Updated: Nov 13, 2020
EDITOR"S NOTE; This was written by Patrick McArdle in San Diego in the Fall 1996. This is the first time it has ever been published. At that time the author submitted it to various San Diego publications. They were not interested because they had already done their homeless story for the year.
Cricket is looking up contemplating the weather. I’m staring into this cup of coffee hoping I can get through it without swallowing the chunky grinds the toilet paper let through. It’s good coffee though. Strong as nails and hot.
“It’s going to rain,” says Cricket. I agree then ask her where her boyfriend Michael is. “I don’t know” she says angrily. “He got up this morning, made a mess then took off, as usual.”
She gets busy stuffing things into the shopping carts. One she uses for blankets and sleeping bags. The other is a catch-all. Her camp area, or house as she prefers to call it, is congested with stuff.
She cleans up every morning. Up by 5am, out by 6. I live by her example. Cricket knows how to be homeless. She disconnected three years ago. I’m still learning. I stepped out in February.
Cricket finishes folding and packing, but continues complaining about Michael and the police, who she says are sweeping Balboa Park for the homeless today. Another reason for her urgency to get packed and out of there. She usually sets up in the doorway for the Balboa Park puppet theater, out of sight from the road.
I watch her pack, studying her organizational skills. Spoons, knives, forks and other kitchen utensils stay in the large red plastic cup. Band-aides, aspirin and other medical supplies are stored in the green US Army ammo can. The tarp gets set on the sleeping bag bundle for quick access in case of rain. Dirty clothes are separated and bagged. These are wedged between back packs and boxes in the cart. I consider helping her but she is an organization machine. I will just get in the way.
Cricket, slightly slumped, is at least 5 foot 4 and weighs about 120. Her hair is mostly grey with indiscreet streaks of brown, her original hair color. It curls a bit at the ends and withdraws as if it’s afraid to touch her rounded shoulders.
Hats are part of her trademark look. Baseball caps especially. Although when she is feeling especially fine she slips her feminine cowboy hat on. You will never see Cricket without her crystal necklace. Her crystal and jeans jacket and pants are tokens of the past and present.
I ask about the crystal tied to a black leather string hanging on the cart. “It’s a gift from Eightball Bob,” she says proudly with a touch of sadness. “It’s supposed to have some kind of healing power. Of course it don’t do much,” she concludes.
I remember about the six months she was given to live two years ago. Her final notice by the medical professionals after her last stomach operation to remove yet more of the cancer.
“That’s shear bullheaded stubbornness. God isn’t ready to take me yet. Let’s keep her down there for as long as we can,” she says smiling and indicating her offset relationship with religion.
I ask her about fear of dying. She says it’s with her every day, but she adds, “I’m not afraid to die. There’s actually times I look forward to it. The peace would come and the pain would be gone and not worrying about the police tearing me out of my house, taking my dog away. Yeah I’m at peace with myself about it.”
She stares into the sky. I bring her back asking how she got her name, Cricket.
“When I was a kid I loved crickets. I’d bring them into the house and let them go,” she says smiling. “
So what is your real name,” I ask. “Nancy Christian,” she says while pulling out her driver’s license to prove it. Continuing to pack the carts Cricket laughs at the implications of her last name and the irony of her ever being connected in any way to religion.
“Me and God got an understanding,” she says slipping her license back into her pocket, adding “If there is one thing I like it’s my past.”
“I’m a Oklahoma girl,” she says laughing. “Southern Baptist raised in a union (as in workers) family. I’m the oldest. There’s two brothers and a sister left alive now. I had another brother but he died in Vietnam. I’m the black sheep of the family. I been running away since I learned how to open the door. Been there done that. The boys still live at home. My little sister lives one block from my mothers’ house. The furthest they ever been out of Tulsa Oklahoma is when they went on the infamous family vacation every year with Daddy to wherever. Plains Georgia was one of their great expectations,” she concludes.
Cricket and I laugh out loud about Billy Beer, which originated in Georgia and was named and produced by former President Carters' brother Billy who was an alcoholic.
“Even if his brother was president there was nobody going to buy that beer. That was nasty, the dogs wouldn’t drink it and the cats left the neighborhood,” she laughs hysterically then continues. “The day after I graduated from high school, me and my little girlfriend knew there had to be better places than Tulsa Oklahoma. It was 1963 and we booked. The San Francisco Love Era was just starting. Good music, Good drugs, Running and being crazy, peaceful, not attitudes. Everybody loved everybody. We kicked back got mellow and did whatever.”
She goes on to talk about Berkeley. “Yeah, two years there. The only reason I went cause I was able to get Timothy O’Leary for a professor. You could see wonderful changes in your life. In 1969 we went to Woodstock. I was naked for three days. Did mescaline and acid. Don’t remember a lot, but I got lots of pictures. From what pictures I have I probably don’t want to remember. I know it was the best music and best people. Hell’s Angels was security and police wouldn’t come within a five-mile radius.
” She continues to talk switching to her Wounded Knee experience, noting that she was one of four people who took a semi-truck there. She said it was a food delivery mission.
“The feds weren’t letting them off. They were starving to death. I wasn’t the only one. There were hundreds of people. A bunch of us got together from Oklahoma,’ she said adding that “There are plenty of places to cross [to get into the reservation] through the police lines.”
She noted there were no shots fired, adding that she would have fired on the F.B.I if possible. Surprised, I asked about her hatred for police.
“I don’t like people in general,” she said. “I just as soon shoot a person than look at them. But I can’t kill critters.” She admitted being a fisherman and has no problem cleaning and eating fish, but she could not kill them.
“First time I caught a whole bunch of catfish and I didn’t know they cried. Well I’m going to tell you what, they talk to you. That catfish cried about the same time I was going to hit it in the head. That was it. All the fish went right back in. My Daddy was so mad. He didn’t know whether to shit or go blind,” she said.
She then surprised me by saying “I shot a person.” I asked if she killed them. “That old bitch Joe is to stubborn to die. Anyone else shot her with a .44 magnum and she would die.”
We sat in silence for a moment. I’m wondering if she has told this to anyone. Am I supposed to keep this secret? I ask for details.
“We used to be lovers for a long time,” she continues. “She had to go out and play with everything in town, then she comes home. She came home one Father’s Day after a vacation and I had had it. That gun was out and I sat on her lap. I told her she was not going to cheat on me anymore.” The only thing that saved her life was at such a close range that bullet went straight through her.”
Amazed I asked where she shot her lover.
“In the stomach,” she answered “They took me to jail for three days, but they couldn’t find the gun and she wasn’t going to tell them nothing. What was amazing was that nobody else who knew was telling either, including her mother.” Cricket said her lover’s mother got her out of jail and she is still best friends with Joe.
Cricket is thankful she does not own any firearms. If she did, she said. “I would never get another ticket for illegal lodging. I’d just wait until there was a group of them [police], then I would get out there and get it over with.”
Knowing Cricket, I said I doubted her.
She laughs and concludes, “Trust me, I’d do that.”
Even in a sober state of mind, I ask? “It wouldn’t matter,” she said, “I was sober when I shot Joe.
” Cricket then says she would not trade her past for anything including her time in jail for interstate transportation of narcotics.
“I was the drug lady,” she says. “Real heavy drugs. Different drug era than now, needless to say. People that did drugs weren’t out to hurt other people or make money off it or sell it to kids in schoolyards. That was our only escape,” she said, adding that “I happened to know somebody who I could get a quantity from, and so I would bring it back. It wasn’t for sale, it was “Let’s party, let’s go see ‘Fantastic Voyage.’ ”
She asks me if I had seen “Fantastic Voyage” on acid. “Yellow Submarine,” I admit.
Cricket tries to sell me on the idea that drugging out on “Fantastic Voyage” and “Fantasia” is what Walt Disney did. “Walt Disney knew exactly what he was doing,” she laughs and continues. “I would like have had some of that shit.”
“It was a different era than it is now. Everybody is out to get everyone. There used to be honor among thieves. You never did things in your own backyard. It’s all changed now.”
Collecting her thoughts and changing her position on the picnic table where we were sitting, she talked about prison.
“The penitentiary,” she began. “Squeaky” Fromme and I became acquainted. That was a delirious bitch. Yep, she was totally out to lunch.”
Cricket had mentioned once that she and Squeaky were lovers, so I asked. “Well not lovers,” she said. “We played once awhile. It’s called penitentiary petting. She’s crazier than I am, and I don’t need a lot of help. Besides that, I didn’t like her in-laws. Charlie was never a great fan of mine.”
“Charles Manson?” I said, finally making the connection. She grunted an acknowledgement, saying Squeaky talked about him constantly and expressed no remorse for her role in the slaughter of actress Sharon Tate and others.
At age 47, still lives her life how she wants, ignoring authority and regulation. Being homeless allows her the sense of freedom she grew up with. She tried to be conventional in the past, but typical mundane stuff bores her, she says.
Facing death has also impacted her. She says it allows her “As much freedom as any one person could have.”
She loathes urban America, describing it as “a work-a-day world” where people are too busy trying to get ahead of the Joneses and committing suicide “because they have gone crazy with the monetary bullshit.
” Living indoors “would be nice for a decent meal, hot shower and all that stuff, but I think it would be a waste of money. I’d be outside more than I’d be in the house. It would be more like a storage locker.”
She prefers living in the park. The police, however, would rather have her elsewhere and have tried to corral her with no effect. She says she heard rumors today the cops are going to sweep Balboa Park. She gets busy packing and readies herself for the bust, as she calls it.
“Police are going stomping for bras and panties.” Cricket said referring to the purposed sweep which she believes targets women.
“Now if they to come back here and drag me out of my space that I have permission to be in, that’s clean and taken care of, well, they can do that, but they are going to have to drag me. They told me this winter I need to get my propriety straight. I need to stay in a shelter. I got five tickets for not staying in the shelter,” she said.
Police routinely issue illegal lodging tickets to park dwellers as a means to keep the homeless out of sight. No hassle from the police is an advantage of living in a shelter.
Cricket objects to shelter life because among other things her dog, Faithful, is not allowed. The shelter they tried to get Cricket into has closed. It was a seasonal shelter set up in the Balboa Park gymnasium—the place I stayed when the weather got really cold and nasty. The place was warm and dry, but probably Hell is, too. I preferred living outside in the park. It was more predictable, tamer and quieter. I could hear birds singing in the morning, as opposed to arguments, screaming crazy people and violence. Everyone in the shelter has a complaint and excuses for being nasty and mean.
Among other things, the shelter was a race riot waiting to happen. Once, just a spit away from me, a Black guy and White guy challenged each other over a fart. The Black guy accused the White guy: “You farted, you white piece of shit!” Security came over and broke it up. The Black guy was evicted.
Close proximity invited trouble. The military-style cots sit one next to the other just inches apart. An average of 500 men and 25 to 30 women slept in the shelter nightly. Knowing or predicting your neighbor’s behavior was impossible. A good neighbor bathed, didn’t cough in your face, and was sane and sober.
Two nights before the shelter closed, I had bad neighbors. One guy talked to himself and the other was drunk. The drunk had already been evicted once for drinking inside the shelter. He did it again and passed out on his cot.
The drunk got up at 1 am and started pissing on the guy to his left. Shouts of “Don’t piss here” rang out. The drunk turned my way and continued to pee. I kicked him away and told the guard “Get this asshole out of here.” He got evicted into the cold rainy night.
Violence, thievery, verbal abuse, racism and apathy were common in the shelter. I appreciated the warm and dry environment, but the darker of humanity there was too much for me.
Looking back at my journal recently, I found this entry:
“Nightly I come here to rest and to run from the cold and wet nights. I think and contemplate inside this echoing hall, this walled and roofed sanctuary of peace and hell. I’m getting sucked into the insanity, the hopelessness, despair and apathy. Homelessness is like dying in a nightmare then waking up to it. It’s a crying game, a horror movie and I’m the leading man. Being here is like riding a train to nowhere. I’m watching humanity die.”
The next morning I left the shelter, as they were closing it for down for good. Volunteers stood at the exit. Everyone got a candy bar and a pair of socks.
I ended up staying at Cricket’s camp. Not in the same doorway, but nearby. The “safe zone,” I called it. I still had encounters with crazy people and thieves. It felt comforting to be a shout away from Cricket. I stayed there through the spring.