Seeing Clear to Pismo

Aaron Gilbreath
24 min readDec 5, 2021

Homeless in California’s rural interior

San Joaquin Valley life

A man sat on the curb outside the Valero gas station in Lost Hills, California. He was wearing grubby jeans. His head hung low as though under the weight of his grey hoodie, and a cigarette burned between his fingers. A coiled pit bull slept by his feet, next to an empty can of dog food, and on a piece of cardboard propped beside them were the words:

Homeless need help please help God bless

I asked the man if I could get him anything to eat. He looked up, smiling. “No, I just ate. But thanks.” He raised an empty soda cup in salute.

Inside, the clerk told me the man had arrived this morning sometime. But I’d seen him in the same spot at 11:30 the previous night, hood on, smoking, when I passed the Valero on the way back to my motel. Maybe the clerk was concealing her polite policy of letting him fly the sign here. She said, “He lives in the desert. He built him a little shack. He collects cans and whatnot.” She stocked bags of chips on clips on an endcap. “I been here four years. He’s always here.” In this part of interior California, the western edge of the San Joaquin Valley, summer temperatures often reach over 110 degrees. “I don’t know how,” she said, “but he does it.”

Back outside in the warm November sun, I introduced myself and offered my hand. “Jack,” the man said squinting. “Nice to meet you, Aaron.” His skin was as rough as steel wool, caked with dirt, and his grip strong. He had the broad shoulders and neck of someone who lifted weights, and his hands were big enough to palm a basketball.

Jack said, “You wanna sit?” He motioned to the curb and we sat side by side. The dog slept between Jack’s feet, absorbing the sun, the tip of his pink tongue sticking out. Because of the black ring around his eye, Jack named him Petey after the dog in The Little Rascals. This was Petey’s first winter. “He gets cold easy.”

Jack leaned forward and rested his forearms on his knees. His square jaw and hard cheekbones cut a handsome profile under the thick hood and a spray of blond bangs. No amount of dirt could disguise that. His slight lisp gave him a disarmingly youthful manner, though he was not young, and he spoke with the lilt you’d expect from a coastal Californian, not one in this brown land of…

Aaron Gilbreath

Essayist, Journalist, Burritoist. Longreads Editor. Writing: Harper’s, NYT, Slate, Paris Review, VQR, Oxford American, Kenyon Review. 3 nonfiction books.