She is dressed in someone’s castoffs and has tears rolling down weather-creased cheeks. She pauses to push back uncombed hair and then returns to drawing circles on the asphalt edge of an Encinitas mall parking lot. Open at her side is a box of colored chalk. Her purpose is not clear to me, and perhaps not totally to her. I stop and ask if she’s all right.
“No,” she says. “My life is only sadness.”
I’m on my way to a nearby Subway, so I change my order to a foot-long. I return, and we split the sandwich and talk in the parking lot.
She identifies herself as Robin Riddle. Is that her name? I don’t know, but if not, it serves the moment. She is vague about where she’s from and has no idea where she’ll be in the future, even tomorrow, although she seems to have become an Encinitas resident.
Robin is an alcoholic, as she makes clear — a homeless alcoholic, the most vulnerable kind. She’s also a drug user, when it’s available.
She is 53, was born in Florida and has lived in California since age 3. Her rootless life has led her through many doors and onto many streets.
Her home is where she makes it: “I live under any number of bushes that they haven’t cut down yet.”
I ask what jobs she’s had, and she says, “I worked all my life until I dropped out. I’ve done all things, from making pizzas to working in a lot of bars. And I have — I probably done some other things, too. I spent some of my life addicted to drugs: white powder drugs, but I’m over that.”
How did drugs and alcohol happen to you?
“How did they happen to anyone else? I am old and alcoholic, and I sleep under a bush. That’s who I am.”
Have you ever worked the streets?
“I have occasionally succumbed to somebody’s money for something. Have you?”
I never had any offers.
“I have a couple dollars in my pocket, bro.”
She abruptly swings into a drifting stream-of-consciousness, showing a poetic romance with her imagery. “I am assured of my spot on this Earth. Without a doubt. Like every plant that spins. Every bit of gas that the air is. You can’t have it all.”
Robin’s mind functions like a machine that’s been overworked, or even abused: gears slipping a little and maybe bearings worn. Then, a switch is flicked, and it hums smoothly.
You don’t preach to her. She’s heard every sermon, ignored every warning.
I ask Robin to describe her day, and she says, “I start my day like everybody else. First thing, I need to go to the restroom at 5:30. The only bathroom that is open is in the (Cardiff State Beach) campground, and the fence is still shut. I get up early enough so that I can climb the fence without making a fuss, and then I go to the bathroom and then I brush my hair, my teeth, and I pray. I have a cigarette butt and a drink of vodka.”
A cigarette butt? You just pick them up?
Where do you get the vodka?
“I buy it. I beg on the street for money.”
Robin says if she were to go even a day without alcohol, she fears the strain on her system would cause a heart attack. “I’ve been thrown out of eight drug programs. I smoke pot now, and it’s weaning me off alcoholism. It’s very much helping me to get rid of the monkey on my back. I open the cage and I let him go. He comes back now and then, and it’s just what it is. Look at everybody running around in their spandex. Everybody is addicted to something. It’s a rough road, man. It’s really, really hard. It’s crushing.”
What are your hopes for the future?
“I don’t hope.”
What do you wish had been?
Robin puts in a full day’s work standing in the heat, the sun, the cold and even the rain to beg for money to sustain that monkey. Her begging is born of desperation because without her daily fix of cheap vodka, she knows she likely would lapse into delirium tremens, the dreaded DTs.
“I stand out there with my cardboard sign. Everybody gets to look at me and recognize what my plight is. I get blessed with unconditional love from (givers) who don’t even know me.”
In the pursuit of vodka money, she’s aware of how she’s perceived. “I get all kinds of looks. We start at disgusted, and then ignored, and then just plain blank stares … some sympathy, charity.”
Being rootless and without resources, she constantly runs the risk of arrest, which has happened to her through the years so often that she’s lost count.
She says that long ago, she was a good student. “I graduated on the honor roll early from high school, and I was at college to be an EEG technician …” The thought trails off, lost somewhere in the mist.
Robin has her own version of theology and her place in the world order. “Everything is good. Every day, God takes care of me: some days chickens, some days feathers. I understand and I feel the love that’s generated from God because it’s everywhere. Every time you see a leaf blow in the breeze, that’s God. You can’t stop that. Humans scare me, though. I’m not kidding.”
Are you a kind person?
“That’s my favorite part about me.”
What is your biggest fault?
What is that due to?
“I’m not sure.”
You’re an upfront woman, so may I ask if you have a mental illness?
“I like to think I do, but I’m pretty sane.”
Robin professes love for her tiny homeless “family” in coastal North County, an affluent outpost with few places of refuge. “I mainly hang out with the guys because girls are mean sometimes.”
Do you wish you had a real family and children?
“No. I never wanted them. I’m not responsible like that. I’m a vagabond. I like it like that.”
What do you think when you see happy families together?
“I appreciate it.”
She knows no happy-highways glamour in her life. “If you (want to) understand what it’s like to just completely go without, you need to take my stuff and be there in the dark, under a bush, with a blanket, dirty, hungry, lonely, degraded …
“(If it’s raining), you drag your blanket around to an underground parking lot, then here comes a security guard to kick you out, and by that time everything’s wet. You just do what you got to do.”
On the times that Robin has gotten sick, she says she has gone to the emergency room of Scripps Memorial Hospital Encinitas, just across the street from this shopping center, where she is treated with kindness.
She says she has scabies, a mite that burrows into the skin, which she describes as, “A little icky bug. The scabies are horrible man, but they’ve given me medication over there. It’s $72 for a tube of cream, but a nice lady over there just gave it to me.”
We may have shared a sandwich, but I’m not one of Robin’s trusted family.
“Are you going to tell lies about me?” she asks.
Why would I do that?
“Because you’re human.”
I give her $5 and say, “I hope this buys some good vodka.”
Pleased, she takes the bill and says, “It won’t be good, but it’ll be good, if you know what I’m saying.”
Why do we listen to Robin? Because she has something to say. We can drive by her chalk designs on the pavement and pretend she’s not there. But she is. She is there.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net He believes every life is an adventure, and welcomes your thoughts and ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org