By the time we get to the city, the bus won’t go into any gear but first so we head straight to the nearest dealership and park in the lot. My boyfriend looks straight ahead out the windshield, I notice how distant he seems. “I’m going home,” he says. “What?” I ask disbelievingly. “I’m going to call my folks for money and get a bus back to New Jersey,” he says. “You’re going to leave me all alone with a baby and a dead car and no money?” He mumbles an unintelligible apology, its been a big mistake, he is too young, I am too old, the dog is too needy.
Surprisingly I am not heartbroken. Penniless, with skimpy resources, the only thing standing between my daughter and starvation, but not heartbroken. I take inventory. I have the bus, lots of rice, and Peter’s record collection. I go into the dealership with Caitlin and trade all the records for a car repair. It takes a day for the work to be done and in the meantime Caitlin and I camp in the garage. When we drive out again I head straight to the local welfare office and ask for help, we look poor I know, dirty too, Caitlin’s hair is all bunched up and I am not at my best either, we are dust bowl hippie refugees.
The social worker looks at us sympathetically but says, “I can’t put you on the welfare rolls until you have an address”. “We’re living in our car,” I explain. She shakes her head. “We have to have a place to inspect, and an address to send checks.” I nod, clutching Caitlin, and leave, determined to find a place to live. In the meantime, though, it is getting too cold to sleep in the bus and we need something temporary. The social worker recommends a shelter managed by Volunteers of America, I never heard of them but at least it isn’t the Salvation Army.
Turns out, Volunteers of America runs a place for homeless people and they feed everyone too. The intake person finds me a bed and Caitlin gets a crib next to me in the women’s dormitory, it’s clean and spartan. We are served a hot meal in the cafeteria, pot roast, mashed potatoes, pale string beans, jello, no brown rice thank god. We get to take baths. A shout out to Volunteers of America, thank you.
Once Caitlin and I are settled at the shelter, I am ready to find a place to live permanently. I don’t know Denver, never been here before, it is a strange city and I don’t have an clue where to start looking. I put Caitlin on my hip and walk. The neighborhood is full of old run down Victorian homes and I trudge for blocks, searching for “For Rent” signs, until my arms start aching from holding the baby, she is getting heavier every step I take. Then, midway down one street I see people moving furniture into a U-Haul truck. I go closer and start talking to a bearded man who is sitting on the stoop of the house watching the movers. “What’s going on?” I ask. “Our commune is splitting up,” he says. “Half of us wanted to get back to the land and farm, you know, so we started fighting because the rest of us aren’t ready to go yet, and then they decided to just leave.” “Oh,” I exclaimed, trying to figure out how best to introduce the idea of me moving right in. “I’m desperately looking for a place to live,” I explain. “The baby and I are homeless right now.” The man looks at Caitlin unenthusiastically. “I dunno,” he says. “We don’t have any other children here.” “Oh, she’s no trouble at all,” I say. “It will be wonderful.”
The thing about dealing with hippies is that if you are very firm they just capitulate. That is because it isn’t good karma to be mean.
I go back to the Volunteers of America, pack up our belongings and stuff them in the bus, and drive to the commune. By the time I return, the splinter group of hippies is gone and the house is quiet. The bearded man takes me through the house to show me vacant rooms and Caitlin and I pick one in the front upstairs with big windows, probably was the master bedroom back when a family lived here. I bring Caitlin’s folding playpen up to use as a crib and donate what’s left of my bag of rice to the kitchen. Next day I contact the welfare office and give them my address, a worker visits and approves our home, and I start getting checks in the mail, so nice to get free money, not only don’t I have to work for it, I don’t have to con anyone or even be nice.
The people in the commune are pleasant and undemanding. I think they are in shock from the split and just want to be left in peace. Caitlin and I are really alone, I realize. I think, I have never been alone before, and I don’t know what to do. I look at Caitlin playing, she at least is content with her life. Oh, and the dog ran off.