Even The Homeless Enjoy Benny Goodman

This morning I came outside, looked north at the beautiful view that greets me every single day. And I smiled. I'm very glad this is what 45 degrees looks like in Los Angeles.

No bone chilling rain, no ice storms to navigate and no snow to shovel.

I figured I'd take a quick jaunt over to one of the overpriced cafes in Sunset Junction, score some hot tea, and cozy up in a chair with my writing notebook.

I wrapped a scarf around my neck and pulled on a pair of gloves to keep my hands warm. And then I set off, weaving my way through the streets, anticipating the aroma of a hot cup of Silver Needle tea.

A couple minutes into my journey, something happened that I did not expect.

I heard the faint sounds of music, something that sounded like Benny Goodman. And the further I walked, the louder the music became.

Right when I got to the point when I should have been able to determine which house or car it was coming from, I only saw...a tent.

Yes, someone's set up a home along the street.

In a tent.

I've seen enough homelessness in this city to know that the mattress blocks the wind and provides a bit of privacy. The table is useful for storing items. And someone has helpfully provided a garbage pail for any refuse that may need discarding.

I sat down on the curb across from this makeshift home wondering who was inside, but also secretly hoping whoever it was didn't come out. I imagined being confronted by some grizzled, angry person yelling, "What are you taking pictures of my house for?"

There was none of that though. Only the melodic strains of what was indeed Benny Goodman.

I heard a bit of laughter, the kind of laughter that someone lets out when they're enjoying music that brings back memories of a happier time.

And then I heard the sound of a hammer clanging.

I let my eyes follow the sound. The house directly to the left of this tent is being expanded and rehabbed. It used to be a small bungalow. But now everything from the chimney on back is newly added on.

It's the kind of renovation that can easily cost tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars and it's been going on since summer.

I wonder if whoever's in the tent used to live in a house like this before they fell on hard times. Maybe they used to live in an apartment like mine and then something happened to change their circumstances.

A couple cars whizzed by and I realized I should probably move before my toes got run over. So I stood, still curious but ready to continue my journey toward the $3 cup of tea I was craving.

I felt guilty while I drank my tea knowing that whoever was in that tent would not be welcome in such a trendy cafe. No, my homeless compadre wouldn't have the nouveau bohemian look: carefully tousled bed-head hair, a trendy hipster t-shirt covered with a military style jacket, skinny jeans, and, despite the cold, flip flops.

I bought another tea before I left the cafe and held it carefully as I walked back home through the hills. The music had subsided. As I approached the tent, only the sounds of the construction workers banging on the house filled the air.

I paused on the sidewalk next to the tent, unsure if anyone was still inside.

Uncertain, I put the cup of tea down on the sidewalk and said, "I thought you might like something hot to drink."

There was no movement, no response.

I was a little glad for this as I stood to walk away, the cup of tea steaming merrily, waiting to be grasped and held once more.

A car approached and the rushing noise it made as it passed me almost obscured the "Thank you," I heard. I looked back and saw a hand emerge to grasp the tea and pull it inside the tent.

Then the Benny Goodman once more began to play.

I wonder how long this tent and it's tenant will be in residency. Surely someone in the neighborhood will complain, demand that this tent pitching is the equivalent of a broken window in the neighborhood. I suppose it is.

But I can't help but wish I could buy the resident a cup of tea every day.


Mes Deux Cents said…

That was a really interesting post. I have for a long time wondered if there is a way to live that is in between homelessness and living a life of being tied to bills and the other things that bog people down.

When I saw that picture of the tent it made me long for a simpler life. I don’t want to live in a tent on the street but something not much more than that would suffice.

There is a so-called movement called the Tiny House movement. It’s exactly what the name implies. There are apparently other people who wan to live a simpler life and are building very small homes, usually about 400 to 600 sq. ft.

I also wonder how much homelessness could be eliminated by building communities of Tiny Homes.

Mes Deux Cents said…
Also: what an interesting juxtaposition between the photo of the tent and the photo of the house.
I volunteer with Chrysalis and the stories of how some people end up homeless is just devastating.

Many of the homeless are mentally ill or addicted to drugs/alcohol. Most of the women I met were one paycheck away, then that paycheck went away. How many of us, if we didn't have family and friends to look out for us, could deal with the loss of a job, insurance, spouse, home etc.

I remember this one sister who would not go to a shelter because she didn't feel safe there. She would sleep on the street. I later found out she had two kids and they lived with her sister in Brentwood. Deep.
I know this wasn't the purpose of your post, but Liz, you are such a wonderfully sweet person.

Your photo is almost identical to one I took several months ago in an alley in SF where someone had set up a tent.

The occupant was allowed to stay there for about a month before he had to move. I felt bad for him but I also admired the way he fashioned a life on his own terms.

I suspect that most people avert their eyes from the homeless because they're afraid it's a contagious condition. A cup of tea is big for someone who lives in the moment. We should all do more of that.
Jameil said…
you are so fab and i so knew you were going to buy him a cup of tea. i love reading your story.
Anonymous said…
Your crazy - hasn't anyone ever told you not to talk to strangers!!! Most homeless people have some kind of mental disorder - so why would you get close to the tent?!

On the other hand, "there but for the grace of God go I" so I'm glad there are people like you out there who are not afraid to lend a hand or a cup of tea.
Love ya,
nick said…
Yes the contrast between the tent and the reno'd house is striking, and of course very typical of lots of urban areas where the poor struggle along beside their indifferent wealthy neighbours. At least you're a neighbour who's concerned and wants to help a little. A tent on the street wouldn't be allowed in the UK but there are plenty of homeless people bedded down in doorways.

MDC makes a brilliant point about the lack of a half-way between tents and 'normal' homes burdened with mortgages and bills. The Tiny House movement sounds great, hope it catches on. I wonder myself sometimes whether a roomy house with a garden is really worth all the cash and maintenance hassle that goes with it. A pity trailer parks have such a low-status image, that's one possible answer.
Anonymous said…
Very cool of you, I'm sure the tea was much appreciated.
Ian Lidster said…
The cup of tea is a lovely thought. There is a profound irony in this, of course. But, somebody who loves Benny Goodman cannot be a bad person.
Beautifully written, Liz. Would make a great newspaper column. And,dear, if I don't know much else, I do know what makes a good newspaper column.
Anonymous said…
Beautifully written indeed. Thanks for reminding me that I have so much to be thankful for.
1969 said…
Your writing is so wonderful. When I stop by here, I always feel as I do when I drink my own cup of tea....warm. Thank you for sharing and continue to be the sweet person that you are.
Anonymous said…
Brought tears to my eyes. That was pure goodness and light. I'm so glad you shared your story.
Jen said…
This was a fascinating post. I hope he or she enjoyed the tea and the music.

And I'd echo NYC ragazza - I also volunteer with a housing center for homeless families, and often it was that one paycheck away thing that got them. Medical bills are often another cause, sadly.
Tami said…
Everyone has said what I would like to say, but far more eloquently. This was a wonderful post, Liz.

To MDC's point, for anyone interested in our society's growing material "needs," including our ever-expanding homes, check out The Overspent American. I just finished it and it's a must-read.
Liz Dwyer said…
I saw something about the Tiny House movement on PBS and was absolutely fascinated. I'm sure if we all lived in smaller spaces we'd be less inclined to accumulate all the "stuff" we have. I also found the location of the tent next to that house very interesting. I think the tent's "allowed" to stay there though because there's not a house directly behind it. It's just a steep back of a hillside. So maybe that's why no one's called yet to complain to the city. Or maybe they have and the city's just slow to respond.

Yes, mentally ill, addicted, veterans, women. And the children break my heart...of course, here in LA we have our downtown, still the haven of the homeless, despite the onward rush toward gentrification and the homeless and their shelters being pushed further east. I just read a story about how renters are being kicked out of their apartments when landlords default on mortgage loans. Our landlords only bought this building two years ago. Gosh, it makes me nervous.

Thank you for saying so. I actually really felt horrible though that I didn't want the person inside to come out. Regrettably, I think I wanted to help, to do something but I was sort of afraid of what the interaction might bring. I think you're right that we fear it's a contagious condition.

Not too fab at all over here, just picturing myself in those shoes. I'd like to say it would never be me, but who knows what our world can bring?

Uh huh, mom raised me not to talk to strangers, but as you know, I have lifelong issues with this! I need to find some sort of venue where I can volunteer on a regular basis.

My neighborhood is a study in the extremes of wealth and poverty. If I go down the hill, I see poverty that rivals stuff I've seen in other parts of the world. There's a lot of "hidden" homeless in this neighborhood, folks who bed down in doorways and under trees at night but go away during the day.

But, if I go up the hill, there are just some breathtakingly beautiful homes. I often think about how many people could comfortably live in some of these homes. We just don't use space wisely, we're too individualistic, too, "It's my money so I can build the biggest house I want."

I hope he/she liked the tea. Not everyone likes tea though.

You do know a good column, I'm sure, so thank you for saying this. My dad is a jazz musician so that's how I'm familiar with Benny Goodman. I think we forget about the humanity of the homeless, that they are people just like us. They love music too but probably don't get to always hear what they like to listen to.

We do have a lot to be thankful for. I may have chronic insomnia (been up since 3:30) but I'm sitting on the couch under a warm blanket with the heat on. I'm not outside in the cold in a tent. Thank you for saying it's beautifully written. My writing's clearly better when my heart is engaged/touched.

Thank you for saying so. I always feel the same when I come visit your site...and I'm keeping my fingers crossed for you. ;)

Thank you. Just trying to share the things that really move me.

I think our world would be better off if there was more volunteeering, maybe people would see how those who are homeless really aren't as different as might be assumed.

Thank you, Tami and I'll definitely check that book out. I went to the mall on Wednesday night to get my son's teachers presents and i started to get overwhelmed with the sheer amount of stuff and how we are hit over the head with the pressure to buy, buy and buy some more.
Jameil said…
lizster, that's what makes you fab. everyone does not think in those terms: it could happen to me.
BZ said…
This was a beautifully woven post. I pictured you and your morning, perfectly. And how ironic to have some mammoth addition built on to a house, directly across from someone subsisting on nylon and concrete. Your gesture speaks volumes to who you are. And, I completely feel you. I often have fruit that I don't finish before trash day, but I know it will go bad in a few days and I won't get to it. So, I take it to the man that stands every day at my subway station, greeting people with "good morning" and "have a nice day, ma'am".
Liz Dwyer said…
Okay, I'm feeling embarrassed now. And why does everyone's name have that blogger "B" next to it now? Hmm.

Are you digging out from the snow? Whew!

That's a great idea about the fruit...and it isn't it an interesting thing that some of the folks who have the least are oftentimes the ones who greet other people like that?
Sundry said…
Great story. I love that you are adding your own photos to your posts.
Lola Gets said…
You dont have to buy him a cup everyday, but theres no harm in making him a cup. Being homeless is no joke. If you cant afford the necessities, the niceties arent being purchased either.

Its about time for my annual "be nice to the homeless" post, so come check it out!

Anonymous said…
I think that your post was poignant, touching and illuminating
Because homelesness is treated like, mental health and substance addiction, etc, in that our society bury's its head and doesnt really do too much about the predicament. There is a bizarre and perverse difference between the haves and the have nots. What has happened to the concept of social housing and welfare?
Greed and lust for power has changed human kind's Governance structures leading to a general moral decay and uncaring attitude to the problem.
At least you and others like you, with a collective consciousness can make a difference.
Massive respect!!
Keith said…
So many of us are being priced out of our 'hoods that I wouldn't be surprised if that person once lived in the house that was being renovated. In a country where some people have so much it amazes me how "we" can stomach poverty, even justify it. It was nice of you to do what you did.

Who the heck is Benny Goodman? Must have been before my time.
Liz Dwyer said…
I'm trying to add more of the photos I take. I forget to upload them off my camera for days on end. I need to get better at that though because I recently suffered a dead memory card.

It rained tonight and I really thought about him and how he's doing. I like the idea of making him a cup of tea...but my tea kettle died this morning so we're both out of luck as far as tea goes. UGH! Why is the replacement I like $40?

Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. Social housing and welfare have been replaced with the belief that folks in these situations are there because they're lazy or somehow they messed up their own lives and so deserve to be homeless. It really is a survival of the fittest world, an existence that because of materialism only sees value in the wealthy. "With fire we test the gold and with gold we test Our servants."

At my friend's bachelorette party a couple weekends ago everyone was talking about how we can't move because we're are priced out of our neighborhood's market rate due to rent control. Not complaining about the rent control though.

Benny Goodman was a big band jazz clarinet player. My dad is a jazz musician so I guess I take for granted that everyone knows who he is.
storyteller said…
I’m sniffling as I reach for a Kleenex and find myself typing yet again when I intended to read and run. I just want to say thank you for caring and sharing … reminding us poignantly as we move through this holiday season, it’s often a small thing (but meaningful all the same). After all there but for fortune …
Hugs and blessings,

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