Underexposed | Homeless Portraits and Street Narratives
I saw the homeless man looking through a dumpster in the corner of a deserted commercial shopping center. He looked interesting with his backpack and leather hat so I circled around the block and slowly got out of my 4runner. I approached the man and asked him how his day was going. After a couple more pleasantries I made the mistake of asking him if he’d like to make some money. Instead of assuming I was talking about an odd job or other legitimate means of employment, he thought I was referring to a sexual favor. I learned that offering money was not a way to begin a conversation with Kenny.
“If you don’t hear no noise, something bad is gonna happen. It’s like when you’re in Arkansas, when you’re outside, and all of a sudden all the birds and everything just stop and there’s dead silence, a big ol’ storm’s comin’ in, it’s the same in prison.”
After explaining my project and what I was about, Kenny got into my 4runner and we drove about 30 minutes to a location just outside of town. He trusted me to take him out to a deserted road that paralleled the freeway. I photographed him for about 30 minutes and then I drove Kenny back to downtown Oroville. Little did he know that years from now, his image would go viral and be used on tickets to promote Bucharest Photo Week halfway across the world. His image would also be published in the local newspaper as a promotion to generate donations for a local homeless shelter. (For more of Kenny and me, go to the “Behind the Scenes” section). Here is an excerpt of our conversation that day:
Aaron: “What was your profession, or the job you most identify yourself with?”
Kenny: “Tow truck driver. I love anything that has wheels on it, if I sit inside the operating seat or driver’s seat, within 10 minutes I can operate that vehicle like nothing. I’ve done some framing. I started working at the age of 14 and I traveled with the carnival until I was 16.
Aaron: “Working at a carnival? That must have been pretty interesting.”
Kenny: “I got in trouble because I was running the Octopus. It’s got one big swinging arm and eight little legs that swing all around. I was the operator for that. I got in trouble because I was sleeping in the poster joint, you the place where you shoot darts at a poster and you win the poster? You can’t miss it. Everyone was a winner. I was there one night and all I saw was this hand come up over the counter, in the middle of the night, trying to fish around for things. So I stuck my knife through that hand into the wood and for excessive partying I got fined and got stuck on the kiddy Ferris wheel. The kiddy Ferris wheel is like watching paint dry. Because it takes about five minutes for one bucket to get up to the top. They’re only about five feet deep for the little kids. It was Halloween and everyone was drinking and partying and stuff and I stuck four people into one little cart that’s set for two little kids. And these were four people that probably weighed 180-250 pounds each. I put them up top and loaded the next bucket and turned it on – and walked off. So I got in trouble again! I was 14. It was the Golden West Amusement out of Ceres, California. When I first got there they asked me, ‘Who you runnin’ from?’ and I said, ‘Home.’ And they said as far as we’re concerned you’re 18.’ And I said, ‘Okay.’ They were crooked and wanted to make money.”
Aaron: “So at 14 you were working at a carnival. What’d you do with your paycheck? As a 14-year-old, I would have thought that I was rich.”
Kenny: “Umm…mainly I bought cigarettes and dope. By 14 I was already a drug addict. Most of the money went to drugs and alcohol and playing big man in bars. I never got carded because I always looked old. And people wanted our business so they never carded the carnies. That was back in the 80’s, now they do. I’d go in and try to be the big man and spend money and play pool and buying things for girls.”
Aaron: “At what age did you first try dope, Kenny?”
Kenny: “Eight years old. I did a small line of coke when I was eight.
Aaron: “How did you get ahold of coke at eight?”
Kenny: “It was in Arkansas and they thought it’d be cool to give me a line, a half a beer and half a cigarette. It’s Arkansas in the 70’s you know. They’re just a bunch of hillbillies, if they don’t have a drink by seven then somethin’s wrong.”
Aaron: “Who’s the one that gave it to you?”
Kenny: “Several people. My stepdad gave me the cigarette. His best friend gave me half a beer. And one of my sisters, I can’t remember who, gave me a small line of coke. So I did that for a while. We I turned 14, my dead sister Karen was shooting heroin. And she’s like, I know you got a fear of needles, but do you want to try it this way? Because I was set on coke. And I was like, ‘sure.’ And that’s when it all went downhill.”
Aaron: “So you’ve been using since you were 14.”
Kenny: “Off and on, yeah.”
Aaron: “Is that what led to your prison time?”
Kenny: “Yes, the seven and a half years in prison, yes, that’s what led to it.”
Aaron: “Did they just catch you doing it?”
Kenny: “I was under the influence, when I did the actions I did. When I did it I was really strung out and high and they knew it. And they waited until the new ‘tough on crime’ bill started. In order to make me an example of the new bill, they sentenced me to nine years and four months. I did seven and a half years. I was supposed to do less than that. But when you’re just turning 21 and you’re heading to prison, you think your life is over with. It was the school of hard knocks.”
Aaron: “What did you learn in prison as a 21-year-old?”
Kevin: “If everything goes quiet – wake up. Because somethin’s bound to happen. If you don’t hear no noise, something bad is going to happen. It’s like when you’re in Arkansas, when you’re outside, and all of a sudden all the birds and everything just stop and there’s dead silence, a big ol’ storm’s comin’ in, it’s the same in prison.”
Aaron: “Any other tips you learned in prison?”
Kenny: “Don’t drop the soap.” [laughs] Sleep with a pencil under your pillow in case somebody tries to pull me off my bunk. Swing first. It doesn’t matter how the person looks, it’s still a guy in makeup. The queens in there are kind of…. Well, they’d use M&M’s, the candy shell on the M&M’s, it comes off and they’d use that for makeup. If you take two wires and plug them into a wall socket, and have two razor blades with a piece of a cardboard stuck in between them and with one wire on a razor blade and one wire on another, you can heat up water to 190, it boils water. You’d be surprised the menus that people come up with. We’d call them ‘spreads.’ They’re basically chips with top ramen on it, some sausage, melted squeeze cheese and a bag of nacho cheese Doritos could serve four people. I got out when I was almost 30.”
Aaron: “Do you have any regrets?”
Kenny: “I regret being stupid and putting myself in prison. I wasn’t there for my sister’s death or my grandma’s death. Those were the only two women in my lifetime who knew me inside and out like a book. My mom knew parts of me, but she didn’t know exactly who I was. One time I was 17 and I was detoxing, trying to get clean, in Oregon; I went to live with my grandma. She was born in 1903 and she didn’t know what to do about drugs. She knew what to do with people on alcohol, just not drugs. So when I started DT’in’ and withdrawing and stuff, she was like, 81 or 82, the only thing she could do was put me on her lap and rock me and sing to me like she did when I was a little kid to calm me down. And Karen, my dead sister, she’s the one that gave me my first hit of dope when I was 14, me and her were inseparable. Until she died in a house fire. So that was my own regret for being stupid and letting my addiction take me down roads that I wasn’t trying to go. Collecting money from hookers and collecting money from people who fronted dope.’
Aaron: “What would you like to do now?”
Kenny: “Get my license back and get another motorcycle. To me that’s freedom. When I did have a bike, when I got into an argument I’d cruise up to the casino and it clears my mind. I’m able to think. I ain’t got all the noise and bustle from the town and people. Growing up I got PTSD from a really abusive childhood from my dad. My step dad, I watched him put my mom’s head through a sheet rock wall every night. Then when I jumped in between them he decided that if I stepped up to a man, he’s going to fight me like a man. At 7 years old I got my ass whooped like a man by a man. So I had issues. I had anger issues. PTSD. I just thought I was a flip out artist, because I’d just black out – and it would scare the shit out of me. Then I got diagnosed with Schizoaffective Disorder and they put me on Risperdal, Trileptal and Zoloft.”
Aaron: “What would you say is the hardest part of living on the street?”
Kenny: “Sometimes it’s hard because you get in a rut and it feels like there’s no way to get up. When you go to a job interview, you tell the person that you’re homeless and they’re like, ‘Uh…okay…’ And somebody that has a home, they’d be hired before a homeless person. There are homeless people in Chico that shit in front of businesses and it screws it up for other homeless people that are actually trying to survive. I’ve had experiences where I walked by a woman and I said ‘Good morning’ and she actually looked at me and wrinkled up her nose like she stepped in dog crap. That made me mad. But people are getting better now. Most of them look at you like you just castrated a dog or something. They think we’re the stereotypical alcoholic, drug addict, lazy, that’s not always the case. I would love to get a job and get off the streets. I’m 46 years old and I’ve been consistently on the streets since 2010. And it’s getting harder to do it. The winter is getting harder. Sometimes just facing the drama and pain of everyday life of being homeless. Not only emotional pain but physical pain. I have arthritis from a bad wreck on my motorcycle. I have fibromyalgia. My hands lock up now, just because of the weather.”
Aaron: “Are there any survival tips you’ve learned for living on the streets?”
Kenny: “Buy a tent and a good sleeping bag. Try to find an out of the way spot that takes you a while to get to, like on a bicycle or out of town. A nice out of the way spot, but not so secluded where if anything happened you’d be screwed. Always camp with somebody and better make sure you can trust that person. You’re leaving all of your property there and they can just walk off with all your stuff. Like what happened to me and my girlfriend, Marie. Watch your back. Pay attention to your surroundings, analyze everything.
Cooking is easy, because there’s wood everywhere. All you need is a metal rack out of a fridge and four bricks. Set the rack on them and then put the wood underneath it, or pinecones. Pinecones burn really long. Or regular Lay’s potato chips because the oil on the potato chips, anything like your kindling if it’s wet, that thing will burn to where it will set your wet wood on fire because of all the oil in the potato chips. Carry rubbing alcohol and peroxide and band aids. Don’t be squeamish about blood. We don’t like the doctor so if you’re homeless friend gets hurt or beat up, you have to know how to sew. Don’t let a lot of people know where you’re camping. A major issue is keeping warm. Buy yourself a Zippo and carry lighter fluid with you. Put about 2 inches of lighter fluid in the bottom of a fruit cocktail can and put that on a brick or metal stand, so that it doesn’t catch anything on fire, and set it on fire for about 30 seconds and that thing will heat your tent so bad that you’ll have to open up the windows and doors to cool it down. It’s a blue flame. Hand sanitizer on the bottom of a can does the same thing.
You learn to hate doctors. You don’t want to go to the hospital so you need to learn to field dress yourself. You learn how to take care of your health. Oroville has a bad issue for going in for one thing and coming out with another. Or you just flat don’t come out. Oroville Hospital has a really bad reputation. And plus, if you go to the hospital, you don’t know if you’re shits going to be there when you get out. That’s why you need to camp with someone you can trust. It might sound sexist, but it also helps if it’s a female. Not for any sexual reason, for one, they keep you balanced. Because even if they act all hard, they still have compassion. And they have common sense, men don’t have common sense.”
Aaron: “How do you make a living, what do you do for money?”
Kenny: “I get $330 a month and $194 worth of food stamps. When you’re homeless you make everything stretch. You can get two tacos at Taco Bell, a small soda and what else. You can get a $2 pouch of tobacco all for $5 bucks. You can go to Town and Country, there sell one ounce of tobacco in baggies for $2 bucks. Tacos – two for a dollar at Jack in the Box and a dollar soda off the menu.”
Aaron: “If you could tell people how you’d like to be treated, what would you like to say?”
Kenny: “With humanity. Even though we’re homeless. And we might smell. We might be stuck on drugs or stuck on drinking – we’re still human. Compassion. Not pity, we don’t want nobody’s pity. Karma plays a big role in being homeless. If you screw somebody, then karma is going to come around and screw you. And most of us aren’t looking for a handout. If someone walks by and says ‘Good morning’ don’t wrinkle your nose, take time and say hello… humanity.”