"Could you open the gate for me?" Naina looked at the Yellow Cab taxi driver, his eyes complaining of poor sleep. The February chill accompanied with a moonless sky, made her shiver, as she stood with a Kohl’s polybag, trying to balance the ‘things’ inside with one hand and her little baby boy sleeping on her shoulder with another.
“Of course.” The driver spoke in a fake fruity voice, bending backwards and opening the rear seat door for her.
“Hi, I can place this bag on the seat or do you want me to place it in the trunk?”
“No, No…it’s okay. Make yourself comfortable. How are you doing today?”
“Doing well,” was all she could utter.
The car started. The Windflower apartment complex in Santa Ana bore a deserted look as Naina looked outside the window holding Shivang close to her. The car took a turn outside the open community complex. At 10:30 pm, not many people venture out unless required. Also, the recent bush fire in Santa Ana had left ghosts in the town.
“Rishab, I called the cab. It’s okay. You finish your offshore call and come. I haven’t had dinner. Shivang is with me. He is fast asleep. I got late today. Will manage.” Naina messaged her husband on WhatsApp.
Few minutes later, as if awakened from a dream, Naina blurted, “Can you take a left turn please towards Angel Stadium?”
“Sure but you provided a different address, Mercy Home.”
“Ummm..ya…but I need a detour.”
“Yes. Am sorry for the inconvenience but where I want to go doesn’t have a proper address.”
The driver, a middle-aged, rugged looking man with a heavy Mexican accent, gave a queer look. “She looks like T-R-O-U-B-L-E. The kind who enters your car on a chilly night, with a sleeping baby and holding the polybag as if it contained her life.” He mused to himself, keeping his eyes on the road and the rear view mirror, deciphering what was so not right.
“I hope all is well?” Rob, the driver tried to strike a conversation.
“Yes.” The words were spoken in a tone which meant—mind your own business.
Along the route, Rob peeked at Naina looking outside the car window, anxiously, biting her lips, checking on her son every 30 seconds... when she suddenly instructed, “Right here, ya, you can park.”
“Here? But? Miss, are you sure?
“Yes Sir. Right here.”
Outside, on the right, lay a homeless encampment under the shadow of the Big A of Angel Stadium. Poorly lit, the air smelled heavily of tobacco. One could barely see the cluster of tattered tents. A man lay crumpled on the cobbled street, a tattered mess of ripped clothes and muck.
Naina, hopped out, with Shivang clasped in her arms in a baby gear.
“I will be right back and we go back to the apartment. Give me ten minutes.”
“S---u---r--e.” Rob let each word out, laced with doubt, fear and panic. “What is she doing here? Is she a drug addict or a drug mafia member? Many in this camp are robbers and frauds and drug addicts themselves. Why would she carry the child into such a filthy and unkempt place?” One question after another, Rob kept his gaze on Naina who had terrified him. “I should just turn and drive away. It isn’t safe nowadays.” The thought triggered his hands on the steering wheel, when he saw her come out of one of the tents.
“Let’s go. Thank you for waiting.”
“These homeless people have become a menace. The Santa Ana fire last month was started by one of them trying to prepare meal. The dry vegetation is ideal for a spark to become a raging fire. It was bad.” Rob attempted yet again, in hope of dousing his raging curiosity.
“But, that part of Santa Ana belongs to the affluent. Their insurance covers everything. Big deal if they lost one house. They can always build another. It is difficult for people like us.”
“I wonder when will the government take this issue seriously and actually do something about it. They are a bunch of rag dwellers living off robbery and drugs.”
With no answers or explanation in sight, all that Rob hoped for was a safe drop off and leave.The car reached the Windflower apartment. It was 11:10 at night and Naina could see Rishab waiting outside.
“One of the houses was burnt down to ground. Heard someone died too.” Rob tried to conclude.
“Yes. It was a 72 year old lady, my mom. That house was my home.”
The car tires screeched by the sudden brake.
“You know, a home is much more than things the insurance company pays for. I keep a portion of our dinner for the homeless, in hope that today, maybe, one homeless would not make another homeless.” Naina finished in one breath, securing her child and her belongings.