Daniel Mazer has to be envied by his peers: The Hillcrest resident is the savvy owner of a recycling business that makes him a decent buck. He’s seen as a good guy in his neighborhood and has a good place to spread his blankets.
Not every homeless man is that together.
Daniel is a congenial fellow of 58, tall and slim. On the streets, being skinny is not done with the help of Jenny Craig. It’s a consequence of hand-to-mouth living. (And sometimes of ingesting things with no food value — the meth diet.) A homeless fat person is as rare as getting a $5 handout.
Daniel won’t talk you to death, but he can beat you to your knees. If his words were wind, they’d blow your hat off. But he’s harmless. I say that not in a condescending way, but to explain that you don’t have to be wary in his midst, unlike a few others of the street community. He bears a cast from wrist to elbow as testimony to those dangers. More on that in a moment.
He strides the pavement of Hillcrest like a mayor, or at least the chief of protocol. Daniel likes people, and from what I saw, they seem to like him. He has key business contacts from whom he gathers unwanted metal, his specialty. He knows the price of all recyclables, where to find them and where to sell them.
Nearby is the fleet of two grocery carts he uses for collecting on his rounds. He also has a large plastic container liberated from some disposal company. It’s his office, closet and pantry. In another time, he’d be called a junkman; today, he’s a recycler.
He’s an organized, confident entrepreneur to which he credits his earlier-life executive background.
Still, he’s out there in the cold, with dangers not posted on street signs, just as the placid Amazon hides piranhas.
He holds up his arm-cast as evidence of the story he is about to tell. He’s in his “bedroom” in the off-sidewalk utilities alcove of a building near Seventh Street and University Avenue. For someone sleeping on the open streets, his spot is a Hyatt. He is relaxing on his bedding and leaning against a fire door.
“In a nutshell, I’ll break it down,” he says …
On a quiet evening a few weeks ago, Daniel is settling in for the night in his nook. It’s peaceful, just like a circled wagon train was peaceful. (“It’s too quiet out there tonight, Jeb.”)
Daniel knows there are a few sadistic bullies (pardon the redundancy) on these streets who relish the chance to beat up older, undernourished, often mentally ill homeless people. Weasels in a chicken coop.
“I was sitting (on my bedding) when I noticed a young gentleman peeing on (a nearby) wall. I asked him nicely, ‘Sir, please don’t pee in public.’ He promptly informed me that I should go f--- myself or he would f--- me up. I immediately shut up. I don’t need no trouble. I’m into peace and love. I’m an old-school hippie. Anyway, I let him pee and he went about his business.
“I grabbed a gallon of water and flushed it away. My drinking water at that, which I paid for. I sit back down. A minute later, to my astonishment, there’s an older gentleman now peeing in the same spot. This is a bit much, I’m thinking. I stand up, and as I approach to say the same thing to him, the younger gentleman is laying in wait behind the wall. In ambush, if you will.
“I was scared to death. I’m here in a corner and these two big men — well, one big man — is threatening me with his hands up. The young dude who was the stud, he stepped forward and with two hands and with fury in his body — I could see it in his eyes — he began to wale on me. (He hit) my arm (and broke it). He also got me good just above the lip, where I have a huge contusion inside my mouth.
“I have false teeth. I can’t wear them now. I recently got them, courtesy of ... Did I mention Obamacare? Thank you, Obama. Thank you, Democrats. I’ve been trying to make up for years of neglect by going to the doctor and the dentist, and stopped smoking and stopped drinking.”
I saw you smoking a little while ago.
“You did? I recently picked up smoking as a result of this incident. I’m so stressed out. I’m traumatized. I’m having difficulty sleeping; I’m just in shock.
“The guys run away when they find out the police are coming. They escape on the trolley.”
Have you seen them around here?
“I had seen them in the neighborhood. They’re lovers. One is the sugar daddy and one is the stud muffin.”
“Stud muffin. It’s what they say in Hillcrest.”
It’s interesting what Daniel does here, but just as interesting how he got here.
He was raised in Baltimore to parents who smoked pot in the living room, which gave him ideas that he, unfortunately, later acted on.
Once he tumbled from that cannabis nest, he spent 20 years in the natural foods industry, mainly with the large Wild Oats Markets for which he says he occupied “senior management” positions, principally as a regional director of five stores in Florida. Apparently, that job ended about 20 years ago.
He is asked what happened.
“S--- happens. People move on, people change. At the top of my pinnacle, I got too big for my britches. I was carousing, doing drugs, and it caught up with me. ... I hit rock bottom.”
He was married for five years back then, with no children. He’s not in contact with family except for a bipolar sister. However, he says he rebounded and has been drug-free for seven years. That’s the same amount of time he’s been hustling recyclables, by which he says can earn $50 on a good day and on which he pays no taxes.
He takes pride in knowing his business. He points to an array of discarded items surrounding his bedroll. “You see this ironing board? I’m telling you, I can get money for this, maybe $1.50 in scrap metal.”
His eyes search out another item. “You see that food-service rack? It was just given to me yesterday by Whole Foods (Market). I get a lot of scrap. I have a bunch of old grocery shelves at Ralphs I need to go pick up. Everything is worth money if you know where to look.”
Daniel speaks with feeling about addiction, the way a sinner does in confession. “I’ve been through the muck and mire of it all. I could tell you stories about it. I know everything. I know the pitfalls and trials of drug addiction and backsliding. I’ve been through rehab. It didn’t work for me. What worked for me was when I manned up. I couldn’t take the pain and suffering anymore of a life of drug addiction.”
What were your drugs of choice?
“I used all drugs, from cocaine to heroin. I was an addict. I went through the mill. It was never alcohol. That’s a horrible drug. That destroys lives.”
I ask Daniel about his social life, if he enjoys the company of a lady.
“No. I’m beyond that. I don’t engage in intimacy with women that I’m not engaged to or married to. That’s a matter of principle. I stand and die on principle. I don’t fornicate. I don’t condone that type of behavior or any crude or lascivic—”
“Lascivious behavior. I don’t condone it. I fight against it as a Christian man.”
I congratulate him on finding such a commodious cubicle, but he shakes his head. “I’d give this up in a minute. Come on, man. I don’t want to be living like this. Storing my property in a trash can. Sleeping out in the cold behind a dumpster. This is not my idea of a good time, Fred. This is not it. I wouldn’t wish this on nobody. I’m serious. You’re going to bring me to tears.”
A few weeks ago, Daniel had a room in a cheap hotel until he had a dispute with the manager and had to leave. It would seem that the $50 a day he tells me about would pay for another room, but I let the question slide.
One afternoon’s interview is not going to unravel the complexities of Daniel Mazer, or to separate what emanates from his memory or from his imagination. But he’s a likable fellow and deserves wishes of health, a prosperous business and people to listen to the many things he has to say.
And who knows? Maybe he’ll happen upon the Elysian Fields of a safer neighborhood. He’ll have his own comfortable room with a plug-in lamp by which to read his books, and a pile of scrap metal right outside the door.
Stay warm, Daniel.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
His email is firstname.lastname@example.org