by Fred Dickey June 24, 2012
There is a ghost population of 8,500 people in
They are the homeless. No matter whom you think they are, you’re probably right. Some are mentally ill, some drug-captive, some out of work or out of luck. Many are alcoholics. We like to think they’re victims of circumstance, but quite often the circumstance is themselves.
Michael McGinley is on the job sitting on the steps of the Casa del Prado in
McGinley is 55 with a rosy glow and eyes that struggle to see through the brain fog of vodka. He is of medium size and wears castoffs from some thrift store or stores. Next to him is a small backpack that contains his blanket, some toiletries and little else. There is no room for a change of clothes. The pack also serves as a pillow, which also keeps it from being stolen.
Even amidst the stucco fairyland and Elysian beauty of this place, the weight of human frailty must be borne.
For all his lacks—a bed to sleep in, a regular sit-down meal, a caring someone to smile at him—McGinley is cheerful and open to a stranger, even one who doesn’t immediately drop a dollar in the hat.
He says he grew up an orphan in
Asked why he enlisted, he says, “I wanted to kill people.” Who? “Anybody,” he says. Why? “Because my parents died and I was mad at the world.” However, he says he eventually lost his anger. “Now, I don’t want to be cruel. If you do something wrong, something wrong will happen to you.”
By his own calculation, McGinley has gone through 60 jobs, two wives, and left three children in his wake. He has a sister and a son in the
How would he react were his son to appear? “I’d go get an ice cream with him, and—“ He stops, turns his head away and quietly sobs. He wants to change the subject.
Contrary to appearances, McGinley and his peers live a rather structured life. He sleeps across the narrow road in the doorway of the
“Some people live down here for 25 years,” he says, boasting of the comfort of the park. But he never goes in the museums except to use the bathroom, and the profusion of floral extravagance does nothing for him. “I don’t pay any attention to it,” he says.
The homeless community in
His sidekick this day, and for the past two weeks, is an amiable young black man who also hangs out on the Casa del Prado steps. Occasionally, he’ll buy a cigarette from McGinley for a quarter. That gives McGinley a small profit and a feeling of geniality. In a few days, the two will drift apart, and new friends will be made.
McGinley does fine here because he’s a guy. He says that women have it much rougher, including the occasional rape. However, you won’t likely see that as a police statistic because they are rarely reported.
“If a woman gets raped down here, her friends get together and beat the s--- out of the guy. Not much the cops could do because the woman was probably drunk and wouldn’t talk about it, anyway.”
This is his world, and he rarely looks beyond. Asked about the upcoming election, he says, “I don’t give a f---.” If he could say one thing to President Obama? “I’d tell him to go f--- himself.” When the subject of counseling or therapy comes up, he looks at me as though I’d lost my mind.
McGinley mind is a yellow pages of survival resources. Key among them are the Salvation Army, St. Vincent De Paul, Catholic Charities, and County Medical Services. To make the connection, he says, “I got a bad toothache. The booze helps the pain, but I’m gonna have to take a day to go down to St. Vinnie’s and get it pulled.”
Food and clothing come from various charities and soup kitchens. He flashes a food stamps card, and says, “I use this if I go to a grocery store.” The card is the nearest thing to wealth he has.
His daily routine revolves about getting his vodka ration and two packs of cigarettes. He has to manage that on approximately $200 per month that he earns panhandling, which he considers a full-time job.
He talks about the availability of illegal cigarettes for $2.50 per pack brought in from
Cheap booze is the back-slapping friend McGinley has come to rely on. However, it’s also the Judas that plays hell with his liver and is planning to one day turn and kill him.
He cheerfully admits being an alcoholic, and when asked if he would like to quit drinking, he says, “I don’t want to.
“If I can’t have a drink by ten in the morning, I get DTs (delirium tremens). I start shaking and vomiting. It’s hell, so I gotta find a way to get a bottle.” Given his druthers, he prefers rum, but it’s more expensive. When it comes down to it, however, booze is booze.
The answer to what went wrong in McGinley’s life is either complex or simple, depending on your view of behavioral psychology or individual responsibility. Take your pick: neither offers easy answers.
Fred Dickey of Cardiff is a novelist and award-winning magazine writer who believes every life is an adventure. He welcomes column ideas and other suggestions; contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.