The burly man, beanie hat pulled low over his forehead, a couple of sweaters making him look even wider, waves hello as I drive past on my way to work. His cheerful smile and his arm wave help me get started. His name is Chris and he is performing his morning routine – not exactly jogging as many of the people living along the canyon are known to do. While I am driving down the one way, winding and scenic road, he is ascending for a purpose unknown to me.
Chris lives at the bottom of our canyon, where the bends are less threatening, the vegetation higher and a stream runs parallel to the road before dying in the ocean. The exact location of Chris’ abode is undisclosed – he will not tell us for fear that someone will rat him out to the local authorities and evict him. “Evict” is a rather large word applied to Chris’ circumstances – he is homeless. There might be a tent involved, pitched in the brush near the stream, there are probably some pots and pans and other items collected over a lifetime of living under the sky.
Our canyon is remote, as remote as anything can be in a megalopolis, and the one way road, for the most part uninhabited, is an irresistible attraction for bikers, car racers and “dumpers”. If we tolerate the first couple, albeit with gritted teeth (after all, they only come on week-ends) we decidedly despise the latter. They come in the middle of the night and dump whatever they can’t be bothered to recycle or dispose of properly: car tires, old bikes, assorted furniture and even the occasional washing machine. Everything gets thrown to the bottom of the canyon, where the ravine is so thick and the mountainside so steep no one can get to it. A few years ago, the neighbourhood pitched in together and hired a man and his contraption to recover whatever possible – just because it’s out of sight, it doesn’t mean we don’t know it’s there. Tires are the most dangerous because in such a fire prone area like the one we live in, they could ignite like a match.
Since moving to our canyon, Chris has decided to insert himself in the community. He somehow manages to find a way down the slopes and recover, day after day, whatever has been discarded. Then he leaves his loot on the side of the road, for us to take care of and decide what to do. We realized what was happening when neat rows of tires started making their appearance during our morning commute. It took a while for Chris to let us approach him – who knows how many times he has been chased or what demons fly around in his head. In talking to him, it’s clear he is not a completely functioning person, the way we intend it. We found out he is a Vietnam Vet and has been living on the streets for decades. We asked how we could help, how could we thank him for the massive and useful work he was performing. In our naiveté, we thought we could reach out to Social Services to help him find a roof, a job, medications but all Chris wanted was a camping mattress, to make his nights more comfortable. The mattress was delivered somewhere in a neutral spot as there was no question of Chris inviting us over. He couldn’t have been happier.
His smile is genuine – every morning, when he waves, he truly seems happy to see me. His presence in the canyon is like a guardian angel – sometimes I see the fruit of his labour and I know he is around, sight unseen. He might not have a conventional house or the social graces to be a dinner guest but he has managed to become an integral part of our small community. On his own terms.