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Homeless for the holidays

M. Gar Carswell, who ran away at 15, lived on the streets for four years before she finally managed to get a job and an apartment.
Photo by Managing Editor Libby Hartigan

It was about four years ago Christmas day and I awoke out of a deep, dreamless and much needed sleep on Hollywood Boulevard behind the Egyptian Theater. I lay curled up inside my blanket, the only shield that separated me from the dirt and rocks on the ground. The theater was under construction at the time, so from the outside the place looked like the aftermath of a tornado. To me, it was home.

Tucked behind a wall to the theater, I felt semi-safe. A fence hid it. The cops never came there. Not a bad deal for a 15-year-old living on her own.

Sunlight danced on my face, and I rubbed my eyes. I felt insanely tired, like most mornings, because most nights I woke up at least ten times to make sure nobody found me. I always slept with my back to the wall and my knife on my belt, just in case. Sleep for me was like one of those Hollywood signs, a neon blinking light that turned on and off. That was okay, because it stopped me from sleeping deep and having nightmares.

With daylight here, it wouldn’t be long before construction workers at the Egyptian Theater showed up for work. I quickly stuffed my blanket into my backpack and scurried away before anyone saw me.

Cold air slapped at my face, and my stomach roared as I headed toward the boulevard. I needed to eat, but was broke. So I had to beg spare change from the tourists and yuppies. This time, I even asked people whom I knew would not give any—I was that hungry!

Holiday decorations hung across the boulevard. I tried to put Christmas out of my head. I wanted to forget the day was even here, but couldn’t. People were passing by with happy holiday smiles and everything. To me, it was another day of having a growling stomach, and trying not to deal with the fact that everything was falling apart—or already had.

I sat on the curb and thought of my mother’s house in Utah—the place that I least wanted to be. In her house, I was always in trouble for something. Whether it was grades, staying out late or for the way I wanted to wear my hair. In our house, things had to be done her way. If I didn’t obey, she hit me. My mom instilled a deep fear inside of me. She yelled at me about everything. To this day, I freak out when someone starts yelling.

Four months earlier, I ran away from her and lived in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, but was so scared that she’d find me there that I hitch-hiked down to Hollywood.

"If I was at home now, things wouldn’t be any better," I told myself.

Still, I couldn’t help but think about our previous Christmas together. I remembered how I felt so sad, despite all the presents that surrounded me.

Things had been bad at home

Memories started coming back to me. I recalled waking up early on that Christmas, with the secret hope that the holiday would somehow be different from our previous ones. "Maybe this time, we’ll all get along," I said to myself. I tiptoed past my mother’s bedroom door and made sure not to make a sound. I quietly crawled under the tree, and found a furry red stocking with my name on it. I raced through it and found wonderful gifts of candy, a watch and other small gadgets. All the presents were so great, but something was missing.

In our house, holidays usually came and went with gifts, arguments and isolation; a strange combination. We’d eat Christmas dinner at my grandmother’s house with my relatives, who thought I was weird. So I kept to myself and listened to my Walkman.

I was used to isolation though. As a child, I spent most of my time in my room. My older brother, Vance, was sick with cystic fibrosis, an inherited metabolic disorder that affects the mucus-secreting and sweat glands. Vance had most of my mother’s attention. My mother gave birth to him when she was 15, and I think that made her a very sour woman. But I never really understood why things were so bad.

My brother always seemed to be in the hospital. When he was not there, he was usually in trouble, and I was taking after him in a bad way.

As I reached my teenage years, I found myself so distanced from my mother that I did not know who she was. And I was in near horror of her husband, Curt. Whenever I saw his truck pull into our driveway, my heart raced with the same fear I had for my mother. On top of all of this, Curt had a son, Teric—my archenemy.

It seemed all that we ever did in my house was fight. Vance, now 26, normally defended me. But he moved out. I missed my brother and wondered if he missed me, too.

Things were so awful that I had attempted to run away one year before. I ran to a small Gothic dance club in a nearby town. But my mom found me and gave me the beating of my life. She pulled me into her car by my hair, yelled at me and hit me in the face. She told the police to take me away, because she didn’t want me in her house anymore. Two days later, I was admitted into a mental hospital for adolescents, where they said that I was crazy.

Eventually, I returned home. I hoped home would bring something more than trouble for me.

It didn’t.

My relationship with my mom and Curt was at rock bottom. I started to feel numb. I didn’t care about things anymore, and my grades at school reflected that. Then the day came when we received our report cards. I sat in class and was so worried about my grades that I had an upset stomach. I knew that if my mother saw my grades it would be just another night of hearing how bad I screwed up.

I approached my teacher and complained of a stomach ache. He excused me. I ran home as fast as I could, gathered my belongings and sold them downtown for a bus ticket to San Francisco. I was sure that I would be OK, if I could just get to any other city besides the one where my mother lived.

Finding Christmas spirit in a stranger on the streets

Suddenly, the flood of holiday memories came to a screeching halt. Reality snapped in again. I looked up at all the strange faces walking around Hollywood, and I felt angry. There I was on the streets, cold, hungry and wishing for one moment that I would finally have someone to talk to.

Evening came and I had not made any money. I still hadn’t eaten anything. I walked to the McDonald’s on the boulevard and hoped my luck would change.

Then a short stocky man came up to me, wearing a big smile. I had thought for sure that meant that he wanted to kick my teeth in.

"How are you, little boy?" He asked with a thick Boston accent, still grinning.

"Sir, I am a girl. And I would rather be getting drunk than standing here begging for money for my breakfast."

He shook his head at me, as the grin faded to a straight face. "I’m sorry, I thought because you had a shaven head, that you were probably a boy."

I laughed and shook my head. "That’s the point, sir. It keeps the monsters from trying to rape me."

And with that—things suddenly changed.

That old man with the Boston accent ended up giving me a good three hours of conversation. He had no one to be with that year, and had walked around in a bad mood all day.

We went to a small restaurant. The food was awesome! I ate until I couldn’t move. I felt kind of bad about the free meal since he paid for it, and I didn’t have anything to give him in return.

After that, he took me to a military surplus store and bought me a brand new flight jacket. It was so warm.

I told him the story of my mother and that I was a squatter, someone who lives in abandoned buildings. He made me laugh despite my own down feelings.

This was the first year that I actually connected with someone on the holiday, even though I never saw him again. But it made me think that there could be something more to the holidays than what I was used to.

A few years have passed since all that. I’m off the streets and share an apartment. It’s still difficult for me around the holidays. But I’ve distanced myself from the Christmas tradition and have my own way of celebrating the holidays. now by making goals for the upcoming year. It’s something that works for me.

I’ve even called my mom a few times and am trying to figure out our relationship. It’s so hard. Sometimes I cry about our conversations, because I feel that I’m still making her mad.

I’ve talked to my other relatives on the phone. It’s strange to hear their voices. I don’t know what to talk about. It was so long since we even had a conversation. They asked if I was staying out of trouble. It hurts to hear that, because that must be the only image of me in their heads. And I’ve come a long way from all that, but don’t know if they’ll ever accept me.

The transition from living on the streets to an apartment has been tough. I still sleep with a knife on my belt and my back to the wall. I cower over my food for fear that someone will steal it from me. When I see the police, it’s hard not to run from them—even though I have nothing to hide. But for years, I was so scared the police would find me and return me home. It’s hard to break these old habits.

Still, I do get reminded of the other holiday celebrations out there and am learning how to deal with them. Just this month, I was awoken by a hard knock on my door—a package for me!
Immediately, I recognized the handwriting on the box. It was my mother’s!

I ripped the package open and secretly hoped to find the same thing that was missing from my life years ago. Inside was a red furry stocking with my name on it. It was so heavy! The thing must have weighed 10 pounds. It was filled to the top with candy.

I dug through it to see what she had sent me. The first thing I pulled out immediately sent me to tears. It was a small wrapper, with a Band-Aid-shaped piece of chocolate. Across it, the wrapper read: "Chocolate Band-Aids, to heal your soul."

I dug deeper. She packed the stocking with all my favorites: beef jerky, trail mix, Scottish shortbread cookies and even some Reese’s Pieces candies. I was thrilled that she had remembered all of these things!

By this time, I was in tears. I wanted so badly at that moment to be able to see my mother. To tell her thank you. And somehow, for one moment, hold onto that thing missing from our relationship. For now, it seemed that in one moment I felt my mom reaching out to me and trying to say that she loves me despite everything.

Suddenly I felt Christmasy and wanted to share that with others

I put all the gifts down and reflected for a moment. I knew this year had been different before this day had even come. I know that the years to come will be different, too.

With all this going on, I thought of my roommate, Robin. He’s into all this holiday stuff. He even gave me two presents the other night, which sent me into shock. I thanked him anyway.

As I’ve said before, I have never been one to be into the holiday spirit. But I found something inside myself begging me to differ. So, I went on an adventure in search of a gift for Robin. It had to be something that would fill him with the same joy that I felt when I saw those candy Band-Aids.

For Robin, it would be a book that he could bury his face in for the next three months or so.

While I was out, I realized that this was the first year I had shopped for anyone, and that I was actually wearing a smile doing it! Imagine, me, smiling!

I thought of all my time on the street. I thought of the little man from Boston, and hoped he was wearing a smile this year as well.