Life With the Little People

(Rhumba says I’m repeating myself with this one.  Oh well…)

Everybody’s got to be someplace.  Sometimes that place is called Necessity; sometimes it’s called Preference; and sometimes, it just is what it is.

Our back yard has gained a part-time tenant.  From time to time he jumps over our back fence and sacks out behind the big blue mallow; it conceals him from our view.  But he leaves traces: an oval of flattened weeds, and an empty beer bottle.  Lagunitas IPA, every time.

Does he need to be there? No idea.  But I don’t worry; there’s little he could do hurt to our feral back yard. Crap in it, perhaps; but he’s never even done that.  So I pretend that I don’t know, and he pretends that he doesn’t know that I know.  In Santa Cruz we call it “maintaining the dominant paradigm.”  People sleeping in our back yard? Never!

People sleep all over the place here, even if they’re deities. A couple of months back I crossed paths again with the Hindu God Kevin. We know each other of old, Kevin and me, from when we worked together at a school for homeless kids. Kevin’s an original hippie who walked the walk and never came back. Short and sun-browned, Kevin is, with a cloud of silver hair and a mighty silver beard that merge into a corona surrounding a pair of eyes and a nose.  Think Hanuman the Monkey God on a bad hair day. Impressive, but bad.

Kevin’s spent his life on the road, in communes, in orphanages in India, in the forest or the fields; if there’s a roof over his head, it’s only a nice-to-have. The journey is his destination, and the perfect place is wherever he is.  Last time I saw him in town, he was looking for manual labor gigs and a ticket back to India.

“Did you ever get there?”

“Oh yeah, and I’m back again.  Thought I had a heart attack.  It wasn’t, but I came back to get it looked at. And here I am,” he spread his arms wide, “where I swore I’d never be again: in America, in an election year.” He shook his head.

But he’s staying:  he’s not young, and the medicine’s better here.  India’s getting worse, Kevin told me; and besides, he generates 400 pounds of atmospheric carbon every time he flies there.  He couldn’t justify that. So Kevin’s living under the stars again, somewhere around here in Santa Cruz’ mild climate; in a field, a back yard, maybe a shack. Somewhere. And he’s seventy years old.  And happy.

“As long as I’ve got my practice (his meditation) and the sunrise, I’ve got everything I need,” Kevin told me, smiling.  We shook hands and he trotted off like a teenager, bound for whatever.  He makes me feel stodgy.  I probably am.

But everyone’s got to be somewhere — except for Kevin, who can be anywhere.  Santa Cruz is in the news again as the third-most-unaffordable housing market in America.  A lot of the locals make good money in Silicon Valley, 25 miles north.  But those who both live and work here don’t make much money at all.  Salaries here aren’t large: not often large enough to afford an $1800/month one bedroom apartment.

When the rents are that high, your $10- and $15-dollar-an-hour workers get almost as creative as Kevin.  They double- and triple-up in rooms, sleep in friends’ back yards, share a one-bedroom with their mother.  Whatever works.

And some of them end up with Mr. Fixit. Or maybe someone like him. If they’re lucky.

Mr. Fixit is one of those middle-aged bachelors who can build  or fix anything.  Cars, houses, machinery, laptops, networks; even trees.  Only his life is in poor repair: he drifts from job to job and relationship to relationship.

Mr. Fixit’s sole source of stability is an eccentric old house on a secluded acre or two, all passed down through the family.  Some giant hand has strewn his many projects and parts piles around the property.  For years he worked little gigs for cash and spent the rest of his time puttering.

Sadly, Mr. Fixit can no longer putter as much as he’d like.  He he had to get a steady job, which of course he dislikes.  But there’s always a bright side.  He’s made a few friends at work. And he has seen them struggle to live here on the little that they’re paid.

Soon Mr. Fixit had a work friend living in his half-finished basement for… not a lot of money.  Not long after, another work friend moved in.  She and her son are living in a bedroom. For, again, not a lot. It’s all between friends.

Mr. Fixit has other friends, too.  One of them, an old one, lives in Mr. Fixit’s driveway.  For years this gentleman slept covertly in his camper on the streets and roads around town. But now he truck-camps at Mr. Fixit’s, safe from the attentions of the law. He’s a working man with a steady job, but his money doesn’t go far here.

More people will come soon.  The guy in the basement is getting married.  His new wife will join him down there.  And the woman with the child is pregnant  by her boyfriend.  The boyfriend is trying to find a place for them all to live, and Mr. Fixit really wants him to; but if the new father can’t find something affordable… who knows?

All I can say is that lately, Mr. Fixit has been rehabbing and expanding the leach field for his septic system.  He enjoys a challenge.

This is how the little people live when the big world, the money world, the world of owners, makes life hard for them.  They find cracks to hide in: crowded houses, unnoticed spaces, hidden lanes, or good buddies like Mr. Fixit with his rural stronghold of cheap housing.

The little people do NOT go “somewhere else where they can afford to live,” because where the rents are cheap, the jobs are few or low-paying, or both. Many of the little people were born and bred in Santa Cruz, too, and have friends and relatives here to call on when life gets hard.  Head someplace strange with cheap rent but no connections and no firm job? How smart is that?

Besides, who’ll do the work that the little people do, when they’re gone?  Who could afford to?

And so the little people hang in there, by hook, crook, or the virtue of “knowing somebody” who maybe, possibly has a place for them to stay.  They, not the properties and houses, are what this town is really made of.  It can’t live without them.  And I hope that, someday, Santa Cruz comes to realize that.

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