By Wayne Myers
I try not to judge people too harshly; I’ve learned the hard way that the very act of judging seems to unleash an entire host of unseen problems, and that whatever devices you employ in its practice will sooner or later be turned against you. I often reflect upon the fact that when I was fresh out of the Army and working in a service station in San Bernardino, I was approached by a homeless man asking for money who said he hadn’t eaten for two days. He looked it. I pulled a gob of greenbacks out of my pocket and waved it in his face, declaring: “Yeah, I got money! But I’m not giving any to you! I work for a living, why don’t you get a f—–g job?” Little did I know that by the time I was 40, I would be him. Condemned out of my own mouth.
Having discovered how the easily the sword of judgment cuts the man who wields it, I nevertheless sit down to write this letter. It is addressed to you.
The people of Santa Barbara, especially those who try to sell this city as some kind of bastion of informed and compassionate liberalism, need to pull their heads out of their lattes and take a look at what is going on in their own back yard. With Barack Obama’s ascent to the Oval Office now a page in the history books, one would think that the Democratic ideal would be in full bloom here in our fair city, that the trees and the buildings and the streets themselves would be growing fuzzy and warm and City Hall would take on a coating of sugar. Instead, we have two more “homeless deaths” on the secondary pages of the local paper while gallons of ink are used to inform us that: After a multi-year investigation the City of Santa Barbara and about 70 other agencies staged a raid in which 800 chickens were seized, and that our there is now a self-serve “pet spa” available at Arroyo Burro Beach. Practically the only human suffering reported on locally is that associated with the tragic Tea Fire.
Where is the concern over the asphyxiation of two human beings in a bus just a stone’s throw from State Street? Let’s face it, if the bodies of two wealthy homeowners had been found asphyxiated in a bus beside the railroad tracks in Santa Barbara at 7:00 a.m., it would be headline news everywhere the English language is spoken by 11 a.m. The imbalance, I suppose, is due to the fact that the two unfortunates that actually did die in the bus didn’t have any money to speak of, owned no home in Santa Barbara or Montecito and were, therefore, easily filed away under the label “homeless,” which is barely distinguishable from invisible.
The funny thing is, the gentleman that succumbed to carbon-monoxide poisoning and died Monday night never described himself as homeless and the lady who died with him shouldn’t have been, not if Santa Barbara stood by the image it projects instead of hiding behind it.
His name was Michael Allen Payne but I, and most of his friends, knew him as Easy. Easy was 55 years old. Though the authorities described him as “homeless” he actually had a home, a home with every modern convenience you can name short of a tennis court, and he had lived in it quite comfortably for years. The fact that his home had wheels and an engine should have made little difference; it was his home. It shielded him from the rain and it gave him a sense of security, a sense of place–something we all long for, I think. His yard, wherever it ended up being, was always clean and his neighbors uncomplaining.
Most nights found him watching movies: He had an astounding number of DVD’s and VHS tapes. It was difficult to name a movie he didn’t have and if he didn’t have it he would check it out from the library or have a friend download it from the Internet. He simply loved movies and if you did too, you were invited to watch along with him, as long as you didn’t wear out your welcome. He valued his privacy.
Less than a day before his passing, he and I sat and watched several episodes of Farscape together, the first season I believe, which a friend had burned for him. He was parked on Montecito Street; he would move to the tracks later, around midnight. As we watched the show he kept up a steady recounting of his past glories and his early years here in Santa Barbara. He had, as nearly as I can recollect, migrated out from Oklahoma and landed, initially, in San Jose. (Please, anyone who knew Easy well, if you can correct me on any point-of-fact, feel free.) His path then described an unhurried line up the coast and down, ending here in Santa Barbara where, in his own illimitable fashion, he decided to lay down roots.
He described, in detail, many things that I had previously only heard about in passing: Santa Barbara in its heyday, when it was still a beach town and not just a collection of buildings which happened to be located on the coast by default.
He pointed across the street at the Spearmint Rhino. He asked me if I knew what it used to be, years ago. I admitted ignorance and he filled me in: Sambo’s. It was a Sambo’s restaurant back when it was OK to be a Sambo’s restaurant, back when even the residue of an American education imbued people with enough knowledge, both literary and geographical, not to be put off by the name. He could have gone on and on about the injustice surrounding that sad chapter in the history of family dining, but stopped short and mentioned instead that Sambo’s was where he met his wife, the mother of his daughter. He drew my attention to a photograph taped to the ceiling: “My wife,” he said. “Very pretty,” I replied.
I had to work the graveyard shift at the Salvation Army that night so I couldn’t stay longer. I think I left about 8:00 or 8:30 p.m. Easy had mentioned that he’d been half-expecting his friend Anita to show up but he was alone when I left. He followed me out, chattering the whole way. He was standing in front of his bus in his shirt-sleeves the last time I saw him.