THE UNDETECTABLE HOMELESS

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A Weekly Cyberlog

On the topic of “in complexes” living, there are other forms of using major centers for spending
many hours a day–and/or night–and I have found homeless women, looking better than I, utilizing
the specialized and open spaces in which to have an interesting time being part of a group to
which they do not belong.  One of the most flamboyant “complexes” is the Las Vegas strip of
hotels/casinos.  One can move from one to another during a long period without ever being
identified as anything more than a gambler (or friend of one).  Atlantic City, with its casino-hotels,
is much different, and not as “homeless-friendly” as Las Vegas.  (The very detectable homeless
roam the Boardwalk, making it less an attractive experience now than in the ‘70s.)  While both
city casinos have staff who try to keep people gambling and not just sitting around, it is virtually
impossible in Las Vegas to keep the many huge complexes guarded against the non-gambler.
Atlantic City casinos and the attached hotels have an interesting way of keeping one in the casino
and on a slot machine or at a gambling table: there are no chairs in the lobby or lounges where
one can rest!  If one does not have a hotel room, there is no place to sit and just “people-watch.”
However, there are schemes to find an empty room in the massive hotels so that a woman can
wash and rest.  That tactic will be explained later....

In 1986, Thelma came to Hollywood to see if the “bright lights” were worth a change of residence.
She was preparing to return to Las Vegas (she was surprised to find that Hollywood is not a 24-
hour city with everything always open, but has changed from the glitter and glamour of the de-
cades before) when I met her in the ladies room of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles while
I was attending an event.  Sadly, that beautiful hotel is now closed.  It ended up in the “wrong
neighborhood” as times change....Aside from the wonderful ambience of the grounds and
cottages, spacious ballrooms, and decor of one of the old hotel “greats,” it closed a place for
homeless women to use their facilities.
 

“Las Vegas makes me feel alive!  There’s no difference between night and day; nothing
ever closes, and there’s always something exciting going on.  I get to hear free entertain-
ment, get free food and drinks, and sack out in the plushest lobbies.  Hell, half the people
there look worse than I do, especially if they’ve just lost a wad. Some of what they lost I find
on the floor beside their drinks or under their chairs or alongside the slots....I get good
clothes there for nothing; women leave scarves, sweaters, and even purses and coats
when they leave in a hurry.  And men!  Hey, so many come in drag and just leave their
female clothes in the closets....I spot ‘em, follow ‘em, and wait for ‘em to leave the hotel.
Some leave everything and I take what I can fit or trade....Everyone there is homeless,
sort of.  It’s a transient place where everyone is out of sync for a time.  I am really the only
one who’s settled.  I know what’s going to happen every day, and I plan for bettering the
situation.  I thought Hollywood would be bettering myself.  But boy, what a horror this
place is.  I’m going to bus back to Vegas tomorrow and get back into the swing of life....”
(Thelma, age 55, 1986 in CA)


Compare Thelma’s experience in 1986 with (part of) a life story by Sandy, whom I met in Atlantic
City in 1999 as she was preparing to leave to stay with her son in Florida.  She wasn’t happy
about the heat and storms in Florida, but had resigned herself to her plight after being a lifetime
homemaker (with no salary).  When her self-employed husband died,  he had not left any Social
Security back-up for her future.  After attempting menial jobs that did not provide enough for
survival purposes, she tried  to live in the hotel-casinos.  I watched her going up and down the
slot aisles for a long time looking for lost coins, and finally approached her:

“It’s really tough trying to stay here like I used to.  They’ve built up the casinos so that you
can’t just walk around, sit down, and be unnoticed by the casino police.  Those guys who
watch everyone who isn’t sitting on a slot stool or at a craps table.  I can’t stand up that
long, but if I could, I could just stay around the casino all day.  Even the ladies rooms don’t
have resting places....They used to have free drinks and some nibbles, too, but now only
the high rollers get offered a drink...and it must be at those tables in a special room ‘cuz
I see people paying for their drinks....I just loved watching the new Bally’s Old West casino
being built, and then when I thought it would be a place where I could sit and enjoy looking
at all of the animated figures and scenes they’ve built to look like the Old West, I didn’t
see one chair.  Gamble or get out....So, I take a shuttle from one hotel to another and spend
a day at a time, but it’s changed so much that it isn’t any fun anymore....Have you seen
Atlantic City itself?  It’s really just a slum.  The city gets money to build-up a terrible down-
town, and a block from the beach it’s as poor and rundown as before.  Guess who’s not
getting their taxes’ worth?....I guess I’ll check out Disneyworld when I get to Florida.  I know
a woman who found a way to live in there.  That sounds like fun....”
(Sandy, age 60, 1999 in NJ)


I tried to take photos of the stunning displays that the Boardwalk Bally has built in the new casino
across the street and entered from an “overpass” from the old/main building, but was told “no
photos.”  I don’t know why; what harm could it do?

While long-term living is available at university campuses and especially those with medical
schools and hospitals attached, there are short-term living places where I know that I’ll find
homeless women.  On my trip this year, I attended two conferences that were each of three days’
length.  The second was academic, and at a huge hotel with some large rooms on different floors
designated for special seminars of two hours or more each and extended all day and into the
evening.  One lady stood out (at least to me!) as not “belonging.”  She wandered from seminar
to seminar, but without the usual recognition that is typical as academicians meet from year to
year...or even a couple of times over a period of time.  I didn’t see her talk to anyone, and that
is unusual when one large field of academic endeavor (e.g., American History) has a yearly
following.  Almost everyone had a typed name tag with a university identity, and she did have
one, but I had bet myself that she just picked it up at one of the registration desks when no “host”
was looking and then hand-printed her name on the back of the ID paper with some obscure
college–and inserted it into the plastic tag.  At one point I was right next to her and did not know
the name of the college she supposedly represented.  Now, that is not a very valid excuse for
being suspicious, but after so many years, one picks up clues!  Those of us who know what
graduate schools have particular Ph.D. programs recognize them, and it is rare that anyone
else attends these expensive conferences.  The expensive part is usually the traveling across
country, since they move to a different region every year, and the hotel rooms are not cheap.
This lady (after hearing her story) was living in that city and was just using the conference as a
place to stay and partake of the free continental breakfasts and afternoon goodies between
sessions.  I was correct about the way she obtained the identity tag.  There was someone who
couldn’t find their pre-printed registration name tag and had to have another made up!  Sue is
representative of many women who do receive a divorce settlement and think it will carry them
for many years.  We do not realize how much it costs to just “live.”  Sue’s story includes her
version of how to live in malls, libraries, and grocery stores, and I’m only addressing the con-
ference situation now:

 
“This conference is really interesting.  I sat through one a couple of months ago that was
about linguistics and something that went with it.  I’ve forgotten the name now.  I figured
out that it was about language, but I had no idea what the people were talking about.
The papers were boring, and if it hadn’t been for the free food and being around a lot of
people who were just plain gossiping about others, I probably wouldn’t have stuck around
for the whole conference....This hotel caters to big conferences, and a lot of them are
academic.  I don’t really listen at all when it’s physics or math; I just eat...and I mean eat,
since I put buns and fruit into my big purse in baggies for a day’s food...and sit in the lobby
on the big couches and read whatever is left by the people who come to argue.  That’s
what they do: argue. There’s something about college professors–and I guess a lot of
students–that makes it necessary to find fault with the other college’s ideas about any
topic at all....They’re mean....I kept hearing the word plagiarism until I had to get to a
dictionary and look up what it meant.  They steal other teachers’–and even students’--
ideas and then come to a conference and say it’s their notion that they thought up and it’s
kind of kinky to hear what they say about each other....My life is all about other people now.
I don’t really have one.  After the divorce, uh, I was already 50 then, I got a settlement that
I thought was going to be enough to live on for at least ten years, but wow, what a bad
surprise when I ran through it without any over-spending at all after six years.  I just have
enough to get through a week of some food, gas, and some of the things women need
just to stay clean and neat....I found that this hotel was big into conferences, and now I go
to almost all of them and I have company to be with even if I don’t talk much, and my food
is taken care of.  Coffee and tea all day, and I take enough during breakfast to last
through the day until the afternoon break when I stuff my purse again.  I have a thermos
for orange juice offered in the morning, and I fill it up before they end so I get lots of vitamin
C...I’ve learned to carry a briefcase like most of them do.  I found it left on a bench as a
guy forgot it when he got into a cab....I can keep my food in there too, but once I left
something smelly in it and I’m very careful now to just fill it with newspaper articles and
plain paper like I’m going to need to take notes.  But they hand out so many papers them-
selves, like everyone should read what they talk about, that I have quite a stash in my trunk
that fits a lot of topics.  So I’m prepared to look like I belong....” (Sue lives out of a station
wagon, and I did not follow her to photograph it; age 57, 2003 in MA)


Trade shows that appear often in major cities are another place to spend a few days.  I only have
attended a couple myself, but I hear from others that the vast convention centers are filled with free
samples of food and whatever they happen to be selling.  I went to a trade show meant for film-
makers, and between salespeople trying to get a “oneupmanship” on the other manufacturers,
they usually had some kind of snack food to keep you there as long as necessary so that you
would listen to and watch their spiel.  Ruth explains it better than I can!
 

“I used to work for a company that made and sold expensive overcoats and rainwear, so
the first time I saw that they were having a trade show in town, I found my way in a back
door with the food crew and spent two days walking around and got a feel for what I
could get out of it....The best ones are for cars and now SUVs.  Auto shows....I can
usually find a way to eat with the people who do the catering, you know, like they don’t
care if I ask for a sandwich meant for the booth payers and the ones who pay to get in.
They are working stiffs, and I doubt that they get big money from schlepping food to the
rich.  I simply look like I am hungry and can’t afford to buy anything, and some man
always lets me take something minor....Sometimes I come right out and say I don’t have
any money and just needed to get out of the bad weather, and maybe one of them
has been in the same situation, so....There are always places to sit so you can read all
of the literature they hand out, and there are ladies rooms and offices that on weekends
may be left unlocked and have sofas.  I spent one lovely weekend when it was storming
just lying on a sofa, reading a book that the office owner had.  It was Peyton Place, and
I knew the name but had never read it....One time I found an office with a TV, and I spent
three days keeping it low while I ate sweet rolls and drank coffee.  There’s always coffee,
and I’ve even found one trade show that had samples of beer....If you can make friends with someone who believes that you might be a big spender, a good looking woman can get
asked out for dinner if the show closes early for the evening.  But then you can’t get back
in to spend the night, and that’s a necessity.  Usually, when the show is over for the night,
they herd people to the exits and expect that everyone is gone. Whoever is left to do the
checking doesn’t do a really good job if you find a closet to hide in...or a guard is left in
the place, and he just sits in the front to make sure that no one breaks in.  It all depends
on what the trade show is exhibiting and selling.  No one really sweats the things like
inexpensive gifts, but I guess the car people think you can just get in and start a car and
get it out easily.  They don’t leave the keys in the cars, so I suppose they figure anyone
who expects to steal a car can hotwire it and get it out of the building.  It’s more likely
that a guy with no place to go will sleep in the back of a big car, not steal it....”
(Ruth, age 42, 2001 in NY)
Using the hotel room gimmick works well only in certain situations.  Maureen explains:
“After Arnie died, I worked as a hotel desk clerk at the [    ] hotel chain.  I moved from one
city to another–in the same state, mind you--as the chain opened new hotels, usually by a
buy-out.  I have a bad leg from an accident, so I can’t stand all day, and finally, I just had to
quit and look for another job.  But nothing paid enough to rent an apartment and pay all
of the utilities along with car payments and stuff, so I went to the hotel I had been used to
and had made friends with one of the housemaids.  It helped that I am bilingual, and she
spoke Hungarian, and not many people do.  Her husband had died, too, and she was
lonely.  No kids or friends, really....She said that anytime I needed a room to take a shower
or a nap, she could hold up cleaning it so that I could use the room.  The only trap was if
the next guest checked in early, so we always did it just as the last person left.  It was
hard to coordinate, but it certainly did help....Now I’ve found out how to do that more easily.
 I ask “Anna” to find out if a room is not going to be used that day or until late in the day
by request, and she plans to let me use the room for a longer period.  It doesn’t hurt
anyone, and “Anna” gets a tip from me for her helping....I think that the manager thinks
that “Anna” needs to rest there herself, for she is handicapped and she is their token
handicapped maid and they don’t want to lose her.  She is often referred to by that
chain as employing handicapped persons....”Anna” even keeps whatever food has not
been touched that was room service for me....This year so far I’ve given her a couple of
nice things that were left in a room, like the cashmere sweater that must have been
accidently kicked under a bed, and a really lovely ring.  It could be rubies and emeralds,
and I told her to have it checked by a jeweler....” (Maureen, age 53, 2001 in CT)


Another way is to use a residential hotel.  I’ve heard about this before as a popular tactic for
finding a place to live.  There are still some residential hotels in which (usually) women have a
permanent apartment but travel for several months of the year.  I knew that this was popular in
the Los Angeles/Hollywood area in the 1980s.  Movie actresses often had apartments in
different states.  I knew one such actress who made movies in Italy every year, and her apart-
ment remained empty for months at a time.  I met Sylvie when we were asked to share a table
in a very crowded restaurant in White Plains, NY, as we were both taking advantage of a big
sale nearby.  We just began to chat about how to find housing in the NYC area, and she smiled.
I didn’t press the point, and during dessert, she began to tell me about a friend of hers.  This
“friend” is using that scheme now in NYC, and when she began to say something that I found
of interest, I opened my purse and turned on my tape recorder:
 

“Tamara used to stay in the [    ] hotel in NYC when she and I traveled as salespeople for
the [    ] cosmetics company.  The room next to hers once was more than just one room;
it was a suite,and it belonged to a wealthy woman who went to France every year for a
few months to visit her daughter....She was getting ready to leave for that trip and had
dropped her bag on the way to the elevator, and Tamara ran after her to give it to her.
She said how grateful she was because her passport was in the bag and they talked for
a few minutes before the elevator came.  Tamara eventually changed jobs.  When she
discovered that she was going to be laid off by Polaroid before Social Security clicked
in, she was panicked.  She had a small bank account, but it wouldn’t last for long, and
she had to find some way to pay for rent....She took a job for awhile as a companion to
an old lady who just needed someone to do her shopping and keep her place clean,
and her only friend was another lady who lived in the apartment across the hall and went
to Europe for 5 months every year just for fun.  She must have been loaded....Tamara
went by to visit her last year, and she was getting ready to go to one of those places
where they take care of you, and she mentioned that her pal was taking off for Europe
again.  The surprise came when she said that she had a key to that lady’s apartment
so that if anything happened to the building, like a fire or something, she could hopefully
get in and save family photos....Tamara ended up with the key. Don’t ask how....She’s
now living quietly in that apartment and no one in the world knows that she’s there.  The
utilities are kept on by the building, so she has everything she needs.  The only thing
she does is watch carefully when she goes in and out so that no one else sees her....
When the lady is known to return, Tamara is ready to leave and makes sure that it looks
like no one has been there....She’s searching now for other people who do the trip thing
so that she won’t have to worry about the months that the apartment is used by the owner.
She has an interview with another older lady who needs a companion in the same
building.  And she’s started going to the local churches and listening to women talk about
their lives.  Tamara figures that most of them go to the bridge clubs or other church affairs,
and she’s going to join in on everything that sounds like she’d learn something....”
(Sylvie, age 58, 2000 in NY)
Of course I don’t know if “Tamara” exists, but I believe that this is Sylvie’s life story.
 


I NEVER KNOW WHAT I’LL FIND, BUT CLICK AGAIN TO SEE WHAT HAPPENS!


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© 2003 Marjorie Bard.  All Rights Reserved.
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