By Molly Gore
By Lou Bustamante
By Anna Roth
By Anna Roth
By Anna Roth
By Anna Roth
When Rex comes out of his nod, he and Steve sit in chairs in the courtyard, legs crossed like experts on a panel show, talking about socioeconomics and the justice system. "The public believes that dangerous criminals need to be locked up, but that's not the way it works," Steve says. "It's all drug addicts and minorities. Other groups don't go to jail."
Eventually the discussion turns to school and their final projects. Rex gets up and pulls a videocamera out of his backpack. He stares into the flip-out screen, looking at footage he and Steve shot for one of their classes — The Bum Life Project. It's a documentary about their lives this semester and a how-to video for would-be bums. In the video they demonstrate useful tips for the homeless, such as cutting up cardboard boxes to make insoles for shoes, or how to charge a cell phone by siphoning power from a Muni train. One chapter has Rex building a meal from the contents of a public garbage can. "This is simply me reaching into the trash and eating food," he says in a professorial tone. "If you're afraid of germs, homelessness isn't for you. But to starve as a homeless person in San Francisco, one has to be fucking stupid."
The Bum Life Project is coming along, but there is still a lot of editing to do. The two also have yet to start on the final assignment for their magazine class, a start-up plan for a publication about homelessness. While they've managed to turn their lives into their curriculum, staying motivated is tough. "A college degree doesn't get you very far," Steve says. "I just want to get done with it."
Dusk arrives and the air in the courtyard gets cold. Music booms from car stereos on a nearby street — regular college kids having regular fun. Rex whips out a pocketknife and scrapes the last of the peanut butter from a jar that, a moment ago, lay in the weeds like discarded trash. He spreads it on an apple he's picked up off the ground and takes a bite. They've bummed a few bucks today and Steve is hungry, too, so Rex takes off to get some food from a shop at school.
As darkness sets, Rex skateboards through the cool air on campus, scanning the ground and stopping frequently to pick up things others have left behind — pens, change, cigarette butts. He reaches into a garbage can and pulls out a paper cup, which he takes to an open-air cafe and fills with self-serve coffee without shelling out a nickel. Rex enjoys caffeine. "We like to stay up late when we're loaded," he says. "Sometimes I carry a can of whipped cream in my bag for mochas. They're hard to stuff in your coat, so I'll spend money on that."
Students at San Francisco State know who Rex is. He routinely shows up halfway through classes, shirtless except for a vest. Since he shoots up in the same spot over and over, his arms aren't all tracked up. Instructors will pause and raise an eyebrow before resuming their lectures. Students try not to stare as Rex leans his head back and nods out.
Chris Middleton, a senior studying journalism, has had classes with Rex. "There were a couple of times when the smell was kind of distracting," he says. "Maybe he doesn't get to shower as much as other people. But it wasn't so much that he didn't have the right to be here. The fact that he's in class, that seems like the safest place that he could be."
Lori Hostetter, also a senior, knows Rex from the magazine class. "I thought no matter how hard he tried, he was going to get a good grade," she says. "He's kind of a charity case, and he plays that up."
The campus police know Rex, too. He says a month ago he was in the library making peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, reading socialist literature, and nodding out. Some campus officers noticed an open pocketknife on his table and almost arrested him for carrying a blade longer than two inches, something Rex does not dispute. He says he was using it to spread peanut butter.
Though campus police have averaged about 100 arrests and disciplinary referrals for drug violations in recent years, Rex hasn't been one of them. Most drug charges have to do with alcohol and marijuana. A university survey from May states that less than one percent of students admit to using opiates. "Whatever [trend] is happening in San Francisco is happening here," says Michael Ritter, coordinator of CEASE, the university's drug and alcohol prevention program. "We're like a microcosm of the city. If you go to Stanford, you're not going to have homeless and drug-addicted students. We really are the city's university. But it's tough to stay in school when you're addicted to drugs."
"Rex pushes the envelope," acknowledges Don Menn, a journalism teacher at S.F. State. "But lot of people who were laughing at Rex actually made me madder than Rex did. This school, this city supports diversity. Almost as disturbing to me are those who fall in line with societal norms." Menn, who has taught both Rex and Steve, didn't realize at first that the two were friends: "They're such different personalities. I grew to respect them in different ways long before I realized they had other issues." He says Steve often showed up early to class and had strong insights into the readings. "I've enjoyed my relationship with them both. But I worry about them."