She calls herself simply Mrs. Coronado and she doesn’t think she or the rest of the Chinatown tent dwellers are standing in the way of anyone’s progress
His name is George. He didn’t mind sharing that. What he didn’t want to talk about was how long he has been living on the streets of Chinatown.
“What’s that matter?” he told his inquisitor. “How long, that makes no difference because time makes no difference, you know. What’s time ever done for you except make you old and it’s going to do that to me, too. Time is crap, man. It’s just crap.”
George is a heavily muscled man in his thirties. Wednesday he was wearing a tight tank top and lime green pants and he was trying to put some pedals on a bike, one of about a dozen bikes circling his tent. The Chinatown neighborhood in Salinas is home to maybe 100 encampments like George’s and even more bicycles, most of them missing a tire or a handlebar or some other important piece.
George had heard something about the city’s plan to clear out the encampments next Wednesday but had no plans to look for somewhere else to stake out some space.
“I never planned nothing in my life, man, and that might explain why I’m here, I guess.”
On a sunny Wednesday afternoon the neighborhood gave off a fairly mellow vibe. Most of the residents were off somewhere. Music played from several tents and people chatted with their neighbors.
Nights are different.
Mary, who wouldn’t give her last name, says she’s fine in the daytime but “scared out of my mind” after dark.
“I hide in my tent and I try to make no sounds at all, not move so no one notices me. I cover my head even when it’s hot.”
Mary said she is 44 and grew up in Arizona. She’s been homeless off and on since she dropped out of college.
“I’d have a home if I could put up with men but I never met a man who was good to me or good for me,” she said.
Mary said she is careful not to attract attention. A friend gave her a necklace when she was living in an encampment in Southern California and people staying nearby were talking about it.
“So that night I just put it outside my tent so they could just take it and not come into my tent after it.”
The city plans to scoop up the Chinatown tents and tarps and pallet houses next week because things have reached critical mass. There’s no plan on what to do with the people, no alternate accommodations in the works, but officialdom is frustrated by the situation and feels it has to do something, even if it’s wrong. The place is a lot like a refugee camp but without the Red Cross serving meals, without running water, without enough toilets, without enough security.
A man of about 60, a Pacific Islander, said he knows why the city is pushing the people out.
“It’s the new Taylor Farms building,” he said, referring to the 6-story office building recently completed nearby on Main Street. “They have people coming from all over. From Japan and Asia and England and when they’re up there on the top floor doing their barbecues they look down and the first thing they ask the Taylor brothers is ‘Is that your workers down there?’”
He didn’t want to give his name and he didn’t say how he knows what he knows. He said that Chinatown will start filling back up with homeless folks three or four days after the upcoming sweep.
“That’s what happened last time and the time before,” he said. He added that he isn’t that worried for himself because he owns a house that happens to be full of relatives at the moment and he has a daughter he can stay with if things get too rough on the street.
There may be more bikes in Chinatown than homeless people
Across Soledad Street, from inside a pile of rugs and tarps, a woman called out to a man standing nearby, “Hey, mijo. Get my lunch.”
“Be quiet,” he replied.
“I won’t be quiet. My mouth won’t let me.”
“You be quiet.”
“You be quiet. Shut up and get my lunch.”
Another woman, Deborah, said she has been homeless for nine weeks and felt fortunate to be staying in a bunk provided by Dorothy’s Place, the neighborhood soup kitchen.
“I came here from Carmel,” she said. “I’d never been homeless before but I had to get out of a bad situation.”
“Verbal abuse,” she replied. She was carrying her belongings in a backpack because she has to leave Dorothy’s Place at 6 a.m. every day and find somewhere to hang out.
Another fellow without a name said the upcoming “raid” is “ridiculous.”
“There are like 2,600 homeless people in Salinas and like 300 beds and they’re not all for the homeless. They’re for the mentally ill and stuff. What do they think, everybody’s just going to leave town? Where the hell are they going to go.”
The man, 45ish, in an Army jacket and doo-rag, asked if the visitor could spare a couple of bucks for food.
“The Health Department just closed down Dorothy’s Place so we got no place to get food.”
The gullible visitor coughed up a couple of bucks and learned minutes later that, no, Dorothy’s Place had not been closed.
A sad-eyed young man sitting on a curb said he’d be glad to chat.
“Call me Ysidro,” he said. “That’s not my name but that’s what you can call me.”
“Things are pretty nice here right now,” he said, “but you should have been here last week when it was raining. It was like living in a swamp but without fish or boats. It was like you could never get dry and even under a tarp or something the rain noise would never stop making you crazy.”
While Ysidro talked, a big, shiny, white Chevy Suburban drove by slowly, windows down, rap music pounding from inside. The driver was a fat guy with a beard.
“That’s the ice cream truck,” said Ysidro, “but he’s not selling ice cream.”
What is he selling?
“Not ice cream.”
Raul has been a Chinatown regular since he was 12. At the moment, he makes enough from collecting cans to be able to afford a motel room
A friendly older man, Raul, sat on a bench below a No Trespassing sign and rested. He was worn out from a morning spent hunting down bottles and cans from trash cans, trying to fill the shopping cart next to him.
“Hard times,” he said. “Hard times.”
“I’ve been coming here since I was 12,” he said. “I’m 63 now. All of it has been hard. What do I know? Never be lazy.”
Raul said he makes just enough collecting bottles and cans to afford a room at the Royal Motel over by the In-N’-Out but isn’t sure how long that will last.
One of the striking things about the neighborhood is the amount of stuff, random stuff, that has essentially washed up on the side of the streets. There are the bikes, of course, and grocery carts, refrigerators, plastic toys, cardboard boxes, old signs, tree limbs, lumber of all types, plastic crates, garbage bags, bottles and cans, broken exercise equipment, a basketball hoop, broken toys, even generators, some that actually work. One of those was humming Wednesday under a tarp that also covered a camper shell. Inside, young men in backward baseball caps were smoking a joint.
“I don’t know those guys,” said the owner of the camper shell, a man in a San Jose Sharks shirt, “and I don’t know how they got in there. Scoot, you guys, OK.” They didn’t seem to notice.
Sitting alone inside her small tent was a young woman who said she liked to be called Mrs. Coronado. She wore several necklaces and her toenails were polished blue.
“It’s hard living here when you don’t have anywhere else to go,” she said. How long has she been staying here? She thought for five seconds or so and came up with “a while.” She said she’s from San Luis Obispo. She knows about the purge coming next week and is worried.
“I don’t know where I’m going to go or where anyone is going to go,” she said. “It’s not like we’re stopping progress or anything. We’re just living our lives.”
As she was telling her visitor goodbye, she had a request.
“Could you buy me an apple pie?”
The visitor handed over a couple of dollars.
“A la mode?”
No one pays attention to signs like this in Chinatown
On the corner, three big guys wearing nylon sweatsuits were dividing a pile of cash within view of an older man who was repeatedly hitting a cinder block with a hammer for reasons unknown. There were no children in sight and only one dog, a terrier mix that flipped over onto his back and waved his little legs in the air whenever anyone came close. A social worker with a clipboard was interviewing two women who were holding hands.
An old biker-looking guy, probably in his 70s, sat on a folding chair and looked to be napping but then he barked “You’d better not take my picture.” He wore a red headband and a giant grey mustache.
OK, said the visitor. No problem. But can we talk?
“Sure I’ll talk. Whaddya want to know?
Tell me about this place.
“This place is heaven and this place is hell,” he said. “It’s where people land when they’re circling the drain.”
Why are you here?
“I’m here because everything I’ve ever touched I fucked up. I fucked up my work, I fucked up my family, I fucked up my friends. I haven’t had more than 10 bucks in my pocket in 10 years and if I did, I’d spend it on the worst booze in the world.”
What are you going to do when they clear this place out?
“Maybe I’ll get me a job and a car and a house and leave this place forever. Maybe I’ll get some new clothes and cut my hair and become respectable. Maybe I’ll run for mayor. Who’s the mayor now? Joe Gopher? Something like that. Maybe I’ll run for Congress or president.”
What are you really going to do?
“Hell if I know.”