Leo’s Story: Downwardly Mobile

The grizzled, wiry guy on the bicycle waited for the light to change.  He was decked out like any long-distance road cyclist: helmet with rear-view mirror, gloves, cycling togs, panniers, plastic kid’s beach pail…the light changed, and I was off, leaving him to pedal wherever his wheels carried him.

I loaded up the big machines in the laundromat in the little town on the Oregon coast.  Laundry time happens every two weeks for me.  I’d rather do a bunch at once and get it over with.

And here comes my bicyclist!  Looks like he’s doing laundry too.  He needs change, but the change machine doesn’t like his crumpled dollar bills.  He’s off to McDonald’s to buy lunch and get some change.  Would I watch his stuff?  Sure.  I’ll be here for another hour.

He returns indignant: McDonald’s is so expensive!  He likes to go to Burger King because they have these pancakes for $1.89, and if he buys two that will carry him through the whole day…wait, says my brain.  This is not adding up.

I take a closer look.

His clothes are the clothes of a long-distance cyclist…but they’re old and frayed, and he’s wearing multiple layers that look kind of….permanent.  The shoes had been expensive, in their day.  The gear–his tent, sleeping bag, panniers–had seen a lot of time and weather.  What’s his story?

But look at him, he’s pale and shaking from hunger!

“Hey man, you want a quesadilla?” I volunteer.  His eyes popped.

“Yes, I’d love one!”

“Fine, why don’t you get your laundry started, and I’ll yell when it’s ready.”

I made two, loaded with cheese and avocado.  I love to feed people!

I handed Leo, for that is his name, a paper plate of food.  He inhaled it.  Color entered his face.

Time for me to put my things in the dryer and find out what was up with Leo.  One of the fun parts about living on the road is that I meet so many people with interesting stories!

From the get-go, it was clear that there was more to Leo than met the eye.  ADHD for starters!  A brilliant mind, but no solidity.  Mercurial, is the word that presented itself.  He was all over the place.

But I knew he had a story to tell.  I wanted to sit down with him and listen, if he wanted to tell it.  And he wanted to tell it, very much!  

His present strategy for survival, which got him through the terrible winter of 2016-17, is to use $5 a night of his $575/month Social Security check to camp in one of several State Parks along his route on the Coastal Highway of Oregon.  That way he can put up his tent, use the restrooms, and even get a shower if he has enough quarters (25Β’ a minute for a shower).  The Visitors’ Centers have free hot coffee, and sometimes a fire in the fireplace.

I arranged to camp in my van at his destination park for the night.  We would meet for coffee in the morning, and he would tell me his story.

He found my campsite that evening.  Immediately he picked up on the guitar case that occupies my passenger seat.  I explained that it’s actually a giant ukulele, but since my left wrist is trashed, I can’t play it.

“When I was four years old,” he began eagerly, “I guess I drove my dad nuts bouncing around, so he handed me a ukulele, and that…just…did it for me.  I never did anything else in my life but play that ukulele, and later on the guitar.  I was playing in stage jazz bands before I was twelve.”

Somehow I didn’t think he was bullshitting.  I handed him the four-string guitar.  He sat down, looking again like a starving man, made some apology for his fingers being soft, and wrapped his hand around the guitar’s neck…

Jazz came out.  Really truly hot jazz, like that guitar was meant to play!

“Leo!  Man, you’re great!  What happened?  How come you’re not playing?”

He was riding his bike in downtown Portland, in the rain, and a near-miss with a car door catapulted him off his bike.  He made a one-point landing on his left hand….no fractures, but he damaged soft tissue, ligaments and such, and his hand has never worked the same since.

Weird, I thought.  My left hand has been through all kinds of soft tissue hell, too.  I can relate.

The day was drawing to a misty Oregon Coast close.  We strolled down to the creek that made its last tumbling rush to the ocean passing under a viaduct that held up Highway 101.  A soggy wind blew clouds of salty damp off the Pacific and into our hair and lungs.  We found shelter behind a bridge piling.

There Leo told me about his life.  He had married late, after a long run of playing professionally.  He had a daughter whom he adored.  He had stayed home, kept house, taken care of his daughter.

“I was the primary caretaker,” he said, and his eyes flipped through changes like mood rings.  I waited to hear the story.

His wife had gone into a professional field.  They bought a home in Upstate New York.  Life was good…except….his wife began to develop some disturbing behaviors toward his daughter.  I’m not going to reveal those, for the sake of preserving confidentiality; but I will say that although it would be difficult to hang the term “abusive” on them, they certainly push those boundaries.

These and other behaviors led to a constant state of tension.  He wanted them to go to couples counseling; she refused, so he went by himself.

One day she demanded a divorce.  He didn’t want to leave his daughter, but in order to save her from an ongoing ugly scene, he moved out.

Leo’s learning disorder kept him from going to college.  But he was playing in jazz orchestras again most nights, and made enough to keep himself.

After a few years his mother got sick, and Leo moved in with her.  He cared for her until her death just a couple of years ago.  She left him $30,000, half of which he gave to his daughter, who is now grown.  With the other half, he moved to the West Coast, hoping to start over.  He was playing in a jazz combo in Portland when he injured his hand.  He’d banked his inheritance, which he hoped not to touch.

Leo decided to move to Eugene, as he knew some people there.  He couch surfed for months, searching for work, until his comfort level with couch surfing wore out and he began to hunt for an apartment.  That was when he ran into the catch-22.

The apartment managers refused to rent to someone without a job, even though he had his grub stake of $15,000 that he’d carefully preserved.

Employers, on the other hand, demanded a permanent address.  

Leo went around and around like that, trying to find an apartment that would take him without a job, and a job that would take him without an apartment.  

He used up most of his money paying for cheap motel rooms.  Then he bought a tent and moved outside.

He spent all of last winter, with its record rainfall, pedaling from one Oregon Coast State Park to another.  There’s a 3 night stay limit, instituted by the State Parks so that they don’t become fixed homeless encampments: every three days he must pack up and move to one of the other State Parks along a 20 mile stretch of the Coastal Highway.  He doesn’t want to be associated with the homeless that live outside just anywhere.  

Darkness and silence descended, broken on occasion by groups of rowdy teens galloping back and forth under the bridge.

“If you could give someone advice, someone who was in the position you were in, when you were still kind of housed but knew you were headed toward homelessness, what would you tell them?”  I don’t know exactly why that question came into my head; it popped out, and I waited as he collected his thoughts.

“I’d tell them, don’t wait till your money is all gone before you move outside.”

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18 Comments

  1. Leo sounds like a cool guy. I hope you’re OK?

    Reply
    • Leo is an incredibly cool guy. We talked for hours and hours, about our favorite jazz drummers and how it happened that Clapton got lost in that solo because Ginger picked up on the three instead of the one…so many brilliant stars lost in the sea of time and circumstance. I gave him a package of granola. He gave me a sodden box of spaghetti from the markdown bin…I think it must have been all he had. I wish I had a big farm where I could take in all my strays, give them wholesome work and good food and a dry place to sleep….

      I think I’m OK….πŸ˜™

      Reply
  2. wow how amazing is that, to meet so many diverse people with such different stories. and isn’t it a sad statement on how easily it is to fall into the cracks and get swept away by the tides.

    Reply
  3. You are amazing Laura, and you find these lost souls out there who need a friend. I wish there was a safe place for them all too. The stories they all have to share, I love hearing and I’m so glad it is you who they tell because they know your sweet heart cares about them!πŸ’›

    Reply
  4. Good advice from Leo!
    And its like that here, the catch 22 … its ridiculous, and immoral IMO.

    Reply
    • His answer surprised me. I thought he would have thought more about how to stay housed rather than how to move out sooner in order to make the money last longer. Trying on his shoes, I find such hopelessness, mostly because of the catch-22, that the only remaining choice seems to be to get to the lowest sustainable point…to keep one’s head down, and hope the phenomena of end-of-life and end-of-money somewhat coincide. I hope I haven’t confused things beyond recognition; it’s a point of desperation that marks a boundary between being able to pass for housed, and being visibly outside. A terrifying place to be.

      Reply
      • I think though, (don’t get me wrong – I’m not advocating for homelessness by any stretch!) that theres a freedom that comes with not being confined to the rules – job, housing, money etc. It’s a desperate place to be but you find some deep inner strength you didn’t realise you had!
        When I ended up in this catch 22 place, I had lost my home, and everything else. My income, my job, my banking accounts, my credit rating etc. You can’t get an account without an income and an address and you can’t get paid an income (even disability) without an account. It was terrifying realising I had nothing and couldn’t magically make it appear. And I had done what Leo did. I had paid off everything and everyone I owed when I was medically discharged … it seemed like the honourable thing to do. But it left me with little options. But I managed to find other resources … for him, its the $5 a day routine. I mean, how brilliant is that!
        In saying all this though … If I didn’t have a partner, I would be homeless. Because I don’t have an income etc, and at this stage, no means to make an income. My disability check is $35 a week. Thats terrifying, but helps Me live in the Now and appreciate what I do have ❀
        Leo sounds like a very cool dude indeed πŸ™‚

        Reply
        • Wow, you’ve been in the belly of the beast. That sure isn’t much disability….I’m glad you’ve got your partner as a safety net.

          That process of falling out of the accepted institutions of society, the accounts, credit score, etc, seems on one hand liberating, and on the other, it seems like it should never happen in a truly civilized society…”no citizen left behind”?

          Reply
          • Yeah I guess so … But thats not new is it, for people with ‘issues’ – its a slippery slope that our ‘uncivilised’ society doesn’t really care about. For most, its easier to point from afar, and say, “if only they did … such and such”, which seems to abdicate our societal feelings of guilt.

            And yes its liberating and scary beyond all belief lol .. I’ve been trying to get my disability ‘reviewed’ for nearly 5 years and the final assessment is in August. If all goes well I might get another $40 lol. Its madness really … that the rich get richer and the rest of us work with $5 a day to ‘house’, clothe, wash and feed ourselves. Its wrong on so many levels its overwhelming if you think about too much πŸ˜‰
            I’m just pleased I don’t have little children, that would be a completely different scenario.
            And yes, I am very grateful for my partner πŸ™‚

            Reply
  5. Wow… Laura. I’d have thought the same…stay housed. In Leo’s case there are many what ifs. Always think of the responsibility of turning someone in whose behavior is abusive (even on the edge) toward children. And the resistance. Think the moment passed Leo by. Shaking my head. Leo deserved and deserves better. Good to know you are doing okay given your challenges. πŸ€— Christine

    Reply
    • You picked up on the issue of the question of child abuse…that was Leo’s big regret. If he was going to lose everything anyway, why did he not bring this to the attention of some authority? He beats himself up over it. Added to this, that his wife (the possible abuser) sued for sole custody and won.

      Now, my brief experience with Leo gave me the impression that he is a simple, guileless person who isn’t capable of making such stories up. I hope that’s true. But even if not, he inspired me to think deeply about the human condition he represents.

      Reply
  6. Hi, Liebe, shana tova!

    Came across an interesting book: “On the Road with the Casualties of the Great Recession” –

    Reply

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