Wednesday, February 27, 2008

my book: Kevin Davis the homeless guy

Here are 3000 words that took me around 20-30 hours of following around this homeless guy and another 15 or so of writing/trying to write. ie, I poured my heart and soul into this. And he got really mad at me. Sigh...

Bard, sage, poet and homeless hippie wanders Glenn County
By Sam Bhagwat
of the Valley Mirror

Prominent among the endless tales of Glenn County’s self-described “homeless hippie” Kevin Davis are two about law enforcement.

Some 15 years ago, in Austin, Texas, he was sleeping in the open in a state park, curled around a fire in subfreezing temperatures, when awakened by fire officials.

“We’re supposed to put it out,” they told him, “but if you don’t put any more wood on, we’ll just kick it around a bit and go.”

Another time in the same city, sleeping in a Laundromat at 2 a.m., he was awakened by a policeman and told to leave.

“I said, ‘Officer, what laws did I break in my dream?’” he recounts.

It’s a dichotomy that has defined the life of Mr. Davis, 50. He hasn’t paid rent for 15 years, instead living in various cracks in the system until he decides to move on – or, more frequently, is kicked out.

A constructed shack in an Austin state park, for three-and-a-half years: discovered by rangers and evicted. An abandoned Mendocino house with a hole in the fireplace for a winter: bulldozed. And now, in a blue van with his two pets, Shepherd and Christina. He says they are wolves.

For the last three years, he’s made his residence in Glenn County, living on a $950 monthly disability check. With all the time in the world and almost no friends, he spends his days in the parks reading and some nights dumpster-diving for food and salable appliances.

“I’m the only one here, so the police don’t bother me,” he says.

He rolls a cigarette every hour and a joint more occasionally. When the topic of religion comes up, quotes from the Bible and C.S. Lewis roll as effortlessly from his tongue as technical jargon from the herbal medicine he swears by.

As also roll out indictments of society: some seemingly justified, others more of a stretch.

And poems. And stories.

“I’m hanging out, waiting to die,” he tells me the first time we meet.

“And whosoever will not receive you …”

Mr. Davis remembers a time he walked into Willows’ Assembly of God church, asking to use their phone. “There’s a phone down the street,” Mr. Davis claims he was told. In anger, he quotes, mangling slightly, a verse from Luke:

“And whosoever will not receive you, when you go out of that city, shake off the very dust from your feet as a testimony against them.”

Visiting the county Human Resources Agency, where they won’t let him use the phone to find housing in Chico – the phone can be used only for finding jobs.

Visiting the Mental Health drop-in center in Orland, he brought “five dozen eggs,” pork, and some bread, intending to make French toast and omelets. But they won’t let him cook in the kitchen – which is used one hour a week for a cooking class – or warm up his scallops in the microwave.

“If an old man wanted to let me live in a trailer in his driveway, that’s illegal,” Mr. Davis tells Willows City Councilwoman Rose Marie Thrailkill at an afternoon soup kitchen.

City code states that it is “unlawful and a public nuisance” to live in a trailer for more than 48 hours.

Mr. Davis says he was also told by previous Willows Police Chief Rick Shipley that he couldn’t sleep in one of the abandoned buildings dotting the town. Current chief William Spears says homelessness doesn’t matter: trespassing is trespassing.

“This is what it’s like! You get angry!”

On the global scale, Mr. Davis is chock-full of conspiracy theories: from President Bush and the Trilateral Commission to cholesterol not causing heart disease and drug companies “selling Big Brother’s message.”

On a personal level, he says he’s seen an angel of death take the family of those who have wronged him: A woman who sold him his current van, the mother of a college student who helped kick him out of a Berkeley co-op.

And he attributes questionable motives to those who have dealt him real or perceived slights.

When we enter HRA, he interprets a several-minute delay as a deliberate attempt to put him off. It turns out they can’t help him: Mr. Davis isn’t interested in motel assistance, and Section 8 housing assistance isn’t open at the moment. Even if it were, though Mr. Davis was having trouble finding a landlord at his income level, staff would not help him.

“You want to go down there and threaten to sue their ass for housing discrimination!” he tells Section 8 administrator Bill Lawthon.
But Kevin, we interject, you said earlier that you don’t believe in forcing people to put you up.

He explodes. “This is what it’s like to be homeless! You get angry!”

The reason they won’t help him, Mr. Davis later tells Ms. Thrailkill, is because HRA is run by “homosexuals.” Similarly, the mental health center is run by “lesbians.”

“They get paid to care,” he says in disdain.

“My dad took the money route”

It wasn’t easy to extract exactly how Mr. Davis ended up where he is today; his train of thought meanders and drifts between times, places, and experiences. And because he usually speaks in pronouns: “they did this” or “they did that,” the reporter’s “who, what, where, when, why” rundown is necessary much more than usual.

“My mind works like that,” he says apologetically. “Jumps from one thing to another.”

When I ask Mr. Davis whether he sees his homelessness as a choice or something that happened to him, he says it’s a little of both.

It was certainly a journey.

The first time he was kicked out of his crack in the sidewalk occurred at age 15, when he still had a home to live in. Growing up in a southern Illinois town before moving to Houston, he was the adopted son of an engineer father and lived in a five bedroom, three-and-a-half bath house.
“My dad took the money route,” Mr. Davis put it.

As a teenager, he created a gang with some friends, and the group started raiding the million-dollar house of a local Mafioso awaiting trial.

“We’d give the security guard a joint and we’d take back whatever we wanted,” he recalled. “I’d come back with a 2 by 12.”

With their loot, they built a huge fort in the trees of a nearby forest and held 300-person Christmas parties. But a rival gang roused 42 people from the bar and stripped the fort: Mr. Davis and a friend, who were standing guard, were helpless to stop them. Eventually, the police and the city came in with bulldozers and “laid half a hill on it.”

“It took a year to build,” said Mr. Davis. “I cried, dude.”

Dropping out of high school after his sophomore year, he took briefly to a motorcycle, disowned his grandparents, and got married in his early 20s. He’s closed-mouthed about his marriage; in our 20 hours together, he mentioned it only once, in passing: “I went through a painful divorce, which won’t be discussed further,” he said.

For a while, still living in Houston, he held a managerial job at a pizza parlor. Telling stories about DJ parties with staff and streaking, it’s clear he was happy then. So I ask: why not settle down again?

“If I found a place where people were honest and good to each other,” he says. “Like they are in books.”

At age 30, he “came into Austin with nothing more than a shirt,” knocking on, knocking on people’s doors, raking leaves, painting, and building.

“I lived in a halfway house in a not-so-safe part of town,” he sad. “The Mexican prostitutes next door would proposition people pulling into Dairy Queen.”

Other times, he slept on the floors and couches of college students at $5 a night, painting and building.

When a state building in Austin was demolished, he collected enough “good American bricks” to build two patios, a two-car garage, and a sidewalk.

“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” he joked.

Starting at age 35, he spent three and a half years in a forest nearby, building a cabin with a cinderblock fireplace, and growing food in a garden. He’d come in to town to do odd jobs, dumpster-dive for food and supplement his catch with salad. It was a retreat from civilization – and a demon.

“I (was) on detox after 15 years of nightly alcohol,” he said. “I went through panic attacks for a year. Then the anxiety started.”

“When my mind started thinking about Budweiser, I started working on a pool,” he said.

He was mostly alone, to commune with the nature he loved. So, in part, reads a poem he wrote:

“There are a few simple things/That I cannot explain/And they give a joyous pleasure/In a life of mostly pain.

“To sit amongst the forest/With the city far away/For I can hear the leaves that drop/From the trees that slowly sway.

“Yearning comes to me while walking/My longing comes a little faster/I stare up at the starry sky/And dream of being with my master.”

He had some strange disturbances at times, as when the police approached his cabin searching for a killer.

The ranger briefly questioned Mr. Davis before introducing another ranger, his partner.

“This dude is training a semiautomatic rifle on me,” he recalls.

Eventually a developer bought the property: laughing, Mr. Davis tells me how they still had to give him a month to move out of his illegal construction.

“Back then it was great,” he said. “Come 2000, all the lights will turn off, the Tribulation (would come). I was so sure.”

After it didn’t, he lived in Berkeley for a while. But he had problems, with gangs, large numbers of other homeless people, and the police harassment that comes with each.

“I’m a loner homeless guy,” he says. “I don’t hang out with other homeless people. That leads to trouble.”

“Once, a pretty black girl that I had talked to in the park (telling the rest of the gang) ‘he’s all right, leave him alone’ was all that stopped me from being part of a gang initiation ritual,” he said.

“The middle school had police all the time. Here you never see them saying, ‘Hey bitch this, hey bitch that.”

Between then and coming to Glenn County, he’s lived in Ft. Bragg and Mendocino, where his attempts to live away from civilization hit a snag.

“In order to get far enough away from Big Brother,” he said, “you run up against Mexicans growing millions of dollars of weed.”

He spent one winter in an abandoned house.

“There’s a hole this big for the fireplace, so I’m not breaking and entering,” he said in jest. “I would crap in a 5-gallon bucket and throw it in the backyard in a rainy day, so it would sink into the soil.”

Another time, in Mendocino in 2002, he wanted to stay on a vacant property. Though the land was worth millions, “there was nothing there but a roof held up by studs,” he says. “And I was told, you trespass, you go to jail.”

A lonely bard and sage

Perhaps because he’s wandered for so long and so frequently, he has endless sad tales of humanity, saying that “even in the small towns half the people worship Satan.”

“I found these two lesbians, lived with them for eight weeks,” he said. “I taught them the love of God … when they moved, they wanted me to move with them.”

Mr. Davis starts crying as he tells their stories.

Of one, “Her mother was a biker, and one day the biker leader decided he wanted an eight-year-old girl.” When he was staying up later, drinking with the other one, “she told me, ‘I was my daddy’s playtoy from age 5 to 15.’” Her mother wouldn’t do anything.

Later he tells the story of a 13-year girl that he knew who came up to him in the park, telling him she had taken some drugs she stole from her stepfather – ecstasy laced with heroin.

“There are some highs that are not fun,” he says sobbingly, as a tear drips down his cheek.

He was once taken in by a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses, to stay with them baby-sit their kids full-time. He stayed there for a couple months before he slipped up, drinking a couple of beers and then going to help with a job. The next day, they turned him out.

“You make one mistake and they ostracize you,” he said. “The kids loved me; their parents were too busy to play with them.”

Mr. Davis attributes some of his behavior to the things he’s seen.

“If I seem a bit too worldly,” he says, “it’s not my fault.”

At times: Mr. Davis becomes part of the story, as when a contractor once paid him $20 and led him into a room with a towel and a garbage bag. Someone microwaved a cat, and he had to clean up the mess.

Other tales reflect on his values.

He cites John, a rich financier he used to know, who would complain about work and $30 fines. “I’d tell him, “John, you own a home that’s worth a million dollars,’” Kevin said. “Imagine him, whining to a homeless guy.”

“If I won the lottery, I’d just be a richer transient.”

“Sharing wisdom here and there”

Mr. Davis might be a high school dropout, but he’s an extremely well-read one. He summarizes the Inferno to explain why Dante would have considered a coal company strip mining or a bank foreclosing on old people worse than murder. Now, he’s working through the Hannibal Lecter books, along with a book on the Dead Sea Scrolls. I help him download and print an apocryphal work, the Book of Enoch.

He cites C.S. Lewis’s teachings on alcohol: fine as long as it’s not a stumbling block. He sees the reference to his own marijuana.

“If you can get through life without it,” Mr. Davis says, “praise the Lord.”

He sees himself as a sage; his poetry is metered and rhythmic; in the Romantic spirit of endless, hopeless quests, desires and searching.

“Strolling down life’s lonely path/Stars tumble from the sky/Wondering if there is a home/For such a man as I.

“I linger sometimes for awhile/Making friends along the way/And I dare to laugh for a time/Knowing I’ll leave again some day.

“And sharing wisdom here and there/With those I’ve come to know/Quietly basking in summer sunshine/Till autumn winds begin to blow.

“Then again it’s traveling time/To go skipping down destiny’s trail/Sharing with new folks I will meet/Still another adventurous tale.

“See, life has little meaning for me/Except to show and share some love/Till I go to my final resting place/To dwell in God’s kingdom above.”

“And in vain found someone to love”

Mr. Davis notes a couple of friends here, but his only regular companionship are with Christina and Shepherd, which he alternately refers to as his dogs and his kids.

He got Christina and brother Shepherd nine years ago in Texas, trading a 50-pound compound bow and arrows for the animals.

Smoking pot has interesting effects on them. “Christina likes to come up and sit on my shoulder and breathe in the smoke,” he laughs.

At one campground, Shepherd almost got into a fight with a pit bull, and Mr. Davis refused to restrain his animals, fearing the pit bull would get the best of them if he did so.

“I’d have about 30 seconds to decide if I wanted to go to jail to save my dog’s life,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to do it, I’d probably throw up doing it, but I’d go get my machete.”

It’s a fellowship he longs for with humans. Especially, with the other sex.

He says he’s been celibate for a decade, though before that he was a “whore.” He considers visiting a prostitute in Chico.

“I’m going to do the mindless emotionless horizontal bop thing one last time before I die,” he says.

He mulls getting a “20-year-old” mail-order bride from Mexico or the Philippines; he’s more inclined towards the latter because “they learn English” and “Asian women are more faithful.”

He fantasizes about finding someone and traveling around as a husband and wife doing home remodeling; he saw that on a TV show once. It seems a path too late to tread.

“I don’t have a lot in common with other people,” he says. “I’m going to look for people to talk to, look for the senior center in Orland. If you want friends, you’ve got to be friendly,” he says, acknowledging it will be a challenge for himself.

He mentions that he’d take construction work at minimum wage – something to do. Or maybe go back out into the woods, “where it’s man versus nature, not man versus man.”

About Glenn County, Mr. Davis is “blasé.”

“No one helps, but no one hurts,” he says. “I dunno if I want to settle here,” he muses. “I gotta make up my mind pretty soon. I’m trying to find reasons to stay here.”

“Aw hell,” Mr. Davis says as we part ways, “I wish everything was different.”

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