“Just surviving,” he said as I introduced myself and asked how’s it going. He wore a long gray beard and a black beanie. He sat on a rock in the desert landscape of a government building, saying hello to the passersby.
O.G. looked up at the dark sky. “Hope it doesn’t rain,” he said. “If it rains, you get wet. And if you get wet, you have to wait around ’til you get dry.”
“You said your name was O.G.,” I said. “Those are initials.”
“Yea,” he said. “You know what they stand for?”
I guessed the familiar ‘original gangster,’ but he corrected me: “Old Guy.”
But he also goes by O.T. (old-timer.)
He tells me what it’s like to live on the streets. “You know I used to watch those shows about the street,” he says, “like about Skid Row, with drugs and crime and misery everywhere. That’s really how it is out here. You have to watch your back. People will jump you, rob you. You wouldn’t think that would happen– homeless people robbing homeless people– but that’s what it is.”
He’s been beaten up a few times, and robbed. I asked him if that’s difficult, mentally, to have to stay on guard at all times. He thought for a minute. “It keeps me sharp.”
O.G. grew up in Phoenix before the freeways were built. For a long time he lived on a farm north of Central. His parents owned the farm. They grew grapes and pecans. They also raised goats and kept people’s horses. O.G. used to wake up before school, put his work clothes on and work the farm. Eat breakfast, go to school, get home, put his work clothes on again, and go work the farm again before dinner. By that time you had to take a bath and go to sleep. When he got to high school, his parents sold the farm. He missed the farm, but at least he didn’t have to work before and after school anymore.
His father fought in WW2, stationed in Alaska and the Philippines. He was an engineer, but saw some gruesome combat. The right side of his face was pocked from an explosion that blasted sand off the beach.
O.G. was a little too young to serve in Vietnam, but some of his friends were drafted. “Most of us thought it was a stupid war. Either nuke ’em or get out.” His theory was that they were just testing out war equipment. Said you wouldn’t believe all the new helicopters they used over there. The worst thing, he says, was that they lied about it. The body counts and stuff. “I think we lost that war.”
He’s convinced it’s just a matter of time before someone, somewhere, drops another nuke. There’s too many of them out there.
O.G. has been experiencing homelessness for three years. Currently he sleeps in the shelter and spends his afternoons downtown. People treat him better downtown than near the shelter. Cops treat him better. He likes the homeless facilities in Phoenix. They have better services for folks like him than any other city, although the place gets crowded in the winter.
Before he started to experience homelessness, he lived in his own place, had plenty of gas to get around, and plenty of food in his refrigerator. He worked in construction most of his life. He was a superintendent. He points to the buildings across the street. “I worked on a lot of these buildings.” The real money was in government contracts for the new freeways. $28 an hour. Many years he brought home $60 grand. He had some friends, but never too close. They were there when they needed loans, but disappeared when O.G. could have used one. He was never married, never had kids. He was used to taking care of himself.
But the economy turned bad and he got sick and spent time in the hospital. About getting sick he said, “I hadn’t planned on it.”
Life has been a series of seven year spurts for him. Things would be going well for seven years. Then everything would fall apart. It’s tiring having to rebuild your life every seven years.
Living on the streets has changed his perspective. He thinks he’s a kinder person. Sees good in people. Even people down at the shelter. “There’s not a lot of normal people down there– not like I’m normal– but I don’t look at anyone like they’re an idiot.”
“Now growing old,” he says, shaking his head. “Don’t let anyone tell you that growing old is graceful. It isn’t.” He tells me about his doctors, his recent diabetes diagnosis and his new high blood pressure diagnosis and various other concerns. Reflecting on the appointments and tests he has been doing lately he says, “I sort of wish I hadn’t started going.”
His face brightened as he looked forward to Christmas under the bridge on 7th avenue. Groups show up to serve food. Plenty of good food. Bacon. Eggs. Potatoes. Coffee. He was definitely looking forward to Christmas.
I’m grateful for old-timers like O.G., whose hands helped build my city.
Note: O.G. gave me permission to share his story, but asked me not to put his picture on the internet. I asked him if I could use his name and he said, “Yea. There’s a lot of O.G.s down here.”