What makes for a good doorway in which to spend the night?
Del immediately listed attributes he looked for. “Isolation from the wind. Low foot traffic from the public. No other homeless around. Those are three things.” He paused briefly, and remembered more. “Dry. And not where I would offend nobody. And where I didn’t have to get up too early. I’d find a good place that screened out three ways and I could stay there until maybe seven o’clock. Until foot traffic.”
Of the many doorways he slept in, he said sometimes he got permission first, but mostly he did not. The search alone was exhausting. “It would take you hours to find a doorway. Then I finally found a couple preferred doorways. I would travel to them. I never told anyone where I was at.”
Although Del has been housed for years, his scanning impulse has not left him. “When I walk down the street, I’m looking for doorways. I’m still shopping. Not that I would ever need it. I probably did it this morning. Man, that’s a cool ass doorway right there. Because that’s what I used to do when I was doing my running around in the daytime. I would keep my eye out. You know what? That’s cool as hell. I’ll be back there tonight.”
Once Del reached his doorway of choice, the next step was to get something to sleep on. “I had to go find my bedding every night, which was cardboard, and make me a bed. Always cardboard. It cushions.”
No, Del Seymour did not use a sleeping bag.
“I never had a sleeping bag in my life. See, that puts you in a bad bad position. I couldn’t’ve got out if someone came up to attack me. It’s like being in a strait jacket. Think about it. You’re completely at their will. You’re defenseless. 100%. That’s crazy!”
During his cardboard in doorway nights, Del maintained, he never actually slept anyway. “I’m resting. I use the word sleep but…. No one had to wake me up, because I had a motion detector in my brain. If you came anywhere near me, I would recognize you.”
Another wake up call was weather. “It gets cold in San Francisco about four or five in the morning. Nights, the winds are pretty down, but about four o’clock the winds come up, from the ocean. That’s when it freezes. So you’re good until about four and then you got to get up and find someplace to go. We used to have donut shops open all night. You could go there. Or we used to have all night restaurants. We had Wendy’s that was open, we had Louisiana Fish that was open. So you go in there and buy whatever you could with the minimum amount of money you had. You didn’t want to waste any money. Because you’re not really hungry, you’re just cold.
“Or the biggest most popular tricks is get on BART [Bay Area Rapid Transit] and ride BART the rest of the night. The first BART at the Tenderloin is at five minutes after four. Powell Street or Civic Center. You get on and you ride out to Walnut Creek and then you come back and you get off and then you ride up to Richmond. You come back and get on and ride out to Fremont. You ride till about ten o’clock in the morning, till it gets warm.”
“Another trick we have… ” He again stopped to recollect. It had been years. “I would get on the No. 14 bus. That will take you to Daly City,” just south of San Francisco. “Then you would get on the No. 22 bus, which would take you to Palo Alto. The 22 bus is one of the longest route buses in the area. It was about a three hour ride. So you got three hours of warmth and refuge from the cold and wind and elements.”
Even on the 22, though, Del would not “really” sleep. “You don’t want to sleep around people. You can’t. You would nod. It’s the way, when you’re homeless, that you learn how not ever go to sleep. You would have to be in your own room somewhere.”
Falling asleep on, say, a BART train was a big no no. “That’s showing a weakness. You’re around completely strange people. You got to be animalistic. Animal would never lay down around animals from other species. And that’s what you’re around. Other species people. You’re around the police. You don’t want to be sleeping with the police coming, because they’ll throw you off the train. It’s against the law to sleep on BART.”
Once a day warmed up, Del sought real rest. “Usually I would find a nice park somewhere and go to sleep. On the grass.” He particularly liked San Francisco’s open swaths of Crissy Field and Fort Mason. “You could crash completely because there was a lot of normal people around. People walking their dogs and walking their babies. There was no threat. Very little threat. Low instance of threat.”
Such slumber was not always peaceful. “You wake up and people be trying to take your shoes off, trying to steal your bag.” Yet Del also woke to find gifts from strangers. “There’d be a bag with a sandwich. Sometimes money. It would happen more often than not.”
The grassy beds were inconsistent, though. “This neighborhood would be good today and then come back the next day and it wouldn’t be good. There’s no constant in that life.”
Eventually, when the exigencies of finding a day sleeping place segued into finding a night sleeping place, one major consideration went beyond doorways featuring wind and rain protection, privacy, and safety. If Del was trying either to slow or stop his addiction, he slept as far away as possible from fellow addicts.
It is one of his recovery mantras, which he stood to demonstrate. Twirling, he pointed to empty spaces. No addicts here. Point. No addicts here. Point. None here, none here. Point, point. You do a 360 degree turn and don’t see any addicts, he said, sitting back down, you have a better chance to beat your addiction.
That eventually meant leaving the familiar Tenderloin, even San Francisco, among other places he had lived as an addict. Literally to get out of harm’s way, Del moved to an apartment in a supposedly crack-free town of Fairfield in Solano County, some 45 miles outside San Francisco.
There were three times in five years, he said, that in the middle of the night he wanted crack so badly, he planned to drive to the Tenderloin to get some. It teemed with such an abundance, he said, he would not even need to light his own pipe. But the Tenderloin was too far away. This time, Del stayed clean.