn’t. I paused. I had only ever seen one person use one of these, so I couldn’t quite recall what was supposed to happen at this point. I knew that the coins were supposed to slide down the tray and into the inner mechanisms, where my total would be tabulated. So, I decided to help the machine by pushing a pile of coins off the tray and into the machine. Again, nothing happened. “What’s—uhh, what’s—err…” I began. I shook the tray a few more times, and noticed that it was a bit looser than seemed appropriate. Then, it hit me: the machine was broken. And it had a chunk of my change.

“What?!? WHAT?!?!” I shrieked aloud. I began furiously pulling my pants up while slapping at the machine’s flanks. “For fuck’s sake!” I said. “What in the motherfuck is this shit?” I looked angrily from side to side, seeing if I could find any witnesses to this injustice. “Do you believe—do you believe this fucking bullshit?” I muttered under my breath to no one in particular, gesturing at the broken machine that still carried my Popeye’s box. Clutching the now completely severed coin tray in my hands, I resisted the urge to throw it to the ground and defecate on it.

I thought about stomping over to Customer Service and yelling that the bad machine had eaten my pennies, but then I realized that there was another open coin machine immediately to my left. Wildly looking around me, I grabbed my surviving coins and dragged them over to the new machine. The Popeye’s box and the rest of my items (including two balled-up plastic bags) remained on the other machine as a way of marking my territory; my coins were in that machine, and I wasn’t finished with it yet.

I sniffed loudly and exclaimed, “This motherfucker had better damn well work,” plunging my pinky finger into my ear to get an itch and glancing sideways at the man the next machine over. Oh, there’s a person there, I thought. He better not try taking any of my change. I gave him my best Touch my pennies and die! expression, and turned my attentions back to the machine.

Shuffling my feet in place and renewing my determination, I tremulously lowered a handful of stinky coins into the tray and pressed the “Start” button. A beat, and then: it began to whir! The coins shook into the abyss! The tabulation began and continued rising! SUCCESS!!!

“Well that’s more like it,” I said to the Popeye’s box, pulling up my pants and farting a little. Giddy with euphoria, I happily muttered to myself while emptying the rest of the coins into the tray and furtively shoving them into the chasm. The tabulation rose slowly but surely, and before I knew it, I was already at $20. “Hot damn!” I exclaimed, looking around to find random strangers to invite into my joygasm. But all I found was a creepy older man who resembled the scary shovel guy from Home Alone. He was looking right at me. Slowly, he lifted his arm and pointed at my machine. I fell backward into the machine, preparing to defend my turf.

“Can…I…have…your…foreign…coin,” he croaked, in a voice as old as time. I stammered in response, and quickly turned to see what he was looking at. Sure enough, there was some sort of Canadian coin sitting on my machine. Wordlessly, I picked it up and extended it to him. He opened his hand, and I dropped it in. Eager to end this little transaction, I hurriedly spun around and continued muttering to myself while shoving change into the machine. That guy is fucking crazy, I thought, bending over to pick up a grime-covered nickel that had somehow escaped my tight grasp.

Eventually I’d deposited all of the money from my crumpled plastic bag, and my total was around $36. “Well shit, I guess that’s alright,” I said to myself. “Worth more now that it was before, I reckon.” Glancing merrily at the next machine, I saw something very upsetting: that guy’s total was at $117 and climbing. Eyes bugging out of my head, I stared angrily at my own now paltry-seeming total. What the fuck am I supposed to do with thirty-six measly dollars, I thought. That ain’t nuthin’ but chump change. And then I remembered: my money was still sitting in the broken machine.

Furiously staring down any passersby thinking about running off with my coin receipt, I pulled up my pants again and cautiously side-stepped to the broken machine. I sucked my teeth and leaned down, hoping to catch a glimpse of my stolen bounty. Since I’d ripped the tray off in my anger, I was able to see well into the gears. And, sure enough, I saw my coins.

Eyes widening, I rolled up my sleeve and steadied myself. “Don’t worry, babies,” I said. “Daddy’s coming.” I had already jammed my arm well into the machine before it dawned on me that this was a profoundly unsafe activity. Perhaps later I could fish a perfectly good chunk of chicken out of Scott’s garbage disposal. But that was neither here nor there. That was my goddamn money, and I was gonna go get it.

Bit by bit, I began gathering tiny clusters of pennies and nickels into my hands and depositing them into the functional machine. Each time, my grand total would climb a little bit, and my heart would thrill. I’d take a haughty glance at the other guy, stare wearily at the creepy foreign coin guy who was still loitering (how many hours a day does he spend there?), and then plunged my hand back into the machine.

Sighing loudly, I propped myself up with one hand while plunging the other deep into the broken coin-sorting machine. The pennies, nickels, and (gasp!) dimes sat in a tinny pile just slightly beyond the reach of my wiggling fingers.

“Come on, you little fuckers,” I sputtered, clammy asscrack now exposed to the stiff Safeway air. I was able to wrestle a few coins into my sweaty palm, but the vast majority of the coins rested maddeningly beyond my reach. Aww, well, fuck it, I thought to myself, eagerly extracting my hand before my knees buckled. You win this round, you motherfucking cocksucking piece of—

“OWW!!! What in the fucking fuck?!?” A sudden, piercing pain shot through my hand. My body jolted wildly as I snorted in terror, whipping my hand to my chest and clutching it like a puppy that had just been kicked by some asshole baby. I slowly moved my hand away from the injured area, and discovered two bleeding puncture wounds. Was there a vampire in the machine? If so, could that be considered this story’s deus ex machina? Is there a Latin word for vampire?

Waving my hand while frantically blowing at the wounds (the medical approach for treating any open wound), I got pissed. “You fucking piece of shit,” I fumed. “You stole my money, and now you done gone and cut up my hands just because I foolishly plunged them into your rusty metal gears. I need those to write for a living! Your ass is mine!!!”

As I prepared to dropkick the fucking machine, I noticed some people watching me out of the corner of my eye. I turned, still clutching my hand, eyes wide with rage. A middle-aged gay couple stood looking at me. I froze. What could they possibly want? I glanced down and saw that they had a bag of change. Their feet tapped anxiously. I wanted to caution them against tapping their feet like that so close to the Castro, but instead I realized that I was currently occupying two separate machines. Or at least that’s what it looked like.

“Uh. That one’s broken,” I murmured, gesturing sharply at my sworn nemesis.

“Oh,” said Queen #1. “That’s okay. I’m sure you’re not just piling all your shit on top of it to keep people from using it.”

“Hrm?” I said. Turning to look at the machine, I realized that it was still piled high with plastic bags, pieces of mail, and a large Popeye’s box. Oh. I turned back to the gays and attempted to make a series of conciliatory noises. After all, I still wasn’t sure if they were serious. Gay sarcasm can be damned difficult to decode.

And that’s when I saw it. The look. The same look of pity, fear, and dismissiveness that I reserve for only one kind of person: crazy homeless people.

Humiliated and defeated, I turned back to my functional machine, stabbed the “Print Receipt” button, furiously packed all my debris back into the plastic bags, and stormed to the checkout lane with as much righteous anger as I could muster. After all, was the wronged party here. The machine had stolen my money, maimed my hand, and made me look like a crazy homeless person to a pair of vicious old queens.

But at least the vampire bite on my hand hadn’t been entirely in vain. My goal was to get my total to $40, and I’d cleared it by a few pennies. So I strolled proudly to the register, glancing down merrily at my receipt. Looking back up at me, I saw:

CHANGE: $40.13

FEES: $4.05

TOTAL: $36.08

Son. Of. A. Bitch.

This post originally appeared on The Sassmouth Chronicles on August 20, 2008.

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