Homeless in Manhattan
After his father disappeared last October, hiking in the High Sierras, Robert Woodie disappeared in his hometown
by Robert Woodie
[Editor’s note: Part three of a three part series.This story was written prior to the body of the author’s father, Robert “Pop” Woodie, being found by hikers last week. See the story of the discovery on page 14. Part I “Search for Pops” and Part II “Dear Pops” can be found at EasyReadernews.com.]
I am up with the faint light of dawn. It takes me about four minutes to break down my sleeping quarters in the back of my 23-year old Land Cruiser. My sleeping bag and air mattress are folded and deflated, and my curtains fashioned from dark towels and oversized clips are quickly taken down before I slip out of the back door. A Taco Bell cup provided a bathroom break in the middle of the night, and my first order of business this morning is its disposal in the public restroom.
I am not the typical homeless person. My clothes are clean, my mental faculties intact, and I have the means to survive without having to pan handle. I also happened to grow up in this town and raise two well-adjusted, college-graduated daughters here.
Throughout my life, I have enjoyed sleeping well past dawn whenever my schedule permitted. My Pops, on the other hand, was always up with first light, making the most of the day. With his unexpected passing several months ago, I find myself trying to incorporate some of his traits into my daily routine, starting with the hour I greet the world. And recently, as the pain of his loss has ebbed a touch, I have spontaneously taken to talking with him as if he were right beside me. As crazy as this sounds, the practice is comforting and keeps his memory fresh while I honor the things he was passionate about. As I register the sunrise, I comment to Pops how nice the day will be.
My choice of an overnight spot has been the winner of a multi-week, trial-and-error process. I am parked near the community center, which offers a 24-hour bathroom, the security of the police station next door and the ability to remain above ground. Another advantage is this location puts me close to the library, post office, and coffee shops that are essential to my vagabond existence. Underground parking structures are warmer and feel more secure but they are too noisy; a slammed car door at 2 AM echoes with the force of a gunshot. The lack of sunshine also proved depressing.
While using the bathroom I take care to leave it cleaner than when I arrived. I wipe down the sink and faucet and pick up any stray paper towels on the floor. Even after several months, I marvel at the seriousness with which I undertake this chore. Perhaps it’s Pop’s backcountry “leave no trace” instruction at play. Or perhaps it’s my way of “preferring others” as my favorite spiritual guru preaches. In some way, it might even be my down payment towards having my own bathroom again someday.
Free community center Wi-Fi allows me to check the surf from the warmth of the lobby. The surf is meager this morning so I will head to my favorite coffee shop to work instead of donning my 4-millimeter wetsuit. I’ll leave my car parked by the city administration offices, setting an alarm on my phone to get back before my time limit expires. When I return, the lot will be bustling with activity. There will be a steady stream of architects, contractors, and subcontractors in and out of the split-level building, requesting city approval to erect rhapsodies of concrete, steel, and rainforest hardwood, replacing our small beach bungalows with maximum-sized vacation homes. I don’t always recognize the town I grew up in.
I run into some family friends and past clients at my favorite downtown coffee house. I’ve just finished posting on social media about them as they are, to date, my largest contributors to Pops’ endowment. It’s good to see them again. Since our kids have grown and moved on, our contact has diminished. The conversation comes around to where I’m living. I stumble with my unpracticed story and confess I’m “drifting a bit.” I see a mixture of concern and head scratching in their silent response but they are polite and let the conversation move on.
I leave the coffee house and swing across the street for a quick stop at the supermarket. The bone-in packaged steaks on display remind me of watching my Pops cut through those bones with a bandsaw when I was a kid. Pops was a meat cutter for 30 years in Manhattan and Redondo. The beef would arrive in quarters and his job was carving it up into sellable portions.
I head to the library once it has opened later in the morning for its faster Wi-Fi. At the computer bank, I see the familiar faces of the real homeless. There is Phil, the Asian guy who rides a bicycle stuffed full of plastic bags. He wears a bike helmet with a rear view mirror even while seated at a computer. There is the young, heavy-set lady who laughs and gestures like she is talking to a friend on the phone during her time at the console. I have seen her sleeping in the chairs in the evenings the library is open late. And there is the thin gray/brown-haired man with the fedora who attends to his personal hygiene in the bathroom. While using a loaner laptop, he is calm one minute then grunts and gestures wildly while hammering away at the keyboard, seemingly in a physical struggle with the machine to finish his work. He is well known by the library staff who often remind him to be quiet. As I settle into my spot I wonder what the staff must think of me now that we cross paths so often.
My homelessness was born of a confluence of losses, with the crusher being losing my father to a rockslide in the Sierras four months ago, his body never found. Almost a year ago, my youngest brother, Todd, passed away after a 30-year battle with drug addiction. The difficulty of his passing was compounded by a revelation that my mother’s enabling hastened his final demise. And this all came less than two years after the end of my 25-year marriage, which torpedoed my lifestyle and radically deconstructed my precepts of love and relationships. Overcome by loss and pain, I chose homelessness as an homage to the losses in my life and as a means to accentuate its continued blessings.
At the beginning of my homelessness, I spent Christmas Eve by myself. My Pops’ passing was very raw and his memorial still almost a month away. For the first time in 53 years, I would spend Christmas Day without him. We would not catch up nor would we hold our annual planning session for our next backpacking trip. Because of that, I chose to spend Christmas Eve alone as a tribute to him. I wanted to plant a flag in my memory, boldly declaring how hard it was to lose such a great father. As I dined by myself with one other patron in a restaurant usually filled, the emptiness of being alone on Christmas Eve was matched only by the heaviness in my heart. I am learning that while life does go on, there are “dense” periods in our journeys when time slows down. It had only been eight weeks since Pops passed, but it felt like an eternity.
I think nothing these days of dining by myself, which is a radical change from my past thinking. Just after college, I waited tables at a well-known restaurant in town called St. Estephe. It was good paying work with a really fun group of coworkers. Several are still close friends and I even dated the hostess who went on to become my wife of 25 years. While working there, people would come in from time to time to dine alone. I couldn’t shake how lonely they looked and remember feeling sorry them while they ate their chili rellenos appetizers and $32 salmon painted deserts entrées.
My morning’s work done, I am ready for the gym. For the first time in my life, I rarely drive above the speed limit around town. I want to conserve fuel and hurrying just doesn’t seem important anymore. Many years ago I paid a large sum to have a lifetime membership at my gym. That foresight has paid off by providing both a place to exercise and shower. While I used to avoid showering at the gym, I now cherish the event. A warm shower keeps my existence from feeling too foreign. After several months now, it would seem strange to shower without flip-flops. I experimented with simplifying the gym showering process and hit on a great routine. I use my washcloth not only to wash with but also to towel dry with. Three forceful wrings at several intervals and I am nearly as dry as if I had a fluffy bath towel. Now I only need to air dry the small cloth, which hangs out of the way in the blind spot of my car and dries well before its next use.
After the gym I head east and enjoy my typical self-made lunch on the tailgate of my car, overlooking our local par 3 golf course. It’s a course I played many times with my Pops and brother Todd and I’m not far from the tee at the fourth hole. A little less than 10 months ago I buried my brother’s amazing dog near that tree. It was a dark, windy, and rainy night and it was difficult trolleying a dog of Mona’s size that far. The undertaking was cold and risky but the effort to give her a meaningful resting spot was worth it. Remembering it now brings a rare smile to my face. One of the few heartwarming memories of my brother’s last years was how he wouldn’t let my mom put Mona down. The ancient Chocolate Lab was completely paralyzed, mostly blind, and looked like a bag of bones. But she didn’t seem to be in any noticeable pain and still enjoyed a good head scratching. Mona was Todd’s faithful friend for the last 10 years of his life when his escalating addiction pushed away human companionship. As much sense as it might have made to euthanize her, he refused to betray her loyalty. Her last act of love was staying alive for Todd as long as she could. Amazingly, the day after he died Mona passed away of natural causes.
Near the golf course is one of the many soccer fields where I coached my daughters’ teams during their childhood. I was a head AYSO coach for 10 years and really enjoyed it. It helped keep me close to my daughters, especially during their adolescence. Like most of the coaches, I probably took it a bit too seriously at times. But my proudest discovery was to forbid assistant coaches, parents, or myself from shouting directions to the girls during the games. Instruction was offered during practice and halftime only. The kids played much better without the distraction, helped each other more on the field, and seemed to enjoy themselves much more. Naturally, Pops was at every game. He didn’t need my rule; he had never been a shouter. He didn’t know the game very well, but he made a point to seize every opportunity to enjoy his family. From the vantage point of my tailgate, that part of my life seems so far away it might as well be a dream.
This afternoon I visit a friend who settled in my hometown after we met in college in San Diego. He has had some professional ups and downs but he’s a hard worker and smart businessman. His efforts paid off in a big way over the last decade and he recently purchased an $8 million home. While he shows me around, the vast difference in our current positions weighs heavy, and I avoid mentioning I live out of my car now. But in talking with my buddy, I’m reminded that appearances can be deceiving. Despite his luxurious home, he is consumed with the well-being of his two children who face challenges that clearly trouble him. It strikes me that all of us are “living in our car” in some way. Despite outer appearances, we are all burdened. It also hits me how important it is to actively listen to others. A few pointed questions might help those we care about express what they need the most and ease some of their struggle.
It’s the middle of winter but the weather is unseasonably nice today. Twenty minutes or so before sunset I head down to The Strand. Like the dawn, I am trying to take in each sunset, regardless of where I am. Pops was always asking if I had seen the sunset on a such-and-such day, last week. He planned his daily bike ride around it.
I settle onto my favorite Strand wall, perfectly positioned for the sunset and to people watch. I decide this is the best time and place to be in the beach cities. No one is showing off their expensive car or home. They’re not flashing money or plastic in expensive restaurants or boutiques. Everyone is exercising, walking their dogs, or just enjoying the scenery. Here, your wealth is measured by how much you enjoy life and those around you. From this perspective, Pops was the wealthiest man I’ve ever know. He enjoyed every day to the fullest. He cherished his family and friends. He was a role model and father figure for many of my friends growing up. I’m starting to understand that by living out of my car I’m acknowledging the lack of importance of material things, and honoring a characteristic of my father that made him loved by all those who knew him.
A blonde/gray homeless guy in a red ski jacket walks by and sits on a bench within earshot of my spot. I have often encountered him talking and gesturing angrily to himself and make a point to give him a wide berth. He is calm now, but I keep him in my peripheral vision as an old man with a cane slowly makes his way toward him. To my surprise, the homeless man initiates conversation with the older man as if they have known each other for years. They banter about the weather, but the articulation and warmth the homeless man extends toward someone physically less fortunate than him throws me. That someone who seemingly has so little still has the capacity to be warm and kind to others is a reminder of what’s important. The interaction is over quickly and not long afterward so is the sunset. I ask Pops what he thought of the sunset.
On the way into my favorite order-at-the-counter diner, I hold the door for a nice man and his family. It has meant a half dozen or so people moved ahead of me in line but I think nothing of it. I am in no hurry. As we are about to pay for our burritos he surprises me by insisting on paying for my dinner. He says it was very nice of me to let them go ahead and he is especially happy to do it as he is there as part of a fundraiser for his family’s school.
My evenings used to consist of plenty of couch time. In my new existence, I have struggled to manufacture some “feet up” time in the evenings. Local coffee shops are not geared for people to be that casual. I was excited to discover a couch in the library buried deep in its recess. The hour or so before closing it is typically empty so I can sprawl without disturbing anyone. But sadly, the library is only open late half the week and those nights rarely seem to be the nights I really crave it.
It will be bedtime soon so it’s time to prepare the car. I choose a spot that slightly elevates the hood of the car so my air mattress sits level. I figured out after a month that I could greatly expand my parking options by simply driving up the concrete parking stops to gain this elevation. I downloaded a bubble-level app to my phone to quickly find the perfect angle. Once settled, I store my surfboard along the left side of my wagon’s cabin with the towels for curtains. I spread out my Ex-Ped air mattress from REI and open the valve so it will self-inflate while I go for my evening walk. I brush and floss my teeth with the lights off, trying not to draw too much attention to myself. With the advent of smartphones and improved data service, I have noticed more people spending extended periods in their cars. This has had the benefit of making my activity around my car seem less odd than it would have in the recent past.
Earlier this evening I spoke with my brother, Tim. Like me, he is struggling with Pops’ passing. We agreed it’s getting easier with the passage of time, which brings comfort but is also somewhat disconcerting. It still seems absurd that someone so central in your life can disappear overnight and yet with the passage of time you are able to soldier on. It feels like I’m dishonoring him by slowly edging toward normalcy again. It’s hard to admit, but maybe my decision to live out of my car, in part, is to hold onto the pain of my loss. Once that has dissipated, it feels like I’m truly saying goodbye.
After my walk I use the community center restroom one last time, making sure again to leave it cleaner than I found it. I get to my car and the air mattress now only needs half a dozen breaths to top it off. Climbing in the backseat of the wagon at night is a giveaway, so I do this quickly, without lights. Even though overnight parking is allowed here, I would be very surprised if sleeping in your car is.
I have a backcountry bag that I pull out of its stuff sack for extra warmth against tonight’s cold. Sleep usually comes quickly, which is partly due to the constant diligence my existence demands. How much longer I will continue this life is a question I can’t answer. When I began, I wasn’t clear on my reasons for choosing to live out of my car. I just knew that was what I had to do. Now, I know this routine is at least part personal therapy and part tribute to my father.
Pops was so likable that all who knew him felt lucky for his acquaintance. His church was nature. He instilled in us a respect for its condition well before it became fashionable with the outdoor set. You were a steward of the gift that was nature. You rose early to see the sunrise and picked up trash whenever you found it. You fished for trout through the sunset if you were able because there was little in life that recharged your soul like the backcountry. Pops was never at peace as much as he was when fishing a pristine High Sierra lake.
To have his touchstone in my life as father, friend, and frequent travel companion was nothing short of a supreme blessing. The hole his passing left in my being is immense and the loneliness bone deep, but little by little healing is nudging it aside. I reflect more these days on that blessing than I do the loss, which I suppose is more evidence of a return to normalcy. I drift off in the parking lot, contemplating my shifting mindset. Tomorrow will be a new day. Pops and I will be up at dawn, intent on “make the most of the daylight.”
To contribute to Bob Woodie’s endowment please visit
ttps://SierraClub.org/BobWoodieMemorial or ExpertLandTripper.com.
Once the endowment goal is reached, yearly contributions will be made in Bob Woodie’s name to support the Sierra Club’s efforts to engage underprivileged children with the outdoors. Connecting youth with nature was a lifelong passion of Pops’. Robert will be adventuring down to South America soon in his Land Cruiser and you can follow along at ExpertLandTripper.com.