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John Simpson is a man I met while reporting on homelessness in Los Angeles: He’s 60 years old, about 6-foot-1, and has been homeless for five years. He has flushed cheeks, a belly that protrudes like a loosely tied sack, and a bushy beard nestled with three years’ worth of dirt and crumbs.
Simpson sleeps on a sidewalk in Venice, a trendy beachside neighborhood that has fast become one of the most expensive places to live in Los Angeles. Once a commune for struggling artists and old-school liberal hippies, Venice is now better known as a hipster paradise of boutiques, coffee shops, and tech startups. In fact, Simpson’s backyard is the LA headquarters of Google, and his front lawn is the first Gold’s Gym, where celebrities such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone built their muscle-swollen physique. A block away from Simpson’s abode is the famous Abbot Kinney Boulevard, a long shopping strip where you can buy a $575 ceramic dish, a $4 vegan raspberry rosemary buttermilk doughnut, and $6 lattes.
Not that Simpson cares to enjoy the luxuries of Venice. His mind focuses on one thing every day: Alcohol—how to get it, where to get it, when to get it. Every morning he wakes up at 5:30, rolls his sleeping bag into a tight bundle, and tucks it under his tarp-covered pile of belongings. He wakes before the sun does because the city has banned tents on sidewalks from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., but he can’t sleep much anyway since the concrete pavement hurts his back.
For the rest of the day he walks, and walks, and walks all around town, digging through trash bins for recyclables: glass bottles, plastic bottles, aluminum cans. His favorite score is Gatorade bottles, since they’re made of heavy plastic and the recycling center pays him by the weight of the material. Sometimes during his excavations he finds discarded food that he pockets for lunch or dinner: He’s found a packet of deep-fried ravioli, spaghetti with chicken parmigiana, and even small gourmet chocolate doughnuts, which he savored with each sugary bite.
Once Simpson has gathered enough recyclables, he walks 3 miles to the nearest recycling center, cashes in his collection, then walks 3 miles back just as the sun is setting. On a humid summer day, when Venice Beach is teeming with sweaty, thirsty tourists, he can earn more than $12. Usually he collects about $7 for the day—just enough to buy a $6.56 bottle of cheap vodka from the local CVS. When CVS doesn’t have vodka on sale, he goes instead to Rite Aid, but limits those visits because that annoying lad who works there always threatens never to sell him alcohol again.
Each night he sits alone at a corner with his bottle and swigs the hours away until he passes out by 10:00 p.m. The next day, he repeats it all over again.
Once he procures the night’s drink, Simpson stretches out his sore legs and turns on a battery-operated radio to listen to the news or a baseball game. Each night he sits alone at a corner with his bottle and swigs the hours away until he passes out by 10:00 p.m. The next day, he repeats it all over again.
That’s Simpson’s daily routine—week after week, year after year. Every day he passes by bare-chested young men smacking volleyballs and beautiful women rollerblading, but he travels past with his nose in the trash bin, anxious to scrounge enough for that night’s drink. He can’t think about anything else. He doesn’t dare to.
My boyfriend and I visit Venice every Thursday to volunteer for a nonprofit organization that serves burritos to the homeless, and whenever we see Simpson shuffling by the boardwalk or standing in line for a burrito, we yell out, “Hey, John!” For the first several months since we met him, he would startle, as though he hadn’t heard his name spoken out loud for ages.
“How did you know my name?” he’d exclaim.
“You told us,” I would remind him. “Do you remember my name?”
Simpson would then scrunch his eyebrows, tap his chin, and think hard: “Uh ... I don’t know ... I’m so drunk. ... Is it ... Stacy? Stephanie?”
“Close,” I’d say—and then suggest he think of the actress Sophia Loren whenever he saw me, since, obviously, I was just as beautiful as her.
Over time, Simpson remembered our names, except for the few nights when he was too intoxicated to remember much of anything. Soon his face was brightening whenever he saw us, and the moment he had our ear, he would talk on and on, reminiscing about his childhood as a military brat, his high-school days as a choirboy, and his former girlfriend Joy, whom he dated for more than 10 years and who is now dead from alcoholism.
He loves movies, particularly musicals—Les Misérables, Oklahoma!, Hello, Dolly!—and sings the tunes for us without much coaxing. When the musical film La La Land came out, Simpson paid $15 to see it in a theater, but he was so exhausted from all his walking, and the theater seats so soft and comfortable, he fell asleep 20 minutes into the movie. He still regrets it: “I could have spent that $15 on vodka!”
Whenever we bid our goodbyes, Simpson looks sad, almost empty, and sometimes dazed, staring at some invisible memory or thought stirring in his liquor-pickled mind. Alcohol practically keeps him alive: After 30 years of heavy drinking, his body and brain have become dependent on alcohol to function. But alcohol also helps him go on mentally and emotionally: It blocks out reality.
All he has to focus on each day is drinking—a simple lifestyle, a one-track mindset that nudges away all nips of consciousness that he is a smart, funny, able-bodied man who’s killing himself day by day, without family or friends to be around when his soul finally leaves his poisoned body. And whenever his mind sinks into the gravity of his situation, his expression turns somber and surprised, as though he’s seeing himself for the first time.
That realization must be unbearable. So he takes another swig, and prays to pass out into a dreamless sleep.