The worst time may be at night, as the sun is drained of its last warm rays and the isolation of the river-bank campground descends on the residents, or perhaps when the rain comes, rattling off the wood-and-plastic shacks, running down the rutted road, turning once-grassy islands into muddy swamps.
But for B.J., the worst time was the first night, about four months ago. B.J. is dressed in blue jeans, a black shirt and turquoise cowboy boots. A red bandana is wrapped around her head and an elastic bandage covers her aching left hand. She stands beside a blazing fire that is devouring rotted food and mildewed clothing.
"The first night I felt really alone, like I didn't have anyone," she said. "When I first came here, I was really down." She said she doesn't feel that way any more.
B.J. lives in Tent City, an ever-changing campground of about 150 mostly jobless people along the San Jacinto River about 25 miles northeast of Houston. Tent City sprang up last summer, about the time the recession began creeping through Texas. Since then, it has had a turbulent and highly public history, and because of that it faces extinction at the hands of the state.
Tent City has taken on a strange sense of permanence that is unsettling to society at large. It has its own daily rhythm, its own rules. But at a time when thousands of other Americans are living in cars or sleeping in parks or dying from exposure, it may have attracted undue attention. Some wonder why, for the people here are neither worse off nor more deserving than many others around the country.
Tent City has been portrayed in every way imaginable: as a modern-day Hooverville of noble, but homeless, people; as a symbol of the tattered safety net that has been shredded by Reagonomics; as an ironic pocket of poverty in America's last boom town; as a wretched wasteland of vagabonds, loafers and greedy ne'er-do-wells; as a filthy haven for drunken, gun-waving troublemakers. All are correct.
It also has been portrayed by nearly everyone imaginable: American television, Japanese television, British television and, over and over again, television in Houston. There is a monotony in the voices of the people; occasionally there is hostility.
"I'm sorry," said Bill Collins, the community's designated spokesman, apologizing for a moment of rudeness. "I'm just tired of talking about it."
Reality in Tent City is translucent. Through the shimmer of a plastic wall in a corner of the campground are the signs of an earlier life: an end table with a green lamp, a patterned sofa, a white chest of drawers; and next to that, the harshness of a new life: the pile of kindling for the campfires that create a permanent haze through the settlement, spreading the odor that permeates everyone's clothing and makes the children outcasts at the local school.
Photo albums bespeak other times, birthdays and parents and children and kitchens with new cabinets. The albums are passed among people living under a concrete bridge, where, between the pilings, one man has strung a piece of rope and is drying a pair of socks and a pillowcase.
There is no easy angle here, no single portrait, no simple way to describe Tent City, just as there is no simple explanation for what is happening to people throughout the nation as a stubborn economy refuses to reawaken.
There are only details, like the virtual absence of brand-name cigarettes. People here roll their own or smoke generic cigarettes from the local grocery store.
Or the burning clothes once owned by an old man known as Pop, who died, apparently of pneumonia, several weeks ago. Or the neatly arranged kitchen in one residence that lacks nothing but running water, a refrigerator and a place to cook. Or the plastic wreath with the artificial holly leaves hanging limply outside the food tent. Or the ad for expensive Johnston & Murphy shoes in a pile of garbage. Or the fancy hooch with the portable toilet and the poster of Jesus hanging near a larger picture of a bare-breasted woman.
Talk to more than one person here and the world of Tent City changes dramatically. "Ninety-five percent of the people here would go to work in an instant if they could find a job," B.J. said.
"Eighty-five percent of the people here wouldn't work if you handed them a job," said a man named Jim, who is leaving soon. "They ought to shut this place down," another temporary resident said with disgust. "They wave too many guns. It's going to get somebody killed."
"We've gotten rid of the troublemakers," confided a more permanent resident, who, like most of the people here, didn't want his name used.
"You've got three kinds of people here," said Collins. "You've got the people who want to work, you've got the takers, and you've got the people who would be living under some other bridge if this weren't here."
For the privilege of living in this roadside campground, the residents have been subjected to the indignities of a disbelieving society. They have had to prove they are poor and worthy of the contributions that arrive here almost daily: the blankets and vitamins from a local chiropractor, the vegetables from an elderly black woman, the water that until recently was delivered daily by a nearby company, the toys from the bikers on Christmas Eve.
Many here have failed society's demands that the homeless somehow be free of human frailties. Tent City has gone through several "mayors," periodic episodes of greed, cultists, threats of violence and the arrival of people content to leech off others whatever the economic conditions.
Money donated to Tent City has not always been properly handled. Some of the residents have children or brothers and sisters or parents living close by, but choose to live in the campground. Jobs have been rejected, as have offers of more permanent shelter. But not always.
"Some of the people are going into homes that are really substandard, homes that you would consider unacceptable," said Marilyn Stone of the First Presbyterian Church in nearby Baytown.
The reasons some offers of help are rejected do not seem illogical, but the rejections have hurt the community's reputation.
"We were offered a place in a three-bedroom house," said a woman who calls herself Debbie. She is the mother of five children, and her husband, a skilled carpenter from Georgia, has been out of work for months. As she talks, he has begun his first day on a job that may take them permanantly out of Tent City.
"But there were two other families living in the house," she said. "We would have had to live in one of the bedrooms that was about as large"--she pointed to one of the tents, about 10 feet square, that they use--"as that tent. They said if we took stuff to the kitchen not to leave it there because it might get stolen."
She and her husband turned down the offer. Home remains a camper, several tents and shacks, a dirt floor, and a new swing set built by her husband. Lunch consists of meat and bread sandwiches.
People have assembled here for a variety of reasons--voluntarily, if not exactly by choice.
Collins, 54, and his wife, Darlene, are here because they gambled and lost. They once managed a dry cleaning plant, but decided they wanted to leave Houston. Bill found a job in Minnesota but, he said, when he got there, the salary offer was reduced and other stipulations were added to his contract.
The couple returned to Houston, but their jobs were gone and, by then, the job market had changed. They went to Phoenix and found nothing. They meandered back to Houston, selling belongings on the way, and settled in Tent City. They slept in their car for a while, later in a shabby tent. Now they have one of the nicest plastic shelters in the settlement.
"We made a mistake," Collins said. "We made a stupid mistake."
"But we'll get out of it," Darlene added quickly.
B.J., unemployed in Michigan, followed her sister to west Texas, where her sister had land. It turned out to be desert, B.J. said, and they soon found their way here. Her sister has since departed, and B.J. expects to leave soon, one way or another.
But she has ceased feeling bad. There are a couple of job opportunities on the horizon and others in worse shape than she.
Floyd and Marilyn have been here since September. He was a truck driver until he got hurt. He says the $154 a week in insurance he was receiving was not enough. "I've got seven people," he said. "I couldn't afford the rent."
He is a big, heavy-set man, and even the short walk to the food distribution center appears to be an effort. His wife spends some of her time writing letters to their children in Illinois. Some of them visited Tent City on their way home from a Florida vacation.
Buck, 33, is here by choice. A former paramedic, he smashed himself up in a motorcycle accident, and said that, because he had been drinking at the time, he ruined his career. "I really feel needed here," he said. "Who's going to treat them if they're sick? They can't even get into the hospital because they've got no insurance."
Ken, 42, lost his job as a truck driver. He had an apartment in Houston, but home mostly used to be "a Mack or a Peterbilt." When he lost his job, Ken had debts and no money. Now home is under a bridge. He works occasionally, sometimes for $20 a day for 8 to 10 hours of hard labor.
"If we don't take jobs like that, the media calls us lazy," he said through a mouth of missing teeth. Today Ken is cooking a donated brisket. At 4 p.m., the word goes out throughout Tent City that there is fresh meat available, and a procession of residents troops past the Collins' shelter for a share.
Tent City's daily rhythm revolves around the distribution of free food at 1 p.m. and preparing the fires.
It has something of a governing committee, with Collins as the spokesman. It has a new set of rules: "Stay out of supply tent unless helping." "If you must drink, do it with discretion." "Keep all noise down after 10 p.m. on weekdays and 12 p.m. on weekends." "All firearms are to be kept in tents or campers and are not to be used for making threats." "All school-age children are to be in school starting Jan. 3, 1983."
The school bus passes by every morning to take the children to a local school. But it does not always stop, which may be just as well. Sometimes, the children are called "river rats" by classmates.
Tent City even has what might be called neighborhoods. Up front are the Collins. On the lower level at one end are those who call themselves "scooter trash people," Buck and the other bikers. At the back end is the "B" block--Buddy (and Debbie), B.J., Bruce and Barbara.
On the upper level are some newcomers who say they feel they are not getting their fair share. Under the highway bridge are Ken and some of his people. The neighborhoods rarely interact favorably, and jealousies are as common as in any small town. There are well-kept shelters and there are dumps. There are no blacks, Mexican Americans or other minorities. There is a power struggle.
But it is not a community of despair. Many prefer Tent City to the alternatives, such as sleeping downtown in parks, or living in church shelters, where men and women and children are segregated, or moving in with relatives who may have only limited space and little money.
That is galling to some area residents, perhaps understandably. But Tent City provides an aura of self-sufficiency to some of the residents, especially those who rarely take the free food, those who scrounge for odd jobs that help buy the $1 showers at the nearby truck stop.
Tent City has been called "a time bomb waiting to go off" by state health authorities. Garbage is picked up regularly by a church group, and the portable toilets have eliminated one of the worst health hazards, but the children suffer calcium and vitamin C deficiencies, and cold and hot weather pose specific threats.
A bill has been filed in the Texas Legislature to allow the state to limit the use of overnight campgrounds, which would be the basis for shutting Tent City. Sponsors say it is not "anti-Tent City," but an effort to help those in genuine need.
Marilyn Stone, who says those at Tent City are victims of the economy, would like to see it closed also, if there were real alternatives.
Collins has another view.
"I think they're fixing to run everybody out in about 30 days," he said. "What it looks like to me is that this is an embarrassment to the state of Texas.