By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Inside, Jimmy’s tent has space for a full-size mattress covered with a green blanket and a large, pink cage, which houses his gray-and-white cat, Meana — a word, Jimmy says, that in Arabic roughly means something one wishes for. Green shamrocks hang from everywhere inside the tent, as do little, tree-shaped car fresheners in green, blue, orange, yellow and red. On one wall, Jimmy has hung a sonnet from William Shakespeare, which famously begins, “Shall I compare thee/To a summer’s day?/You are more lovely/And more temperate.” Small crosses and American flags add to the décor in and out of his home. Jimmy, raised as both a Muslim and a Catholic, says he’s “bound” by the Ten Commandments.
“I’m religious,” he says. “I’d rather die hungry than steal anything to eat.”
The interior of the welcoming tent is stacked with his belongings and toiletries. He shaves every day and, for a shower, Jimmy places water inside a 1.44-gallon, clean, plastic gas can, hitches the can to a bar inside the tent, and opens the downturned spout halfway, which lets the water cascade out as if it’s coming from a household shower. He collects and dispenses with his wastewater, rather than letting it flow across the small, concrete bridge on which his tent is pitched, and into Aliso Creek — today a narrow flood-control channel that flows below the span Jimmy has staked out as his home.
He says he doesn’t drink or take drugs. He smokes the cheapest cigarettes on sale, for which he’s created a homemade, double filter out of a small piece of a plastic straw and used cigarette filters. Jimmy’s been smoking since he was a youngster in Jordan, which sometimes brought the wrath of his father, who Jimmy describes as “abusive.”
Jimmy was the fourth child of 11, with a father who was Muslim and a mother who was Catholic. The household practiced both religions. “When we were young,” Jimmy says, “we were confused, because we would go to the church and the mosque.” In 1967, when he was 8, the family fled their village on the West Bank for Jordan after the Six-Day War broke out between the Israeli army and the armies of Egypt, Jordan and Syria.
“The bullets were flying,” Jimmy says. “That’s the only thing I remember. The tanks and helicopters were shooting at everyone. Everybody was fleeing.”
In Jordan, Jimmy learned to read and write English in school, but he didn’t care much for studying and his father wanted him to work. He left school as a boy with a seventh-grade education and worked as a cement mixer, earning $6 or $7 a week.
“We needed to help out the father,” Jimmy says. “Support the family. The money we made we gave to the father. He gave us 60 cents, and he took the rest. But that 60 cents would last a week.”
It was the early 1970s, an era of global political catharsis. But Jimmy was a kid with a kid’s concerns. He would buy a Pepsi for 3 cents and a pack of cigarettes for the same. But if his father, who died a few years ago, caught him smoking, Jimmy was beaten and kicked out of the house; he’d meet other kids who were also banished from their homes in northwest Jordan. “Most of the town’s fathers abused them,” Jimmy says.
This crew of abused kids would then team up, find places to sleep together, and sometimes sneak back into their homes at night to gather food for their buddies. “And money,” Jimmy says. “Some kids used to go through their father’s pants pockets. Then we’d go to the store and buy packs of cigarettes and smoke all night long.”
When Jimmy was 18 and dealing with his abusive father — he describes his mother, who’s still alive, as “good-hearted” and a “good believer in God,” who often fed stray cats — one of his brothers met an American girl in Germany. They married and moved to New Jersey. By 1976, the brother sent for Jimmy, who jumped at the chance.
“The world was so different back then,” Jimmy says. “This country was Heaven. America was America back then.”
Jimmy got his hack license to drive a taxi in New York City. But, after more than a decade of that life, in 1987, he realized the fast-paced city life was not for him. He bought a $45 ticket for a Greyhound bus ride to California; he ended up in Riverside and soon found work as an overnight clerk at a local 7-Eleven; Jimmy stayed for several years. But the store attracted sketchy customers, who would sometimes walk in, pull out a case of beer, and stroll out. He was also held up by thieves a few times.