Clover emerges to a stand from something resembling sleep and her foot finds gravel on the concrete walk and makes her flinch. Her mouth tastes like dirt and so she steps among her possessions, in two shopping carts garrisoned around the blanket-on-concrete sleep space until she locates a half-full liter of RC cola, unscrews it and swigs.
In that moment a pair of old ladies in the neighboring hair salon peek through the front door, give Clover the brutal judge-y once-over, in her fitted jean shorts, mottled lime-green strappy top, dirty feet and leg tattoos. They shake their heads in disgust and disappear inside. Clover is accustomed to such greetings, so absorbed in her they no longer intensify her shame.
Still, no one wants their inner-perish exposed, not here, an abandoned storefront on Pima Street near Craycroft Road in Tucson, not anywhere.
Minutes later Clover visualizes some woman I don't see when I look into her hazy blues and that gently freckled face, and she is ashamed, shields her face with her hand, and bows her head: the deep parenthesis of street torment around her mouth, scars from a recent beating on her chin, the unkempt strawberry-blonde hair. She is tired in a way no sleep can fix.
"I look like an old leather handbag more and more each day," she says, in something resembling a laugh. "Not a designer bag, more like the kind you find in the back of the barn, under a pile of things, one smelling like concern and manure."
A purple flowered drape secured with straps covers one of her shopping carts with her things, a piece of decorative dignity. "Isn't that pretty," she says, "it's a shower curtain, Dumpster-dived."
Clover is waiting on a friend, her street companion called Swerv, to return from somewhere. She is not sure where they will head today, east feels best. That's a thing about being lost, what happens when you stop thinking you are going somewhere? Can't stay here, the ladies no doubt called the cops. Clover's biggest fear now is yielding to utter hopelessness.
It is a few days before Halloween, Tucson's first cold morning of the season, and Clover is rummaging yet another plastic bag filled with new Dumpster loot; this one from a clandestine, now-shuttered, porn creator. Filled of lingerie of all different colors and sizes, she pulls out a dildo and says, "Yuck! Don't touch that!" And with two fingers tosses into another bag meant for trash.
This storefront is her home since the rainy night before, a dying strip bookended by a laundromat and liquor store and, further east, a 7-Eleven, in which she is not allowed to set foot, not even for water to feed her Cup-a-Soup. I offer to buy her food and juice from that 7-Eleven, and she looks at me, says, "You're not going to expect anything in return, are you?"
The line broke my heart.
"Just so you have something to eat," I say.
I return with orange juice and power bars and Clover is pushing bags and backpacks filled with the little things, cleaning supplies, cords, toiletries and moisturizers, into the low shelf of a shopping cart. She says, "This is a lot harder than you think, figuring out what you have and need and letting the rest go." She pulls out a brown body-length duster with a hood, and slips it over her clothes, adding, "The good news is I am who I say I am. The bad news is I am who I say I am." She tosses a throw pillow from her things and curls up on it against a dirt-colored stucco wall as the sun begins to turn warm. She keeps a six-foot distance.
That life to which she is no longer invited bends and revolves around her, where people in clean pandemic masks only seem to bob along in leisure and fun and work. How terrifying it is when you can no longer participate, when you are so unwanted, stepped over, hated. When you have children you long for in care of your mother. When a pandemic does little to alter your life.
Passing car noise on Pima Street bounces off hard stucco and glass and creates a difficult rumble to talk over. One can never understand the ugly drone of traffic, its smelly discomfort and the sun-scorched parking lots, until you actually live where it is specifically designed for the auto luxury of their owners, or sit with someone long enough to hear it soundtrack their life, how it sets an unsettling tone for endless formless days, yet so familiar it can no longer be defined or even heard. It starts there, even before wrenching pangs of hunger and thirst and the hunt for a water spigot that hasn't been shut off to the homeless. Where all the surrounding energy is subsumed into a bone-aching hustle, a gross theatric of survival.
One who goes out of the way to pay Clover close attention is a neighborhood committee woman. She's been known to run over her things with her car, honks her horn when Clover sleeps. This woman hunts for Clover. Calls the cops. Once told her she should kill herself.
Clover can hardly understand the cruelty. "They are the first to go to church and say they are praying for us, and turn around and can be the most cruel.
It's hard to know the difference between praying and preying on. In a world full of cons, who is the biggest con? The one who isn't the con."
She continues, "Kindness is free but it's the most generous thing a person can do. Hate is gonna hate and potatoes gonna po-tate. I'm far too compassionate for my own good. I don't get angry, I just get sad."
Clover Eoghon is her street name (I promise her I won't use her real name), she is 32. She contests panic with self-effacing sides ("No, really, I'm just completing an anthropological study of what living with nothing is all about!"), and a running monologue of seamless sentences and incisive insights ("It's hard to sleep, people don't like to see us sleeping, it makes them uncomfortable. Sleeping is what you do in a home.") Her biggest complaint today is her books were recently stolen, again. But she wept with joy when she found a dictionary in a Dumpster.
"Sometimes when I speak people look at me sideways," she says, smiling. That toothy smile is consistently fretful, tells the pressures of her needs. "I'm out here and I don't know slang at all. It's all 'scrilla' this, 'fire' that."
She eschews food vouchers ("I just won't, it feels wrong"), chooses Dumpster hunts, whittles the work to a three-point personal checklist: "One thing I need. One thing frivolous. One thing someone else needs. But the frivolous thing always winds up going to someone else."
Clover's biological mother nearly killed her, swung her around and smashed her head and stuck her in a dresser drawer. She was 9 months old. Her new mother found her in foster care and stayed by her side when she was in a coma, for months. "My biologicals were drug addicts, arrived in Tucson from Ireland, left me. The brain isn't perfect now. There have been traumas."
Her Ireland visits as child shaped a fleeting relationship with her biological aunt and grandmother, true Celtic gypsies and giofogs, steadfast in their own dialect and laws. "They are serious people," she says. The association explains the discernible Irish brogue that sporadically colors and pulls her words.
Clover tries to keep her adoptive mother and step-siblings separate from her life now. "She's a truly good thing in my life and she is really disappointed in me right now."
There were so many things she could be talking about, her voice soft and honest. Like how she moved out at 18, worked on ranches, trained livestock, dogs, birds. She was a gymnast in school, so later taught dance. She worked with special needs folks, is fluent in sign language, both her mother and a step-sister are special needs. She worked in a tattoo shop as a piercer. Had her own rat rescue outfit, would sit outside Bookmans bookstore to teach children about rats, to which says, "Everything is just a bit misunderstood sometimes." A red heart tattoo over the real one brightens her sun-spotted chest and she touches it often, perhaps unknowingly, as if it might vanish. There is her need for a puppy because her last one was murdered. ("Someone shot my dog with heroin.")
She talks of her two sons instead, and begins crying, how she is in no condition to face them. "I'm sure they see me, in my mom's car, whenever they drive by. Thank God for my mother."
Her 13-year-old, the oldest, is her "miracle son, provides true beauty by tragedy."
That tragedy unfurled at 19, when she scarcely understood sex. She met a guy who seemed cool to a teen in eyeliner and spiked wristbands. He invited her to a friend's place. A horror kicked in and lasted months. She became a hostage, chained to a bed, repeatedly raped. "At the Tiki Motel, and it got busted and I got set free."
She pauses, lets certain details slide into uncustomary vagueness, the bed, the wallpaper, the smells, the faces, the pain. But adds, "Damaged people are the most dangerous because they know how to survive." Clover would rather talk of her sons and how her mother took her back in.
She stays in this neighborhood because everything she knows is here, where she grew up, familiarity in lieu of happiness. That and her children and mother live a few blocks away. Clover sometimes get close enough at night, in an alley, to hear her children laugh or cry or play, to dream of sewing rips in their pajamas or making their meals, a story at bedtime. She'd long for them with every fiber of her being. She'd camp there until a cop would chase her off.
"My youngest," Clover says, "is the offspring of a boy with whom I went to kindergarten through 8th grade. We reconnected."
She keeps a journal for them, tentatively titled "The Manifesto of a Mother Monster." One theme is how "life is short but it's the longest thing anyone ever does." It is to correct perceptions too. "My adopted sister told my 13-year-old I'm out here sucking dick for drugs. If I was sucking dick for money, I wouldn't be here. Look, I'm old fashioned, I don't sleep with people. I've been told I prey on men out here and a lot of girls out here do that. I've been beaten up three different times by guys out here because I wouldn't sleep with them. My chin scars are the result of one beating. My face was horribly disfigured.
"So now I'm known as Crazy Clover. In my heart, I know I'm decent. Wounded, but decent. My mom raised me right. But sometimes I get to be Crazy Clover, scream, cry, break things, before I can get back up."
The man for whom she last left home was Caveman, as he's called out here, and mother heartily disapproved so a door-shutting rift ensued. Clover's aspirations for family repair vanished in the weight of a struggle where she sees no chances. Yet Clover describes Caveman as fiercely intelligent with a tragic heart and soul. He tossed her to the street after dreamy talk of marriage. She's "been lost ever since. Love fucked me over worse than any drug; I believe in people but I'm not sure most of them are people."
She laughs. "I'd like to the think the best thing a person can find in the trash is me. Caveman did once. I loved him way more than I should've but not any less than I could've." Then she adds, as if speaking directly to him, "I hope you are happy and loved, whoever you are with."
Swerv appears. He is a young-looking 44-year-old in cap and jacket, well turned out for a guy with no home, bathroom or food. He keeps things in a shoulder bag and his deportment is gentle. He greets Clover with a quiet "hey," and tosses her Marlboro red. Swerv (Jeremy Chap) was born and raised in Tucson and did hard time for drug offenses, laughs the prison time kept him looking young. He designs jewelry and keeps a watchful eye on Clover. The two met a year ago.
"I think I was throwing up out here and he came up and offered me cereal."
"Yep," he says. "Pop-Tart cereal,"
Swerv knowingly nods as Clover talks, interjects occasional comments, her entire life is his too, the street communal, quiet understanding and sympathy. Clover requests music and Swerv pulls a weathered battery-powered portable radio out of one his bags, flicks it on, sets it on the sidewalk and TI's "Whatever You Like" spills out.
"Music, finally," Clover says.
Swerv steps around, focuses on sorting things before they can push their lives along the dirt and exhaust.
Clover talks of Boots, her good friend who died in summer. "She wouldn't have hung herself. No way. Her real name was Jackie Lopez, she was a good girl who just wanted to be loved."
Another friend with whom Clover would fictionalize worlds to cope with their own worlds, took to talking in fake Russian accents, laughing and laughing. It didn't last. The friend developed a cavity in her lungs, "a common suffering for people of our particular class. She drowned on her own blood, gasping, crying and screaming. Basically, she died of a broken heart."
Swerv produces a paperback-sized aluminum crucifix, festooned with little spherical balls, like giant pearls, and hands it to Clover. She doesn't want it.
She talks of her "star power." Her words for meth, which she does maybe once a week, this mother's little helper, an unnatural stimulation for an unnatural world. "I'm not a tweaker, the darker the drug the darker the soul. But when I'm at my wit's end, in danger, in a tunnel, I know I wouldn't be able to move from the spot where I lay without it."
Her tattoos, some reduced to shadowy leavings, spell a yin-yang of hard truths and tender clinging innocence, pillars of her life, Tupac and The Sound of Music: "realize, realize, realize" and "Do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti."
There's another, on her forearm, Ed Sheeran: "The worst things in life come free to us." That one best summarizes the idea, she explains, that you have to pay in some way in life for something that truly matters.
"People keep trying to repaint things," she says, "can't really see to just clean it off. Nobody really truly looks at art, like nobody really wants to look at people, much less talk to them."
She adds, waving her hand over the shopping carts and mussed baggage at her feet. "I keep thinking I'm going to get out because I know I'm meant for more than this. At least I thought I was. Now I'm fighting not to be gone."