Saturday, November 3, 2012



I interviewed Carolyn Schenck when the sun came out after the first big rain of the winter season.

She is a beautiful woman, with sandy blond hair.

But she begged me not to photograph her on that day. Her hair was disheveled, and she felt self-conscious about the way that she looked. She promised me that I could come back and photograph her on some other day, when she had herself more together.

Carolyn is approaching her fiftieth birthday. She has been homeless for about fifteen months.

She raised her daughter as a single mom on welfare, living in low-income, Section 8 housing.

Her daughter is now living with her brother and her sister-in-law, who live up in the Grass Valley area. Carolyn says that her daughter was an excellent child. Carolyn is so happy that her daughter’s grades are improving, now that she is living with her brother.

I ask Carolyn if she gets to see her daughter very often.

"Well, I can see her whenever I want to," Carolyn says. "But I don’t see her as often as I would like. My sister-in-law doesn’t care for me very much. She doesn’t like my boyfriend, either. I have a drug problem. And my boyfriend is in jail."

Carolyn looks off into the distance for a long moment. Then, she says, "I really wish that I’d never smoked pot when I was fourteen. It really is a gateway drug.

Carolyn grew up in Ohio. She proudly tells me that three generations of her family before her graduated from Michigan State University.

Carolyn has eight years of higher education. She has a film degree from U.C. Santa Barbara, with a minor in art history.

Carolyn spent about ten years living in Section 8 low income housing. Her last home was in the low income apartments that are behind Rite Aid. She finally got evicted from that apartment for having too many visitors who were on drugs.

"People who are on meth tend to get into fights, and to make a lot of noise," she says.

"So, I lost my apartment. But the police have allowed me to camp out in a place that is near to where my apartment was. So, I haven’t been forced to move very far away.

"Being kicked out of my home for being rowdy has enabled me to do something that my father was always saying that he wanted me to do, which is to face up to taking care of myself. My father was a successful journalist, and a publisher. He was an amazing man."

Carolyn then lists several of her family members who are remarkably accomplished figures in business and even in our national government.

Eventually, the question in my mind grows so large that it just has to be asked.

"Carolyn, you have all of these relatives who are remarkably accomplished people, and you yourself have eight years of higher education. You are a smart, charming, beautiful woman. And yet, here you are... unemployed and homeless?"

Carolyn nods to indicate that she understands what I am saying.

"Well, I have a little drug problem," she says.

"But I’m lucky, even in that," she says. "Because I don’t drink, and I don’t smoke pot. At least I’m still healthy. A lot of the people out here who are alcoholics have a rapidly-progressing disease that will kill them pretty quickly. Alcoholism is a rapidly-progressing disease."

In my mind, I try to see the logic of her rationalization that she is in less danger doing meth than the danger that someone is in for doing alcohol or pot. But trying to see that logic is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

"I’m a photographer by trade," Carolyn says. "But I’d like to be a writer. I’d like to write children’s stories.
"I still have hope," Carolyn says. "I’m actually looking forward to my fiftieth birthday, because I have so many great ideas for my future."

I ask Carolyn what’s the hardest part about being homeless.

"Having to shed a part of your ego," she says. "To be shunned is really awful. People look at me, when I’m all dissheviled like this, and they assume that I’m a panhandler, and that I’m going to ask them for money, or that I’m some kind of a criminal, and I’m up to no good.

"The other day, I was just walking past some people on the sidewalk, and they were so afraid of me that they pulled their dog away from me before I even got close to them.

"That really hurt.

"I don’t panhandle.

"I don’t smoke pot.

"I’d like to join a band, and do some singing, someday.

"One thing about being out here on the streets is that you realize that it’s not easy to die. It’s not easy to kill yourself. On the bad days, I guess there’s a certain amount of co-dependency.

"Also, it’s sort of like the field of dreams... secretly wanting to be wealthy.

"Some people out here... people I love... they’re down-trodden, and have progressive alcoholism or drug addictions, and they’re going to die some time soon.

"They have no hope.

"I do."

If Carolyn had a magic wand, so that she could be or do anything, what would she be?

"I’d be a famous writer. I’d rub shoulders with famous people.

"I’d see the wonders of the world.

"I’d love to meet some of the famous writers from the past.

"Then, I’d like to go to heaven. I’m afraid of death. But I’m not afraid to go to heaven."

I ask Carolyn why she is afraid of death.

"Because it’s the end of life.

"I had to do the eulogy for a young man who died, recently. He died in a car crash in Applegate. Death is just so cold, and clammy to me. I really don’t like to go into mortuaries. I don’t even like to go into churches any more, because I usually only go there for funerals, and for me, churches are a lot like mortuaries."

I ask Carolyn if she has a message for the world.

"Love yourself," she says. "Love others, and know that people are good."

Carolyn complains that just the other day, she was brushing her teeth in a bathroom in a MacDonald’s restaurant. One of the employees came into the bathroom, and told her that she was not allowed to brush her teeth in the restaurant bathroom.

"That woman made some bad assumptions about me," Carolyn said. "She shouldn’t have bothered me just because I was brushing me teeth. She wouldn’t have done that, if she hadn’t made some assumptions about who I am.

"It’s a good world, not a bad world.

"People often ask me if I feel safe out here. I feel very safe out here. I believe that this is the safest place in the world. The homeless people around here have been very good to me.

"We all live like kings and queens. We have enough food, enough clothing, enough shelter. And it’s a beautiful, sunny day.

"We Americans are spoiled rotten.

"When my dad left, I took care of my mother for twenty-seven years. She had a drinking problem. And when she walked, she dragged one of her legs from a health problem caused by her drinking.

"We actually took care of each other."

Carolyn tells me some very clever ideas that she has for writing some children’s books.

"But it’s rough, trying to get back on your feet, when you don’t have any credit," Carolyn says. "And you don’t have a co-signer.

"I’ve never had a credit card in my life," Carolyn says.

I think about the slavery that most of the rest of us have to credit card debt, and I have to grin.
I say to Carolyn, "If you’ve really never had a credit card in your entire life, then maybe you really do live like a queen."

I ask Carolyn what she believes makes her special and unique in the world.

"I’m optimistic," she says.

"My dad used to call me a tiger. He called me Sunshine, and he called me Tiger.

"You’re a giver, not a taker," he used to tell me. "Avoid the takers."

"I love people. And I love the earth.

"I’ve grown a lot, since I’ve been homeless.

"I’m pleasant to everybody."

This is the ninety-second in a series of articles about Auburn-area homeless people, written by local attorney, author, and Sierra College Instructor Bob Litchfield.

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