Homeless Haven

Last Saturday, my three kids all slept over at a friend’s house, which gave me a rare opportunity to drive on a Saturday night — primetime for Uber surge fares. Driving through the liveliest areas of West Hollywood and Beverly Hills, the rider requests were almost constant. I started at 6 p.m. and picked up bar hoppers, tourists, students, and couples of all stripes. At about 8 p.m., I picked up three young Asian businessmen from Hong-Kong at Mastro’s in Beverly Hills. They spoke excellent English and the more we chatted, the more they wanted to hear my take on LA, and the nightlife in particular, something that I know a lot more about since driving for Uber. Needless to say, it wasn’t hard for them to talk me into being their tour guide for a few hours in exchange for a $200 tip! I gladly shuttled them from one hot spot to another where they savored the sights and first-rate cocktails. They didn’t stay at any one venue for more than forty-five minutes. That gave me enough time after three stops to almost finish the novel my book club is reading this month. Granted it wasn’t Raffi at Casa Del Mar, but at least I wasn’t doing anything tawdry, or that could lead to romantic rejection.

When I finally dropped the men at the Peninsula Hotel just after 11 p.m., they gave me an extra fifty bucks which meant I had raked in the Uber surge fares, plus a $250 tip!. They told me they’d be back in town soon and hoped they could employ my “tour-guide” services again. I gave them one of my business cards with my cell number written over my former law firm’s phone number and told them I’d be happy to oblige.

I headed home via the 10 freeway to PCH, but as I was about to turn off PCH onto Sunset, I realized I was almost out of gas. So I swung into the Chevron station and braced myself for the talking gas pump. They drive me nuts, but at least it gives me some video to match with the news I hear on talk radio all day.

I was standing at the pump when I noticed a homeless woman who I’d seen here before. I remembered her sign: “Want work.” And I remembered that she didn’t look weathered and dirty, as did many other homeless women, especially near the beach. I was pretty sure I’d given her a five dollar bill on occasion over the last year or so before I’d fallen into my current state of desperation. I still feel the same compassion for the homeless strewn all over Santa Monica, and a few of whom have now infiltrated the Palisades. But my money is too hard-won now and too scant to be doling out a dime to anyone besides my kids.

But this woman was not panhandling now, which made sense since there’s not a lot of opportunity on PCH at that hour. Instead, she was standing under a street lamp with no apparent purpose. There was something behind her, or so it appeared from where I stood. My tank was full, but I stood there for a moment, trying to discern what was behind the woman. After a few moments, I saw the woman turn and face the tiny figure who was now in plain sight. Sure enough, it was a little girl who appeared to be no more than six or seven years old. From what I could see, the little girl had on only a sundress and a torn blanket wrapped around her shoulders. I remembered the woman’s grateful smile and the kind words when I’d given her money in the past. But mostly I remembered wondering how on earth she had landed in the road with a sign.

Now it was this little girl who had me wondering. Where was she going to spend the night? There are no shelters within walking distance of the west end of the Palisades, and the beach across the highway was no place for a little girl to spend the night. I got back in my car and pondered the options. The one I didn’t like was heading to my warm, plush home with the image of mother and daughter standing on the highway indelibly printed on my brain for the rest of the night. I needed to do some due diligence before I decided upon my course of action. So I pulled out of the Chevron station and across Sunset to the curb where they were standing. I approached slowly with a friendly wave and then rolled down my window.

“Hello,” I said, trying to sound cavalier.

The woman gave me a guarded smile while the little girl stood on her tiptoes and peered at me through the passenger window. I was instantly struck by how adorable the little girl looked, despite her dress and tattered blanket.

“I live up the road and have seen you here before, but never at night,” I said.

“Yes, well, I’ve been trying not to be here at all anymore,” she stammered.

I racked my brain trying to remember the last time I’d seen her and realized it probably had been more than six months.

“I found a job at a restaurant up in the Village last fall and the owner was kind enough to let us stay in their small guest house. But now the restaurant is gone, and the nice owners moved back to Philadelphia.”

Ah, yes, I thought. Caruso is creating a mini Grove mall, in the heart of the Palisades Village, and only a couple of the long-time tenants will survive. I knew which restaurant she meant since there’d only been two on that street, and only the chic little French café survived the Caruso cut.

“I haven’t found any other work yet, but I hope to soon,” she said, placing her hand on the girl’s shoulder.

Where was her daughter when I’d seen her panhandling in the past? I wondered but refrained from asking. I spotted a police car parked outside the Jack-in-the-Box just up the road and impulsively reached over and opened the passenger door.

“Get in!” I said firmly but in my kindest tone. The woman just stood there, looking bewildered, but the little girl reached for the handle on the back passenger door and climbed into the backseat quickly.

“Please, there’s nothing to worry about,” I said looking directly at the woman. “I have three children myself. We live just a mile from here. I can’t bear to have you two standing out in the cold this late at night.” I had no idea whether people in this situation remember the faces or cars of people who gave them money in the past, but as I held her gaze, I sensed that the woman was recollecting the time I had hurriedly handed her some money before the light at Sunset turned green. “Let me help you,” I added, hoping she now remembered me.

I suddenly realized that I had no idea how I would do that, but I’d set the wheels in motion and now I needed to do something. While the woman hesitated, I formulated a plan. I couldn’t take them to my house because the last thing I needed was a conversation with my children about why I was out driving around late at night again. There were only so many nights I could claim I needed to go to the gas station, the ATM or the market after 11 p.m. And then I looked down at the three crisp bills in the side pocket of my purse. There was my answer. I’d simply rent them a motel room somewhere and use my tips from the evening to cover it. My mind raced through the places nearby which weren’t many and all of which were upward of $300 a night. Plus, it was likely those places wouldn’t welcome the two of them since it wasn’t hard to peg them as homeless, with no purse or other belongings. I remembered the inexpensive but tidy motel on Santa Monica Boulevard above the IHop Pancake House. My former firm had occasionally put up a witness from out-of-town there because it was comfortable but reasonably priced. About $129 a night, if I wasn’t mistaken. That plus a $20 breakfast at IHop the next morning would leave me with roughly $50 of what the men from Hong-Kong had given me, plus the Uber fares I’d earned in those three hours. Not much of a dilemma, I decided, so I told my passengers to buckle up as I sped along PCH back toward the 10 freeway.

As we approached the intersection at Chautauqua, the little girl said softly, “Shouldn’t we stop here so we can hike to our tent, mommy?”

I held my breath to suppress a gasp. I’d heard about the encampments the homeless had built into the hillside above PCH and right below the Huntington Estates. Last year there was a brush fire that had stopped just short of the mansions above on Corona Del Mar. Apparently, the blaze started from the cooking fires and discarded cigarettes of the homeless living there. As we sat in the heavy PCH traffic a few days after the fire, my son, and I had scoured the hillside, looking for signs of any remaining camps. We didn’t see any, but it was well known that, since the fire, the homeless had returned and built sturdier shelters carved into the hillside and carefully camouflaged.

It struck me as fate that I’d lucked upon such generous riders on this particular night. How could I not use my good luck to keep this precious little girl from sleeping somewhere on that hillside, at least tonight? I wanted to scream, but instead, I kept perfectly silent until we were well past the bluffs. Once I could see the McClure Tunnel, I’d found enough composure to say, “You’re going to sleep inside tonight, have a warm shower and a hot breakfast in the morning. Ok?” And then I turned toward the girl and asked if she liked pancakes. The smile that spread across her small face resolved any doubt I had about my impulsive undertaking. The woman, who had sat virtually frozen in her seat until then, turned to see the obvious relief on her daughter’s face and then looked at me as if I had parted the Red Sea.

We exited onto 20th Street and in just another three minutes, I pulled into the motel next to the IHop on Santa Monica Boulevard. I parked the car in the spot marked Guest Registration and opened the doors for my stunned passengers. I laughed softly as I almost reached for my phone to hit the “End Trip” button on the Uber app. “Follow me,” I said as I headed toward the front desk. They had a room at the back of the building for $139 a night. I quickly filled out the registration form in my own name, gave them an imprint of my one good credit card and took the room keys, declining any information regarding the room’s amenities from the nice woman behind the desk. I could feel the staff’s eyes on us as we rushed toward the elevator. Once in the room, I looked at them and realized I hadn’t even asked them their names. The woman was still stunned and seemed surprised that someone would even take the time to ask them their names. Carmen and Ellie. I hesitated for a moment before offering only my first name. I then busied myself with making sure there were enough towels in the bathroom and that the TV remote worked.

“Please, make yourself comfortable here. You can have the room until 12 p.m. tomorrow. Have some breakfast at the IHOP and charge it to the room.” I assessed the woman’s grasp on how to handle the situation, and my instincts told me that somehow, despite her current circumstances, she could manage this. I looked at little Ellie and said, “And if I were you, I’d use that bubble bath I saw in there and take a nice long bath.” Another smile from her that made me feel like I was trying to impersonate a saint. “Well, then, I’ll say good-bye and let you two relax.”

Ellie had already headed to the bathtub. Before I left, I slipped the one twenty dollar bill I had into the woman’s hand and squeezed it shut. “I know it won’t keep you off that hillside, but there is a laundromat on Montana. It has a sign on the window that says they are hiring. I have this hunch that they’d let Ellie stay with you while you worked, maybe even let her help fold clothes for a little extra money. You can walk there from here in less than twenty minutes. Please promise me that you’ll look into it tomorrow.”

Her eyes widened, she took a deep breath and then threw her arms around me. She stepped back quickly, putting her hands to her face to cover the tears. I reached for the door as Ellie called for her mother to help her with the bath water.

As I jumped into my Range Rover, I felt a sense of relief – a feeling that I hadn’t had in quite a while. I have had a nagging feeling for weeks now that Raffi was married. I hadn’t intended to sleep with a married man, let alone earn a $1200 tip for my “services.” But, in fact, that’s how it felt to me each time an image of that exhilarating night had crept into my thoughts. And the fact that I had not heard a word from him since our delicious encounter solidified my hunch that I had indeed been smoothly seduced by a married man. Probably a family man with a few kids, no less.

Would my act of kindness tonight help absolve my guilt over my inadvertent adultery with Raffi? I wasn’t sure about that, but I knew I didn’t have to go to sleep thinking about Ellie sleeping in some make-shift encampment carved into the bluffs below the Huntington Estates. Sure, I’d blown most of the $250 tip the amusing Asian gents had bestowed on me. And, no, I didn’t feel confident that the generous tips I’d garnered so far would keep coming. But, I did feel like I’d given this Uber gig some worthy “professional” purpose, despite that the whole thing still seems surreal to me.

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