The parking lot of Target in Ventura is crawling with cars like ants vying for crumbs at a picnic with a rain cloud hanging over it — a cloud about to break open and spill its guts all over the place.
It’s almost Christmas, so it stands to reason that the urge to splurge is in the air. It isn’t just the desire to buy, buy, buy, to consume completely and indiscriminately, to vacuum up merchandise and distribute it with zeal. That’s to be expected, more or less, during the season of giving.
But just beneath the surface of this shopping dervish simmers a combustible layer of red-hot impatience. Sure, the ants at this picnic are working together, but they’re tired of waiting in lines for their crumbs and having nowhere at all to put their shopping carts as they peruse the aisles. The really could go ahead and give, give, give if the asshole in line in front of them would just get the heck out of the way.
It’s a confusing beast, this season of giving. There’s a lot of love in this world, a lot of tinsel, pine trees and wrapping paper. And there are also a lot of homeless people, including James Fields, one of a handful of men and women on the periphery of the Target parking lot frenzy, which seems to get ever more frenzied as the countdown to Christmas nears its end.
For Fields, who stands near one of the exits of the parking lot holding a makeshift sign made of jagged cardboard, the season of giving does often extend to him — though there’s no telling if it’s just because there are more people shopping than usual, or if more people want to give.
“They do seem to give a little more at Christmas; I do notice that,” Fields, 50, says, his burnished blue eyes staring outward from beneath a ball cap. “It really hasn’t picked up yet, but in the last days before Christmas, it usually does.”
The blue of Fields’ eyes is a layered blue, meaning that they look as though, if a first layer of rich, ocean blue could be peeled away, there would be another, slightly different, startlingly blue beneath. He’s got a warm smile, a mouthful of teeth that could use a brushing and all-around pleasing face. He is undoubtedly handsome.
Fields traverses Ventura’s landscape with Dawg, a 5-year-old iguana whose scaly hide ranges in color from a dark beige to a bright green. Today he’s feeling decidedly brown.
Fields, who’s originally from Alabama, stands out by the exit at Target two or three days a week, which is about as many days a week that there’s no work for him at a nearby day labor center. “It’s not that there are more people giving,” Fields says of Christmas-time giving, “but you see more $5 and $10 bills, rather than $1 bills.”
Fields likes to stand outside of eateries because, he says, “You’re almost sure to get lunch and dinner.” He doesn’t stay at local shelters, like Ventura’s winter warming shelter at the National Guard Armory, because they don’t allow pets, which would leave Dawg out in the cold. That leaves both of them out in the cold — and outside — at night. Fields said he also steers clear of drugs and remembers to find the silver lining.
“You’ve got to look on the bright side,” he says. “If you turn to drugs, you’ll get into drinking and all that.” And what would he do if he could do anything in the world that he wanted? “To travel,” Fields said. “Which is what I’m doing.”
Over at Trader Joe’s on Victoria Avenue, things are looking much the same for Paul Barnett, who says people are definitely more generous around the holidays. “More people are just in the spirit,” he says. “You get more money and you don’t have to stand out here as long. People are also out spending money.” People are feeling most generous, he says on holiday “eves,” meaning Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve and even the eve of Thanksgiving. Barnett, a Vietnam veteran, also flies a cardboard sign. His reads, “Can U Help?”
Barnett said the spirit of giving is alive and well for the holidays and that he opts to drop a few coins into the odd jar or bucket for whichever charities are collecting money for good causes. “It’s just the way I live my life,” he says. “If I can give money, I will.”
He also has a few theories about who’s willing to give and who isn’t. “It’s you and me who’re going to give you the money,” he says, “and not the guy in the Mercedes. It’s easier to fit a camel through the eye of a needle than to get a rich man into heaven.”
Tall, short-haired and armed with a friendly grin, Barnett looks as clean and as clean-cut as any upper-middle-aged dad you might see strolling the aisles at the nearby Kmart. Barnett, who says he’s disabled due to a cranial injury he sustained when he was badly beaten, stands beside the exit of the parking lot almost every day.
Barnett, a proud father of three who’s lived in Ventura since 1974, was once a used car salesman. A foray into methamphetamine use got him strung out. “I lost my teeth, my guitars, my furniture, my health,” he says. He’s since shunned the crank and is currently staying with a friend. “Everything fell apart while I was in the hospital [for the head injury, which he says he suffered in 2003]. I got evicted and I spent all my money on hotels.”
And then there’s Alan, who flies a cardboard sign at an undisclosed location in Ventura and declined to reveal his last name. Alan, a Vietnam veteran, is striving to save up enough money to leave town and receive medical treatment for an undisclosed illness.
“Being homeless is Ventura has been a really hard experience,” he says. His eyes are shielded by dark glasses. He wears a button that says “Impeach Bush.” “The shelters are really big drunk tanks, filled with theft and violence and the doctors at Ventura County Medical Center have treated me like dirt.” Alan says he’s been homeless for 20 years. “I hate to sound like I’m bitching, but you get shuffled from one place to the next and you get bad referrals.”
Alan, who is currently sleeping outside, says he hasn’t been frequenting parking lots and shopping centers long enough to know if people are more generous around the holidays — but he’d made $1 in the 45 minutes he’d been standing inside a busy parking lot one recent day.
Alan says he’s distrustful of the homeless community in general because he’s been stolen from numerous times. “When I was living in the river bottom, I was afraid to leave my camp,” he says. “Frankly, some of these guys I wouldn’t turn my back on.”
But for the time being, Alan has his back to the street and his eyes to the parking lot to watch as cars pass without stopping. But it’s almost Christmas. Things are bound to pick up a little.