Residentially deficient. Sounds better than homeless, doesn't it? Homeless has such a melancholy ring. Not houseless, that would
simply connote being without an abode. Homeless means much more than that. It signifies a lack of family, lack of roots, as much as it does the absence of shelter.
I was truly homeless for nearly four years. As an only child, who never married, whose parents are deceased and who has no living relatives that I
know of, the correct description of my pathetic state was homeless, and it is a sad and hopeless state indeed.
I know I don't look homeless.
After all, how many homeless men do you find sitting in the lounge of a luxury ocean liner that has just embarked on
a four-month cruise?
I'm talking too much. Maybe
it is the two Mai Tai's I consumed during the bon voyage party. A party I attended
mind you, but one at which I was more of an observer than participant.
So your name is Margo. Nice
to meet you Margo, my name is Soto, Nick Soto.
What do I do? Well,
I observe. I investigate. I postulate. I am a philosopher. At least I was before
I became homeless.
How did I come to be a passenger on a round-the-world cruise? Its a long story. Of course well be spending
a third of the year on this voyage so I have plenty of time to tell you about the odyssey that brought me to where I am today.
I saw you at the bon voyage party, by the way. You were sitting alone, an exotic brunette beauty with a sad face sitting by herself at a table for four.
Of course you are beautiful!
Why do women invariably display such false modesty, especially the truly exquisite ones who deserve the accolade the
most? And what is your vocation, Margo?
A psychoanalyst. Marvelous! I certainly chose the right person to bare my soul to.
I know you are on vacation, but if you will just indulge me, I need to tell someone my story and who better to reveal
my inner most secrets to than a psychoanalyst?
Yes, my drink
is empty and no, I do not need another. One or two may make it easier to expose
my wounds, but any more than that and I will risk forgetting the past I am so desperately trying to escape. That could be dangerous.
Remember what George Santayana said, "Those who forget the past are
condemned to repeat it." If I forget my past, Margo, it is bound to catch up
You aren't a cop or an FBI agent are you? Yes, yes I did something illegal. I didn't kill anyone, nothing
that serious, but I did do something wrong, so you see I had to ask, but I do feel very comfortable talking with you. Why do you suppose I find it so easy to tell you, a complete stranger, of my sordid
I guess in your profession you hear all sorts of confessions. And, like a priest, isn't anything I tell you, whats the phrase they use? Isn't it privileged information?
I'll pay you for your services.
Then it will be all legal and our conversations will be confidential, right?
The doctor-patient relationship and all.
Where shall I begin? I
was a bona fide child prodigy; talking in complete sentences at two, reading
on a third grade level before the end of kindergarten and to this day I cannot explain why I am able to solve difficult mathematical
problems with ease.
I grew up a whiz kid in the dusty south Texas town of Alice, the only
child of an itinerant vegetable picker father and very sickly mother who was only able to bear him a single child.
Orphaned at 15 after my parents were run down by a drunk driving
an 18-wheeler, I received a very impressive settlement secured by a lawyer who represented migrant farm workers. I also graduated from Alice High School, three years ahead of my peers.
From the time my parents died, I basically lived on my own in one
of my teachers rental apartments she let me have for doing chores. I could have been poster-boy for MENSA. The attorney petitioned the district court in Bexar County to make me a liberated child and with the flourish
of his gavel and a ballpoint pen the judge made me a legal adult at age 16.
I also entered St. Mary's University, the youngest freshman in 20 years to matriculate there. Two years later I was the youngest graduating senior in the history of the university. Earning a grade-point-average of 3.9, I could have gone to any graduate school in America. I chose Trinity University in San Antonio so I could remain in familiar surroundings.
You see, as intelligent and educated as I was, my social skills and experience
were extremely wanting. I was shy to the point of terror.
I was awarded my doctorate in philosophy before my twenty-third birthday. With
three degrees earned in less than six years, I was at the point in my life when society expects one to become productive and
start earning his right to remain on this planet.
The only world I knew, the only one I was comfortable in was the academic one.
It only seemed natural that I remain in it. After all, there is little
calling for a philosopher in business.
The southern-most university in the United States hired me as an associate professor, the youngest at Pan-American
University in another sleepy south Texas town, Brownsville. I quickly rose to
assistant professor, then professor and by the time I was 30, I became chairman of the Philosophy Department by default. My boss had run off to Mexico with a very physically
well-endowed sophomore whose bra size was larger than her IQ.
The next 15 years were spent teaching and writing. Publish or perish as they say.
Since my childhood I had secretly envisioned myself making a difference in the world, changing it for the better. It was one of my most vivid and enduring fantasies.
I wanted to be a superhero, with a letter on my chest and a red cape flowing from my neck.
Yet at the age of 45, with half my life behind me, I realized the planet was still rushing headlong towards disaster
and all of my writing, all of my lectures hadnt made one whit of a difference in the global scheme of things.
Its tough living the life of a know-it-all and 15 years of posing possible answers to society's most difficult questions
and watching my community, country and world continue to erode despite my efforts was more than I could stand.
Call it a mid-life crisis, call it temporary insanity, but at 45 and totally despondent at my failures, I walked to
my 1985 Dodge Caravan after my last class of the term, went home and packed some clothes, went to the bank and emptied my
bank account and pointed my car north on Interstate 35, destination Las Vegas.
If you can't beat them, join them, became my anthem as I endeavored
to live the life I had shunned for half a lifetime. I acquired plain but adequate
lodging at the Lucky Shamrock Motel, one of dozens of little rundown strictly residential establishments several blocks west
of the famous Strip.
If I paid by the month, the desk clerk, a gregarious transplant from
India told me, it was only 300 dollars. I peeled off 30 one-hundred dollar bills from my life savings and told him if he allowed
me to stay for 12 months I would pay him for ten right now if he would give me the first two months free. He went to a room off the tiny office to discuss my offer with a woman who obviously was his wife.
It appeared she was also the person in charge because she did most
of the talking. Although I didn't comprehend a word of their lilting sing-song
language, it was very pleasant to the ear, even when the wifes serious facial expression gave away her true emotions.
Within three minutes, my friendly male desk clerk was replaced by
this businesslike woman. She was dressed in a red and black sari that hung to
all the curves of her petite lithe figure. "We are not in business to lose money,"
she told me in a crisp fast paced accent, "I will give you one free month for your three thousand dollars."
"No way, miss," I said in a voice that slightly mimicked her own. It was the voice I used when I talked with Ms. Pavelenghi, an economics professor
at Pan-American University who is a native of Calcutta. Professor Pavelenghi
had difficulty understanding my Tex-Mex accent, but as soon as I began adapting her style of speech, she understood me perfectly. And, she apparently never realized I had changed my speech pattern.
The desk clerks wife, however, was onto me early in our conversation
and asked if I was mocking her. I assured the woman, whose beauty only showed more radiantly when she was angry, that I was
only trying to communicate with her more effectively and I related my experience with Miss Pavelenghi. I also told her the Lucky Shamrock was far from the only cheap
motel in Las Vegas and since she was unwilling to meet my demands, I would seek other lodging.
As I turned to leave, her smiling mate bounded into the tiny office,
almost knocking his little wife down, "Now, now, now, lets not be so hasty Mr., Mr. What did you say your name is?"
"I didn't, but its Soto, Nick Soto," I told him. No I dont know why I always introduce myself last name first. Just a habit I guess.
The husbands voice was syrupy sweet as he told me I seem like a very
proper gentleman, just the type of long-term guest his reputable inn likes, he
told me grinning from ear to ear. He asked if I would be so kind as to indulge he and his associate one more time.
The couple retired to the next room.
This time the man closed the door ever so gently behind himself. Although
I could not see them to judge their body language, this time the husband dominated the conversation and from the tone of his
voice his smile had been dismissed and replaced with a the stony countenance his wife had assumed a few minutes earlier.
As quickly as the one-sided rapid fire conversation began, it ended
and the smiling clerk instantly opened the door, entered the tiny office and closed the door behind him.
"You will not find lodging as fine as the Lucky Shamrock for anything
near what you will pay here, he told me with that leering smile securely attached to his face. I will make you a very good
deal," he told me and proceeded to do just that, offering me a room for two hundred fifty dollars a month with no phone deposit
and no key deposit. I quickly counted out the 30 one hundred dollar bills and he provided me with an accurate written receipt.
My first major negotiation outside the state of Texas with people
I had never met before was successful. This event did more to bolster my nearly
non-existent confidence than any other in my life. Buoyed by the experience,
I nearly pranced to my Caravan, drove it back to where I saw 127 written on a door and parked.
I quickly emptied my tired old vehicle of the three suitcases of
clothes and other incidentals I had brought with me. Carefully stowing the luggage
in my room, I lay on my queen-sized bed and stared at the off-white ceiling with its multitude of brown water stains. I was happy to note there were no stains over the bed itself.
Further inspection showed the bedspread to have five small and two
large holes in it. It was a dark brown color with a white fiber material inside
and the holes, all from cigarette burns save the big ones. I then lay back the
spread to reveal clean, if dingy sheets. They and the pillow cases were fairly
threadbare but bore no rips, stains or holes.
The furniture was very early Holiday Inn, replete with gouges, burn
marks and water stains. I walked to the bathroom and recall that I was thankful
it seemed so clean. Actually, it looked as though it had been remodeled recently. All the tile was new and free of mold. The toilet appeared to be new also as well
as the sink and shower curtain. Little did I know as I inspected the bathroom
that it would be a place I would spend a great deal of time in for the next year.
Each unit at the Lucky Shamrock Motel had two light green metal lawn
chairs chained to big bolts in the cement sidewalk in front of the rooms. As I awoke from a well-deserved and needed rest after my nonstop drive to Sin City,
I heard voices. They were speaking Spanish and seemed to be in the parking lot. The Spanish was in the Tex-Mex dialect I was familiar with but rarely spoke, favoring
the more formal Castillian instead
I hopped out of bed, went to my ultra-clean bathroom and relieved
my bladder and washed my face and hands. The dialogue coming from outside seemed
louder and more raucous. It sounded as if the two were having a party in the
parking lot. As I approached my door and prepared to investigate the situation,
the distinct, pleasant and comfortable aroma of barbacoa greeted my nose. Now
I was really beginning to feel at home.
As I opened my door, I realized the sun had almost finished setting
and the hot desert temperature had already been replaced with a more comfortable one.
There was a light breeze as well, and two Mexican-Americans standing before a barbecue drinking beer and grilling meat.
"Amigo, mi nombre es Manuel Lopez, mi mano es Luis," the larger of
the two men said, holding out his hand. "Me llamo es Nick Soto," I replied, shaking it profusely.
Manny and Louie as they liked to be called offered me a cold Carta
Blanca beer, some salt and limes. As I prepared to drink my cereveza in the style
of home, we exchanged personal information.
These two compadres were from El Paso. They had been living at the Lucky Shamrock for six months as they worked as laborers at various construction
sites around Las Vegas. They assured me that there were plenty of jobs, more
than they had workers to fill and they would help me find one.
Not willing to disclose the fact that I was blessed with a fairly hefty amount of money with which to live for the
next year, I told my two new friends that I would be seeing the sites first and would perhaps be looking for work in a week
or so. They accepted this without question and we spent the next four hours drinking
beer and eating barbacoa and bean. It was a reassuring introduction to a strange
For the next six months my nights were a haze of daily drunks followed by recovery which always included the hair of
the dog that bit me. Having enjoyed nothing more than a glass of wine or two
with a meal in my past life, this new lifestyle I was being introduced to was very disorienting, to say the least.
I quickly graduated from Carta Blanca to Jose Cuervo and probably became this purveyor of fine tequilas biggest customer
in Las Vegas. Within no time, I was buying four fifths a night. Not all of these fine spirits were consumed by me. Manny and
Louie showed a real penchant for fine tequila as well as several ladies who would occasionally join us for our nightly fiesta. More often than not, the ladies would spend the night with us, finding themselves
too inebriated to drive or sometimes to even walk.
I wont lie to you and say I was never intimate with these barflies. But
they were actually more interested in the free booze than having sex with us and by the end of most nights we were all too
done in to do anything but go to sleep.
My money ran out in October and I still had my room paid for thru April. By
now, Manny and Louie had moved to jobs in Los Angeles leaving me and my three alcohol addicted female friends to carry on
our tradition. But with the money gone, they too stopped visiting.
Having subsisted on an almost totally liquid diet for nearly half a year, my body began to crave the ethynol it was now being deprived of due to my dire financial
circumstances. Panhandling is a common profession on the streets of Las Vegas,
mostly due to the tough luck of the compulsive gamblers who flock here daily to make their fortune. I joined their ranks, studying them at first and then emulating the more successful of the breed.
One night, after earning eighteen dollars and eighty three cents at an intersection that usually provided at least
twice that much, I happened on Old John. John is one of the long time panhandlers
who ply their trade in Sin City.
Seventy years if hes a day, Old John wears all the clothes he owns: a big brown trenchcoat, four pair of shirts and
three trousers that he wears in layers and rotates on a daily basis. His hair
is long, straggly and a dirty white color. Mostly dirty with twigs, branches
and other natural byproducts of sleeping on the ground.
On this particular October night a cold front had snuck into the city making the usual nippy autumn night downright
chilly. John was huddled in the doorway of an abandoned liquor store trying to
keep warm. I could see that even though he was wearing several layers of clothing,
the fragile old man was shivering and it wasnt due to a lack of alcohol.
John, where do you usually go to when it gets cold? I asked the old man as I knelt down to face him. Through cracked lips, he proceeded to tell me of the shelters and missions available to homeless men and
women in Las Vegas and then continued to explain why he couldnt go to any of them.
The main reason was his current state of drunkenness. None of the facilities would allow an obviously inebriated man
to spend the night and some of them wouldnt allow you to stay if a breathalyzer test proved you had even been drinking.
John had been drinking steadily all day, unaware that a freak winter blast from the north would make life on the street
very difficult that night. I offered the floor of my small, but warm motel room
to Old John and his eyes twinkled as he took my hand so I could help him up.
In return for a warm place to stay, John gave me lessons in the best methods and places to panhandle. For the next four months, the old man spent many nights sleeping on the floor of my room. We began working busy Las Vegas intersections as a team and dividing our income at the end of the day. Invariably John would make much more than I did, yet he always split the proceeds
One morning, toward the end of January, I lay in bed waiting for the daily morning coughing spasms Old John woke me
with. He had become my alarm clock on the nights he stayed with me. On this particular morning, I lay in bed much longer than usual waiting for his coughing spell. So long in fact, that I began to wonder if Old John did indeed spend the night with me.
As I began to stir, it occurred to me that even his raspy old breathing was absent. I quickly jumped up and looked
down to the place Old John would always lay out his bedroll. It was there alright
and so was John. At least the person that used to be John was there, lying very
still. I looked for a rising and falling of the chest. There was none. I knelt down, much in the same manner as the way I did four months earlier when I invited John to stay
with me for the first time.
His eyes were open, but instead of being met by their twinkle all I could see were cloudy white iriss. He had a smile on his face and a serene look of peace. I watched
him for several minutes, hoping hed say, Fooled ya, didnt I Nicky. John was a
great practical joker. But this was no joke and I quickly lost my sense of humor
when the only friend I had in Las Vegas didnt wake up.
I was sick
in the heart and I was physically sick from
the life I had been living and from
the loss I had sustained. I knew I had to leave Las Vegas very soon or I would
die here too. Within a week I had collected enough money panhandling to start
the trip home to Texas and that's what I did.