About twelve years ago, one of my favorite television shows was Dark Angel. The adventures of biogenetically engineered Max and her friends had me tuning in every week, as I sat in my cozy two-bedroom condo. One episode was called “C.R.E.A.M.” In the episode, getting fast money was the goal of most of the main characters. At the end, Original Cindy summed up the situation with the title abbreviation. Spelled out, it meant, “Cash rules everything around me.” When I became homeless on the streets of Los Angeles, I discovered that Original Cindy was speaking the truth.
C. Even though I had worked in a homeless shelter for women and children in Sacramento, I had not been privy to the lifestyle. But once I ran out of money and could no longer afford to stay at a Santa Monica hostel, I was introduced to another world. To the other homeless men and women I encountered, I was a source of potential revenue. Commerce – that was the prime directive on the street.
R. I quickly learned that everyone and everything had a price. I was a commodity. Men and women sized me up in minutes, more thorough than the most sensitive airport scanner. And there was nothing I could do about it. That was the reality of my new world.
E. “The Store is open!” At the emergency shelter, I watched as one guy went from cot to cot with his stash of loot. The selling went on until it was time to turn out the lights. What was his story? He possessed entrepreneurial skills that could rival a Ferengi.
A. The observations never stopped. Mr. Entrepreneur offered to buy my old Walkman. One night, a man roamed through the women’s section, purposely bumping into the sides of cots and disturbing sleeping women. Even though men weren’t allowed in that section, no one on night duty paid any attention to him. And anything could happen when the bus returned us to a pre-dawn Venice Beach each morning at 5:30 AM. I reduced my daily load to a small cotton tote just large enough for a change of underwear and some toiletries. I learned to stay alert and keep aware of those around me.
M. After several weeks on the street, I started to change. On the streets, I wore the same jacket, hat and shoes all of the time. Underneath, I wore whichever jeans and shirt were the cleanest, but always tried to wear clean socks and underwear. But the clothes that were appropriate for the shelter were the opposite of what was appropriate for the rest of the world. I was ignored in stores, except for the security guards that followed me around. Who was I? I wasn’t myself anymore.
After six weeks on the streets, I got my hands on some cash. I blew it. I paid for a place to stay for a month, but the rest of the money I received, I wasted. I went into stores and shopped, just so I could exist for a while. With money in my hands, I was visible again. With new clothes and a small purse instead of a tote bag, no one could tell I was homeless. After a while, people that I used to sleep next to at the shelter didn’t recognize me when I passed them on the street. But the money didn’t last long and I faded like Cinderella’s pumpkin after the ball. And the emergency shelter had closed for the season.
It took me several weeks to realize that I was no different from the hustlers on the street and at the shelter. I realized, reluctantly, that from the minute I had asked a friend to loan me money that I had no way of ever paying back, I became a beggar. Instead of standing on the sidewalk, I used the telephone and e-mail to get funds from now former friends.
Early one March morning, as I stood on Ocean Avenue watching the waves break below me, I remembered the words of Original Cindy. “Cash rules everything around me.” Without realizing it, C.R.E.A.M. had become my motto. Not only did cash rule —I had become its loyal subject. Even though I was several feet away from the shore, I was lost at sea.