Everyday Living

Just Call Me a Refugee

By Mary Getlein

“The best things in life are free.” The old man who used to own the Gingerbread House wrote a song with that as the title – with the profits earned by that song he bought up property in Venice – Mr. Frank: now I remember his name.

Part of the game of growing older – you forget a lot of stuff and then sooner or later it comes back – or it doesn’t and you decide it wasn’t that important, anyway. People used to live in the Gingerbread House – $120 a month. That makes me so old – that I can remember when the rents were that cheap.

We used to have benches on the boardwalk. We used to have swings on Dudley, right on the sand. We used to “be having things” – that were for free . . . Free to be – you and me – that was a title of a book – back when people used to read – books – remember books?

I remember – not much, but I do remember. I raised my kid on welfare – My friend John Corcoran used to call himself: “the King of the Welfare Mamas.” He was always good for a piece of pizza at the end of the month, when we were all broke and our kids were hungry. He was a sweetheart, crazy Irish guy who loved to drink and tell long rambling stories. He loved women and loved talking to women. He had long hair and braided it and braided his beard, and laughed and laughed. He used to be an altar boy, he confessed one day. He died, too young, of a heart attack.

Alcohol-related deaths – those got my attention and pointed me to the path of sobriety. All my friends were dying, and died young. So I sobered up and settled down and raised my kid on welfare . . . And if you have any complaints about it, take it up with some politician, not me. Welfare let me stay home and see my kid grow up to become the person she is today. Welfare allowed me not to get some crap job and stay with it and become a “model” for my child of staying in a crap job, so someday she could get a crap job, too.

Now my kid’s in Santa Cruz, doing her college thing, and I’m still in Venice. I go down to the boardwalk and look at all the homeless people, and visit the ghosts of my old friends, and look at the ghost of the swings, and I remember. I remember when people really did believe in peace and love. It wasn’t so hard to be poor. People gathered around the music makers and sang to the sunsets, and danced to the tunes of their hearts. It wasn’t all like that, but it was sometimes, which was enough to keep you coming back.

Now it’s all about money. Straight up. Homeless people still live here, but they’re being forced out, again. People have nowhere to live, so they live in their cars – which is not what rich people had in mind when they bought a place for $1.2 million.

Homeless people are still people. People say: “the homeless.” They don’t add people to the end of that phrase. It’s wrong to treat people like cattle. It’s wrong to herd people out of an area, just because they can’t afford it. It’s wrong to charge for a sunset, or clean air or a chance to watch the boats go by.

It’s wrong to lie to young kids and promise them schooling and good jobs and have them die in Iraq. It’s wrong to inflict our “way of life” on another country – It’s all wrong and it’s going to keep going that way. But while I can still live here, I’m going to “keep on keeping on” – I’m going to remember who I used to be and who I used to want to be. All the “stuff” that people cling to ends up in a landfill anyway. So that part is easy for me. You really can’t buy happiness – you have to find something you love and keep doing that – Not all that other shit.