THE CRYSTAL UNICORN
by Tony Longshanks leTigre
So there I was in the parking lot, homeless for the first time, and clueless what to do about it. It was the beginning of June, 2011, two years into my increasingly desperate attempt to carve out a livable niche for myself in San Francisco, and my worst-case scenario had become reality: unable to make rent and without a support network, I was out on the street. My life, it seemed, might be headed for an early, and dismal, conclusion.
All I had with me at that point was my sleeping bag and backpack; I’d packed everything else into a storage closet rented a few days before. The storage building was only a few blocks away and was accessible from morning to early evening every day of the week. At least my material possessions were safely stowed, for the time being, even if I was not!
Clothing filled the bulk of my storage space: a veritable hillock of vintage clothes, brought down from Portland with me, and added to ever since: the fruits of a sartorial obsession and overweening fondness for thrifty shopping that had plagued and pleasured me from time out of mind. While still living in the flat on Bryant Street, I’d started an Etsy boutique and tried to sell clothing in a desperate effort to remain solvent, and did sell a few things, but not in the volume required to make rent—not in San Francisco in the 21st century.
I chose the parking lot because it was close to the flat I’d just lost, and I’d noticed homeless folks sleeping there before when I walked by. It seemed that whomever managed the lot was mercifully tolerant of vagrants so long as they left by 7 a.m. or so in the morning and didn’t return til evening time. The lot was situated beneath a freeway overpass, which meant shelter from rain, but also the noise of traffic directly overhead that never let up for more than a few minutes, even during the reign of midnight and her darkest daughters. I realized I’d made an error in my selection process, as I had to wear earplugs the first few nights, and even so had a hard time getting to sleep, until I started to acclimate to my noisy new surroundings. Whenever a large truck drove overhead, the vibrations ran down the pillar and into the cement block upon which I lay: a nerve-racking sensation that kept me constantly on edge.
Strong tremors gave me a moment of panic, that they might be the preamble to an earthquake!
A few nights into my parking lot residency, I was unrolling my sleeping bag in its usual spot, debating whether to spend the few remaining dollars in my pocket on booze or food, since I didn’t have enough for both, when a man in a fluorescent green vest approached. I stiffened like a snake preparing to strike; no doubt he was a parking lot attendant coming to tell me I couldn’t sleep there any more: the free ride was over. I was tired, hungry, and in no mood to move; my muscles tensed as if for a fight. They were going to have to call the cops and drag me out, I decided.
Then the man asked, “Hey, are you hungry?” and held out a paper bag.
Inside I found a sandwich, small bag of chips and a juice pack. I took them wordlessly, too surprised to react with gratitude. But as I sat on my sleeping bag and ate the sandwich, I found myself moved by this unexpected act of kindness, to the point of having to rub my eyes a bit to clear them of unfallen tears.
I had been ready to throw a punch at a compassionate stranger. Easy there, cowboy. There is a lot of kindness in the world still. Or should I say, already?
Life took on a surreal quality during those first couple weeks, as I had a temp job at Wells Fargo headquarters in the financial district obtained for me by my employment agency. I got in the habit of waking up early each morning and walking to my storage space, picking out my outfit there, then changing in the restroom, where I would also sponge-bathe, wash my hair, and shave, to the best of my ability, without pissing off the next person waiting to use the single-occupancy toilet. I emerged after 15 minutes or so like a homeless Clark Kent transformed into bank-office Superman: combed hair, blazer, tie, slacks, slick black dress shoes. Then I went to work for the day, rubbed shoulders with professional bank employees, and came home afterward on the crowded rush hour bus to my humble cinderblock cranny beneath the freeway.
Trader Joe’s was across the street, which was another factor in my choice of parking lots. I need only cross the road for affordable food and booze, my everyday staples. Drinking was part of the reason for my downfall into the zero-class zone. Now that I was unhoused, alcohol helped me cope with my depression. So I told myself, anyway; in truth, it helped my depression more than it helped me. TJ’s kept me crooning the blues with flotillas of drinkable (though slightly diluted, to my taste) wine that cost $2.99 a bottle. Every evening, until the cash tap ran dry, I’d buy a bottle or two of Three-Buck Chuck, then cozy up in my sleeping bag to read and drink til I faded beneath the traffic-laden freeway, whose steady pattern of sounds made by passing vehicles gradually ceased to grate on my ears and became gray noise, actually helping me get to sleep.
Circumstances aside, my reading life has always been rich. My body may waste away, but this brain will never starve. At that time, I was retreating from reality into Tolkien books—a place of refuge since the early teenage years—as well as a philosophical memoir by old-school San Franciscan Mark Bittner, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, recommended by a friend, which made a big impression on me, and about which I shall have more to say later.
It occurred to me that I was pathetic: a young able-bodied man in the prime of life, drinking til I passed out under the bridge like a grisly old drunk. But years spent in close company with the hooch goblin had me hooked, lined and sinking at a rapid rate. I’d found it difficult to abstain when I had a life, a home, friends and creative outlets galore; how would I find the strength to stay dry now, when the whole world had collapsed around me like a house of (cheap, dollar-pack) cards? Future days stretched endless, like a desert, before my mind’s occluded eye. Already at the age of 30-something I had experienced blackouts, morning-after shakes, court-ordered treatment, week-long binges of continuous drunkenness, and hangovers so dire they lasted not hours but days and even drinking more didn’t fill my tires all the way back up with air again. How low could I go?
Being new to the street beat, I stuck out most awkwardly at times. For instance, I brought a puffy pillow with a brightly striped pillowcase when I first hit the pavement. I noticed none of the other parking lot dwellers had one. The gutterpunk girl who slept nearest to me in the lot laughed as I walked by carrying the pillow one day. I’ve always had a morbid hypersensitivity to cruel laughter from other people, at times amounting to paranoia. It may have been so in this instance, because this girl had impressed me as definitely mentally ill the first night, chattering & shouting belligerently to herself for hours as I attempted to read Tom Shippey’s J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century a few yards away. Sometimes she would strike herself on the head and scream “SHUT UP!” over and over again.
So, she may have been laughing with, or at, one of the voices in her head, but I took it as ridicule of myself. Then I noticed that none of the other parking lot dwellers were stylishly dressed in hipster clothing, or had a big special pillow amongst their measly possessions, which were clear to see as they lay heaped in shopping carts, torn tents and makeshift hovels behind pillars and police barricades on the perimeter of the parking lot. Suddenly I saw myself through the world’s eyes: a big froufrou dork, visibly clueless, cartoonishly homeless. Would I soon trade in my threadbare sleeping bag for a queen-sized down comforter adorned with rainbows and kittens?
The next morning I stuffed the opprobrious pillow into a garbage bag, carried it to an ugly, unwatched alley, and left it in a dark, shameful corner. I recalled reading an old jailhouse tip that a shoe makes a satisfactory head rest in a pinch. That night, I placed my Converse sneakers where the slain pillow had been, covered them with a folded jacket, and slept like a dignified hobo. I had a lot to learn about street life; luckily, there appeared to be no shortage of time in which to learn it.
Late one night I was rudely awakened by a tremendous, staccato crash. When I regained my senses, I saw an empty oil drum lying a couple yards away, rolling on its side, then coming to rest. Evidently it had been someone’s idea of (potentially murderous) fun to throw it over the ledge above.
“This is not working,” I told myself, as I attempted to go back to sleep.
Next morning I slept through my cellphone alarm and was wakened by a parking lot attendant urging me to collect my stuff and skedaddle a s a p. I’d broken the unwritten rule of disappearing from sight before the patrons came in to park their cars in the morning. Parking lot vagrants, appearing in the minds of mainstream folks like the rapacious zombies of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, were bad for business.
And parking lots, I had decided, were bad for sleep. But what to do? There was the public shelter option, but I’d ruled that out from the beginning, based on horror stories I’d heard from others and the intuitive surety that staying in one would entail a loss of freedom and privacy, at the very least. At this time of writing, I’ve been homeless for more than three years, and have never spent one night in a shelter. I’m glad they’re there for the people who need them, but from all I’ve heard, there’s certainly room for improvement.
However, that does not concern the present story. What does concern us is the fact that that morning as I was lugging my stuff, still sleepy-eyed and bed-headed, out of the parking lot and meandering through the gray and gloomy industrial alleyways of SoMa seeking a place to resume my unsatisfactory sleep, I suddenly stopped stiff and rubbed my eyes in disbelief, wondering if in fact I was still dreaming. For there in front of me, at the far end of a narrow dark alley perfumed with the urine of street urchins, stood a black horse with a horn of crystal protruding in elegant spiral formation about a foot and a half from its upper forehead. Its translucent crystalline horn caught a ray of sunlight and refracted it, prism-like, onto the adjacent warehouse wall.
It was my first sight of the Crystal Unicorn, and it froze me in my tracks.
As I watched, flabbergasted, the unicorn turned its slender, shapely head toward me, so that I saw a glint in the obsidian pools of its eyes; then, as if beckoning me forward, it turned again and strode ahead, around the corner at the far end of the alley and out of sight.
When I turned the corner, it was already far ahead of me and continuing at a gallop I could scarcely hope to match, burdened as I was with sleeping bag, backpack, etc. Nonetheless, I felt a sudden urge to follow it. The sun had just penetrated a thick blanket of fog and shone warm and golden on the cracked concrete. In a moment I’d gone from feeling like a gremlin in a blender, hung over and underslept, to superhumanly inspired, born aloft on a surge of vigor. I looked around as if noticing my dolorous surroundings for the first time. What was I doing moping and guzzling myself into a stupor in this imaginary asphalt prison cell when all around me lay a vast playground of puzzles and treasure waiting to be solved and explored? All at once, the City lost the aspect of hostile, alien terrain and became something far more fascinating, and fabulous.
“A lot is a good start, but it won’t be nearly enough,” I whispered.
Despondent thoughts that had weighed me down for weeks, of life ending early in this nowhere/nothing void of tar and car exhaust, dissolved in a flash, and I started bundling my stuff up into a more compact package. Ten minutes later, I waved “goodbye and good luck” to the land of the lost and the island of misfit souls still stuck there, and set out at a brisk pace, following the path of the unicorn, to see what better options awaited the neophyte nomad.