NATE'S STORY, UNFINISHED

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Nate grew up in Oakland, and never really had much of a chance. His mother was an alcoholic and when he was fifteen his father shot him up with meth. All he ever wanted to be, he says, was a thief, a con-man, a drug dealer or a pimp. He was a good hustler as a kid, scoring food for the family and clothes for himself, and he had some success as an adult, hustling money, women and drugs. He never joined a gang except when he had to, in prison, and claims he never terrorized anyone by pointing a gun at them. When I met Nate he was 53, living under a freeway,  and walking five or six miles a day with his shopping cart, digging through garbage and back alleys to find whatever he could trade or sell to support his heroin and alcohol habits. He differed from the other homeless men I met because he seemed to be well-educated (although later I found out he had finished high school in juvenile hall) and when he discovered I had been a writer, he said people had always told him he should write. I said I could help. After I got to know him I told him he was smart.

Fed up with living on the street, Nate moved to Stockton to reconnect with his mother, who had a tiny extra room in a very small apartment. He tried to make a go of it, but it wasn't a situation that could last. He found a woman who, as he put it, was "stone ghetto," but they drank together, claimed they loved each other, and he moved in with her for awhile. Then one night he tried to steal a pack of razors from a corner store -- and got caught. The police discovered he had walked out of a court-mandated rehab program and sent him to prison to serve his old time: Five years. I have a huge file of letters now from Nate, from a prison in the Sierra foothills that funnels inmates to firefighting crews. If he gets the job he wants, cooking for the crews, Nate's life could be pretty good, considering. He says he's given up on his girlfriend because she got angry with his mother and put sugar in her gas tank, completely ruining her car.

 

Lately I've become friends with Nate's mother -- a woman who turned her life around the day two Jehovah's Witnesses came to her door. Today she is clean, sober and just about the sweetest person I've ever known. Like Nate, she is well-spoken, and, like him, she writes beautiful thank you notes.

 

Note: I'll put captions, or audio, on these photos as soon as I can because Nate's life story is what interests me. But there is one series of snapshots that I should explain here. The series of him near the train tracks is his re-enactment of how he slept the night before I met him that afternoon: He lay down next to the tracks, a train came roaring by, it was dark, he panicked and tried to leap away, but fell down because his foot was tied to his shopping cart.)