The Oprah inside me

The fairy godmother of daytime TV visits Tent Town, and Sacramento is forever changed

Illustration by jordan yee

Tom the homeless Buddhist guy is angry, or as angry as a homeless Buddhist guy can be, which, to be honest, really isn’t all that angry. Bemused might be a better description. At any rate, Tom insists things haven’t been the same since Oprah Winfrey blew through Tent Town. I’m inclined to agree, but for an entirely different reason than his: Oprah stole my story, and I can prove it.

Let’s bring everybody up to speed. Last fall, I wrote a cover story about Tent Town (“Hell’s half-acre”; SN&R Feature; November 6, 2008), the ragtag collection of tents, lean-tos and shanties pitched on the wrong side of the tracks just east of Midtown, where the old city dump used to be. I figured that since a lot of folks are in the process of losing their jobs and their homes, I’d go out to Tent Town and get some survival tips from those who’ve already lost both, some of them many, many years ago.

The denizens of Tent Town did not disappoint, sharing tips for urban camping, personal hygiene and hand-to-hand combat; asking for nothing more than to be treated with dignity and/or all the money I had on my person. How did I repay their kindness? I included a map with the directions to Tent Town in the story. Apparently, well-known associates of Ms. Winfrey relayed the map to her, and the rest is history.

After Tent Town appeared as exhibit No. 1 in Oprah’s recent series on our downwardly spiraling economy, an international multimedia horde descended upon Sacramento, perhaps inordinately attracted to the two well-known celebrity leaders in our fair city within easy spitting distance of the homeless camp. “Spotlight shines—and stings,” bemoaned last Saturday’s Sacramento Bee.

Indeed. Even as Tom and I spoke, Mayor Kevin Johnson and city officials were seeking new ways to save face, including warehousing the homeless and various sanitized versions of the bum rush. In a word, Tom says city officials and the public at large have been “Oprahfied.”

To illustrate the term’s meaning, he points to a series of stories in last month’s Sacramento Bee, in which a woman who had been forced to live in her car had the vehicle impounded after the registration expired, leaving her temporarily homeless. Evidently, donations poured into the woman after the story ran, even though in Tom’s opinion many other individuals are equally if not more in need of aid. It’s easy for people to be concerned—or pretend to be concerned—when the media puts a pretty face on it. That’s Oprahfication.

As Tom was speaking, I couldn’t help but recall Bob and his bucket. I’d met Bob several days earlier, sitting on a 5-gallon bucket on the sidewalk next to SN&R’s posh Midtown office. Bob had an enormous hernia hanging out of his abdomen. It dangled in the bucket like a cantaloupe in a nylon stocking. It’s not the kind of thing you want to see, outside your office, on TV or anywhere else, for that matter.

You can’t Oprahfy it. You can only call the ambulance.

Except Bob told me he’d been kicked out of the hospital three days prior, so there was no need to bother. What was the diagnosis, I asked. “They said I’m really sick,” he answered. It was hard to tell if he was being deadpan or just out of breath. I asked him if he’d looked into Social Security. He didn’t have the energy to listen, so he just continued sitting there on his bucket.

The hard truth you can’t put a pretty face on is that Tent Town and places like it across the country have been around for decades, populated almost exclusively by men, many of whom are veterans, mentally ill or both. Men like Tom the homeless Buddhist guy, Bob and his bucket. It’s not going to go away because Oprah waves her magic wand at it.

I think that’s the point Tom is trying to make, but God bless Oprah Winfrey anyway. I’d give free cars to people, too, if I could afford it. I’d fly over Tent Town in a helicopter and dump out bales of money. If the bright light of Oprahfication illuminates a problem that’s been festering in Sacramento for years, that can only be a good thing. How we respond to it is our choice.

Bob never asked me for any money, but I gave him a dollar anyway. I guess that’s the Oprah inside me. I saw him out there the next day, sitting on his bucket.

The day after that, he was gone.