Why you should care

Because sometimes a song can change everything.

The author’s work has appeared in the Sacramento Bee, Sacramento News and Review, and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. She is working on a book about being a long-term unemployed woman over 50.

Someone always had a boom box, even though it was 2012. You could hear it blaring in the early evening air, competing with the sound of the crashing waves and the mumbling of the men and women waiting for the old greenish-gray converted school bus.

Sometimes it would be tuned to a rap station — spewing words of disappointment and rage, silently echoed by the lineup of people. Other times it would be soul classics from the ‘60s and ‘70s, back when love and tenderness ruled the airwaves. The kind of songs that reminded me of my past prosperity. Before I lost my job. Before I lost my bed. Before I knew what it was like to be without a home.

Today was one of those R&B days. It was Friday, January 13th, about a week after my 55th birthday. A few months earlier my unemployment benefits ran out and I was evicted. As a gift a friend bought me a train ticket to Los Angeles for a fresh start. But when I arrived, another friend withdrew her offer of a place to stay. “I changed my mind,” she’d said coldly, when I actually turned up at her doorstep. “You can’t stay here.”

The words still reverberate in my head.

The old bus, requisitioned by the West LA Emergency Winter Shelter, rattled up the Venice Boardwalk and parked next to the skate park. People shuffled toward it, clutching their coats if they had them, in the crisp January air made even more brittle by the breeze rolling in from the Pacific. I tried to ignore the sultry soundtrack drifting from the back of the line as I held onto my heavy backpack.

All I had to look forward to was a scratchy gray blanket, a half-baked piece of chicken and nighttime noises of people who had nowhere to go.

It was a sonic reminder of my former life — one filled with friends, family and security. I grew up in a coal-mining town in Pennsylvania, an only child with her very own bed, in her very own bedroom, in a big, rambling house. And yet somehow, there I stood, on a cold beach in California, waiting to board a crowded bus to sleep for seven hours on a dirty cot, squeezed between strangers.

I had spent my first two nights in LA surrounded by international students at the Santa Monica Hostel, compliments of a friend. But now every evening around 5 p.m., I found myself waiting with dozens of other homeless people at Market and Oceanfront Walk to be herded into a giant, drafty room at the National Guard Armory.

In winter, the shelter provided temporary respite from walking the streets of Santa Monica. There were supposed to be three pick-ups each night, but I learned the hard way that if you missed the 5 p.m. bus, there likely wouldn’t be another. Spending the night at Union Station, trying to nap until I was rousted and ousted by security guards, was not an experience I wanted to repeat. Neither, really, was this one.

It had been two weeks now, and I was starting to see familiar faces. The little old lady with the walker who talked to herself; the makeshift couples that huddled together; the sharp-eyed hustler who always sat at the back of the bus. I never made eye contact with the men — a random glance could be mistaken for an offer. Few of the women looked my way; I was still considered an outsider.

As we pulled away from the boardwalk and drove past the restaurants and shops and homes and hotels of Venice, I’d stare out my window and into others’. Couldn’t help it. I longed to be one of those people laughing over pizza or cooking supper after work. All I had to look forward to, if I was lucky, was a scratchy gray blanket, a half-baked piece of chicken and the nighttime noises of people who had nowhere to go. And no one to care.

It was a bus crammed with stories rarely shared. And so I’d wonder: that girl with long brown hair who flirted with the driver every night — how did she get here? The guy with the short Afro and darting eyes who sold potato chips, cigarettes and weed in a whisper — could he have been a successful entrepreneur in another life? Why was the woman with the soiled backpack and dirt-creased clothes fighting off attackers in her dreams?

The guy with the radio always sat in the back of the bus. Usually it was muffled, the strains of familiar songs barely recognizable up front. Tonight, though, someone turned it up.

Always and forever / Each moment with you / Is just like a dream to me / That somehow came true …

Heatwave - “Always & Forever

A couple of people started to sing. Then suddenly everyone joined in. We all knew this jam. The big hit by Heatwave, a funk band that was popular in the mid-70s. It had been my cousin Martha’s bridal dance song in December 1977. I had played the 8-track while cruising around in my Gremlin when I was in college. But even those who hadn’t been born before the song was recorded knew it — well enough to join in.

For six minutes, we were connected. We’d all traveled different journeys to end up on this damn, decrepit bus, but on this night, in this moment, none of that mattered. We were the song.

Some folks crooned the baritone lead, stretching ever higher when it switched to a falsetto; others repeated the refrain of the background chorus — “always forever love you” — smooth, like a gentle caress. I closed my eyes and smiled, swaying, remembering my burgundy and pink bridesmaid dress, remembering the sheer freedom I had felt in my first car. Remembering when I actually believed that love could conquer all.

The music faded, everyone was silent for a moment, and then, applause. I wasn’t the only one trapped in a flashback, the only one feeling a sudden strength to make it through another day.

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