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An Outside Life

The all-true tale of a girl's journey from suburbia to the streets of Santa Cruz

By Tai Moses

MANY YEARS AGO, I spent the holiday season helping out at Father Peter Carota's soup kitchen off River Street in Santa Cruz. Every few days, Audrey Fisk would come in and get in line for lunch. "Hi!" she'd call cheerfully when she saw me, unperturbed that we were on opposite sides of the line--I was ladling out stew, she was holding a bowl.

The reason these encounters are worthy of mention is that, not so long before, Audrey had had a full-time job and rented a room in a house in Scotts Valley. She had a car and a bicycle, friends, a library card that got so much use it fell apart on a regular basis.

Now she owned nothing she couldn't carry. She slept outdoors in a makeshift campsite in the woods, rarely bathed, and when she didn't make it to the soup kitchen she scavenged her meals out of a Dumpster.

When I ask people who knew Audrey what they remember most about her, they always mention her altered appearance. Once she ceased to live among us she became a shadow figure, a grubby street character whose former life seemed inaccessible, even irrelevant. But there was more to Audrey Fisk than appearances.

AUDREY AND I MET in Ronald Reagan's spring of 1980, at a Greyhound bus station in Los Angeles. It was midnight, and she was standing outside in a light drizzle gazing into the darkness, hands shoved in the pockets of her jeans.

I was inside the terminal, and I watched her through the rain-smeared glass. She looked about my age, 18. Her long corkscrew hair was frizzy from the rain and on her face was an expression of pacific indifference.

She looked as if she had just been set down alone in this grimy place and had come from nowhere. Doing nothing, she was infinitely more interesting than the other people inside the terminal who, predictably, sat and fidgeted, smoked and talked. Audrey stood and looked at nothing, or at something only she could see. I was dying to know her.

As it turned out, we were waiting for the same bus. Both of us had joined the California Conservation Corps, and we were headed for a CCC center called Woodlake, not far from the town of Visalia.

Despite its promising name, Woodlake was a disappointment: a complex of cinder-block bungalows surrounded by acres of orange groves and tilled fields. It was flat and hot, and there were no redwoods or rivers, no woods or lakes. The Sierras were a hazy outline on a distant horizon.

Woodlake itself had a sort of watered-down paramilitary atmosphere: a crew member could get admonished for infractions like rolling up her sleeves on a scorching day or accidentally leaving a gum wrapper under his bed.

From day one, Audrey and I fomented rebellion in the ranks. CCC corps members were supposed to stay one year, but four months of Woodlake's regimented atmosphere was enough for us. In July, with about $600 between us, we hit the road with the euphoria of escaping outlaws. That summer, the country was experiencing a record heat wave. We hitchhiked across the country, giddy with liberty, swimming in every river, lake or pond we came across.

IN A SNAPSHOT I have of Audrey from our hitchhiking days she is standing on a twisty strip of blacktop somewhere in Idaho, a desolate spot surrounded by a dense, bland growth of trees. Looking at the photo, I recall how annoyed I was with her that day.

She is holding a paper bag full of sunflower seeds. (She had been holding the same wrinkled sack for days--I was sure our passage was marked by a trail of spit-out black shells.) Next to her was an empty root beer. The root beer can was the reason for my aggravation, the reason we were stuck in that deserted spot waiting for a ride to Montana.

There was a tiny man living inside the can. Outside of Spokane, Audrey, who was stoned, started talking into the can, holding it up close to her face. I ignored her, but the driver of the car grew uneasy and finally pulled over and asked us to get out. Audrey didn't even seem to notice that instead of sitting in a comfortable backseat, we were stranded in the piney woods like two fleas on the back of a mammoth. She knew perfectly well there wasn't a little man in the root beer can. She wasn't crazy, just pretending. But Audrey could pretend powerfully, with a persistence that unsettled people.

We spent several months on the road, working odd jobs when we ran low on money. We ended up in Bar Harbor, Maine, where we boarded a ferry for Nova Scotia, hitchhiked west across Canada in a zigzagging trajectory and finally headed back to California.

We said good-bye on the freeway north of L.A. Audrey had her dog Wiley with her, a sweet, flop-eared puppy we had found abandoned along a highway. A cabdriver pulled over and offered her a free ride south. I stood on the 405, watching the taxi carry Audrey away to her parents' home in Laguna Beach as Wiley's ears bounced in the breeze from the open window.

I don't know what she was thinking going back there. She didn't fit in, she was an outsider. She even looked different, with that wild hair that had a tendency to twine into coils if not brushed. She had watchful eyes, like a feral animal, that gleamed with intelligence and sly humor. Her hands, with their long expressive fingers, were one of her most striking features. She ate with those monkey hands, a habit that in some people might have been revolting but in Audrey was sort of charming and fastidious. She was like a wolf-girl.

Her parents were timid, conventional people. I had met them a couple of times and couldn't understand how such an unremarkable pair had created such an original daughter. How could this wild child be theirs? They didn't seem to know either; Audrey baffled them. As a teenager, Audrey had run away from home several times. Her parents' response to her adolescent rebellion had been to commit her, at the age of 15, to a locked psychiatric facility.

She spent a year in that place. At Woodlake, she told me stories about it: Once another kid stole a key to the outside door. He was too afraid to use the key himself, so he gave it to Audrey, who hid it in her shampoo bottle until the night she planned to escape. She had almost made it to the door when, behind her, she heard one of the doctors coming down the hallway. "They were called doctors, although I had never known them to heal anyone," she told me.

Audrey had no pockets. On her feet were only felt slippers. The key was in her fist: "I put it in my mouth, to hide it." When the doctor confronted her, demanding to know what she was doing in a restricted area, a terrified Audrey swallowed the key.

Audrey I GOT ONE LETTER from Laguna Beach, where Audrey was spending her time watching cartoons and walking Wiley on the beach, where dogs were prohibited. She kept running into old friends, she wrote in mock peevishness, who all had "goals, futures and similar trash." She apologized for not writing more, "being characteristically unmotivated and winner of five awards in procrastination." She was a female Holden Caulfield mired in suburban angst.

Her father struck a deal with her: if she went to bartending school--a cockeyed scheme given his daughter's latent misanthropic disposition--he would give her his old Honda Civic hatchback, "with a web of strings attached with hangman's knots," she wrote me. "For bartender's course (so my age wouldn't be questioned), I wore a dress and kinda high heels. I couldn't stand it, so as I was leaving I popped on the red hat even though it's filthy, and Wiley took a big chomp out of it."

Unsurprisingly, Audrey was a spectacular failure at bartending, and I persuaded her to come and visit me in Santa Cruz. Soon, she and Wiley were sleeping on my floor and we both had temp jobs alphabetizing invoices in the gloomy back office of a toner sales company.

After she'd saved up a little money, Audrey found her own place, a room in a house. A friend got her a job working on the assembly line at now-defunct Victor Technology. It was probably the most mainstream her life would ever get. She bought a mountain bike, some art supplies, and her favorite instrument, a banjo that she taught herself to play. After work, she went on long runs with Wiley or bike rides in Nisene Marks.

I was amused and a little envious at her unassuming style, her simple way of living. She didn't care about interior decorating; her room was unadorned and strictly utilitarian. There was not one stick of furniture. She slept in a sleeping bag in one corner, and a variety of heaps occupied the rest of the space: a heap of art supplies, a heap of clothing, a heap of books. In the middle of the heaps sat Audrey, drawing pictures, reading or fingerpicking her banjo.

Of course, she hated the assembly-line job. She seemed to have an unerring instinct for getting the jobs that would be most onerous to her nature. Audrey was a child of the middle class, but she had never internalized the values that would have made her a functioning lifetime member of her class. She didn't do well in structured environments, yet such places seemed to attract her by their very familiarity. She was constitutionally unable to follow a rule if it did not make sense to her. She was like Major Major in Catch 22, perpetually unhinged by the illogical regulations of an absurd bureaucracy.

Audrey's insouciant persona, however, rested on a fragile foundation: many times at Woodlake I had seen her dissolve into tears at a nasty word from a crew leader. Most of us employ a variety of social masks to get us through the disagreeable but necessary rituals of modern life; Audrey had none. Behind her defiance was a terror of authority figures.

AUDREY ENDURED the Victor job for months until a new manager made things unbearable for her. Then she made a choice that for most people would signal catastrophe, but for Audrey was the path of least resistance.

With no skills, a minimum of savings and not enough money to cover next month's rent, she gave a week's notice and quit her job. She decided she would move out of her house and camp, living out of her car or in a tent with Wiley. I knew her decision was based on more than just economics. I think she was relieved to finally give up the pretense that she was like everyone else, to stop passing for--I can hear her mocking voice--"a productive member of society."

With a kind of ruthless practicality, she got rid of everything she couldn't take with her. Books went first. Then the art supplies, then her camera. The battered old Honda would function as a kind of mobile suitcase. She put clothes and banjo in the back seat, Wiley in the front, and she drove away. But this was different from the other times she'd driven off or put her thumb out on the highway; this time she wasn't going anywhere.

A couple of months after Audrey moved out, she met JJ, a Vietnam vet who made leather pouches and belts and traded them for food, drugs and other necessities. He had been surviving on the streets in this manner for several years.

From the day they met, they were inseparable. The honeymoon didn't last long, however; they argued a lot, and sometimes their battles got physical. Sometimes I saw her with a black eye or a bruised arm; but when I expressed concern, she laughed. She said she gave as good as she got.

Audrey and I still saw each other frequently, but as our common ground shrank it became more difficult. Her attention was directed toward learning a new set of skills. She could spend an hour discoursing about the best spots in Santa Cruz County to sleep where you would not get a ticket for violating the camping ban. She told me triumphantly of the perfectly edible things people threw away, the pizzas, bagels and muffins discarded in Dumpsters behind restaurants. She had always liked getting high, but now drugs--pot, pills, whatever was available--were virtually her only recreation.

In Travels With Lizbeth, a gritty-poetic memoir of homelessness, Lars Eighner wrote: "Every life has trivial occurrences, pointless episodes, and unresolved mysteries, but a homeless life has ... virtually nothing else." From what I could see, that was an accurate depiction of Audrey's new life.

She and JJ were constantly preoccupied with the minutiae of basic survival, hunting for food and shelter, getting from one place to another. Their campsite was robbed, someone stole her banjo. One summer day, I ran into her downtown. The whites of her eyes were yellow. She looked terrible. She said she and JJ had gotten hepatitis from drinking water from the San Lorenzo River.

I like to think that the increasing asperity of her life was leavened by its attendant freedoms. Liberty was Audrey's primary value. Only once did she explain her choice to me. There were two kinds of people, she said: Inside people and outside people. She, Audrey, was an outside person; she didn't want walls around her, a roof above her.

She did not panhandle or beg. She never slept at the homeless shelter, and she probably wouldn't have defined herself as homeless. If pressed, she might have called herself a hobo. She wanted the outline of her life to be sky and horizon, something natural and not man-made.

IN TRUE HOBO FASHION, she discarded her last name and changed her first name. For a while she went by Bo, and then she wanted to be called Cedar. There were months when I couldn't remember what to call her. As the seasons passed, she became grittier, her smiles less frequent. She was rarely without a stained paper cup of strong black coffee; she told me she sometimes drank 10 cups a day.

She had developed a capacity for snap decision-making that I now recognize as a survival skill. I had become used to seeing her and JJ tooling around town on their bikes, but one day the bikes were gone and they were on foot. Audrey's mountain bike, scrimped and saved for with Victor paychecks, had been sold for next to nothing. Her glorious crazy hair became snarled and she cut it off without a thought. And then Wiley, her beloved companion, vanished--eaten by a coyote, they thought.

It's safe to say that Audrey's love for her dog was the strongest attachment of her life, but she accepted his disappearance with a composure I found eerie. Or maybe she just understood, as I didn't, that such losses are a natural byproduct of life on the streets.

That winter I got a job writing for a newspaper; Audrey was stuffing newspaper inside her clothing at night to stay warm. If the contrast between our lives hadn't made me so uncomfortable, we could have laughed about it; Audrey didn't care.

But I have to admit that sometimes she embarrassed me. I would be walking downtown with a friend, and there would be Audrey, with Wiley on the end of a frazzled rope, and JJ who, with his handmade leather vest, looked like a character out of Road Warrior.

Audrey smelled bad, her clothes were stiff with dirt, her face was grimy. There were permanent black half-moons under her fingernails. Sometimes I pretended not to see her, or turned and walked another way to avoid her. But when she saw me she'd leap to her feet in delight and give me one of her trademark bear hugs, and we'd joke around like old times. When the nights turned cold, I offered her sweaters and blankets, but she said she already had too much stuff. Books though, she accepted. We still liked the same writers.

'A HOMELESS LIFE has no story line," Eighner wrote. "It is a pointless circular rambling about the stage that can be brought to happy conclusion only by a deus ex machina."

I moved back to L.A., where I got one of Audrey's rare letters. Her letters were always collages of non sequiturs, images and quotations. On the outside of the envelope she had copied a quote from Joseph Wood Krutch: "When a man despoils a work of art we call him a vandal; when he despoils a work of nature we call him a developer."

She and JJ were still living in the Santa Cruz woods, she wrote. They planned to go to Colorado, but since, as usual, they were not getting along, the outlook for this venture was bleak.

"Oh well," she wrote, "at the collapse of this fiasco I'm heading back to Lunartern. Want to go?"

I smiled when I read this. Lunartern was a fictional place we had invented while we were on the road, a slapstick realm where reality was never allowed to intrude.

When I came back from L.A., Audrey had vanished. I looked for her in all the places I was used to seeing her: downtown on Pacific Avenue; in San Lorenzo Park; along the levee. She wasn't at the soup kitchen. She wasn't on the streets. She wasn't anywhere.

The street people I talked to told different stories: Audrey was in Portland, in Berkeley, in jail. I called her parents in Laguna Beach, hoping they would have some word of her. "She's camping," her mother told me, stupidly, stubbornly. I wondered if that was the explanation they had given themselves for their daughter's lifestyle: a perpetual lifelong camping trip.

For the first time, I felt a little sorry for them. They had been given the wrong daughter--Audrey, the wrong parents. Over the years, I called them sporadically, hoping for some news. The last time I called, the number was disconnected, with no forwarding number.

I have never been able to fit Audrey neatly into any of the categories that make up "the homeless." She did not lose her home so much as reject it, but she came to share the condition of true homelessness: its hopelessness and degradation, its ruinous effect on physical and mental health. I cannot believe this was a life she wanted, but once she took the first step, it led to its logical conclusion. There are probably somewhere between 300,000 and 7 million homeless people living in the United States at any given time, and one day my friend Audrey Fisk stepped off the radar and become one of them.

I used to imagine the freedom-key Audrey swallowed in the psych ward suspended inside her ribcage like in a cartoon X-ray, forever out of reach of the doctor-jailers, mocking them with its toothy expression. I still have the last crumpled letter she sent me. At the bottom she wrote: "I think this time I hit the road I'm never going to stop. A real nice place would be the Galapagos Islands. They are somewhere in the National Geographic magazines."

Names in this article have been changed.

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From the November 1-7, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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